My foray into the making of Pillars of Eternity and the Infinity Engine games took me beyond the realms of Obsidian Entertainment, BioWare, and Black Isle. In this chapter, you’ll meet some of the names behind the Forgotten Realms, including the world’s creator, its most prolific editor, and authors of various adventures within the Realms as well as Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering setting.
Philip Athans doesn't care for gatekeepers. At a young age, he thumbed his nose at the monolithic tastes and guidelines of traditional publishers and started a fan magazine where anyone could submit poetry and fiction.
Athans' broadmindedness made him essential at Dungeons & Dragons creator TSR and, post-acquisition, Wizards of the Coast, where he guided authors such as R. A. Salvatore and Paul S. Kemp as they spun their yarns in the Forgotten Realms, one of D&D’s most iconic settings and host of the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale computer RPGs.
Today, Athans shares his well of knowledge with writers by way of books such as The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, a number of online courses offered through Writer's Digest University, and the Fantasy Author's Handbook, his blog where he posts on a range of topics from the pulp magazines of yore to candid insights into the writer's life.
I contacted Athans to learn more about his history with Wizards of the Coast and his role in guiding authors eager to make their mark in the Forgotten Realms, including the then-upstart team at BioWare.
Craddock: What drew you to writing? Or, when did you know—rather than decide—you were a writer?
Philip Athans: My mother gave my second-grade teacher a bunch of "books" that I wrote and illustrated, which the teacher then lost or threw away—the horror! So I've been writing as long as I was basically literate. I always thought I would be a writer, specifically a science fiction writer, but it was when I read Harlan Ellison's story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" at the age of maybe twelve or thirteen that I remember having that moment where I thought: "I'm going to do this," and meant it. So I guess we have Harlan Ellison to blame.
Craddock: I understand you started working at TSR while working in a record store. I'd love for you to set the scene: you were working part-time, and writing. Where were you at in your growth as a writer?
Athans: I graduated from college in 1985 with basically no idea what to do, how to do it, and no prospects in rustbelt-era Chicago, but while unsuccessfully job hunting I started writing short stories. Coming out of the punk rock universe, I also discovered the thriving "zine" world. No one seemed terribly interested in my passionately overwrought literary fiction or poorly thought-through SF, so my twenty-one year old self decided (much like many of the indie authors of today) that I was just being misunderstood by the Evil Gatekeepers and I took what I was seeing in the punk fanzines and started Alternative fiction & poetry out of my bedroom in my parents' house.
This was my trial by fire in the publishing world and also as an editor, but to pay the bills I ended up in retail, specifically music retail, which I really, honestly loved. The hours were terrible and the pay was worse, but it was the coolest retail gig to be had in the mid- to late-eighties. I eventually started selling a few short stories and poems, and did a few freelance RPG things as the '80s became the '90s.
Craddock: How did you get the opportunity to work at TSR? Did your experience in running Alternative fiction & poetry help you get noticed?
Athans: I started writing for RPGs, having published some MegaTraveller stuff and a supplement for Mayfair Games's Chill RPG, then had this super cool idea for Greyhawk: 2000, imagining the World of Greyhawk a thousand years in its own future: D&D with tech. I wrote up a proposal for it and sent it in to Jim Ward at TSR who (I found out years later) loved the idea but didn't want to freelance it and had no job openings… but Brian Thomsen, in book publishing, did, thanks to editor Rob King (you'll know him as J. Robert King) having decided to leave the company.
I was actually at my weekly D&D game at Games Plus in Mount Prospect, Illinois when my wife called me there to tell me that TSR wanted me to come in for an interview. That was a pretty surreal moment. Needless to say I set up that interview as quickly as I could, went in, and met with Brian Thomsen, who seemed to think Alternative fiction & poetry was a worthy resume item, but also told me that he needed "a gamer on the team." Though I was sure I blew the interview he called me at my record store job a few days later. I gave them a couple weeks' notice, and started my long commute to Lake Geneva.
Craddock: What were your duties at TSR when you joined? How would you describe your job?
Athans: I started as an editor for the book publishing team, and was pretty much thrown right into the deep end, being assigned to random titles. Brian didn't want there to be "line editors" assigned to a particular setting, so I was getting a little bit of everything, including stand-alone books in the TSR Books line, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Planescape, and Birthright. I had to learn a lot and I had to learn it fast, but I was so delighted to be there it never felt like work.
Craddock: What was the culture like at TSR during that time?
Athans: I worked on-site in Lake Geneva, which meant a 54-mile commute (each way) from suburban Chicago. The books team was stuck in a little cluster of cubicles off to the side under the back stairway in a space with no windows. It was clear to me after the first week or so that we were considered sort of the red-headed stepchild of the company, but based on the behavior patterns of a couple key people, looking back, that was probably well deserved.
That only lasted—at least in that form—for less than two years, anyway, but some of the baggage lingered for the rest of my time at Wizards of the Coast.
Craddock: How would you describe the transition from TSR to Wizards? Did you see it as a good thing?
Athans: That transition was unsettling then terrifying then exciting and finally the best thing that ever happened to me.
At TSR there was this monthly ritual where a couple people would come around to everyone's office or cubicle and drop off the company's output for that month—books, game products… whatever. I think it was November or maybe December of 1996, and no cart came around. Then another month and no books, then another. Then authors started calling, wondering why their quarterly royalty statements (and checks) hadn't been mailed. Then the company that took care of the potted plants scattered around the building came in and took the plants, the Lions Club took their gumball machine out of the break room… and it was abundantly clear that something really bad was happening.
It got to the point that we had months of books in the can, nurtured through final typesetting signoffs, etc.—then they would just sit. And zero communication from any executives in the company. I mean zero. So, of course, in the absence of information comes rumor, and you never hear rumors of good news. It got so I would show up in the morning, take a deep breath, wave my key card at the door, and wait for the click. If the door opened, I still had a job—it was, literally, a day by day thing.
When the rumors that Wizards of the Coast was going to buy the company started to trickle in, I wasn't the only one who didn't believe it. But finally—I want to say it was May of 1997—then owner of TSR, Lorraine Williams (who I had never actually met or spoken to from September 1995 through May 1997) called the first and only TSR all hands meeting to tell us that, yes, indeed, she had sold the company to [Wizards of the Coast founder] Peter Adkison and Wizards of the Coast. I went home that night and asked my wife, "So… what do you think about Seattle?"
By the end of July of 1997 we'd made the move. We've been in the Seattle area over twenty years now and I love it here.
So, yeah, for me, TSR selling out to WotC was a great thing!
Craddock: What did your job as managing editor of Wizards' Book Publishing department entail?
Athans: I still worked as the Forgotten Realms line editor for the first couple years or so of my time as managing editor, but as we expanded the staff and the number of books we were publishing, I passed more and more of the FR novel line to Susan Morris.
As managing editor I was part of a fantastic cross-functional team there, managing the editorial staff and freelancers, and working closely with the art, production, scheduling, brand/marketing, logistics, and legal teams to keep things flowing. I'm very proud to say that even at the peak when we were publishing almost a hundred books in a year, we never, ever missed a ship date. We were good.
Craddock: Did you prefer to work with books as opposed to the pen-and-paper/CCG games? Or did you do both?
Athans: Though I did work on the initial development of Fourth Edition Forgotten Realms—that's a whole other sad tale—I never really worked on the RPG side at all. We were pretty siloed there, actually, so I was all books all the time.
Craddock: How did come to work as a line editor on Forgotten Realms novels?
Athans: For reasons best left 'neath the sands of time, Brian Thomsen didn't make the move to Seattle with us, and Mary Kirchoff was brought back on to run the publishing business. She had a different take on basically everything and recognized the value of having an editor take the lead in a particular line. By a weird stroke of luck with almost everyone on the TSR book publishing team, for various reasons, not coming out to Seattle, I found myself with just enough seniority to choose my setting.
No way was I going to take on anything but FR, which was by that time tied with Dragonlance as the most successful of the current novel lines, and the one that—by far—best matched what I most loved about D&D and fantasy in general.
Craddock: As line editor, did you also help Realms authors such as R.A. Salvatore and Paul Kemp stay inside the lines, so to speak? Or were they allowed some leeway in stretching the envelope of Realms rules and settings?
Athans: That was a big part of it. As FR line editor I was one of the temporary stewards of the setting, definitely starting with making sure no one wandered in and blew it up, stomped on another author's characters, etc. The good news is that we had an amazing stable of authors who really understood both the limitations and the inherent freedoms in working within a shared world setting, so it was exceedingly rare that I had to dial someone back. Any major changes to the world or what we called the "Big Stories" (the Avatar series, The Threat from the Sea, Return of the Archwizards, The Year of Rogue Dragons, and War of the Spider Queen in particular) always came from the in-house team then the basic parameters were given to the authors to turn into actual stories, populated with characters drawn from the setting and/or created by the authors themselves.
For example, the Sembia series was my idea, focusing on a wealthy family from the city of Selgaunt mentioned in passing in a game supplement. I decided the family should have a butler, and as a placeholder we'll call him "the butler." Erevis Cale was all Paul Kemp from there.
Craddock: You helped launch book lines for several Wizards properties, such as Dungeons & Dragons. I'd like to talk about that one specifically. What was the process for taking a pen-and-paper game and spinning it off into novels?
Athans: The D&D novel lines went through at least three incarnations in my time at Wizards of the Coast. D&D always has been a rules set, not a world in itself, so finding a setting and characters for D&D was always a challenge. Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, etc. were all created to provide that, separate from the rules set.
For the first attempt at a D&D novel line I was involved in, it was my idea to start with novelizations of the classic AD&D modules. Going back to the modules—which at least had a plot to follow—seemed like a logical place to start, even if most if not all of them were actually "set" in Greyhawk. I helped launch it, but couldn't stay on the line to manage it. I think it ended up with mixed results, but we took a good stab at it. I really wanted to write Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, myself, but the line ended up fizzling out before we got to that.
The next effort was the "T.H. Lain" novels in which we relied on the Third Edition example characters and built a world for them as we went along. That's another one that ended up with mixed results—the editor was laid off just as it started up and it was farmed out to freelancers and a bigger plan around it never even began. Again, it just sort of went away. I wrote two of them, though: the first (The Savage Caves) and the last (The Death Ray) and had a blast with them. Mine, at least, were more pulp sword & sorcery than FR's high fantasy or Dragonlance's epic fantasy, so I think we at least tried to do justice to that "guys fighting monsters with magic" dungeon crawl spirit.
The Fourth Edition D&D novels didn't really get going before I left the company, but Fourth Edition did have a kind of "example world" built into it, which those books—as tie-ins to the Realms and other settings—were meant to pick up, attached to bigger adventures and themes. I'm honestly not sure what became of that. Clearly, they didn't survive the end of 4E.
Craddock: What are some areas of transplanting the spirit of a property in another medium to books that people probably don't think about?
Athans: What was always the biggest challenge for us was the disconnect at the very heart of the RPG tie-in novel and that's that the very best RPG adventures are all about set-up and loose ends, following plot points to various possible conclusions that players arrive at with their own characters after DMs have altered parts of the story to fit their own worlds, and so on. But a novel, obviously, has to start with characters and follow a plot through to a satisfying ending.
This is why strict novelizations like Baldur's Gate never really worked, while novels set within the Forgotten Realms world, using D&D as basic worldbuilding rules (how magic works, etc.), were often huge best-sellers. You're essentially looking in on R.A. Salvatore's FR campaign, then switching over to Ed Greenwood's, then Elaine Cunningham's, and so on. But none of those stories in anyway finished the Forgotten Realms story, or prevented new stories from being told both by Wizards of the Coast and by individual players and DMs all over the world.
But the hard work, for me, was in keeping a strict account of canon. Once something was published with an FR logo on it, the content of that story—every character death, sacked castle, redrawn frontier, etc.—has now happened, just as if it happened in real world history. Even the smallest creative decision could ripple through the whole setting in unexpected ways. It was a very intense, detail-oriented, full-time job, for sure.
Craddock: What was Wizards' general approach to licensing their shared worlds to outside companies such as BioWare?
Athans: Wizards had a terrific, very aggressive licensing team in those pre-Hasbro days, but I was never a part of their day to day operations, so really can't speak to that. Licensing projects trickled down to the creative teams only as a fait accompli.
Craddock: How much autonomy did BioWare have in developing Baldur's Gate?
Athans: As far as I know, no one in R&D, and certainly no one on the books team, interacted with BioWare on any level. I honestly have no idea what they were given in terms of guidelines or feedback.
Craddock: How fleshed out was Baldur's Gate, the setting, before BioWare's team made their game?
Athans: Baldur's Gate is one city in the Forgotten Realms setting, but as is true of most parts of the Second Edition Forgotten Realms world there was actually an enormous amount of detail on the city's various residents, its history, etc., contained mostly in FR game supplements but also in various novels that moved through and/or around the city. I can only assume that some material was somehow made available to BioWare.
I honestly don't know everything that might have been added, having never played the game, but a majority of the characters in the game, as far as I could see from a distance, were new to the video game and not drawn from previous canon. That, in and of itself, was not at all a bad thing. The strength of the Forgotten Realms setting always was the space left for additions to the canon—new characters, especially.
Craddock: You’re the novelist who adapted BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate CRPG into a book, and also wrote the eponymous sequel. Those novels are divisive among fans, to say the least, so I wanted to extend an opportunity for you to clear the air. What was your interaction with BioWare—either directly between you and the studio, or between BioWare and Wizards?
Athans: I was given an Excel spreadsheet with slim character descriptions and a very basic story flowchart that traced paths through the game depending on what class you chose. From that I put together a short proposal—basically a character sketch for my “PC” [player-character] then more or less pushed him through what I felt was the most interesting path through the story. And that was it.
Craddock: What challenges did you face in adapting the games?
Athans: I had no contact with BioWare at all, and neither did my editor. All communication was funneled through Interplay. I had no idea what changes were being made at BioWare from that initial story document to the finished game and never received any feedback on the novel from anyone at either BioWare or Interplay.
I was told by someone at Wizards of the Coast that Interplay said it, the novelization, was “fine.” Full stop.
Craddock: What were your thoughts on any of the unique characters and lore BioWare’s team added to their take on Baldur’s Gate?
Athans: I honestly don’t know everything that might have been added, having never played the game, but a majority of the characters in the game, as far as I could see from a distance, were new to the video game and not drawn from previous canon. That, in and of itself, was not at all a bad thing. As I said before, the strength of the Forgotten Realms setting always was the space left for additions to the canon—new characters, especially.
Craddock: After so much editing and adapting, when did you get your chance to write your own story to the Realms?
Athans: The first FR fiction I wrote was actually a short story in the anthology Realms of the Arcane. Baldur’s Gate fell into my lap with little warning—all pushed through very last minute—but happily I eventually had my chance to actually add to the FR world.
[Author’s Note: Athans has written extensively about his experience adapting the Baldur’s Gate games, and the blowback he received from fans on his blog.]
Craddock: What do you feel sets the Realms apart from other shared worlds such as D&D and Dragonlance?
Athans: This is what I loved about the FR setting and what, I believe, made it stand out from, ultimately sell better, and live longer than Dragonlance. Ed Greenwood originally conceived of the Forgotten Realms as a setting for his fantasy fiction, doing what I now advise authors not to do, and that was build the world first then create stories set within it. When Ed discovered D&D he tweaked the Realms to accommodate the D&D rules, and the rest is history, starting with articles he wrote for Dragon Magazine and finally the deal that brought the Realms into the TSR fold—long before my time.
The Forgotten Realms always was, and remained through its lifetime, an open world in which a huge variety of stories could be told. Dragonlance, on the other hand, was, essentially, purpose-built for that original trilogy. FR had no "Heroes of the Lance," so even a nobody, seventh-level drow ranger could find his place as one of the setting's primary characters—never once having been called on to save the world, and who had no part of anything going on in, say, the Cormyr series, or Sembia, or the Haunted Lands.
Before the top-to-bottom rethink forced by Fourth Edition's radical changes to the basic rules, even those "Big Stories"—with the exception of the Avatar series—only had localized effects. The Threat from the Sea was a big deal if you lived in a coastal city, but no one in, say, Ten Towns or Rashemen even knew it was happening. Return of the Archwizards turned Anauroch and Sembia inside out, but no one in Chult or Mulhorand had the slightest clue it was happening. The War of the Spider Queen was completely unknown to almost everyone living on the surface of Toril. That was FR's strength, right there.
Part 2: Elminster Speaks - An Interview with Forgotten Realms creator Ed Greenwood
[Author’s note: I conducted my interview with Ed Greenwood in 2009. It was published on Fantasy Book Critic.]
Nestled snugly in a reading chair in his father's library, content among hundreds of musty tomes crammed into bookcases that surrounded the reading chair like tall, wooden sentries, seven-year-old Ed Greenwood sulked. He had just finished another of one of his favorite stories, one containing dashing adventurers who embarked on perilous journeys. But the road, while long, epic, and fraught with danger, always came to an end on the book's final page, leaving young Greenwood to sit and wonder what might happen next. Because the authors of his favorite books had long since passed away or retired from penning quests, Greenwood knew he had but one method of discovering the fate of his cherished heroes: he would have to write their escapades himself.
Not long after he had begun easing other authors' characters out of retirement and back into battle, an idea for a character of Greenwood's very own was born. That character, a rascally vagabond named Mirt, was the first to step into the now renowned fantasy world of the Forgotten Realms, a fantastical place that would become home to hundreds more of Greenwood's creations, as well as other characters such as R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden who, without the Realms, may never have come to be.
I was honored to chat with Realms creator, Elminster cosplayer, and librarian extraordinaire Ed Greenwood about the circumstances that led to the Forgotten Realms, his book collection, thoughts on the crotchety wizard Elminster, the writing process, and what gaming conventions and gaming mean to him.
Craddock: Do you remember the first idea you had for what would become the Forgotten Realms? Was it a character? A setting?
Ed Greenwood: Back in the summer of 1966, at the ripe old age of seven (yes, well before there was a D&D game, or a TSR, Inc. to publish it), I was reading a Glencannon omnibus and thought: what if this crafty, crusty, cunning old engineer (Glencannon) had a medieval ancestor? Like Shakespeare’s Falstaff? Only in a fantasy world where magic worked, like Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser tales?
I was also reading Poul Anderson’s [science fiction] stories about Nicholas van Rijn at the time, and thought about bolting some of his characteristics onto this character. So the character became a swindling trader (kind-hearted and sympathetic to the reader, but not exactly law-abiding). Soon I came up with a name: Mirt the Moneylender. Who traveled the trading cities of the Sword Coast, one step ahead of angry creditors, rivals, authorities, and hired bounty hunters. It was a year later, a year spent writing little episodes in the rather swashbuckling life of Mirt, before I had the name Forgotten Realms, and the reason for that name: the Realms were in a world linked to our Earth, but now the ways between them—magical gates, which I later explored in issue 37 of what was then called “The Dragon” magazine, and [then] much later, in what got called the third edition of the D&D game (though it is actually several editions beyond the third), got dubbed “portals” had been “forgotten” by those of us in the modern-day real world.
So the Realms began as a setting for telling my own fantasy short stories, not for gaming. I began writing stories at a very early age ... to create further adventures of characters I liked, in the books in my father’s library. Most of those books were by long-dead or inactive writers, so if I wanted more adventures of the characters, writing them myself was the only way to get them.
I LOVED reading. I also liked board games (and looking back, wanted them to have beautiful “map” boards and tactical terrain elements in play, not just “racetrack” boards or playing cards). I enjoyed camping (from fledgling Wolf Cub camps up through week-long canoe trips and long, long hikes as an adult), and like most Canadian boys, I loved hockey but wasn’t very good at it, in my case because I wasn’t a good skater (I usually ended up wearing boots and playing goal, which I very much enjoyed). I latter dabbled in fencing, and became an avid caver or spelunker, one of the founders of the Rattlesnake Point Caving Club. Most of my more physical activities are behind me now, thanks to bad knees (among other ailments).
Craddock: How did the Realms grow from Mirt the Moneylender to a sprawling, living world inhabited by some of fantasy's most beloved characters?
Greenwood: Initially, it grew as Mirt wandered along the Sword Coast, south from Luskan—and then inland as far as Zirta, which became the southern riverbank part of Scornubel—into Amn and Tethyr.
Then along came D&D. Once regular roleplaying began in the Realms, my players forced me to detail a lot more of the Realms, because their characters were constantly peeking into caravan wagons wanting to know what was inside. So, goods moving from Somewhere to Somewhere Else, which meant a shortage or market in Somewhere Else, and a source of production or harvest in Somewhere, which in turn told me something of the geography of Somewhere, and I could extrapolate from that.
I was a writer, so I wrote down my ideas. I wanted Mirt to have recurring foes and rivals and trading partners, and wanted to keep them all straight, so I needed to record everything. Once I started roleplaying in the Realms, I as DM wrote a running blow-by-blow overview of what happened in each play session, as we played, in a series of blank examination booklets my father (a university professor) brought home from work; I filled stacks of them with my increasingly-sloppy pencil scribbles
Craddock: What does creating a new location, people, or individual character entail? Did you sit down and chart background history, defining life events, and so forth? Or did things come to you gradually over time?
Greenwood: The answer to this has to be: it depends. Meaning, it depends on why I’m creating something. Is it a character seen once, or someone a series of novels is going to be built around? A village on a road a band of Player Characters [PCs] will rush through, or the city they’re going to live in for play [sessions] lasting for the next ten years of real time? Is it for fiction, or roleplaying? Novels and short stories and published adventures have to be planned out, and things have to be specific (age, hair color, game statistics). Elements used in a roleplaying campaign can be left somewhat vague and then tweaked to match PC levels or current play directions when PCs come into contact with those elements. Also, if the campaign is to seem alive, then its events change things, so a given building or business or city or ruler isn’t going to remain unchanged over time. In those situations, yes, things do come to me, or get changed by me or by Player Character actions, gradually over time.
I don’t have a favorite or preferred way of adventuring, between real life, reading, or gaming, but on balance, over the years, I’ve done far more reading than the other two avenues to adventure. I’ve written or co-written or had a direct creative hand in well over two hundred books, have over 80,000 books crammed into my house, and during these last few years have read probably 20 books in a typical week (plus stints of “heavier” reading when I’ve been judging the World Fantasy Awards and Sunburst Awards, and had to read all the nominated works). Yes, I read quickly.
Craddock: Do you remember your first roleplaying game experience? What hooked you on the concept of creating a character and living his/her/its life?
Greenwood: My first roleplaying experiences were at school, at a young age; Canadian teachers at that time (the 1960s) were very big on “let’s put you behind the desk of a particular historical figure, faced with this situation; what would YOU do?” So from Canada’s Fathers of Confederation to the builders of the early cross-continental railways to wartime situations and rural mayors trying to grapple with the effects of modernization and the arrival of railways and later good roads, I did a lot of roleplaying in the 1960s. (And out-and-out acting in school plays, too.) This is long before fantasy roleplaying, which came along in the mid-1970s.
My first gaming roleplaying experiences weren’t D&D or any of its imitators, either. They were several Kriegspiel exercises, played with adults, following a situation [arranged] by British miniatures gamer Donald Featherstone, wherein a map of an area to be fought over is divided into a grid, the grid becomes a miniature chest of drawers or dresser of matchboxes, and forces are moved from matchbox to matchbox as coins or poker chips until they meet in a drawer. When a meet happens (I open a matchbox to move my coin into it, and find an enemy coin already there), a sand table miniatures battle terrain is then made up to match that map section, and a battle occurs. A neutral umpire oversees things, but all of the other multiple players take on the roles of officers in the two opposing Napoleonic-era forces, and move from room to room going on missions, receiving and giving orders, conferring with other officers, etc.
My first fantasy roleplaying experience came later, involving a remarkable young lady named September. My account of that has been published in a First Quest column in issue 218 of DRAGON Magazine, back in 1995.
Craddock: When and how did your venerable Elminster character come about?
Greenwood: Elminster first appeared in stories and story fragments of mine written in 1967, as a Merlin-like ancient, all-knowing wizard. Although he predates the film EXCALIBUR, Nicol Williamson’s portrayal of Merlin in that movie is very close to how I envisage and present Elminster: a cantankerous, occasionally foolish or overconfident, foresighted, loves-to-be-mysterious old wizard whose lifespan is longer than a normal man’s, who has powers most wizards of his day can’t get or have, and behaves in an odd manner because he’s pursuing aims and goals most folk don’t know or understand. It’s something of a stock figure of fantasy fiction (yes, long before Tolkien’s Gandalf), but my Elminster is far more of a whimsical rogue with flaws than most versions of the archetype.
In my early stories as well as later D&D roleplaying, I needed an “Old Storyteller” figure to set tales up or end them with sweeping powers, without being the hero or protagonist. So like Ronald Reagan’s character in the old television series DEATH VALLEY DAYS, Elminster introduces the tale to the reader, and the action then pans past his shoulder, on into the story. TSR (later Wizards of the Coast) wanted him to be used as far more of a hero, but here I’m relating the genesis of the character as I saw him.
Craddock: What made Elminster so appealing that you decided to focus on him and his life?
Greenwood: I never decided to focus on Elminster; TSR (later Wizards of the Coast) did that. The conceit of the first release of the Realms as a product line (as opposed to featuring in a randomly-appearing series of freelance DRAGON articles) was that DMs could freely change the Realms for their home campaigns, because the published Realms wasn’t an omniscient overview, it was us writing down what Elminster (an unreliable narrator) or Volo (an even more unreliable narrator) was telling us about the Realms. That notion was my idea.
However, Elminster’s career as the main character of novels began when the fiction publishing arm of TSR demanded it, giving me the choice of writing Elminster books or watching someone else write Elminster books. There was a push to have “iconic” characters linked to their creators, who would write open-ended series of books about those characters (Drizzt, Elminster, and so on). I started in writing those books eagerly, mind you, because they gave me the chance to show lots of details of the Realms to readers, along the way.
Craddock: Did you ever create other worlds besides the Realms? If so, did you ultimately decide to discard them in favor of the Realms? And if so, why?
Greenwood: I have created other worlds besides the Realms, and participated in the created worlds of others, too, such as Golarion from Paizo, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth as portrayed in a line of computer games, and many, many more.
I haven’t discarded any of the worlds I’ve created; I’m still at work on Castlemourn and Embersea (which hasn’t been published in any form yet). Mornmist (that I co-created with Lynn Abbey) is in limbo because it is owned by its publisher, who controls its activity and published appearances.
Craddock: When did you begin writing for Dragon Magazine and Polyhedron Magazine? Also, what attracted you to those magazines?
Greenwood: My first regular monthly reading issue of the magazine that was then called “The Dragon” was issue 19. I was attracted to it because in those early days of D&D, with relatively few sourcebooks and adventure modules being published (and only a handful of competing magazines, too), long before the Internet or any electronic home games (let alone home computers!), the magazine was the hobby; it was the monthly lifeblood, source of ideas, and avid “fix” for all RPG gamers.
My first game-related publication was in 1979, in issue 30 of DRAGON (my Realms monster “The Curst”) although I’d actually submitted (and had accepted) an article on the DIVINE RIGHT board game earlier than I sent in the Curst (it was held [back] for a theme issue on the game, issue 34). I flooded DRAGON with articles (the Crawling Claws in 32, my article on Gates in 37, and so on; the Gates article impressed editor Kim Mohan because it was the first submission to DRAGON he’d ever seen that had footnotes. At an early GenCon he asked me (and Roger Moore, about five minutes before me) to become Contributing Editors (unpaid positions; it meant he wanted a flood of stuff from us, occasionally on topics he’d assign to us). Later, my position was renamed Creative Editor.
If anyone from Wizards of the Coast reads this, I’d like to remind them that I still have a lifetime subscription to both DRAGON and DUNGEON (which I started writing for because TSR asked me to, when they launched it).
I am a Charter Life Member of the RPGA, and eventually TSR staffers asked me to write a regular Realms column, “Elminster’s Everwinking Eye,” for POLYHEDRON because its pages were mainly filled by staff designers, and most of them were really too busy to consistently turn in columns (as I soon discovered, so was I!).
Craddock: Besides Mirt and Elminster, what other character that you created stood out to you? What did you like/dislike about the character, and has that character lived on in any of your stories?
Greenwood: I created the vast majority of characters that appear in Realms game products, and a good percentage of those in the Realms novels, too, from Elaith “the Serpent” to King Azoun of Cormyr, and from Szass Tam to Manshoon to Fzoul to Storm Silverhand (not to mention most of the gods, who after all are characters, too). As a Dungeon Master, I have portrayed hundreds of these characters over the years in Realmsplay sessions of the “home” Realms campaign and in various “play D&D with Ed” events at many, many conventions. (Years ago, my wife idly started counting up conventions I’d attended over the years, and discovered she’d lost track somewhere around two hundred!)
I don’t like or dislike characters, so much as I see them as real people (though they may not be human), and—just like real people—covering a wide range of foibles, flaws, virtues, and characteristics. They’re all part of the vast tapestry, like a huge cast of actors (literally, a world full of actors) I can draw on, that all have ongoing lives, aims, and interests. The old “let me tell you about my character” joke doesn’t work for me; I carry them all in my head, all the time, but couldn't tell you the game stats—for any edition of the D&D game—for any of them, because the stats don’t matter; the stories do. I’ve had great fun playing over-the-top characters such as James Bond in a Fluffyquest RPGA round or Paul Stanley of Kiss in an Australian D&D tournament (I won a trophy!) or an earnest young explorer in a great Cthulhu adventure at GenCon UK—not to mention a lot of odd characters (new races and classes, prototype rules, and so on) in playtests for various game publishers. I won Best Player at the AD&D Open at GenCon back in (I think) 1984, so I can walk the walk, but in all of it I’ve never formed any likes or dislikes of characters I played.
Craddock: How did the Realms become an official part of D&D?
Greenwood: One of the fun rewards of writing DRAGON articles, back in the early days, is that new monsters were considered official rules additions. Which meant I felt no compunction about using them in play sessions after they’d been published. Also, sneaking little details of the Realms into all sorts of DRAGON articles let me use the magazine as “general gossip and information your characters have picked up” sources for my players (again, everyone read the magazine, so I could expect that they might hazily remember something I’d written a few issues back). So from the beginning I put little Realms details into all of my DRAGON writing.
Unbeknownst to me, Jeff Grubb, one of the staff designers at TSR, was a regular reader of DRAGON and had noticed these details. He had just prepared a proposal for creating a new unified game world to be the home for the D&D game for its second edition, and TSR was world-shopping (Dragonlance had taken a huge amount of creative time from everyone on staff at the company, so it would be faster and easier to buy a world that someone else had mapped and detailed). Jeff got my phone number from the DRAGON editors (like all good writers, I made sure my name and address and phone number were on every page of every article I mailed in) and called me one day in 1985 to ask me if I had a complete, detailed world at home, or if I just made things up as I went along.
“Yes,” I replied, “and yes.”
“Good,” he replied. “Send it.”
Whereupon he then told me his boss, Mike Dobson, would contact me. TSR bought the Realms (in 1986), and my long, wild ride began.
Craddock: What was entailed in merging the Forgotten Realms into D&D? What rights did you maintain to the world that had been yours since your childhood?
Greenwood: The moment I had the green light to do so, I started typing and photocopying huge weekly packages of Realms lore, and mailing them off to Jeff (until he finally called a halt to the flood). He, as a designer, and Karen Boomgaarden as editor went to work converting my world into D&D rules [and] terms; steering my incoming flood by asking for more on this topic or that one. TSR was awed by my maps; Jeff taped together my fifty-five-page (8.5” by 11” pages) world map, and later my much larger Waterdeep city map (scaled so the base of an Airfix model figurine would fit into the rectangular outline of a typical city building, so I could use individual figures to represent a PC party or a Watch patrol or some villains the PCs were chasing or being chased by). That latter map filled the floor between where the cubicles ended and the door to the ladies’ washroom, causing some temporary consternation for some female staffers, but also making some of the top brass of the company very excited when they saw it. One of them, I was told, made a comment that can best be translated as “Holy manure! This is un-be-mating-believable! Who IS this guy?”
(By the way, that’s not a question I feel I can properly answer yet, even after all these years.)
And so the Realms began. I was given a crash course in TSR design protocol (by doing a D&D module, THE ENDLESS STAIR) and set to work churning out Realms source products—but the company didn’t want me (a freelancer, not a staffer) to be a “design bottleneck,” so my magic stuff was handed to Steve Perrin to turn into FR4 THE MAGISTER, my Sword Coast North lore to Jennell Jaquays to become FR5 THE ENDLESS FRONTIER, and so on.
As for rights, TSR (now Wizards of the Coast, but my agreement is with TSR) owns the Realms and controls its publication and editorial direction and content. If more than a year ever passes without them publishing novel-length original Realms work—it doesn’t have to be fiction, though; it can be a game product—by me, the Realms revert to me (unless I agree to a hiatus), and I’m supposed to receive a copy of every TSR Realms publication (but not outside licenses such as computer games) and be told about Realms products and “in-world” decisions (just informed, mind you; I hold no veto over such things). Also, anything I say about the Realms is “true” until or unless contradicted by an official published product. (These days, of course, “publication” includes the Internet.)
I’ve never had any great tussles over the Realms with either TSR or Wizards (design disagreements, yes, but those are very different, more akin to two musicians playing the same piece of music together who want to do it in slightly different ways), and I hope I never do. It is, after all, supposed to be a fun place for everyone’s imagination to roam in, to enjoy a story or play a game.
Craddock: Are you consulted on any major events that transpire in the Realms?
Greenwood: I’m supposed to be. Sometimes I have found out about events I consider major when I buy a new Realms novel in a store, or see a new Realms computer game, but for the most part, the busy people at TSR and Wizards have been very good about keeping me in the loop. Hasbro has more stringent guidelines regarding maintaining secrecy about Intellectual Properties (and I’m not now, and never have been, an employee of TSR or Wizards or Hasbro, though I’ve been a freelance designer, fiction writer, and consultant to all three corporations), but I find out about most things.
The need to closely consult was crucial in the early days of the Realms, and is less so now that other creative people working on the Realms have a large body of published work they can examine. “Ask Ed” used to always be the wisest way to coordinate everything, but now it’s just one way.
Craddock: How did/do you feel about other authors writing in the world you created?
Greenwood: Occasionally some of the things other authors have written have made me wince, or think “I’d certainly have done that another way,” but for the most part it’s been delightful. Here’s the problem, in a nutshell: I only have so much time in my life, and just can’t tell all the stories of the Realms I want to tell. Moreover, nothing I write or design can really surprise me: if there’s a detail around a corner, it’s there because I put it there.
So I have no regrets about signing away the Realms; there’s no way I could have reached so many gamers and readers by myself, and no way I could have had such great reading experiences over the years, or had the chance to travel the world, meet so many interesting people, have a writing career and immerse myself in fantasy and science fiction publishing, and make so many friends.
The friends are what really matter about all of this, and their shared joy in the Realms and in storytelling. My bookshelves are now full of really fun, and occasionally superb, Realms novels I couldn’t have written (because I write differently than the authors who did craft those books), and my world is much richer for the design contributions of many, many people who love and care about the Realms.
In life, you learn to live with the stuff you don’t like as much, and treasure the stuff you love—and by sharing the Realms, I’ve gained so many treasures.
For me, I feel great about other authors writing in the Realms. I have just worked with a great editor, Susan Morris, on a line of novels, ED GREENWOOD PRESENTS WATERDEEP, every one of which has been a standout—books I want to re-read and thrust into the hands of other readers.
It’s been, and still is, that sort of excitement, and that sort of “great.”
Craddock: I understand that TSR requested that you play Elminster at certain gaming conventions. Was this something you were excited to do?
Greenwood: I’m just as happy not to, now, because the costume is hot and because of hassles at Customs: apparently a wooden staff is and can only be a weapon, or perhaps importation of some nasty insect into the USA—and border agents just don’t seem to care that the stick of wood I’m toting back and forth came from the US Midwest and was given to me as a gift there; I hope I never have to use a wooden cane to walk with.
However, when we launched the Realms, it was great to walk into a room and have hundreds of people cheer and then hang on your every word for hours (usually four-hour-long sessions, in those days). I always had a TSR “straight man” (later, a “straight woman”) to play off of, and could be witty, rude, snide, and dispense all sorts of Realms lore in response to audience questions. I got asked to officiate at weddings, name babies, and even, yes, father babies (I regretfully declined). I got given keys to cities, was trusted to officiate at disagreements, and even, by police, to handle crowd control and, once, to direct traffic at a busy intersection after one of Milwaukee’s notorious downpours had knocked out traffic lights.
Most of all, every time I put on the costume was a chance to meet Realms fans again and enjoy the Realms together.
Craddock: What was it like attending the conventions and interacting with fellow gamers?
Greenwood: It was great, and still is! I am so busy (and lack so much health and time off from my library day job and money) that I only attend four or so conventions a year now (and turn down most of those that involve lots of intercontinental travel), but I still love assembling somewhere with fellow gamers and fantasy/sci-fi fans and hanging out. There are games and games and more games to try and to buy that I’ll never see in the countryside where I live, food to eat and panels to be on or attend—and there are all the friends I’ve made in gaming; lots of them, now, after over twenty years of attending conventions. It’s a chance to catch up with them, dine with them, hug them, and talk with them face to face.
Conventions are where I really feel alive, and living the life I want to have.
Craddock: Did any unscrupulous players attempt to kill Elminster?
Greenwood: Certainly. I myself have tried to kill off Elminster several times. He’s not my alter ego or wish-fulfillment bearded male “Mary Sue” or favorite character; he’s a powerful, annoying old wizard who meddles and makes infuriating comments and can generally be a pain in posterior. However, in the very rare situations in which he appears in play as an NPC, players who seek to have their characters butcher Elminster are usually succumbing to temptation they shouldn’t stoop to. As the Old Mage himself sometimes asks adventurers as they hurl fireballs at him and plunge swords through him, “Don’t all of you have something better to do?”
Craddock: What does writing mean to you?
Greenwood: Writing is what I do. Writing is my life, and a writer is what I am; I can’t NOT write. I write, or come up with ideas that I at least scribble down, every day. Writing is what my brain hums along doing, whenever I’m not asleep or reading. Yes, every moment. It might not be conscious (when I’m working at the library, I’m working at the library), but some part of my mind is always busy imagining. Writing is... everything.
Craddock: Can you tell us more about your writing process?
Greenwood: I’m too busy to only write when I’m in the mood to do so, and I took a degree in journalism years ago (in the era when newsrooms were noisy, bustling places dominated by pounding typewriters, with nary a computer in sight) so that I could write under almost any conditions.
Which is a good thing, because daily life (including a day job I enjoy very much; I am a clerk at a public library, and chair of the library board of a completely different public library system some forty miles away from the library I’m employed at) would interrupt any set writing schedule. These days, I write four or five books a year (gaming and fiction) plus about twice that many short stories, plus editing, plus writing monthly columns, and some other projects, too—so the real answer is: I write every spare moment I can grab. No, I can’t wait until the Muse visits me, when conditions are “just right.” I would prefer to keep a set writing schedule, yes—but that’s something only wealthy people who have a staff to take care of “the daily round” can manage, I’m afraid. I write when I can (and almost whenever I can).
Craddock: Have you ever been afflicted with writers’ block?
Greenwood: People who write for a living can’t afford to have writers’ block, so I don’t ever let myself get blocked.
I’m not belittling the condition or deeming it mythical; I’m saying I dare not let myself fall prey to it, and I avoid it by constantly having three or four projects well and truly “on the go” at once (quite different ones, such as fantasy fiction, gaming writing, horror or science fiction, and a review or technical explanatory writing). Whenever I start to grind to a halt on one, I leap to another, and keep right at it, leaping back when I can.
An undisciplined writer could use this situation to avoid work on something that’s not going well, forever turning to more attractive alternatives, but I’ve done enough books by now to let my whims and feelings carry me, not govern me.
Craddock: Do you prefer to outline stories, or freeform your way to an epilogue... or both?
Greenwood: Both. One of the ways I avoid boredom or falling into a creative rut is to constantly try new ways of telling stories, or at the very least not creating my current book the same way as I did my last one. The majority of my major publishers insist on outlines (that they approve, and that they use to write catalogue copy well before the book is written), so my preferences really don’t matter. Sometimes I’m writing just to please myself, or from a one-sentence idea approved by an editor, and I will either freeform the entire story (not knowing where it’s heading) or freeform it from a few set elements such as Character A, Situation B, Story Element C, and perhaps Known Ending D.
Some ways work better than others for me, at a particular time and for a particular project, but I’m never bored. I don’t happen to be one of those writers who loves BEING an author, but hates the process of writing.
Craddock: As a freelance writer, do you still prefer to write Realms-oriented stories, or do you like to branch off into other worlds of your (or someone else’s) creation?
Greenwood: I like doing both.
Writing in the Realms is comfortable, familiar, and easy; I can concentrate on the story rather than on research or language or “getting the details right,” and there are so many not-yet-told Realms tales I want to do that I eagerly pounce on every chance to do another Realms story.
However, I very much like trying the new or different or offbeat. I have written for various James Lowder anthologies for years because Jim presents me with a chance to do a pulp story, or a zombie story, or Arthurian fantasy, or whatever, to this length and that deadline. Whee, I’m off and running!
Most anthology offers are like that, for me: an opportunity to try something or at least enjoy a little change of pace.
Which doesn’t leave me loving the Realms any less, or wanting to stay away from it for long.
Craddock: Do you think you will ever retire from writing or game design?
Greenwood: If retire is spelled “die,” yes; otherwise, no. Whether or not I retire from published writing or game designing is up to publishers, of course, not me. Yet I’ll never stop designing or writing, even if it’s just for my friendly local gaming group, or to provide a new Christmas story every year to read at the library (watch for an anthology from me, one of these days, for schmaltzy, tear-jerking Christmas stories crafted to be easily read aloud, all proceeds to the library).
I don’t intend to die soon, mind you; I have way too many stories still left to tell. And as one of my editors told me recently: “Don’t you go and die on us, Ed! We need you to do so much, still, that if you die we’ll be forced to kill you!”
Craddock: What do you feel has contributed to the Realms’ longevity?
Greenwood: I believe that the key to the lasting popularity of the Realms is that it feels like a real place, a living world, where what happens MATTERS. So readers and gamers come to care about Cormyr or Waterdeep or particular characters, and what happens to them.
In large part, the Realms feels real because so much is going on, because there is no one central story but rather countless stories all unfolding at once. The Realms is people, not places, but it’s also a setting with enough beauty and exotic touches and good triumphing from time to time over evil to be attractive to us—yet not a goody-goody place where heroes aren’t needed, either.
From the first, I have tried to provide detail, detail, and more detail for readers and gamers. You don’t need to use the details you don’t want, or sink into embellishments so deep that enjoyment is stifled, but the color and depth is there if you want it; I’ve done the work so you feel any money you spend on one of my Realms products has been worth it. The love of this shared world has spurred many other writers, designers, and artists to add their own contributions to the Realms, each of them in turn drawing in other fans. The scope and breadth of the setting tries to offer something for everyone, too, and that has also led to popularity. Finally, just staying on the scene for thirty years has built up a history of published lore that is itself an achievement and a lure for many; a world that has a history is, again, a setting where what happens matters, so the heroics of your characters mean something. If life is building memories, we who love the Realms have built a lot together.
Craddock: We’ve talked about what writing means to you. What about gaming, as intrinsic a part of the Forgotten Realms today as the shared-world novels?
Greenwood: Gaming is about sharing experiences and having fun with friends, not about winning or beating the other guy. Publishers may view this game setting as competing with that one, but as a gamer I want them all to succeed. I want to walk into a gaming store and be blown away by the broad choice, every time, not find myself looking in vain for something new.
There’s nothing un-cool about losing. What’s un-cool is not playing, or sneering at someone else for what they play or the books (and movies, and television shows, and hobbies) they prefer. Time and chance and the marketplace will thin out the choices we all have at the buffet table, but I always want to see the table loaded.
And no victory at any gaming table is worth losing a friend.
As eccentric and occasionally less than nice any large group of gamers are, I love going to large conventions like GenCon, because for a few days I’m back in the midst of the most creative and intelligent people in the world.
Writing fantasy and science fiction is a quieter, lonelier pursuit, but it’s about making friends just as much as gaming is. For one thing, a good book (“good” for you, that is; one reader’s tripe is the next reader’s great book, and thank goodness we all like different things, or books would all be boringly the same) can become a friend; writing books is the only way I know of to create a friend, all by yourself.
About those Realms details: out on the Internet, Realms fans can ask me lore questions in my annual Questions for Ed Greenwood thread, in the Chamber of Sages, in the forums at Candlekeep at http://forum.candlekeep.com. I try to answer as often as I can, and for most of the four-plus years I’ve been at it, I have been able to keep to a one-answer-per-day schedule, more or less.
I could go on spouting profound-sounding sentences here, but I have another book to write! And more of the Realms to detail! Oh, and more games to play, too!
Part 3: Sharing Worlds - Writing in the Forgotten Realms and Magic: The Gathering Settings
[Author’s note: The following article was originally published on Fantasy Book Critic in two parts over 2009.]
In 1967, Ed Greenwood's boyhood fantasies were too bold and imaginative to be confined to backyards, playgrounds, and even sprawling woods. The future game designer's imagination overflowed with visions of fantastic creatures, ones that demanded a unique setting to complement their individuality. Thus was born the Forgotten Realms, a world Greenwood populated with creatures, events, landmarks and tales.
Greenwood couldn't keep such exciting adventures to himself. In 1987, the Realms became an official campaign in the Dungeons & Dragons setting, one fervently embraced by role-players eager to bring their own characters to life. With each game session, the continent of Faerûn, located on planet Abeir-Toril, expanded exponentially with new races, locales, and quests.
Given the campaign setting's popularity, it was only a matter of time before memorable game sessions birthed writers hoping to pen novels set in the Realms. Like the curator of a massive theme park filled with wondrous attractions, Greenwood embraced the passion many writers and designers had for his world by opening the Realms to them. The price of admission: limitless imagination. Two such writers are Bruce Cordell and Paul S. Kemp.
Like most writers, Bruce Cordell, author of Forgotten Realms novels such as Plague of Spells and numerous Advanced/D&D sourcebooks and scenarios, wrote voraciously through high school and college. And like most writers, his reward was a stack of rejection slips that grew until opportunity finally knocked. "I got a gig to do a Pick-A-Path novel for a property Hasbro was developing, but it died before publication," said Cordell. "However, that got my foot in the door enough that the [Wizards of the Coast] book department asked me to be one of the T. H. Lains on a series of short adventure novels, which I think was my first story publication credit, in 2002.
"After the T. H. Lain novel, I used my enviable position as an employee in a nearby department to show up every so many months in the book department with an 'I'm available and willing to write an FR novel' look. They offered [to let] me write one of the Priests books, which became Lady of Poison."
For Paul Kemp, author of the Erevis Cale and Twilight War trilogies, writing provided a much-needed escape from the life of a law student. "I started writing in law school, mostly because I hated law school and wanted to do something else," said Kemp. "Strangely, I enjoy the practice of law—I just disliked law school; go figure. I began with short stories, then a trunk novel that will remain so forevermore, then finally got published professionally."
Like a sentient object yearning for freedom after centuries of confinement, Kemp's trunk novel ironically opened the door through which he entered the Realms. "I submitted a writing sample—a chapter from the aforementioned trunk novel—to Wizards way back when they had an open submissions policy. The editors liked the chapter and asked me to submit a proposal for an upcoming project, the 'Sembia Series'. Things have snowballed since then."
The knowledge accrued by Bruce Cordell during his full-time work as a game designer at TSR/Wizards, in addition to his time spent as a gamer, contributed to his familiarity with the setting. But Paul Kemp was no stranger to the thriving trade hub of Calimport, the once great city of Cormanthor, or the Baldurians of Baldur's Gate despite his lack of insider credentials. "I've been a gamer since sixth grade, so I was quite familiar with the Realms, having played in the setting as both player and Dungeon Master," said Kemp. "These days I mostly DM for the same group of buddies I've gamed with for twenty years. This makes us grognards. And old. And possibly pathetic."
After accepting the invitation to add their voices to the Forgotten Realms collective, Kemp and Cordell hunkered down to chart the course of the adventures each had in mind. "I wrote an intro for each character, about a paragraph," explained Cordell. "I also wrote a chapter by chapter outline, where I specifically described what would happen in each chapter [consisting of] a large paragraph or two. Writing the outline required I take a week off work and concentrate on the outline to the exclusion of all else. For me, this is where the heavy lifting occurs."
Even a world as diverse as the Forgotten Realms will seem bland without interesting characters. Given Ed Greenwood's careful crafting of a world that became a staple in the D&D universe, one might think that Wizards would enforce copious boundaries in the creation of characters both major and minor. In that case, one would be wrong.
"I created my own protagonist: Erevis Cale, assassin and spy," said Kemp. "The only preexisting fact for which I needed to account was that he was the butler/majordomo for a powerful merchant family, and that isn't really much of a constraint. One of the common misunderstandings about writing shared world or tie-in fiction is that it places enormous creative shackles on the authors. That might be so in some lines or with some properties, but it's not the case with the Forgotten Realms. Yes, there's an underlying setting, but it's so flexible that it's a simple matter to tell the story I want to tell in the way I want to tell it."
"Imagination was the limit," agrees Cordell. "For my most recent novel, Plague of Spells, I followed my usual habit of bringing forward one character from a previous novel and making that character the new main character—Raidon Kane in this case. The other characters came to me as I sat during my week of outlining, as outlines first, that became more fully fleshed out by the end of the process. Of course, the moment you begin writing a character, he or she takes on a life not imagined in the outline, which sometimes takes the stories in directions also not in the initial outline."
To aid in their planning, Kemp and Cordell received materials from Wizards that detailed information to keep in mind while still allowing the authors plenty of opportunity for creative freedom. "All the authors were provided with a series bible that contained some information on the realm of Sembia and the city of Selgaunt, where [my] stories would be set," said Kemp. "The bible included things like common turns of phrase, a list of the leading merchant families, that kind of thing. In general, writing in the Realms means reading up on the available lore applicable to the subject matter/setting pertinent to your story. There's often far less than people imagine. At the time, there was nothing on Sembia other than the series bible. It had been left deliberately blank in the gaming materials—a place for individual DMs to develop on their own."
While the brunt of a story's direction is in the hands of the author, some projects do occasionally come with a short list of objectives that should be accomplished via any means the author sees fit. "For Lady of Poison, I had to feature someone who worshiped a god in the novel," said Cordell. "For Darkvision, [I needed] someone who practiced arcane magic, and for the Dungeons series, a suitably dungeon-like site. Really, pretty loose restrictions. For the Abolethic Sovereignty trilogy, I needed to cover what was up with the city of Xxiphu. But given Xxiphu was my creation in the game campaign guide, I was happy to be given the opportunity to write a novel trilogy about it by the publisher."
"With The Erevis Cale Trilogy, the stories simply needed to feature Cale and not result in the planet getting torched. Those are fairly broad parameters," said Kemp with a laugh. "The Twilight War Trilogy [also] needed to feature Cale but I needed to show how the Shadovar—an ancient, magical people with an affinity for darkness—took over a neighboring realm. The whys and wherefores were left to me entirely."
After receiving approval for the outline, the project is given a green light, and penning the story begins in earnest. Depending on the author's respective duties in his or her personal life and other professional capacities, writing schedules can fluctuate wildly. "I write as time allows and shoot for 1,000 to 1,500 good words per day," said Kemp.
"On regular days, I write about 500 words before going to work," said Cordell. "However, I usually end up missing days here and there, so at the end of the first draft, I take off work a couple weeks and finish up, which hopefully works out to be no more than 2,000 or so words a day—for City of Torment, it was 2,400 words a day for two weeks! Which, actually, proved to be some of my best writing on the book."
Over the course of crafting the story, authors are expected to meet explicit milestones set by Wizards in order to ensure a smooth pace from conception to publication. "Wizards Book Publishing sets very specific deadlines for outline, first draft, and second draft," explained Cordell. "If it's a first draft, the editor reads it over once to get an idea of what's going on, then again very closely with comments added. That commented manuscript, plus a separate document with uber-comments comes back to me. I incorporate all of that into my second draft. That goes back to editor, who may read it, send it to a copy editor, get it back and send it to a typesetter, get it back and send a copy to me so I can go through the thing one more time while the editor does the same. The editors say they end up reading each novel at least five times."
Certain special considerations add stipulations to the timeline. One exceptional case is an author requesting his or her protagonist's interaction with another author's character. So, what precautions and setup would be required if, for example, Erevis Cale wanted to go adventuring with R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden? "The general rule of thumb is that you get the other author’s permission and treat their characters with respect," said Kemp. "Were I to allow [such interaction], I would have the other author read the section in which their character appears and tweak as necessary to maintain consistency."
Like any process, writing a Forgotten Realms novel is not without its share of setbacks, yet the creative freedom granted by Wizards of the Coast encourages authors not to see setbacks as obstacles, but rather opportunities to tighten their stories. "Different books present different challenges, but I’ve never conceptualized any of those challenges as setbacks," said Kemp. "I do sometimes look at my first full-length novel and think – boy, I wish I could rewrite that now – but I think that’s typical of many authors. We grow in the craft over time, and something I wrote nine years ago is not at the level I write today. So it goes."
Once the process is complete, a sense of satisfaction at seeing one's work become part of the Forgotten Realms' cannon settles in—in addition to, one might imagine, an overwhelming desire for a nap. Paul Kemp and Bruce Cordell reflect on past and recent releases with fulfillment. "My most recent trilogy, The Twilight War, does a couple things of which I am proud," said Kemp. "First, I think it presents an epic fantasy storyline without losing touch with its roots in sword and sorcery. Second, it has an unusually high number of point of view characters and I think I not only manage the number well, but provide each with an interesting and satisfying character arc."
For Cordell and his Abolethic Sovereignty trilogy, the satisfaction of looking back on the project's writing was not coming up with the perfect conclusion, but the perfect segue—and without a moment to spare. "The biggest triumph [in writing Plague of Spells] was coming up with the ending that perfectly set up the second book, City of Torment, literally during the final day of writing the first draft [of Plague of Spells]," said Cordell.
Since 1987, readers and gamers alike have enjoyed following the daring exploits of their favorite characters, as well as forging their own daring campaigns—all thanks to the Realms' most attractive feature: "Its breadth," Kemp said simply. "There is something in the Realms that appeals to everyone."
"It really is a land of adventure that can contain hundreds of stories simultaneously," agrees Cordell. "Beyond that, Toril has been allowed to grow and develop; it hasn't remained a static world, and fans have been able to see that change through novels, and feel as if they were a part of those changes."
More than 20 years after Ed Greenwood opened his imagination to the masses, and dozens of books and player-created campaigns later, is there any nook or cranny left to explore? "I see it remaining an interesting, exciting place sprouting with ever more stories that grow one from the next," said Cordell. "New characters and some old will continue to stride the world achieving victories large and small. And readers will continue to enjoy peeking into those exploits via the written word—and one hopes, electronic and audible word, too."
Like the immersive pen-and-paper role-playing experiences that preceded collectible card games, devotees of Magic: The Gathering know that their game is more than a set of rules, of turn phases, of Power and Toughness ratings, of special Upkeep requirements, and the value of rare cards. In Magic, rickety card tables and smoky gaming dens morph into a magical world where players step into the boots and robes of powerful wizards that summon fantastical beasts, cast devastating spells, and craft wondrous artifacts that protect, enlighten, rend, or kill.
For such Magic: The Gathering gamers, it is the artwork depicted on a card, as well as the lore scrawled beneath it, that comprises the wonder of the Magic world and all it has to offer. It was this allure that prompted authors Doug Beyer and Ari Marmell to not only play Magic, but receive the enviable position of getting paid to expand it.
"Magic was my hobby long before it was my job," said Doug Beyer, author of Alara Unbroken, a recent addition to the Planeswalkers series of Magic novels that explores the ramifications of Alara's five separate worlds merging into one. "Before I joined Wizards of the Coast in 2000, I played and read about Magic obsessively in college, playing it with a circle of friends who would sometimes choose to squeeze in 'one more game' rather than make it to class. And before I joined Magic’s creative team, when I was a coder for the Wizards.com web site, I worked off-the-clock as a writer of flavor text for the cards. I was gobbling up the ins and outs of mages and spells and planes and planeswalking long before I knew it would lead to an opportunity to write an official Magic novel."
Not content to simply play Magic, Beyer has concocted a term for those who do more than sit at a card table crunching Attack phase statistics. "Ha!" Beyer exclaimed when I mentioned the battles waged in my imagination while playing a game of Magic. "You, my friend, are a fellow Vorthos, the term we use in my 'Savor the Flavor' column—check it out every Wednesday on MagicTheGathering.com—to refer to someone who lives for the story that the game cooks up in your imagination. It is a mark of pride. Of course I enjoy such games—even early on I imagined the parched, mana-starved earth left behind after I cast a devastating Armageddon spell, or the dark stirrings of the eldritch Umbilicus repeatedly calling my Bone Shredder minion back to its aetheric womb."
Hovering near the other end of the spectrum was Ari Marmell. Having written a variety of fiction for Wizards of the Coast such as freelance work set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, a short story for the Eberron anthology Tales of the Lost War, and a novel that was converted into a weekly serial for use on the Wizards website, Marmell had accrued plenty of Wizards writing experience. What he lacked by his own admission was a familiarity with Magic itself, having played less than a dozen games before receiving the opportunity to write a Magic novel.
Contrarily to what one might suspect, it was this unfamiliarity that prompted Wizards editor Phil Athans to nominate Marmell as a strong candidate to help launch the new Planeswalker series, a sub-series focusing on the enigmatic Planeswalkers, those able to traverse Magic's many planes of existence.
"When [Wizards] set out to begin the Planeswalker line, they wanted to target the book not only at existing Magic fans, but also other fantasy readers who might not be familiar with Magic," said Marmell. "As such, they wanted a new writer, one who could bring a new perspective and style to the book. I couldn’t speculate as to what it was specifically about my writing style that they liked, but Phil and the other editors offered me the chance to jump on board."
Properly introducing Planeswalkers to readers required that the authors flesh out a variety of planes of existence many that might have been obscure to even the most dedicated Magic player. Telling the tale of Alara's reassembling was Doug Beyer's assignment, one which, not unlike a Planeswalker, simply popped up in front of him.
"I had a pretty good 'in,' in that I’m part of Magic R&D’s creative team, the group of people responsible for building the worlds and storylines behind the game for Wizards of the Coast," explained Beyer. "We needed an author to write the story of the Alara setting, and I felt like I needed to write a book, so it worked itself out. I didn’t quite assign it to myself—it wasn’t quite that nepotistic—but I was definitely in the right place at the right time."
Once the assignments had been accepted, Beyer and Marmell began preparation for their forthcoming forays. Wizards was intent on the Planeswalker line becoming a success, which required extensive meetings and research for all involved. Ari Marmell wanted to ensure he was fully submerged in all things Magic, so Wizards flew him to their headquarters in Seattle for an all-day meeting with Phil Athans, several editors, and the majority of the creative and managerial teams. Upon completion of the crash course, talk turned to plans for Magic's line of fiction, brainstorming for Marmell's novel, and a hefty stack of material to aid in research.
"Even before I flew up there, they sent me substantial written material on some of the line’s major characters and settings, and I had even more of those to take home with me after the meeting," said Marmell.
Pivotal pieces of Alara Unbroken had already been established in the Alara style guide—an annual compilation of writings and illustrations that detail the plans of a particular year—before Doug Beyer took the project's reins. Of course, it is usually the journey rather than the destination that proves most exciting, and Beyer received plenty of opportunity to outline the particular story he wanted to tell—opportunity he enthusiastically embraced.
"Since I had helped shape those characters and worlds as part of my job, they certainly didn’t feel thrust on me; I was chomping at the bit to tell a story in Alara," said Beyer. "Plus this was the first time the character of Ajani had appeared in prose, so I was able to create some of his motivations, build his voice, and set down some detail about his life."
Outlining can be a helpful way of charting the course of a story, but a narrow outline that doesn't allow for new ideas and revisions is like a constricting cell: one becomes trapped with no room to maneuver, no room to breathe. Fortunately, Ari Marmell left himself plenty of wiggle room for details that came along as the story evolved.
"Paldor came about initially because I just needed someone leading the Ravnica cell of Tezzeret’s Infinite Consortium," said Marmell. "Once I knew I had the niche to fill, I just set about trying to create an interesting character—someone who wasn’t just 'Tezzeret lite,' or 'generic bastard #3'—to fill it."
While the outline wasn't too tight, it couldn't be too broad, either. Wizards required a clear understanding of where a story was going at all times, which required Ari Marmell to think as much through as he could. According to him, the most difficult part of the process was converting his outlines, which typically consist of rambling notes and fragments, into something comprehensible and self-explanatory. Once that phase was complete, a series of exchanges between Wizards and Marmell occurred. Wizards would ask for clarification or a more thorough explanation, Marmell would provide it, and another exchange would occur until the details were settled on both sides of the table.
Following completion of outlining, Beyer and Marmell hunkered down to begin the process of crafting their adventures. Most writers have daily goals that must be met before they feel that a day's work has been completed. Beyer adopts a strict policy of 1000 words a day. "I come home from work, have dinner, and then lock myself in my bedroom with my laptop," said Beyer. "I don’t come out until I am a thousand words closer to my goal. That usually takes me from about eight PM till eleven."
Marmell's goal is similar, though he is unabashed in admitting he enjoys a fair bit of goofing around before, during, and after his daily goal—a word count of 2000 words—has been reached. Like many writers, Marmell views his minimum as just that: a goal that must be reached, but can always be surpassed. "Under most circumstances, I [wake] up, putter around for an hour or two—check e-mail, look at various websites, all the time-wasting stuff that the modern age has brought us—and then get to writing." Should he desire a break or three, Marmell indulges, then gets back to business.
Of course, what good are several thousand words without compelling personalities to occupy them? Because Alara consisted of five separate worlds, Alara Unbroken would need to populate each shard-world with enough characters for Beyer to suitably explore how the inhabitants dealt with being part of a whole. To complement protagonist Ajani, Beyer enlisted the aid of several side characters detailed in the Alara style guide; others were featured on Magic cards of their own; and still others were spun from the author's imagination.
Ari Marmell's Agents of Artifice novel would also feature many notable Planeswalker personalities, many of which were devoid of details. Planeswalkers Jace Beleren, Tezzeret, and Liliana Vess were mere names on a list when Marmell received them from Wizards. Simple character sketches that revealed basics such as who they are and where they came from were provided as starting pointers; inflating them with personalities was his objective.
"A lot of details were up to me," Marmell said. "For instance, while I knew that Tezzeret had to be in charge of some sort of large organization, the details of the Infinite Consortium, and its methods of operation, were mine. The dragon Nicol Bolas is also a preexisting character. I wasn’t specifically asked to include him, but as my story developed, he wound up becoming a minor but integral part of it."
At any stage of the process, there are small and large hurdles which must be jumped in order to successfully cross the finish line where a finished and—one hopes—polished manuscript awaits. As is to be expected, Beyer and Marmell each had their fair share of difficulties. In Marmell's case, the greatest difficulty was creative differences, though he understands that such is often the case when one works in a pre-established setting.
"Note that this is not me pointing fingers or saying that anyone did anything improper," said Marmell. "When the company and the Magic development team are both so heavily invested in the success of the line, it’s almost inevitable that what they, or my editor, are looking for from the book isn’t always going to match what I’ve come up with. Between the first and second draft, I probably rewrote close to a quarter of the word count. Most of these weren’t overall story changes, but more about changing specific scenes or details—focus more on this character, less on that particular sub-plot, that sort of thing."
Beyer's difficulty was one with which most writers can empathize: too many characters, too little time. A number of side characters that Beyer found compelling had to have their stage time diminished or cut entirely for the sake of the main story. One woeful diminishment was the side story of Sarkhan Vol, a Planeswalker who searches out dragons and battles them to determine their worthiness of his respect.
"I could have spent an entire book on the story of Sarkhan Vol," said Beyer, "and how his quest leads him into dark, sanity-threatening territory, and how that challenges his beliefs and forces him to forge a new path for himself. But for the sake of time and clarity, I had to focus on the main storyline and keep minor characters minor, and that was the hardest part."
Eventually, the difficulties will be conquered and the revisions—the many, many revisions—will be finished. The end result for Doug Beyer and Ari Marmell: books of which each author is rightfully proud.
"I’m really happy with the book’s accessibility to both Magic fans and new readers alike," reflected Marmell on Agents of Artifice. "Serving two distinct audiences like that isn’t easy, and the fact that the book does it so well—that’s based on feedback, not just my own egotism!—is gratifying in the extreme."
"This is a strange thing to say," began Beyer regarding Alara Unbroken, "but I’m proudest of the pacing. I consider the book to be hard to put down, as it’s an ever-building series of cliffhangers. It’s not a perfect book, but from page one it moves, driving you forward to the end."
Fortunately for Beyer, Marmell, and the legions of players and readers, the appeal of Magic: The Gathering will endure long after Alara divides again, and the Infinite Consortium has faded into tales of legend. But what exactly is the X factor that makes Magic so enduring?
"The most obvious answer would be simply to say that the game-play appeals to a lot of people, but honestly, I think it’s more than that," said Marmell. "Because its premise is based around the notion of characters and creatures from an enormous variety of worlds, MTG is able to cater to the tastes and interests of almost every fantasy fan. If you’re looking for the politics of urban fantasy, you have Ravnica; if you want the bushido feel of feudal Japan, there’s Kamigawa; for horrific dark fantasy, the shard of Grixis or—for a different style of horror—the Phyrexian storylines; and so forth.
"And there’s no end to it; if someone has a brilliant idea that doesn’t easily fit into an existing setting, just create a new one. When you add to that the fact that players of the game are portraying the Planeswalkers—the powerful, chosen few who know the truth behind reality—and what you’ve got is a setup that potentially appeals to almost anyone."
Part 4: Dinner with Drizzt: Two-Part Interview with Author R. A. Salvatore
These interviews were originally published on Fantasy Book Critic and The Escapist in 2007 and 2014, respectively, and have been lightly edited for clarity.
For one as versed in the idiosyncrasies of fantasy creatures such as elves, dwarves, and orcs, it never fails to astonish many of R.A. "Bob" Salvatore's most diehard fans that the renowned author does not read much within his core genre. "I try to read the first book of a major series, but it's so hard," Salvatore explained as I sat down to dinner with Mr. Drizzt Do'Urden himself, his wife Diane, and my fiancé. "I'm writing 12 months a year at this time, and even when I say I'm not going to write, I am."
Another reason, and perhaps a far more personal one, is that Salvatore strives to be his one and only influence. "If I'm reading ... other fantasy books, they creep into my work, and I can't have that." He pauses, smiles, and then adds, "I'm planning on re-reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I'm done with my current book tour." Tolkien's venerable masterpiece inspired Salvatore to write years ago. That timeless work, he reasoned, has influenced him from the beginning of his career, so he sees no reason to shy away from it.
Though he's busy crafting his projects at any given date and time, Salvatore admits that at present, he does not adhere to any static schedules, though he'd like for this habit to change. "I'm not nearly as disciplined as I was because the kids aren't around anymore. My schedule used to go with the kids'. We'd [Salvatore and his wife] get them up and off to school, we'd have a cup of coffee, then I'd write until I had to go to their hockey game or whatever in the afternoon. But now, I'm finding that, for health reasons, so I don't get consumed by the business, I have to get on a schedule so the writing doesn't consume me."
Until he's gotten a fair bit of work done, Salvatore says that he "can't enjoy anything. We'll go for a walk, and I'll say, 'I should be home writing.' We go out for ice cream, and I say, 'I should be home writing.' When I'm not on a schedule, I feel guilty about it the entire day."
I smile as Diane Salvatore, waiting until her husband dips his head to take another bite of food, rolls her eyes at me and nods agreement.
For any writer, reading is the hammer to writing's nails. "I don't set aside time to read," Salvatore said, "but I read a lot on the Internet, I read political books, magazines, but I don't read as much fiction as I used to because, again, it seeps into my writing."
Salvatore paused, sighed, and then confessed that, "as a writer, you can't be a reader without also being an editor. I can't just read something someone's given me without thinking, 'This is what I would have done instead.' It just ruins books for me. The times when I do read are times when I'm giving a quote on a book."
While Salvatore attempts to dissuade any peer influence on his work, he understands that his fans sometimes want to have their own say about their favorite characters. "With a long running series," Salvatore says, "people have their own interests in those characters, [and] they take propriety over that series. They're thinking, 'What are you doing, messing with MY friends?'"
Yes, Salvatore understands that his paychecks do, essentially, come from his readers, but he remains firm in planting a blockade between them and his creations. "The characters will follow the course I tell them to, and they will change to fit the way I'm feeling," Salvatore says. "Whether it's Drizzt, or the Highway Man... those characters are saying what I want them to, I'm in control of them. There are things I can accomplish in a Drizzt book, and there are things I can accomplish in a Demon Wars book, and I know that the parameters, the boundaries, for each."
Could it be said, then, that Salvatore grasps the "Write for yourself" mantra as almost holy doctrine? "Absolutely," Salvatore says. "With Drizzt, it's been 20 years. As long as I'm having fun with the characters, and as long as people want to read it, and as long as the publisher wants me to write it, I'll keep writing it. So far, all of those criterion have been met. I do it because I love it, I love the characters. I do it because I found a voice through those characters."
20 years of incredible adventures with Drizzt, Bruenor, Catti-brie, Regis, and Wulfgar continues, most notably with the release of the first book in Salvatore's Transitions trilogy, The Orc King. With the aforementioned now available in bookstores, Salvatore stated that work on the remaining books is proceeding smoothly. "I'm blasting through the second book [The Pirate King] right now, on airplanes across the country as I travel for my current book tour [for The Orc King]. It's about a quarter of the way done already, in terms of actual word count, but I've got the book plotted from beginning to end. I expect to be turning it in around the first of the year."
"Plotted from beginning to end?" An interesting phraseology, and certainly not one to be overlooked. "When I say 'plotted out,' I mean that in general terms," Salvatore explains. "The characters are surprising me at every turn. I know the first act, the second act, and the third act; I know the beginning, the middle, and the end—but the end might change, and that's okay. Because all of that's already there, the hardest parts of the book to write are the beginning and the end when you know where you're going."
With the beginning and end of The Pirate King relatively in place, Salvatore says that he'll "be hitting autopilot very soon on this book for the middle part, because I know everything I need to accomplish. Now, when I'm done accomplishing all that, I might look at the book and say, 'Wait, it's not going in the direction I thought,' and that's okay. I just let it guide me."
With as much time as he spends in the Forgotten Realms, fans might be surprised that Salvatore has a land even dearer to his heart: Corona, the backdrop for his DemonWars books. "I was with Del Rey for the [DemonWars] seven book series," Salvatore says. "In the mid ‘90s, when I broke apart from TSR for a while, Owen Lock over at Del Rey contacted me and said, 'We want you to come over here and take as much time as you need to write the best book you can write.' That was music to my ears. I got to actually sit down and take all these ideas that had been bouncing around in my head since I'd first decided that I wanted to write a fantasy book, only now, I had the skills to actually do it—I think. And that world, which is my Forgotten Realms, my Middle-earth, my Shannara—that world is Corona."
To Salvatore, his time at Del Rey seemed to end before it had really begun. "Betsy Mitchell took over. There were several publishers there, but Betsy had come from Warner, and she had published my Crimson Shadow books [over at Warner]. I thought I was done. I was planning to go back, but then tried to slow down. I had too many books to write, and I thought I wanted a break. Of course, as soon as I slowed down, I started to go faster. An opportunity came up when Bertelsmann bought Random House, and they sold off one of their warehouses to Gilbert Pronman, and I knew Gilbert very well because he'd been running the Random House Juvenile Merchandise division, the division who used to distribute TSR."
Gilbert, Salvatore elaborated, "wanted me to come over and write a book for him at this company he started, called CDS. It was a distribution company, but they wanted to do some publishing. They were really trying to change the entire structure of the way authors make money writing books. I'd seen the world change, and I thought that was an important step to try. And, I love working with Gilbert, anyway. So I went over and did The Highwayman, which was originally for CDS books."
No winds of change blow faster than those of the business world. "CDS got bought by Perseus, Gilbert left, and everyone else I was working with, they left," Salvatore said. "So I thought, 'Well, I'm done. I'll just go do my Drizzt books,' and then Tom Doherty called me. I talked to CDS and Perseus, and they granted me back the rights to Highwayman, so I'm writing The Ancient, with the same lead character, and that will be out in March, and I'm going on from there."
Working with Tor, and more specifically, Tom Doherty, is a long-time goal which Salvatore is ecstatic to have achieved. "Tom, when he called me, he said, 'I really like your books, and I want you working for me.' I thought, 'Oh, here we go,' because everyone always says that. They never read your books, they just say they read your books. But Tom, he came up to Boston, and when he was discussing what he liked about my books, I realized that he ... got what I do."
At Tor, Doherty's word is law, and that is a rule Salvatore appreciates. "I love working with Tor because I'm working with a publisher who doesn't have to answer to bureaucracy. Tom Doherty makes a decision, and that's the decision, and I love that. He's a reasonable guy, he's sharp, and he's proven that, time and time again. Robert Jordan? Tor. Terry Goodkind? Tor. When he [Tom Doherty] talks, you listen if you're smart. It's been a pleasure working with him, and I'm so happy to be back in the world of Corona, that I created with DemonWars."
At this juncture, our party of four paused to pore over the dessert menu. While the others pontificated selections of chocolate and cheesecake, I had other concerns, which I raised immediately after our respective orders were placed. Though Corona is Salvatore's, does working with a certain publisher mandate that the world he created is only his to a degree?
"I have the space to move around," Salvatore confirmed. "They'll find a space for me to hide if I need to hide from what's going on elsewhere, but that's not even it. From the beginning of becoming a writer, I've had this vision of a fantasy world that I wanted [to create]. I did a little of it with the Crimson Shadow books that I wrote for Warner, but I had had the time to really develop the world that I wanted."
With Corona, Salvatore finally had the chance to flesh out the machinations of his imagination—but why with Tor? Why not with Del Rey, the publisher that gave Salvatore the chance to give birth to Corona and its inhabitants?
"It's nothing against Del Rey," Salvatore says. "I still have some dear friends there. Betsy [Mitchell] and I have known each other for, what, it's gotta be 18 years now? It's funny, because [my wife Diane and I] went to ComicCon last year in San Diego. We were there with Wizards [of the Coast], but when we got to my hotel room, some friends from Del Rey were there, and I ended up having dinner with the guys from Del Rey almost every night. I still love everybody there."
And, as mentioned, the opportunity to work with publishing legend Tom Doherty was too lucrative a chance to pass up. "I really wanted to work with Tom Doherty before he decides, "Enough is enough," and retires. He's one of the giants in the science fiction and fantasy fields, someone I'd never worked with. And, it [going to Tor] gave me the opportunity to work with Mary Kirchoff again. Mary's my dear friend, the one who pulled me out of the slush pile [in 1987], so what can I say? I really wanted to work with Tor, and with Tom. And he came to me. That was the biggest thing. I mean, Tom Doherty asking me to come work with him—I don't take that lightly. This guy's been around the business since the 50s, and... I'm happy with him."
Salvatore assured me that a return to Del Rey is not outside the realm of possibility. "I'm not saying I wouldn't go back to Del Rey. There was no falling out or anything like that."
After our waiter arrived and distributed our desserts—I'll admit to snitching more than a few bites of my fiancé’s chocolate and caramel-covered dish—Salvatore took a bite of his, chewed, swallowed, and then said, "I've been really lucky in that, in all my years of working, I've only had one situation that wasn't great in this business."
The 'situation' in question was one Salvatore had alluded to earlier in the evening: a rather ugly split that occurred between the author and publisher TSR during the mid-1990s. Trouble between the two parties had been rumbling deep in the Underdark for quite some time, but the final straw manifested itself as the death of one of Salvatore's protagonists in his dark elf books: Wulfgar.
"I'd get letters saying, 'I'm glad you killed Wulfgar. That took guts, don't you dare bring him back.' Others would say, 'Wulfgar was my favorite character, you'd better bring him back!' I was like, 'Oh boy, what'd I do here?' I was on the fence for a long time about [killing the character]. Again, while I'm writing these books, the characters surprise me, page after page. With Wulfgar, I was never quite sure whether he'd ever re-appear, or if he was dead and gone. I knew that they [TSR] were going to get someone else to write dark elf books, and I knew that if I didn't bring him back, someone else ... would. So, sense I was on the fence anyway, I decided that, in the last book I wrote, I would bring Wulfgar back, and I'd give Bruenor back his eye, and I'd make everything nice and neat so no one else could come in and tamper with things."
Despite the ugly break-up, Salvatore maintains his stance that it was not his falling out with TSR that led to Wulfgar's resurrection, but his own indecision about the character's death in the first place.
"I wouldn't have done it, even if someone else would've come along and brought Wulfgar back, if I wouldn't have been so on the fence about doing it in the first place. Three years later, because there was still something nagging at me, something saying, "Maybe he's not dead," that was kind of like flipping the coin. When I wrote Passage to Dawn, I knew in my heart and soul that that would be the last book I would write for TSR. After Wizards bought TSR, I got a call saying they wanted me back—but I told them no. I said, If anyone else writes those books, I won't touch the characters ever again; they're dead to me.'"
At long last, Salvatore and Wizards of the Coast reconciled, and Wulfgar's creator was able to continue his story. "I'm really glad I brought Wulfgar back. When I was writing Spine of the World, I came to appreciate making something of what Wulfgar had gone through. When I wrote that book, I sent it to my editor and I said, 'Half the people are going to love this book, and the other half are going to hate it. It is what it is, and there's nothing I can do about it.'"
Even though Wulfgar is once again a citizen of the Forgotten Realm's mortal plane, the initial death was difficult to write, as is the case for any of his characters. "They're not just words to you as a writer," Salvatore says, "just like they're not just words to readers. When I wrote Mortalis [the fourth book of DemonWars], it was during the darkest time of my life. I was watching my best friend, my brother, die of cancer while I was writing that book. I have a character in that book, who was very minor, and all the sudden it hits me about three-quarters through the book: this character has really taken over. I've given him as complete a story as I've ever written about any character in my life. I've absolutely fallen for the guy as a character, and it hurt like hell to kill him."
Difficult though it may be, the death of a character, minor or major, is something Salvatore sees as a necessity in good storytelling. "I pull a lot of fast ones to make readers think a character is dead when they're not. That's part of the drama, bringing them to the edge of destruction, of despair, but I've never miraculously reversed anything. Even with Wulfgar, I left myself an out from the beginning, because I wasn't sure. Did he die, or was he taken away? I'd already sent the precedent that certain extra planar creatures can take other creatures their plan, just as Guenhwyvar did with Regis in The Crystal Shard."
Fear not, for Salvatore sees no reason to become bloodthirsty. "Characters have died in the books, and characters will continue to die in the books, but that doesn't mean I have to get bloodthirsty. If you read my DemonWars books ... you have to be careful if you get too attached; people are gone all the time. With the Drizzt books, I don't think the readers really want someone to die. Although, if the story in a Drizzt book dictates that somebody has to go, then somebody has to go—permanently. Nobody's off limits."
Returning Wulfgar to the land of the living is an act of fantasy that Salvatore fervently, desperately wishes could be performed on a character arguably even more popular than the storyteller's beloved barbarian. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Bob Salvatore was commissioned to write a Star Wars books in the popular New Jedi Order series. Like most honors, this one did not come without a price.
"When I signed up to do Vector Prime, I'd wanted to work with Shelley Shapiro, the editor, for a long time. She's a celebrated editor, and for good reason: she's a fantastic person, and a fantastic friend. She called me in August of '98 and asked me if I could come in and do a book for them, and they needed it done fast. I agreed to do it, but called Wizards of the Coast first and said, 'Look, they want me to do this Star Wars book, so I'm going to need an extension on the [next] Drizzt book.' Wizards agreed, saying, 'We think it'll be great for you. It's Star Wars, so have a blast.'
It was at about that point, Salvatore said, that the sky began to fall. "I signed the contract, got the advance check, put it in the bank. They'd given me what they wanted, showing me the A to Z story arc for the New Jedi Order series, and they told me, 'Take this from A to B.' I got to work putting together this story, and I had to involve a cast of millions, all the characters from the movies, everyone from the main books. I came up with the story, and I had to give them a victory, and introduce a new enemy being developed for the New Jedi Order.
"I put everything together and sent them my outline. I was on a conference call with Lucasfilm and Del Rey, and they said, 'Wow, we really like this, we think you definitely get it—but didn't anybody tell you?'
"I said, 'Tell me what?'
"They said, 'Well, you have to kill Chewbacca.'
"I said, 'Whoa, where can I return the check?' They convinced me that they were doing it for the right reasons, and the convinced me that they were doing this to show the Star Wars fans that they were serious. So, I did it. I gave them a death worthy of Chewbacca, but in retrospect, if I could take anything back in my writing career, that would be it. Not because of all the death threats, but because to this day, I'm still not sure if we should have done that."
Despite having that one regret, Bob Salvatore insists on looking forward to ever-expanding horizons. Having recently branched out into the realm of video games, Salvatore happily announces that his start-up company, 38 Studios, which he runs with Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, is doing quite well.
"We're making a MMORPG [Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game]," Salvatore confides, "and we're talking about a process that's going to take us three or four years. Right now, we're really focusing on a sort of pre-production phase. I believe that when you're creating a world for people to exist in, the consistency, the logic, the "sameness"—everything has to make sense in the world."
Currently, the game is still firmly rooted in planning stages. "You have all these different races populating different cultures in the world, and their relationships have to make sense. You can't just say, 'Well, what happens if this king hates this king? Let's write a quest about that!' You want to look deeper than that so the quests will naturally evolve from the world's history. The pre-production phase of building this world is creating this rich history from what we know we have in the world. I don't know what we're going to use for middleware, if we're even going to have middleware; what we're going to use for an engine; or what we're going to do with X, Y, or Z."
Due to not having much concrete information—at least, information he's willing to divulge—Salvatore says that saying too much about the project right now "would be dumb, because you can't create buzz about something years before it shows up. Also, it wouldn't be honest, because this process is going to change so many times over the next few months. When I look back at the original work that I did for the world—and we're just a few months in now—so much of that work has become invalid, because we're gone different places."
Despite being eager for things to really get rolling, Salvatore feels lucky to be surrounded by the talented people he and Curt have brought on board at 38 Studios. "The video games are great because I get to work with these really young, brilliant designers and artists. I plant the seeds and they're the ones fertilizing them, watering them. I come in every week for meetings and these guys show me what they've been up to, and I can't help but think, 'Wow, this is just too cool.' So I'm sort of the mentor figure at this point. After creating the threads, the basis for this world, they're taking those threads and creating tapestries with theme, in terms of both design and art. It's an incredible experience."
With such a passion for gaming that dates back to the origination of TSR's Dungeons & Dragons game, Salvatore isn't surprised to see technology pushing video games as the "next big thing" in storytelling. In fact, that is a venture he fully supports.
"The potential is there for that, the way movies are storytelling. I do believe that there'll be a lot better storytelling, especially if you're doing huge, persistent worlds, like an MMORPG. I think so, absolutely. Some of the storylines in games like EverQuest II and World of WarCraft are amazing, but again, in those games—and not to disparage them in any way—but the fact that we're doing things differently, building the story before we really get going, gives us the opportunity to make those stories really fit together in a way that hasn't been done before."
Though a devout gamer, this writer has some doubts as to the far-reaching ability of the electronic game. Earlier in the evening at a book signing, an older fan fanatically waved a copy of The Highwayman through the air, stating to Salvatore that she'd read it numerous times. Easily in her late 70s, could this older woman be the sort of market that video game developers like 38 Studios are striving to reach? Could video games ever have the accessibility of, say, a book or a film?
"I predict that within ten years, more people will be playing video games than watching television. I don't see how you can't get to that point. You're seeing interactive T.V. more and more. Knowing how much fun video games are, things like Second Life where the whole gimmick is creating a world for yourself, I firmly believe that we're standing on the edge of this gigantic wave that's going to change the way people are entertained. And I think within that, there are other things as well. Educationally, societal... I think the Internet is shrinking the world, because if you're in my guild, or you're on my arena team, I won't go to war with you (except in game). I see the Internet as this transformative power. If the mainstream media is failing, the Internet will pick up the pieces. I believe in the power of gaming. 'World domination through gaming,' that's the motto for 38 Studios."
Along a similar vein of graphical storytelling via video games is Salvatore's venture to see many of his works adapted into graphic novels. "I think it's really, really cool to see my books being translated into that format, and to watch the work involved in Andrew Dabb's storyboarding, and then having some of the artists that [publisher] Devil's Due has been putting on these things.... They're taking these images and putting them on such beautiful storyboards. I think it's expanding the audience, and I think it's giving the readers something else to enjoy. I don't know what the percentages are. I'd bet that many people picking up the Drizzt graphic novels are also Drizzt [novel] readers. I'm more concerned with other creative people expanding on something I've done. That's what warms me."
Not having the chance to get to know James Rigney—best known by his pen name Robert Jordan, author of the Wheel of Time series of epic fantasy novels—is another of Salvatore's regrets. "I'd only met Jim once. We were on a panel together years ago, and didn't even really have the chance to say hello. But, when I read his blog post that announced his disease to his fans, I thought, 'Wow, what a set. That's intestinal fortitude.' He manned up, and I was impressed. I went over to his blog, and I posted, 'From all the people at RASalvatore.com, our well wishes. Fight this, and finish that series.' A lot of my fans are Jordan fans as well. The overlap between all of us is substantial.
"That was during June of , and I didn't think anything of it. Now, I'm working for Tor, which is Jordan's home, so Tom Doherty would give me updates on how Jim was doing. All the sudden, I got an email from Jim last fall, thanking me for the blog post. We only sent a few emails back and forth, because he was spending what little time he had left at his computer, trying to finish his project. He and I had mutual friends, and they would all tell me, 'You have to get to talking with this guy, he's wonderful.'
"I always seemed to follow him on tour, or he followed me. Usually, Terry Brooks is right before me, and then when I go out, it's me, Robert Jordan, and George Martin. We bounced through the same stores. We swapped media escorts all the time, but we never got to talk to each other. It's a huge loss for the fantasy genre."
The hour had drawn close to midnight, and Bob Salvatore had another day of touring ahead of him. As we made our way out of the restaurant, I got the opportunity to hear a few last thoughts on one of Salvatore's favorite subjects: fantasy literature.
"The one thing I think people should recognize more about the fantasy genre is that, there are so many levels to it, about why people read fantasy books. Some people read fantasy for no other reason than to forget about a bad day at work. Escapism is a great tactic, if used in moderation. Someone may pick up a Drizzt book because they don't want to think about something bad going on at work. A kid might read a book because he can identify with the heroes and feel empowered by them.
"I wish people, writers in the genre, would appreciate the fact that there are many reasons people have to read a book. First and foremost, I look at my job as an entertainer. If a guy in Baghdad's reading my books to forget about what he had to do that day, that's good. If a kid's reading my books and feeling empowered by them, that's great—but the only one that can make that sort of determination is the reader."
Is it safe to say that Salvatore considers fantasy to be what many pretentious critics refer to as "real” literature? Of course. "It always has been," Salvatore says. "Genre literature is literature, and I think that that word, 'literature,' is used as a bludgeon, because people spend so much time trying to prove that they're better than other people. C.S. Lewis said that the only one who can determine the relationship between a book and a reader, is the reader. I don't know what that word 'literature' means, and I don't think the people who wield that word know either. It is what it is, we do what we do, and no one should ask us to apologize for that."
Every creator draws motivation from somewhere. For several years, R. A. "Bob" Salvatore drew from a wellspring visited by millions of parents each day. When fatigue set in, he would look above his monitor, where he had taped his children's college tuition to the wall. The sight of all those zeroes set his fingers racing as fast as his heart.
Salvatore and I sat down to dinner the night of September 30, which marked the release of Rise of the King, Salvatore's second published book in 2014. The first question I asked was whether he even bothered to pencil sleeping into his schedule. "Well, what happened was, for a few years, I was down to one book a year because I was working at 38 Studios," he began. "When 38 collapsed, it left a big hole in my schedule and in my heart. So I called Wizards [of the Coast] and said, 'Hey, instead of doing one Drizzt book a year, why don't we crank up that schedule and do two a year?' And they were like, 'Uh, yes!'"
Returning to the Forgotten Realms and traveling by the side of Drizzt and his friends, the Companions of Mithral Hall, proved cathartic for Salvatore. The full-time author had doubled as 38's Creative Director and had been intimately involved in penning the backstory for Kingdoms of Amalur and the ill-fated Project Copernicus MMORPG. "I needed to do that. I needed to bury myself in work just because I didn't want to think about it. It was a painful experience."
At a book signing earlier in the day, he announced two books on the slate for 2015. After that, he'll dial back down to one per calendar year, but not because his fingers need a break. "I think we're outstripping the readers. We need to give them time to settle in and catch up," he admitted.
The publicists at Wizards are amenable to any schedule Salvatore wants to set. He's been a part of the Forgotten Realms since 1988 when he published The Crystal Shard, his first novel and the first adventure starring Drizzt and his whirling scimitars. Twenty-six years later, both author and publisher are comfortable easing off the gas when necessary. "If I have a due date in August and the book doesn't get done until November, that's okay. I've been doing this for a long time, and there's really not going to be a big edit [on any particular book]. It'll be a small percentage, just around the edges. They're not worried that we'll have to [delay the release], or having to say, 'Okay, you've got to throw this all out and redo it,' which happens sometimes. But at this point, it's completely under control. I know where I'm going and the characters are going to take me there anyway. It's pretty laid back."
Every two weeks, Salvatore, other Realms authors, and the publishing team at Wizards convene online or over the phone to discuss the state of the Realms. Traditionally, each Realms author stayed in his or her corner of the world. "I basically hide away from the main stories as much as I can, but we really don't want to do that anymore because they're licensing more now. There are a couple of computer games set in the Realms: Dungeons & Dragons Online, and Neverwinter, and I'm sure there will be more."
I commented that Wizards seemed to be in a good place. The company was bigger than ever before, yet seemingly taking even greater strides to give its authors and game designers as much creative control as possible. Salvatore agreed. "They're bigger than they've ever been, but not personnel-wise. They're not doing as many products because they're licensing. When you start talking about the numbers involved in computer games, movies, and TV--they're substantially higher, but there are fewer people involved at Wizards."
If anything, the authors are running the asylum. Several years ago, Wizards shook things up through a world event known as the Era of Upheaval. Goddesses died, main characters perished, and armies clashed. As things died down, Salvatore and other Realms authors were given the task of writing a multi-book series called The Sundering.
"It was a blast," Salvatore reminisced. "They threw us into a room. It was Troy Denning, who I love like a brother. I've known Troy for 27 years and I just love his work. Ed Greenwood was there, of course. Ed and I are six months apart in age and we've been together since early on in the Realms. I came in when the Realms really got going. You add Erin Evans, who I think is one of the most talented writers. I hope more people will read her books because she's just wonderful. Her characters are so full of life. Richard Lee Byers was involved. And we also had Paul Kemp, who is just brilliant."
Kemp and Evans sat in via conference call. Over several days, the authors, joined by game designers and the marketing team, riffed back and forth on what they wanted to do. Wizards' ace marketing team sat back and listened, letting the creators pave the path. "I went home from that summit and said to my wife, 'I'm home. This is the creative atmosphere that you want when you're working on a project like this.'"
Although The Sundering was constructed as a series, each book stood alone. Salvatore likened the team effort to writing about the events of World War II. "I'm doing the Blitz, Ed Greenwood's doing the North Africa campaign, Erin Evans' is doing the Holocaust, Paul Kemp's doing the Pacific, and Richard Lee Byers is doing D-Day. We were all doing different things and using different characters, but it's this over-arching event that affects [the Forgotten Realms] as we go."
More recently, he collaborated with his son Geno on Stone of Tymora, a three-book series in which Geno's characters crossed paths with Drizzt. "I wrote a few chapters, but I was really just [Geno's] editor," Salvatore clarified. "I wrote some of the scenes, saying, 'I want to do this one and this one.' With some other ones, he said, 'You should do this one,' or 'I did this battle scene but I want it to pop a little bit. See if you can do something with it.'
Like Nintendo, Wizards of the Coast does not put all its eggs in one basket. The company builds pillars, and many of those pillars support each other. Forgotten Realms is a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting ripe for stories and characters told in novel form and pen-and-paper role-playing games alike. "Everyone was warning us, 'Oh, pen-and-paper games are dead. It's going to go out there and fall flat,'" Salvatore recalled. "Magic: The Gathering doesn't stop selling, of course. It's phenomenal, just incredible. The [Dungeons & Dragons] 5th Edition [...] is blowing up the shelves. They're in their second printing already. A lot of that is nostalgia, but I think a lot of it is that people are a little tired of staring at computer screens. They want human contact."
A desire to foster human contact among a generation of young gamers growing up in front of screens instead of gathered around a table throwing dice spurred Salvatore to create his own tabletop game. "My nephew was playing one of the new Halo games [on Xbox 360], and I wanted to join because all my nephews were playing. They're on my softball team. I'm like, 'I'll play,' and they said, 'You don't want to play.' I said, 'What? Why not?' He gave me his headphones, and there was this 10-year-old kid [in the game], and every word out of his mouth is racist, sexist, and just horrible. I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' He said, 'It's like that all the time. You don't want to play.'"
Salvatore recounted his visit to PAX East in 2012. Touring the booths, he marveled at the perpetual foot traffic pounding through the board-game room--a boom owed in large part to the growing popularity of Kickstarter as a platform for designers who, like Salvatore, want to get more families to gather around the table rather than in front of screens. "I love Kickstarter. When I did the [DemonWars] Kickstarter, what I loved was, you're out there naked. Your name's on it, you're responsible for it. If I sent a book to somebody and he says it's damaged, I have to replace that book. I like that. That's good pressure, a pressure that reminds you, 'These people are backing you, they believe in you, and you have to deliver.'"
A. Salvatore has a reputation as a bulldog behind closed doors. He works without an agent, asserting that he can be as tough as he needs to be when it comes to looking out for his interests. But the author was powerless when 38 Studios began to crumble. "I remember when [a journalist] called me up and said, 'They owe you $2 million. Why aren't you suing Curt?' Why would I sue Curt? He didn't do anything wrong. He didn't do anything nefarious. Maybe he made a couple of bad business decisions, I don't know. But he didn't do anything nefarious, and he got wiped out. He's lying in the gutter and you want me to kick him in the head? Why would anyone do that?"
38 Studios enjoyed an auspicious beginning. Founded in 2006 by former MLB player Curt Schilling, the company published Kingdoms of Amalur, a single-player RPG for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3, in 2012. Salvatore was brought on board by Schilling, who called the author out of the blue one evening.
Giddy at the prospect of working with one of his favorite ball players, Salvatore signed on the dotted line and got to work designing a rich, 10,000-year back story for Amalur. "The world was created by my D&D group. I hired them before we had even formed the company to help me create a world. One guy and I really ran with it. We'd be on the phone watching History channel coming up with ideas back and forth, every weekend."
Other luminaries joined 38's ranks. Steve Danuser, a game designer on EverQuest II, headed up gameplay design. Legendary comic-book artist Todd McFarlane painted the look of the world, working closely alongside Salvatore to confirm that his art matched what the author envisioned in his head.
Then, in 2012, months after Kingdom of Amalur's release, 38 Studios fell apart. The fall from grace left heads spinning, including Salvatore's, who was not involved in the day-to-day operation of the company. The trouble started when Schilling relocated 38 Studios to Rhode Island when the state offered a loan of $75 million as part of its effort to help companies get off the ground.
"What I think happened at 38 was when we got to a point where we needed more money and Rhode Island came into the picture," Salvatore told me. "The board decided to go with Rhode Island. From what I'm reading now, it sounded to me that as soon as people found out that Rhode Island was investing tens of millions of dollars into the company, vultures began to circle. They wanted to find ways to alleviate us of that money."
Salvatore held up a finger. "There's one thing I want to clear up. There's a rumor going around that [Kingdom of Amalur] Reckoningsunk the company.Reckoningbeat expectations. EA were the ones that funded the game with Big Huge Games [primary developer on Reckoning], and that wasn't what I was working on. I was working on the MMO, Project Copernicus. EA funded Reckoning with Big Huge Games, and it was supposed to sell 1.2 million copies [by 90 days after release]."
Per a Tweet sent out by Curt Schilling, Reckoning hit its projected sales marker.
Salvatore hopes the pundits pointing fingers at Reckoning will look instead to the finicky landscape of MMORPGs, and 38's inability to secure more funding. "We ran out of money. The MMO grew too big, the market kept changing, and it kept getting more expensive to bring a game to market because you had to have these features in it or nobody would play it. We just got bled dry. It wasn't Reckoning [that sunk the company]. The guys at Big Huge Games deserve nothing but applause for what they did."
As for all the writing and world-building Salvatore did for Amalur, those documents, along with everything else 38 touched, are tied up in legal proceedings. "The State of Rhode Island has [the Amalur IP] in bankruptcy. Every now and then I hear about people who might want to buy it, and they ask me if I want to be involved. We'll see what happens."
I asked Salvatore if, hypothetically, he would be interested in taking the Amalur IP and writing a series of books rather than video games, assuming he could get hold of the IP. He gave the matter some thought, then said, "No, I don't want to buy it. First of all, I couldn't afford it. [laughs] We're talking a lot of money. But second of all, the amount of work it would take to bring it to game form, in any way, would require a team. I'm a writer. I'm not going to make the same mistake that Curt [Schilling] made and think I can run a company."
If he were given the opportunity to pick and choose pieces of lore to retrieve from the debris of 38's remains, Salvatore would reclaim the short stories that he wrote to promote the game. "I wrote a story for Curt for his 40th birthday. I love those stories and I want them back, but I would have to buy them. As far as writing books, we'll see what happens. I'm just kind of sitting back and seeing what happens."
Shaking his head, Salvatore closed the book on the subject of 38 Studios by saying, "I think it was a case of innocence colliding with very sharp people. It's a very risky business to begin with. Computer-game companies get wiped out all the time, and this was just one of those situations."
We turned our attention to DemonWars: Reformation. The tabletop RPG was designed largely by Salvatore's son, Bryan, who had worked on game design at 38 Studios before the studio's demise. "By the time 38 Studios collapsed, Bryan was the guy working on all the classes, all the monster abilities, all the balancing on the MMO. His bosses, huge names in the computer-games industries, were coming up to me and saying, 'Bryan's our star. We throw everything at him and he just keeps hitting it.'"
When 38 Studios toppled, Salvatore went back to writing books full-time. Bryan, however, was unemployed. Salvatore came up with something to keep them both busy. "I said, 'Bryan, I designed this [tabletop] game in 1990. What do you think of it?' He looked at it and said, 'Well... it sucks. But I can fix it.' So I said, 'Well, fix it.' We had a blast."
The prototype Salvatore dug out of the closet was a standard dice-based game predicated on percentages. Bryan retooled the game, incorporating his father's DemonWars setting and designing a fast-paced style of play that appealed to the elder Salvatore's love of first-edition D&D. "In first-edition Dungeons & Dragons, you have to be able to think on your feet. That's what I liked about EverQuest: monsters could spawn unexpectedly and people could betray you. You had to be agile because the unexpected was going to happen. You had to think outside the box."
D&D's debut edition offered players and dungeon masters (DMs) nearly limitless flexibility. In Salvatore's opinion, future editions of the games restricted that freedom of choice. DemonWars: Reformation puts the players back in control. The game master (GM) can extend the rules to any off-the-cuff whim players come up with, keeping the pace snappy and the party engaged. "For example, if I'm on a staircase, and we're fighting, and I want to jump off the staircase, grab the chandelier, swing across, drop behind the monsters and pop them one--the GM can assign a difficulty to that," Salvatore said proudly. "I roll an agility to check and see if I can make it. Then I spend my balance to bring it up to the [agility] check so that I make it."
Salvatore and Bryan are eyeing another Kickstarter campaign to add more characters, as well as add options for party sizes. They hope players will experiment by mixing together different types of characters. Knights, for example, wear heavy armor and will triumph in most one-on-one encounters. Monks work better in a group. Each monk added to a group increases their strength, so a group of monks will likely walk all over a group of knights.
DemonWars: Reformation also gave Salvatore the opportunity to partner with his son Geno, the primary author of the Stone of Tymora books, once again. "We love working together. We're doing another Kickstarter, and we might be doing some comics. 'The Education of Brother Thaddius,' the novella I wrote for the DemonWars Kickstarter, is going to Audible, to Kindle. There's a new imprint comic company that said, 'Are the comic rights available for that?' We said, 'Why yes, they are, and Geno and I would love to write it.' So it looks like we'll be working together a lot. It's very cool. I love working with my kids."
Over 19 years and more than 20 books, Drizzt and his friends, known as the Companions of Mithral Hall, were inseparable. They fought wars, journeyed side by side into the unknown, and took on personal quests to absolve one another of pain and guilt.
Then, in the Transitions trilogy that began with 2007's The Orc King and concluded in 2009's The Ghost King, Salvatore did the unthinkable: two of the Companions were killed in one fell swoop, leaving readers stunned. "I wanted to tear your heart out," he stated plainly. "When Drizzt woke up that morning and found [Cattie-brie] dead beside him... My goal was, I am going to make this hurt like it has never hurt before."
The opening salvo of the Transitions trilogy was the starring role given to Obould Many-Arrows, an orc chieftain who aspired to unite the clans under his banner and co-exist peacefully with elves, dwarves, and humans--a very un-orc-like aspiration.
"One of the things that intrigues me about fantasy is that it is racist," Salvatore explained. "You're not talking about humans, so I guess you can get away with it. Orcs are supposed to be the embodiment of evil in fantasy. It started many years ago when I wrote the short story 'Dark Mirror,' where Drizzt runs into a goblin. He finds out the goblin is an escaped slave. The goblin seems like a great guy, and Drizzt wants to believe that, because he isn't what people expect from a dark elf."
Salvatore hoped that his readers, like Drizzt, would be suspicious of Obould. Did he truly want to progress his people as a race? Or was Obould being played, used as a pawn by an orc god that needed a figurehead under which all orcs could rally and wreak havoc on the Realms?
"It's an interesting question because it comes from racial issues, the prejudices that people have, the cultural differences--but I'm always uncomfortable with it. In a way, fantasy does the same thing. Fantasy is a war without guilt. We have slanderous names for whoever we're fighting [during a war]. You dehumanize your enemy because that makes it easier to kill them. Fantasy does that to the ultimate level with orcs, goblins, trolls, and things like that. But there's been a movement in fantasy, because of computer games, to allow people to play as orcs [and other traditionally evil races]. Now people want to know: are orcs really bad?"
Providing answers to such topical questions is not Salvatore's job. Getting readers, and now gamers, to think raise the questions in the first place--that's what he loves. "I don't have an answer for Obould's situation. I may never [have an answer]. But it's fun to explore."
More than Obould's time in the spotlight, fans remember Transitions for the deaths of Regis and Catti-brie, two of the companions that made up Drizzt's merry band. Salvatore was not the one who suggested that the Companions be torn asunder. "Wizards advanced the Forgotten Realms 100 years. A 140-year-old woman won't fight very well. I didn't want to kill them. The story wasn't done. [Catti-brie] was going in an interesting direction, and I love the character of Regis. My hand was forced."
Despite feeling backed into a corner, Salvatore admitted that he liked how things turned out. "By forcing my hand, [Wizards] forced me into an uncomfortable place, and in an uncomfortable place, you have to be really creative to become comfortable again. They forced me to do things I wouldn't have done."
Catti and Regis did not die like heroes. They fell to the Spellplague, the consequence of the death of Mystra, goddess of magic, which caused magic to run wild all across the world. One minute, Catti and Regis were up and about, talking and living. The next, their minds were gone, reducing them to vegetables.
Such ignominious death had plagued Salvatore's reality, a bitter wellspring from which he drew to write the deaths of Regis and Catti-brie. "Sometimes shit just happens," Salvatore said. "Excuse my French, but sometimes it does just happen. What heroic reason was there for my brother to get cancer and die? There's no heroic reason. It just happened. It doesn't make sense. It's ridiculous. You hear about some kid riding his bike and he gets hit by a car. There's no rhyme or reason to that. There's no plan. It's just awful."
Readers felt his pain. When he killed Wulfgar much earlier in the Drizzt line of books, Salvatore received letters from both sides of the fence. When Catti and Regis died, "there was no outrage," the author said. "It was just like, 'Well, I guess it had to happen sometime.'"
From the outside looking in, Catti-brie and Regis were dead and buried. Salvatore saw things differently. From the moment he walked out of the meeting where he, Ed Greenwood, and other Realms authors and game designers received the news that the world would be advanced 100 years, the wheels in his head were turning.
"I get 20 letters a day--every day!--from people who say, 'I was in a dark place, and these characters became my friends.' This isn't something like a television series that runs for two years. It's been going for 27 years. There are people in their 40s who were young teenagers when they found Drizzt and are still with him."
Salvatore recalled feeling nervous when he wrote the characters' resurrections in The Companions, afraid that fans might call foul. "But I thought I had a good way of doing it. I thought it made sense, and I thought I could make a point."
Well aware of how they died, each character resolves to live differently. Regis, now known as Spider, was a coward. As the littlest of the companions, he worried that he was an albatross to his more combat-competent friends. From the moment he leaves his new mother's womb, Spider trains with a grim determination. He will not be the weakest link in the chain.
Bruenor, who died in the Neverwinter Saga series that followed Transitions, is pissed off. "He thinks, well, if this happened, is everything I did before heroic? That's the question I knew a lot of readers would ask," Salvatore said. Cattie-brie, too, questions the meaning of all that came before, and endeavors to explore options closed to her in her previous life. Wulfgar the barbarian takes a completely different tack. In his first life, he was good and honorable. Now, he just wants to have fun. "He's a complete hedonist. If it's fun, he's going to do it, whether it's fighting or making love. He figures he's on borrowed time. He already paid his dues, so this is his reward."
Salvatore got into the habit of inscribing The darkest night on copies of The Ghost King at signings, a hint of the darkness that would grow more cloying over each page. Then, with The Companions, the run rose and shone all the brighter. "The thing that drew me to the Realms in the first place was that it was a really hopeful world. Then it became grim after the Spellplague. Very dark, nihilistic, and gritty--I hate that word--which seems to be the trend in fantasy. I hate that trend. I want fantasy to be enjoyable. I want to escape to a better place, not a worse place. So I wanted to restore that sense of optimism."
Smiling, Salvatore continued: "You can't believe the letters I get about this book: 'Thank you. My world just got better.' Not everything has to be gritty and depressing all the time."
Setting Drizzt aside and focusing on tertiary characters is something Salvatore fans have come to expect and appreciate. The Spine of the World focused on Wulfgar's struggle to recover from the torture he had suffered at the hands of the demon that had broken him mentally and spiritually. "When I turned in the manuscript to my editor, I said, 'Half the people are going to love this book, and half are going to hate it. There's nothing I can do about that.' Boy did I call it right on the nose. I got letters saying, 'What's the matter with Wulfgar? He got all his hit points back!' Other people said, 'One day at a time, man. This is awesome.' They were going through similar difficulties."
Even though Wizards' mandate gave him the chance to put a new spin on the companions, Salvatore would still prefer to call the shots when writing fiction. During our conversation, he revealed that he would like to try his hand at self-publishing books featuring new worlds and characters. "Like I said about the Kickstarter, it made me be responsible for so many things. I like the challenge. I liked being able to name my own [rule] book. If it's a terrible name, hey, at least I named it. I love being able to hire my artist to design my cover. I love being able to hire the editor I want to hire. I'm not afraid of failing, so I'm not afraid of responsibility."
Nor is Salvatore afraid of failing to attract readers to his other, non-Drizzt works. At the signing where I met up with him, Salvatore asked how many in the audience read the Drizzt books. Every other hand went up. When he asked how many of those readers had cracked open copies of Stone of Tymora, DemonWars, or other works unrelated or tangentially connected to Drizzt, only a smattering of hands appeared.
Still, if the worst-case scenario is every Drizzt novel hitting the New York Times bestseller list, Salvatore can live with that. "It's the same thing Robert Jordan went through with Wheel of Time, Terry Brooks went through it with Shannara, George Martin's going through with A Song of Ice and Fire, and J. K. Rowling went through it when she wrote a book that wasn't Harry Potter: she didn't hit anywhere near those numbers. You get pigeon-holed just like actors on TV shows. But you can't complain about that because the fact that you got pigeon-holed means you did something that people accepted and loved."
The way Salvatore sees it, he's damn lucky that something he writes touches so many lives. "When I read a letter from somebody in Iraq who says, 'Thank you. I read your book and it allowed me to forget what I did for today, and not think about what I'll have to do tomorrow'--that's a blessing that I get to be part of that through writing about an elf. So there's nothing to complain about... although I do wish more people would read DemonWars [laughs]. I'll pull people over to DemonWars one at a time. I'm pretty good at it."
Twenty-seven years and nearly as many iconic characters later, and Salvatore is still having a blast writing the world's favorite dark-elf. Even so, Salvatore admits that he has thought about how Drizzt's saga will come to an end, and the note he wants to end on when the time comes.
"I think I'm beginning to understand how this will end. But, no, nothing specific [in terms of an ending]. Not yet. However, I do expect as of right now that if they said, 'This is the last Drizzt book,' and I had to end it, I do expect it wouldn't end sadly. I wouldn't end on a down note. I thought the last Drizzt book I would ever write for TSR [before Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR] was Passage to Dawn. TSR and I had an ugly break-up. I was done. How did I end that book? With Drizzt and Catti-brie riding off into the sunset. The series would end more like that."