A Word in Edgewise… with Jeff Grubb

By Cape Rust

From bi-pedal hippos to guild wars, Jeff Grubb has been working in the role-playing and computer game industries for over 30 years. Mr. Grubb has worked with THE greats in the RPG world including Ed Greenwood, Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. His novel Azure Bonds became the successful computer game Curse of the Azure Bonds by SSI. He has written comic book adaptations of D&D and The Forgotten Realms as well as books supporting Magic The Gathering, WarCraft, StarCraft and Guild Wars. Jeff Grubb is working on the upcoming release of Guild Wars 2. He is a regular contributor to Kobold Quarterly and his first Star Wars novel entitled Scourge be released at the end of March.  Mr. Grubb has lent us some of his valuable time to answer a few questions about gaming and a few personal questions to boot.

1. You are married to your high-school sweetheart and co-author, Kate Novak. How did you meet?

We met in high school swimming class, but we didn’t start dating until we were in college, and I brought this strange game back from Purdue – Dungeon & Dragons. We would gather over at her mom’s house for many of our sessions – her best character was Heidi the Paladin.

2. In this current time of economic uncertainty with the unemployment epidemic, do you remember how you felt and what you were thinking when you became a victim of the cutbacks at your civil engineering job in the early 80s?

Let’s see, I graduated from Purdue University in 1979 with a BS in Civil Engineering (“There is nothing civil about engineering”). Got a job as a structural engineer for a company called Wheelabrator-Frye making air pollution equipment. Soon afterwards the federal government determined that they really didn’t need to enforce environmental regulations, and orders dropped off, and we lost about a quarter of the company, including me. (That’s right – blame/credit Reagan). Unemployment in Pittsburgh was tough (no jobs) as well as survivable (good safety net – you had to go pick up your checks, and I got to know the other unemployed on a regular basis – we talked a lot about working in the mills and growing tomatoes).

Now, about that time, one of my friends from the local D&D group had volunteered us to write the AD&D Open for GenCon (that’s another story), and I suddenly was the one that had time in the schedule to organize and write it. On the strength of that design (and weekly phone calls to TSR), I was hired to work in Lake Geneva full time. So it all worked out.

3. If you were on death row, what would you request as a last meal and why?

Deep dish stuffed pizza from the Original Chicago Pizza Parlor in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. All of it spinach and garlic, half of it sausage. Kate and I would order one and then take it down to the Game Guild, Margaret Weis’s game store, and play Scrabble in one of the booths there.

4. As far as your body of work goes, what are you most proud of?

True fact – I can’t stand most of my work for 1d6 years after I’m done with it. I look at it during that time and see all the compromises and changes and editorial scar tissue. After that I get positively mellow about it as I forget what I originally intended and can be happy with what I finally created.

With that in mind, here are a few of the many things I am proud of.  The Universal Table for Marvel Super Heroes. The random monster tables for the first Monster Manual II (they used a d8 and a d12, creating a flattened bell curve). The raw, wahoo creativity of Spelljammer still amuses me, as does the sense of wonder we created with Al Qadim. As far as novels, The Brothers War holds up, and the Starcraft (Libertys Crusade) and Warcraft (The Last Guardian) books are still good. And I have finally decided that Nightfall and Eye of the North, my GW projects, were actually pretty good after all.

5. Conversely, what would you change or redo if you could?

My regrets are pretty minor. I wouldn’t have let a designer put battleship guns on the Rock of Bral. I would have demurred from the inter-species romance thread in Eye of the North (A norn decides you would make an ideal husband/wife). I would have finished that Gangbuster Module based on the 1919 Black Sox scandal. I would have kept the Great Wheel as a central part of the 3E mythos as opposed to presenting it as an option in the revised Manual of the Planes (in the words of one reviewer “Here is a wonderful cosmology – please don’t use it”).  I would have salvaged that piece of Tim Truman art from my first D&D module that the company ended up throwing away. I wouldn’t have put in the “Hobbit” reference in Lord Toede. Nothing that keeps me up nights.

6. Who is your favorite author?

What day is it? Let me keep it to authors I would read again. Tolkien, of course, but Twain is on my Kindle. Lovecraft but more so Clark Ashton Smith. I discovered Jack Vance in detail only in the last decade and find his Dying Earth enchanting. Raymond Chandler (who had a great opening paragraph in Red Wind). Harlan Ellison. Frank Herbert for Dune, Roger Zelazny for Nine Princes in Amber. P.G.Wodehouse’s “Jeeves” stories. For the “moderns” – I will always read William Gibson in hardback, and for a while I trailed off on China Mieville, then recently read The City and the City and am reading his work again.

7. How did you feel when you saw your first novel (co-written with your wife), Azure Bonds, come to life as a computer game?

Pleased, though it was always, in my mind, two distinct projects, since they didn’t start thinking about the computer game until after we had finished the novel. Curse of the Azure Bonds is interesting in that you can see how we took the premise of the novel and transferred it over to an RPG setting. I think George MacDonald and his crew did a great job. Truth to be told, I playtested it, but once it came out, I did not play it, since I wrote everything at the time on a Mac.

8. You have made the transition between writing for pen and pencil RPGs and computer games where others have failed. What do you attribute that success to?

I’d quibble with the initial assumption, though it was true for many years. A lot of RPG professionals are now involved in computer games these days. Zeb Cook and Lawrence Schick are at ZeniMax, Bruce Nesmith is at Bethesda, Dave Noonan is over at En Masse, Jonathan Tweet is doing social games for Amazon, and we have Bob Salvatore as one of the creative forces at 38 Studios.

All this makes sense since a lot of computer game tropes stem from RPGs (going all the way back to those first games like Telengard), and what the computer game companies can really use are experienced world-builders who can combine both design challenges with storytelling. The challenge, I think, is to recognize that MMO design is a different media, and to recognize the strengths and challenges of that new media.

9. Guild Wars aside, what is your favorite MMO?

Guild Wars 2, of course! Oh, all right. City of Heroes is my MMO comfort food, though it has been a while since I’ve checked in.

10. For those readers who haven’t read your blog, what do you see as the next step for D&D?

Unlike the rest of the blogosphere, I don’t have a “one true solution” for D&D. I have a preference for a broad spectrum of options available for players and DMs, and recognizing that people play RPGs for different reasons and at different player levels.

11. You have worked with THE biggest names in the RPG world. If given the chance to work with someone again, who would you want to work with again and why?

I’m going to give you a list but limit myself by not having to cast Raise Dead Fully. Tracy Hickman is a creative percolator. Ed Greenwood can talk me into anything. Margaret Weis is the hardest-working person in show business, and I cannot refuse her (I have written the foreword for her new Marvel game). Kate makes noises about working on a book again, and I am encouraging her.

I AM currently enjoying working with Wolfgang Baur, on his Kobold Quarterly. I review articles. He buys lunch. It’s a good relationship.

12. What is your favorite class in D&D?

I tend to run dwarf fighters. Low maintenance, always engaged in a combat situation with a few special abilities. But I am partial to my 4E eladrin warlord – the mechanics definitely put me in the “combat coordinator” role in my group, which is normally not in my nature.

13. What are your feelings about the OGL?

It was a brilliant debacle, one that solved a number of deep and endemic problems in the way D&D was played and published and in turn created a host of new problems. It allowed us to share the operating system of D&D, but lacked any real enforcement or limitations, so you ended up with both a glut of products and “permission creep” as those using the OGL took more and more of what was available. It was like you invited a lot of people to come over and party, and at the end of it wondered where all the furniture went.

OGL created some great non-WotC products. Mutants and Masterminds (which I played) turned the traditional experience system on its head and it was wonderful. Three Days to a Kill was elegant and showed that a non-dungeon adventure had potential and Touched by the Gods (both by Atlas) was a brilliant sourcebook. Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed showed you could take the core system and rethink a world with it (and I wrote a few short stories for it).

On the other hand, the S&S Creature Collection book was a hastily-assembled hot mess put together solely to beat out the release of the 3E Monster Manual. The Kingdoms of Kalamar hardback was a direct recycling of the Kalamar boxed set, which had previously lived in that vague location of “suitable for use with any 3d6 RPG”. And the resulting glut in the end brought down a lot of the hobby and impacted WotC’s own sales for new product, which in turn ultimately drove the release of both 3.5 and 4.

14. If you were designing D&D 5.0, what would it look like?

It would look a lot like what Monte Cook, Bruce Cordell, and Robert Shwalb would design, since I would hire them. Oh, and I’d get Miranda Horner to edit it.

I actually LIKE 4E (and 3E, and all the other E’s), and I would stress changes that would allow greater options and input for the GM. The current edition makes it hard to run a bad game of D&D, but is challenging to run a GREAT session of D&D.  4E was the most precise version of D&D yet, which is what the conventional wisdom of the era called for. And now that we had it, we know enough to improve other elements of gameplay.

15. What can you reveal about upcoming Guild Wars products?

No release dates, I am afraid. Everyone is working hard here to complete Guild Wars 2. We will see the publication of the third Guild Wars novel, The Sea of Sorrows, by Ree Soesbee. I’m reviewing it now. It is pretty good.

16. When working on the WoW RPG, how different was it bringing an MMO to the tabletop?

My contribution to the WoW RPG is a strange one – I contributed fiction, not game design. The “bumpers” that led in the chapters were mine. In addition to the Warcraft novel (The Last Guardian, which predates the World of Warcraft), I am also responsible for the Landro Longshot character, as part of a job for Upper Deck’s card game.

17. What is your dream vacation?

I’ve had several of them. Hawaii over Superbowl weekend when the crowds are light. Paris, renting an apartment for a week across the tavern where Ben Franklin used to get drunk. London, seeing Vanessa Redgrave play Prospero at the Globe.

18. Is Magic: The Gathering CCG still relevant?

I haven’t played it for years, so I cannot say. I’m not even sure about the lore anymore. It has shifted into a comfortable, sustainable form with a strong organized play environment. Good for them.

19. What franchise would you like to write for?

It is an open secret that I’m a great, goopy fan of MAR Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne.

20. Free for all! (Jeff, this is where you get to say whatever you want and to post links to your blog and any other sites you think are cool!)

So, my day job is working on Guild Wars 2, which should be released (nope, not saying). In my spare time I help out with Wolfgang Baur and the Kobold Quarterly gang, and have just completed a section for his upcoming Midgard project. My first Star Wars novel is coming out at the end of March, and is called Scourge.

I can normally be found at grubbstreet.blogspot.com, and though I do on occasion cover games, game design, and game companies, just as often you’ll find me talking about art, politics, plays, and collectable quarters.

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