Worldbuilder: An Interview with Jeff Grubb
by Patrick McGilligan
Jeff Grubb is one of TSR's grand old men, he is only 42. Born and raised in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he has worked for the company in its various incarnations,
with occasional interruption, since 1982. He is married to Kate Novak, his co-author
on several TSR novels. He started out in professional life as a lowly civil
engineer, and in fact boasts a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, "which
surprises some people," Grubb says. "That's my advice to young writers--get
training in something that will keep you alive while you're working on your
When and why did you first join TSR, and can you describe the operation in that time?
I joined TSR as a game designer in the summer of 1982. I had been a civil engineer designing air pollution equipment at a time when the EPA was being de-fanged (thank you, Reagan Administration). At the time, TSR was in mid-move to its new quarters, and the design department was still in the top floor of the old Hotel Claire in downtown Lake Geneva. The building has now been completely reconditioned into a multi-level set of shops, with a chocolate store where the old Dungeon Hobby Shop was, but at the time it was pretty close to condemnation. Tilted floors. Water damage. Merle Rasmussen, the creator of [the] Top Secret® [game], worked in Al Hammack's bathroom (Al was the boss at the time). I had a big office with a man-sized hole in the ceiling (I've heard three different stories about WHO fell through the hole). We could not hold a full department meeting in any room for fear the building would fall over. I didn't meet designer Tom Wham for the first two months--he worked at night and kept his door padlocked. It was at the Old Hotel that I first met Tracy Hickman. He was one of the few to have a computer terminal. We didn't have personal computers on the desks, but rather a handful of terminals hooked up to a mainframe at the new building, using a word-processing program that had been literally designed by accountants. For the first two projects I worked on, I had a typewriter, and then had to re-copy everything into the mainframe. Anyway, Tracy, with all of six months more experience with TSR than I had, slung his arm around his terminal, and in his best drill-sergeant imitation drawled, "This is the HP-2000 computer system--it will be your FRIEND." Within six months, we were in the new building in tiny cubes with windows looking into other cubes. Tracy and I were neighbors, separated by a window, so whenever one of us had something published, we put it on the window, facing the other guy. No competition, mind you. Since then, TSR has grown, shrank, and moved. And I left the company for a few years before coming back to help design introductory roleplaying games for TSR, now a unit of Wizards of the Coast. Now I work a day job in a small cube WITHOUT a window. Hey, wait a minute . . .
What was your personal background and your background as a gamer?
As mentioned earlier, I went to school as a civil engineer [at] Purdue University. I had gotten into war games in high school--stuff from Avalon Hill and SPI. Purdue had a wargaming club, and at one get-together I encountered [the] Dungeons & Dragons® [game]. It was a case where there were a group of kids at a table (without a board) all talking at once. I walked up to see what was going on, and one of them turned to me, shoved three six-siders into my hand, and said, "Roll these--we need a cleric!" The rest was history. I ran a D&D® campaign through college and brought it back to infect the rest of my friends in Pittsburgh that summer (this would be about '76 or so). The name of my campaign was Toril, which we eventually gave to Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms® setting. It was during this time that what would become the gods of Krynn first took shape. The Perechon also first showed up in those days, run by my female half-elf Macques (she had a half-orc business partner named Phrytz). One of our group had parents with a summer house in Lake Geneva, so we would gather there before GenCon® [Gaming Fair] (which was right before school began) for a week of gaming. From attending GenCon [Gaming Fair], we got into helping Bob Blake run the AD&D® Open, one of the big tournaments at the time. After a friend mouthed off that we could write a better tournament than the one we had just moderated, Bob took us up on the bet. I ended up writing a lot of it (thanks to the fact there were cutbacks in engineering at the time), and on the strength of those adventures was hired full-time at TSR. I served with TSR for twelve years through all manner of worlds and adventures. I took a three-year "sabbatical" to try my hand at other games (including working with Margaret Weis and Don Perrin on the Wing Commander and Star Trek card games for Mag Force 7), but now I'm back at TSR. In gaming, I'm an omnivore--I read just about everything and note new mechanics, presentations, formats, and concepts all the time. I have less time to play than I want, but my current faves are Magic: The Gathering® Collectible Card Game, Call of Cthulhu, and as a guilty pleasure, FASA's Crimson Skies.
What was your first involvement in the Dragonlance setting, and is there any way you can delineate your contribution over the years--without stepping on other peoples' egos?
I'm always a little hesitant to "claim credit" for parts of [the] Dragonlance [setting], not because of egos, but because so much of it was synergistic in nature. Raistlin is a good example. Tracy had a wizard on the team as a matter of course. Harold Johnson pushed hard for the wizard and fighter being brothers, and I was the one who suggested Raistlin's trademark gold skin and hourglass eyes. Terry Phillips brought the sibilant voice, both in playtest and later in the Dragonlance plays. And Margaret brought the character fully to life in the books. So, who created Raistlin? All of us, in my opinion, with more than a healthy nod to Margaret.
Having said this, I will confess to adding a few bits and pieces (both claiming the credit and accepting the blame). The gods of Krynn were originally the gods of my old campaign, which just HAPPENED to have the platinum and chromatic dragons in the pantheon. They went through some further development over the years, including Mishakal changing gender and all sorts of interpersonal relationships that were not in my original. I take the blame for the gnomes as well, the small techno-driven creatures that started in Krynn and have now spread to campaigns throughout the multiverse. In many ways they were intended as a satire on my previous occupation as an engineer--indeed, the ideal gnome invention goes through a deep development process, as it attempts to solve the problems of the last development process. Again, though the Krynnish gnomes are mine, the gnomeflingers and the other great inventions within Mt. Nevermind were Tracy's. I put in the Perechon (and Maquesta), refugees from another campaign, and was pitching a "city at the bottom of the whirlpool" module concept that became Istar. I was a guinea pig for most of the recipes in the first Leaves of the Inn of the Last Home collection, and I have had enough spiced potatoes for one lifetime. I did contribute gnome chicken. I gave Toede his name but did not chart most of his career. And Krynn is very similar to my sister-in-law's name, Corinne.
When, why, and how did you move into writing fiction and novels? What's your total output to date?
Novels were a natural progression, and I got into them through the Forgotten Realms [setting]. While [the] Dragonlance [setting] was the land of a great epic, the Realms was conjured up as being a big playground where we could tell a lot of stories at the same time. At the start, we were more concerned about translating Ed Greenwood's world fully into the AD&D game, and as a result, we had a mixed lot of novelists in the first year. They were Doug Niles (who in addition to playing Flint Fireforge for the Dragonlance plays was also the designer to WRITE the most Dragonlance adventures of all of us), Bob Salvatore, original founder Ed Greenwood, and Kate Novak and myself working as a team. As the Realms got started, we needed novels, and I pitched a concept of a female warrior with a hidden past, Alias of the Azure Bonds. I started explaining the plot to the book to my wife, Kate, one night as we were heading to Milwaukee to dinner. By the time we got to Milwaukee, I had gained a co-writer, and one of the primary characters (the halfling) changed sex (gender-swapping seems to be a motif in the creative process). The result was the initial trilogy of our novels set in the Realms-Azure Bonds, The Wyvern's Spur, and Song of the Saurials, all by Novak and Grubb. After Song we stopped for a while, in part because I started working in comic books for a few years. DC had the license, and did the Dragonlance book (which I never had a chance to work on), AD&D [comics] (which I did a few stories for), and Forgotten Realms comics (for which I did the entire 25-issue run and was most proud of). I figured I was done with novels for a while. You and Margaret got me back into writing, which is the one reason that I can never refuse you a short story. Oh, you were sneaky, with a short story here (I think "Clockwork Hero" was the first), a small request there. You and Margaret were the ones to hit me up for Lord Toede, which, despite everything I'd done previously, was my first solo novel. And you let me run with the character, letting him be humorous and letting me bring him back from the dead. And Margaret was there to speak out on my behalf when a number of folk got REAL IRRITATED on the net that this . . . this . . . REALMS AUTHOR dared to write a FUNNY Dragonlance book. I still love that book, and strongly recommend it to anyone who takes Krynn too seriously (for those who have not had the pleasure--Lord Toede is two parts British comedy show and two parts Warner Brothers cartoon). Since then, I've reteamed up with Kate for more Realms novels (six to date, including the original trilogy). I wrote a massive hardback tome with Ed Greenwood called Cormyr: A Novel, which tracks the history of one of the Realms' nations, and in many ways was preparation for what I am doing now. I wrote the first of the new Magic: The Gathering novels--The Brothers' War, which was a delight in that I was playing in a new sandbox. My second book in the Magic: The Gathering universe is called The Gathering Dark, and I have become the "historian" of [the] Magic [universe]--writing all the old tales that took place in Magic's early days. The Gathering Dark showed up in June and is the first book of the Ice Age trilogy ([I'm] writing the second now). So that makes a dozen novels (half of them solo, the other half with a variety of co-writers), and about a dozen short stories (most of them for [the] Dragonlance [setting], and most of those beginning with the first line "This is a gnome story. . . .") Long term, I have a few more worlds I need to build, and more than a few stories I need to tell. I'm going to be busy through the end of this year finishing up the Ice Age novels for [the] Magic: The Gathering [setting], but Margaret and you have already trapped me into contributing for the next collection of short stories; of course, it will feature gnomes. After that, I have no idea--it's been a wonderful ride so far, and I can't wait to figure out what happens next.
What are your duties and challenges at the company nowadays?
My day job is as a senior designer for R&D-RPG, Wizards of the Coast. That's what the TSR designers [and editors] have become as the talent is slowly being assimilated, ah, incorporated by Wizards. Editor Thomas Reid and myself are "Da Boyz"-the guys that Bill Slavicsek throws nasty, burning products at. It's a lot of fun. No, really. Right now, the biggest challenge facing our roleplaying games is that there seem to be fewer new gamers, and particularly fewer new DMs [Dungeon Masters]. I've been been working on a series of introductory games known as Fast-Plays, which walk a new DM through the entire process of running a session. Most of us learned to play by having someone teach us; this is in many ways Jeff-in-48-pages, showing the basics of the D&D game in a very straightforward way. It's gotten nice reviews. Right now, I'm doing a version for inclusion in a new computer game, which I can't discuss more because we haven't signed the bloody contracts yet (of course, I've finished the design)*. And in my spare time, I'm writing novels for this card game--it's pretty popular, I understand.
What is your present involvement with the Dragonlance setting, and where do you see it heading?
My present involvement? I sometimes feel my role in the Dragonlance setting is Old Guy, who reminds the others of what things once were and provides some sense of continuity. My contribution at the moment consists of the odd story (some of them very odd), and answering questions about the early days (Often the question is along the lines of "What were you thinking when . . . , to which I would reply "Thinking? We were thinking?") I am very impressed with Steve Miller's compilation of the entire DL series of modules in one book for the anniversary, though he continues to apologize for hacking out huge chunks of my DL7 in order to make it all fit.
The big danger to all the TSR worlds is that there aren't enough DMs out there--we have to go back and teach people it's cool to run an adventure. Then we can continue to expand out, not only the Dragonlance setting, but the Greyhawk® setting and the Realms and perhaps bring back a few of the more esoteric worlds (like the Al-Qadim® setting, or dare I say it, Spelljammer® [material]). One of Dragonlance's greatest strengths has been its novels, particularly when Margaret is involved, both with Don [Perrin] and Tracy. If when we were first starting out, you told us we'd be around for the millennium, I would have scoffed. But we're here, and we're still going. And that's a credit to the creators and the fans of the series.
* Since the interview, the contract has been signed, and it can be revealed that Jeff has been working on the Diablo II adventure game, an introductory RPG based on the upcoming Blizzard computer game. Watch this website for more information!
Patrick McGilligan is currently finishing up work on the first novel for the War of Souls series and continues to be involved in several other Dragonlance projects.
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