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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Greatest Dungeon Masters in the World: Ed Greenwood

We played Dungeon Crawl Classics last night. It was ok (info is here). The next session could be legendary if I put in the right amount of preparation work..

Today I was going to write a blog post about "The Five Greatest DMs in the World". I intended to detail the famous people and write a little about their real-life campaigns. I've always been interested in that topic. I love digging up information on Gary Gygax's original Castle Greyhawk game.

My thinking is that by studying these games, we can see what these DMs do that works and make our own games better. Also, some of these games have impacted the entire hobby and deserve to be archived somewhere in some capacity.

We spend so much time creating these stories. Often, they are never committed to paper. They exist only in the memories of the participants - and details are misrembered or forgotten altogether. I bet most of you have been there. You talk with someone about an awesome session from years ago... and sadly you can't remember half of the details. It is lost to time.
Here is Ed undercover as the Drizzt guy
I decided to start my list of the Five Greatest DMs in the World with Ed Greenwood. I began looking online to see if I could find any information on Ed's home game. It turns out that there's so much that it's overwhelming. It is all buried in an online archive which dates back to 2004. One of his players relays questions to Ed and types in his answers. It's gigantic.

I could post about this for months. I don't even know where to start. Let's see if we can put together a general sense of Ed and his games.

Here's something that blows my mind. He works in a library. This happened:

"....more words from Ed (who is sick as a dog, but soldiering zombie-like through his working day at the library because it's Spring Break off school up in Ontario, Canada, so all the kids who aren't outside getting into mischief are in the library asking him to referee Pokemon and Magic rule disputes to them, despite him telling them frankly he's completely unqualified to do :}):"

I cannot fathom this. Some kid going up to Ed Greenwood with a Pokemon rules question? This really happens in real life??

As far as how the Realms came about, the poor guy is probably tired of answering this question. Here's his reply:

"As for the tale of how I created the Realms, well, one more time: me writing fantasy stories featuring the fat merchant Mirt, travelling along the Sword Coast from city to city working swindles and suchlike. (Following Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & Gray Mouser tales in FANTASTIC, which are self-contained tales but share the same setting, and if you read enough of them, you can piece together 'the world behind the action.')

Expand outwards from there (if this ship is carrying this and taking on a cargo of that, and these caravan wagons ditto, then in Distant Place X they must have a lot of this to sell and need a lot of that, whereas in Distant Place Y they need textiles but can spare timber, and here in this port folk obviously need . . . and so on. So then it gets thought out carefully, climate and trade winds and currents and geology and all -- and then TSR publishes it and entire continents later get grafted on and many minor changes are made and it may no longer look quite so cohesive and planned."

It's pretty amazing. He made a D&D campaign and sold it to TSR. How cool is that? Apparently he sold it for a "nominal fee". Nominal fee? That is depressing. I hope it was more than a few thousand bucks. I can't imagine how much money is made off of all the realms books, heck, just the Drizzt stuff alone.

How did he sell it? Here's what he says:

"It seems TSR was looking for an "campaign world setting" for the forthcoming 2nd Edition of AD&D right about then (in the end, the Realms beat that edition into print, which brought about the Time of Troubles/Avatar adjustments, but that's another story), and TSR designer Jeff Grubb telephoned me one day and asked: "I've been reading your articles in Dragon. Do you really have a complete, detailed fantasy world, or do you just make it up as you go along?"

"Yes," I replied, "and yes."

"Good," he said, "send it!" (Actually, I'm telescoping here. Jeff and I talked for a bit, so he had a better idea of what beast they'd be buying, and then he asked me to call his boss, Mike Dobson, at home that night. I did, and TSR bought the Realms and me as a consultant for what is by today's standards a tiny amount, but I was quite happy because I was looking forward to getting professionally-printed maps for my players; if I did my own with pencil crayons, there was no way not to have the seas and deserts show pencil-strokes.)

Seems like an incovenient place for an outhouse
I spent most of the spring and summer of 1986 sending weekly or bi-weekly typed packages to TSR (some 800 pages or so, in all), until they frantically told me to STOP (Jeff would say: "Do you have anything on dungeons? Holy symbols?" and I'd write up what I had and send it along, whereupon he'd say: "Okay, now we'd like . . ." It all started with the master map of Faerun and the various dale and city maps). Then Jeff and Karen Boomgaarden [yes, that's the correct spelling these days, and she's a heckuva good editor, if anyone wants to hire a freelancer] set about turning all my lore into what became the Old Grey Box."

Bruce Heard (then acquisitions manager, which meant "guy who hires freelancers") assigned me to do a D&D module (which became The Endless Stair) to 'learn the ropes' (Karen doing the edit), and then I handed in my magic stuff (which got turned into FR4 The Magister, just as my stuff on the North became FR5 The Savage Frontier), whilst I got to work on FR1 Waterdeep And The North."

I ran The Endless Stair when I as 13 or 14. I did a poor job with it. I don't remember much except that the concept was really cool - in a field there are stairs that ascend up to the clouds. Some of the steps are trapped.

This also spawned a goofy joke amongst the players. They'd stare at me... endlessly. I'd ask them what they were doing. They would inform me that the were giving me... "The endless stare."

Ed talks about his favorite creations: 

You got the stuff? I'm jonesing bad.
"My two personal favourites of my own racial creations are the Malaugrym and the weredragons. Someday I'll do a novel that includes a malaugrym/weredragon romance and pairing . . . heh-heh."

Weredragon? Malaugrym? What the hell is a Malaugrym? I looked it up.

Malaugrym are floating round things with beaks and three hooked arms. They come to our realm through the plane of shadow. They like to eat people from the inside out. They are super-smart and can shapechange into humanoid creatures.

Kind of cool.

Now what the hell is a weredragon? A weredragon is from Dragon 134. They got a cool Jim Holloway drawing. Here's the lowdown:

SyFy presents Tara Reid in: WEREDRAGON
- They live among humans, revealing their dragon forms only in great crisis.
- They are "fertile in both human and dragon forms; they are always female.."
- They cannot infect other people with weredragon-ism
- Wow. OK: "...appears as a human female of about 20 years of age... with a Comeliness of at least 18". For you newer folks, Comeliness was a controversial 7th stat that scored your character's looks separate from Charisma.
- They never sleep, eat without gaining weight
- As a dragon, their scales are blue and silver, they have no wings but a magical organ in their brain allows them to fly.
- Breath weapon: A cloud of blue vapors which causes silence and snuffs out fire/heat/electricity (what an odd breath weapon)
- They amass treasure by "beguiling rich suitors".

So.. a weredragon is a hot chick. I am starting to sense something here. Hmmm...

At this time his campaign's characters were "Knights of Myth Drannor". Their hijinks included:

- Smuggling a person polymorphed into a gem in a codpiece
- A body-swapping adventure: "...the results were still dangerous and at the same time screamingly-British-farce-funny, as a Shaerl who wasn't Shaerl went off to bed with a Mourngrym who wasn't Mourngrym"
- This quote: "...Trying to distract him (in character here), I gasped loudly, 'I can't remember the command word!'

The Zhent spun around and peered at me -- I flashed my breasts at him, and gave him a cheesy grin to boot, just trying to buy Torm more time to get out a dagger or something. The Zhent saw that I had no magic item at all. He burst out laughing at my feeble deception -- and stepped right into the shaft. He broke his neck at the bottom, and for weeks of play sessions afterwards I had Torm pawing at my character, gasping teasingly, 'Oh, no! I can't remember the command word!'"

Ladies and Gentlemen, Ed Greenwood plays Dirty D&D! Well now, how do you like that?

He made up Forgotten Realms swears. I have always wanted to do this but it's difficult to come up with a fitting word (I understand Battlestar Galactica got some mileage out of "Frak"):

"As for the compilation of oaths, I handed one to TSR back in 1986, in the original Realms turnover (both straight-Realms equivalents of our dirty words, for use when you didn't want characters to just say, "Oh, DUNG!" and turns of phrase like "By the steaming loins of Sharess!") . . . and they promptly 'lost' it. Several times. Until I got the message. ;}

We've all added dozens of naughty expressions to the Realms since then, of course, because we NEED cuss-words when doing Realms fiction. Not just for comic fun, but for realism when characters are upset, facing imminent death, and so on.

Yes, I DID pull "Dark!" and "Dark and Empty!" out of thin air, because my mind works that way, but it also works like this: after they pop out, and get written down to banish the Dread Devil of Forgetfulness, I take a look at them.

He further notes: "Anne McCaffrey invented one swear-word I just hate: 'Fardles!'"

Fardles, you say? Well, I know what word I have to work in to my game this Friday!

We haven't even scratched the surface, my stalwart compatriots. I'll definitely revisit this stuff soon and see what other jewels lie in this internet archive. I will also continue in my efforts to enshrine the FIVE GREATEST DMS OF ALL TIME.

I am also interested in talking about other less famous DMs that are out there in the world. I have no idea how to find them, though. I can think of two people in the internet community that seem like great DMs: Shannon Appelcline and Merric Blackman. If anyone has any thoughts on this or nominations, please feel free to email me.

1 comment:

C.D. Gallant-King said...

Is Ed Greenwood on Twitter? I need to send him a question about the order of play resolution when someone casts Lightning Bolt on a creature I'm trying to sacrifice to Lord of the Pit...

Man, I love hearing stories about game design back in the "old days." It was such a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of operation that has influenced so many people for so long. Nowadays people spend years designing things that never even get off the ground.

I can't remember if he was on your list of DMs, but you should definitely include Dave Arneson. I don't know if he was one of "the best" (I've heard stories...) but he was certainly influential.

Awesome post as usual!