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THE WORLDS THAT OUTGREW THEIR STORIES: Two Roads to Intellectual Property Success

If you’ve been even dimly aware of the world around you for at least the last decade or so, you’ve probably heard the term “intellectual property” bandied about. If you haven’t, or aren’t sure what it means, an intellectual property, as defined by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) “relates to items of information or knowledge, which can be incorporated in tangible objects at the same time in an unlimited number of copies at different locations anywhere in the world. The property is not in those copies but in the information or knowledge reflected in them. Intellectual property rights are also characterized by certain limitations, such as limited duration in the case of copyright and patents.”

Think of it this way: Star Wars was a really cool movie released in 1977. Add to that five more movies, Clone Wars, Force Unleashed, all those books for kids and adults, comic books, action figures, and so on, and Star Wars is an intellectual property—and what some corporations would refer to as a “global brand.”

In more and more instances as everyone from filmmakers to video game studios look to the success of brands like Star Wars or Harry Potter, there’s a sense that everything is more than the limits of its initial incarnation. Every movie, book, or game is at least a potential intellectual property.

For about the last decade and a half I was tasked with helping to maintain and develop a number of successful, long-running intellectual properties. Part of my job was to look far beyond each individual book or game product and both back over the existing canon and forward toward the lasting implications of every decision. Two of the most successful properties in the Wizards of the Coast (via TSR) portfolio are the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance settings. To me these have been, for years, two sides of the same coin.

Both are long-lived, successful properties, sub-brands of the Dungeons & Dragons game, that have been brought to life in a number of media from pencil-and-paper role-playing games through best-selling novel series, and on to video games, animated films, comic books, etc. But what separated them, at least in my mind, is the initial approaches from which they were born.

For me, Faerûn (the Forgotten Realms setting) was a world created first, and characters and stories were added later. Krynn, meanwhile, was a setting created for the original Dragonlance Chronicles novel and D&D adventure module trilogy, and was further developed only in the service of a continuing series of sequels and prequels.

I’ve seen other properties take both approaches. The larger Star Trek IP grew out of the original TV series, so is similar to Dragonlance. World of Warcraft is a setting created to house your MMO character, and is open to a continuous stream of new content to keep you paying your subscription fee. In that way at least it’s like the Forgotten Realms, right?

If for nothing else but affirmation, I went to the fonts of all (or at least most—if I don’t qualify that at least a little, Jeff Grubb and Margaret Weis will kill me!) FR and DL wisdom: Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms setting; and Tracy Hickman, co-creator of Dragonlance.


“I agree with this assumption,” Ed Greenwood told me. “I know that the Realms was created with this intent, because I’m its creator and deliberately took this approach.”

But Tracy wasn’t as willing to let me off that easy. He told me he wasn’t sure my assumption, “is entirely accurate in the case of Dragonlance. It is true that the story was the foundation of Dragonlance and came out of the personal desire of both my wife [Laura Hickman] and myself to use role playing games as a medium of storytelling. You have to remember that at the time adventure games were largely of the ‘kill the monster, take its treasure, buy more weapons to kill bigger monsters’ variety. We wanted to introduce meaning into gaming through story.

“In practice, however, it became a ‘chicken and egg’ sort of issue. The game was being developed ahead of the story—which actually adversely affected the story itself. It wasn’t until we started writing story ahead of game . . . during the break between Dragons of Autumn Twilight and Dragons of Winter Night . . . that things actually smoothed out.”

Still, I think when you look at the relative timelines at work, my basic assumption bears out.”

Ed Greenwood elaborated: “[The Forgotten Realms world] began as a ‘shared setting’ for individual fantasy short stories I was writing (at the age of six, so none of the tales are, ahem, ‘classics’) in the same way as Fritz Leiber’s later Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser stories were then being published in (the Ted White era) Fantastic magazine, which I was then reading as issues appeared: Episodes centered on recurring characters (in my case, the fat, aging, wheezing swindler of a merchant, Mirt the Moneylender) that happened to all be set in the same world. [The world itself] was ‘in the background’ to the reader of just one story, but someone who read them all would over time learn more and more about the setting, and hopefully begin to enjoy and anticipate based on what they ‘knew’ about the imaginary setting.”

And at risk of making the eternally youthful Ed Greenwood feel old, I should point out that that was quite some time ago, especially in relation to Dragonlance’s comparatively brief bout with growing pains.

“By 1967 . . . I had hit upon the name and concept of ‘The Forgotten Realms,’ ” Ed went on, “and could see more of the setting. I was also following other characters besides Mirt. The results are in print, as the short story ‘One Comes, Unheralded, to Zirta.’ (printed in the collection The Best of the Realms, Book II: The Stories of Ed Greenwood, Wizards of the Coast, 2005)

Both FR and DL have lived a very, very long time and feature major best-sellers, so I won’t bother trying to choose sides, and make the case that one strategy is inherently better than the other, but still I felt compelled to ask both Ed and Tracy which approach they thought made for a better, more interesting property from the point of view of an author spending decades in the same world.

Ed Greenwood was “heading towards something I think is a major flaw, from the point of longevity, for a world that’s being used for games or collaborative and shared-setting novels, over time, as opposed to being the private playground of just one author: If the world is built around a single big epic, it can be too ‘narrow’ in scope to comfortably tell other satisfying tales. Or to put it another way: If the root tale of the setting is too ‘big,’ involving heroes who save the world, what do you do for an encore? Save it again?”

That got me thinking about my previous comparison of Dragonlance to Star Trek, and I’m finding myself questioning the validity of that comparison. Though the “world” of the Federation was created as a back-drop for the adventures of Captain Kirk and his intrepid crew of space explorers, the episodic format of the series required that that future universe grow with each new adventure, and to guarantee that there was something worth watching next week, the universe—the IP—of Star Trek had to remain open to new conflicts and challenges.

But it was still mostly about Kirk and crew, like Dragonlance is still mostly about the Heroes of the Lance. But it’s not entirely that simple, as Tracy Hickman points out:

“Story is the universal conveyor of meaning. Properly deployed story in game settings extends the game experience beyond the rules and the setting into the realm of change, growth and life application. I think it is a mistake to fixate on the specific and more tangible elements of the setting; one needs to have a grasp of the overall tone and message that a ‘property’—whatever that is—conveys to the reader. Dragonlance isn’t meaningful to readers because it has dragons and lances. It’s meaningful because it conveys a certain attitude, viewpoint, promise and meaning. The same is true with Forgotten Realms. I don’t think it is a question of approach . . . I think it is a question of deep content that is found beyond the words and the rules.”

Leave it to Tracy Hickman to hit the intellectual property nail firmly on the head with those eleven words: “deep content that is found beyond the words and the rules.”

And a successful property requires care and feeding. I always described myself, in my roll for some years as the Forgotten Realms line editor at Wizards of the Coast, as a “shepherd.” FR was only partially and only temporarily under my care. Like a doctor, my first responsibility was to do no harm.

Ed Greenwood feels that “it’s important to emphasize that the success of either approach is in how they’re handled, not the inevitable result of flaws and strengths in one approach versus the other.

“It’s certainly easier,” he went on, “if multiple creators are at work in [a shared setting], to tell different stories centered around different characters—and because writers are all individuals who tell stories in different ways, the collective result will inevitably be richer than the work of one writer. However, there may well be (and usually is) a cost in coherency and consistency.”

To me, this is where a good, responsible, creative IP management team comes in, with or without a strong central manager in the form of an editor, an empowered creator, or what TV producers call a “show runner.” Somewhere, that coherency and consistency that Ed spoke of has to be contained in some kind of document. If the secrets of what makes the property the property exist only in one person’s head, or in any other form that cannot be readily shared, disaster is the only possible result. The nature of the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance D&D campaign setting game products—detailed encyclopedias for each world, in multiple volumes—were extraordinarily helpful, but other properties will only have those “bibles” in the background, available to writers, producers, editors, etc. And woe, and I mean woe, to anyone who tries to manage even the least complex IP without them.

“A property gets too big for any one person the moment they haven’t time to enjoy doing a good job on published works associated with that property, or products are licensed that they can’t themselves create with the same skill,” Ed Greenwood said. “I can draw, but not well enough to produce the gorgeous painted covers I want on Realms novels. Nor can I create lunch boxes well enough to produce a line of Realms lunch boxes without holding up all Realms products while I learn how. The moment that happens, the ‘too big’ moment has been reached.

“Before that moment happens, a team should have been developed in which trust is paramount (regardless of the inevitable creative tensions), and a shared vision (and creators’ rules, such as who has the ultimate decisions and so on) settled upon, so the fights can be about creative details (i.e. benefiting the setting) and not about turf, power, office politics, personal enrichment, or anything else.”

Tracy Hickman: “I believe it comes down to respect and trust. No single person can write and control every single aspect of a project this large. In the 1970s or even early 80s a single person could sit down and write the code for a computer game. Now, it requires a huge staff and a budget equivalent to a movie to produce a computer or console game. The same is true of any large gaming IP.

“But I believe it comes down to how you control the product. I believe that management of continuity should be like holding a bunch of marbles in your hand. If you squeeze too tightly—try to control every aspect of the continuity or generate it yourself—then the marbles start flying out between your fingers and you lose your marbles. If you open your hand and let everyone working on the property do whatever they want then you lose any structure, direction, or focus as everyone does their own thing. Again, no marbles.

“But if you give a product a vision, a direction and a structure within which everyone can explore their own ideas . . . then you don’t have to sweat the individual details because everyone being on the same page and within the same structural parameters of the unified vision.”

I’ll boil it down to what I’ll call Phil’s First Rule of Intellectual Property Management: Write everything down. Which then leads to Phil’s Second Rule: Read what you just wrote, and read it again and again, especially when you don’t think you have to.

Ed Greenwood has rules of his own:

“Good property development looks down the road and anticipates.

“Always apply my base design principles for the Realms:

“1. Don’t blow up the moon (this is Jeff Grubb’s wording, but I already had that same idea; ‘don’t break the toys you find when you arrive’ was the way I put it). This stops one creative project or person from wrecking the entire show, however unintentionally or for ‘good’ reasons.

“2. For every possibility you close off, put three in its place (so if you tell the reader where the lost princess went and what happened to her, you also need to subtly put three new mysteries for them to chase into the Realms). This avoids bleeding the setting of life and ‘ending the story.’

“3. Entertain all ideas brought to the table, but make sure you turn them all on their heads to see if they work better twisted in an unintended or unforeseen way. This is where new blood and energy comes from.”

When I asked Ed what he might do differently if he had an opportunity to go back in time to the very inception of the Forgotten Realms world, he went back to the subject of who is in control, and to what degree any one person can be in complete creative control of a bigger, more complex property: “I would have kept some measure of creative control over the world, however short-lived, by accepting that offer to become a TSR staffer ‘in charge of’ the Realms. Not to stop the various designers going wild with the stories they wanted to tell, or ‘stay on top’ so the best selling novels were mine, but to avoid inconsistencies and misunderstandings.”

Tracy Hickman had a similar, if a bit more philosophical answer:

“I suppose it is tempting to think I could have insisted on having more control over the setting and its continuity but that would not be right. Dragonlance, whatever it became, was more than just my vision—for good or ill it became what it was because of the influence of countless designers, writers, and production artists of all kinds down through the years. I may be the father of Dragonlance but children always grow up and never in the ways their parents expect of them.”

So here we have two similar settings, indelibly linked, if not at first, to the Dungeons & Dragons game, that started in very different ways and have both been around longer than some of the younger authors—and at least two editors I know—have been alive. I had to ask, then, how did they live this long?

Tracy Hickman blames you: “Every day I acknowledge the fact that longevity in a product is not something that I do, but is measured entirely by the actions of our audience. We provide them with our best efforts—longevity is a measure of their reading our words or playing our games. That is action on the part of the audience.”

Ed Greenwood has a similar feeling in terms of the fans’ desire to keep exploring the Realms. “Some gamers decry the endless stream of Realms products or the masses of background detail,” Ed told me, “but the point is that for decades, far more gamers have lapped it all up, cried for more, and are still crying for more. Anything we’ve explained in detail has been discussed, argued over, and analyzed in depth. Anything we haven’t explained has been speculated over and demanded, repeatedly. Anything, from small details of passing fashion to the fates or mysterious pasts of minor supporting characters.”

And both IPs are still going strong, so what of the future? Successful intellectual properties have a way of outliving their creators, and certainly outlive the occasional editor or two.

According to Tracy Hickman: “Whenever new people coming into something like Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance, the first thing they want to do is ‘fix it’, ‘change it’ or ‘make it better.’ It’s natural for new people to want to make their mark on something like this and, in truth, I wish they would. Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms both have to be living, breathing and changing things, evolving if they are going to survive.

“The problem is that too often new people coming into something like this have no real understanding of the history of a property like this or its evolution over time. They don’t have a grasp of the foundations on which it was all built in the first place and only an obscure notion of what the IP is ‘about.’ We were pioneers in our day trying to figure out how to merge story with games. We made a lot of mistakes and we learned from them. We certainly learned more from the mistakes than from our successes. And over time we came to understand what ‘Dragonlance’ was about in the meta-sense.

“What I would hope for in the next generation of developers is that they would take the time and the opportunity to learn what made Dragonlance ‘right’ in the first place—its development history and original vision before they put their hand to changing it. If there has been a consistent problem with Dragonlance in particular, it has been that new people coming into the product ignore the foundation, vision and roots of the product and, in doing so, keep having to learn the lessons that have already been hard won by those who went before them.

“So, I suppose what I would most value in those who come after me is a respect and understanding of the great work that so many other people have done before them.”

Ed Greenwood’s sentiments were basically identical: “I most value the ability to ‘think Realms,’ and express it. In other words, to respect what has come before and mesh with it, treat the Realms as a real place, and make all changes and developments seem to be part of the unfolding history of this real world known as the Realms, not something tacked on or jarring with what we’ve already seen in print, or ‘it’s not a change; it’s always been this way, what you read before was wrong.’ To take that latter route would be disrespectful to the creators who came before and to the readers and gamers who already use and love the setting, because they are made to feel duped, or less brilliant than the new guys on the block because they loved and identified with something that is now being ‘improved’ or ‘fixed’ or worse, openly sneered at.

“I most value the capacity to love, and express that love, in people who create in worlds I’ve created, or game or read in those worlds. What goes around, comes around: love, and the love comes back to you.”

—Philip Athans