Ed Greenwood Talks Forgotten Realms, Libraries and Life

At Tribality, we’ve been interviewing some of the people who are behind all the awesome stuff that is being created for tabletop gamers. I’m really excited to bring you an interview with Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms fantasy world setting, a librarian, and a fellow Canadian. He is the author of more than 200 books that have sold over a quarter billion units worldwide in over 40 languages in more than 120 countries. He also just released Spellstorm, a new book set in the Forgotten Realms. I had a chance to pull Ed away from his busy writing schedule to answer some questions about the Realms, his new book and more.

Can you tell us a little bit about your new book Spellstorm that was just released on June 2 in hardcover?

Ed: Spellstorm is set after the Sundering (in other words, after the events of my last Realms novel, The Herald), and mostly takes place in an old noble’s mansion in the countryside of eastern Cormyr.

The aging Lord Halaunt, strapped for funds, announces in Suzail that he has the infamous “Lost Spell” and will sell it to the highest bidder. This lures a lot of powerful mages to his sprawling, isolated, and rather creepy country home—including Manshoon, Malchor Harpell, and some frighteningly powerful magic-hurling individuals who’ve been around since the early days of the Realms, that some alert long-time fans may recognize. They all promptly get trapped there, along with Elminster and some of his friends, by a “spellstorm” that makes those who wield magic lose their minds if they dare to venture into it. So, unable to rely on the mighty magic they’re accustomed to, this mansion-full of arrogant, powerful people have to get along. But they don’t, of course, and murder follows murder . . . yes, it’s a country house murder mystery set in the Realms!

spellstorm-bgCover art from Spellstorm. Wizards of the Coast.

When were you first approached to write Spellstorm? Was Spellstorm written in isolation or were you provided some details on the other storylines such as Tyranny of Dragons by the team at Wizards of the Coast?

Ed: I was first approached to write the book that became Spellstorm over six years ago, but I proposed this particular theme for the novel at one of the summit meetings that began as planning for The Sundering but also became “looking ahead” meetings for how Realms novels by everyone could best fit with, and reflect, all of the unfolding storylines that Wizards is creating for the Realms. All of the writers currently penning Realms novels have been active contributors to Tyranny and Princes of the Apocalypse and future storylines, and to Baldur’s Gate lore and adventures before that; we are bound by NDAs not to discuss specifics or reveal anything before Wizards makes those storylines public, but we’re not writing in isolation; the Realms always works best when all of the weavers of its grand tapestry know who else is weaving, and where!


How do you feel about the Forgotten Realms being the marquee setting for D&D 5e so far?

Ed: I feel great, because it means the Realms soldiers along as an in-print setting and everyone working on the Realms gets to look at various people and places in it as they are “now,” as well as revisit some classic D&D tropes and explore new threats and details and social developments in the Realms. I’m a Realms novel beyond Spellstorm in my writing right now, and can tell you: there’s lots of new and old lore to explore, and life in the Realms is lively indeed, right now!


How did you dream up the idea for the Forgotten Realms setting as a child?

Ed: I read voraciously as a very young child, and often asked my father (his books and magazines were what I was reading) if there were sequels to this or that work I really enjoyed—and he often told me the author was dead, so if I wanted more, I’d have to write it myself. So I did, most of it pretty bad stuff, but this started when I was all of four years old! Back then, I discovered Fritz Leiber’s adventures of Fahrd & the Gray Mouser short stories among the many fantasy yarns I loved, and fell in love with the idea that each story stood on its own and revealed a little about the world the two heroes were adventuring in. So I came up with Mirt the Moneylender, a mixture of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Poul Anderson’s Nicholas van Rijn, and Guy Gilpatrick’s Glencannon—a fat, wheezing rogue who’s still alive and wheezing in the Realms today, and in the pages of Spellstorm, in fact!—who was too old and stout and short of breath to outfight or outrun foes, so he had to try to outwit them. Mirt swindled his way from port to port along the Sword Coast, usually departing one city hastily at the end of a story one step ahead of creditors, rivals and foes new and old, and the authorities! So from Luskan to Neverwinter and on down through Waterdeep and beyond, I started creating the Forgotten Realms a full ten years before anything called Dungeons & Dragons existed! It was a world for my stories, and over the years since, has become the world of thousands of stories.


How much of the Forgotten Realms from your early short stories still exists in the setting so many of us enjoy as readers and players today?

Ed: Aside from the details of what lies east of Raurin and south of “the Utter East,” and west across the sea from Evermeet, just about everything that’s in Faerûn was there when TSR first saw my hand drawn master maps of the Realms in 1986, and I had written lore to back up the names and places. What has developed as we have shared the Realms together is the “new history” of the Realms that has unfolded since the “Old Gray Box,” the first boxed set that introduced the Realms as a game setting: the events recounted in the novels and game adventures from 1987 onwards.


Do you have any advice for aspiring writers and DMs who are rookie world builders?

Ed: Don’t try to do it all at once. You already know you’ll never be finished, but you can spend endless months detailing this and that, and get bogged down in lineages and which plants can be used as medicines or in the cooking pot, and get frustrated and never really be ready to tell a story or run an adventure. So, writer or DM, answer this question for yourself: what are you immediate story needs? What grabs players and gamers are interesting characters (NPCs) for them to interact with, interesting stuff (intrigue and trade, not just war) that’s going on, with stakes for the main characters/Player Characters so what they do matters, and letting them follow their own aims, see things they can achieve, and letting them manage to do or get or win at some of those things. The fast, slender way of worldbuilding is to craft a bare-bones skeleton that sees to all of those needs. It should give players moral choices for their characters to make, present them with mysteries to solve and villains to defeat, and it should be a more fun place to visit in their heads than the real world is – – or they’ll stop playing! And make it all feel alive, not a lifeless backdrop that’s frozen until the Player Characters walk onstage and do things. Making it feel alive means there has to be stuff happening that has nothing directly to do with the PCs, but is the “news of the day” they hear about as they journey and adventure. I could go on and on, but that’s the key: the world is a stage for your stories. Think of good stories first, and the minimum stage you need to tell those stories on, then start using the stage; you can expand and improve it as you go along.


If you are asked (assuming you aren’t already) to work on a new Campaign Setting book for the Forgotten Realms, is there something new that you’d love to provide details for that was never covered in the past campaign settings books?

Ed: One of the things that has always been slighted in published Realmslore thus far, in part because of lack of space on the page but more because of wariness over “isn’t this D&D stuff ungodly evil?” concerns, is details of faiths: the daily prayers, rituals, do’s and don’ts, around-the-year festivals and holy days, and all of that sort of religious lore, so priest (and paladin) PCs can really be roleplayed properly, and PCs and NPCs of other classes who venerate a particular deity know when and how to pray, and how to conduct themselves in accordance with the ethos and aims of the god. Instead, we always got details of the avatars of the gods themselves, or prestige classes or special magical powers of powerful priests. We need the everyday stuff, too—such as: what is the high priestess of this temple in the Realms trying to personally achieve, in the secular (worldly) sense? (As in, make money, increase the influence of the temple or the faith, or achieve politically with whoever rules the region.) What’s been published so far is akin to a guide to luxury sports cars, sold to people who haven’t been shown how to drive, or put gas or oil in any car. We need to cover the basics.


What do you think of the storylines direction Wizards of the Coast has taken for D&D 5e so far? Would you be interested in working with Wizards of the Coast on a storyline?

Ed: I am always interested in working with Wizards on a storyline! In fact, I’ve worked on all of the 5e era storylines so far, and have been involved in “setting up” some things that won’t be seen for years into the future—so of course I think the storylines are great! We need more small, independent adventures that aren’t directly tied to big, ongoing storylines, but that’s where individual DMs can do as they’ve always done: get creative, or take and adapt elements they like from third-party RPG adventures, to make their campaigns truly “their own.”

sunderingCover art from The Herald. Wizards of the Coast.

Do you like the direction the Forgotten Realms has taken in 5e, going back to a more traditional Realms as opposed to the Spellplague Realms of D&D 4th Edition?

Ed: Yes, the Realms “getting back on its feet” as opposed to magic going wild and gods dying and everything changing and the entire world seemingly being at war shifts Player Character adventuring from just trying to stay alive to being able to adventure in a setting where there are some precious and beloved people and places to defend, and great new things can be built by bold adventurers. It also shifts the setting from “everyone is caught up in big, epic events” to “you have room to settle down and raise flowers over here, but at any time can grab your sword and steed and join in the unfolding big adventures over there.”

And the return of lost or dead deities like Eilistraee means if “your” or a favourite deity was wiped out, you can have them back again! We all want exciting adventures, but the world they take place in should be less tense than our real one, except when we want it to be exciting!


You’ve mentioned in the past that it’s important for people who write for roleplaying games to be active as both players and Dungeon Masters?

Are you still running your original Waterdeep campaign and which rules are you using?

Have you had a chance to be a player in a 5th edition game yet?

Ed: Yes, anyone who doesn’t game but designs game adventures is walking dangerous tightrope thanks to the everpresent temptation of trying to shove or railroad PCs into certain behaviours to set up parts of a story, rather than giving the players an ongoing sequence of choices and achievements so their characters (the heroes, remember?) get to impose their wills on the world, rather than always having adventures “done to” them.

My original players are now grown up with busy lives (families and jobs) of their own, and scattered across the globe, so play sessions are now very rare things with years elapsing between them, but we’ve never officially ended the campaign. The Waterdeep campaign very swiftly morphed into an Eveningstar campaign that became a Shadowdale campaign, and through it all, the rules we have used have developed like this: we vote on everything (so, yes, the players can out-vote the DM), and my players voted to move from the original D&D® (“First Edition”) to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons® (“Second Edition”). Aside from agreeing to playtest this or that for TSR or Wizards since, they and I have happily stuck with 2nd Edition. And before you deem that “my choice” in any Edition Wars, please understand this: for my gaming group, the rules don’t matter. We are roleplaying—that is, acting, telling a story together. After an epic five-hour ongoing debate over a psionic combat that unfolded during one of the Zhentarim attacks on Shadowdale, we decided to just “agree on the fly” how to handle this or that challenge (usually simple dice rolls), rather than to worry about the details of rules. We’re not playing in tournaments, so we have settled into what best suits and pleases us, as all gaming groups do—which is why the eldest of us have happily been playing together since 1978.

Ed is wearing his gauntlets ‘again’. Photo by Jenny Glicksohn, ©2011.Ed is wearing his gauntlets ‘again’. Photo by Jenny Glicksohn, ©2011.

Are you still working at the North York Community Library? Have you even had fans drop in for a visit?

Ed: No, I retired about a decade ago from the Toronto Public Library (that the North York Public Library had merged with), where I was for many years on staff at the Brookbanks Community Branch and from time to time worked at bookmobile stops and eight or nine other branches, when my wife reached the then-mandatory retirement age. It just didn’t make sense for me to drive alone 120 miles a day to work, and then 120 miles home again, mainly on the 401. So I retired and immediately started working at the Port Hope Public Library, only 40 miles from home, where I still work to this day. I’ve been continuously employed in public libraries since April of 1974, and over all of those years, I have had fans visit, ask for autographs, come to ask me to bless or officiate at their weddings, name their children or give my blessing for the use of one of my Realms character names for a child, settle marital disputes and endless game arguments, and even to talk them out of suicide! I’ve even had marriage proposals, and have been taken to dinner more times than I can count. The Realms has literally taken me all over the world and given me thousands of friends, and that, for me, has been the real joy in all of this—that I can entertain so many people and share something I dreamed up with them all, and work with many talented people on making the Realms richer and better together.


How has your experience as a librarian influenced your writing and dungeon mastering over the years?

Ed: Working in public libraries means you meet all sorts of interesting (and sometimes eccentric) people every day, who are themselves involved or interested in just about anything humans can do or think of. You learn stuff about everything from cooking to rainfall, and politics to obscure rhymes, every single working day. So dozens of bits and elements of characters walk through the library doors every day, and my every working shift has me learning new things, looking at things I thought I knew in new ways, and in answering questions and solving problems and inspiring young readers and students. So it’s not just tremendously satisfying (how many workers get to help people and connect them with cool stories, or solve their need-to-know problems, every day?), it keeps my brain humming along learning new stuff and seeing how different people can see the same thing very differently, and learning to communicate better (many people will ask for X, but they really want Y but just don’t know how to ask for Y, and you as the library person learn to sense and ask and say the right things to get at Y in a friendly, welcoming way)—and all of that has seeped into my fiction writing and game design and how I run a game as a DM. Library work may not suit everyone, but for me it’s a dream job.


Have you had a chance to see any footage of the ‘Legends of the Sword Coast’ video game? If so, what do you think?

Ed: I have been so busy that I’ve only been able to get a few glimpses, but I like what I see. I’m old enough that I remember a time when no one had a computer at home, and “computer games” were played with punch cards, and “video games” meant sitting at home watching balls being drawn for Bingo on a TV station! So for me, every iteration of computer games has been a step closer to the clear visual beauty and smooth animation I always hoped we’d reach, and increases in computer memory and power mean the storylines of games can get better and more complex. I have every confidence that “Legends” will be better than what came before it (and I say that as someone who has worked on classic computer games set in the Realms and Middle-Earth and other fantasy settings, too!). One day, I hope to have the time to really enjoy video and computer games, but right now, I am so busy that my precious gaming time is spent sitting with friends, playing face to face!


The Eternity Quartet has you working with a co-author and publishing monthly. Would you like to tell our readers a little bit about the project?

Ed: Rob Marks is a friend of mine, and not only a publisher, but a historian and a really fine writer. We had been planning to work together on something for years, and The Eternity Quartet is his brilliant idea of how we could both manage the time to actually pull off a collaboration; we each write short stories that will for the most part alternate, as we move up through the history of a quite-a-bit-like-Earth world from “caveperson” times to its ultimate fate in what we would call “the future.” Doing something in such little bite-sized chunks makes it possible, time-wise, and I’m really pleased with the stories, so far. I just wish we’d both been brilliant cover artists, too, and had enough time to draw our own covers, because although the cover Rob came up with is impressive, it’s the same from book to book. Next time, perhaps a moving element, rising up through the cover scene, from story to story . . . oops, I said “next time,” didn’t I? That wasn’t a hint, or a promise, because I have some other projects I’m really busy with, that I have to tackle first!

ed-greenwood-applesEd picking apples with his family near his home in Ontario. Photo by Shaiyena Cote, ©2013.

Are there any other projects outside of Forgotten Realms that you’d like to mention? What can you tell us about The Ed Greenwood Group?

Ed: In the same month Spellstorm came out, Tor Books published my first steampunk novel, a “gaslight romp” entitled The Iron Assassin. I had a lot of fun writing this one, and I hope it shows, and that you’ll have just as much fun reading it! It has dastardly villains and airships and smoky London clubs and brilliant but unhinged scientists and plucky secret agents and twirling mustaches!

I’ve also been very busy doing all sorts of fantasy short stories and game adventures for all sorts of Kickstarter ventures, from big glossy game settings and adventure books to Women In Practical Armor, an anthology of strong female characters in fantasy stories I’ve co-edited with Gabrielle Harbowy; we got buried in great stories from all sorts of writers!

And then, yes, there’s my big news: a new publishing venture called The Ed Greenwood Group, which you can learn more about at theedverse.com and officeedgreenwood.com. The wider world won’t be able to see the full scope of things until after Hallowe’en this year, when my first Hellmaw novel, Your World Is Doomed, appears—but here it is in a nutshell: for years I’ve been working mainly on the Realms but always on other fantasy novels and game projects too, and holding down my day job. So a lot of ideas have caught fire in my head for sf and steampunk and other fantastical-genre stories, and worlds to set those stories in, and I’ve just jotted those ideas down and left them for “someday.”

Well, someday is now here, and a lot of friends (and new writers, too! If you want to be one of them, check out the forms at officeedgreenwood.com and be on the lookout for something called “Onder Librum”) have jumped onboard to write stories in my new settings—a lot of new settings. Hellmaw is just the beginning. Any Canadian who’s interested in dark fantasy has probably heard of ChiZine, the foremost Canadian dark fantasy publisher, and they’ll be aboard on this creative journey! Any sf fan has probably heard of the classic sf magazine Amazing Stories, and we’ll be working with them! And I’m sure that any roleplaying gamer and fan of RPG fiction who goes to officeedgreenwood.com and clicks on the Sessorium will recognize some of the faces and names of the creative people they’ll see there (who are not the entire crew, just the first to sign on for playing in my settings).

So if you want to read and game in cool new worlds (and wear and own stuff that’s in those stories and games, too), we will have new worlds galore for you, over the years ahead. If you love any flavour of fantasy, sf, horror, and pulp adventure in fiction or gaming, there’ll be something here for you. Not just Ed Greenwood novels in fifteen settings, but novels and short stories and game adventures by lots of people in fifteen settings.

So, after Hallowe’en, come and take a look. This is going to be big!


Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

Ed: Just some tiny snippets of life philosophy!

Don’t leave everything for “some day.” Live your life to the full, right now, every day, and be as kind and generous to others as possible. You can always make time for something if you truly want to, and if you never try new and different things, how are you ever going to discover what you really want to do, and are really good at, and really enjoy doing?

So, see you on new trails, reading and trying and seeing new things!

Well that was amazing! Thanks so much to Ed Greenwood for taking the time out of his busy writing schedule for this interview. I hope you enjoyed it and I should be talking with Ed again soon. If you have a suggestion for a question to ask in my next interview, please post it in the comments below.