Thursday, January 8, 2009

Greenwood Replies

As I expected, my post yesterday on Ed Greenwood generated a lot of very divergent responses, with some people agreeing wholeheartedly with my assertion that the spirit that gave birth to the Realms is broadly in tune with old school principles and others disagreeing just as vehemently. For myself, I think it's important to distinguish between what the Realms -- and, to a certain extent, Greenwood's writing itself -- has become under the stewardship of TSR and WotC and where it started.

That's why I think it's important to look at Ed's early articles in Dragon. Greenwood's first published article is in issue 30 (October 1979) -- solidly within the Golden Age -- when the magazine still retained the definite article in its masthead. Even now, people's memories of the content and style of those articles is colored by his later work, after the publication of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set in 1987. The vast majority of his early work is not in fact written in the voice of Elminster and some of his best don't include Elminster as a character at all. It's true that many of his articles include a brief introduction based on the premise that Elminster frequently visits our world via planar magic, during which time Greenwood wheedles information out of the old sage by plying him with exotic drinks, such as piña coladas and Mountain Dew. But these introductions are generally short and a careful reading of them shows that the original portrayal of Elminster is somewhat different than that of his later works, by which time the popularity of the character grew to the point where, like others before him, he does indeed become a "Mary Sue." I think it also bears mentioning that the entire premise behind these articles and indeed of the Forgotten Realms themselves is one rooted in pulp fantasy: a parallel world with multiple connections to our own reality. Those roots have largely been abandoned over the years, but they're there and I see that as evidence of Greenwood's knowledge and appreciation for the literary sources of our hobby.

None of this excuses the excesses in which the Realms has reveled, but not all of that can be laid at the feet of Greenwood. The amount of control he exerts over the published Realms is, I am certain, overstated. Had he the degree of authority typically imputed to him, the published Realms would be far more risqué and bawdy, for example, something that both TSR and WotC have, to varying degrees, toned down to make it more acceptable to Middle American mores. I personally find the true Greenwoodian Realms a mite more prurient than I like, but, again, I don't think one can reasonably argue that prurience isn't an old school (or pulp fantasy) tradition.

Likewise, the fact that the Realms is not a place that Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber would have written is not a knock against its consonance with the old school. I can't imagine REH creating Blackmoor or Tékumel or Arduin either, but every one of those settings meets my criteria for an old school sandbox. The Realms is idiosyncratic and not always in ways I find congenial, but that's exactly why I regard it so highly. In its original conception, it was a work of unique personal vision by a man steeped in pulp fantasy. It's not a world I'd have created but that's to the good.

Certainly Ed has aided and abetted some of the trends I dislike in the hobby, but then so did Gary Gygax. The difference, I think, is that Ed has never really been in the driver's seat. Mostly he's just enjoying the ride, being a perfectly charming passenger ready to assist with directions when asked. That doesn't exculpate him from his participation in much I disdain, but it does provide some much-needed context. I'd much more happily play in an Ed-run Realms campaign than I would in, say, a Keith Baker-run Eberron campaign and it's not just because Ed is a peerless raconteur. It's because Ed gets D&D; he's not out to change it or make it "cool." He also gets pulp fantasy and knows its history. He may not share all my particular obsessions and concerns, but I trust him to understand them.

I'm not arguing that he's a standard bearer of the old school in 2009 by any means. I do think it's disingenuous, though, to claim that the guy who wrote rules for firearms in D&D, gave advice on the use of gates and how to build your own pantheon, and described the denizens of the Nine Hells, among many other wonderful things, didn't graduate from the old school. He may have picked up a few unfortunate affectations as he went to "study abroad," but that happens to the best of us. He's one of the Greats of this hobby and will always have my respect and affection.


  1. The Hell trilogy has always been my favorite Dragon issues.

    It a shame Ed dose not have complete control over his own world. I know he retains certain rights of his own setting and his opinions are widely excepted by the fanship, but it feels like telling Howard to make the Hyborian Age more kid friendly or having Lewis make Narnia less "preachy". Whenever a suit says he has a brilliant idea, it just means he has an idea to fatten his wallet! And that the sort of executive meddling that nearly doomed D&D back in the post-Dragonlance era, and again in the post-World of Darkness era, and will likely doom it once and for all in the post-Eberron era!

  2. I for one was surprised there was so much smack-talk going on about Ed Greenwood; for some reason I've considered him my hero since I picked up my 3e Forgotten Realms campaign setting book (since then I have moved more into the old-school FR, so don't so easily judge me), which was the first RPG book I ever owned.

    In truth, I never really knew much of the man until I read your article about him, yet still something about his writing caught me.

  3. Agreed with what you've written here; I am a virulent hater of what the realms have become, and quite a fan of what was produced in the original campaign set (with reservations). What I dislike about FR is the omniprescence of super-powered NPCs, and the world-spanning communications between both bad and good guys. The setting itself is quite good with all that stripped away. It is in many ways too "high fantasy" for my tastes, but that's just a subjective matter.

  4. Said it before and I'll say it again: Sometimes I wanna grab C&C, the old gray Realms box, and pretend the last 22 years didn't happen.

  5. I greatly enjoyed reading much of what Ed shared of HIS campaign, for he was clearly an accomplished DM. That's got zip to do with MY game unless I like it enough to "borrow" -- and the presence of some material I don't is no bar to finding inspiration in the rest. I would not in any case expect to adopt something "off the shelf," without fitting it to my own vision.

    I like the personal touch and the richness of things developed in actual play. There may be exceptions to the rule out there, but so far I've found such material more worthwhile than stuff created purely as "product."

    Ed started his campaign pretty early (I forget the year) in D&D history, and I think it's thrived ever since. That inspires a lot of respect (and a bit of envy)in me!

  6. I'm pretty fascinated by all these references to Ed Greenwood's own FR campaigns, and I'm wondering if there are any sources -- aside from articles published in The Dragon -- where I could find more information about it.

  7. It is in many ways too "high fantasy" for my tastes, but that's just a subjective matter.

    I feel the same way, Matt, but I can't help but appreciate what Ed did with his setting. It's such a wonderfully realized and intensely personal fantasy vision, which is something we just don't see anymore.

  8. Ed started his campaign pretty early (I forget the year) in D&D history, and I think it's thrived ever since. That inspires a lot of respect (and a bit of envy)in me!

    Me too! His campaign isn't as active as it once was, I think, owing to people moving and so forth, but it does still go on. I know he also used to run a "summer stock" campaign for newcomers who'd get the chance to play with him for a while when his other players were away and/or unavailable. I don't know if he still does that, but I'd love to wrangle myself a place at his table one of these days.

  9. I'm wondering if there are any sources -- aside from articles published in The Dragon -- where I could find more information about it.

    Not major ones, no. There may be a few interviews with Ed here and there where he talks about his home campaign and its differences from the published version but I can't recall for sure. Most of what I know I know from having talked to him or that others who know him have related to me.

  10. I finally got around to reading these two Greenwood posts. I agree with you, James.

    Just as I find Gary’s stories of his own Greyhawk campaign compelling, so I find Ed’s Dragon articles prior to the productization of the Realms. Just as I read Gary’s stories and find myself saying, “That’s what I want my game to be like!”, so I find myself saying when reading those old articles of Ed’s.

    Does it qualify as “old school”? I don’t care.