Interview: Jeff Grubb

2012-Feb-15 -> from the 29-days-of-fantasy department Tags:

There are few things more joyous in a blogger's career than scoring that one big interview with somebody you really look up to and respect. Jeff Grubb is one of those people to me. As a pen & paper role player of almost twenty years, and a huge Magic: The Gathering fan, it would have been hard not to come into contact with some of Jeff's work at some point. If I did an inventory of all my books and role playing materials, I would find Jeff's name on more than one thing. Author, Game Designer, this guy does it all!

I'd like to thank both Jeff Grubb, for agreeing to do this interview with me, and J. Robert King, for hooking me up with Jeff. It is indeed a small world we live in these days. You both have my most sincere gratitude.

Hi Jeff, and welcome to my interview!

First things first, I'd like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions. I understand how busy you can be, especially with a family and so many other things going on in your life. I really appreciate this.

TAK: When I mention your name to people, I get mixed reactions. Some know you from the Magic: The Gathering novels, and some from Spelljammer, and still others don't know you at all. So tell me a little bit about yourself, who are you, and what do you do?

JG: I am gaming's utility infielder (in Britain, the phrase is all-rounder). I am very versatile, and do a lot of different things, and as a result you see my name in a lot of places.

The not-so-short-form runs like this -- I was born in Pittsburgh, PA, graduated from Purdue University with a BSCE, worked for a year as a structural engineer and was laid off. I designed a large chunk of the D&D Open for the 1982 GenCon, and on the strength of that was hired by TSR. I was one of the co-founders (with Tracy Hickman and others) of the Dragonlance, campaign setting, one of the co-creators (with Ed Greenwood) of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, and the designer/co-creator (with Steve Winter) of the Marvel Super Heroes RPG, and design consultant on both the original MM II and Unearthed Arcana. I also was the primary designer of the Spelljammer and Al-Qadim campaign settings. I left TSR to go freelance for a while, then moved out to join WotC. Co-designed D20 Modern (with Bill Slavicsek), and the Star Wars Miniatures game (with Jonathan Tweet and others -- you may see a pattern shaping up -- I play well with others).

I have also written sixteen novels, all of them in shared worlds -- FR novels with my wife Kate, and then with Ed, a funny Dragonlance novel, and the foundation novels of the Magic:The Gathering relaunch, as well as books for Starcraft, Warcraft, Guild Wars, and (coming soon) Star Wars. There is also a host of short stories, comics, and shorter game product in all this as well.

I have made the leap over into the computer game industry, and for the past five years have been working for ArenaNet, the makers of the Guild Wars online game. I was the lore/continuity designer for the Nightfall and Eye of the North projects, and am doing the same for the upcoming Guild Wars 2.

The upshot of all this is that when someone says "I like your work", I have to ask what particular work they are talking about.

TAK: Over the course of twentyish years of gaming, I've learned how hard it can be to come up with compelling stories and interesting worlds. You've helped build some of the greatest shared worlds in tabletop gaming history. Where do you get your inspiration for this material?

JG: It varies according to the project. For Spelljammer, all of the "Grubbian physics" come from a single image -- I wanted a guy in plate mail to be standing on the deck of a ship in space, and not blow up, freeze, or suffocate. All the stuff about gravity planes and air bubbles comes from that image. Further, an old woodcut image, showing a traveler breaking through the walls of the world to show the celestial mechanics behind it was an inspiration for the crystal spheres.

In the Forgotten Realms, the battle-cry was "Everything from your home campaign in 1976". Early D&D was omnivorous, pulling things up from everywhere without paying much attention to cultural origins or history. In the Realms, that was part of the point, and one of the reasons it adopted previously published work like the Lost Tomb of Martek and we drained part of a Glacier for the Bloodstone series of modules.

Sometimes the inspiration could be a mechanic. For D20 Modern, as opposed to creating a Fighter class, we went with the Strong Hero that we could then meld into a lot of different roles within the world.

For the Brothers' War, I treated it as archeology. I had all the cards from the Antiquity's set, so how did they fit together? What story made all these cards and their flavor text make sense? On the Ice Age trilogy, I interviewed the original designers to see what their intentions were when they built the cards, and what I should avoid or change. I had the incredible advantage in these books in that the works they were based one were already published, and took full advantage of it.

TAK: Since Wizards of the Coast bought TSR, Dungeons & Dragons has gone through a metamorphosis. You helped design some of the original material for Dungeons & Dragons way back when it was first created by Gary Gygax. Do you like the direction that Wizards has gone with the game? What do you think of their approach with the design of the fifth edition of the game?

JG: I was the design consultant of Unearthed Arcana and Monster Manual II. I don't think of those projects as what was "first created" for D&D -- for me that would be the three little books in the woodgrain box and the first three hardbacks, all of which were published before I became a TSR designer. But it is a good place to look at the evolution of D&D.

The original D&D was designed for a tabletop wargamer audience, and has a lot of embedded assumptions within it. Modern gamers are stunned by how opaque it is to the novice. The early red/blue boxes were an attempt to smooth that out for a broader audience, and were boxes primarily because the polyhedral dice were not commonplace in the market. The AD&D (first edition) hardbacks reflect in part an attempt to be definitive. Second Ed was in part to collapse and codify everything learned from 1st edition, plus tailoring it more towards a book trade. Third had all the wires are out in the open where you could monkey with them, but they are all connected, so pulling one string affected three other things. Fourth was a self-contained, solid-state box, and made use of the fact that the owning company had a lot more resources available than TSR ever had (Cards! Plastic! The Internet! This is stuff we would kill for back in the early 80s).

I like all the versions, by the way (Well, maybe not "2.5" -- never warmed to the Player Option books). This past summer we wrapped up a 4E campaign run from 0 to Max level, probably the longest I've run a single character (Emjar Dwim, an Eladrin Warlord). Each edition has its strengths.

I cannot speak to the new edition, except to say that the team has already written a very large check -- All D&D Editions beneath one roof. I am concerned that I have seen a lot of comment on the net along the lines of "Congratulations on revising D&D -- here are my non-negotiable demands". The only advice I can give is that each major edition change had strong reasons (from a design side as well as marketing one) to improve the earlier editions. Looking at what drove those editions forward will help shape the next iteration.

TAK: You're a busy guy. What can you tell my readers about what you are currently working on?

JG: My day job is as a content designer for ArenaNet for the upcoming Guild Wars 2 game. Ree Soesbee and I are the "Lore and Continuity" designers responsible for world-building in a dynamic creative setting. On the outside world, I am currently going through the page proofs for my first Star Wars novel: Scourge, which is slated for release at the end of April. I also help out Wolfgang Baur and Kobold Quarterly reviewing articles, and contributed a small piece on the Grand Duchy of Dornig for Open Design's Midgard campaign setting.

TAK: It must be hard being immersed in fantasy worlds all the time. What do you do when you need to get away from it all?

JG: I read. Histories mostly -- I just finished a biography of Moliere, and am in the middle of a book on the War of 1812 and Norm Davies' Vanished Kingdoms, which I got for Christmas in its British edition. Also reading a collection of HPLovecraft literary criticisms, which are interesting as they seek to define what is truly Lovecraftian and what is not, and what Lovecraft really meant by "Yog-Sothery" (Edition Warriors may see some similarities here). When I read fiction I tend to read more modern genre writers (Paolo Bacigalupi, China Mieville) or new takes on old classics (GRR Martin's collection of Dying Earth stories, or the Cthulhu/Holmes mash-up of Shadows Over Baker Street).

I have a pile of books next to bed, so the Lovely Bride got me a bookcase. Now I have a full bookcase AND a pile of books next to the bed.

The Lovely Bride and I also do Tai Chi, and I have a weak spot for cooking shows.

TAK: You've been involved with lots of different role playing games over the years. Which one is your favourite to actually play?

JG: Call of Cthulhu. We have a semi-regular (about twice a month) session with a rotating GM -- we will dip into old school D&D and EPT on occasion (We're doing some D&D Cyclopedia games right now), but always come back to Cthulhu. Most of the gang are other published professionals, and we have a good time.

TAK: If you could have any one ability, from any character class that you've ever developed, what would it be, and why?

JG: The Charismatic Hero from d20 Modern has the ability to Dazzle -- to lower your opponent's resistances and saving throws through charm and fast talk. Yeah, I could use that ability some days -- I have to make do with logic.

TAK: Okay, enough about the gaming. You're also a writer, and a darn good one. I'll be honest, I'm a fan. I've played Magic: The Gathering since the very early days, and it was your writing in "The Brothers' War" that got me really hooked on the books. What was it like being such a critical part of that massive story line?

JG: The Brothers' War was the first novel in the SECOND attempt to novelize MTG. The first was a series of books licensed to Harper Collins, which had a card giveaway (One of the early authors made the wincible public statement -- "I wrote the gum that came with the card"). There was a lot of pressure to create a story that would be reflective to the nature of Magic: The Gathering itself.

TAK: How much creative influence did you have on that original storyline? I know that WotC already had the story somewhat developed. Did they let you take creative license with any of it?

JG: They had a plot that was written and partially published in comic book form, which the world team (Scott McGough and Daneen McDermott) cheerfully let me ignore or embrace at my leisure. The biggest change that they endorsed was changing Ashnod's gender. Ashnod was named after Dave "Snark" Howell (first two letters of each name), and was established as being Mishra's apprentice (Tawnos was Urza's). However, four main male characters was a pain, so I flipped Ashnod's gender, which a) made her more interesting, b) changed the relationships she had with Tawnos and Mishra and c) we never said Ashnod was NOT a woman.

I also laced the story with more than enough easter eggs from the original cards as I could get away with. I think I missed a couple artifacts, but I was using the cards as my ur-text. I always ran under the assumption that these things really existed -- my job was just explaining them.

TAK: Urza was at some times a hero, other times a madman, and still others he verged on villain. Is it hard to capture the essence of a character with so many dimensions?

JG: I had the advantage of working with Urza at a time when 1) He was a young man, and 2) Our understanding of his character was young. I got to lay all the groundwork that let others (like Rob King) go forward in his character's development. And, because of the presence of their apprentices Tawnos and Ashnod, I got a chance to establish the brothers fairly positively at the start, then pull away from them, leaving both of the brothers a mystery at the end. By the end of the book we're pulling for Tawnos and Ashnod, but Urza and Mishra are figures distanced from us by their own accomplishments, decisions, and talents. We don't know WHAT they are thinking.

And this was intentional. My book editor, Peter Archer, lent me a copy of Gore Vidal's Lincoln to get the idea across --Lincoln is at the center of the book, but you never really get inside his mind.

One more thing -- I had no idea when I finished Brothers' War where the characters would go. I didn't even know for sure if Mishra was alive or not. I just laid out the foundation and let others build, which is a cool thing about working in shared worlds.

TAK: I know you've written books besides just the M:tG series; do you have a favourite out of all the books you've written?

JG: I've said this before, but I HATE what I've written for a couple years after it has published. I look at my work and see the compromises and shortcuts and scar tissue of earlier drafts. Then, after at least a year, I can read it again, and finally I get it into my brain that it was, if not the world-stopping best novel in the world (and why NOT give a Nobel to a shared-world author?) it was pretty darn good.

I enjoy my old books for various reasons. The FR books with Kate, who fearlessly revises me. Cormyr with Ed, who wrote this one section, a fly-through of a second-story restaurant in Arabel that didn't belong in the book at all but was SO GOOD I couldn't bear to part with it. The realpolitik thuggishness in Liberty's Crusade. The foreshadowing in Ghosts of Ascalon for the game we're still working on. I work from a very tight outline, and am amused and pleased when things suddenly go a completely different direction in writing. One major character in Ghosts was slated to die in the early drafts, but when it came time to kill him, he had done such a great job endearing himself, I couldn't do it.

But if I had a favorite (this week), it would be Lord Toede, a book that got me into trouble with the Dragonlance Community at a time when they thought of me as "that FR Guy", and didn't know the stuff I had done on DL (gods, gnomes, yaddayadda). There was a thread of "Jeff Grubb must die" on one of the message boards (this was the week of the Oklahoma City bombing, so I was concerned). Margaret, bless her heart, got on-line and said that she thought the book was fun, and as a result the crying for my head died down. But Lord Toede was my attempt to do a balls-out funny book, two parts Roadrunner cartoon and two parts Black Adder. And I pulled it off. Every so often someone at WotC contacts me about a sequel, I tell them I have an idea for a sequel, and then they shuffle the staff and it gets forgotten about.

TAK: So, one last question for you. There are probably thousands of gamers out there that would love to get into full-time game design. Do you have any advice for these people on how to break into the industry? Is there a future for people who want to do pen and paper game design?

JG: My general advice is "Flee! Flee, you fools!" Every writer has his own path, and they rarely synch up into anything that resembles a coherent life plan. I am a civil engineer who got into the business through designing the AD&D Open one year. Tracy Hickman was selling unlicensed D&D adventures (Ravenloft, to be precise). Doug Niles was Heidi Gygax's teacher. Bruce Nesmith was hired to work on a D&D computer product that was canceled before he arrived.

I think the changes to the industry (including desk-top publishing, PDFs, and the OGL) have made it easier to get published than ever. However, with a lack of gatekeepers, it is a lot harder to stand out. We may see RPGs going more to the traditional publishing model, where there will be established shared worlds (We need an FR adventure!" says a voice on the phone) and original creations ("Dear sir, Attached please find my proposal for a new sourcebook using the D&DNext system" says your cover letter). In both cases, the content creators will not be in the same building as the content publishers, unless they are one in the same.

And, like writers in the publishing industry, there will be a few who make an affordable living on their work, but the majority will not quit their day jobs, even if they are well-known in the industry. It is a hobby industry that concentrates on being a hobby, not an industry.

TAK: Thank you so much Jeff, for all the time you've taken to answer my questions. I really appreciate it.

JG: Thank you!

I know, it's long, but well received from me. I enjoyed Jeff's responses.

Thanks again to Jeff Grubb and J. Robert King for making this happen. You guys are great.

Thanks for reading!

I'm always interested in hearing what you have to say. Contact Me, I'd love to hear from you.

Don't forget to join in on the conversation in the comments section below.

3 Comments(1 Pending Approval):

By jhansonxi on Wed 15 Feb 2012 08:53:35 pm [ Reply ] An interesting interview. Now I know who to blame for SJ (which my GM is still trying to convert for 3.5 - it's a real mess).

By Michael K on Thu 16 Feb 2012 01:42:36 pm [ Reply ] Hah! I came here to read an interview about gaming design, and see an old friend (Ree Soesbee) mentioned. Hah!

By Elevate on Fri 17 Feb 2012 12:19:24 am [ Reply ] That was awesome to read! Thank you Jeff for doing this interview.

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