Issue #32, September 2016
ISSN 2206-4907 (Online)
TSR : The Founding Company
RPG Review Cooperative News … Interview with Frank Mentzer ... A History of TSR … TSR Game Reviews (Gangbusters, BEC D&D, Alternity) ... Credit and Recognition … Endless Quest … TSR Computer Games … Great Beasts for AD&D2e … The Chevaleresse … Dungeons & Dragons 3 Movie … Papers & Paychecks
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Administrivia, Coop News, Letters, Editorial many contributors p2-4
Interview with Frank Mentzer with Frank Mentzer p5-8
A History of TSR by Lev Lafayette p9-13
Credit, Recognition, and The Pillow Test by Tim Kask p14-16
The Origins of TSR's Endless Quest Series by Martin Plowman p17-21
TSR RPG Reviews by Lev Lafayette p22-35
Great Beasts for AD&D by Karl Brown p36-54
The Chevaleresse: An AD&D Character Class by Vince Garcia p55-58
TSR Computer RPGs by Andrew Pam p59-60
Dungeons & Dragons 3 Movie Review by Grant Watson p61-62
Papers & Paychecks Update by many people p63
Next Issue: Transhumanism by many people p64
RPG Review is a quarterly online magazine which will be available in print version at some stage. All material remains copyright to the authors except for the reprinting as noted in the first sentence. Contact the author for the relevant license that they wish to apply. Cover image is the original “office” of Tactical Studies Rules, the basement of the Gygax house at Lake Geneva, from an article in Boing Boing in 2014 (http://boingboing.net/2014/07/18/a-visit-to-the-basement-where.html). D&D 1st print image in Editorial from Ebay. Giant Lynx cartoon in Great Beasts from AD&D Monster Manual. Various trademarks and images have been used in this magazine of review and criticism. Use of trademarks etc are for fair use and review purposes and are not a challenge to trademarks or copyrights. This includes Boot Hill, (Advanced) Dungeons & Dragons, Gangbusters, Gamma World, AlternityAlternity etc by TSR, WotC, and Hasbro.
Editorial and Letters
RPG Review Cooperative News
For an organisation that exists as but a part-time club of around thirty fellow gamers (plus twice that number who haven't joined yet), and a financial turnover that is sufficiently insignificant that it doesn't even warrant a bank account, the RPG Review Cooperative has achieved above expectations. But of course, if you aim fairly modestly with a realistic set of achievable expectations then anything that is within a ballpark figure of those objectives indicates that the organisation can survive.
As per the last report, the Cooperative continues to publish our monthly newsletter, Crux Australi, with movie nights for those based where our Association is founded (we're lucky to have a classic art deco in the local area which regularly shows great classic SF and fantasy films, along with contemporary offerings). We continue to operate an online store for members to sell their surplus gaming items, and advertise a dozen existing game sessions organised by members. Our journal is part of the Australian National Library archives, and with a set of ISBNs our cooperative publishing venture is on its way as well.
On the matter of our online store, we're seeing a quite a number of people making inquiries which is very encouraging. The association pays for the store as a whole, and members make use of it for their own recompense. As for the library we have received recent donations that have pushed us well over the one hundred item mark - however the big news is that the MARS library is finally packed and ready for transportation from Western Australia.
Now just a bit of history: In 1988 the Murdoch Alternative Reality Society was founded by RPG Review Cooperative founding president Lev Lafayette (you can see that this is clearly a habit for him *sucker*). For some five years he was active in that gaming and genre fiction club and as a result it built up a substantial games library in that period.
Some fifteen years after that later MARS finally went into haitus or closed (deepening on your leanings towards optimism vs pessimism), and for several years the club library with with the last secretary of the group. Following discussions between the RPG Review Cooperative, the former Murdoch University library special collections representative, and the former MARS secretary, the library will be moved to the RPG Review Cooperative.
It is a little larger than it was in 1993.
As reported in the last issue the first publication for the Cooperative is a fundraiser for the group; the game "Papers & Paychecks", based on Will McLean's cartoon in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master Guide. Wizards of the Coast has been kind enough to allow the group to use McLean's orginal cartoon in advertising the game, and so far it has received quite a lot of positive support including Jonathan Tweet and Ken St. Andre. So far it seems that the game will make its publication target, meaning that both the core rules and the Cow-orkers supplement will both be published.
We're not doing too bad at all for our first year.
The roleplaying game hobby is inextricably linked to what was originally a small company in Lake Geneva, literally starting in a family home basement, and then growing into a multi-million dollar business. Tactical Studies Rules, TSR Hobbies, TSR – the various name changes are indicative of a business that grew quickly, perhaps too quickly, and whose successive leaders attempted in their own way to provide direction. So what better people to talk about the company than the person behind what was arguably their most successful product – the BECMI series of Dungeons & Dragons, Frank Mentzer, who is interviewed in this issue of RPG Review, and is supplemented by an article from the first employee of TSR, Tim Kask.
What a catalogue of items that company brought; obviously an enormous variety of roleplaying games from the enormously successful Dungeons & Dragons, and also other fairly major products such as Marvel Super Heroes, Gamma World, and Star Frontiers, all which still enjoy a modicum of interest today. Other games may not have been as successful but are certainly enormously influential in the hobby – in particular I am thinking of Empire of the Petal Throne and Amazing Engine. In addition there was a range of licensed RPGs; the Buck Rogers Adventure Game, the Conan Adventure Game, Indian Jones (the remains of a copy which became the Diana Jones Award). Finally a range of other games that sort niche genre points; Boot Hill, Gangbusters, Top Secret, and Alternity.
Many of the RPG games produced by TSR have been reviewed in the past issues of RPG Review. The 30th issue of RPG Review included Marvel SH. Issue 19 reviewed Gamma World, whereas issue 25 edition included reviews of the numerous incarnations of Dungeons & Dragons, with particular supplements reviewed (for example) the AD&D Monster Manual and Monstrous Compendium in issue 20. There is no real desire to repeat reviews that have already been conducted, so in this issue your editor has provided reviews of some of these other games; Boot Hill, Gangbusters, the first three games from the BECMI D&D series, and Alternity. Apologies for Top Secret, Buck Rogers etc fans – space did not permit in this issue!
Also as reviews, Martin Plowman provides a superb overview of the 'Endless Quest' series, whereas Andrew Pam, continuing his role as reviewer of related computer games, provides an overview of the computer RPGs that were directly based on TSR game mechanics and setting. The issue is not entirely review based of course with Karl Brown providing an epic article on playing various Great Beasts for AD&D 2nd edition - which of course post-3.x is now somewhat of a norm. Also with a sense of retrospective, Vince Garcia provides an overlooked alternative to the (male) cavalier class for AD&D - the chevaleresse. Finally and appropriately we have Grant Watson providing a review on the Dungeons & Dragons 3 movie – I didn't even know there was such a thing.
This issue is, by its very nature, an “old school retrospective”. After all the company on which it is based around folded some twenty years ago. There is an now an entire generation of RPGers who have no experience of TSR as a company. As social phenomenon, the RPG hobby should always be looking forward thinking in terms of what future possibilities exist for the hobby, as threats and opportunities. Insofar that we look towards the past it should not be for nostalgic reasons, because those times are literally past. But rather, it is for learning what was good, what was not, what changed, and understanding the dynamics. There are enormous lessons to be learned from the rise and fall of TSR; from the determined Independence of its origins, to the rapid rise of the hobby, and the difficulties of managing the business, and to its eventual collapse.
But RPG Review has done two issues in succession which have been based around such evaluations in the past tense – this and the previous “Old School Revolution” issue. It is certainly well about time to look in the other direction. The next issue will be based on the topic of trans- and post- human RPGs with a heavy emphasis on Eclipse Phase, certainly the most exciting contribution in this field in recent years (with a valiant hat-tip towards GURPS Transhuman and numerous other smaller publications). Until then however, let us relish the story that was Tactical Studies Rules – a small company which founded an industry in the basement of a family home.
Lev Lafayette, firstname.lastname@example.org
PS: The image above is a first print Dungeons &Dragons which recently sold on Ebay for $22,100 (http://www.ebay.com/itm/172430642326).
Frank Mentzer Interview
with Frank Mentzer
Hi Frank, welcome to RPG Review.
Our first question is a bit of typical one, but yours is quite a famous story. How did you get into roleplaying games in general, what were you playing, and especially how did you end up at TSR?
I was unemployed in 1973 after college, and partied in the Philadelphia suburbs. Friends would visit my apartment to play board games (sometimes all weekend), and one day in 1976 Don showed up with an early D&D set. This eventually led to a dozen or more regular players wasting amazing amounts of time. I was the jobless rocker wannabe so I never had any money, and I had to make up my own adventures. That need was the driving force behind my creativity, and I had plenty of spare time. Another friend Dave saw an ad in Dragon magazine, late 1979, and badgered me into applying for a job at TSR. They took a chance on me, I moved to Wisconsin, and off we went. (And I had dinner with Dave just weeks ago; old gamers stay in touch.)
Q: Famously soon after starting at TSR you won the award for the best dungeon master (cf., "He's the Top Dungeon Mentzer", Dragon Issue 43, November 1980). How did you go about winning this award?
I had been at TSR for a few months, and word of the "DM Invitational" spread naturally. Everyone at the company was welcome to give it a shot, and several Famous Names from elsewhere were already in, like Len Lakofka (Leomund himself). Finding myself in gaming paradise, I was busy trying to not get fired, so I didn't think much about it.
Some but not all of the trials were held at the offices, the old building on Sheridan Springs (now an antique shop). The entrant had to create a scenario and run it for a trio of players: Gary Gygax and Brian Blume (co-founders/bosses of TSR) and Jim Ward (Deities & Demigods, much more). They had experienced the best and worst of everything in the long history of roleplaying (6 whole years, wow), and they tried it all. The more they got caught, the sneakier they got.
I remember seeing my turn on the calendar a week away, and finding the time to throw together a dungeon. (I later developed it more fully as R2 'Hydell'.) I think I won the contest by 1 point on a 300 scale. The announcement and awards came at GenCon that summer, and by October I was pulled out of Editing to start the RPGA network. That was just me and (the late) Bill Hoyer at first, though it grew quickly. Bill had been with Gary since the earliest days, in the old Lake Geneva game club of 1972. He was a great connection to the roots.
Q: What advice would you have to aspiring DMs who want to improve their game?
Nope, sorry, too broad. Books are written on that; in fact, there's one coming up from Kobold Press (Wolf Baur & other perps), in which I have a minor essay.
Q: Your big and most famous project was, of course, the BECMI editions of Dungeons & Dragons. *Many* questions arise from that set of products. Firstly, how did the the revision process differ from the existing Moldvay and Holmes edition of Basic and Expert D&D? Secondly, what was the design decision to release the product in a staged manner? One cannot help but notice the gradual and incremental expansion in the rules and setting, along with the recommended minimum age for play (10+ for Dungeons & Dragons Basic, Expert, and Companion, 12+ for Master, 14+ for Immortal).
Well, a bit of history is in order. Dr. Holmes offered a rewrite, which was published in 1977. That really started the 'boom' period. In January 1980, Tom Moldvay and I started work, and he combined all that had been learned about the game in 6 years into an even more understandable form. The Holmes approach had only half that, and he played most in California; Tom had the input of TSR itself, Gary and all.
Before D&D arose, Gary and the Lake Geneva club interacted with the group in St. Paul-Minneapolis, featuring Dave Arneson of course. That club also included Mike Carr and Dave Sutherland, and they moved down to join Gary & Brian with the new company. Tim Kask came up from his college group in southern Illinois, completing the 'first Five'.
The primitive artwork of the original 1974 set had been upgraded for the Holmes, shaped by Dave Sutherland's covers and interiors. By 1980, it evolved to the cleaner superhero styles of Dee and Willingham (and warped by Otus). But as greater distribution drove mushrooming sales, new markets brought new standards. To play in New York City, you had to look the part. That brought Elmore, Easley, Parkinson, and many more to shape the new image.
I had built the RPGA for more than a year, and Gary tapped me as his "creative aide", meaning that I'd spend time on writing things he wanted to but couldn't, due to business demands. I developed the 'red box' Basic set intro, then he shredded parts, and I revised, mostly by interoffice memos. The 5-6 executives with private offices and secretaries were handily nearby and mostly not hobby gamers. I couldn't pressure the execs into reading or playtesting, but I could and did drop it onto the secretarial pool. Some of them took it seriously, and I made a lot of changes to handle the issues that became apparent.
Gary and I had settled on a 36-level spread, so I planned for that across five boxed sets. The material increases in complexity; you need to be more mature, more dedicated, to ingest and implement the new concepts and procedures. Red box worked well but my personal favorite is Companion. We had all been reading about castle construction and realms since the original set, but I was the first to write it up fully with dominions and their unique resources, mass battles, and lots more.
Q: What about Mystara? How involved were you in the development of that game world? Whilst it featured throughout the BECMI series, the Gazetteers were written by others. What about your own campaign world, Aquaria, which featured in the R modules and the Eldritch Ent. publications?
I was pretty busy writing the five boxed sets, completing Temple of Elemental Evil, and knocking out RPGA tournaments and other side projects (like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Book of Marvelous Magic) while assisting TSR International with planning, reviewing toy licenses, and more. Any RPG needs support materials, and that whole tamale landed on Bruce Heard. He coordinated the entire line, and built the world from my broad strokes. Note that I took used a lot of the basic geography from Moldvay's edition, for continuity. Gary's friend from France, Francois Froideval, contributed to the world map too.
My own campaign -- formerly Aquaria*, now "Empyrea" -- is an ongoing story, and will soon come to fruition I think. It began loosely in 1977 and by 1979 was based in eastern "Valon sector", a map from Judges Guild. (It has been so heavily modified over the years that it bears almost no resemblance now. JG was a pillar of the hobby's development, and I happily credit them here as the seminal inspiration for my setting.)
* Because it's not about fish (though squid are important...)
In 1982, I set the RPGA tournament "Egg of the Phoenix" in my realm, and asked Gary for permission to link it to his World of Greyhawk setting. He wanted it vague enough that his continent was unaffected. I still have his handwritten note, approving the preface in module R4 that explains the connection. (As far as I know, only Arneson and Kuntz had similar written approval.)
Everything I wrote while at TSR (1980-86) belonged to them, by contract, and is now owned by Wizards. The legal stuff is simple, if technical; the 'treatments' I wrote are TSR's, but the campaign predated that time and is mine. I resumed it in 1988, then online in 1992 (in a chatroom). It continues to this day, every Tuesday night, and we're almost to the grand finale. The campaign will at long last be Over, Done, Finished, after 25 years.
I could wax lyrical about the campaign itself but there is too much; I cannot even sum up. So I'm writing it up for two booklets, modeled on Gary's original Greyhawk boxed set. Darlene has agreed to do the maps in her classic original style. That Kickstarter should appear not far into the new year.
Q: There is a technological aspect to many of your fantasy publications as well. For example, the scenario 'Needle' has science-fantasy aspects to it (force fields, lunar travel), as does 'The Egg of the Pheonix' (time travel, extra-planar travel). In 'The Immortal Storm', the PCs are brought to modern day New York! Could you elaborate on how you think that fantasy and science fiction should intermix, especially in a gaming context? On a meta-game level, how do you feel about technological inputs into traditional table-top roleplaying games?
I never read much Fantasy; my idols were Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. Bradbury was great but very 'romantic', not 'hard science'. My college work started in Math/Physics. So sure, it leaked in.
It's all fiction, whatever the genre -- even hyper-realistic modern or near-future stuff. The world-picture varies, and ideas come from everywhere... so why segregate concepts because of arbitrary 'fantasy' or 'science fiction' labels? Whether it's warp speed or resurrection, it's fantasy fiction.
That said, technology is the bad guy in my campaign. Therein, everything in existence is in a binary war: gods & magic VS mortals & inventions. It's the old hubris trap, extrapolated infinitely. I wrote about that scope in the D&D Immortals set, and I apply it in microcosm in my campaign. Do you like clerical spells? Clerics hate Tek (it's anti-god), so behave.
Q: One of the big turning points in your career was joining Gary Gygax to from New Infinities Productions after he was ungraciously removed from TSR. Could you describe what was happening at TSR at the time, and what led you to decide to leave?
I was ready to leave when Gary did, but he said to stay put. We agreed never to talk business. Once he had NIPI set up about a year later, he called, I resigned, moved out, and started work in a new office, along with Kim & Pam Mohan (he of Dragon magazine) and Petty Petticord (RPGA). Gary had his own firm (Trigee), and didn't actually work at NIPI. Sadly, his choice of boss (Baker) didn't raise the funding he'd promised, nor did the next President (Turnbull). Also, the Person Ousting Gary (to whom I only refer by those initials, the POG) started a lawsuit, draining the last of the money, and that was that.
For salacious details about the day of Gary's dismissal, refer to Jon Peterson's excellent research, blog, and videos (as well as his definitive Playing at the World).
Q: Æsheba was an interesting campaign setting which you contributed to, but the flagship publication for New Infinities was Cyborg Commando. This game of alien invasion and cyborg soldiers and a unique resolution system has not been well-received by reviewers. Can you describe the system and
setting design and playtesting process that went into Cyborg Commando? What can be said in its defense?
It's incomplete. We were ordered to publish it, finished or not. That bad decision was driven by a terminal cash crunch. The game could be finished, explanations provided for everything that wasn't, and given a better presentation overall (see Red Box).
Q: After New Infinities was forced into bankruptcy in 1989, you left the gaming industry for a number of years. Could you describe what you did in that intervening period? Were you doing much gaming on a social level, if not a professional level?
Gary gave me good advice, and I took it. As he worked on early bits of "Dangerous Dimensions" (renamed to Dangerous Journeys) we had a blunt talk. He advised me to leave, go do something else, because the POG was going to keep throwing lawsuits and he could take it (he thought) and I couldn't.
I was newly married, and we both lost our jobs. Those hard times contributed to our amicable divorce. I had moved to Milwaukee by then, and eventually found the right gal. She got a degree in Baking & Pastry Arts, and we opened a commercial bakery and store in Minocqua, northern Wisconsin (mentioned by Charlie Sheen in "Hot Shots"). We added two more stores, one a classic 'mall coffee shop' with baristas.
Gaming was okay in Milwaukee, but 'up north' there wasn't much. I went to conventions as usual, including GenCon (continuous since 1980) and one in Lake Geneva. In the mid-aughts (2000s) I started getting more convention requests, including some in Europe. Numerology had struck; the good old Red Box was having a 20th anniversary, and folks started remembering me.
We had to fold the bakery in 2008 for various reasons, luckily just before the recession hit. Spurred by newfound appreciation, I gathered my friends Ward Kask and Clark, and we formed Eldritch Enterprises Ltd. in 2012. Tragedy struck almost immediately; Jim had open-heart surgery, then I had a heart attack (stents). We produced a dozen good adventures (fantasy & science fiction) in 5 years, but we've all moved on to other things now, and Eldritch is on hiatus.
I've now formed a company (Loxley) to handle my work from here on. There are plenty of excellent publishers in hobby gaming, so I plan to develop concepts and products to whatever degree and hand off the production and distribution. One of them, mentioned above, is a Kickstarter for my campaign set. There are at least a dozen more projects of similar magnitude.
And yet, that's not what I want to do; it's what I have to do, to get those ideas out of my head and onto drawing boards. I've also begun consultations with new partners and associates, to form a non-profit organization that benefits Hobby Gamers. We're making initial plans and moving forward; more to come next year.
Icarus Beware the Sun: A Short History of TSR
with Lev Lafayette
The story of TSR is readily available and serves as an informative rags-to-riches-to-rags. It is of great importance to the tabletop RPG hobby, for those who wish to go down the independent publisher path, and, for business in general. Indeed it probably could serve as in interesting case study for an MBA course - but that will have to wait. Most of the subheadings in this brief article follow the corporate identity of the organisation at the time, which indicates how an organisational change can lead to a change in collective psychology, (specifically Tactical Studies Rules, TSR Hobbies, and TSR), but also how a change in leadership can do the same.
Tactical Studies Rules
The company started in 1973 as partnership between Gary Gygax and Don Kaye to publish Dungeons & Dragons, after offers had been rejected by other publishers, with $2,400 in starting capital (median family income in 1974 was $12,051 for comparison). Using Kaye's basement as the operations base of the new company, they published 1,000 copies of D&D. Their first publication was not, however Dungeons & Dragons, but Cavaliers and Roundheads, a miniatures game, which generated initial income. The company was also producing a regular newsletter, The Strategic Review.
Within the first year however D&D proved to be the big hit, and at the end of year Brian Blume added a further $2,000 to the company. Don Kaye was President of the company, Brian Blume was Vice President, and Gary Gygax was Editor. The company sold out of its first print run of D&D and published another 1,000 copies in January 1975, which itself only took five to six months to sell.
During this period Don Kaye died suddenly and his wife Donna Kaye looked after the administrative and accounting tasks. But she was relatively disinterested in the hobby and as a result a new corporate structure was developed which purchased Donna's share of the company. The original TSR Hobbies stock agreement, executed by Gygax and Blume on August 1, 1975, awarded Gygax 150 shares of stock and Blume 100; however subsequent investments from the Blume family included some $34,000 immediately after establishment and included 200 shares to Melvin Blume, and another 140 to Brian Blume. Gygax now served as President of TSR Hobbies, and Brian Blume as Vice President and Secretary, the company also acting as a marketing arm for other groups, including the Dungeon hobby shop in Lake Geneva which became the effective headquarters of the company.
TSR and Dungeons & Dragons began to expand; another 2,000 item print run of D&D in October 1975 which also sold rapidly, and an increasing stock of games (including Dungeon! and Empire of the Petal Throne, Boot Hill, and Metamorphosis Alpha). Tim Kask was hired in the autumn of 1975 as Periodicals Editor, and the became the company's first full-time employee. In 1976 the supplements Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, and Gods, and Demigods & Heroes, and began hosting GenCon, all contributing to an impressive $300,000 in revenue. The company also hosted the first GenCon in 1976 which included the first D&D open tournament, and started Dragon magazine. Of note was Warriors of Mars which was based on the world of Edgar Rice Burroughs. This was published without permission from the Burroughs estate and had to be pulled from distribution.
At this stage the company was skyrocketing; a basic set for D&D was released in 1977 as the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons line came into existence with the Monster Manual, Players Handbook (1978), and Dungeon Masters Guide (1979). Other RPG lines were established such as Gamma World (1978). Rights were granted to Grenadier to produce miniatures and to Games Workshop in the United Kingdom which resulted in local printings of the AD&D there. Failed negotiations over a potential merger led to the establishment of TSR Hobbies UK in 1980, headed by Don Turnbull, which would result in expansions into Europe, the production of the UK series of scenarios, the Fiend Folio, and Imagine magazine. The World of Greyhawk was also released in 1980, as was the Top Secret roleplaying game. The company structure underwent some changes as well. Melvin Blume's shares were transferred to Kevin Blume, leading to a board of directors consisting of Kevin (president of operations) and Brian Blume (president of creative affairs), and Gygax (company president and CEO).
Revenues continued to grow; by 1981, TSR Hobbies had revenues of $12.9 million and a payroll of 130, and in the following year it reached $20 million in sales (Wall Street Journal, Jan 7, 1983), starting two new RPG lines (Gangbusters and Star Frontiers) as well as starting their own AD&D miniatures line and toys. The D&D line received a shot in the arm with the release of The Isle of Dread (1981) which opened up that game to the Known World Mystara setting. Distribution rights for D&D and AD&D were expanded to twenty-two countries, with D&D and AD&D game being translated first into French, followed by many other languages including Danish, Finnish, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, and Swedish. An educational department was established to develop curriculum programs for reading, math, history, and problem solving, which led to the the Endless Quest book series.
In 1983, the company was split into four companies, TSR, Inc. (the primary successor), TSR International, TSR Ventures and TSR Entertainment, Inc. Gary Gygax left for Hollywood to lead TSR Entertainment, Inc., which would eventually become Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment Corp.). It attempted to license D&D products to movie and television executives, but resulted only a single license for what would become the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, which itself lead to a 100 different other licenses and a two year series. Product diversification increased, including some unexpected ventures the Greenfield Needlewomen business perhaps being the most unusual.
There were some impressive acquisitions in this period (SPI, Amazing Stories). With the release of the Dragonlance saga and books in 1984, TSR became the number one published of science fiction and fantasy in the U.S. With a new game world, a series of game supplements, and a trilogy of novels written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the first novel in the series, The Dragons of Autumn Twilight, reached the top of The New York Times Best Seller list. The company expanded the RPG line with licenses to produce Marvel Super Heroes, Indian Jones, and the Conan roleplaying games. Expanding the scope and market, TSR introduced the HeartQuest series of positive choose-your-own-adventure romances from 1983 onwards and the All My Children game in 1985, based on the ABC daytime soap, with more than 150,000 copies sold. In 1986, TSR introduced Dungeon Adventures magazine, a popular bi-monthly magazine featuring adventure scenarios for D&D.
There was serious trouble in paradise however. TSR had grown at an incredible rate, but there control and management of the organisation was poor. The creative directors, such as Gygax, had been outmaneuvered in corporate ownership. The financial directors, who had provided much of the initial influx of capital, showed some disregard for the hobby. According to GameSpy (Magic & Memories: The Complete History of Dungeons & Dragons - Part II), they were running it very poorly indeed:
"Kevin and his brother Brian were -- and they were running it [TSR] into the ground. Under the Blume's management, corporate bloat and waste were epidemic. The company leased or owned upwards of 70 automobiles and the TSR offices were loaded with furniture, computer systems, and equipment that went unused and, in some cases, unopened. Even worse, nepotism under the Blume's administration was rampant, with estimates that at least 90 relatives of the family had somehow ended up on the company payroll."
Despite significant revenues the company was around $1.5 million in debt. Gygax wrote to the TSR board recommending some changes, including removing Kevin Blume as CEO. The board agreed, but whilst the Blumes were no longer in control of the company, they still were the majority shareholders and effective owners, a truly delicious proposition for beginning students of political economy and corporate law to review and consider in detail. TSR also engaged in some very significant pruning of its expenses - including making some 75% of its staff redundant, many of which would go on to form new game companies such as Mayfair and Pacesetter, or work in the video game industry (Coleco was most prominent).
Removed from control of the company, the Blumes sold their controlling stock to a financial planner who worked with the company, and had been employed by Gygax, Lorraine Williams (whose family owned the license to the Buck Rogers material). Williams introduced some fairly strict rules which were not always well received:
"Williams says that once she took on the job of TSR’s general manager in the spring of 1985, she learned the true extent of the company’s financial problems— and Gygax’s complicity. "The whole structure of the place was that they had all sorts of offshore operations, and they had integrated profit-sharing plans that only benefited the shareholders, which were Gary, Kevin and Brian Blume, and some family members," she says. "I mean, [TSR UK] owned a house in the Isle of Man. You wouldn’t have believed [Gygax’s] temper tantrum when we told them that had to be sold..."
This and other successes with the Dungeons & Dragons game and cartoon, such as a lucrative licensing agreements with toymakers Mattel, LJN, and Larami, had afforded Gary luxuries such as his rental of a six-acre Beverly Hills estate once owned by fabled producer/ director King Vidor, “complete with a bar, pool table, hot tub, and peach tree..."
(David Ewalt, Of Dice and Men)
Whilst Gygax tried to have the sale of the Blume shares declared illegal he failed and subsequent to that he sold his stock to Williams and used the capital to form New Infinity Productions. Whilst TSR published the first of two supplements of Lankhmar, one of Gygax's favourite fantasy fiction settings (and an early boardgame from the company) On December 31st, 1985 Gary Gygax left TSR for good. It was a true end of an era.
The Williams Era
Under the new leadership the TSR began with releasing Forgotten Realms campaign setting, and then started work on second edition AD&D, which would be released in 1989, along with the first of the "kit" books for various character classes and interesting historical settings, along with the Spelljammer setting. The year prior in another of TSR's many strange products the Bullwinkle & Rocky RPG was released, which included hand puppets and, in a more serious fashion, a very successful wargame based on Tom Clany's The Hunt for Red October.
Initially under Williams TSR's finances improved and the company was able to expand into other areas. As the license holder of the Buck Rogers franchise a board game and RPG was released, although these were not enormously successful. More product lines were forthcoming. In 1990 the gothic-fantasy Ravenloft was released which would prove to be enormously popular. The following year was another setting, the exotic and challenging Dark Sun, and the year after that the Al-Qadim setting, loosely based on versions of Arabic fantasy stories and as an extension to Forgotten Realms, as was Kara-Tur (originally 1986), The Horde (1990), Matzica (1991), as well as expansions to the Mystara Known World setting (Hollow World Campaign Set, 1990). In 1994, the growing number of potential settings also had Planescape added, based on the extra-planar adventures, and then in 1995, with Birthright in which the players take on the role of the political rulers with divine backing.
During this period, TSR published its first hardcover novel, Legacy by R.A. Salvatore, which reached the top of the New York Times bestseller lists. Gen Con broke records for all gaming conventions attracting close to 20,000 people. The various settings had loyal followers and collectors. But as Michael Breault, an editor at TSR from 1985 to 1989 and freelancer from 1989 to 1995, some of the products did not have sufficient, if any, playtesting.
"The vast majority of modules and systems in hardback books were not playtested, to the very best of my knowledge. The designer would make them up, perhaps playtest them on his own or informally call a buddy or co-worker over to review or briefly playtest them, but as a general rule I saw very little playtesting occur. This is why I always refer to people in my position as editor/developers, because we were basically the only check against total weirdness. I remember working my way through one of Tracy Hickman's modules, intended for mid-level characters, and coming upon a room that had something like 6 or 8 liches in it. It was fricking LichCon11 in there and would have totally fried any party that kicked in that door. I knocked it down to a single lich but every so often think of the high-pitched screaming that would have resulted all over the land had I failed to see that."
(From: Michael Breault http://www.knights-n-knaves.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?p=70641#p70641)
Panic and Collapse
The industry however had changed, and new tastes and new technologies had come on to the scene. Roleplaying game sales were challenged by miniature wargames and card games. By 1995, TSR had fallen behind both Games Workshop with its Warhammer line and Wizards of the Coast with Magic : The Gathering in sales volume. Rather than concentrate on their core product and accept the new circumstances, or even engage in a comprehensive market review, TSR took a gamble on two fronts. On one side, they tried to enter the collectible market with Spellfire, the second ever CCG, and Dragon Dice, where players collected an assortment of dice and purchased additional booster packs of more powerful dice. It was a novel approach but ultimately not a successful one. There was some initial successes with Dragon Dice, leading to TSR to rapidly produce several expansion packs, which did not meet expectations. In addition, they decided to rapidly expand their hardcover novels, with twelve released in 1996, despite having previously only publishing one or two each year. These likewise did not sell as well as expected.
The crunch come in 1996. TSR had revenues of $40 million, but ended the year with little in the way of cash reserves. When Random House returned a large batch of unsold stock with a fee of several million dollars, TSR suddenly also found itself unable to pay for printing bills, logistics, shipping bills, and in a cascading collapse, even warehousing. Thirty staff were made redundant at the end of the year, with the company ended the year with $30 million in debt. The following year, Lorraine Williams sold the company to Wizards of the Coast an the corporate offices in Lake Geneva were closed down.
The rise and fall of TSR makes for a very tragic corporate story, and a tragedy in the very literal sense that there was intrinsic causes for the collapse from the outset. At each stage of the rise and fall one can see that the involvement of self-interested investors was the cause of crises that was at least equal to creative originators whose business nous certainly needed honing. It is very rare to find individuals who have both business acumen and culturally creative skills and when they do exist they usually have to choose one or the other to concentrate on. Rather it would have been far preferable that investors or controllers of the company had at least a passing interest in the hobby itself and were dedicated to seeing the hobby and the company that they represented flourish.
The lesson learned here is arguably universally applicable to other industries; medical firms should actually have CEOs with a least a passing interest in medicine or diagnosis, computing firms should be lead by people who at least have an interest in computer technology and so forth. The move towards a "business specialist" for its own sake encourages a self-interest when in reality a company interest (and even wider, the product interest, and even wider, a social interest) such predominate instead. Another lesson learned is resolve conflicts through mediation, especially on matters concerning organisational positions. It is also necessary to understand new social environments, the Internet being a particular case. T$R's aggressive policy of intellectual property protection in the early days of the World Wide Web against individuals and non-profit associations was notorious and led people and organisations to desert any sense of brand loyalty.
In addition some of the business decisions that were made were also tragic in their lack of foresight. It was almost as if successive business leaders in TSR had an initial primarily interested in breaking from hobby culture to the mainstream, but then no idea what do from then. For the millions of people exposed and influenced by TSR's roleplaying games, especially those in the hey-dey of its growth, the demise is particularly painful. It is clear that little market analysis was conducted and that consumer feedback collection was haphazard. Lurching from crisis to crisis, the policy was crash through or crash. Sometimes a company can be lucky and crash through a few times, and engage in a period of growth after such successes. Eventually however, it will crash.
Ryan Dancey, who worked for Wizards of the Coast in reviewing TSR at the time of acquisition provides a vivid first-person account of visiting TSR in its last days and a clear-cut explanation of the problem: "Inside the building, I found a dead company... I read the severance agreements between the company and departed executives which paid them extraordinary sums for their silence.... I toured a warehouse packed from floor to 50 foot ceiling with products valued as though they would soon be sold to a distributor with production stamps stretching back to the late 1980s...No customer profiling information. No feedback. No surveys. No "voice of the customer". TSR, it seems, knew nothing about the people who kept it alive. The management of the company made decisions based on instinct and gut feelings; not data... TSR died because it was deaf."
These matters are, of course, important lessons in running any business. But of course there is one fact that must be returned to from the beginning of this short history - that D&D started off as independent publications that had been rejected by other publishers because it was too strange. In that sense the gut instinct of the original designers that the game was something that others desired was indeed true and - not to put too fine a point on it - it changed the culture of the time. Sometimes gut instinct, especially when starting an organisation, is the right way to go. But when you have a mature product, a strategic plan is required, marketing need to be developed, testing of product needs to occur, and the customer base must be listened to. There is no such thing as a leader who has no followers - and as a result the leader must always listen to what their followers have to say.
Credit, Recognition, and the Pillow Test
by Tim Kask
During the past several years several people have asked me various questions on the same topic or subject, and my feelings about it. I guess it has come time to state it publicly, once and for all.
Gary Gygax and Brian Blume hired me to be the company editor, that company first being Tactical Studies Rules, and then TSR Hobbies. I edited some of their business letters; I edited some of Gary’s stuff; I edited whatever game the company was working on (but more as a proofreader in those instances); I edited Strategic Review and then when I edited Blackmoor, all of our lives changed a little that day.