Thursday, August 20, 2020

Interview: Jeff Grubb (Part I)

Jeff Grubb worked at TSR Hobbies from 1982 to 1994. During that time he served as the design consultant on Gary Gygax's Monster Manual II and Unearthed Arcana, joined the team behind Dragonlance, developed the Forgotten Realms, and designed the Marvel Super Heroes roleplaying game, among many other projects. He very kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his time at TSR as well as his current projects. The second part of this interview will appear tomorrow.

1. How did you first become involved in the hobby of roleplaying?

I played Risk as a child and was into wargaming in high school (Avalon Hill, SPI, had a subscription to S&T [Strategy & Tactics – JM]). My first week at college, I went to the Purdue Wargamers Club, and there was a table of people talking and yelling, without a board or miniatures. I walked up, and someone handed me three six-sided dice and said, “Here, we need a cleric.” It was all downhill from there.

2. How did you become employed by TSR?

In college I started running D&D Open tournaments at GenCon in Kenosha, overseen by Bob Blake. One year, a friend mouthed off about the quality of that year’s presentation within Bob’s earshot. He spun on his heel and said “congratulations! You’re designing next year’s tournament!” Soon afterwards, I was laid off from my job (Civil Engineer, designing air pollution equipment), and had the time to oversee the product. As I result, I designed the bulk of the adventures for that year’s open (“Quest for the King” – not a great title), and on the strength of that (and calling every week), was hired by TSR.

3. One of your earliest credits is the Boot Hill module, Burned Bush Wells. Do you remember anything about the experience of working on that project? Were you a fan of the game or of Westerns.

Burned Bush Wells (great Larry Elmore cover) was presented to me as an assignment, with a town that Allen Hammack designed and a random encounter table from Brian Blume (or perhaps vice versa). I was supposed to make them work together. I had played Boot Hill in college, along with an Avalon Hill game called Gunslinger, but I was not a huge fan of Westerns – I think my favorite as a kid was The War Wagon with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas.

4. In his dedication to Unearthed Arcana, Gary Gygax wrote that you "belabored me with so many pages of questions and suggested qualifications that I'll never forgive him." Can you elaborate on what he meant by that?

I had worked previously with/for Gary on Monster Manual II, and was charged with putting together all of the material for UA, which included previously published articles, new spells that appeared elsewhere, and other concepts. I did not meet with Gary directly, as he had other things to deal with. Instead, using Frank Mentzer as an intermediary, I passed all manner of questions to him on computer print-outs. He would mark them up long-hand, and I would incorporate his comments. As I started bringing all the disparate notes and articles together, I asked a lot of questions about the design philosophy behind the new spells. I would ask “why” a certain spell would function this way, and how it would affect other spells, and Gary would reply “It’s magic!” in a marginal note.

One thing that Gary was not responsible for was the inclusion of his infamous pole arm article in the book. That was my bright idea, and he was not sure about it. I take the blame for that one. I also reached out to Roger Moore and incorporated his non-human divinity articles as well.
Ed’s material was extremely verbose – most of the “Elminister’s notes” in the original Grey Box we pulled directly from his notes. He would type single-space, using infinitely thin margins, and occasionally cut out a section and paste it in another place. This was just as desk-top-publishing was getting started, and part of his initial payment for the Realms was a Macintosh with two floppy disk drives. Later we got him a hard-drive as well. All of this was typewritten, and his typewriter was not always the best, so he hand-drew the “t”s on his page after he finished, so it looked like a little graveyard.

5. So you're responsible for the polearms appendix? Do you recall why you wanted to include it? (I ask this as someone who's glad it's there, because, as a younger person, I wasn't as knowledgeable on the fine gradations of polearms as my older peers.)

I had similar reasons for reaching for the older article. Back when the Players Handbook was new, we had this full listing of all manner of pole arms, with no explanation what they looked like. Researching, I found there were different names in different sources, and the article pulled it all together in an "official" version. So now we have an idea of what a Bohemian Ear Spoon looked like. I regret nothing. 


  1. Thank you for this interview. Jeff Grubb has always seemed to be one of the nicest and funniest person in our hobby. I still love his Forgotten Realms comics.

  2. That's a great interview. I also found the polearm article very useful, and glad to hear the story about how it got included.

    How do you go about conducting these interviews? Do you send each question one at a time through email or is it through a call/video-conference?