Jeff Grubb Interview

Jeff GrubbDragonlance Nexus: As one of the original members of the Dragonlance design team, you were involved with Dragonlance right from the start, correct? How did you get involved with the design team? Did you volunteer to work on it or was it simply assigned to you?

Jeff Grubb: I was the third man in. Dragonlance got its start with Tracy. Manager Harold Johnson was second, then me, then editor Carl Smith. I sort of drifted in, first by proximity (We would drive in to work together) and then by interest (I started bouncing ideas off him). When it came time to make the “big presentation” to the corporate brass, it became a real assignment, and each of us took a piece of the story to explain, and Larry Elmore did four color sketches for us. Each of us has one of the four (Mine has Caramon and Raistlin on it, a floating citadel that was a castle resting on a square plate, and an early version of Lord Toede). [This sketch can be found in The Annotated Chronicles on page 1025.]

DLN: Bouncing ideas off of and driving in with Tracy?

JG: Tracy and I lived in the same apartment building in Lake Geneva – Kate and I had a third-floor apartment, Tracy and his family on the second floor. In Lake Geneva, there were only about a half-dozen apartment complexes, so the new arrivals to the company all tended to cluster in a couple locations. We car-pooled in (Tracy had purchased a car from Harold, which then proceeded to self-destruct (loudly) out in front of the building one day – he was car-less for a while). It gave us some time to shoot ideas back and forth.

DLN: What about the Dragonlance project from your conversations with Tracy got you interested in the world and made you want to be a part of it? Was there anything special that particularly appealed to you?

JG: The scope, and the fact that it was a world we could fool around in. Greyhawk was a published world at TSR at the time, but all new Greyhawk materials had to be passed through Gary Gygax, who at the time was very busy with the West Coast operation. As a result, we in design did not have a “home” world. This was a chance to set up a campaign of our own.

We were also playing with a lot of traditional D&D concepts and trying to alter them. Tracy thought Halflings were too cute and chubby and cuddly, so the kender were born as being thinner, more wiry, and more cunning and streetwise (Attributes that have since moved back over to halflings as well).

DLN: What contributions did you make to Dragonlance and where did you get inspiration for those ideas? What contribution are you most proud of?

JG: Early Dragonlance was a goulash of stuff that everyone was throwing in, and once it was added it continued to morph and change. Here are three that I am proud of: The Gods – Trace very early on wanted Huma / Bahumat as a good dragon god and Takhisis / Tiamat as an evil dragon god. My own home campaign had that set-up already, with seven good, seven neutral, and seven evil gods. We picked that up and moved it over wholesale, and have since made some changes (Mishakel was male in my campaign, for example).

Gnomes – I mentioned Kender earlier. Gnomes were a satire on my old job (I am a Civil Engineer by training) – guys who kept inventing stuff and often had to invent something to correct their previous invention. Tracy thought this was great and started working on gnomeflingers and other hi-tech devices. Previously gnomes were more of woodland dwarves that talked to badgers. Now Tinker gnomes have sort of taken over several other worlds as the “typical” gnomes.

Raistlin’s skin and eyes – For a long time, we had a fighter and a wizard on the list of “core characters” – Harold Johnson, I believe, gave them the names Raistlin (wasting man) and Caramon (caring man). Again, to get the mage beyond the standard “look” – I suggested his golden skin and hourglass eyes. Larry thought it was cool and the look of Raistlin was established.

DLN: So Huma was originally supposed to be Paladine in human form? Would it be fair to say that in the first versions Huma was simply Paladine in human form and then Fizban was also Paladine in human form? At what point did this role become entirely Fizban’s?

JG: In my campaign, Bahumat and Tiamat were Draco Paladin and Draco Cerebus. Huma and Paladine were interchanged names in very early documents, then diverged. I don’t know when Tracy took to Fizban as Paladine’s Avatar/Earthly Form, but it was pretty early in process.

DLN: Where did you get the inspiration for your pantheon that was used in Dragonlance? Were there any overall design philosophies you used in creating it? Why, for example, did you choose to include a god of fire, Sirrion, but no gods for any of the other traditional elements?

JG: My godhead was fairly straightforward – I needed a god for good fighters, one for evil fighters, one for evil, good, and neutral mages, one for monks, etc. . . . Sirrion the Flowing Flame was set up as an Alchemist’s god (Alchemist was an NPC class from Dragon [Magazine]).

The gods took their names from a variety of sources. Draco Paladin and Draco Cerebus we mentioned. The three spheres of magic were inspired by psuedo-romance languages (Trace made them Moons, by the way). A lot of other names came from a book titled “Everyone in the Bible” by the Reverend Josh Barker, who was my minister when I was a boy. Chemosh and Zivilyn came from there, if I remember right. Gilean the Book was originally Gilead (as in there is no balm in . . . ) and Meshakel is from the tale of the fiery furnace (I think that was Book of Daniel, but my memory is getting fuzzy here) – Meshak, Shadrack, and Obendigo.

DLN: How did you make the transition from civil engineer to game designer?

JG: I played D&D in the late 70’s at college when the game first came out (I went to Purdue University, and there was not a lot to do on weekends). I got involved in GenCon in the process, running the D&D Open for Bob Blake. One year, a friend of mine complained too loudly, too close to Bob about the quality of that year’s Open – “Fine,” said Bob, “You get to write it next year.” My friends and I delivered the Open that year early (in January). On the strength of that design I was hired as a game designer at TSR (I was “at liberty” at the moment – it was the early years of the Reagan Administration and NOT the time to be working on Air-Pollution Control Equipment, which was my previous job).

DLN: What was it like working on the Dragonlance team? Did everyone agree on the same vision for Krynn or were there a lot of arguments and disagreements?

JG: There were a lot of discussions, and very few of them came to blows :). The general way it worked out was that it was Tracy’s child, and he got final say. We had discussion about lycanthropes in Krynn (no) and using the metal disks of Mishakel (yes). In general, there was a spirit of compromise, but it all came down to Tracy in the final accounting.

DLN: Were you involved in the original module playtests?

JG: No, but my wife, Kate, was the original Caramon in playtests. I was upstairs at the apartment working on some deadline or another. I departed DL after we made the initial sell-in to management to go on to other projects (The original Marvel Super Heroes game, among others). The only DL module I did was Dragons of Light, DL7, though I did a lot of ground work for some of the others.

DLN: Have you ever run or played in any Dragonlance campaigns in your spare time?

JG: Spare time? (Maniacal laugh) We did a lot of playtesting of DL7 before it was published, and I’ve done the odd Dragonlance game one-shots here and there with friends and at conventions. When I run D&D, I tend to use my own original world, Toril (which gave its name to the planet the Forgotten Realms campaign is set). I’ve been playing a LOT of 3rd Edition of late, both from a playtesting standpoint and for fun (Editor Thomas Reid runs a lunchtime game, and I’m trying out the Psionics rules in it right now). I have a soft spot in my heart for Call of Cthulhu, and am part of a semi-regular bunch that includes Dragonlance 5th Age Veteran Miranda Horner.

DLN: Have you ever brought anything in from your personal campaigns into Dragonlance or other worlds you’ve worked on? The gods from your world seem to be one example, are there any others?

JG: The Perechon, and its captain, Maquesta, were characters I myself ran in a campaign of a friend, Steve Savoldi. Maquesta was originally named Max before a run-in with a girdle of sex change, but we left that part of the origin out of it. In the original Manual of the Planes, the World Serpent Inn and its proprietor Relandal were from my campaign, and the player who created Relandal also contributed Snilloc’s Snowball (His name was Dave Collins – Snilloc spelled backwards). A lot of my regulars were immortalized in one way or the other in stuff that I have written over the years. The name of my old campaign, I mentioned, was Toril, which became the name of the Forgotten Realms’ planet. Ansalon’s planet, Krynn, was named after my sister-in-law, Corrine.

DLN: After Dragonlance, as you said, you worked in many other campaign settings, such as Spelljammer, Al Qadim, and Magic: the Gathering just to name a few. Have you ever brought elements of Dragonlance into those other worlds?

JG: The creature that I unleashed on the rest of the unsuspecting world had to be the tinker gnomes, which got into space in Spelljammer with their Giant Space Hamsters and have spread through half a hundred campaigns. Another “signature piece” is animal-headed humanoids – The Thanoi (walrus-men) along the Ice Wall, the Yak-Men of Al Qadim, and the Giff (hippo-headed humanoids) of Spelljammer are all mine. Oh yes, and my wife and I unleashed a kender on the Forgotten Realms in one of our novels.

DLN: Just as Roger Moore [the creator of the Giant Space Hampster] unleashed a kender into the Spelljammer universe in one of his novels. And now, just as you are back working on D&D again, halflings are starting to look an awful lot like kender. Is there a kender conspiracy at work here?

JG: I think we see the characters evolve over time. The halflings are more kenderish now than they once were, and the write-up of gnomes in 3rd Edition D&D accounts neatly for Dragonlance Tinker Gnomes as well as the old Badger-speakers. Our shared worlds are a big dialogue – when we see something we like, it becomes part of the general discourse. That’s one of the things that makes it fun.

DLN: As you have referred to, in addition to your many acclaimed game-designs, you have also written several novels for such settings as The Forgotten Realms, Magic: the Gathering, Dragonlance, and now Starcraft. How did you make the transition from game design to writing novels?

JG: Early Forgotten Realms was lacking in novels right at the start, and I knew where there were stories to tell. While working on the FR Campaign setting with Ed Greenwood, I pitched a story to our book department. I told Kate the outline on the way up to Milwaukee one evening, and by the time I reached the city, I had gained a co-author and one of the characters (Olive Ruskettle) had gone from male to female.

Honestly, while there are a lot of things that carry over between one field and the other (like knowledge of the world), books and games are two separate entities, and I try to keep my novel and short-story work at home and my game product as my day job. It’s working in the same worlds, often, but it’s looking at the worlds through different lenses. It’s one of the things that keeps it all fresh.

DLN: That is, I believe, the third time you’ve mentioned switching a character’s gender. Is this a habit of yours? Perhaps this represents a personal philosophy on gender or gender roles?

JG: I didn’t change Mishakel, but I see your point. I’m comfortable with both male and female characters and have little problem with female characters in strong positions both in games and novels. There is no personal philosophy in this, only a willingness to reach out (and Olive, as she turned out, was VERY much like Kate – smart, strong-willed, and always ready with a smart-alecky remark).

DLN: As you have mentioned, after participating in the initial design and writing DL7, you left Dragonlance for a while before coming back as a novelist and writing Lord Toede. What was it like returning to Dragonlance after being away for so long?

JG: Actually, it be would initial design, leaving for a while, DL7, leaving for a while, Short stories, then Lord Toede. Zeb Cook, another of our designers of the era, always said that designers suffered from a low attention span, and we were always looking for something new.

I got back into Dragonlance through Pat Magilligan and Margaret Weis and the short story collections. Pat and Margaret hit me up to do short stories, which became the various gnome stories that peppered collections ever since. From that, we went to Lord Toede. I was very comfortable with both the characters and the world as a result of my game material, and felt I knew where I could push. Toede is a Comedy. It’s light opera compared to the heavier epic material of Margaret and Tracy’s work, but it only works because of all the solid grounding in the epic.

DLN: Yes, the short stories, but I imagine a novel represents a greater commitment to the world, if only as measured by the amount of time spent on it. And Lord Toede is quite a popular book as well, always seeming to appear on the list of Dragonlance novels that are “worth reading” other than those written by Tracy and Margaret. Do you have any plans to return to Krynn in the future, with perhaps more short stories or another novel?

JG: I never say never. In fact, the first gnome story (Clockwork Hero) is currently scheduled to show up in the “Best of Tales II” collection. I like to shift worlds – they all have different flavors to them. For me a DL book is different than an FR book is different than a Magic book. At the moment, I’ve left the Magic: The Gathering novels behind and am playing with the worlds of Blizzard Entertainment – I have a Starcraft novel, Liberty’s Crusade, which just hit the shelves. And I keep swearing I’ll get my own stuff done sometime real soon now 🙂 But this is wandering in more of a literary direction, and away from the DL games. Anything else in regards to that?

DLN: Yes, actually. If Wizards decided to start back up the Dragonlance gaming line in the post War of Souls era, or if another company bought the rights and decided to do the same, would you be interested in working on the campaign setting or other Dragonlance products? A sourcebook on the tinker gnomes perhaps?

JG: Corporate Professional Answer: While I have not heard of any announced plans of either a gaming line post-WoS or as a licensed product (such as for Ravenloft), I would consider any opportunity that it would present.

Personal Answer: Oh, yeah. Very interested. How about a completing the epic work “How to cook like a gnome without blowing up your house?”

DLN: Well, we do have a Cookbook section on the Nexus. We’d love to see what you or Kate could cook up that you didn’t get to include in Leaves from the Inn of the Last Home. Who actually gave the Inn that name, anyway?

JG: I believe that one was Tracy, but I am not sure. It may have come from another source. (Though here’s another bonus-name – Tika took her name from the mother of a friend of ours (Trace liked the name). It turns out that she in turn got her name from a Greek translation of “Les Miserables” – its weird how fiction and reality overlap).

DLN: I think that about wraps it up then. Do you have anything you’d like to say to the Dragonlance fans out there?

JG: Only to stress that Dragonlance has seen the contributions of a large number of talented people over the years, with Tracy and Margaret at the center of it all. I expect it to continue to develop with new writers and contributors coming into the world and bringing new concepts and sensibilities with them. That keeps it a living world.

DLN: Perhaps you’d like to say a few words about what you’ll be working on that isn’t Dragonlance related?

JG: I tend to be “Captain Overload” – always having way too much going on, but here goes. There’s the Starcraft novel I mentioned earlier, and I have a short story in “Oceans of Magic”, which I am particularly proud of. After four novels I’m taking a break from Magic: The Gathering books for a while. The new Manual of the Planes for D&D comes out this fall (giving the DMs the tools they need to build their own cosmologies), and I did a bit of an upcoming book on Enemies and Allies (A gnomish vigilante posse is one of my contributions). I’ve been doing a lot of work for the Star Wars RPG of late, with a major game project for next year, and a couple web projects that are on (or will soon be on) the WotC site. And I have a number of things I can’t talk about yet (since they are still in development and/or have not been finalized yet).

Thanks for the chance to chat!

DLN: Thanks for doing the interview!

About Jeff Grubb

Jeff Grubb is an award-winning author, game designer, and world-builder with a host of credits. He is much calmer in real life.
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