[Interview] Jeff Grubb – Part 1 – The TSR years

I „met“ Jeff via facebook and after a brief chat he was willing to answer some questions – here they are:

(I hope it was okay to steal the pic from Jeff’s blog.)

@deutsche Fassung: Ja, die kommt, wenn ich die beiden Teile der englischen Fassung fertig habe und etwas Zeit zum Übersetzen hatte…)


1. While working for TSR – which other authors and designers were your closest contacts? Are you still in contact with any of the guys from his part of your career?
– TSR was based Lake Geneva, a small resort town just north of the Illinois/Wisconsin border, smack dab in the middle of miles of farmland. So ALL of the designer and editors were pretty close, given that we were the closest thing to a counterculture there. Steven Schend was my next door neighbor, Warren Spector lived down the street, Margaret Weis lived in a converted barn in a nearby town, Monte and Sue Cook lived in a renovated church about three blocks away, and Bruce Cordell lived in their basement (that sounds worse than it was – it was a very NICE basement).
– That said, there was a time when the designers were brought down to five – Bruce Nesmith, Tracy Hickman, Doug Niles, Zeb Cook, and myself. We were the core designers at that point, and I’ve always felt close to them, Tracy in particular.
– Still talk to many of the old gang – the Internet helps greatly. I’d add to that list Ed Greenwood, who never was part of the Lake Geneva Gaming Mafia, but remains a close friend.

2. How influential would you rate your work on the Forgotten Realms? Did you work hand in hand with Ed Greenwood or did you just work with his creation? Does he really resemble Elminster?
– I always say that Ed is the architect of the Realms, I’m just the engineer. The Realms are first and foremost his creation, and predate D&D itself. My role was to translate his work into a usable and playable setting for games and books. He’s the superhero, I’m the sidekick.
– By the same token, I was the smart alec who suggested we talk to Ed about Faerun in the first place, so you can blame me for it as well.
– I worked extensively with Ed in the early days of the Realms. Ed would send these heavily-shrink-wrapped manuscript pages, which I would edit and feed into our master files. We had frequent phone calls (he lives in Canada) to coordinate as the Realms evolved (these were in pre-Internet days). The era I am most proud of goes from the original grey box to the publication of the Forgotten Realms Adventure hardback, and most reflects that cooperation.
– Ed does resemble Elminster, the moreso since his hair has grown silver. His favorite character in the Realms, however, remains Mirt.

3. How does one have the absolutely crazy idea for a setting like „Spelljammer“?
– At a bar, of course. Spelljammer (and the DL project “Time of the Dragons”) came out of a brainstorming session at Augie’s, a restaurant in Lake Geneva (the waitstaff, overhearing our conversation, thought we were from Hollywood, and that Warren Spector was Steven Spielberg). It started with an image – a knight in full armor standing on the deck of a ship in space. That became the cover, and the rest is hysteria.
– We really wanted to push the envelope on what was “traditional fantasy”, which was a common criticism of TSR’s work. So when it came to doing the ships, I gave the artist, Jim Holloway a free hand in initial ship designs. Then Dave S LaForce (Diesel) and I would figure out what the deck plans would be like. We liked all of Jim’s Beholder ships, so we ended up using them all.
– Of course, I discovered after publication that all we did was expand the definition of “traditional fantasy”. Apparently anything that TSR did was considered “traditional” since we defined what fantasy adventure was for that era.

4. I can’t imagine writing a novel with my wife. You did so – and quite successfully. Were there constant fights? How did it work?
– I really enjoyed working with Kate on our six novels. Originally, I had planned on writing Azure Bonds on my own, but started to explain the plot to Kate on a drive to nearby Milwaukee. By the time I reached Milwaukee, I had gained a co-writer and one of the original characters had changed gender (something that happens in a lot of my work – a character we originally think of as male become female – Ashnod, Varesh Ossa, Kormir, and Jora were all originally slotted as being male characters).
– Our working arrangement helped a lot. We would hammer out the initial plot between the two of us, a very tight plot, broken down into chapters. I would handle the initial draft, since I wrote more quickly of the two. Kate would be lead on the final turnover, and we would both handle requested revisions.
– When we were plotting, we would go to new restaurants to discuss the book, so that if we got into an argument, we would simply never go back to that restaurant again. That did not happen, but again, a lot of waitstaff got all sorts of strange ideas who we were.

5. You novel „Lord Toede“ has a rather strange main character and some really funny moments surprise the reader who thinks he’s reading the typical Dragonlance novel of the era. Why was there only one novel? I’d have thought it’s material for a series or at least a trilogy.
– I had created Lord Toede back in the day as a minor villain that I expected to show up once in the DL series and never be seen again. TSR editor Pat McGilligan, encouraged by Margaret Weis, called me and asked if I was interested in writing a novel based on him. I checked up on what we had done with him since the first book and I called Pat back.

“He’s dead” I said.
“Dead?” said Pat.
“You killed him in a short story about two years ago.” I said.

There was a pause, and Pat said, “Can you work with that?”

So I worked with that, and ended up creating a book that was two parts Blackadder and two parts Road Runner cartoon. While DL has always had a humorous component (Gully Dwarves, Gnomes), this was the first “funny” Dragonlance novel.
– Every so often there is interest in a new Toede novel, and I keep a pitch in my back pocket if WotC is interested. But there is always a major project on my end or a reorg on their end that derails it and it never happens.

6. Judging by your work on the Marvel Super Heroes system and the AD&D comics, I imagine you read a lot of comics in your spare time. Are there any authors or illustrators that have inspired you?
– I read comics as a kid, dropped out, then dropped back in when I was in college with Marvel titles like the Star Wars adaptations and Howard the Duck. So the influences from that era were Roger Stern, John Byrne, and Chris Clairemont (this was just when the entire X-Men engine was just getting started). And I loved Roy Thomas’s way of handling continuity in an expanding creative universe.
– That said, I also discovered at that time the “ground-levels” – Elfquest (Wendy and Richard Pini) and Cerebus (Dave Sim and Gerhard). I remain impressed that, for a self-declared misogynist, Sim created some of the best, most well-rounded female characters in comics.
– These days, I would send everyone to Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio. Go read this.

7. How about writing an unofficial sequel to „Maze of the Riddling Minotaur“, my favorite D&D -module? An adventure with a Hellenistic background might be a huge success nowadays.
– “Maze” was one of my first published game projects, the other being “Burned Bush Wells” for Boot Hill. It was a magic-marker module (a yellow pen reveals hidden text), so it not often seen anymore (the markers dried out).
– Were I to do a Hellenistic module, I would probably connect the Greek city states with the Dwarves, and in talking to Wolf Baur over at Open Design, he’s picked up some of this for his recent Dwarf projects.

8. While working on the Planescape setting did you draw on ideas that were left out in the Manual of Planes or were these treated as totally different projects with different backgrounds?
– I wrote the original MotP, which other writers (Zeb and Monte) expanded into a full and independent campaign setting. They used the planar arrangement as a base, the built out from there. I had put the big spike in the middle of the Concordant Opposition, Zeb put the city of Sigil on top of it. Planescape used a lot of cool stuff already established (Modrons, layers, the Great Wheel, gates) and added a lot more cool stuff on top of it (Gate Towns, the Blood Wars, the Modron march, the “philosophers with clubs”).

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