Interview with R. A. Salvatore

R.A. Salvatore talks about EverQuest with Allakhazam from Allakhazam Magical’s Realm

R.A. Salvatore is one of the finest science fiction/fantasy authors of our time. He has written many excellent and entertaining novels and created numerous memorable characters, including probably his most famous character, Drizzt Do’Urden, the drow who has forsaken his heritage to embrace the ways of the ranger. He is also an avid Everquest player. I was able to convince him to answer a few questions for us about Everquest, gaming and writing. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: Let me start by saying that I am a big fan of yours. I’ve read just about everything you ever wrote.

A: Well, thanks. It’s been obvious to me, from discussions with other players on-line, or just by looking at character names, that there is a huge overlap between EQ and the more traditional genre products (novels).

Q: I understand that you are a long time gamer. What types of games do you like to play and what are your favorites? Just among video games, which ones are your favorites?

A: I’ve been playing the various versions of D&D since 1981. I still play once a week with my friends, though it looks like we’ll be taking a break for the summer. With video games, I’ve gone through a few. Warcraft, Heroes of Might and Magic, Starcraft and Baldur’s Gate come to mind. For on-line games, I’ve tried Ultima and EQ. I enjoyed both, but I really need that first-person perspective that EQ offers.

Q: Can you tell us what got you started playing Everquest. How long ago was it? Are you still playing today? How often do you play?

A: I got started joining in with a couple of friends who were hooked on the game. I needed a distraction in my life at that time, and EQ more than gave it to me! That was a year and a half ago. I still play a few hours a week, mostly on Wednesday nights, when five friends join in for group adventures. We’re perfecting the art of dying horribly, though…

Q: Tell us about your Everquest characters. What are their races/classes/levels? Are you in a guild? And what server do you play on?

A: My main is a level 45 monk named Marcalo De’Unnero. He wasn’t the first character I started, but he’s the one who dominated my gaming until very recently. I’ve found that I don’t like the higher levels as much as the lower. I usually only have an hour or so to play at a stretch, so it’s impossible to do things like dragon raids (did one and was horribly bored). Solo’ing past 35 is very tough and requires a lot of downtime, so I’ve turned to other characters.

I’ve got two running in the mid-levels: a wizard named Kimmurial (my favorite) who’s currently in the 30 hell level, and a 27 warrior named Belexus Backavar. I alternate these in the group, depending on which other players show up (and what we need to round it out).

I’ve recently signed up with a guild (old game friends of my friends who got me into it), and I play on Povar.

Q: Why did you choose those particular classes?

A: I enjoy the tank, but I think warriors/monks are scummed in terms of solo’ability. When my monk was level 30, he could take an Iceclad cougar, barely, and only if he was near full health and had Mend ready to go. Even then, I often relied on FD, because Thurgadin is a long run! With my 30 wizard, a cougar is a matter of snare, boom boom boom boom c’ya. I’ve only gotten into trouble once in about fifty kills, and even then I just shadow stepped and gated. There’s not really a lot of balance between melee/caster classes, in my opinion, so I played a caster, which would allow me more solo’ability.

Q: Did you ever consider petitioning Verant to let you play a Dark Elf Ranger? It seems like if anyone should be allowed that combination, it is you.

A: I’ve actually had Wizards of the Coast contact Verant in an effort to get a Drizzt character burned in that I could play across the servers, maybe in a GM quest. I think Verant wants to keep their world free of other worlds, though, and they politely refused. As for getting them to change the rules for a character I could play, no, I haven’t asked, nor would I expect them to make any exceptions for me (though I wish I could use some of the names of the major characters, at least!).

Q: Along those lines, how would you plug some of the characters from your novels into the race/class structure of Everquest? (I know this can only be done loosely). For example, Drizzt Do’Urden is most likely a level 60 Dark Elf Ranger, but I can’t figure out if his arch nemesis Artemis Entreri is a level 60 Human Rogue or Warrior. Can you give us some other examples?

A: Hard one for me to do. In the past, TSR and now Wizards of the Coast have asked me to do game stats for my characters, and I’m never comfortable doing that. It’s all relative after all. Should Drizzt be a 60th level superman? Or should he be more of a mid-level adventurer, really just starting out? Depends on the game and the particular situation. I get a lot of letters from angry DM’s, mad that Drizzt is so super-powerful (in the game supplements, I guess), and I have to constantly remind them that it’s THEIR game, so they can adjust things to suit THEIR needs.

Along the lines of EQ, I wouldn’t even begin to guess.

Q: Do you remember your first thoughts and actions when you entered the world of Norrath? 

A: I need a better video card. After that was resolved, I couldn’t believe the 1st-person feeling of the game. It wasn’t overly cluttered like some of the shooter games (that give this old man a headache!). The layout of the zones and the general design is simply fabulous, and really puts you in there. I knew at once that this was the next level of gaming, and knew, too, that we’re getting closer to the point where virtual reality really is. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, or a bad thing.

Q: What is your playing style? Are you generally a power gamer? Role-player? Explorer? And do you prefer to play solo or do you usually find a group?

A: I have absolutely no interest in power gaming. I’ve done it a couple of times, briefly, and couldn’t even stand sitting at the computer. I like the process of the game, and get no sense of accomplishment if there’s a super-high-level druid throwing a thorn shield and a regen on me. Plus, when you play that way, I think you miss the enjoyment that every level has to offer. My favorite times playing EQ were in Oasis, at orc-highway, in the late teens with my monk. Wild fights and flights! I made some friends there – who I saw several levels later in South Karana.

I love the element of danger! It’s hard to really role-play in an on-line setting; if you’re sitting their coming up with great things to say while your friends are getting clobbered, it won’t really be appreciated. I am an explorer, and don’t mind solo’ing at all, and unfortunately, I think this is where EQ is at its weakest. Sure, my 45th level monk can go in alone and take a look at the new Runnyeye, but if I took in a character of the right level for the zone (my 27th Warrior), I couldn’t begin to get downstairs.

Q: Give us your impressions of Everquest. How does Everquest compare to the other games you have played? What is it about Everquest that you like the most? The least? Is there anything you would change about the game if you had the power to do so?

A: Like I said earlier, EQ is the next level. I think Ultima would be right there, as well, if it had the first-person perspective that I really need. Haven’t tried the others, so I can’t really comment. What I like the most is the sense of adventure.

The least? Well, I’m not going to sit here and practice hindsight on the developers at Verant, and in truth, a lot of the changes I’d make would probably go against what many other players now like about the game! The one thing I will speak out against is farming. It’s okay to have a high-level in a lower level zone, taking items when there are no lower level people actually adventuring in there, but it bugs me to be in a dungeon, trying to make a good and honest kill to get something I can use, when a super character casts a spell, takes out the critter and flies off to GFay to sell the item. That is frustrating!

What I have learned is that EQ is really several different games, depending on how you WANT to play it. Want the super items? Get some plat and go sit in your server’s market zone. Buy low and sell high, and within a few hours, you’ll have some great stuff. In truth, I don’t think you need to go that route. With the exception of the weapons, which really slant the game, I’ve found that items and stats aren’t really that important. One of the things that Verant did very right was offer so many possibilities as to make min/maxing nearly impossible, and really not worth the effort.

What I would love to see, and i think it’s coming, from the rumors my friends have told me, is more detail on screen concerning characters and items. I’d like that white wolf cloak to show up. If the designers ever get the opportunity and the tools to do that, it will be amazing.

Q: Tell us some of the most interesting adventures you have had while playing Everquest? Did you ever do something really stupid? Something that you are really proud of?

A: I had a fight on orc highway once….three 6-player groups battling side by side, with the entire spawn charging in one after another. It was insane. When it ended, there were around five of us (out of the 18) still standing, amidst the bodies of many, many orcs, madmen, even a scarab and spider or two who got caught in AE spells and joined the fun.

Soon after, the same three groups got trashed again when someone trained 6 (count ‘em!) spectres. I managed to get a screen shot before I got wasted.

As for stupid things….oh yeah, many. I had just hit the level for Flying Kick (I think it was 20), so I raced from Oasis to Freeport to train. Went to type in H A I L to the Guildmaster (hadn’t familiarized myself with the hotkeys), but didn’t hit ENTER hard enough before typing. Of course, I hit “H”, which said “hail”, then “A”, which made me attack the guy, then took 352, 352, 352, 352, or something like that, and the next line said, “YOU have lost a level!” Ouch.

Oh yeah, I do stupid things all the time. I really should play classes that have SOW.

Things I’m really proud of? Nah. I don’t get proud over acquisitions or kills in game; I just hope that I’m doing my part in whatever group I’m in to keep everyone alive.

Q: I know you are a big Dungeons and Dragons fan. I believe that you wrote some modules for the game and many of your novels are set in the Forgotten Realms setting of AD&D. The EQ developers have often said that they wanted to capture some of the feeling they had when playing table games like AD&D. Do you think they have succeeded? How do you think the two games compare?

A: It was obvious to me from the very beginning that the developers of EQ (and of Warcraft and so many others) owed a great debt to Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and all the other developers of D&D. And to some of the novelists! I notice many double-z’s in Tier’dal NPC names! But that’s the beauty of fantasy. The genre shares archtypes the way real-world games and books share….well, the real world. This is what we’re all comfortable with as fans of fantasy.

I expect that the D&D designers, artists and authors are quite pleased to see others standing on their shoulders to continue the traditions of fantasy. I know I am.

It’s hard to compare D&D to EQ, because when I play D&D, I’m in a room with my friends. If one of them does something stupid, I can throw a slice of pizza at him. I do that playing EQ, and I have to clean my screen. Now, if I had a few computers all networked together in my office for EQ….

My wife would divorce me.

Q: Do you know of any other writers or celebrities of other sorts who play Everquest? 

A: Nope, I don’t.

Q: Have you looked at any of the upcoming MMORPG’s like Anarchy Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Shadowbane, etc? If so, what are your impressions and which games are you most looking forward to?

A: I haven’t really looked at anything. I have limited time for gaming, so I use it gaming, mostly. My friends have looked; I use them to guide me. I would love to get involved in a new game from the ground up. It’s hard listening to the tales from the older EQ community, about the times when people actually hunted for items they needed, or intended to wear (and I’m not including the Epic Quests, because I’ll never have the time nor the desire to put an entire guild to work in achieving that). I can imagine the thrill of taking down a critter in Unrest, for example, and finding a piece of bronze that my character would actually wear. Now, because of farming, twinking, and sheer availability of items, by the time you’re high enough to play Unrest, bronze is something you go sell to new characters in Butcherblock. I’d like to be on the front end of that curve.

Q: You wrote “Vector Prime”, a novel in the Star Wars Saga. Are you following the developments of the new Star Wars MMORPG? What do you think of it so far?

A: The few shots I’ve seen have been amazing. But again, I really don’t have the time to keep up with it.

Q: How much input have you had in developing such games as Icewind Dale? As a gamer, what does it feel like to have people playing in worlds you dreamt up?

A: None, and that’s been particularly frustrating. Eventually the game design community will come to understand that the other element to the game could be the story, and perhaps then they will start asking the proven novelists of the genre to join in the creation process. Until then, it’s their ballpark, not ours.

I’m always thrilled to see a character with one of my novel names running around Norrath, or to get an e-mail from a guy apologizing because he killed Drizzt in Baldur’s Gate to get his stuff. It’s a fun perk to the business.

Q: We all enjoy your novels immensely. Can you give us a little heads up on what you are working on next and what directions you are taking some of our favorite characters? For example, I see that you are returning to my favorite character, Drizzt, in a new novel coming out in October. Can you give us an idea of what to expect from this novel?

A: Well, right now I’m working with the folks at Lucasfilm and DelRey on the novelization of Star Wars Episode II. I’m also in the middle of “Transcendence”, the sequel to “Ascendance” in my DemonWars’ series (man, I love the world of Corona – now there’s a world ready for a game!).

As for Drizzt, he returns center stage in “Sea of Swords” in October. What you can expect in the Dark Elf books is a return to the swashbuckling earlier days. I won’t say more than that.

Q: I noticed you do not hesitate to kill off popular characters such as Wulfgar and, of course, Chewbacca. How hard is it to come to that type of decision? And how much grief did the Star Wars faithful give you about the death of Chewbacca?

A: If there is no possibility of death, there is no tension. I didn’t really plan to get rid of Wulfgar, it just sort of happened. So did the events in “Passage to Dawn”. Actually, the series where characters are not safe at all is DemonWars. Many, many leading characters have died over the five books to date. Some readers don’t like that, but I think it keeps people on the very edge of their seats, and I think with some characters, particularly ones who started as villains and have found a bit of redemption, the death scenes are wonderful.

As for Chewie, well, that was mandated. When they told me i had to put that in the book, I asked where I could return their check, because I wasn’t going to do it. Then they convinced me that it was being done for the right creative reasons and so I agreed. I took a ton of grief (and death threats) for Vector Prime….still do. It’s got more to do with Chewie, though. Vector Prime marked a definitive change in Star Wars literature, a new
publisher and a jumping on point for people who hadn’t read any before. Obviously, to some of those who were immersed in the previous series, enjoying the works of authors like Tim Zahn and Kevin Anderson, the change was not welcomed.

It was pretty tough and I don’t know that I’d have done the book, knowing what I know now. On the other hand, it got me the chance to work with editor Shelly Shapiro, a giant in the business, and to work with the folks at Lucasfilm, and they’re a great group of people. It also got me the chance to work with George Lucas and Episode II, and who wouldn’t jump at that?

Q: Where do you come up with the ideas for the characters and settings of your novels? 

A: I have no idea of where I find the ideas for a novel. It’s part of the magic of writing, I suppose, and in truth, good ideas do not a good novel make. It’s the execution of those ideas and the characterizations that make a book worth reading. As for settings, I’ve done a few, most notably Corona in DemonWars. That will likely be the last fantasy world I ever create, because I did everything in there I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s to me what the Forgotten Realms are to Ed Greenwood, what Middle-Earth was to Tolkien, and what Shannara is to Terry Brooks. I’ve come home.

Q: This is just a little pet peeve of mine, but I’ve noticed that many of your recent novels, like many other fantasy and science fiction novels nowadays, have not been listed as part of a set series or order, making it hard to figure out if they are stand alone novels or parts of a planned series. I can�t tell you how many times I bought books only to find out that they are the first of a series that won’t be completed for 4 years or, worse yet, sequels to books I haven�t read that were not mentioned in the summary. Can you explain the reasons for this.

A: I wish I could, but you’d have to talk to the marketing folks at the publisher about that. I try to make each of my novels stand alone, though, and try to make it so that you can read one without having read the previous books. I know this is true of the Drizzt books – I hear from people who started late in the series all the time. And I think my best novel is “Mortalis”, the fourth DemonWar book, and you don’t have to read the first three to get it, though you’ll certainly appreciate some of the characters more if you have.

Q: I know I can�t be the only one who thought of how cool it would be to put his love of fantasy and science fiction on paper and write a novel (not like that will ever happen). Do you have any tips for the aspiring young writers out there?

A: Aspiring writers? Yeah, simple: if you can quit, then quit. If you can’t quit, then you’re a writer. It’s that simple to me. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d still be writing as much as, maybe more than, I am now, though I probably wouldn’t be publishing anything. For a writer, writing is not a choice. You don’t write, you’re not happy. Period. Anyone who tries to get into this business thinking it’s a shortcut to fame and fortune will be sorely disappointed.

As for those who really are writers at heart, find your style and stick with it. Take criticism with a grain of salt and stay true to your inner voice. When I started out, I got grief from an editor because I change point of view so often in the books. I explained that I did that because most of my audience, unlike the readers of the day when rules about such things as point of view were written, grew up with television, which is truly about point of view shifts. It was a battle that I won. I got a laugh a year or so ago when Wizards of the Coast published their writing guidelines, including suggestions about point of view shifts. I guess my instincts worked on that point, because I’ll take credit for their change of heart.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add that you feel might be of interest to the Everquest players and to your many fans?

A: I just wish that more players would take the time to go and read the books that led to games such as Everquest. I think that finding books about amazing fantasy characters will only help them to enrich their gaming experience. And to all EQ players, please don’t forget that there’s a real world out there! I know how hard that can be when you’re having so much fun.

Oh, and one more thing….to all the young guys flirting with the cute little female elves, please keep in mind that it might be a guy playing that female character.

Q: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.

A: My pleasure.

Copyright© 2001, Allakhazam Magical’s Realm. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing. This interview has been provided by Allakhazam Magical’s Realm and is printed with their permission.

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