By Thomas Kelly for Greyhawkstories.com
The surprising resurgence of Dungeons & Dragons has inspired a Greyhawk revival. A lot of us first-generation D&D players are returning to Greyhawk to revisit the landscape of our childhood and embark on new adventures. We’re also reading old Greyhawk fiction, a concept which is the inspiration behind Greyhawkstories.com. To be honest, most of it isn’t very good. Robin Wayne Bailey’s book, Nightwatch, is an exception.
Robin Wayne Bailey is an established name in fantasy writing. Bailey has written a small library in the fantasy and science fiction genres. He’s also the former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He cut his teeth writing for the Thieves’ World series, but in 1990, he did a brief tour of duty in the Flanaess.
Nightwatch is a detective novel set in the city of Greyhawk. It tells the story of a night watchman and his small team of fellow watchmen who foil a fiendish plot to overrun the City of Greyhawk. Read Joseph Bloch’s review of the book.
Nightwatch tells a mystery story with great characters and a compelling plot. It presents some problems for strict Greyhawk chronology and canonicity (as explained in Bloch’s review), but setting that aside, it’s a solid book set in the City of Greyhawk, and it deserves to be read and appreciated by Greyhawk fans. (In my own chronology of the World of Greyhawk, I prefer to place it before the Greyhawk Wars and before the fall of the Horned Society, even if that requires tweaking and re-configuring a few of the details in the book.) Nightwatch is not high fantasy or epic-scale Tolkien, but it’s the type of readable fiction and competent writing that the World of Greyhawk needed a lot more of back in the day. Nightwatch came as a welcome return to storytelling after Gygax went rogue and destroyed Oerth in his Gord the Rogue series. It’s also a welcome antidote to the dismal Master Wolf series of the 1980s. If there had been more books like Nightwatch, it might have been easier to anchor fans in the Flanaess as happened with Forgotten Realms through the Salvatore books. (Salvatore’s first Drizzt book came out in 1990, the same year as Nightwatch.)
I read a few of the Thieves’ World books, but outside of that, Nightwatch was my first encounter with Bailey. I wish he had written more Greyhawk novels. After reading Nightwatch, I started wondering about Bailey and how he got involved in the world’s oldest fantasy role playing game setting. I hunted him down on Facebook and asked a few questions.
When you wrote Nightwatch, you were already an accomplished up-and-coming fantasy fiction author with a published trilogy and impressive contributions to the Thieves’ World anthologies. Were you also a D&D player before writing Nightwatch?
I’m afraid that I never really was a D&D player, although I had many friends who were. Writing kept me in a chair most of each day, so I preferred my pastimes to be more physical, more active. Long-distance bicycling, for instance, or karate, judo and aikido. When Nightwatch came out, TSR brought me up to GenCon, then in Milwaukee, to be the Guest of Honor. It was a bit of a strange experience for me. People kept coming up to me to ask what games I played, and the best answer I could honestly give was “Tennis.” They looked puzzled, then shocked. Then we all grinned and became friends. I felt like a fish out of water, to use the cliché, but I still had a great time.
After the split between TSR and Gygax, TSR contracted other writers to create Greyhawk fiction. Some failed to do their homework and created generic fantasy fiction that had little or no relationship to the setting. Unfortunately, their work disenfranchised the fanbase. Your book is an exception from that era. It demonstrates familiarity with the setting and especially with the City of Greyhawk. How did you end up working for TSR, and what kind of prep work did you do before writing?
I got a phone call one afternoon from editor Mary Kirchoff and the offer was extended to me. Sales on the Greyhawk properties had dropped, and TSR wanted to relaunch it. She said my work for Thieves’ World would make me a perfect fit. I was not familiar with the world of Greyhawk at all but it sounded like an exciting challenge. On a whim, or perhaps because of Mary’s delicately applied flattery, I agreed to take on the challenge.
I told them right up front that I wouldn’t “novelize” somebody’s campaign, that I wanted to create my own characters and tell my own story, but within the framework of Greyhawk lore. They agreed.
The deadline was very short, however. The shortest I’ve ever worked up for a novel length work. I had four months. Mary sent me a selection of previously published Greyhawk novels and some modules. I researched the hell out of them to gain background. Once I had that down and had gained a feel for the world, I brought my experience with Thieves’ World into play. After all, my Thieves’ World work was what caught their eye. The very first decision I made was to set the entire novel in the city of Greyhawk itself. Greyhawk became a stand-in for Sanctuary.
If given the opportunity, would you ever be interested in returning to the World of Greyhawk?
If given the opportunity, I would certainly consider writing another Greyhawk novel, particularly if it featured Garrett Starlyn, my protagonist from Nighwatch, and his team. I had a good time writing that novel and working with the TSR editorial staff.
Since 1990, you’ve gone on to write an impressive library of fantasy fiction and a significant amount of science fiction. For readers who want to check out your other works, with what stories do you recommend they start?
Recommending my own favorite works is always difficult. My own favorite among my novels is Shadowdance, but it’s a very dark fantasy. For something lighter or for young adults or kids, I recommend my Dragonkin trilogy. I love those novels and poured a lot of myself into them. If you want to try my shorter fiction there are two collections of my work. Turn Left to Tomorrow contains a number of my best science fiction stories. The Fantastikon: Tales of Wonder, contains only fantasy stories.
Despite a strong start in 1990, the attempt to reboot the Greyhawk novels fell to the side. One wonders how things might have developed had more quality, well-researched fiction writing been applied to the setting. Of course, what we really needed was a writer who actively gamed and lived in the Flanaess and could write good quality fantasy fiction, but short of that, Bailey did a stand-up job with the project. Thanks to Robin Wayne Bailey for indulging us, and thanks for his contributions to the World of Greyhawk. Get a copy of Nightwatch and give it a read. If you like it, try some of Bailey’s other work.