RW: Your name has come up several times while interviewing others from the TSR crew of the 80s. Your peers have admiration and high praise of your abilities. While delving into the topic of Unearthed Arcana, Frank Menzter said you were one of TSR's best, having just read Marvel Superheroes. Marvel Superheroes is a great game and captures the spirit of comic book fights and story lines quite well. Was developing the game something you volunteered for, or had to fight for? What was the development process like? How long did it take you to put it all together?
JG: Marvel Super Heroes started as a game in college for my regular D&D group. We were taking a break from the normal campaign (Toril) and they ended up running the “Junior Achievers” – the JA branch of the Avengers, based out of Purdue University. It was a lark, set in the Marvel Universe, and was capped by a road trip where they went to New York, met Spider-Man, and fought Mayor Koch.
Years later, when I was working for TSR, they asked for “Blue Sky Projects” – stuff that we really wanted to do. My first suggestion was a cyberpunk game so dark that I think it dissolved a hole in the filing cabinet. They asked me about my second choice, and I unearthed Project: Marvel Comics (Its name back in college).
The time frame was tight, which is why Steve Winter is listed as writer on the project, and the pair of us as co-creators. A lot of people assume that I was responsible for the “face-front true-believer” rules presentation, but a lot of that is Steve. We actually only got the final deal done and legal work signed when the game was on the presses.
The design process was intense for an introductory game, and we went through a lot of different versions of the Universal Table. I renamed our original abilities from the college game to produce the FASERIP mnemonic (In that first campaign it was Combat, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Cosmic, Magic, and Technology). And from a graphics side, that was when we were first experimenting with the big full-color maps. They also blind-tested the game where they brought in a bunch of 6th graders and taped them learning how to play the game, then tied me to a chair and made me watch the tape. Painful but useful.
RW: The main conflict resolution system of the game is encoded into a table of results. Marvel is the first game that I recall to utilize such a table, but it was not long after that TSR started using such tables in other offerings (Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Conan). What inspired you to make the table? Can you give some insight as to why it caught on with other games during the mid 80s?
JG: The inspiration for the Universal Table comes from the old wargame Combat Results Tables, pure and simple. I played SPI and Avalon Hill games (Panzerblitz, Blitzkreig) when I was in high school, and only discovered D&D and roleplaying in college (that would be fall of 1975). I think the origin of those tables accounts for some of their popularity – they were easily adjustable and in a format that presented well to our players. GW, Indy, and Conan all used their own versions of the table. Pacesetter, which did Chill and was made up of TSR ex-pats came out with their own. And Victory Games’ James Bond had a similar table, but that was probably separate evolution (since they were made up of old Avalon Hill designers).
RW: It has been said that Tracy Hickman garnered support with TSR staff so as to present a stronger case to management for making Dragonlance. Steve Winter stated that the team for Dragonlance worked very hard to present the idea and then, to see it through to success. Did Dragonlance seem like a sure fire bet to you at the time? Did you need much convincing to support the concept?
JG: I didn’t need much convincing, but no, I didn’t think it was a sure thing. The project had its origin as a trilogy of dragon-based modules that Tracy proposed. Harold Johnson encouraged him to expand it to 10 modules, one for every shade of current dragon (and expanding from there to 12 quickly to include platinum and chromatic). I was the third person in, and the fourth was Carl Smith, one of our editors. Larry Elmore did four color mock-ups for the presentation and each of us had one of those art pieces (the one I have on my wall features Caramon and Raistlin, and the flying citadels looking like castles on flat plates). We made the presentation, walking through the story of the game, tying in potential novels, comics, and toys.
Even once the upper management bought in on the idea, they wanted to get a “real” writer to do the novels. Fortunately, they could not find a “real” writer who would work for the rates they proposed, and they turned back to Tracy to write the novels, with the condition that he team up with a published author. That was how Margaret brought her brilliance to the team. Even so, they asked that the first novel have a definite resolution, just in case there wasn’t going to be a second one.
RW: When I asked Bruce Heard if you might have been inspired to write Spelljammer from his idea of flying wooden ships, he responded, "He’s a very talented writer and designer more than capable of developing Spelljammer without my odd little module!" Spelljammer is quite a flight of fancy! It pulls together all of fantasy campaigns and allows travel between them. What inspired you to put together such a novel system? Was the development process completely different than when you did Marvel Super Heroes?
JG: D&D in space (I’m sorry – “Innnn Spaaaaace”) has had a number of versions over the years, including M1 with its sailing ships among the gods, S4 for a more tech version, and of course Metamorphosis Alpha. It in turn inspired other projects as well (you can see echoes in the Princess Ark and the Weatherlight). Its specific origin was in a new concepts meeting held in a bar in Lake Geneva.
The design team (designers and editors, and I think Bruce as well) had adjourned to a local restaurant called Augie’s (now under a different name) in downtown Lake Geneva. Jim Ward and Warren Spector were the bosses at the time and leading the discussion. The waitstaff overheard our conversation and assumed we were movie people (and Warren was Steven Spielberg). I pitched the idea of a man in full armor standing on the open deck of a ship in space, and figuring out how that was possible. All the bits with gravity planes and air envelopes and crystal sphers and other “Grubbian Physics” came out of that.
One of the big parts of development was the ship design. I would talk in general nature about the ships with artist Jim Holloway. He would go off and do wonderful ship designs. Then I would sit down with mapper Dave LaForce (Diesel) and figure out how they worked. It was a real cool creative process.
RW: Going back to Unearthed Arcana, you are listed as a design consultant in the credits. Mentzer mentions you helped scour through Dragon Magazine articles to use as material to build Unearthed Arcana. Do you feel that the Internet provides a good replacement for the percolation of rule ideas for RPGs that magazines once did?
JG: Absolutely. Of course it was easier in those days to dig deeply into the back issues and older product because there weren’t nearly as much of it then as there is now, but harder because the knowledge base was determined by personal experience as opposed to a central database. I think that some of the original D&D was shaped in part by what texts were available in the Lake Geneva Public Library.
The downside of the current system is that we are swimming in almost too much info, in that it is tough to separate signal from noise. There was a lot of that in the old days, and the less-good stuff tended to be forgotten while the cool stuff tends to be remembered. I’ve been going through some old DRAGONs and for every article that I remember fondly, there are two that I wonder what we were thinking at the time.
RW: You have written a lot of books that are part of "shared settings"; Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Star Wars, and more. Is there a co-author (or perhaps just a setting guru you had to bounce ideas of), that you particularly enjoyed working with over the years?
JG: Every partnership is different, both in games and in novels. Often it is depends on the requirements of the work and the personalities involved. In the Ghosts of Ascalon, I was the last person to work on the manuscript before it hit the editor. In the case of my FR books with Kate, she got the final word.
I don’t have a favorite co-writer, but it has always been a delight to work with Ed Greenwood. His writing style and mine are very different – he likes long, convoluted, opaque sentences while my writing style is shorter, more cinematic, and equally opaque. But he is a joy to work with and I would team up with him again in a second. When we did the Cormyr novel, I wrote the sections set in the past and he wrote the present-day sections, then we swapped and revised each other. And there was this one scene that stuck with me – a fly-through in a second-story restaurant, where Ed lingers at each table and describes the petty lives of those present. It had nothing to do with the overarching plot, but it was such an “Ed” moment, I didn’t want to change anything.
RW: You worked as a self described "embedded writer" for Guild Wars. You post occasionally to your blog Grubb Street. Is there anything you would like the readers to know about that you have been up to recently?
JG: Things are a bit quiet on Grubb Street right now. Guild Wars 2 has shipped and done very well in sales and reviews. My Star Wars Novel, Scourge, has come out and has gotten a nice response as well. And I’ve helped Wolfgang Baur with the launch of the Midgard campaign setting from his Open Design, as well as contributed to the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. Right now I’m in recharge and regroup mode. When I get a few things ready for prime time, I’ll be sure to blab about them, but not before they’re ready.