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The story behind Ghosts of Ascalon: Massively's interview with Jeff Grubb

Rubi Bayer, @@rubi_

As Guild Wars 2 hype grows and we look to the upcoming novels to help hold us over until that elusive launch date, fans of all things Tyrian have become familiar with a long list of names.

One of those names is Jeff Grubb. Jeff is a game designer for ArenaNet, focusing on content and lore. He's also the co-author of Ghosts of Ascalon, the first Guild Wars 2 novel to be released in what will become a trilogy before the game launches. The book is due out in less than two weeks, and Massively's Shawn Schuster got a chance to read an advance copy.

He had plenty to say about it, but we had even more questions once it was all over. We spent some time with Jeff to chat all about Ghosts of Ascalon, so follow along after the jump to see what he had to say!

Massively: We found it interesting how there's an emphasis on showing the different cultural perspectives in the book. For instance, the legend of Gwen is told much differently between humans and charr. Is this an example of what we can expect to see in the individual races' storylines? Will that groundwork be laid out in the game to make us feel more connected to our character's culture and feelings towards other races?

Jeff Grubb: Our races are distinct. They have their own personality, and we reflect that in the game and in the lore. The humans and the charr have been fighting for centuries and they have different viewpoints. That's one of the things the book allows us to do is show those multiple viewpoints as they look at the same fact, as they look at the same character. The charr have a very different view of Gwen than the humans do. How their world revolves, what they worry about is different from different races.

Humans are based out of Divinity's Reach. Their big initial conflicts are with centaurs and with bandits. The charr are out of the Black Citadel, and they worry about the ghosts of Ascalon -- the previous inhabitants, and the Flame Legion. All of them have their own viewpoint, and one of the stories of the game itself is how these viewpoints come together.

A few of Dougal's (the human character) companions seem to view him as a drag on the group -- more of a hindrance than anything. While we understand the specific reasons for this as explained in the book, do you view humans in the game as an underdog race of sorts?

Well, Dougal, first off, has his own problems. He's carrying his own ghosts, his own memories, which are making him less effective. In the story, he's conquering those ghosts.

But humans as a race have been kicked in the chops pretty much since GW1. We have the Searing, we have the sinking of Orr, we have the rise of the dragons, we have the flooding of Lion's Arch, we have Nightfall, we have Foefire, all of these. They've been battered again and again. This is one of the cool things about humans, is that they're resolute, they're dedicated. They are standing fast against the darkness. Divinity's Reach, to human minds, is one of the last human lights in the world as they're going out across Tyria.

Now the other races, again we have different viewpoints, they think the humans' time may have gone. They may be a dying race, they may be like the dwarves. Their time has come and gone and now new races are coming on. One of the early pieces that was released as a preview taught about the Sylvari, about how they're young and vibrant and noble and good. That really frustrates Dougal because they haven't been around long enough to get kicked around like the humans have.

In line with that, while writing this book (and trilogy), were you consciously aware of balancing the excitement level of each race, to keep potential players interested in finding the one that may suit them best when the game launches?

Yeah. One of the things that the book is intended to do is introduce new players to Tyria, and to show long-term players how the world has changed. I really want people to finish this book going "Yeah, I want to be a norn," or "the charr are really really cool," or "this is how we can run an asura." So we're looking at our typical characters in many cases here, because this is the first take for many people with Tyria. This is the first time they've really been able to get in deeply with it, and we've got a lot more text to play with and a lot more things we can do in a novel. So as a result, I definitely wanted to give you the archetypes and have people come out of it saying "I want to play that race." And, I wanna start fights. I want to start people arguing which is better, asura or norn.

This is a character-centered story, but how much can we expect to learn about the world of Tyria as it is portrayed in Guild Wars 2 overall through Ghosts of Ascalon and Edge of Destiny?

Tyria's a big world. We get a grand tour in Ghosts of Ascalon. We're in Divinity's Reach, we're in Lion's Arch, we're in Ebonhawke, we're in the Dragon's Land, we're in Ascalon. We're basically hitting a lot of the major human and charr locations. Now that's not the entire world. We've got a lot more: we've got the Shiverpeaks, we've got the Tarnished Coast, we've got the asura lands, norn lands, all sorts of stuff. This is carrying the story through a lot of space to give people the feeling and flavor, particularly for these cities. Each one has its own flavor and personality. The cities themselves are characters in the book. Ebonhawke is very different from Divinity's Reach, and you can feel the friction between the two locations.

Will the main characters we've seen in the early trailers (Logan, Rytlock, Eir, Zojja and Caithe) all be explained in this trilogy? Will it focus mainly on Dougal Keane, or switch "main characters"?

Each novel of this series is independent. This is Dougal Keane's story here. This is the story of the charr and humans coming to their truce. This is a piece of the story of that particular era. While a couple of the characters do make cameos and appear, they have their own story, and that story will be told later.

I was involved in Forgotten Realms many many years ago, and what we did for the first year of the Forgotten Realms, we had four novels and five authors all of whom presented a different viewpoint, talking [about] a different area of the realms, talking about different stuff.

Tyria is a large, living world, so we have a lot of stories to tell. Ghosts of Ascalon is one story, Edge of Destiny is another story. The next one we do after that will be a different story as well. Characters can move over, characters can appear, we'll see people shift over or results of their actions coming to the fore, but they're all going to be independent novels.

Since there are essentially 250 years between the storyline of Guild Wars 1 and Ghosts of Ascalon, was a detailed story fleshed out to explain that gap, or just a basic outline?

Back when we started this at the tail end of Eye of the North, Ree Soesbee and I worked out 250 years of timeline between the end of Eye of the North and the beginning of Guild Wars 2. [...] A lot of it was driven by "okay, we want charr and human to be able to be in the same party, therefore we have a truce, how does that happen," and we evolved a timeline. When we started on the novel, we passed that and our stories and what we've generated over to Matt Forbeck with the question that for the modern era, the charr and the humans have a Détente. How did that happen? What are the details? And that evolved into Dougal's story and the hunt for the Claw of the Khan-Ur.

Now after numerous outlines, more outlines, and more revisions, we have Ghosts of Ascalon. This is very much a novel that has grown up alongside the development of the game itself. As things change, we change the book.

Can we expect a "prequel" set of novels set in that 250 time period based on the success of this current (and the upcoming) novels?

Yeah, we can. There are a lot of stories that get told between GW1 and GW2. Now for new fans and people that are going to be coming to Guild Wars 2 for the first time, this is laying the groundwork, this is telling you what the history of the world is, bringing you up to date, so when you run into Logan you have an idea who he is and you know the problems with the dragons.

We're also telling our long-term players how we got there, how we got from human and charr fighting to the beginnings of a truce, a very delicate ceasefire. We're big fans of GW1 and Prophecies, and a lot of what we see in the game when we lay out our maps, we often talk about legacy sites. That is to say, what was here back in this time and is it still applicable, or has it been taken out as a result of the dragons and other disasters that have occurred? So if you're a long-term player you can recognize that, but if you're a first-time player you basically say "Wow, this is really cool." We definitely go with the rule of cool.

How would you compare writing a novel about an MMO with writing a novel from scratch, or based on a world you helped create, as with Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance?

Well, I'm helping to create this one. But the big challenge is not that Guild Wars has an established world, but that it continues to be a dynamic, growing world, and we keep adding things to it. We keep developing, we keep coming up with ideas. I always refer to our company as being creatively fearless. If we come up with a good idea, we'll go do that, even if it means going back and changing some things. The day we made turnover for this novel a really cool dome showed up in Divinity's Reach, so there were revisions for that. We said "Okay, we've got to add that, we've got to put in a line for that," because that just showed up the day we were sending it out.

Also a big difference between working on an MMO as opposed to large-scale RPGs and even book projects like Forgotten Realms is the huge number of talented individuals. In this case, writing this book was very much a public act. We posted chapters in our files and people would come over and have questions, or tell me they liked a particular line, etc., and they're reading along, so everyone is involved in every working stage.

Thanks for your time, Jeff!

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