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Opening the Gold Box, Part 2: Ten Odd Years at TSR

12 Mar

TSR

For much of the 1980s, TSR’s tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons was both a looming presence and a baffling absence in the world of computer games. In one sense, this new thing that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had wrought early in the previous decade was absolutely everywhere, not only in the many CRPGs that paid it obvious homage but also in many other, less obvious derivatives that owed so much to its vision of interactive storytelling: Infocom’s text adventures, Sierra’s graphic adventures, even Microprose’s flight simulators with their career modes that let you play the role of a single pilot.

Yet strangely absent were computer-game boxes with the actual name of Dungeons & Dragons on them. A licensing deal for this, one of the most recognizable names in nerd culture, would be a surefire winner, as was clear to every executive and marketing MBA in the computer-game industry. But for years, while Origin Systems and Sir-Tech and Interplay built profitable businesses on what Gygax and Arneson had wrought, TSR just wasn’t interested. Aside from Intellivision cartridges and electronic toys published by Mattel that had little to do with the tabletop game beyond using the trademark, they limited their interactions with the digital-games industry to the occasional legal threat fired across the bows of anyone who got too close to one of their trademarks. The disinterest persisted even as some of their own designers, like Paul Reiche III and Lawrence Schick, were moving on to the increasingly lucrative world of computer games. And it persisted even as CRPGs were by mid-decade generating far more revenue than the tabletop game that had so directly inspired them. It wasn’t as if TSR lacked ambition; this refusal to reach up and pluck the lowest-hanging fruit in the garden was happening even as they spent money they didn’t have on elaborate schemes to crack open the Hollywood coconut. Chalk it up to strange times, strange priorities, and a company that grew up way too quickly.

From as early as 1977, the story of TSR is the story of the two conflicting identities of Dungeons & Dragons. One identity reached back to the game’s roots in hardcore miniatures wargaming, a niche hobby if ever there was one. This Dungeons & Dragons was for those special people who took their games very seriously indeed, who reveled in complicated games. The other Dungeons & Dragons was just starting to look like it may be realizable as the 1970s entered their second half and the game continued to prove more appealing to more and more diverse people than anyone at TSR had ever imagined it could be. Maybe it could become really popular, the next Monopoly or Scrabble.

So, the question was on the table. Should Dungeons & Dragons remain a hobby game? Or could and should it become a mass-market game, with all that implied? Unable to decide, TSR tried to split the difference. In the process, in a move that would make any marketer break out in hives, they confusingly bifurcated their burgeoning market, turning Dungeons & Dragons into two completely separate, incompatible games that both happened to bear the same name.

The initial drive to streamline and mainstream Dungeons & Dragons originated from a source well outside of TSR’s inner circle. J. Eric Holmes, a doctor, professor of neurology, and sometime fantasy author, contacted TSR to tell them that he loved their game, but that they really ought to make it easier for people to find, learn, and play it. At the time, the rules were scattered in multiple books, all of them sold separately. One of the books, Chainmail, didn’t even bear the Dungeons & Dragons name at all, and even after you’d bought them all you still had to find a source for all those funny dice. He suggested a “basic” edition of Dungeons & Dragons, a single port of entry that would ship in a box like other games, and that would include everything needed to get started and take a character through the first few experience levels. A boxed game, Holmes mused presciently, might even be able to find a home in mall book and toy stores, rather than relying on the scattered network of hobbyist stores that were so few and far between in many areas of the country. Further, Holmes was willing to make it himself, rewriting Gygax’s rambling, scattered prose into a clear, straightforward set of rules that read like other game rules — i.e., that explained clearly and succinctly how to actually, you know, play this new game you’d just bought.

The original 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set.

The original 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set.

First released in 1977, the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set went on to become the most successful single product in the history of the tabletop-RPG industry, seeing printings into the millions as it got steadily prettier and slicker through the rest of the 1970s, the 1980s, and into the 1990s. Popular demand led to a series of expansions — an “Expert” set, a “Companion” set, a “Master” set, and finally an “Immortal” set — that let players take their characters to ever higher levels in the same easygoing style.

Ironically, Gary Gygax, the anointed Father of Role-Playing, had very little to do with this most successful version of his game, although he did write the iconic adventure module The Keep on the Borderlands that was included with most of the Basic Sets sold. (Unsurprisingly given its inclusion in the Basic Set, The Keep on the Borderlands became the most-printed tabletop-RPG adventure module in history, reaching more than 1.5 million copies.) Even as Dungeons & Dragons was making its bid for the mainstream via the Basic Set, Gygax was digging its hardcore roots even deeper via an entirely separate line called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Where the Basic Set was streamlined and accessible, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons seemed determined to make you work for your fun. Hewing to the tradition of the original Dungeons & Dragons rules, which had appeared as an irregular stream of supplements to Gygax’s older Chainmail rules for Medieval combat, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons came out in fits and starts, beginning with a Monster Manual full of statistics for an as-yet non-existent game system, followed by the Player’s Handbook six months later, and finally the Dungeon Master’s Guide a year after that. What you were supposed to do with the earlier bits and pieces of a game while you waited for the last of the three daunting hardcover books to be released was never really explained.

The Dungeon Master's Guide's cover didn't do much to convince concerned parents that this game wasn't Satanic.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide‘s cover didn’t do much to convince concerned parents that this game wasn’t Satanic.

The three books that make up the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons are the most indelibly Gygaxian of any of TSR publications, truly their creator’s magnum opus. Never before had a set of humble game rules been so redolent of their maker’s personality. Taken as a whole, they represented easily the most complicated game of any type that anyone had dared publish to date, comprising many hundreds of thousands of words of Gygax’s tangled, less than graceful, yet often weirdly engaging prose, like a less overwrought H.P. Lovecraft. It’s great fun to open any of the books to a random page and just see what you see — even if, like me, you think that actually trying to play this thing as written sounds about as much fun as getting caught in a scything-blade trap (trust me, you don’t want that).

In fact, let’s try it now with the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Ah, here we go… on “missile discharge” into an “existing melee.” No one other than Gary Gygax could have written these paragraphs.

Likewise, discharging of missiles into an existing melee is easily handled. It is permissible, of course, and the results might not be too incompatible with the desires of the discharging party. Assign probabilities to each participant in the melee or target group according to sheer numbers. In the case of participants of varying size use half value for size “S”, normal value for size “M”, and one and one-half value for size “L” creatures which are not too much more than man-size. Total the values for each group and ratio one over the other. If side A has four man-sized participants, and side B has three smaller than man-sized participants and 1 size “L” bugbear, the ratio is 4:3. Then, according to the direction of the missile discharge, determine by using the same ratio. If 7 missiles were loosed, 4 would have a chance to hit side A, 3 side B. In cases where the ratio does not match the number of missiles, convert it to a percentage chance: 1/7 = 14% or 15%, depending on whether the missiles are coming from ahead of side A (14%) or from behind (15%). Thus 4/7 = 56% or 60% chance per missile that it will hit side A. The minor difference represents the fact that there will be considerable shifting and maneuvering during combat which will tend to expose both opponents to fire on a near equal basis. Such missiles must then be assigned (by situation or by random determination) to target creatures, a “to hit” determination made, and damage assessed for those who do hit.

If one opponent group is significantly larger than the other, accurate missiles which have a small area of effect can be directed at the larger opponent group with great hope of success. You may assign a minor chance of a missile striking a friend if you wish, but this writer, for instance, always allows archery hits to hit a giant or a similar creature engaged against a human or smaller opponent. [Quite an easygoing guy, that Gary! They’ll be dancing on the tables in Lake Geneva if this keeps up.]

Something tells me that Gary Gygax has a different definition of “easily” than I do. I’m not sure if a gift for making the simplest things sound complicated is really a desirable quality in a writer of game rules, but, whether it’s to nod your head to the occasional flashes of insight and good advice or just to make fun of stuff like the above, there’s something on every page of Gygax’s magnum opus worth reading.

Unfortunately, the era of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books also began to bring out some less charming facets of Gary Gygax. Transported in just a few years from repairing shoes in his basement for a subsistence (at best) wage to helming the fast-growing darling of the tabletop-games industry, his proprietary instincts began to come out. Dungeons & Dragons, previously a community effort in which everyone — not least Gygax and TSR — was making it up as he went along, became a brand with a definite owner. TSR now began to earn a reputation that they would never lose for the rest of their existence: a reputation as a difficult company to work for, to do business with, sometimes just to coexist in the same industry with. They were now growing rapidly indeed, adding to their ranks many energetic young Dungeons & Dragons fanatics who were bursting with enthusiasm to move to Lake Geneva and work at the epicenter of their hobby. These starry-eyed youngsters, unschooled in the ways of the world, would work for peanuts. TSR took full advantage of that. The company became a notoriously poor payer, and didn’t even offer job security in compensation; from 1980 on it would be racked by wave after wave of purges and lay-offs, followed by massive hirings of new rounds of eager youngsters. Meanwhile the executives, Gygax among them, collected cars like their employees did dice. TSR became the bully of their young industry, sending their lawyers scampering hither and yon to threaten rival game makers, makers of Dungeons & Dragons-compatible products, and even computer games that they judged to have sidled too close to one of their trademarks.

Among their ongoing legal squabbles was one with Dave Arneson, Gygax’s partner in crafting the original Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax made the unilateral decision that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was such a thorough revision and expansion that it constituted a whole new game, authored solely by him, and that TSR therefore didn’t need to acknowledge Arneson’s contributions in the new hardcovers or pay him a royalty for them. Arneson promptly sued, resulting in a long, ugly court battle and finally a March 1981 settlement in Arneson’s favor that restored his royalties. Less happily for Arneson, Gygax’s agenda of setting sole public claim to Dungeons & Dragons was largely successful. Gygax is almost universally acknowledged as the father of Dungeons & Dragons today, and by extension the father of a huge chunk of the popular culture of the last several decades. Arneson, when mentioned at all, is usually relegated to a relative footnote in the story.

Gygax’s emerging determination to assert his personal ownership of the game is all too present in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons itself. Indeed, what with the system’s desire to anticipate and codify every possibility to ensure that it’s handled in every individual campaign just as Gygax would, one might call it the system’s very raison d’être. Whereas the original Dungeons & Dragons opened with an exhortation to adventure and a statement that every rule was really a mere “guideline” (emphasis original), Gygax opens the Dungeon Master’s Guide with a series of warnings befitting a fear-mongering political reactionary. “If Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is to survive and grow,” he tells us, “it must have some degree of uniformity.” The game’s rules are no longer guidelines, but “boundaries.” In “growth and change,” he tells us, is “great danger.” “Uniformity” must be present to prevent players from “going too far in some undesirable direction.”

The tension between Dungeons & Dragons as an imaginative vehicle and Dungeons & Dragons as a complex system had been present with the game since its very inception, when broadly speaking Arneson had been the wide-angle ideas man and Gygax the more narrowly focused translator of those ideas into rules. In the years that followed, different sorts of personalities continued to find Dungeons & Dragons fascinating on one level or the other. Sometimes these twin fascinations coexisted in a single personality; even Gygax during the early years was prone to occasional Aristotelian flights of fancy, describing Dungeon Masters as playwrights and their players as their thespians. With TSR’s decision to bifurcate the game into a basic and an advanced variant, however, each point of view now had a seeming champion, and players were obliged to commit to one camp or the other. One need only contrast Gygax’s statements about rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide with what the 1981 second edition of the Basic Set had to say about them to understand why: “The purpose of these ‘rules’ is to provide guidelines that enable you to play and have fun, so don’t feel absolutely bound to them.”

Today the system that is widely considered the definitive version of old-school Dungeons & Dragons, the one most likely to be used by those who still indulge in such things, is Gygax’s Advanced version. Yet if we cast our eyes back to the game’s four-year commercial heyday, we find the situation reversed.

The beginning of said heyday can be precisely dated to August 15, 1979, the day that a psychologically disturbed Dungeons & Dragons player named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from his dorm room at Michigan State University. A private investigator hired by his parents learned of this strange game Egbert loved to play, and came up with the theory that he must have been playing “for real” with his friends in the steam tunnels underneath the university, or had a psychotic break that led him to believe he was doing so. Presumably he’d gotten lost or injured down there. The disappearance and the private investigator’s theory thereof made the national news media, giving Dungeons & Dragons both its first taste of mainstream attention and its first taste of the controversy that would dog it for years to come. But, at least now in the beginning, the old maxim that any press is good press held. By the time Egbert finally turned up working in an oil field in Louisiana, his disappearance having had nothing to do with games played in steam tunnels or anywhere else, both the Dungeons & Dragons fad and the Dungeons & Dragons controversy were solidly off and running. When Egbert shot and killed himself in August of 1980, it only added fuel to both fires.

By the 1983 third edition of the Basic Set, it had taken on a more colorful, almost cartoon-like appearance to suit the game's ever younger fanbase. It's now for ages "10 and up."

By the 1983 third edition of the Basic Set, it had taken on a more colorful, almost cartoon-like appearance to suit the game’s ever younger fanbase. It’s now for ages “10 and up.”

In a recent article, I wrote about the early 1980s as the time when “school lunch rooms across the country were dotted with Dungeons & Dragons manuals and funny dice.” Well, the manuals in questions were largely not Gygax’s weighty tomes, but rather those found in the the cheaper, friendlier Basic Set and its sequels. These were the face of Dungeons & Dragons the mainstream phenomenon. Far outselling the Advanced books, this was the version of the game found on the shelves of toy stores, waiting for confused parents toting Christmas and birthday lists to pluck it down. One can almost chart the steady downward skew of the age of the typical Dungeons & Dragons player, from middle-aged wargamer to university student to high school to junior high, by charting the changes in diction in the Basic Set manuals as they went through revision after revision. By the time of the 1983 third edition, the text had taken on much the same gee-whiz tone as that other early-1980s children’s-publishing phenomenon, the Choose Your Own Adventure books. We’re a long way from Gygax’s fussy, meticulous style.

This is a game that is fun. It helps you imagine.

“As you whirl around, your sword ready, the huge, red, fire-breathing dragon swoops toward you with a ROAR!”

See? Your imagination woke up already. Now imagine: this game may be more fun than any other game you have ever played!

The Dungeons & Dragons game is a way for us to imagine together — like watching the same movie, or reading the same book. But you can write the stories, without putting a word on paper — just by playing the D&D game.

Gary Gygax, Brian Blume, and Kevin Blume

Gary Gygax, Brian Blume, and Kevin Blume

One of the many oddities of TSR’s history is that Gary Gygax, the company’s founder and the co-creator of its flagship game, had an actual controlling interest in the firm on only two short-lived occasions. The first of these was a brief instant just after TSR’s 1975 incorporation, before one Brian Blume and his father Melvin bought in to the tune of 70 percent. The Blumes’ primary qualification was that they had ready money to invest in getting Dungeons & Dragons properly off the ground, something Gygax the nearly destitute cobbler had a conspicuous need for.

Despite his lack of a clear controlling interest, Gygax had been allowed the final word on running the company through the rest of the 1970s. He was listed on the org chart as President, Brian Blume as Vice President, and Melvin Blume played no operational role. As the 1980s dawned, however, that arrangement began to change a bit. In September of 1980, yet another member of the Blume clan, Brian’s brother Kevin, bought out their father’s share. Kevin Blume seemed more determined than the other Blumes to make his voice heard in the board room, and apparently emboldened his brother as well. Thus TSR during the next few years was steered by a rather unwieldly three-headed monster, consisting of Gygax and the two Blume brothers.

The tension between TSR the hobbyist publisher and TSR the mass-market publisher was now more palpable than ever. Given the differences between Gygax’s hardcore Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the streamlined boxed sets, it would make for a tidy narrative to cast him as the person in the triumvirate least enamored with the idea of TSR going mainstream. Certainly that’s a mantle that Gygax would be eager to claim for himself years later. Yet there is little contemporary evidence to point to any significant strife arising from the company’s trifurcated leadership during this period. On the contrary, the three men seemed largely in harmony on TSR’s future. Their vision saw TSR, once this semi-amateur plaything born of an obscure hobby — “TSR” stood for “Tactical Studies Rules”, for God’s sake — becoming a major voice in mainstream entertainment on the back of the Dungeons & Dragons fad. Thus when the Blumes proposed buying Greenfield Needlewomen, a maker of needlework products, as TSR’s first serious step beyond the tabletop-gaming ghetto, Gygax gave every indication of being fully on-board with the idea. “Crafts is a larger field than hobbies,” he explained to employees skeptical of the strange acquisition. Bigger was now automatically better. TSR’s big needlework initiative turned into a gigantic, millions-losing fiasco.

But the strangest episode to arise from this grab at the brass ring of mainstream success was undoubtedly Gary Gygax’s quixotic sojourn to Hollywood, land of a million broken dreams. The dream in this case was that of a major motion picture bearing TSR’s zealously protected Dungeons & Dragons trademark. Determined to play the part of the Tinseltown mogul to the hilt, in 1982 he pulled up stakes in family-friendly Lake Geneva and bought a bachelor pad — he had left his wife of 23 years and their five children just before the move — looking down on the Hollywood Hills. Rumors have always swirled around this period in Gygax’s life, which to all external appearances looks like as classic a mid-life crisis as this writer has ever witnessed. It’s claimed that he painted the town red with a succession of starlets, and even that he picked up a cocaine habit by way of further fitting in. I can’t speak too much to any of that, but will just say that the voyeur in me would love to have been a fly on the wall of his bachelor pad, to see how the beautiful people of Hollywood reacted to this balding, bespectacled, pot-bellied old wargamer — and how he reacted to them. He was a long way from the sand table in his Lake Geneva basement.

What I can say more definitively is that Gygax, like so many earnest amateurs before him, got fleeced by the sharks of Tinseltown. He paid James Goldman, a screenwriter whose star had fallen dramatically since authoring the award-winning play and film The Lion in Winter during the 1960s, $500,000 to write a dire script for the film. He shopped the script around the studios for many months and at yet more expense with no takers, not even after he allegedly convinced Orson Welles, who would take pretty much any gig he could get by this stage of his career, to star in it. In the end he had to settle for a deal with Marvel Comics’s film division to make a Dungeons & Dragons Saturday-morning cartoon; TSR was in the process of negotiating a license to make a Marvel Superheroes tabletop RPG at the same time, so one suspects a bit of quid pro quo. With its cheap, gaudy animation and dashed-off scripts, the cartoon wasn’t exactly a halo project, if also not notably worse than the other licensed Saturday-morning fare of the time. Debuting on September 17, 1983, it lasted for three years, during which were produced a sporadic 27 episodes.

In retrospect the problems with Dungeons & Dragons as a trans-media property are plain as day. Such properties are universally built around their characters: Luke, Han, and Darth Vader; Bilbo, Frodo, and Gollum; Batman, Robin, and the Joker. But Dungeons & Dragons had no characters, nor a ready-made plot, nor even a setting to speak of.1 What were filmmakers really supposed to do with it, and what would they get out of it other than the use of a trademark that, even setting aside the fact that some parents thought it literally the devil’s work, was more associated with nerdy kids rolling dice in basements and lunch rooms than blockbuster entertainment? The makers of the cartoon series had felt forced to come up with a tortured framing story about just such a group of kids who get sucked into a real-life version of their fantasies and have to find their way home — thus inadvertently recalling the myth of James Dallas Egbert III. In short, there was just no there there. Trying to make a movie out of Dungeons & Dragons would be like trying to make a movie out of Battleship. (Oh, wait…)

TSR’s failed bid for the silver screen is made ironic by the existence of that other non-tabletop market that was eager for Dungeons & Dragons products: the world of computer games. But the commercial potential of an officially licensed game, despite being plain to everyone inside the computer-games industry, remained a massive blind spot for the TSR triumvirate as they negotiated with Hollywood and bought needlework companies. Instead they continued to regard computer games as a whole as an enemy to be defeated en masse by their tabletop products.

By mid-1983, just in time for the debut of the cartoon series, the Dungeons & Dragons fad had clearly begun to collapse. The Blumes, having expanded TSR to an all-time peak of almost 400 employees, were caught with their pants down. With Gygax still away in Hollywood, they cut desperately back in Lake Geneva, laying off some three quarters of their workforce in the space of the next eighteen months.

In March of 1985, with TSR still in dire straits, Gygax swooped in to rescue the company — at least in his telling — from what he now considered to be the Blumes’ mismanagement. By exercising options to buy stocks and combining his new position with stocks that had been given to his son Ernie, he built a clear controlling interest in TSR — 51.1 percent — for the first time since that brief period after the incorporation ten years before. He pushed the Blumes out of their operational roles and set to work, in sole charge of the company again at last. He cut many of TSR’s slower-selling non-Dungeons & Dragons games, retrenched to focus again on the neglected hobby market rather than the mainstream, and, playing to the hardcore fans whom he knew would still buy, rushed out two new high-profit-margin if somewhat slapdash Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers, Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures. (Because apparently the game wasn’t complicated enough already…)

These measures and others undoubtedly helped TSR avoid the looming prospect of complete collapse. But it was a couple of projects begun under the Blumes that would become the biggest moneyspinners by creating exactly the trans-media appeal that TSR had heretofore so painfully failed to generate. There was, first of all, that Marvel Superheroes RPG, the most successful non-Dungeons & Dragons game TSR would ever publish. And then there was Dragonlance.

A couple of years before, the design department had come up with the idea of a series of adventure modules that would each focus on a different sort of dragon. From this “dragon of the month” concept evolved Dragonlance, the tale, told over the course of twelve adventure modules, of a war that took place in a new fantasy world called Krynn. The idea soon further expanded to include source books, miniatures, and a trilogy of fat novels telling the same story as the adventure modules, written by staffers Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. The project, already mid-stream at the time of Gygax’s return, was a massive success; along with the new hardcovers, it gave the hardcore fans a reason to get excited about Advanced Dungeons & Dragons again. But the most profitable part of this very profitable project was the three novels. They at last provided appealing characters to go along with Dungeons & Dragons the abstract concept, and thereby topped their genre’s bestseller lists one after another. It may been too late to have another go at Hollywood with Dragonlance‘s Tanis Half-Elven and Tasslehoff Burrfoot in hand, but, recognizing a good thing when they saw one, TSR would publish dozens more novels in the years to come that tied in in various ways with their games. Through many of those years, Dungeons & Dragons novels continued to prove more profitable than the rules, supplements, and adventures that inspired them.

But all that was still to come. What happened next inside the down-sized, slowly recovering TSR would leave Gary Gygax deeply embittered for the rest of his life. It’s a somewhat complicated financial story. I’ll do my best to hit the high points here, and point you to another article by Jon Peterson for the financial nitty-gritty.

Wanting to ensure that no current or future partner could ever sell the company out from under him, Gygax back in 1975 had written into TSR’s articles of incorporation a stipulation that any investor who wished to divest himself of his holdings must first offer his shares to the current management of the company, giving them a chance to buy the shares back themselves if they so wished, before he could sell them to a third party. The sidelined Blumes now did indeed wish to get out of TSR entirely and move on with their lives. They repeatedly told this to Gygax, and proposed that he buy them out to the tune of $500 per share. Gygax said this was too high, as the Blumes had fully expected he would, but kept dragging his feet on opening proper negotiations. At last, judging honor and law satisfied by their having given Gygax an opportunity to buy their shares, the Blumes made the move that Gygax would forever deem the most underhanded betrayal of his life.

Brian Blume, you see, had stock options of his own similar to those that had let Gygax gain control of the company. He’d just been reluctant to exercise them, being afraid that TSR had become a sinking ship. Now, though, he did so as part of a conspiracy involving a new investor named Lorraine Williams. A wealthy heiress who had first become aware of TSR only when she met Gygax in Hollywood, Williams had come back to Lake Geneva with him to work as TSR’s Vice President of Administration. But she hadn’t been satisfied in that role, and now made a play to take over the whole company.

Brian Blume’s options exercised, the Blume brothers quietly sold the whole kit and caboodle of their holdings — amounting to a clear controlling interest — to Williams. Just like that, on October 22, 1985, Gygax was out and Williams was in. Gygax immediately filed a lawsuit, but the court ruled in favor of Williams and the Blumes, saying the latter had fulfilled their fiduciary responsibilities by first offering in good faith to sell their shares back to Gygax.

Williams claims that she never intended to force Gygax out of the company entirely, that she imagined herself running the business side of things and Gygax in charge of the creative side. Brian Blume claims that Gygax forced Williams’s hand when word leaked of his plan to fire her from her role as Vice President and replace her with one Gail Carpenter, his eventual second wife. Whatever the veracity of such claims, Gygax considered the entire episode the most inexcusable of personal betrayals. He divested himself of his stock and walked away from TSR; his active role in the development of Dungeons & Dragons ended here. “The shape and direction of the Dungeons & Dragons game system are now entirely in the hands of others,” he wrote in his farewell address in TSR’s Dragon magazine.

Lorraine Williams didn’t do much to endear herself to either Dungeons & Dragons players or TSR’s employees in the years that followed. By most accounts deeply unpleasant to deal with on a personal level, she allegedly found TSR’s games and novels and all the rest interesting only to the extent that they were profitable. A marketer and businesswoman rather than a gamer, she’s blamed today for all sorts of things, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly. Much of the popular opinion about Williams can be traced back to Gygax, who for the rest of his life continued to excoriate both the Blumes and Lorraine Williams in ways that only grew more colorful as the years went by, egged on by the grizzled tabletop veterans for whom his rants became a legendary source of entertainment.

Any criticism of Williams’s tenure, however, must also reckon with the reality that the reign of Gygax and the Blumes had been a veritable garden of forking paths of poor decisions and missed opportunities. To put it bluntly, these three men had no idea what they were doing trying to run a company, and were too stubborn, arrogant, or blinded by Dungeons & Dragons‘s brief window of mainstream success to seek out someone who did. Their naivete is made all too clear by their persistence in comparing running a business to playing Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax declared their determination to take TSR from a “low-level” company to a “really high-level game producer such as Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers,” while Kevin Blume said they were “intuitively” good businessmen because they had learned everything they needed from games.

Perhaps what TSR the business really needed after all those year of amateur (mis)management was exactly what Williams provided: a businesslike head who wasn’t too close to the products, who focused on practical expansion into friendly related areas like fantasy novels rather than chasing chimeras in Hollywood. Under Williams, TSR would enjoy some years of a commercial success that was more modest in scale than that of of the early 1980s but also more sustainable. The company’s employees may not have liked Williams all that much personally, but they certainly must have liked the relative stability she provided after the waves of layoffs and hirings that had marked the company’s earlier years.

And at least one result of the new Lorraine Williams era was welcomed by just about everyone. Once Gygax’s suit had been fended off and she was firmly in control, she let word leak out that TSR was at last seriously interested in finding a partner to make a licensed Dungeons & Dragons computer game. While she wasn’t a gamer like most of her customers, she had nevertheless spotted the blindingly obvious synergy that had somehow eluded her predecessors. We’ll see how she found her partner next time.

(Sources: In addition to the link in the article proper, Shannon Appelcline’s book Designers & Dragons Volume 1: The 1970s was invaluable, although I should note that I’m far harder on Gygax and TSR’s management in general than he is. For sheer entertainment value, the best article ever written about Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons is Paul La Farge’s “Destroy All Monsters”: “The transformation of player into character often turns out to be cosmetic: the fearless paladin and the sexy dark elf both sound and act a lot like a thirteen-year-old boy named Ted. And what Ted likes to do, mostly, is kill anything that crosses his path.” Seriously, go read it. Like, now.)


  1. TSR’s only official setting at the time was Gygax’s separately sold campaign world of Greyhawk, which was about as vanilla and abstract a place as a fantasy world could be. Handed a couple of sheets of blank mapping paper by TSR’s design department, Gygax had made up the geography in an afternoon, tailoring it to fit on those two pages. 

 
 

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32 Responses to Opening the Gold Box, Part 2: Ten Odd Years at TSR

  1. whomever

    March 12, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    Fascinating as always. One interesting and probably accidental side effect of the Basic vs Advanced bifurcation is that, at least to me and my 10 year old buddies, Basic was the amateur-hour version your mum gave you but you didn’t actually, you know, lower yourself to the level of playing it (I mean, gees, look at the name). Of course you saved up for Advanced. So I suspect they sold both versions to a lot of people.

    Of course, a few years later I think we all decided the entire D&D system was, ah, rather clunky and moved on to other RPGs.

     
    • Veronica Connor

      March 12, 2016 at 6:56 pm

      Yes, the word “advanced” in the front was an accidental marketing coup, I think. Me and my group also all longed to play the “grown up” version of the game. As Jimmy alludes to, when we finally did get those precious (and beautifully produced) books, we mostly just read them over and over without ever playing the completely inscrutable game they describe.

       
      • Felix

        March 13, 2016 at 7:21 am

        That’s what AD&D2 books and modules were for me: just literature, to be appreciated on its own merits. Never actually played, except for one ill-fated session (and a computer game or two). So when time came to make my own RPG sourcebook — just the one so far — my first priority was to make it entertaining as a book. And I only did that thanks to an article I spotted online, that let me know I was never alone.

         
        • Pedro Timóteo

          March 14, 2016 at 11:50 am

          AD&D’s 2nd edition was actually a lot more user-friendly (due to lack of Gygax, I’d guess) than the first edition (as depicted here).

           
      • LAK

        March 14, 2016 at 3:14 pm

        Yeah. I had the original Basic set, but my friends and I never played it until we had a copy of the first 3 AD&D books. That was in… probably spring of 1979, so by that time the Monster Manual, Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide were out. I had played a little AD&D with some of my fellow Boy Scouts during a camping trip, and they had all those books. The boxed Basic Set was a disappointment, limited as it was.

         
  2. David Boddie

    March 12, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    I remember playing the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons video game on a friend’s Intellivision and being inspired by it, so I think it’s judged a bit too harshly these days for being something that it was never intended to be: a CRPG or an implementation of the D&D rules. But who would have expected that from a Mattel product? ;-)

    Increasingly, I see reviews of early console and computer games that fail to see them in the context of their time. Often, reviewers/players look at them through a modern lens and fail to take into account how conventions have developed over many years, complaining that the games are too hard, lack tutorials, or don’t tell them what to do!

    I suppose that it’s the opposite of the rose-tinted view some of us older people have. It’s difficult to be objective whether you grew up with these games or are only now experiencing them for the first time.

     
    • Veronica Connor

      March 12, 2016 at 6:59 pm

      I came to post a similar sentiment. I think the adjective “misbegotten” on those Intellivision games is quite unfair. They are excellent games, and extremely sophisticated and well produced compared to anything else available in the console space at the time. The Intellivision and its games were largely developed outside Mattel by partners and contractors, which is why it seems so apart from their other products.

       
      • OC&GS

        March 13, 2016 at 12:24 am

        I agree, David and Veronica, although it’s understandable that Jimmy would simply report on the party line; it was great to see that he mentioned Mattel’s games at all, frankly, as they presumably fall a bit outside the scope of the article (notwithstanding the fact that anyone who’s self-loathing enough to call himself a “critic” should probably be ignored, but I say that without having read anything by the Addict guy who’s been cited; perhaps the term is more loosely applied than I’m imagining it). However, I’ve always found the first Intellivision AD&D game, which was later subtitled Cloudy Mountain — simply to differentiate it from later games in the series — to be quite a fascinating action / adventure game.

        Granted, it helps if one loves exploration-based games that do away with turn-based tedium. I always have, going back to my obsession as a kid with Warren Robinett’s Adventure on the Atari VCS. The idea of unveiling the shape and contents of each cave in the Mattel game as you enter, with no clue regarding what’s lying around the next corner until you steel yourself and walk in, struck me as a highly original twist on the more common screen-changing paradigm, even way back when I saw screen shots in early-eighties magazines.

        To play the game in emulation many years later and find that the game lives up to its imagined possibilities — and even incorporates the random element, which is essential when there’s a six-kilobyte limit on how much “kingdom” will fit into the ROM — was terrific. I still fire it up from time to time.

        A curious, somewhat funny side-note: TSR insisted that the Intellivision game bear the official title _Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Cartridge_ — complete with that final word. Perhaps they felt the need to unequivocally distance it from the paper-and-dice game.

         
        • matt w

          March 13, 2016 at 3:19 am

          Anna Anthropy has a nice piece on Cloudy Mountain here, particularly praising the way it communicates important things environmentally rather than through numerical displays.

           
        • Jimmy Maher

          March 13, 2016 at 8:34 am

          It’s strange that they dubbed the game “Advanced.” One would think the teens and pre-teens most likely to encounter it on Intellivision would have been better candidates for the Basic Set.

           
    • Jimmy Maher

      March 12, 2016 at 7:27 pm

      I’m afraid my take on the Intellivision games was born strictly of reading other’s impressions, particularly the CRPG Addict’s. (While my eyes glaze over quickly with the “then I went here and then I did this” stuff, I do respect his critical judgment on his chosen genre.) I’d thought there was a general consensus that these games were fairly insubstantial even given the primitive nature of the hardware. I stand corrected, and I’ve removed the unfortunate adjective “misbegotten” to take a more noncommittal stance.

       
      • David Boddie

        March 12, 2016 at 8:16 pm

        I suppose you could say that they were “misbegotten” or “ill-conceived” in terms of some initiative to promote the D&D brand in a certain way, or to a certain audience, but there doesn’t seem to me to have been any coherent strategy to promote it for certain kinds of products.

        Thinking about tenuous tie-ins, I was reminded of the short period when Shreddies breakfast cereal included a D&D hologram in every box – it seems that you can make a few pounds for these now: http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Dungeons-And-Dragons-Hologram-Cards-From-Shreddies-Full-Set-/251821369303

         
      • Gnoman

        March 13, 2016 at 6:20 pm

        The Intellivision “AD&D” is actually ranked very high for the early years over on the Addict’s blog.

         
      • LoneCleric

        March 23, 2016 at 4:22 am

        It was nice to see all that love for the Intellivision games. As a kid, I was only vaguely familiar as to what Dungeons & Dragons was about, but I picked that Intellivision cartridge because the box cover looked good. It turned out to the very best game I’ve enjoyed on that console. The one game I would still play now & then, even as the NES hit the shelves.

        On a related anecdote, the (bilingual) manual for my Intellivision game mentioned that we could “contact TSR to get more information on AD&D products”. So I wrote them a letter (in French!) asking for something along those lines. More than two years later (!!), I ended up getting an (English, of course) TSR product catalog in the mail. By then, I had already been introduced to RPGs via L’Oeil Noir / Das Schwarze Auge.

         
    • Harland

      March 20, 2016 at 5:05 am

      Intellivision had a policy of slapping the names of well-known associations on their games. ABPA® Backgammon, NASL® Soccer, PBA® Bowling, and of course ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® Cartridge (in all caps, always). One of their top executives was in love with appearances.

      They had a fantasy game and put the AD&D name on it for no particular reason. It was a decent game, would be regarded as a minigame today, but it was cool. You could hear monsters offscreen before you could see them, and the evidence of their tracks was nearby.

      Today’s gamer, of course, turns on the game, finds nothing of D&D 3.5 edition rules, and goes off to write a hilarious insulting review about how the game takes a diarrhea dump in his ass.

       
  3. AguyinaRPG

    March 12, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    An interesting side note, Arneson went on to program games for the Colecovision under a partnership called “4D Interactive”. I think it’s pretty clear that there has never been any direct animosity between tabletop and computer gaming companies, but it’s a matter of market priority. As much as I personally just want a universal online tool that I can buy tabletop modules for, no big company will ever do that because they fear completely diminishing physical sales.

    I’m interested to see where exactly you’re going with the GoldBox series in terms of ludic narrative. I personally find Wizard’s Crown (which I’m sure you’ll mention) of greater import because I focus on the emergence of gameplay systems, but I’m not really sure what GoldBox adds beyond this collaboration which you’ve contextualized well enough to stand on its own.

    Of course, these are great stories in any case. I know someone who designed for Battletech, Vampire: The Masquerade, and Shadowrun so I know a little bit about how tabletop companies interact with game companies. I hope that there’s a book or a blog in the future that tries to create an overarching narrative strand of this particular subject, rather than just TSR.

     
  4. Alan

    March 12, 2016 at 8:40 pm

    I had the chance to visit TSR right after Wizards of the Coast bought them out.
    I didn’t really know anything about here at the time, but it was clear that the remaining staff were glad she was gone. As I wrote a few years later “We were shown much of the rest of the building. Here and there were people working on some project, but lots of empty space. Again, the feeling of an abandoned property pervaded the place. However, among those that had survived the many layoffs there was a certain level of hope. I don’t remember any specific statements, but it was clear to me at the time that everyone was happy that Ms Williams was gone. It was a distinct ‘Dong Dong the Witch is Dead’ feeling, only without all the singing. Or the munchkins. At the time I really didn’t know anything about the woman, but the impression I got during that visit was that she was not a good human being.”

    As a small detail, while TSR was originally Tactical Studies Rules, in 1975 it was just “TSR” (well, “TSR Hobbies, Inc”). Like IBM, the letters had stopped standing for anything.

    Finally, I don’t think the “definitive” version of D&D has such a clear answer.

    While first edition AD&D has its fans, by and large fans moved forward to second, then third. For people who still stuck with it, they jumped to Pathfinder when fourth edition proved too radical of a change. This is perhaps the most visible line, with the strongest publisher support. Just about any geek-focused convention will have multiple tables of Pathfinder running. It’s clearly the 1st edition successor, but basically eclipsed it. For this group, perhaps 1st edition qualifies as the definitive old-school version, but by and large they don’t think about it.

    The next biggest direct line comes from the D&D line. It’s a fuzzy grouping, including everything from the original release up through the “Basic” D&D line. Exactly where things peaked is up for debate, but the Old School Renaissance/Revival is pretty friendly. There isn’t a clear successor in this space, but there are multiple games with healthy communities, including Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and Delving Deeper. 1st edition AD&D get a bit of love, but the definitive old-school version is probably something older.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      March 13, 2016 at 8:47 am

      Thanks for this!

      My strong impression was that there are still some players playing vintage Dungeons & Dragons, although most have (understandably) moved on. Among this group, the Advanced game is far more popular than the original or the Basic Set and its sequels — or, again, that’s my impression. I think the Advanced game is judged more definitive even among those who don’t play it because this is the lineage that can be traced directly to the modern game. The other lineage died in the 1990s.

       
  5. Felix

    March 13, 2016 at 7:14 am

    Trying to make a movie out of Dungeons & Dragons would be like trying to make a movie out of Scrabble.

    Ahem. Battleship. Never underestimate Hollywood’s blind, irrational, absurd greed.

     
    • Wade

      March 13, 2016 at 10:29 am

      The line about Scrabble reads unwisely, given Hollywood did make a movie out of D+D later, albeit a poor one.

      On the Battleship note – my friends and I were impressed when a part came in the film where they really do play Battleship using grid coordinates and such, with real ships and enemies.

      -Wade

       
    • Jimmy Maher

      March 13, 2016 at 11:17 am

      I stole this comparison for the article. Hope you don’t mind… :)

       
  6. Rowan Lipkovits

    March 14, 2016 at 9:11 pm

    TSR did apparently directly publish computer games for a very brief period ~1982, which I wrote about at http://videogamecomicads.blogspot.ca/2014/01/tsr-hobbies-computer-games-apple-ii-1982.html — learning more about this abortive testing of the waters would be interesting, but I appreciate that the blip is an unuseful detour from the overall narrative you’re constructing here.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      March 15, 2016 at 4:56 pm

      That’s really interesting. I’d never heard of this, and it goes unmentioned in every history of TSR I’ve ever seen. It looks like the games did ship, but apparently in very small quantities. There’s are copies of all three games on EBay for astronomical prices: http://www.ebay.com/itm/VGA-Graded-NM-85-Dawn-Patrol-Apple-2-II-New-Computer-Video-Game-System-Disk-/290870522134?pt=Video_Games_Games&hash=item43b93bf116&rmvSB=true. I wonder if anyone has made disk images…

       
      • Rowan Lipkovits

        March 15, 2016 at 10:03 pm

        I don’t know about the others, but I was able to find and play a copy of Theseus and the Minotaur (by someday Bethseda bigwig Bruce Nesmith!) for documentation over at Mobygames.

         
      • Josh Lawrence

        March 19, 2016 at 5:02 pm

        Yes, the Asimov Archive has disk images for all of them. Dungeon and Theseus are in the adventure sub-directory, and Dawn Patrol in the simulations directory.

        Dungeon is a conversion of the 1975 TSR board game, which itself was an abstracted “lite” version of dungeon-crawling. It is a light-year away in complexity from SSI’s attempt to bring the D&D experience to the computer, but it would still be interesting to look at history-wise.

         
        • Rowan Lipkovits

          March 20, 2016 at 5:14 am

          I imagine that TSR’s computer conversion of the Dungeon! board game is also the program that blocked Zork from being published with its post-working title, despite famous accounts of legal support pledged from MIT.

           
          • Jimmy Maher

            March 20, 2016 at 8:24 am

            Infocom never had any desire or intention to publish Zork as Dungeon. Dungeon was an unauthorized rewrite of the game by a third party; Infocom wasn’t all that much happier about its existence than was TSR. Zork may have been made up on the spot as a working title of sorts, but very quickly Zork became Zork, full stop, in Infocom’s eyes.

             
  7. Rowan Lipkovits

    March 14, 2016 at 9:44 pm

    PS, as you progress along the marriage between TSR and SSI, you will probably find the wanted ad posted at the bottom of http://videogamecomicads.blogspot.ca/2014/02/advanced-dungeons-dragons-computer.html to be an interesting detail.

     
  8. Captain Rufus

    March 17, 2016 at 8:05 am

    One thing to note with the way the Advanced books came out is that you were intended to use the original rules or the first Basic Set until the rest came out. Even the later Basic sets were not too far removed at their core from Advanced DnD. It’s just non A DnD was actually smooth, fast, and elegant while Advanced was a nitpicky and overly complicated but far more comprehensive ruleset. The dirty little secret is most people even when using Advanced played it a hell of a lot more like Basic as no sane person really tried using all of the Advanced rules.

     
  9. GeoX

    March 19, 2016 at 8:24 pm

    I have to say, this article seems overly dismissive of James Goldman. The Lion in Winter is not a trivial accomplishment.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      March 19, 2016 at 10:49 pm

      You’re right. Edit made.

       
  10. Peter Piers

    March 23, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    Thank you very for the link to La Farge’s article. Really good reading.

     

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