Bard's Rumours

Manshoon of the Zhentarim
Written by Ed Greenwood, Creator of the Forgotten Realms campaign

"For those of you who don't like the way Manshoon is portrayed in the novels, look again. The clues were all there, and most survived the editors: the Manshoon you see in SPELLFIRE and CROWN OF FIRE was acting - playing a role in order to ferret out traitors in the Zhentarim ranks. Fooling them into making moves and exposing themselves, so he could 'make them bring about their own unfortunate deaths.' He's not a buffoon, he's the smartest villain we've yet brought onstage. It grieves me to think you folks missed this. sigh Smites forehead...collapses with moan, bounces up, writes next dozen Realms projects, falls down again...

Just as what goes into a game product is specifically listed and detailed beforehand, what appears in novels is too - and our prose is rewritten. TSR book editors can tell you what battles I have with them...I want to write like Guy Gavriel Kay, but I have to put in 'guys fighting and dying every 8 pages.' If I don't change things, editors do. The current aim of FR novels is to introduce and explain things to NEW readers (don't just bring this umber hulk onstage, describe exactly what it looks like; these may be non-gamers who've never seen a Monster Manual), so this leads to a lot of 'look what I'm doing! I'm plotting the ovethrow of the free world! And here, so I don't forget it for myself, is the dastardly plan I've worked on for twenty years' sort of writing. I could go on...but that's unfair to everyone involved; I'm sure both the editors and readers have their own legitimate beefs. For the record, over a third of Spellfire was cut from my original, and all the dialogue rewritten; readers of a first printing can find the "corpse" of a character falling between rocks, only to spring up again, fit as a fiddle, and fight on (an editor combined two characters, removing one throughout the novel), and also find references to scenes now gone from the narrative, etc. The extra dracolich battle at the end was added in, etc. (my take: They're fighting dracoliches AGAIN? Why?). ALL of Manshoon's meetings and plottings scenes were dumped as 'static, not advancing the action' (note, not 'plot,' 'action').

What Manshoon was doing at the time of these novels was 'tempering' the quality of the sudden boatloads of enthusiastically evil but not very competent mages who'd joined the Zhentarim (and who undoubtedly included Thayan and other spies in their ranks). He had grunts aplenty - he needed capable, ruthless underlings, so that he could remove himself from the day-to-day running of the Zhents.

The 'endless clones' things was my frustrated response to the TSR 'good must win' Code of the day (yes, the Zhents were made into bumbling Keystone Kop pushovers), in which one editor said that Manshoon must be killed, or no victory has been won, and another editor saying 'But he has to survive to face them again and again---too good a villain to waste!'

As a game designer, I went for the solution that gives the most play possibilities: a Manshoon who can pop up again and again, to menace anew. I was frustrated beyond description when this started to get used in a farcial way (for movie buffs, consider the 'strangling admirals' throughout THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, meant to demonstrate Vader's ruthlessness, but which always cause audience amusement by the third death scene; that's how humans react to horrible things thrown at them too often).

Please, all of you, be aware that quite often what goes into a product isn't up to the whim of the gal or guy whose name is on the cover; if I leave something out, someone else will put it in, and only the recent administration has let me see typeset galleys before something goes into print...I refuse to accept [the] contention that I bear the responsibility when my name's on it, if I don't see what text has been added, deleted, or altered before I buy it at my local game store (yes, that's what happened with [City of Raven's Bluff], and it used to be the rule with everything).

I am exasperated with what's happened to Manshoon, but I'd thought that enough hints were still there that you could see this man was playing a double game (a la the ruler in Donaldson's Mirror of Her Dreams/A Man Rides Through/Mordant's Need novels). Moreover, in Spellfire's early scenes, Manshoon is exasperated, too: for the first time in years he did something he knew was a mistake (trusted an underling), and it's blowing up in his face.

I accept that it doesn't look that way. Gods, if I had the change to revise and restore those two novels! (And others.) But that's the way the world is. For example, I'm doing two novels for TOR, and my editor is an ex-TSR editor. I tried, in the first one, to get away from the 'fast, light action, guys fighting all the time' style TSR asked me to adopt (oh, yes; in university I used to write pastiches of Wodehouse and Dunsany that more than once fooled readers into thinking they were reading the real thing), only to be told to drop it and get back to 'what the readers wanted.' Writing for TSR is work for hire. From the beginning, text has been changed in-house; that's why I never like to see posters on the list saying "X must have been thinking thus, because in YYY he writes..." or "Y's characters are always so ZZZ; he must be a XXX." It's not fair, and it's rarely even close to accurate.

For me, personally, the most infuriating thing about the published Realms is to be told I don't understand this or that character, or betrayed them wrongly, because someone else handled them differently elsewhere. It was originally agreed that I'd do a novel a year to bring all the major characters of the Realms out for everyone to see what they were like - whereupon folks could then take them from there. Things didn't work out that way, but I'llbe forever grateful to people like Elaine (who got things exactly right with Elaith and others!) and Bob (who checked with me before using Alustriel and others, to make sure he was showing them in the right light and manner).

When dealing with the Zhents, I never wanted the reader to know 'for certain' the motivations of the kingpin characters before events unfolded, but did want to convey the paranoid intrigue Hitlerian life inside the Network of scheming, everything have multiple interpretations and nuances, etc. However, every time I had 'rank-and-file' Zhents discuss why things MIGHT be happening (whilst trying to forge their own private little pacts with each other - a literary practise, BTW, that has the advantage for gamers of giving them two new, very usable characters for play use), I was told 'dump these guys - they're nobodies, and we don't need to know all this anyway.' It's okay for the king to do a soliloquy, but not a spear-carrier.

I've never wanted to do novels that use El, the Seven Sisters, or rulers of realms as the main characters, but every time I try to focus on 'bit players,' those are the scenes that get cut. When I do an El novel, I'm asked to do an El novel; I don't go to TSR and say, "I've got this great idea for an Elminster book." Sometimes the obsession with "Elminster's too powerful, Elminster's Ed's favorite" gets to me; he's not, I've been asked to write about him rather than choosing freely to tell you endless tales of him, and those who think he's too this or that are missing the point: he's NPC material, pure and simple, far too powerful for mortals to mess with, and I'm showing what near-godhood, and the powers that go with it, can do to a human character and sanity with him (because I want to put more in those novels than just blowing castles and people up with spells!) As for thse of you who think I sit down to write novels just to put sex scenes on paper, think again; I'm ASKED to include this or that, and do so, as a writerfulfilling my assignment. I don't control the Realms, either behind the scenes or from 'front-of-house.'

Again, there are no villains here; please understand that I'm not complaining about the Books people. They are trying to sell novels, and it seems inherently more interesting, at first glance (and to non-fans, 'first glance' is what sells or sinks most books), to read about a king or mighty mage, not about the pigherder (unless you telegraph the pigherder's royal blood and inevitable rise to the throne).

As folks who love the Realms deeply, we will often have desires for what goes into a product that differ from what has to be there for the broadest appeal (for example, our ongoing converse about merchants and trade; a yawner for the Conan set - but TSR, as a business, always has to keep that Conan set in mind, for from them spring the diehard fans of the future). One of the reasons the freelancers and TSR folks on the list listen so hard to all of you (you may not hear from us/them all that often, but I assure you the attention is there) is because we appreciate your love of the setting, and value your opinions about what we're doing right/wrong/neglecting/lights your fires.

Don't stop slamming our products when they fail to measure up (although, ahem, finding a prevalence of Harpers in Code of the Harpers shouldn't come as an unwelcome surprise). All I ask is that you appreciate the difference between what appears in print, for a variety of reasons, and what you believe the people behind it were thinking/drinking/whatever. As I said earlier, jumping to conclusions about who did what and why leads to wrong assumptions...and therefore wrong endings or beliefs. Ask us the 'whys.' None of us want to engage in character assassination (notice I've mentioned no names of TSR staff or creatives, nor should I), and some things it's best we not discuss because the Realms is a living, ongoing world and we don't want to ruin upcoming things (again, the contention that products not yet released shouldn't be trashed arises here), but we can often tell you why things were done, so that if you don't agree, AND TELL US WHY, we can amend things in future releases, or by coming up with things on this list or in DRAGON articles to fill in the holes and mend the messes.

I've worked with the folks from TSR since 1979; I know they are dedicated to gaming fun for all; believe me, ALL of the creative people I'm met or worked with does far more than 'they have to' to just grind stuff out and get it on the store shelves. They care. I care.

(Takes off Elminster cape and codpiece, scratches nose, goes and sits down quietly in the corner again.)"

By Ed Greenwood

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