Last Wednesday, I was offered an amazing opportunity, which any D&D blogger would find impossible to pass up: the chance to have an interview with the creator of Drizzt… R. A. Salvatore! The phone interview was conducted over Skype, which I recorded so as to be able to use his quotes for my upcoming reviews of the Gauntlgrym and Neverwinter novels on EN World News. But as Mr. Salvatore and I ended up discussing much more than merely his characters and novels, I decided that it might be a good idea to put together some of the more D&D gaming parts together into a blog.
[Editor’s Note: As it turns out, this blog almost did not come to pass, as the software I used to record my interview with Mr. Salvatore had all sorts of problems with the file format, nearly resulting in the loss of a really great discussion! But thankfully, my more technical friends came to the rescue this past weekend, and I now have the interview saved in a .wav format, and easily accessible for gathering quotes and comments from!]
Now I have to admit that I was a bit nervous about doing an interview over Skype, which I’d never tried before – not to mention that my first interview here is with a fantasy author who has had 18 New York Times Bestsellers to his credit! So I had a sort of “King’s Speech” moment of dread, sitting there on Skype, waiting for my appointed time to start the interview, and watching for the call to come through from R.A Salvatore! But as it turns out, my concerns were quite unfounded, as Mr. Salvatore was quite personable and friendly when interviewed – and I imagine he’s had plenty of experience with it over the years – and I quickly found myself pleasantly engaging a writer who is clearly a fantasy enthusiast and a fellow gamer as well.
Of course, I couldn’t help but start off my interview with Mr. Salvatore with some questions about Drizzt. It’s impossible to deny that Drizzt has become a very popular character in modern fantasy, so much so, that you can hardly go to a fantasy gaming forum or play an MMO without seeing a poster or toon running around using his name as their pseudonym. So I asked Mr. Salvatore what it felt like to have created such a well-known and popular fantasy character:
Salvatore: “It blows my mind! I mean I had no idea…you know, he wasn’t even in the original synopsis of the book [The Crystal Shard]… I kinda came up with him off the top of my head under pressure. And 24 years later here he is. It’s amazing to me how many people have befriended him… or he’s become a friend to them while they’re in junior high school or high school… or even in the overseas in the military, in the middle of the desert.“
In fact, the idea of a scimitar-wielding dark elf has become so iconic to so many fantasy readers and gamers that people sometimes forget about the origin of the character in the first place:
Salvatore: “You know I remember being at a GenCon… or some convention … and I was signing for The Thousand Orcs… which had Drizzt with his scimitars [on the cover], slashing through this horde of orcs. And this young man came up to the table… he must have been 10 or 12 years old, and there was a line of people there, but he just walked in front of the line right up to the table. And he looked at the book and said ‘Oh a good dark elf… with two scimitars… how cliché.’
And I said ‘Well thank you!’… but he didn’t get it, right? Anyway, it blows my mind… I’m surprised anyone reads these books, and if I see them translated into Chinese or Italian or German or something, I’m just like laughing because I just can’t believe it.”
Given how long a history Mr. Salvatore has had with Drizzt and his series of books, it made me curious to know how he still got on writing about such a unique character and his adventures, in the Forgotten Realms:
Salvatore: [It’s a] “Very comfortable feeling writing him… but there has been a huge transition, because you know the first few books are really propelled by character development. But after you get seven, eight, ten, fifteen, twenty books into a series, it’s really hard to do character development. People just don’t keep changing like that, in profound ways. They do in subtle ways and their perspectives change a little bit… and so you shift from character development to putting the character under pressure and see if he or she can remain true to the principles that have guided them through the years.
What I realized when I put together the stories for the anthology… we took all my FR short stories and put them all into one place… and I annotated them, so I had to kinda tell the readers what I was doing as I was writing those stories. And it was an amazing epiphany for me when I realized that they were snapshots in time, as sure as if I were looking in an old photo album right back into that time and place when I was writing those stories. And that’s when I realized that writing is not what I do, it’s who I am… and what I’m really doing, when I am writing… especially with Drizzt, who has become such a dear friend to me now after 24 years… I’ve been using him… and the books, and the situations, and all the other characters, good, bad, or indifferent… as sounding boards to ask myself the questions of life. And that’s how I kind of sort through my life… through my writing.”
But of course the Forgotten Realms is a big place and an important part of the D&D universe. As the intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast, the Realms has served as not only a setting for thousands of D&D gamers over the years as a place to play out their own campaigns and adventures, but it has also been used as a backdrop by numerous authors like Mr. Salvatore to create novels and fantasy stories. Not to mention, there have been dozens of computer games set in the Forgotten Realms as well, including the hugely popular Neverwinter Nights series, of which the most recent edition is being created even now by Cryptic Studios. So I just had to find out what sort collaboration there was regarding the Forgotten Realms and Neverwinter as Mr. Salvatore was writing Gauntlgyrm and Neverwinter:
Salvatore: “Basically what happened is that Wizards called me up to ask me if I was going to be in the area of Neverwinter. Because they had decided… and I didn’t know this… that with the new game coming [Neverwinter Nights video game] they were going to use Neverwinter as kind of a central focal point in the Realms. And so they asked me if I was going to be anywhere near the city of Neverwinter. And I was, because my story was going to take place in the Crags, and one way or another I was going back there, because that’s where I always figured Gauntlgrym was. And the ‘cake’… the core of the story… that I was baking is exactly the same, and did not change. It was all about whether they would find it or not, Breunor’s shouting the “I found it, elf!” line, and Drizzt having a “blank slate” in his life and ending up with this unsavory new character [Dahlia]. Of course I had no idea yet who that unsavory character was going to be, at that point… I just knew the basic story that I wanted to tell.
So I went up to a meeting at Wizards with the Wizard’s designers and the people from Cryptic, and they were telling me that my books were going to be set before it [new Neverwinter Nights video game], and we’d like these kinds of things to happen, and I said, ‘Well if you’re redesigning it for the game, then you probably have to level the city [Neverwinter] that’s there now, for it to all make sense.’
And they said, ‘Good, but how are we gonna do it?’
And I said, ‘Well suppose…’ And I came up with the primordial… they [the WotC designers] had been telling me about primordials and the new Realms and how they fit with the new gods. So I said, ‘How about I use a fire primordial in a volcano that wipes out Gauntlgrym and suppose it’s one of my characters that sets it off inadvertently?’
And Rich Baker was sitting across the table from me, and Rich Baker is a really creative guy… and Rich and I, I don’t know if it’s a rivalry or collaborative friendship, but when we start riffing off of each other, it just becomes this amazingly creative session. And that’s how I came up with how I was going to do it [in the novels]. But it never bothered me that that was added to my book, since most of it was my idea anyway… and by the end almost all of it was… and they were doing it the way that I’d like to do it anyway. But really that was just the icing on the cake, because I would have written the exact same story, with the exact same implications for the characters, even if I would have done things differently to the world around them. That [the collaboration] just made it all on a bigger scale, gave me stuff to have a little more fun… and I got to blow more stuff up!”
Clearly, there were some advantages to having Mr. Salvatore collaborate on the momentous events in the Forgotten Realms, particularly for Cryptic Studios, as it works toward finishing the new Neverwinter Nights game:
Salvatore: “So the other thing that happened as I was writing the books though, because of my familiarity with how they do video games from my work with 38 Studios, I knew that if I had storylines where the ending was somewhat ambiguous… if it could go one way or the other… or if I had a really cool villain, for example, that had set up a really cool lair, I would call Wizards of the Coast and say hey, ‘I’ve got this… I’m sending you this chapter… send it on to the guys at Cryptic!’
And if they want this character to live, I can let him live after the end of the book, and they can use him as an NPC in the game. So because I was going before them, it gave me the freedom to do pretty much whatever I wanted, as long as I left things in that region… although not necessarily with my characters… the way that they needed it.”
Other aspects of the collaboration with Wizards of the Coast Designers added new aspects to the novels as well, bringing in two groups which have been featured in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting – the Thayans and the Ashmodai:
Salvatore: “Well I never really needed a cult [Ashmodai], and I didn’t know anything about them, and I had never done anything with Thay… I never really needed any of that. Honestly I could have done anything I wanted once I was down inside Gauntlgrym. There were plenty of monsters I could have drawn upon to create the type of scenes I needed. But having them [Thayans and Ashmodai] there, those are one the joys of working in a “shared world”. I get to stand on the shoulders of other creative people, and riff off of what they were doing anyway. However, that also leads to some loose ends, because it’s a world that’s bigger than the story I’m writing, and it goes on afterward into the hands of other creative people to work into the game.”
But despite Mr. Salvatore’s collaboration with the Wizards of the Coast design team, possibly one of the biggest surprises I got during my interview was finding out his views on Dungeons & Dragons editions, and what he thought of the evolution of the game. This came out when I asked him which D&D edition best defined Drizzt, who has been adventuring since 1988, and which one made the most sense to him as a novelist:
Salvatore: First and early Second Edition. When I’m DMing, I still play first… I play a first-second hybrid with some house rules thrown in.
What has happened then with original Dungeons & Dragons, is that it’s gone from First to Second Edition, and Second basically cleaned up First… the early version of Second was really a cleaned up version of first edition, with a little bit of class balancing thrown in – but they took out the monks and the assassins, and I was really mad at them for that! But then second edition started having all the supplementary books coming out… and then the barrier to entry [into the game] became higher.
And then 3rd Edition was a rules lawyer’s dream come true, right, with 3 and 3.5, and they had a table for everything. I mean if you sneezed, you could probably look up how hard you sneezed!
And now 4th edition is really a card game. It’s a strategy game, it’s a movement game, where you influence the movements of other people to disadvantage them, and then you make your own movements based upon advantage… it’s moved very much away from original Dungeons & Dragons, which was a game of improvisation and agility. And by agility, that means that if you’re DMing that game, you had to deal with very clever players who would hit you with curve balls, all day long… and you had to be able to handle that and give them logical resolutions, without the help of a table.
Now that edition [First/Second Edition] lends itself to novel writing a lot better than a stack of cards does. When I wrote Neverwinter, I have an anatomically correct 4th Edition battle in there, and it almost killed me writing it! It was brutal… making those cards make sense in prose form, and then have a logical consistency for how this battle might develop.”
I have to say that Mr. Salvatore’s perspective on the evolution and playstyle of D&D was certainly eye-opening to me. And it’s definitely worth pondering, given the recent Legend & Lore articles being penned by Mike Mearls, and now Monte Cook!
By the way, I will definitely have more comments and quotes from my interview with R.A. Salvatore, which will appear in my upcoming reviews of Gauntlgrym and Neverwinter on the EN World News site – particularly, with insights about the other characters and the plot of the novels – so please check back for more in the coming weeks!
But it definitely was a great experience to chat with Mr. Salvatore about his novels and Dungeons & Dragons, and he was very candid about both his writing and his gaming. On a personal note, I want to thank Mr. Salvatore for the opportunity to have a amazing interview with him, as well as Sheila Tayebi at 360 Public Relations for making all the behind-the-scenes arrangements get it set up for me!
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!