Friday, August 21, 2020

Interview: Jeff Grubb (Part II)

 6. You were in charge of design and development on the original Forgotten Realms boxed set. What was it like to pore over Ed Greenwood's pages of notes and turn them into a publishable product?

I reached out to Ed, who had previously published articles about the Realms in DRAGON magazine. He started mailing me the material from his campaign is massively-over-wrapped packages (there is a thick Canadian cellophane he used that could duplicate window replacements in strength, and my office-mates would hear me spending five minutes just unwrapping them). Soon we worked out a system using the new FedEx, which made things easier, but otherwise we depending on US and Canadian Post, and the border agents.

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.

For his maps, he hauled them down to the library where he worked and photocopied them in pieces. The original Realms map was 24 8x11 pieces of paper that I had to reassemble. I colored in the coastlines, forests, and major trade routes with high-lighters and hung in on the wall outside my office. Alex Kammer of GameHole Con has that version now.

7. A number of changes were made both to the map and content of the Forgotten Realms, such as the enlargement of the Moonshae Isles and the inclusion of Vaasa and Damara. Was the decision to do that yours or was suggested by others at TSR? 

Back at the time, we had a number of projects already published or en route while we worked on the FR Grey Box. We wanted the Realms to be a place where you could put just about everything, and I made it a goal to show how we could do it. We changed the maps accordingly. The H-Series had two products out, and we drained part of the Great Glacier for Vaasa and Damara. Doug Niles had a half-written novel for a cancelled project, so we adopted it for the first Realms novel. The Desert of Desolation series found a home after being orphaned for a while, and also Under Illefarn, which made it into the Realms. Oh, and Ten Towns was in the far Northwest, because most of the northern border had other people working in it. For the first couple years, I had the various areas marked as one person or another working in it, and if you went there, you should double-check. Ed, of course, had dibs on the Dales, Cormyr, and Waterdeep.

8. Of course, you're probably most well known for having designed both editions of the Marvel Super Heroes RPG for TSR. How did you land that particular job?

This one has three origin stories:

In college, we had wrapped up a major D&D quest, and rather than starting a new campaign in Toril (the name of my campaign), I suggested a superhero game. From there we started playing with “the Junior Achievers”, the JA branch of the Avengers (the was before the West Coast Avengers and other subsidiary teams). The players were characters like The Beacon, Big Man on Campus, and Super-Pin, the Pro-Bowler of Steel. They fought crime in West Lafayette, Indiana, usually battling against some Marvel Villain on the lam from NYC. I called it Project: Marvel Comics.

When I got to TSR, management asked for “Blue Sky Projects” that we would like to work on. I presented the idea for a very grimdark cyberpunk settings (some parts of that got in the FREELancers setting for Top Secret SI). The proposal may have frightened people, because they came back and said, “What else you got?” And I had Project: Marvel Comics from my college years.

It still may not have happened as a game, but in the GenCon booklet for that year, Mayfair Games announced THEY were doing a Marvel Super Heroes game. Our people saw that and contacted Marvel, who said, no, there was no deal, but was TSR interested? And that is how we got the license. It was great working with Marvel. Mayfair turned around and got the DC license, and also did a Marvel Super Heroes calendar, which reprinted the text from a calendar 11 years previously (which is why the text on the calendar has so many Dick Nixon jokes).

9. How much did Marvel assist you in the creating and supporting the game? Obviously, they provided lots of art resources, but did they offer any other assistance?

Marvel was incredibly supportive both from a standpoint of approvals and getting us art. They had a warehouse across the river with all of the original art, and every month or so, they would send someone over to get us photostats of what we needed. We also got original art by John Byrne for some of our modules. On the back of one page, he sketched out alternate TSR Logos. I don't have that piece, alas.

Marvel was very accommodating about letting us know what they had in the works as well, trusting we would not spill the beans. And they double-checked everything - there was an issue of Marvel Age, their fan magazine, in which they mentioned an editor looking for the Russian translation of "Crimson Dynamo" for us.

One interesting thing: we did the Gamer's Handbook of the Marvel Universe (we called them the phone books, since they were the same size as the Lake Geneva Yellow Pages), with the idea we could just get all their text off their computers. As it turned out, none of the text from the original Official Handbooks of the Marvel Universe had been saved, so we input all the text, then shared the files back to Marvel.

10. Is there a product or products for Marvel Super Heroes that you're particularly proud of?

I hate choosing a favorite child, but I really liked how Murderworld! turned out - pitting Arcade versus the Fantastic Four. I always likes Arcade as a baddie: "Instant androids, Love 'em!"

11. The last time we chatted, you were employed by Amazon Game Studio as Senior Narrative Designer. What does that job entail and are you working on any projects you can share with us? 

I have been the Senior Narrative Designer on the recently-released Crucible project. In that role, I have overseen the text and voice-over for the game. I have to write, or at least review, all the words on the screen and the characters speak. I have been aided by our other talented narrative designers, and together we create a backstory for the world and the personal history of the hunters you play. We help select the voices you hear and oversee the recording. I am still world-building, but now it on a much bigger screen.

12. Do you still play RPGs these days and, if so, which ones?

I am still playing twice a week (now over Discord as we are all living in solitude), and have a band of usual suspects. We usually run Call of Cthulhu with a rotating Keeper – right now I am running Masks of Nyarlathotepand they just finished the Nairobi chapter. Veteran editor Steve Winter, who worked on MSH with me all those years ago, runs a D&D 5E game of Forbidden Caverns of Archaia on Monday nights. I still read RPGs voraciously, and have had the chance to learn Blades in the Dark from a co-worker at Amazon.