Each week, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
Before I went to work at TSR, I’d met a handful of the designers and editors at conventions or RPGA events, but not Jeff Grubb. Oh, I’d seen him on a panel or two, but I’d never worked up the nerve to approach him. Alone among the designers of TSR, he intimidated me. You see, I was a Jeff Grubb fanboy.
His name appeared on some of my favorite unconventional game products, like the Manual of the Planes, Spelljammer, and the then-recently released Al-Qadim, which vied for Ravenloft and Oriental Adventures as my favorite D&D setting. But where he’d really impressed me was with the Forgotten Realms comic and the Alias novels, the first of which, Curse of the Azure Bonds, made me think game tie-ins could also be terrific novels.
Jeff maintains my devotion by being one of the several members of the Alliterates who always make time for a few pints when I’m in town, and because he follows my lead in hat fashion.
1. I probably never told you that Azure Bonds was the book that made me realize that game tie-in fiction could be really good. Looking back on those characters, what do you think set them apart from those we were used to seeing in tie-in fiction?
I think part of it was that we didn’t know any better. We weren’t trying to write tie-in fiction so much as we were trying to write fiction. Our models were Tolkien, Twain, and Wodehouse (the Wyvernspurs are very close to the Woosters).
But another component was the fact that we did not have major characters that we had to write to. In those first years we were all pitching characters and concepts hard and heavy—we didn’t have to write about a particular character from the movies or earlier books. You look at the early strata of the Realms, and you see a wide variety of characters, and would be hard-pressed to say at the outset that this dark elf supporting character was going to be the break-out star.
2. You are also one of the folks who really turned me on to kung fu movies with your Mad Monkey vs. Dragon Claw module. In your fiction and game design, where else do you draw inspiration from other media (like Chop Sockey movies)?
Ah, Mad Monkey. I was so the wrong person to be assigned that one. Here’s the tale: In those days, we had to lay out the entire year’s publishing in advance, which often meant giving titles for projects before we knew what was going into them. One of the titles was Mad Monkey vs. the Dragon Claw. I had no idea what that meant and, once I drew that in my queue, campaigned to change it. Jim Ward, our boss, not only refused, he told the upper management that I really wanted that title and would resign if they changed it. No, really. Thanks, Jim.
But, rising to the challenge, I corralled some of Zeb Cook’s old martial arts films and watched a lot of “Kung Fu Theatre” late in the evenings. Since I had already done a more traditional adventure with Ochimo: The Spirit Warrior, I was able to throw in some more of the outrageous nature of the genre without fear. It was trying to ape the vibe of an old Run Run Shaw film.
That one was a case where I was looking at a particular genre, but I more often like to pull from multiple sources when I’m working on a project. Al-Qadim has a lot of the historical Middle East in it but also has the Arabian Nights as written by Burton and the version as understood by Americans, Harryhausen films and Sinbad. I really like to delve into the histories when I’m working on something; there are reasons things are the way they are, and I like uncovering them and presenting them in a new light.
3. After Lord Toede and the Forgotten Realms comic, you’d firmly established yourself as one of the funniest writers in the genre. Have you ever felt a danger of being typecast as the funny guy? Or do you welcome the recognition of one of your talents?
Absolutely. I did not want to be (just) the Funny Guy, which is one reason that my novels after Toede, like The Brother’s War, were of a more serious, epic vein. Yeah, there were funny bits and characters, but it wasn’t the hijinx capers that I presented earlier. So there is a lot of swinging back and forth between madcap and serious in my work, but even my serious stuff has a lot of human nature and amusement in it.
4. You’ve been writing for video games for quite a while. How does the process differ from your years at TSR?
It is more crowded, and you are less in control. Even with large projects at TSR you had a small team: you, maybe a co-writer, an editor, maybe an artist that had already been assigned, and what playtesters you could round up. That was because we were doing so much product that everyone had their own projects and their own strengths.
In a video game we’re looking at a much larger team—everything you see on the screen is there because someone sweats bullets to put it there. As a result there are many voices in the mix. Concept art comes in at an earlier place in the process, and the limitations of the programming will often determine what you can and cannot do within a computer game. Plus, changes can be made in the middle of the game that require continual piecemeal revisions—you never really get to say “there, we’re done,” particularly now that DLC and updates allows us to create ongoing stories in the computer space.
5. You’re one of the few writers I know who’s done successful collaborations, notably with your wife, Kate Novak, and recently with Matt Forbeck. What are the perils and advantages of collaborating?
Big advantage? You are not alone. Big disadvantage? Ditto.
Each of my novel collaborations has been different. Working with Kate was working together every step of the way. We would go to new restaurants to discuss plot because if we then had a big argument about it, we would just never go back to that restaurant again (and yeah, some of the wait staff overheard very odd statements, like “Okay, you’ve reanimated the body. Now what?”)
Working with Ed Greenwood on Cormyr, we had a very strong initial plot that broken into past and present arcs. I took the history, while Ed wrote the present-day scenes. Then we switched and rewrote each other. The editor in charge said after his initial review, “This is much better than I had any right to expect.”
As part of the Guild Wars 2 team, I was part of the initial plotting with Matt on Ghosts of Ascalon but was not originally an official writer. Matt was working long-distance as the ground was still changing underneath him for an as-of-then-unpublished game. I came in after a number of drafts to bring his vision together with that of the company’s.
Each was a different situation and a different process. And if I do another team-up, I’ll probably deal with it in a different way.
You can follow Jeff’s blog at Grubb Street.