Saturday, September 19, 2009

Interview: Ed Greenwood (Part III)

10. A number of gamers of a certain temperament seem to have developed a particular dislike for your sage of Shadowdale, Elminster, which I've always found a bit odd, given my memories of his early appearances in your Dragon articles. What do you make of this reaction?

Years ago, I was somewhat hurt by it, being as I never wanted Elminster to be anything more than the “old storyteller” figure, the mouthpiece in a DRAGON article that let me say “There’s talk around the village of trolls being seen in yon ruins” as opposed to the omniscient author style that in those days would have forced me to say: “There are two trolls in Room A and one lurking behind the coffin in Room B, and their hit points are . . .”

In play, he did much the same thing; he was the mind-wandering, irritatingly whimsical old man who could OCCASIONALLY be of help to PCs, or who would come wandering along to save their behinds almost by accident in a dungeon when they’d gotten near death and knew no way out - - but who would become VERY irritating, very fast, if they started to rely on him to do anything for them.

It was TSR who wanted me to portray Elminster at GenCon (after an early seminar in which I’d demonstrated how I played quite a few Realms NPCs, voices and mannerisms and all), and it was TSR who wanted me to write novels about him (left to my own devices, I would NEVER have used him as a main character, only as a sort of briefly-seen, often-absent Tom Bombadil-like supporting character). Instead, he’s become the “signature character” that my book editors always demand I write about (just as Bob Salvatore is always asked for more Drizzt books), presumably because there’s a silent majority of book-buyers who LIKE to read more about him.

The gamers who say he always gets the girl and therefore must be my Mary Sue/Bobby Sue character are entirely missing the point; I created almost ALL of the major Realms NPCs, of all ages and races and genders, and when I did so was a skinny young nerd without a beard. :}

Left to my druthers, I would never have had Elminster at center stage, so the accusation that he upstages Player Characters would not have arisen (and never has, in my “home” campaign). He was certainly over-exposed in Realms products, for a long time more or less by company directive (I poked fun at that in one of my books, in a narrative where El doesn’t appear at all, EXCEPT when a character grumbles that he always shows up to save the day or at least take all the credit for doing so, and on cue, I had a portrait on the wall change its face to Elminster’s and wink at the reader, unnoticed by any of the characters in the story).

I think a lot of the anti-Elminster stuff started (long ago) because Greyhawk fans and Dragonlance fans saw the Realms as “replacing” their worlds, and wanted to attack its main characters. As a greedy gamer who wanted ALL the settings supported (I was a fan of both those settings) and who saw far more of what went on inside the company than most “just plain gamers” out there, I never saw the Realms that way at all, and understood far more about sales and how THEY influenced what got published than the fans who wanted to fight setting-versus-setting wars.

These days, I often encounter very young gamers who sneer at Elminster without ever having read a word of one of my novels about him - - which means their dislike of him is an opinion they’ve picked up from older gamers and adopted so as to be “one of the gang” or “cool.”

I would quite cheerfully never write another word about Elminster, if I could still go on writing about the Realms. On the other hand, ELMINSTER IN HELL is the one Realms novel (of them ALL, not just mine) where senior sf writers I respect greatly have made a point of telling me how much they liked it; one of them even said, “You almost committed literature, there!”), and in my recent novels - - the new one that’ll appear in 2010, in particular, entitled ELMINSTER MUST DIE! - - I’ve been using him to explore what it means to get old and feeble and nigh-powerless, and face death or falling from prominence or both.

On the other hand, I’ve had Realms writing assignments I liked less than writing about Elminster - - like writing about Volo!

11. As a setting, the Realms has a reputation for being "epic," with world-shattering events and grandiose plots. Yet, based on your old articles and the anecdotes I've heard in various places, your home campaign seemed very "localized." Is that an accurate description?

Yes, my home campaign is always focused on the PCs, and was always very down-to-earth. After twenty real-time years of play, the most powerful of the Knights of Myth Drannor (the main band of PC adventurers) reached (gasp!) 9th level. However, they really LIVED and earned their levels, and had great fun doing it, and I made sure the Realms always seemed “alive” around them by having lots of news and rumors of events going on several kingdoms away, in the background. There were plots atop subplots atop conspiracies, but nothing “Realms-shaking.” No gods slaughtering gods, nothing like that - - that’s a function of the published Realms, and decades of “arms race” one-upmanship amongst authors and game designers (some of the former and all of the latter on staff at the publisher, at the time), all trying to have a bigger and better epic. The first two editions of the game “played best” when PCs were 3rd to 12th level, and that’s the “sweet spot” that my players never left. They weren’t interested in character stats, but they WERE interested in their characters achieving fortune, influence, and success (NOT fame) within the game world, on a local level (“No thrones for us, but we can by gum govern a dale better than anyone else!”) . . . and luckily, that’s what I was interested on, too.

However, hand me a novel writing assignment, and sure enough, I was supposed to write NOT about a stable boy or minor courtier, but about the royal family, and not about Joe Lackspell, but about Elminster. There’s no blame to be assigned here; because everyone making the decisions was striving for what would be most popular and therefore sell best; I just disagree about how quickly one should scale the heights of power (I’m more about forty years of slow “power creep,” heh heh).

12. Are there any Realms-related topics you've never had the chance to discuss in your published work that you wish you had?

Sure, lots of them. Trade routes, major commodities traded and the entire system (warehouses, who ships stuff and how, who hoards or attempts to control local prices, how much guilds and nobles profit thereby, are dragons and other powerful, long-lived, intelligent monsters influencing or taking part in trade, and so on). Where are certain goods produced (and are therefore plentiful and cheap) and where are they most scarce and in demand (therefore both expensive and in short supply).

Too much detail to some gamers, sure, but if a DM’s job is to entertain his or her players, and my players LOVED having “day jobs” outside adventuring, and making investments, and going shopping, and playing local politics, and manipulating guilds and local traders for their own profit, than that’s information that sure needed exploring for my own game; why not share it?

I once tried to get a Sword Coast merchant shipping game (sail your ship or fleet up and down the coast from port to port, moving around these little cards that are cargoes; even if you don’t want to play it, you can use it in a D&D campaign to keep track of voyage times, available ships in port, where someone you’re chasing who bought passage aboard a ship is, and so on) into DRAGON as a special inclusion, but it got nixed on cost grounds.

Also, what are the daily lives of non-humans like elves, gnomes, halflings, kobolds, et al like? The furnishings in their homes? Their cuisine, how they store food and treat wastes, their stories (books? ballads?); all of that.

And the big one: what’s it like to be a priest in the major faiths of the Realms? Creed, taboos, what you wear, how you live, church aims and directives, what those in power high in the church are REALLY up to, where your daily living comes from, ALL the religious rituals, both daily and special festivals/special rites; all of that. A cleric/priest should be a LOT more than a “fighter who can heal.”

13. What projects are you working on nowadays?

I mainly can’t say, due to NDAs (contracts forbidding me to talk), but it’s no secret that I’m working on a new Elminster novel (working title ELMINSTER MUST DIE!) for publication next year. Or that I’m co-writing a series of rules-neutral roleplaying game supplements from Goodman Games, ED GREENWOOD’S FANTASTIC WORLDS. The first volume, covering castles, keeps, and fortifications, should be out next spring, and future books are planned on world-building, city design, mythology, and more.

My novel “Falconfar” (the third and concluding book in the FALCONFAR trilogy) should be released in March 2010 from Solaris (just purchased from Black Library by Rebellion, and published in the United States by Simon & Shuster).

I’m writing a new column of short “usable in your campaign” Realms pieces in DRAGON (in the D&D Insider part of the Wizards of the Coast website), and have a short story, “The Many Murders of Manshoon,” in the forthcoming (January 2010) Wizards of the Coast anthology “Realms of the Dead.”

I also have an essay in the forthcoming “Family Games: The 100 Best” (edited by James Lowder and published by Green Ronin Publishing). My short story “A Good Night To Watch Detroit Burn” was JUST published in the post-apocalyptic sf anthology “Grants Pass” from Morrigan Books, and I wrote a eulogy for Gary Gygax (creator of the Dungeons & Dragons® roleplaying game) and a short story, “Saving The Elf Princess Again,” for the recent DAW anthology “Gamer Fantastic,” edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes.

I’m just finishing editorial work on ED GREENWOOD PRESENTS WATERDEEP, a series of mass market paperback original novels by other authors (some of them novices), set in the city of Waterdeep in the “new” (4e, post-Spellplague) Realms. All of the books (including titles from rising stars Steven Schend, Jaleigh Johnson, Erik Scott de Bie, and Rosemary Jones) have impressed me, thus far.

I’m also having fun contributing creatively to KOBOLD QUARTERLY, to a new sf combat card game called HEROBITS, and to the “Pathfinder” game rules and associated Golarion fantasy world setting from Paizo, Inc.

There’s a lot more, but I can’t talk about it yet. By the way, as a Canadian, I wince at all the “Ed Greenwood” this, and “Ed Greenwood” that; to those disgusted ay my hubris, please remember that PUBLISHERS choose titles, not writers (I think the only Realms title of mine that has yet gone straight into print unchanged was “Spellfire,” and it got swiped immediately by the publisher for use for a card game!).

14. Do you still get the chance to roleplay?

I do, though I’m so busy juggling a day job (I have worked in public libraries for thirty-five years now) and a busy writing career (usually I manage to publish two or three novels, half a dozen short stories, a dozen or more game columns or articles, and a few gaming sourcebooks, every year) that I have less and less time to sit down and really enjoy long play sessions. At conventions, I often run one-shot Realms adventures, and of course participate in various hush-hush playtests of forthcoming game scenarios or rules.

87 comments:

  1. I agree with Ed's annoyance at the young fans who say "Elminster sucks" without ever having read it or only read one or two items. (I also agree that some of it comes from the disenfranchised fans of Greyhawk/Dragonlance who think their settings weren't getting enough attention).

    The big problem with fan groupthink is that it can end up changing historical perspective. Mark Evanier has some stuff about the origin of Scrappy Doo which talks a little about this problem.

    http://www.povonline.com/scrappydays/scrappy01.htm

    I've even read a good book called "In Search of Stupidity" where the author reviews the software industry and points out that Microsoft didn't get big because they were a "monopoly", but rather that the big leaders in their competition--dBase, Wordstar, IBM, Borland, etc., did some amazingly stupid things. (While there are things you can criticize Microsoft for, "making bad software" is not one of them).

    In all three cases, the complaints leveled end up magnifying things and can end up affecting that which comes later. (I didn't see the point in making Scrappy the "villain" of the movie, for instance).

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  2. An interesting interview, it reinforces most of my understanding of the Realms and the 2E-era sensibility to AD&D. E.g., Greenwood's players perfering a lot of talk and deep character acting, Elminster's use to "come wandering along to save their behinds almost by accident in a dungeon when they’d gotten near death and knew no way out", etc.

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  3. I agree with Delta. On the one hand, the Dalelands seems like a nice low fantasy adventuring locale.

    OTOH, Ed Greenwood does seem to have been influential on the 2e trends that drove me, and others, away from D&D for the '90s.

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  4. Considering the last question, I am curious about what edition he uses, but maybe that will be the next unpublished question?

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  5. Oh, btw. It's very possible to say that Microsoft makes bad software! If you don't think so, I feel sad for you. There are some stuff out there you should try!

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  6. I don't see why discursive, "talky" sessions are somehow New School. My EPT game is very talky.

    I have one player who will grouse if he doesn't at least get to be in one combat per session, so I try to make sure there's at least one. But fights are a bit boring to me, unless they have some larger meaning in the context of the game setting.

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  7. I know this question sounds VERY ingenuous, but referring to question 12 - if Ed's so delighted at the idea of writing daily lives routines, clerical and mercantile themes etc. why doesn't it sinly do that in a blog, for "free"? I am pretty sure he'd score thousands of readers daily, also very willing to pay some subcription fee for downloads etc. I for one would immediatly buy a manual about daily kobold lives and garbage disposal in the realms.

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  8. Regarding Microsoft, I wasn't saying "all their stuff is perfect", but I was pointing out the fact that people engage in hyperbole when describing their stuff, and making false statements about it without even understanding the real history.

    As for the following, Ed doesn't have a blog, but he does answer questions on Candlekeep. I think it might be a case of personal preference.

    Also, Ed is paid money for writing about the Realms from WoTC, and I doubt he wants to get into major details outside of his stuff--I believe he does articles for DDI about the realms. Even if he did want to start a blog, he probably would not be able to "sell content" unless it wasn't Realms related. (I don't know specifics about his contract).

    There are a lot of authors who don't want to "give away their stuff for free" on blogs, not just because of finances, but because "time is money", and distractions keep them from their writing jobs.

    In fact, I noticed that Mr. Greenwood doesn't have an account on Candlekeep--the questions go through an intermediary. For all we know, he might be more of an "internet hermit", or even like Harlan Ellison who doesn't use a computer to do writing.

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  9. I don't see why discursive, "talky" sessions are somehow New School. My EPT game is very talky.

    Indeed, shouldn't heavily discursive/subjective/character-exploratory sessions be the heart and soul of the so-called 'OSR'? Why should that increase in depth and emotional engagement sacrifice the run-n-gun feel of 'old school 'gaming?

    Incidentally - the 4e DMG2 came out this week; its first chapters retrofit indie/new school GM techniques to a D&D DM style. Potentially a good read even for avowedly retro types. :)

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  10. I don't see why discursive, "talky" sessions are somehow New School.

    Nor do I. Ed didn't say that he had grand pre-scripted plots in his home campaign. Neither do uber-NPCs steal the limelight from the PCs. From where I sit, Ed's Realms game sounds very little different from many old school campaigns I've participated in -- and run myself. Maybe that makes me a deviant too, I don't know. I simply have a hard time seeing anything Ed discussed as being indicative of, well, anything other than that he and his players enjoy a somewhat more "melodramatic" style of gaming than do some of us. So what?

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  11. @James: So what? Exactly.

    Thanks again for this series.

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  12. The man doesn't seem very willing to take responsibility for his own actions.

    All this "It wasn't me, it was the one-armed man, uh, I mean TSR! Yeah, that's the ticket..." crap is just that, crap.

    That's his writing in those execrable novels and later game expansions; his work. Does he expect us to believe that Lorraine Williams sent mafiosi to hold him at gunpoint while he churned-out this garbage? TSR may have asked for it, may have been willing to pay for it, but he had to be willing to produce it.

    Be a man and own up to the less stellar parts of your back catalog, Ed.

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  13. @Will:

    Isn't that what he does? He tells us he writes for money and that it would all look different if he didn't.

    @John:

    I just replied matter of factly to your statement and tried to avoid hyperbole. I wouldn't say it is either perfect or crap, but that it's "bad" compared to some of the competition.

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  14. @Will:

    That's his writing in those execrable novels and later game expansions; his work. Does he expect us to believe that Lorraine Williams sent mafiosi to hold him at gunpoint while he churned-out this garbage? TSR may have asked for it, may have been willing to pay for it, but he had to be willing to produce it.

    I think he's just saying that between seeing his work published, slightly changed, and being just a librarian with a fun hobby, he's going to choose the path that gives him the most connections to other humans. i.e. Publishing half-assed rather than perishing alone. He seems as self-aware as any other social misfit whose masturbatory worldbuilding avocation has gone from disparaged hobby to decent living.

    Greenwood's not a great writer; maybe not a particularly good one. But then you can count the truly great writers in D&D history on one or two hands, and you probably can't squeak beloved E.G. Gygax onto the list without including toes and other appendages. Let's not demand too much of the man.

    How's this for a compromise position? If Greenwood hadn't happily gone along with commercial pressures from TSR over the course of his career, the Forgotten Realms would look quite different - but it wouldn't matter, because you would never, ever have heard of them.

    And then how would we spend our time on a Sunday afternoon? What in the world would we complain about?

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  15. These are good interviews, by the way - kudos, James. I wish you'd ask more 'inside baseball' questions, get a longer-term back-and-forth going on thorny design questions; in particular I'd love to hear much more specific questions from these old guys about the last 15-20 years of RPG evolution, of which many have hardly been a part.

    But they're fine and interesting as they are!

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  16. "he's going to choose the path that gives him the most connections to other humans."

    Jesus. What are you on?

    People don't sell their own personal visions short for free. Follow the money.

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  17. Will,

    I'm not sure what you want. Do you want Ed to make some kind of Act of Contrition and apologize for his work?

    So far I saw him explain why certain things were done. He seems self-deprecating, knowing that his novels are not "high art". At the same time, you seem to want to have him shout out "I am a lousy writer and my stuff sucks".

    Most writers are familiar with a term called compromise. TSR and WoTC were/are commercial companies. In the Hollywood industry, scripts get rewritten tons of times.

    Ed agreed to give TSR rights to his campaign, and seems to understand he's not in 100% control of it. I think it speaks to his caring of the Realms that he wants to be involved, as well as to his professionalism to not engage in conflicts. People seem to want to think writers are god-kings and should say "NO!" with a loud voice instead of compromising and accepting the fact somebody else is in charge.

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  18. Thanks for this ongoing interview. I always find Ed's comments interesting and think he's a standup author.

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  19. "The man doesn't seem very willing to take responsibility for his own actions."

    T thought he fessed up pretty good, and laid the blame where it belongs for the things out of his control. I didn't see a lot of grandiose statements there about how his game world changed the world, TSR screwed him, etc. Sounds like an ok guy.

    Ed, along with Gary, is one of the few uber-talents in our hobby, and I think it's interesting neither could (or can) write fiction worth a copper. Perhaps their creative contributions have something to do with it, (too busy to write good fiction?) but I do find that fact interesting. Once again how can you blame the guy for writing bad fiction anymore than you can blame Gary for doing the same thing, for the same reasons?

    Ed didn't do what any of us wouldn't have done also, what talented writers and artists do every day of the week, sold the rights to his world for a crapload of money and fame (relative fame, I mean, in the gamer circles). I don't blame Thomas Wolfe for screwing up the film of "Bonfire of the Vanities", that was all Brian De Palma's hackwork, and Wolfe's book is still brilliant. I don't blame Ed that the powers-that-be at TSR, in trying to save their company, made the Forgotten Realms ubiquitous to the point of absurdity.

    His "actions" led to a ton of fun, happiness and enjoyment for millions of gamers (myself included). Ed has nothing to apologize for....

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  20. Well, the only thing I disagree with is that both Gary and Ed are "bad" fiction writers. Let's keep in mind the terms bad and good are in the mind of the beholder, and consider both the Gord books and the Elminster novels sold well, it's not like people don't enjoy them.

    To be the only sign of a really bad novel would be something nobody would buy. Like Ed said, there's a silent majority who purchase the products because they like the characters.

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  21. Perhaps "bad" was far too harsh, you are right. Both did sell very well as authors (although popular taste being what it is...) and I have managed to read two books by each author in my life, so I guess I've gotten sucked in also. A better way to put it would have been "It's amazing that two of the most creative guys in the genre weren't better fiction writers" and leave it at that.

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  22. "he's going to choose the path that gives him the most connections to other humans."

    Jesus. What are you on?


    I'm trying to find a diplomatic way of saying that Greenwood gives a strong impression of needing structured, rational connection to others, and his fetish for official sanction in the form of TSR publication strengthens that impression in my eyes (as does the formulaic quality of his work, and his weird misplaced interest in the logistics and economics of his fantasy world). He seems friendly enough, and I imagine he feels he can make money and connect to people through his work, rather than keeping it between him and (e.g.) the 5-20 people who've played in his campaign in the last decade.

    @Will: Back off. These outbursts are unbecoming.

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  23. @Wally--actually, I think you are being too harsh and kind of failing in diplomacy.

    The thing I dislike most about amateur critics of authors is that they engage in armchair psycho-analysis of the authors. It's like suddenly every gamer is an "unsub" on an episode of Criminal Minds!

    Why is Greenwood's love for creating his own world make him a "social misfit whose masturbatory worldbuilding"? I mean, jeez. What separates his work from JRRT's, for instance? Why describe his like for social/economic stuff a "fetish"? Why is his desire to share things a "strong impression of needing structured, rational connection to others"?

    This is what bugs me about Internet criticism nowadays. True criticism focuses on the work. I don't remember us delving into the psychiatry of the great authors back in high school and college, and I've never seen Roger Ebert try to analyze a director's psychology when writing a movie review.

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  24. "I don't blame Thomas Wolfe for screwing up the film of 'Bonfire of the Vanities', that was all Brian De Palma's hackwork"

    This is a little different, as Greenwood obviously stuck around long after he sold his setting to TSR and continued to produce stuff that he otherwise wouldn't have just for a (probably not even that impressive) paycheck.

    It's more like if Wolfe himself had written, directed, and scored the Bonfires adaptation for pay, despite knowing that he was putting in a lackluster effort and then blamed the studio for the whole affair after the fact.

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  25. @Will: "People don't sell their own personal visions short for free. Follow the money."

    @Badmike: "Ed didn't do what any of us wouldn't have done also, what talented writers and artists do every day of the week, sold the rights to his world for a crapload of money and fame."

    AdAstra is a scifi bookish con here in Toronto. I had the privilege of going in 2006 and talking to Mr. Greenwood for two hours. I can attest that whatever else he's two things: a really nice guy; a really good raconteur.

    He talked about a lot of things, and about some people we both know here in Hogtown. One thing he did say was how he sold the rights for Forgotten Realms to TSR. He told me that they called him up and he said they could have it for free. The guy on the phone balked at that, and said, "No, no, we can't do that. How about $5000?" And Ed agreed. Now he's made money. But not on that transaction. And another story he told me was one year he made a lot of money - lots. And then the Canadian government taxed it mostly away.

    But the thing you've got to get him to do if you talk to him is to do voices. He has one story of a person from TSR calling to offer him a job. He told the guy that he made more than that as a librarian. Finally... I think he took this call the at library he was working at at the time on a Saturday morning... the guy on the line, a mucky-mucky says: "Mr. Greeeeeeenwoooooood... I don't think your biting!"

    They way he said it was hilarious. Honestly, sometimes I'll say it out loud the way he did here in the apartment, and just start laughing.

    If he's ever in your vicinity, don't be afraid of him. He's nice and he can be hilarious.

    I'm not saying I'm a fan of any or all of the Greenwood oeuvre, but the guy, himself, is great.

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  26. @John -

    In the interest of comity I'll leave it here: I'm not sitting in an armchair, I don't watch Criminal Minds, and anyone surprised by psychological commonalities among hardcore fantasy roleplayers isn't paying close enough attention.

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  27. "This is a little different, as Greenwood obviously stuck around long after he sold his setting to TSR and continued to produce stuff that he otherwise wouldn't have just for a (probably not even that impressive) paycheck."

    Nahh, I just don't see it. If you look over most the stuff with just Ed's name on it, it's far from hackwork. He has a few misses (the Avatar trilogy, which I strongly suspect was merely Ed putting the actual books in module form and didn't involve much effort on his part) but has some strong stuff also (Ruins of Undermountain, Volo's guide series, Pages from the Mages). And whether the paycheck was impressive or not is a moot point...a lot of us bitd would have killed to be on TSR's payroll in any capacity, impressive paycheck or not. If he made a bundle working there I strongly suspect some would excoriate him for "getting rich off the blood of the fans" or somesuch nonsense.

    And the comparison you made doesn't make sense; to make sense, Ed would have had to been on the design or edition team for every single item; he obviously wasn't even peripherally involved in some of the FR projects.

    It always puzzles me the outright dislike and hatred for Ed, seeing as he's basically living the ultimate fanboy's dream. Hopefully someone like Matt Finch or our own James M never actually get any fame and fortune out of this hobby; I suspect the backlash (as in Ed's case) would be ugly and undeserved...

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  28. Thank you James and Mr. Greenwood for the interview.

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  29. "I'm not saying I'm a fan of any or all of the Greenwood oeuvre, but the guy, himself, is great."

    I'm sure that's probably true. I don't know a thing about his demeanor and personality.

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  30. Ferchristsake! Just because something sells a lot don't means it must be quality work!? The craft of writing good fiction is very different from the craft of writing a best seller. If you are lucky you can do both.

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  31. Great interview. I'm not getting involved in the debate above as I have never played with FR or 2E - kinda after my D&D time - so I really can't comment.

    I am interesting in how he used Elminster in his games. Is he saying that he would turn up to pull the PCs out of the fire as some kind of in game deus ex machina?

    Not my bag but he does emphasize the word occasionally...

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  32. This has been interesting series of interviews. I have been big fan of the first boxed set.

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  33. Korgoth:
    "I don't see why discursive, "talky" sessions are somehow New School. My EPT game is very talky."

    3e-4e D&D are not talky games, 4e especially is very fight-centric. 2e AD&D was relatively talky, esp in a "read boxed text aloud" sort of way. It also tended to linear pre-plotted adventures (as do 3e-4e, though their plots are often just series of fights) and to uber-NPCs saving the PCs.

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  34. Wally:
    "Indeed, shouldn't heavily discursive/subjective/character-exploratory sessions be the heart and soul of the so-called 'OSR'? "

    'Character-exploratory'?!

    I've done some deep character-exploration stuff playing 'Midnight', it was great (though traumatic) but it was certainly not in any sense 'old school'.

    I have had some old-school sessions focused on character interaction - information gathering, political maneuvering, that kind of thing. But certainly not 'exploration of character'.

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  35. James:
    "I simply have a hard time seeing anything Ed discussed as being indicative of, well, anything other than that he and his players enjoy a somewhat more "melodramatic" style of gaming than do some of us. So what?"

    Because his style became the standard for D&D in the '90s, and I don't like it!

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  37. Whether or not the "stylings" of character exploratory talking games became de rigeur during the 90s, you'd be hard pressed to find any official demonstration or sanction of them in the Forgotten Realms material or Ed's work. I'd blame the Dragonlance influence for causing this (although I don't have any concrete proof in that direction except for the inherent high drama in the setting itself) along with the rise of interactive LARPs instead. I didn't personally know of any group's that did a lot of acting out with their D&D back then, but I hear they were out there.

    I think it's interesting how a lot of stuff is being laid at Ed's feet, he's obviously more influential than any of us thought. Before you know it we'll find out he also caused "gamer's funk" which I never knew existed until after 1987 (although I never went to a gaming convention before 1987, so....)

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  38. I have to admit I remain more than a little disappointed at the level of discourse in many of these comments. Between the imputation of motives and actions to Ed that are not in evidence, the long-distance amateur psycho-analyzing, and the implication that it was he who brought D&D low, I'm pretty much speechless.

    I'm not going to shut down the comments section. Yet. But I'd like to ask everyone to show a bit more restraint in discussing the actual content of the interview. If there are things Ed didn't discuss that you'd like him to do so, let me know and I'll ask him. He's quite willing to answer sincere questions and probably one of the more open and straightforward big names in the hobby. He's about as far from the Devil he's being painted as I can imagine.

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  39. Thanks James and Ed for a great interview! Many of my misconceptions of Mr. Greenwood's work have been obliterated. I may even check out ELMINSTER IN HELL or ELMINSTER MUST DIE!

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  40. 'Character-exploratory'?!

    I've done some deep character-exploration stuff playing 'Midnight', it was great (though traumatic) but it was certainly not in any sense 'old school'.


    Really? I'm guessing you've had plenty of sessions where you've learned about characters - their motivations, backstories, relationships, desires, etc. - through richly-described action (not stagey monologues). Indeed, thin rules systems (e.g. OD&D) are perfect for that kind of exploration! Especially since you perform an action not by choosing it from a repertoire of dice rolls but by describing it. If the description is any good at all, it'll throw light onto the character.

    I'm not talking about roleplay-as-glorified-diary-keeping (the stereotype of the melodramatic goth power fantasy in e.g. Vampire: the Masquerade). Rather, old-school playing of an adult sort should make plenty of room for character exploration and illumination, particularly in contrast to the standard OSR representation of 'new school' play as numbers-driven. Fantasy gaming needn't be egocentric to be psychologically compelling, and thin rules are well-suited to that kind of play.

    Which brings us back to E.G.'s Elminster and other superpowered proxies and how they're apparently less interesting now in the heavier-rules FRPG era. But it's lunchtime.

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  41. @James -

    the long-distance amateur psycho-analyzing...

    Surely this isn't a knee-jerk slight against amateur intellectual activity from the 'Pope' of amateur RPG intellectuals.

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  42. Well, even if that's it, the attitude of some people discussing here is low. To say the least.

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  43. @Wally, There's a difference between being an amateur writer or reviewer and an amateur in psychology.

    The problem with what you are doing, however we describe it (amateur, armchair, etc.), is that the latter can in my mind, actually be dangerous and libelous. Unlike generic insults using psychological terms imply an objective diagnosis. And I think a professional would have the ethics not to do so. Implying somebody's is mentally ill is one of the more successful ways you can get sued for libel.

    If it seems like I'm being sensitive to this issue, it's based on what I've seen. In the 90s the Richard Jewell case opened my eyes to that, where newspapers were attributing psychological profiles to him that turned out false, and I've seen some other people in life hurt by this type of analysis.

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  44. "the implication that it was he who brought D&D low"

    "He's...the Devil"

    I honestly don't know who it is that you think said these things, unless it was in a deleted post that's no longer visible.

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  45. Implying somebody's is mentally ill is one of the more successful ways you can get sued for libel.

    Oh, I'm not implying anything of the kind - and I apologise if I gave that impression. I do know a lot of high-functioning folks of a particular social-misfit sort, and was responding, perhaps too glibly, to a set of signals and verbal constructions I found familiar. It's certainly possible I'm misinterpreting the man, in which case I apologise as well for hurt feelings all around. But I mean no insult by my characterization; quite the contrary - my initial comment was a defense of E.G.

    No more navel-gazing from me on this subject, sorry.

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  46. I do know a lot of high-functioning folks...

    You're still doing it, as if you weren't already aware of that. Like a broken record, you are.

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  47. Ed Greenwood created probably the most successful fantasy setting, after Middle Earth, in the history of the Universe.

    The guy seems nice enough, and refreshingly modest.

    It is sad to see what was essentially his childhood imagination playground get taken away from him, as he seems to view it.

    However, it is EXTRAORDINARILY depressing to see people come in here and trash him as though being successful at something and cashing in on your IP is some sort of crime against humanity.

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  48. "crime against humanity."

    Again, this hyperbole is silly. All I said was that he seems to want to take credit for everything he's done that the D&D community has (for the most part) embraced and, at the time time, blame the less well-received stuff on TSR/WotC, despite the fact that nobody was twisting his arm as he produced it.

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  49. It's funny that this same week I picked up the Complete Calvin and Hobbes, and got to read once again about Bill Watterson's epic fight with his syndicate in the 80's-90's to prevent merchandising of his characters.

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  50. Wally:
    "Really? I'm guessing you've had plenty of sessions where you've learned about characters - their motivations, backstories, relationships, desires, etc. - through richly-described action (not stagey monologues)."

    In 'old school' games? Hmm, only in the thinnest sense - "Cugel wants money and women". "Conan wants money, power, and women". The PCs' motivations are not really separable from the player's motivations - possibly leaving aside 'women' since D&D does not mechanically reward that. PCs' backgrounds are almost always irrelevant, and rarely exist until the PC has survived many adventures. The only important relations are those built up in play - "This Wizard is friendly" or "The Merchant's Guild will back you in your bid for the throne".

    I'm not actually hostile to Ed's approach of emphasising the experience of actually living in a fantasy world, of gossip and community (I am hostile to Dragonlance-style railroading, but clearly that did not originate with Ed). It's not 'bad'. It's not 'Old School', though.

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  51. Wally:
    "particularly in contrast to the standard OSR representation of 'new school' play as numbers-driven"

    There is no monolithic 'new school'. 3e-4e are numbers-driven. 2e was not. None are 'old school' in their approaches.

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  52. Ed seems like a very nice guy. A bit strange even by gamer-geek standards, though.

    I guess... I just wish that in the 1e FR box set he had statted out Elminster as an NPC Sage using the 1e DMG rules, not an Archmage. The Seven Sisters could have been 9th-11th level Wizards. That would have done a lot to prevent the NPC power inflation and deus ex machina NPCs that inflicted D&D for the next two decades, until Eberron consciously rowed back on it. I'm sure Ed could make El popping in to the dungeon to save the PCs' bacon fun, but with 90% of GMs this kind of approach was a terrible mistake.

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  53. Hi,

    I am a long time lurker, first time poster. So first let me introduce myself. I am 37 and play since 26 years. Started with the Mentzer Set but have played all D&D incarnation since then and a whole lot of other RPGs besides. A few weeks ago I started reading James' Blog. It seems that I prefer a strange mix of Old School and newer elements (like story arcs) in my games.

    Now to my post:
    Will Mistretta said.
    ...blame the less well-received stuff on TSR/WotC, despite the fact that nobody was twisting his arm as he produced it.

    You know how assignments for RPG stuf work, yes?
    Normally the auther gets a well defined outline of what he can/can't write.
    After he has given over his stuff, the editor checks it and might CHANGE whole parts of it.
    So what gets published is NOT always what the author produced.
    And from what I know, the Cash Ed gets from his RPG stuff contribute a lot to his income.
    Would you go to you Boss and say: Nope, won't do this project because it sucks?

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  54. Don't feed the trolls.

    Some people don't like the man's work, fair enough. They may not even like the man (by extension). We get that.

    They're entitled to their opinions and I doubt they will change their minds, whatever anyone says.

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  55. Surely this isn't a knee-jerk slight against amateur intellectual activity from the 'Pope' of amateur RPG intellectuals.

    No, it's a statement that there's a world of difference between discussing the ins and outs of RPG products and discussing the psychological makeup of RPG writers.

    Say what you will about Ed's writing over the years, but I draw a sharp line when it comes to imputing motives to him that we have no way of knowing. The same goes for any RPG writer, which is why you rarely, if ever, see me stating why Gygax or Arneson did this or that, unless I have evidence to support it.

    That's just common courtesy.

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  56. I honestly don't know who it is that you think said these things, unless it was in a deleted post that's no longer visible.

    I'm responding to the implication that it was Ed's particular style of play that was canonized in the 2e era and that it was this style that drove people away from D&D and/or gaming in general. That's putting an awful lot of responsibility on Ed's shoulders (in addition to being factually incorrect).

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  57. I do know a lot of high-functioning folks of a particular social-misfit sort

    I am always amused by the large number of misfits otherwise "normal" gamers seem to know ...

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  58. All I said was that he seems to want to take credit for everything he's done that the D&D community has (for the most part) embraced and, at the time time, blame the less well-received stuff on TSR/WotC, despite the fact that nobody was twisting his arm as he produced it.

    One of the problems with this line of thought is that it doesn't take into account certain details about the terms of Ed's standing contract with TSR back in the day. That's understandable, as those terms are not widely known and won't ever be, as Ed alludes to in his interview. It also fails to take into account the extent to which Ed has regularly (and semi-successfully) subverted the directives TSR/WotC has given him over the years.

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  59. It's funny that this same week I picked up the Complete Calvin and Hobbes, and got to read once again about Bill Watterson's epic fight with his syndicate in the 80's-90's to prevent merchandising of his characters.

    Bill Watterson is a truly unique individual and I've always held in the highest regard for his principles on this score.

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  60. I'm not actually hostile to Ed's approach of emphasising the experience of actually living in a fantasy world, of gossip and community ... It's not 'bad'. It's not 'Old School', though.

    Why do you say that?

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  61. I guess... I just wish that in the 1e FR box set he had statted out Elminster as an NPC Sage using the 1e DMG rules, not an Archmage.

    The 1e FR boxed set came out late in that edition's era, well after Unearthed Arcana (indeed, it uses classes for that book) set the tone for the level of power expected in AD&D. I have little doubt that, had Gygax remained at TSR at the time, the power inflation we see in FR products would likely have continued.

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  62. Me:
    "I'm not actually hostile to Ed's approach of emphasising the experience of actually living in a fantasy world, of gossip and community ... It's not 'bad'. It's not 'Old School', though."

    James:
    "Why do you say that?"

    Why do I say Ed's approach isn't 'Old School'? Well, you talk yourself a lot about the antecedents that make up Old School. The fiction - swords and sorcery, sword & planet, pulp adventure, HPL horror. The wargames, minis and board. Braunstein and free kriegspiel.

    All of that is very goal-oriented, not inner directed or fantasy-communitarian. Ed's approach maybe bears some slight resemblance to some female fantasy authors who build up their milieux over many books (Pern?), and it maybe bears a slight resemblance to the Shire-set gossipy bits at the very start of LoTR.

    But Frodo LEFT the Shire, he didn't stay there chatting with the Tookburrows and Fumblestums for the whole trilogy.

    I see Old School characters and games as very autonomous, very outward directed - look even at Moorcock's work, his heroes may be angst ridden but the author doesn't spend pages on their internal state. Very uninterested in community. Very hyper-masculine. Ed's approach is much more communitarian, more feminine even.

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  63. James:
    "The 1e FR boxed set came out late in that edition's era, well after Unearthed Arcana (indeed, it uses classes for that book) set the tone for the level of power expected in AD&D. I have little doubt that, had Gygax remained at TSR at the time, the power inflation we see in FR products would likely have continued."

    I'm not sure I agree, exactly. I think EGG power inflation over time focused on increasing the power of a PC (or classed NPC) at any given level, without much increasing the levels as such. You could point to Isle of the Ape, but it's very much written as an outlier, on its own demiplane.

    I don't see any level inflation in the last 1e Greyhawk product, Greyhawk Adventures (post-EGG AFAIK). I don't think it was until the middle of the 3e era that Greyhawk NPCs were matching FR 1e NPCs for level, by which point 3e FR had moved on again with Elminster I think at 30th level.

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  64. James:
    "I'm responding to the implication that it was Ed's particular style of play that was canonized in the 2e era and that it was this style that drove people away from D&D and/or gaming in general. That's putting an awful lot of responsibility on Ed's shoulders (in addition to being factually incorrect)."

    My personal experience is that elements of his style helped drive me away. I'm sure he was not the only contributor to the 'look and feel' of 2e-era TSR, though. I think some of the worst 2e FR stuff I bought was directly against Ed's vision, eg The Horde novel trilogy and box set, or Nightmare Keep (which I think was the nail in the coffin).

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  65. @KristianH: "Would you go to you Boss and say: Nope, won't do this project because it sucks?"

    Yes. Times past when I didn't do that, I'm willing to say are the biggest regrets of my life. I do expect that I'm in the minority on that score.

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  66. Ed Greenwood started playing D&D in 1975. How much earlier do you have to be to be "Old School"?

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  67. Matthew:
    "Ed Greenwood started playing D&D in 1975. How much earlier do you have to be to be "Old School"?"

    He used it for something different than the designers' intent. Which is ok. If he had been an author of OD&D then he would have helped define 'Old School', and your argument would have merit.

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  68. @S'mon, Actually, from what I've heard from Gary from personal conversation, he was very complimentary of Greenwood when we discussed things, and many of his articles in Dragon proved that. (EGG declared his Nine Hells document "official", which was a rare thing back in those days).

    I think your declaration that Greenwood isn't "old school" is your own interpretation of it--that whole masculine/feminine hypothesis, etc. Based on what I've seen and remember from the old dragon articles, Greenwood is actually on of the key founders of how we interpreted D&D back in the late 70s to early 80s.

    @Delta,

    Do you actually say to your boss anything radical like "do it this way and I'll quit?!" And is it based on simple departmental procedures, like trying to do a 5 week project in 1 week? Or do you actually have veto power over the marketing and sales departments.

    In Mr. Greenwood's case, I'd say he was gracious enough to trust TSR's marketing department and research into what the fans wanted, rather than have an ego. As far as I can see from the interview, the only thing he's trying to do is diffuse the "fanon" of an elitist creator who puts Elmister at the forefront because he wants his character to be more powerful than the others.

    Writing for RPGs is a commercial endeavor, not really a "high art". It's okay to want creative control, but sometimes you have to let go a little. Writers outside of novelists usually understand this.

    If I was in Greenwood's position, I'd see it this way--I can either compromise a little and still be able to control things as much as I can and be involved, or I can quit over minor things, and then be denied having ANY input whatsoever, lose income, and watch people screw up the world behind the scenes.

    It really depends on what makes people happy. Gary Gygax was apparently happier doing his own thing and having full creative control rather that compromising--but the price was less sales and interest from the fans. But others like Hickman and Weiss, Salvatore, Greenwood, freely do work for hire on characters they don't own and enjoy it.

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  69. Honestly, I really don't think Mr. Greenwood is to blame for the Elminster problem at all. Mostly, I think Elminster was just one of those super-NPCs that a lot of adolescent or beginning DMs couldn't resist using because he was *just so cool*.

    I remember reading through a Realms boxed set in the about ten years back and being astonished when it suggested that he was rarely at home and almost never saw guests. I think the book actually recommended that Elminster's apprentice always answered the door and made it impossible to actually get in and to see the crazy old coot. I remember having him do things like mysteriously "losing" appointment records, telling ridiculous lies about the Sage's whereabouts, and leaving PCs waiting for six hours at a time before telling them to try again tomorrow.

    But I also remember playing through Mr Greenwood's Time of Troubles modules back in the nineties. (Yeah, That line of adventures was ridiculously scripted, but I will say in Mr. Greenwood's defense that Elminster was mostly scripted to *get out of the way* so the PCs could get their protagonist on.) Thing was, while most of the official products of the time (that I recall, anyway) suggested that he usually either stayed secretively at home or was off on mysterious travels doing ineffable things, a lot of DMs played him like an absolute jerk and didn't follow those suggestions. And when I say "played him like a jerk", I mean our group *cheered* when a god's avatar apparently killed him in the first module.

    It's really not Mr. Greenwood's fault - just the DMPC problem all over again. Except this time, the NPC the DM adores is an annoyingly eccentric, uber-powerful archmage.

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  70. Although not a FR fan, I found the interview to be vey interesting. Perhaps James you could do another one (if Mr. Greenwood agrees) with questions posted by the readers. In that way everyone gets the chance to ask him directly about some issues that were discussed here in the comments.
    Saludos!

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  71. John:
    "Actually, from what I've heard from Gary from personal conversation, he was very complimentary of Greenwood when we discussed things"

    I didn't say he wasn't. Although I expect this is referring to the quality of Ed's published work (items etc). I somehow can't see EGG enjoying Ed's home games, as described by Ed.

    John:
    "I think your declaration that Greenwood isn't "old school" is your own interpretation of it"

    Correct.

    Rob:
    "a lot of DMs played him like an absolute jerk"

    Correct. Like I said, Elminster was fine (I expect) in Ed's home campaign. But he gave rise to this widespread jerk behaviour. When it seems like the majority of DMs using El are doing this, how can the creator not bear some responsibility? IMNSHO Ed should have realised that Elminster, as conceived by him, was entirely unsuitable for a published campaign world, and adapted him accordingly.

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  72. Any DM can be good or bad, and I saw nothing in many of the earliest materials that portrayed Elminster as anything other than a powerful wizard who was only occasionally involved--most of his use was as narrator of source books.

    As far as saying "Elminster should have been a normal sage", well, IIRC, he always was a wizard, created as an archetype like Merlin and Gandalf.

    The "Eberron solution" seems to have been done as a reaction to that, and I honestly don't think that is old-school, more a reaction to the more modern approach that the PCs are the kings of the world and everybody else who's not a villain is a push-over. (Which is more or less how I see 3e and 4e going towards).

    I never saw the NPCs in FR as being Ed forcing his PCs to be "special", but rather as archetypes that your PCs could eventually attain. High level NPCs were started with the Rogues Gallery.

    Khelben was admittedly created as a character to keep PCs in check, aware that there is always somebody "bigger" out there in that big world.

    That is consistent with other old-school creations. Take D3, where Gygax says "if you stay to long in this tower, the Drow army will come, and you'll die after a glorious battle", or where there are NPCs and places where none of the PCs can hope to get into, even if you have to use a DM Deus Ex Machina.

    If somebody misuses source material, is that the fault of the writer? I think that's like blaming J.K. Rowling for bad Harry Potter fan-fiction because she wrote for young fans. I'm not really sure what they could have done to prevent bad DMs. Making Elminster a "lower level" would IMO not have helped at all. I still think many of the complaints are akin to the "scrappy doo" ones, where vocal fanon becomes the norm.

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  73. "@Delta, Do you actually say to your boss anything radical like 'do it this way and I'll quit?!' And is it based on simple departmental procedures, like trying to do a 5 week project in 1 week? Or do you actually have veto power over the marketing and sales departments."

    Yes, I quit working at places that have marketing and sales departments, and no longer work in industries like that.

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  74. John:
    "Khelben was admittedly created as a character to keep PCs in check, aware that there is always somebody "bigger" out there in that big world.

    That is consistent with other old-school creations. Take D3, where Gygax says "if you stay to long in this tower, the Drow army will come, and you'll die after a glorious battle""

    The latter in a module series where you _kill Lolth_ (if you're good enough). Compare the function of Lolth in D3-Q1 to Khelben and Elminster. EGG's point there was that poor play gets you killed, I've never seen anything from him about uber-NPCs to "keep PCs in line". The EGG approach, which I followed in my 1e games, was to run a harsh, unforgiving world where PCs succeed or fail by their own merits and fortune. The FR approach of uber-NPCs alternately saving the PCs from the consequences of their actions, and 'keeping them in line', presumably to preserve the milieu, is the exact opposite.

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  75. John:
    "f somebody misuses source material, is that the fault of the writer? I think that's like blaming J.K. Rowling for bad Harry Potter fan-fiction because she wrote for young fans."

    If Greenwood only wrote _fiction_, the comparison would be apt. Since he writes RPG material to be used in play, the comparison is silly. Rowling tries to stop people creating Potter fanfic! RPG material is written to be used in RPGs.

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  76. "The FR approach of uber-NPCs alternately saving the PCs from the consequences of their actions, and 'keeping them in line', presumably to preserve the milieu, is the exact opposite."

    Sure sounds like sour grapes to me? You mean I can't destroy the forgotten realms? Well then, I don't want to play any more...

    There were plenty of other settings to destroy in play for the kind of player that wants to do that. The Forgotten Realms wasn't one of them. Big deal. Go play another setting. It's not like this was ever your only choice.

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  77. The Recursion King:
    "Sure sounds like sour grapes to me? You mean I can't destroy the forgotten realms? Well then, I don't want to play any more..."

    I nearly always DM, and I like my players to be able to make meaningful choices without deus-ex-machina. And of course I do GM other settings.

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  78. Well then, you didn't have to run the setting *at all* if you were the DM and you were free to ignore anything you didn't like even if you did play it, such is the power of the DM.

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  79. TRK:
    "Well then, you didn't have to run the setting..."

    Uh, yeah. Not relevant to my point about Ed's FR setting much of the tone for 2e TSR. If I did run FR these days I would certainly adapt it heavily. My previous efforts always foundered on all the annoying NPCs and the players' determination to kill them. And I wasn't using the 'big guns', AIR it was Harpers and suchlike.

    BTW is is really surprising that some readers of a blog called Grognardia have negative or mixed feelings re 2e TSR, the Realms, and Greenwood's influence?

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  80. "Uh, yeah. Not relevant to my point about Ed's FR setting much of the tone for 2e TSR."

    That takes you full circle back round to Ed's own comments about TSR's actions on this issue. They were free to pick any setting to use as their main one (or not even have a default world setting).

    "BTW is is really surprising that some readers of a blog called Grognardia have negative or mixed feelings re 2e TSR, the Realms, and Greenwood's influence?"

    Surprising it isn't but maybe it is misplaced. You can concentrate on the negative aspects of anything, but you'll never get a balanced perspective if you do so..

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  81. The Recursion King said:

    "That takes you full circle..."

    And if anyone would know about going full circle, it's the Recursion King!

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  82. First, much thanks to Grognardia for the interviews. I've been a fan of Ed Greenwood for over twenty years and was delighted to see questions and answers that brought to light new information about Ed and his design experiences.

    A few things:

    It wasn't Greenwood's decision to put the spotlight on Elminster. That's always been TSR/WotC's choice, to the point where Ed has been told quite simply that if he didn't write about Elminster, someone else would be found to do it.

    Also, it seems strange to think Ed "should" have realized in advance Elminster's potential to be the focus of attention. Great at many things though he may be, even Ed Greenwood can't see into the future. ;)

    It has never to my knowledge been the "FR approach" for high level NPCs to come along and save the player characters, much less actively keep them in line. The comparison vis-à-vis EGG's method for handling poor play decisions is misinformed.

    Here's to hoping for another round of questions!

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  83. I've thoroughly enjoyed this interview series. I admit to not really enjoying Elminster in Hell very much the first time I read it and it sat on my shelf for a while before I picked it up again.

    I've read it several more times since then and really enjoy it. It must have grown on me.

    I'd like to see some stories based on El's raising of the silver haired sisters. :-) I'd enjoy watching El be run around by those lovely ladies. :-) Mr. Greenwood, any chance of that?

    Thanks James!

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