By Thomas Kelly for Greyhawkstories.com
Paul Kidd’s vision for the Flanaess is post-Greyhawk Wars, post-apocalyptic, and a heck of a lot of fun. Kidd left his mark in the world of Greyhawk in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Wizards of the Coast commissioned a series of novels based on several classic modules. Three novels in the series by the Australian writer and gamer, Paul Kidd, form a trilogy:
- White Plume Mountain (October 1999)
- Descent into the Depths of the Earth (June 2000)
- Queen of the Demonweb Pits (October 2001)
Kidd’s stories follow the adventures of a moody ranger called The Justicar, his sentient hellhound pelt Cinders, the obnoxious pixie Escalla, and the rest of their ragtag adventuring troop. Kidd’s colorful and well-written characters stand out in bright primary colors as they romp through a bleak and gritty version of the Flanaess, from White Plume Mountain all the way into the Vault of the Drow (where they actually kill Lolth) before plunging into the Demonweb (to kill the Spider Queen again). It’s rich, imaginative writing that gives old D&D tropes a new spin.
A few months ago, Greyhawkstories caught up with Kidd to ask about his contributions to the World of Greyhawk.
When you wrote White Plume Mountain, you were already an accomplished up-and-coming fantasy fiction author and had done some work for Forgotten Realms. It seems pretty obvious that you knew D&D from the inside and had a lot of experience as a player and Dungeon Master. Can you tell us about that? And how about lately? Do you still roll dice?
I’m still playing! RPGs are a core inspiration for my work as an author and screenwriter. These days, I still play weekly RPG sessions. I’m currently running an old school AD&D game and playing in campaigns of other games systems.
I was introduced to the wonderful world of miniatures wargaming pretty much on my first day of high school back in the 70s. It absolutely lit up my world. When Dungeons & Dragons first came out, we began playing it at the wargames clubs and at school. Saturday role playing became the big joy of every week.
I love to contribute to the things that give me joy. So once I hit University I became involved with organizing the first RPG conventions in Australia and organizing clubs. I began working on my own RPG games and published them (“Albedo” and “Lace & Steel” were my first). I was working hard towards becoming a fiction author, but became a professional games designer as a day job. I still publish RPGs and create adventures and settings for RPG systems.
I absolutely fell in love with role playing games as a teenager. They lit up my imagination and brought magic to my world. That love has never faded; it lights my every day. I’ve pretty much lived a life trying to be an RPG character, going from fencing and medieval reenactment on to all sorts of things. These days I’m a dedicated long-term student of very ‘old school’ kendo, jukendo (bayonet fencing) and tankendo (knife/short sword). I spent twenty years studying with the katori shinto ryu adding naginata and spear (and even ritual exorcism!) to the mix. I’ve been a tank gunner and an infantry scout, flown aircraft and wandered ancient ruins (and even been a ‘vampire cowboy,’ riding the range to take blood samples from cattle).
Write what you know! And if you’re going to write strange Fantasy and Sci-Fi, you have to know weird stuff!
Your Greyhawk books demonstrate familiarity with the setting, and they have the feel of games really played out. What kind of prep work did you do before writing? How familiar were you already with the World of Greyhawk?
Well, as I said, I’ve always been a role player. (I still have my original copy of original brown-book “Greyhawk,” BTW!) I knew the Greyhawk setting pretty well. I have always run games in the Judges Guild “Wilderlands of High Fantasy” myself, but I had played as a character in Greyhawk games. I knew the setting passingly well. As research for the books, I read all of the background material through and through.
To prepare for writing, I read and re-played the modules each book was to be based upon. WotC didn’t quite understand that these modules had been in a sequence and that they were having me jump through a couple of different modules series—but what the hey!
In this case, these were modules I already knew well. I have played them all and also run them all. But I read through them all again to jog the ol’ brain box. The main problem is that for an RPG adventure, character motivation can boil down to “Here’s 1000 GP. Now go down that hole in the ground and go get me the widget!” But a novel is about characters and motivations. So what was needed were wider stories that somehow just happen to end up involving dungeoneering expeditions. So the big task was not only to be very familiar with the dungeons, but also to work them into larger stories that made sense.
As far as the dungeoneering end went, solutions to problems in the dungeons had to also engage old players. I wanted readers to have the satisfaction of being able to say, “Yeah, I fought that damned monster!” or “I wish I’d thought of that when I was fighting tha’ thing!” That’s all part of the entertainment.
How did you start working with Wizards of the Coast? How did all that pan out?
TSR published my first novel, Mus of Kerbridge. Back in the day, TSR was a wonderful publisher of independent fiction. Many of us got our break with TSR, and I remember them with great love.
Then the Wizards of the Coast (WotC) buy-out happened. The first act of the new regime was to kill off their publishing arm, wipe out the independent range, and sack most of their editors. Books were now to be only part of ‘games world’ ranges. But the editor who had bought Mus of Kerbridge contacted me. He was leaving WotC for another publisher, but he had a slot for a Forgotten Realms novel. He wanted me to be his parting shot and do a comedic adventure novel for Forgotten Realms. He would then pick up my other work at his new publisher.
My initial reaction as to say “No way!” I thoroughly dislike the Forgotten Realms setting—too pretentious by far. But then the thought of doing a comedy adventure started to look fun, and away I went. The resulting book Council of Blades was popular among players. It also turned out to be the end of the AD&D books. They shut down for a few years while WotC organized themselves.
When WotC contacted me about doing the first of the Greyhawk Classics books, it was a weird time. WotC had bought out TSR, but they were business people and not creatives. They called me and said that they had a whole new version of D&D they were going to bring out (3.0)—a complete re-start for the whole system. They wanted some novels to launch the new game, but the novels had to be things that would bring older devotees back to the game. They had to be gamers’ books for the gamers.
They came to me because letters they received about my previous Forgotten Realms book seemed to be what they were looking for. There followed an interesting conversation because I had to insist that they pull back and leave me to write. The flaw with their usual novels is that they were trying to be grandiose epic fantasy, filled with infallible characters, mighty destinies, and purple prose. But when you listen to gamer anecdotes, the game itself is far more dynamic. Gamer tales tend to be about the times they screwed up! Or when they made their run for glory, and almost failed, but somehow fought through. The cool fights and the fireballs that were incautiously thrown. So a good D&D novel should, in many ways, be the game you wish you were playing right now! This remains a thing with all of my novels these days. They are the RPG campaign you wish you were playing!
If given the opportunity, would you ever be interested in returning to the World of Greyhawk?
I would love to do more D&D. It would be great to bring back Jus and Escalla. I regret deeply that the company only wanted three books. They have now killed off Greyhawk and show no inclination to do more. The “Jus and Escalla” characters are seen as being an inseparable part of the Greyhawk setting, and company management can’t break away from that and see that the series can continue even if the setting is no longer an official Hasbro games setting. A damned shame!
My recent dealings with WotC’s editorial department over the Gammaworld novel were extremely unpleasant. They paid only one third of their old rates, but this was based on the promise of a multi-book deal (that would pay the old rates), ongoing monthly paid articles for Dragon Magazine, as well as games design and module design—none of which they honoured. I am aware that entirely new people have taken over now, but I would have to approach them with a great deal of caution.
Since writing the Greyhawk Classics material, you’ve gone on to write an impressive library of fantasy fiction. For readers who want to check out your other works, with what stories do you recommend we start?
My Effectuators series has been a riot. Victorian paranormal adventures filled with scams, cool monsters and a wonderfully dodgy main character. For anyone that loved Gammaworld and fun adventures, my Genestorm books are also fun. Spirit Hunters is a series of Japanese-inspired adventures that are a total riot (the writ here was absolutely to make this the role playing campaign you would love to be playing). And the book that started it all, Mus of Kerbridge is still out there in print! You can find all of my hard-copy self-published books on lulu.com. All of my stuff is out as ebooks on amazon.com. My recent spate of RPG games are published by me (Kitsune Press) on DruveThruRPG.com. I have also done modules for Mars, Castles and Crusades, and a rip-roaring campaign setting for Starships and Spacemen. All of them are available on DriveThruRPG.com.
Artwork: Escalla by Tipsywibbles; Cover Art Descent into the Depths of the Earth by Jerry Vander Stelt.