Let’s Talk To Jeff Grubb!

Writer and Game Designer, Jeff Grubb

Psst! Hey, you don’t know anybody that’s written for Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, Warcraft, Star Wars, and Superman…do you? I mean, who’s got that big an imagination? Is he at least funny?

I’m messing with you because you probably know Jeff Grubb already, from something that caught your eye along the way. Here’s somebody who’s spitballed ideas with some of the original D&D guys back in the day (“Hey, guys…what about D&D in space?”), helped forge some of the most influential and popular RPG settings, and though he had intended to be a Structural Engineer wound up being one of the most prolific and sought-after writers and creators in multiple genres, formats, and worlds.

And he does Tai Chi too! Who knew?!

Anyway, he was kind enough to spend a little time with Grailrunner recently, and we’re thrilled to share his thoughts and ruminations here.

Jeff, I very much appreciate your taking time on this. It means a lot. 
It’s weird, but I independently ran into you twice (metaphorically). Was looking for a great Magic: The Gathering novel, and one big consensus on-line was Brothers’ War. Got my copy, loved it. There are Youtube bootleg audiobooks too, in case you didn’t know that. Entirely unrelated to that, I was out for a run listening to Youtube and came across a podcast with some guys going on about spaceships in space, which was a completely different rabbit hole, called Spelljammer. And there you were, both times. Apparently, my brain likes the way you think. We’re excited to have your thoughts here. 

1. What first got you into the Avalon Hill wargames and gave you the fever? I mean, you were supposed to be a Civil Engineer. Look what you’ve gotten yourself into!

My first wargame was Panzer Blitz, which was one of Avalon Hill’s “bookcase games”. It came in a sleeve with the combat tables on it, and had plastic trays for all the pieces, and had geomorphic game boards. Even before that, though, I played a lot of Risk, and owned the American Heritage Games (Dogfight, Broadside, Battle-Cry, and Hit the Beach). I was always a
history buff, and that got me into wargames. After Panzer Blitz, I got into a lot of the wargames of the day, and had a subscription to Strategy & Tactics magazine, which sent out a new wargame every other month.
But wargaming got me into D&D, through the Purdue Wargaming club, which at the time I joined (’75), was split between boardgamers (the designer of Squad Leader was local), tank miniaturists, and this new kinda game involving roleplaying. So it was a pretty steady downslope
into RPGs.

2. We talk a lot about inspiration and the creative process at Grailrunner. Your first gaming universe (as far as I know) was called Toril. What themes or ideas inspired you for that work? I’m specifically interested in your earliest influences and sparkly things that drove you to get started down the path you’ve taken.

My first D&D campaign was Toril (originally Toricandra – I liked C.S.Lewis’ Silent Planet trilogy). The world was created in the fall of ’75, when D&D was three books in a wood-grained box and the Greyhawk supplement, and was born of a very boring math class. I starting laying out a dungeon design on orange ten-squares-to-the-inch graph paper. It quickly became a “superdungeon” with a separate typewritten key saying what every room contained, and the rooms were randomly generated. It was also a nexus dungeon, which was to say that it had many entrances across the planet. Some were ruins, some were cities, and had names like American Pie, Simon Tower, and Emerson (on Lake Palmer). Yeah, my musical tastes influenced it. The outside world evolved from those dungeon entrances (because in those days, it was safer on the first level of a dungeon than depending on the random monster roles in the wilderness).

I quickly became the “Friday Night Moderator” for the group – Dan Lawrence (Telengard) had a classroom dungeon (40+ people at a time) on Saturday night, and a friend named Steve Savoldi had Sunday afternoon. Mine was the “couples’ dungeon” because you could bring your girlfriend to the group and she would not feel out of place.

I gave the name Toril to Faerun’s home planet, with Ed Greenwood’s blessing. My gods went over to help out on Dragonlance (and Krynn the homeworld, was named after my sister-in-law, Corrine). Various monsters found homes elsewhere. So I looted the cool stuff my home campaign for future work.

3. “I look at the night sky and I think…there’s gotta be something out there worth stealing.” -Lorebook Of The Void, Aug 1989.

That’s Spelljammer in a sentence. Absolute work of genius, and still going strong even now on Youtube and with unofficial conversions to 5th Edition. Flesh out the beginning of Spelljammer for us – was all that as fun as it sounded? How did it go down?

Spelljammer started with an image – a knight standing on a ship’s deck in deep space. I was working at TSR full-time as a game designer, and our boss, Jim (Gamma World) Ward took us out to a local bar for brainstorming. The waitstaff, listening in on our discussion decided from our discussion that we had to be a movie crew preparing for a new picture, and that Warren (Deus Ex) Spector was really Stephen Spielberg.

Spelljammer was pitched as both being a connective campaign (way to get between campaign settings) and a setting in its own right. One of the keys was the ship designs. I would ask artist Jim Holloway for a particular type of ship (“One that looks like a hammerhead shark”), he would come up with sketches, Dave (DSL) LaForce  and I would figure out how the deck plans would work. The idea of ships having a “gravity plane” comes very much out of my engineering background and since they have gravity, they have atmospheres.

Much of my “Grubbian Physics” as one reviewer called it, comes out of discarded science of the past. The Crystal Spheres were from old medieval texts on the sun and planets orbiting around the Earth on predetermined tracts. Phlogiston comes out of an enlightenment theory about how things burned – supposedly material had an inherent “burningness” which was called Phlogiston. The French scientists thought that burning was simply rapid oxidation, but they were mocked about that (though they were right).

As far as a setting, we put a city in space with the Rock of Bral (taken from Gi-BRAL-tar), and we created our “great white whale” – the Spelljammer itself. And then there are the Giant Space Hamsters. I asked Jim for a gnome ship that looked like a couple ships banged into each other and fused. He gave me a parts galleon, part side-wheeler. Roger (Dragon Magazine) Moore asked why it had side wheels if it was moving through space. I said that they were hamster wheels and lo, the mighty Space Hamster was born. Roger wrote up about twenty variants for a Monstrous Compendium, and Space Hamsters have since shown up from Baldur’s Gate to Mass Effect.

4. As an incredibly prolific and influential writer, you’ve played in (and helped build) a lot of very big and important sandboxes. Do you stay in the loop on creations from decades ago and what’s happening with them now? If so, which of your brain-babies do you check on most frequently and why?

I check in on them but I rarely comment. I am on Facebook groups for Spelljammer, Dragonlance, Foggie Realms, and the like, and occasionally answer questions about what we were thinking when we decided X or Y. I am comfortable doing new things as well as the old and familiar.

I don’t feel a need to patrol my old haunts to see how the new tenants have been looking after the place. They are literally (as properties of TSR/WotC/Hasbro) and figuratively (created to be used and developed by players) no longer mine when they go out into the world. I am delighted that people are still playing things I wrote and designed for all these years later. Though as a mental exercise, I have been thinking about how I would re-do the Marvel Super Heroes RPG, but that’s just for my own amusement.

5. Just prepping for this, I saw you list P.G. Wodehouse as a favorite author. If that’s right, you’re even more awesome than I’d thought. How funny was that guy?! But seriously, what’s with all the hard-nosed detective books like Chandler and Hammett? Did you miss your calling?

Interesting that we gather those writers together. Yes, I have of late enjoyed more mystery novels than fantasy books only because I see all the structure of a fantasy novel, which reduces my enjoyment of it. But I think more importantly, I like these writers because of what they do with the language. The characterizations are sharp, their conversations are witty, and their turns of phrase are biting. That said, you should go dig out The Wyvern’s Spur, which was the second novel I wrote with my wife Kate Novak for the Forgotten Realms. It is a paean to Wodehouse, and Giogi Wyvernspur would fit in neatly at the Drone’s Club with Bertie and the rest.

6. Hey, what’s the future of tabletop wargames?

Probably the future is in the ‘net, because the future of everything is in the ‘net. I still have my copy of Panzer Blitz on the shelf (next to my copy of Tractics), but haven’t touched it for decades. My “historical” computer games of choice have been things like Sid Meyer’s Civilization, but that’s just comfort food. I do see a lot of new boardgames, particularly from Sandy Peterson and various Kickstarters, which make use of a lot of available technology to create and promote games. Miniatures gaming, I think, is a fairly healthy niche, primarily due to companies like Games Workshop who are still promoting collecting and painting miniatures. I have yet to find a computer game that captures the feel and flavor of the old miniatures games like DBA and Hordes of the Things.

7. Anything you’re working on these days with Amazon or wherever that you’d like us to know about? Why is that awesome?

I am working for Amazon Game Studios as a Narrative Designer. I am still building worlds. Beyond that, I cannot say what I am currently working on, but it will be awesome.

8. Where can we stay in touch with you on what you’re up to ? 

I can be found at Grubbstreet.blogspot.com, where I do book reviews, play reviews (back in the day when we had live theatre), local politics, and collectable quarters. Occasionally Wolfgang (Kobold Publishing) Baur will haul me out of my well-earned rest to work on something for Midgard or an essay on gaming.

That’s a wrap, guys! Jeff’s fantastic, by the way. You should pick up more of his stuff. Two comments he made are going on the shopping list (in addition to The Wyvern’s Spur):

“If you think Spelljammer was weird, go hunt down an old copy of the original Manual of the Planes.

Lord Toede was my attempt to do a balls-out funny book, two parts Roadrunner cartoon and two parts Black Adder. And I pulled it off. Every so often someone at WotC contacts me about a sequel, I tell them I have an idea for a sequel, and then they shuffle the staff and it gets forgotten about.” (From an interview with Thomas Knight)

Till next time, guys.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

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