Realms of the Underdark

Author: Various authors
Published: April 1996

It’s time for another anthology! Realms of the Underdark was the last short story collection that TSR published, a mere five months after Realms of Magic, and I’ve got mixed feelings about diving into it. On the one hand, it looks like they’ve learned from past mistakes. The previous anthology was overstuffed, with no fewer than seventeen stories crammed into a little mass-market paperback, and many of them felt stunted by the severe limits on word count. This one has only five stories plus a prologue and epilogue, which should give the authors plenty of room to work with. On the other hand, the prologue, epilogue, and one of the stories are written by Brian Thomsen, author of the only Forgotten Realms novel so awful that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, not even to review it. Can I grit my teeth and struggle through his sections to get to the interesting bits? I guess we’ll find out.

For reasons which will soon become apparent, this post includes a lot of back-room TSR history. Much of it is a matter of hearsay and conjecture, cobbled together from Facebook and ENWorld posts by former TSR authors and editors. I’d like to preface this post with the disclaimer that I’m not a first-hand authority on this subject, but am merely reporting what others have said or intimated, and I’d welcome any corrections or comments from anyone who was actually there at the time.

Brian Thomsen, “At the Publishing House (Prologue)”

Brian Thomsen was the head of TSR’s fiction department and an occasional contributor of novels and short stories, and the impression I get from reading his work and hearing what other people have to say about him is one of breathtaking incompetence. I can’t speak directly about his abilities as a manager. Some people, like Jeff Grubb, posted glowing obituaries after his death in 2008; others, like his editorial predecessor James Lowder, pointed out how he went out of his way to alienate TSR’s stable of authors by slashing freelance rates, playing favourites with underlings and freelancers, and refusing to allow authors any control over the characters they created. These days he’s mainly remembered as “the guy who nearly prevented R.A. Salvatore from writing any more Drizzt books,” which is definitely in the running for the dumbest decision ever made by TSR. It’s telling that Thomsen wasn’t among the roughly 80% of TSR employees who were kept on board by Wizards of the Coast after the acquisition.

But regardless of his managerial performance, as an author he was not merely inadequate, but so thoroughly incapable that I described his debut novel as “not just the worst Forgotten Realms novel I’ve ever read, but the worst published novel I’ve ever read.” I don’t like making negative reviews personal, but Thomsen’s work is bad to the degree that I can’t imagine any of it would have been published were it not for his position as the head of TSR’s fiction department. And yet here we are, with three of the seven sections of this anthology written by him and another of his Volo novels scheduled to come out in August 1996, four months from this point.

I suppose I should talk about the prologue. As with Realms of Magic, Thomsen takes “write what you know” to a ludicrous extreme by opening the book with a little mini-story about the manager of a fictional publishing house in the Forgotten Realms. It seems to be nothing more than an excuse to make a great many in-jokes about various people at TSR and the projects they were working on. Like the previous anthology’s prologue, the only positive thing I can say about it is that it’s short.

Mark Anthony, “The Fires of Narbondel”

Buckle up; we can’t talk about this story without first dredging up some ugly TSR history. “The Fires of Narbondel” is the only published Drizzt story which wasn’t written by R.A. Salvatore, and Realms of the Underdark is the only anthology that doesn’t include a story by him, despite his fame for writing New York Times-best-selling stories about dark elves and the Underdark. [1] Why? Because Brian Thomsen wanted to teach Salvatore a lesson, apparently.

In those days, TSR was at war with their own authors because they were deathly afraid of letting their authors become famous again. Famous authors, as TSR discovered during their acrimonious break with Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, have leverage. They can throw weight around when negotiating contracts and control how their material gets used. In extremis, they can even punish TSR by writing novels for other publishers instead and taking their fan bases with them. So how do you avoid having writers become stars? Simple: don’t credit the authors at all. Former TSR author and editor James Lowder had this to say on the subject:

The “no stars” idea was applied to various people at various times, usually whenever management wanted someone to do something and was refused. Around 1990, the book department had to fight to keep author names on the spines of books, because management went through a phase where they thought author names only caused distractions in bookstores. Around [April 1994], Bob Salvatore ran afoul of the head of the book department [Thomsen], who targeted him as a unwelcome “star” and started separating him from Drizzt.

(This is also why the Avatar trilogy was credited to the pseudonym “Richard Awlinson” instead of the actual authors.)

Editorial policy at TSR in the early days gave authors a great deal of say over how the characters they created were used in other works. It wasn’t a legal requirement, since TSR technically owned everything they were publishing, but rather a gesture of respect by the editors to the authors. This good-faith policy died a public death when Brian Thomsen took over as the head of fiction. After wrangling with various authors, especially Salvatore, over how their characters would be used, he wrote Once Around the Realms as a way to say “screw you, I’m in charge here.” It included cameos from a wide array of characters from many other authors’ novels so that TSR could establish a legal precedent that they could use those characters however they wanted, and one of the more prominent walk-on roles was Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden.

At this point, Salvatore was writing books for other publishers as well as TSR. His other commitments meant that he couldn’t sign a contract to crank out new Drizzt novels at the grueling three-books-a-year rate that TSR reportedly wanted, so TSR’s management decided that Salvatore had to go. Thomsen shopped the next Drizzt novel around to several authors, all of whom refused to backstab Salvatore by stealing his characters. Finally Mark Anthony agreed to take on the project, which would have been entitled Shores of Dusk and released in 1997. It was written, edited, and mostly typeset, but never saw the light of day. Instead, after Wizards of the Coast bought TSR, they managed to mend fences with Salvatore and brought him back to continue the Drizzt series with 1998’s The Silent Blade. You can read Anthony’s somewhat self-aggrandizing version of the story here, and Salvatore’s side of the story here.

But enough of the politics! Let’s talk about this short story. Given its messy backstory I was expecting the worst, but it actually does quite a creditable R.A. Salvatore impression. The characters are familiar-feeling versions of the Do’Urdens we met in Homeland, and their interactions follow the same well-worn patterns: Zaknafein is bitter, young Drizzt is a wide-eyed naïf, Briza is stupid and aggressive, Malice is… well, malicious, and so on. They’re all less subtle and more exaggerated, but at least the soliloquies about the characters’ inner torment are mercifully brief by comparison. The narration is stiffer and less natural, with a few noticeable clumsy moments, and the fight scenes aren’t nearly as well-written as Salvatore’s. (I suppose when you write a dozen books where a third of the scenes are combats, you get a lot of practice at it.) Still, it’s quite serviceable.

The weakest part is the plot, which is more or less just a magical macguffin hunt. Malice sends Zaknafein to track down an artifact that’s sacred to Lloth on the eve of a great festival so that their house can win extra favour with their psycho demon goddess, but complications ensue, some of which feel random and unnecessary. Zaknafein lets himself get cornered and nearly killed at one point instead of escaping, which seems out of character. At the end he somehow gets off scot-free after killing a couple priestesses of Lloth, which seems extremely improbable. There are some nice details that flesh out the setting, though, like the aforementioned festival or the existence of other discontented drow besides Zak and Drizzt.

I quite appreciated the characterization of Matron Malice, who demonstrates a previously unheard-of degree of humanity in her occasional point-of-view scenes. She’s not a sociopath who’s incapable of feeling regret and sorrow; rather, she pushes away whatever negative emotions she feels and follows her self-interest regardless because that’s just what you learn to do in this culture. It’s a more compelling approach than simply saying “She’s evil, so she does evil stuff.” Young Drizzt, on the other hand, is the weakest of the characters. He’s gormless and naïve to an irritating degree, like a child from a 1950s sitcom, so it’s good that he doesn’t get much screen time.

All things considered, it’s one of Anthony’s better short stories and not nearly as dire as I expected it would be given the circumstances of its creation.

Ed Greenwood, “A Slow Day in Skullport”

We’re heading back to Undermountain again, but this time we’re in the hands of its original creator. You’d think that the guy who came up with the setting would have whipped up a story that uses the setting to its best effect, but it doesn’t land very well. Greenwood aims for a “lawless hive” depiction for Skullport, a sort of fantasy Mos Eisley where life is cheap and violence is commonplace, but goes way overboard and ends up with a city that’s a ludicrous meat grinder. Apparently you can’t walk two steps down any street without someone trying to kill you, and things blow up all the time for no apparent reason. It seems less like a functioning city and more like a highly efficient corpse factory, but everyone is strangely blasé about it.

Plot-wise, the concept is sound. Many people suspect that Durnan, the old innkeeper of the Yawning Portal tavern, is one of the masked Lords who run Waterdeep. Deep beneath the city, a beholder mastermind schemes to lure Durnan into Undermountain on a bogus rescue mission so that he can be replaced by a doppelganger. His former adventuring buddy Mirt the Moneylender realizes that something is fishy and heads into Undermountain to protect him. There’s plenty of potential there: deceit, danger, a villain with a halfway decent plan. If Greenwood had stuck to that plot, this would have been a better story. Instead, we get loads of padding around that basic framework that inflates the word count but does nothing for the plot or characterization. There’s a long scene-setting introduction that spends several pages to say “Undermountain is a dangerous dungeon.” Durnan runs into a bunch of kobolds, whom he kills in a one-sided slaughter. Archmages who have nothing to do with the story chat with each other. A pair of new villains are introduced, explain their evil plan for the reader’s benefit, and are annihilated all in the same scene. Mirt gets jumped by multiple parties of hilariously incompetent thugs in Skullport. A dragon makes a cameo at the end. Not a single word of these scenes matters.

You can’t get away with that sort of meandering in a short story, not even in a collection with as much space to work with as this one. What this story needed was a laser focus on Durnan and Mirt and the scheme they’re embroiled in — no Elminster, no cutaways to other random events elsewhere in Undermountain, no scenes that are purely set-dressing, and no omniscient perspective that explains the villain’s entire plan before the story starts. The beholder bad guy is further undermined during a scene where some Chosen of Mystra observe his plans and yawn to themselves: “Ho hum, another villain trying to take over the world. I guess we’d better stop him.” Like many appearances of the Chosen in Greenwood’s stories, this scene serves only to kill the story’s drama and portray the villain as a loser.

The writing is typical Greenwood: gratuitously archaic vocabulary, point of view constantly flitting between many characters, and awkward phrasing in places where he was probably writing too fast to notice. The dialogue is often over-dramatic and excruciating. Weirdly, he seems aware of some of the problems and lampshades them a couple of times:

The beholder smiled down at him. “Your memories will be mine first… before I take the tiny candle that you call a mind — and blow it out!”

Durnan rolled his eyes. “You sound like a bad actor trying to impress gawping nobles in North Ward!”

Lampshades can be funny and ironic, but most of the time they just indicate a serious problem with your writing. Instead of being all meta about how bad the dialogue is, why not come up with a clever villain who doesn’t speak in ridiculous clichés?

Curiously, after all this, I don’t feel like I know the characters any better. Durnan is a nice old guy, and Mirt is basically a more competent but less witty version of Falstaff. They bluster, trade barbs, and kick asses, but rarely do anything that demonstrates who they are. Asper, Mirt’s adopted daughter and wife, comes along to help, but she doesn’t get much screen time or characterization. She just serves as another sword to round out the overlong battle scenes, and should probably have been cut. (As an aside, can I just point out how incredibly creepy that relationship is? The whole concept of “old man adopts a daughter, raises her as his own child, then marries her after she comes of age and gets super hot” makes my skin crawl. Eugh.) The only character who gets any decent depth is Halaster, the mad mage who runs Undermountain, and he only appears occasionally and never interacts with the heroes.

At the end, all of the skullduggery and plotting is thrown away in a long fight scene where the villain explains his plan to Durnan and then starts a big battle, a straightforward slugfest of spells and swords that goes on for much too long. So much for subtlety. It’s very dramatic in a Hollywood-ish “the heroes aren’t in real danger” sort of manner. The doppelganger goes down like a chump right away. Durnan gets a building dropped on him and walks out of the rubble unharmed. The protagonists have items that protect them from magic, so the beholder just flails at them helplessly, eventually resorting to trying to chomp them instead of escaping and plotting revenge like any sensible villain would.

There have been archmages (Elminster, Halaster, Laeral) sniffing around the edges of the story during several cutaway scenes. None of them serve much purpose story-wise, but I was pleased to see that none of them end up being dei ex machina who save the day in the end. (At one point, Halaster even prevents another character from intervening on the heroes’ behalf.) Once the heroes are rendered helpless, the day-saving comes in the form of a lamia ally of Mirt’s whom we met earlier in the story. [2] Since we saw her preparations for intervening, it doesn’t come out of nowhere and doesn’t feel too cheap.

Apparently Greenwood realized there was a limit to how many pages he could fill with combat, since this story ends with a baffling dramatis personae that gives brief biographies of all the characters who appeared in the story, no matter how minor. They must have been hard up indeed for material for this anthology — yet another sign that this book was rushed through production without much thought for its quality.

Elaine Cunningham, “Rite of Blood”

As expected, Elaine Cunningham’s contribution to this collection of stories about the Underdark is a tale of Liriel Baenre‘s upbringing in Menzoberranzan. It’s surprisingly good! At first, young Liriel is every bit as annoying as I remembered from Daughter of the Drow — amazingly precocious, excellent at everything, and inspiring murderous jealousy in everyone she meets because they can’t be as awesome as she is. But once past the initial setup we get to see more scenes from her point of view, and she gets some good character development from the shitshow that unfolds.

The pitch: Liriel’s coming-of-age ceremony, like that of all drow nobles, involves hunting some sentient creature to death. Her treacherous mentor, who is (of course) insanely jealous of Liriel’s potential, has arranged to have her pitted against a captured human wizard from the surface who’s been secretly coached about everything Liriel knows. Liriel, meanwhile, would prefer to not have to kill anyone and is deeply uncomfortable with the entire process. I knew from the outset that she’d eventually come up with some sort of unconventional “take a third option” kind of solution, but I wasn’t expecting how hollow and uncomfortable her victory would be. In the end nobody gets what they wanted, and the mood of the conclusion is somewhere between bittersweet and depressing. I always appreciate any story that confounds my initial expectations, and I love when authors are wise enough to know when tacking on a happy ending will make their story worse.

The difference in construction between this story and the previous one is striking. Every scene here furthers the plot or characterization — explaining Liriel’s perspective, showing other people reacting to Liriel, or placing all the guns above the fireplace for the main conflict. The combat, when it finally comes, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and the outcome is tense and uncertain. (We know that Liriel survives, of course, but it’s not obvious how she’s going to resolve the conflict until the last minute.) The dialogue is tight and occasionally clever. There’s a little fat that could have been trimmed, but none of it felt useless. I’d say it’s the best short story that Cunningham has written to date.

Roger E. Moore, “Sea of Ghosts”

I’m always up for another story by the author of “Vision”, which is still head-and-shoulders the best Realms short story we’ve seen yet. Moore’s work stands out from that of TSR’s other authors for its maturity. Not “mature” in the sense in which it’s used by, say, media ratings systems, where “mature” is usually a synonym for “gratuitous blood and sex” and is often the antithesis of actual maturity. Rather, Moore’s writing tackles dark subjects — despair, hatred, tragedy — in an unflinching and honest manner, which is a rare departure from the fun but unchallenging adventure stories that TSR usually delivers.

Our story opens with two traumatized ex-slaves, newly escaped from a drow enclave, deciding to return to take care of some unfinished business they left behind. You know from the very beginning of this story that these characters aren’t going to get a happy ending. Neither of them are heroes — one is duplicitous and the other is unhinged, and neither trusts the other. Doom swirls about them like a palpable miasma. Every sentence of the introduction tells you that something bad will happen at the end, and that the place where the characters are going isn’t the kind of place where things go well for anyone. And yet, somehow, knowing that doesn’t dull your appetite for the story. You want to know what terrible threat would impel these two grizzled survivors to return to near-certain death to stop it. You want to learn what happened in their past to damage them so badly. And you especially want to know whether they succeed in their goal — you’re pretty sure they won’t survive, but that doesn’t mean they won’t win.

Much of this is due to Moore’s skill at characterization. In the first few pages of the protagonists’ first scene, he deftly sketches out their personalities and their weird relationship, an odd mix of distrust and mutual reliance, while leaving lots of unanswered questions about them both. Every scene thereafter serves to develop the characters further, either answering the questions asked earlier or giving them interesting reactions that demonstrate their personalities. In Greenwood’s story, combat scenes are ends unto themselves where you’re supposed to have fun watching the invincible heroes kick some ass. Here, the combat is an extension of the characterization. Will these ostensible allies help each other, or betray each other, or leave each other to die? Will they survive? Do they even want to?

It’s not perfect. In particular, one of the characters’ motivations doesn’t feel sufficiently well-explained, and there’s a sequence of constant danger that feels like it goes on for too long. But it’s gripping and genuinely dramatic, and the quality of the writing is excellent. It makes me really regret that Moore didn’t write any Realms novels that I’m going to review, but at least he’s got some Greyhawk and Spelljammer novels that it’s conceivable I might eventually get to.

Brian Thomsen, “Volo Does Menzo”

Never have I suffered such whiplash from finishing one author’s work and starting on another’s. Imagine finishing a tin of fine caviar and opening another, only to find that it’s full to the brim with mouse droppings instead.

The fact that this story’s title is a reference to a 1970s pornographic film didn’t exactly sharpen my anticipation for reading it. Thomsen’s writing is full of this sort of weak reference humour, dragging in all sorts of real-world cultural artifacts for no apparent reason, and I find the constant assault on my suspension of disbelief intensely aggravating. Case in point: this story’s protagonist is named Percival Gallant Woodehous [sic], an obvious take-off on famed British humourist P.G. Wodehouse, so every time I read the word “Woodehous” I found myself gritting my teeth. He’s a ripoff in behaviour as well as in name, too, stiff and formal and stereotypically British. It smacks of weak Wodehousian parody, borrowing only the outward trappings but missing the wit and humanity.

The writing is the same barnacled, pleonastic mess that I remember from Once Around the Realms: people referred to by awkward recurring epithets instead of names, rampant said-bookisms, a narrator who explains jokes to the reader, complete disregard for many existing details of the setting, and characters who talk like the worst of community-theatre thespians. It depicts an Underdark that’s about as dangerous as a state fair’s haunted house, populated by a variety of comic dimwits.

I could spend a while pulling out quotes to illustrate each specific thing that’s bad about this story — the gratuitous puns, the willful ignorance of even basic details about the setting, the real-world references, the unfunny comedy, the bad dialogue, and so on. But it’s one thing to criticize a work because you think your criticism might illustrate interesting points about storytelling or show the gulf between a story’s potential and its execution, and quite another to laugh at dumb things and say “Look how dumb they are!”. The former is edifying; the latter is demeaning for both the reviewer and the reader. There was no potential here, so the only way this story could have been better was to not be this story at all. What more can be said?

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t object to this story because it’s comic. Comedy and fantasy are quite compatible, but I’d argue that good comedy requires even more talent than your typical dramatic fantasy. You still need a dramatic author’s skill at characterization and description, since your readers will never become attached to characters or settings they don’t care about, and then you need a healthy dose of wit to boot. “Volo Does Menzo,” on the other hand, is the short-story equivalent of a bad sitcom pilot where one-note characters constantly deliver puns and one-liners, then break the fourth wall by winking at the camera after every line. My advice to anyone trying to write comic fantasy is simple: start with good characters, then add a good plot, then try to make it funny. Without the first two, there’s no point to the third.

Brian Thomsen, “Back at the Publishing House (Epilogue)”

You know what? No. I’ve written more than enough about Brian Thomsen already. It’s exactly what you’d expect this epilogue to be.

Conclusion

Grade: C

With fewer stories in the anthology, the variance in quality between them is even more stark. The entries from Cunningham and Moore are impressive standouts, but the others range from merely acceptable to excruciating. In retrospect, perhaps I should have been grading the individual stories instead of rating the book as a whole, since it doesn’t seem fair to lump such good and bad stories together into the same grade.

I found this quote from James Lowder interesting:

As with Once Around the Realms, the real-world machinations show through in Realms of the Underdark if you know the backstory — the book as a whole is all about Brian [Thomsen] showing Bob [Salvatore] that the Underdark and drow in the Realms will go on at TSR without him.

So in a nutshell, Realms of the Underdark exists so that TSR’s management could give a giant middle finger to one of their authors. Think about that for a minute. It’s a plausible reason, since it explains why this anthology appeared out of order (Realms of Mystery was originally planned to be the fourth anthology, but got bumped to 1998), was rushed out so soon after the last one, and has Brian Thomsen’s fingerprints all over it. Small wonder that we’re nearing the end of TSR’s lifespan here.

One last point before I sign off: Much of this review has been about Brian Thomsen in one way or another. I’d like to stress that I don’t have anything personal against him, and I don’t want this review to come off as a vituperative rant about a person who’s no longer around to respond. I don’t think he was a capable writer, and the stories that have come down to us about him don’t paint him in a good light, but that’s not a reason for me to bear malice towards someone I’ve never met. Given that he was so intimately involved with both the writing and the back-room creation of this anthology, though, there’s no way to review this book without singling him out for a healthy share of criticism.

Footnotes

[1] However, a prominent yellow banner on the cover proclaims that this book includes an excerpt from Salvatore’s forthcoming Drizzt novel Passage to Dawn. Despite their business disagreements, TSR was smart enough to realize that putting Salvatore’s name somewhere on the book would shift more units, and this way they could shoehorn him into this anthology without having to pay him to write any new material for it.

[2] Interestingly, Greenwood depicts her as the original Greek version of a lamia — a creature with the upper body of a beautiful woman and the lower body of a serpent — rather than the usual D&D lamia, which follows Renaissance tradition by having the quadrupedal lower body of a lion.

15 Replies to “Realms of the Underdark

  1. -I suppose Ed Greenwood tried to write “Showy Invincible Heroes” (see the TV Tropes site for an explanation) but his protagonists always seem to have some kind of equipment or ability that makes them Boring Invincible Heroes instead by sucking out all the drama, not to mention villains who are incompetent boobs. It’s like if Lex Luthor attacked Superman head-on with a squirt gun instead of hatching some diabolical scheme that can’t be traced back to him or creating some ingenious doomsday device laced with kryptonite.

    -The discontent of drow besides Zaknafein and Drizzt is something R.A. Salvatore really builds on in the most recent Legend Of Drizzt trilogy. Roughly half of each novel is backstory revealing how Zaknafein met Jarlaxle, became conscripted into House Do’Urden and his exploits before Drizzt was born. Salvatore really emphasizes the sense of desperation and powerlessness many drow feel, and how even seemingly powerful drow priestesses repress their doubts and frustrations to survive. All of them, from Matron Baenre on down, are all just flies caught in Lolth’s web.

    -As bad as Brian Thomsen’s reign of error was, I wonder if it was just part of the institutional rot that infected TSR in its later years under Lorraine Williams’ reign. From allegations that she banned staff from playing games on company time (even though TSR was a game company, and sample gaming sessions are the equivalent of product testing, research and development), threatening lawsuits against people who were creating websites describing their campaigns (even though these people were providing free advertising for TSR’s products, much as people who stream themselves playing video or tabletop games on YouTube or Twitch do today), and producing a bunch of Buck Rogers material nobody wanted and that didn’t sell so Williams could cash in on royalties due to her family owning the Buck Rogers licence, TSR seems to have been a really toxic place to work. Thomsen’s treatment of Salvatore and his pushing his own garbage writing through would fit that work environment like a glove.

    Compare that to what Wizards Of The Coast and Hasbro have done with the Open Game Licence and allowing third parties to piggyback off their intellectual property. You can’t buy that kind of goodwill, and it doesn’t even cost you anything.

    1. The concept of discontented drow and humanizing priestesses of Lloth may be something that Salvatore is leaning into heavily now, but you have to remember that before this point in 1996, it had never been done. Zaknafein, Drizzt, and Liriel were the only rebel drow we’d seen so far who were more than mildly dissatisfied with the state of Menzoberranzan, and the depiction of high-ranking priestesses of Lloth was universally “huge Lloth fangirls who torture and kill anyone who doesn’t stan spiders.” But with this story hinting about an underground movement of non-evil drow and social malcontents, and humanizing characters who had previously been single-minded fanatics, we suddenly have a new dimension to drow society that makes it feel more realistic and satisfying.

      I’m not saying that “The Fires of Narbondel” is a masterpiece, story-wise, but it did introduce some good ideas that the setting desperately needed. I think that Salvatore’s original depiction of drow society as universally evil is part of what caused the modern backlash to the depiction of drow. It’s no surprise that people started feeling sketchy about how the most prominent people of colour in the setting are portrayed as unbelievably depraved and heartless, and some extra nuance in their society might have toned down that impression. I don’t think Salvatore’s earlier works went far enough in saying “The drow being evil is a problem with their society, not with their nature.” (Incidentally, the end of Cunningham’s “Rite of Blood” in this anthology did a great job with that.)

      Part of the problem is that we’ve only ever seen drow society from the point of view of the most privileged nobility, so the sorts of characters we’ve seen so far are very homogeneous. Presumably the lower echelons of drow society would have more variation in attitudes and breed more discontent, but we’ve never seen more than the vague suggestion that they exist somewhere in the city.

      Anyhow, mad props to Salvatore for publicly saying “Hey, the stuff I wrote thirty years ago was pretty messed up, and I’m going to try to set it right in future books.” That’s not an easy thing to do.

      The story of TSR’s rise and fall is the story of inept people struggling to turn success into failure by any means necessary. It’s not even a matter of “institutional rot” from “its later years” — it was a garbage fire from the very beginning. There was an enormous, unbridgeable gulf between the upper management type, who were not gamers and didn’t even understand the product they were selling, and the rank-and-file creators who made the magic happen.

      Minor rant: I have no patience for the “old school revival” sort of gamer who longs for the early days of TSR and says things like “If only the Blumes hadn’t forced Gary Gygax out, think what a golden age we’d be living in!” Gygax was an insurance underwriter who didn’t know bugger-all about running a large company, and the record suggests that he couldn’t business his way out of a paper bag. Lots of people blame Lorraine Williams for killing TSR, but while she definitely didn’t do any good for it, the death of TSR was a team effort. Even before she came on the scene, it sounds like the company was a mess of infighting and bad decisions. Always remember: The good old days weren’t that good.

      1. As I’ve mentioned before, Gary Gygax showed the potential of goodly drow in his original module Vault Of The Drow . There were a group of disaffected youths who hated the society around them, saw no good in it and were trying to overthrow noble rule who the PCs could ally with. The 1E rules supplement Unearthed Arcana, also penned by Gygax, expanded the list of playable races to include the drow and even included the caveat that player drow were not automatically evil. Strangely, this was one of the things Gygax contradicted himself on in his later years on various RPG message boards, claiming that as he wrote them, the only good drow were insane. He made several statements like that (not all of them about player races, such as when he contradicted who kidnapped a royal prince) which went completely against what the older written materials said, including material he wrote himself.

        I’m a bit confused about when you think the unbridgeable gulf between upper management and the creative types happened. Gygax was both an upper manager and creator, running TSR while also writing many of its modules and core rulebooks. Did the gulf start because the company had to bring in ‘upper management’ types because the creators might have been able to work the magic but weren’t very good at the business side of things?

        The irony of even the 1E AD&D system is that it has opportunities for representation if you know where to look. The World of Greyhawk featured multiple human ethnicities (the Flan and the Baklunish, later expanded to include the Olman and the Touv) that were depicted with brown or black skin and under the rules could reach as high a level as any paler-skinned human. The girdle of feminity/masculinity was depicted as a cursed item because it immediately swapped the gender of anyone who put it on. It would have been upsetting to a cisgender character, but what if a trans character actually wanted to find one as a way of transitioning? Alternately, they might look for something like a ring of wishes or a djinni that could grant their wish to transition. If a trans player wanted to explore that as part of their character’s arc, they could certainly do so.

        1. There seems to have always been a disconnect between the creators, who understood the hobby (in theory) but didn’t know how to run a company, and the management who (in theory) knew how to run a company but didn’t understand the products or customers. Gygax and Brian Blume, the initial staff of TSR Hobbies, were the former. Some of the latter type were brought in at the insistence of TSR’s banks — initially they wouldn’t give loans to companies that didn’t have actual businesspeople on the board, and later they forced their own chosen additions to the board when TSR hit financial difficulties. Others were brought in by the Blumes to help manage the company as it rapidly grew from a tiny operation to a multi-million dollar business. Lorraine Williams was brought in by Gygax himself as a vice president.

          I think the gulf was inevitable because, in the 70s and 80s, there was practically zero overlap between the people who played wargames in their basements and the people who wore ties to business meetings. It took a later generation of entrepreneurs to make companies like Wizards of the Coast where the people who ran them were their own best customers. We needed a generation of people who understood the industry because they grew up playing games and then studied business. TSR itself failed, but it created fertile soil that the modern gaming industry could thrive in.

          In any event, I don’t want to have this become a blog about TSR history, except inasmuch as it relates to the writing and publishing of the novels. That’s a huge and tangled subject, and many people have covered it in well-researched detail elsewhere.

          1. To bring it back to the content of the novels, then, I think Thomsen’s writing functions as a “How Not To” Guide when it comes to writing in-jokes, references and homages in a work of fiction. The reference, in-joke, etc. has to make sense within the context of the work itself, and not stick out like a sore thumb. One member of the audience who picks up on it can get some further enjoyment from the analogy, while someone who doesn’t get the reference can still enjoy the work for itself.

            As an example, Thomsen’s reference to P.G. Wodehouse sticks out like a sore thumb, and as you note both damages suspension of disbelief and is grating in and of itself. Meanwhile, in your review of The Wyvern’s Spur you talk about Giogi Wyvernspur being a homage to Bertie Wooster. Not being familiar with Wodehouse’s works, I never picked up that reference, but it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the novel. It doesn’t hurt that Giogi has to grow from being a Wooster homage to his own Jeeves in order to survive, making the reference even less obvious. Olive even highlights it when Giogi has to drag himself home after killing Flattery in the wilderness and is so dirty and unshaven she says he looks like a real adventurer.

            Now that I think about it, it may have been one of Thomsen’s works that I was perusing in my city’s library and found a reference to “Greenwood Grubb”. I cringed inwardly at the blatantly obvious reference to a couple of other Realms authors. Seriously, if you’re going to do that, at least pull a Gary Gygax and scramble the names up a bit for something like “Geoff Of The Green’.

          2. Yes, that was from one of Thomsen’s anthology prologues. His writing is definitely, as you say, a “How Not To” guide in every way.

            Your mention of Giogi brings up an interesting point. Thomsen isn’t the first TSR author to use Wodehouse as a jumping-off point for their characters, so why am I complaining about this when I’ve given other authors a pass for the same thing? The way I think of it is that there are multiple levels of authorial skill when referring to one work in another:

            Inspiration: Top-tier authors will examine a work they enjoy and look past the surface details to the underlying attributes that really make it good: what themes, conflicts, or characterizations make this work touching/funny/exciting? And then they adopt those elements without needing to take anything directly from the original work.

            Homage: Good authors will see a work that they appreciate and think “I want to use that somehow,” so they file the serial numbers off and put something very similar into their story. If done well, this isn’t a bad thing — placing a work into a new context while retaining the qualities that made it good can be a lot of fun.

            Pastiche: Mediocre authors will do the same, but without an understanding of what made the original work so enjoyable. They end up just borrowing the outward trappings of the referenced work, but they don’t get much benefit from it story-wise because they’ve missed the point.

            Reference: Crap authors will just point at the other work and say “Hey, look! It’s that thing you recognize!” and expect the audience to respond. No meaningful changes, no imagination.

            Novak/Grubb’s use of Wodehouse, for me, feels like well-executed homage in Azure Bonds and gets an upgrade to inspiration in The Wyvern’s Spur. Giogi starts off as a character who’s very clearly patterned after Bertie Wooster, but isn’t a carbon-copy clone. The more character development he gets, the more he diverges from his archetype and becomes a unique character.

            Thomsen, meanwhile, seems to have read Wodehouse and thought “Hey, British people are funny!”, so he put a British person named “Woodehous” in his next story and thought he was doing a great job. I’m not sure how you get a blind spot that big.

        2. > As I’ve mentioned before, Gary Gygax showed the potential of goodly drow in his original module Vault Of The Drow .

          I consumed, far, far too many of these terrible FR books as a child, and I had some 2nd edition campaign materials, and I played both of the Baldur’s Gate games. Whatever exceptional drow Gygax might’ve written, the overwhelming impression left by most of these materials was that most drow were inherently psychotic and evil. I think the Candlekeep Janitor’s pretty safe in saying that this was the prevailing image of the drow.

  2. What I gather from all of the above is that TSR management totally underestimated their customers, to the point of showing open contempt towards them. That contempt seems to have extended to the authors and designers that attracted those customers in the first place. I imagine their thinking went along the lines of “They’re teenagers who can’t tell between a comic book a world lit classic. So why invest in popular authors who dare to demand respect for their work?” Totally ignoring that young readers can certainly appreciate, if not exactly demand quality. That said, something must have been done right at some point, given the popularity of the games and books back then. I suppose that treating paying customers as a bunch of useful idiots is a good way to ruin any business, no matter how thriving. Gamers sometimes face those same prejudices even today; it’s kind of surprising that a gaming company back then failed to take its business and customers seriously.

    1. Quite so. Ryan Dancey, the Wizards of the Coast employee responsible for sorting out the financial wreckage of the newly-acquired TSR, once wrote:

      In all my research into TSR’s business, across all the ledgers, notebooks, computer files, and other sources of data, there was one thing I never found – one gaping hole in the mass of data we had available.

      No customer profiling information. No feedback. No surveys. No “voice of the customer”. TSR, it seems, knew nothing about the people who kept it alive. The management of the company made decisions based on instinct and gut feelings; not data. They didn’t know how to listen — as an institution, listening to customers was considered something that other companies had to do — TSR led, everyone else followed.

  3. Regarding the depiction of drow, what’s your view on the trend of later art depicting them with blue/violet skin rather than the brown/black skin real people do, including the covers of some of the Drizzt and Liriel novels you’ve shown us? I saw it as a way of trying to disassociate the drow from real POCs, although how the effectiveness of such a tactic is up for discussion. I wonder if that’s a reason some British fantasy (Warhammer, Fighting Fantasy) depicts orcs specifically as green rather than any other color.

    Similarly, would a way to break any associations between real life racialized people and goblinoids is to show fantasy POC humans being under constant threat from orcs and ogres just as much as white fantasy humans are. This could not only provide opportunities for representation (with those black and brown fantasy cultures generating their own heroes to defend against whatever threat the author or DM has come up with) but also serve as a way to break the association between the goblinoid races and racialized people. To avert the Always Chaotic Evil trope, a page could be lifted from Roger E. Moore and “Vision” to imply that it’s primarily culture, particularly as encouraged by gods like Gruumsh and Maglubiyet, rather than innate biology, that leads so many orcs, ogres and other goblinoids to do what they do.

    (And this goes without saying, but feel free to delete this post if it’s too far off topic or too personal, controversial, etc.)

    1. Just because something is controversial doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be talked about. If nobody had talked about racism in D&D, we wouldn’t be seeing the remarkable changes that are being made to how race works in D&D. The tricky part is talking about it without being a dick.

      Depicting the drow in illustrations with dark grey or violet skin instead of black doesn’t fix the problem with the drow (that the most famous and iconic people of colour in D&D are also the most evil), but it does mitigate it. It’s a step in the right direction and better than nothing. But the literature is still quite clear that they’re black, using descriptors like “black-skinned” or “ebon-skinned” liberally, and there are still decades of illustrations of black drow from before they changed their approach. I don’t think that a change in art direction is enough to break that association in players’ minds.

      I think the approach that WotC is taking now is a good solution. It runs something like this: Don’t try to retcon away the existing drow, because there’s too much history around them and they’re fan favourite villains. Instead, show that there exist plenty of other drow societies who didn’t turn out to be crazy subterranean spider-worshippers, so that the “always chaotic evil” trope no longer applies. You can still have a twisted society full of evil people who work well as villains, but they no longer represent the race as a whole. It’s a big world; why not? Similarly, seeing some representations of goblins who aren’t Maglubiyet-worshipping little thugs would go a long way towards selling evil as a social or religious problem instead of a racial trait.

      It’s a tough change because the racism angle is a splinter that’s buried really deep in the heart of D&D, and getting it out will require some invasive surgery. I have to admit that when they first announced it, I was instinctively skeptical. A fundamental theme of D&D is “heroes fight monsters,” and a big way that theme is expressed is by making it obvious at a glance whether something is a monster or not. The more I thought about it, though, the more I came around and appreciated the idea. The change doesn’t break the storytelling of D&D, it just changes it a bit, and if it means that D&D doesn’t produce another jumbled pile of weird racist tropes like Sojourn again then it’s well worth it.

      Your point about fantasy people of colour is interesting because it’s something that the Realms has done spectacularly badly at. As near as I can tell, the only black humans in the entire world are the natives of the remote jungle peninsula of Chult. (Fortunately they’re not all technologically backwards tribespeople, or else I’d be much more unimpressed; there’s a large city of Black Panther-style hidden badasses with an advanced society.)

      Chult is visited in a grand total of two novels (out of nearly 300), and a couple of Chultan characters appear in other works. The RPG side of things is just as bad, with one sourcebook and one module set there over the entire history of the setting. Their representation is nearly non-existent. Until quite recently, in the Forgotten Realms, “human” was almost always synonymous with “white.” It’s not surprising given the Northern European ancestry of the standard “elves & dwarves” fantasy setting, but it’s disappointing that we’re still seeing this when Tolkien has been dead for fifty years, and it’s good to see Wizards of the Coast actively working to improve the situation. (The same goes for the Middle Eastern people of Calimshan and Anauroch, to a slightly lesser extent — they get a bit more screen time.)

      1. I’ll be really interested in your comments on the Dragonlance Chronicles when you get to them. Riverwind and Goldmoon are clearly based off stereotypical Plains First Nations (their culture is even called the Plainsfolk) but people have commented on the fact that Goldmoon has blue eyes and golden hair and the fact that her finding the Disks of Mishakal tied into Tracy Hickman’s Mormon beliefs and what they said about the First Nations.

        On the other hand, Dragonlance also features the dark-skinned Ergothians who are depicted as being skilled sailors and having a powerful empire in ancient times that is still a powerful kingdom even after the Cataclysm, with a highly feudalistic social structure. Their neighbors are the Sikk’et Hul, a nation of goblins that abandoned worshiping Takhisis and now care more about academics than conquest and get on quite well with the Aghar they share the land with. Nordmaar doesn’t get a lot of attention in most materials, but it seems to be patterned after Mesoamerican cultures and its people are renowned for their courage and nobility.

        Greyhawk has the Flan, who’ve been interpreted by fans either as fantasy First Nations or black people with a Celtic-style culture. Gary Gygax depicted them as originally being nomads that didn’t put much effort into ‘civilization’, and Carl Sargent depicted them as likely to be completely assimilated by the lighter human ethnicities. On the other hand, Gygax also had them as the majority in a few different states (one of which Sargent depicted as lazy, arrogant, pompous and gutless). More recent depictions also show the Flan as recovering a lot of what they lost (the Rovers of the Barrens have rebuilt their populations, the Duchy of Tenh was restored) and also called Gygax’s original words a ‘simplification’ by describing the various states the Flan had before other human ethnicities came to the Flanaess.

        Greyhawk also has the Baklunish (sort of a fantasy Middle East, using Arabic government terms like ‘sultan’ and ‘caliph’), the Rhennee (a sort of fantasy Roma, which Gygax very cringingly depicts as kidnapping kids to fill out their ranks, which I want to personally retcon in my Greyhawk stories as taking in orphans of bandit/monster attacks and homeless street urchins who have no one else to care for them) and the Scarlet Brotherhood, who are basically fantasy martial artist Nazis and are depicted as entirely evil.

        Other people might be better equipped to assess the writings of Gygax, Hickman et al. than me, but I guess I’d sum it up as a very mixed bag. There’s plenty of objectional material by modern standards, but other material is actually more nuanced than it might seem at first glance.

  4. Well, you’re right! That Roger E. Moore story was extremely well-done, with excellent characterization and great atmosphere (though I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the interlude with the dwarves in their city–I guess to fill out the setting and give a bit of a breather between the action scenes of Geppo and Wykar?).

    I thought both of the main characters had pretty comprehensible motivations, personally. One of them wants revenge, and the other one is so lonely he’s tagging along for lack of anything better to do. I really wasn’t expecting to be so impressed by this one. The Realms are set up to cater to a very happy-go-lucky adventuring fantasy ideal, and Moore made a very creative choice to write something like a Greek tragedy instead.

    1. Yeah, the bit with the dwarves was atmospheric but not strictly necessary. It demonstrates that the Underdark is a dangerous place where bad things happen all the time, which serves the theme. And it serves to set up the dramatic disaster with the Sea of Ghosts that nearly kills them, but there are lots of other things that could have nearly killed them which would have required less setup. It does establish a sense of scale — we start with seeing some surface-dwellers’ reaction to a major event, then see the dwarves’ perspective on it deep below them, and then the stuff with Wykar and Geppo is established to be miles deeper than any of that. Not sure how I feel about it — it was well done, but I would gladly have sacrified it for more time for interpersonal interaction between the leads.

      Wykar’s motivation isn’t revenge, per se, since all the people who wronged him are already dead by the time the story starts. Rather, he seems to feel that the thing they buried was too dangerous to leave buried, and is willing to throw himself into almost certain death to ensure that it’s destroyed. But it doesn’t seem like he actually knows what it is, so that motivation feels a bit weak — he’s just assuming that it must have been something bad. We find out at the end that he’s right, but there was no reason for him to be life-riskingly certain about it beforehand.

      But yes, it’s surprisingly good. You don’t expect tragedy without melodrama from a Forgotten Realms story, but here we are.

      1. I think Wykar’s clearly become somewhat unhinged by the whole experience, and isn’t much saner than Geppo. To me, it read as though he was trying to destroy the egg because it’s the closest he could come to killing his drow masters.

        I did like the finale of the dwarf cavern scene. It was bittersweet. It had the same sense as the main story–victory came, but at what cost? And perhaps that’s what Moore was trying to say–the Underdark _is_ a place where you can survive, but always and only at enormous cost–and he means it! Not in a cheesy, campy way, but a genuinely moving way that makes the basic adventuring conceit seem quite foolish.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.