Tuesday, April 23, 2024

#AtoZChallenge2024: T is for TSR

TSR Inc.
Delving into the history of Dungeons & Dragons, one must spend some time discussing the company (or companies, as it were) that produced and published it. Most of them went by the initials TSR.

 To the outsider and indeed to the casual insider, there was only one TSR. This is largely true, but the details are a bit more complicated once you dig into them. It's sort of the theme all month, right?

Tactical Studies Rules (1973–1975)

The first TSR was Tactical Studies Rules, and it was a partnership between Gary Gygax and Don Kaye.  The goal of this company was to produce and sell the Dungeons & Dragons rules, but to get there, they did some smaller games, including Gary's Cavaliers and Roundheads miniatures game of the English Civil War. They also sold new copies of Chainmail which had previously been sold by Don Lowry and Gary's Guidon Games.  Once Dungeons & Dragons became a success and they took on new partners, namely the Blumes, this company dissolved. It was this time that the company would move out of Gary's basement to their headquarters in Lake Geneva, WI. A place still considered to be "like Mecca" for gamers.

TSR Hobbies, Inc. (1975–1983)

This is the company that most of us growing up playing D&D in the 1980s think of when we think of TSR. This corresponds to what many in RPG circles could refer to as the Golden Age of gaming. It was here that Dungeons & Dragons saw its greatest growth and early popularity. It was during this time that we saw the publication of AD&D, all the Basic sets, Dragon Magazine, and a host of other non-D&D games. Some I'll talk about next month. 

This was also a time when TSR Hobbies made some acquisitions and, sadly, when the seeds of their own downfall were planted. 

TSR (1983–1985)

In 1983, the company was split into four, TSR, Inc. (the primary successor), TSR International, TSR Ventures, and TSR Entertainment, Inc. The purpose here was to make D&D a multimedia brand long before such an idea was commonplace. So kudos to Gary and the team for coming up with it; it is too bad it did not develop the way they wanted. We did the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon out of it, but long talked about movie never happened. Also some of these business choices also split the company's focus and were never as successful as they needed to be. Long story short, TSR, all of them, was deep in debt and bleeding cash.

This era would end with the firing of Gary Gygax as CEO and the takeover of the company by the Blumes and Lorraine Williams. 

TSR  (1985–1997) aka The Williams Era

Given the time period, one would imagine that this was the most stable time in TSR's history, and from the outside, it was. D&D was doing well for all appearances. It had weathered controversy and was moving forward. AD&D 2nd Edition came out in 1989, there were novels coming out based on D&D properties that hit the New York Times best-seller lists and things looked good.

Sadly, even under new management, some of the old mistakes were still costing money, and new ones were also being made.

I will not do the en-vogue thing and rip into Lorraine Williams. She may have had only contempt for gamers, but under her leadership (or in spite of it), some really great material was produced. She never talks about her time at TSR anymore; all we have are the words of others. Granted, it did sound like a toxic work environment.

Not that things were all wine and roses outside the company either. Gary had left and become vocal of the new management. Many who were loyal to him also left. Others left, or were fired and their names, names we all knew, began showing up at other companies.

The Internet was in its early days, and like the Personal Computers before it, this was a technology readily adopted by and adapted by gamers. TSR saw people talking about D&D online and threatened to sue them, earning TSR's new name, "They Sue Regularly," and their new "logo," T$R.  

As fondly as people talk about the "good ole days" of TSR they forget how terrible they were in the end.

1997 And Beyond

There is no TSR beyond 1997. Wizards of the Coast, a company flush with cash thanks to the run-away success of the Magic the Gathering card game, saved TSR, and Dungeons & Dragons, from landing into deeper financial ruin. Wizards operated TSR as a standalone entity (a walled garden as it is sometimes called) but by the time Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition was ready TSR was gone.

Now, 25+ years later, we are seeing some similar patterns with Wizards of the Coast and their parent company, Hasbro. The difference is that Hasbro is not likely to run out of money any time soon.

For me, well I choose to remember TSR like this. It was a great company that fell into the problems that many companies do. But I will say this, talking to all the people who worked there and hearing them talk to each other at places like Gary Con, I choose to look beyond the stories, the rumors, the internet gossip, and the financial records and instead see it through their eyes.

When it was good, it must have been fantastic.

If you want to know more, there are some fantastic books on the topic.

Ewalt, D. M., & Manganiello, J. (2024). Of dice and men: The story of dungeons & dragons and the people who play it. Scribner.

Kushner, D., & Shadmi, K. (2017). Rise of the dungeon master: Gary Gygax and the creation of D&D. Nation Books.

Peterson, J. (2012). Playing at the world: A history of simulating wars, people and Fantastic Adventures, from chess to role-playing games. Unreason Press.

Peterson, J. (2021). Game Wizards. the epic battle for Dungeons & Dragons. The MIT Press.

Riggs, B. (2022). Slaying the dragon: A secret history of Dungeons and dragons. St. Martin’s Press.

Witwer, M. (2015). Empire of imagination: Gary Gygax and the birth of Dungeons & Dragons. Bloomsbury USA, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing, Plc.

All are available, well, everywhere there are books. Each presents a different point of view, but all get around to the same ideas. I enjoyed reading them all.

Tomorrow is U day and I am going to talk about the Universe!

The A to Z of Dungeons & Dragons: Celebrating 50 years of D&D.


Crackerberries said...

I am amazed at how much work you have put into this year's theme. I just wanted to pop over and tell you to keep up the good work... V and W and X,Y,Z will come ... patience. I have not been a very good visitor and I know this is one that I will have to come back to later on. (I was first introduced to D&D in 1978...never pursued it though but my cousin loved it. Any hoot, thanks for visiting today. Keep up the good work. You got this!

John de Michele said...

Excellent overview! It does seem like WOTC/Hasbro is repeating history.

PT Dilloway said...

I watched "Blackberry" this weekend on Research in Motion that created the BlackBerry and it was kind of the same thing at first where it was just a bunch of nerds who got together to make stuff and watch movies and play games like AD&D and then as the company got more successful things got more corporate and the fun stops. That's probably true for a lot of Silicon Valley companies too.

Srivalli Rekha said...

Guess we cannot avoid corporate politics when big establishments are mentioned. Your research is amazing!

Erin Penn said...

Enthusiasm only can take you so far - and TSR provided so many people enthusiasm over the years. Youth changes into older, time lessens, stories change. But storytelling remains. Thank you for a brief glimpse into TSR history.

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Tactical Studies as a company name makes sense for a game with so much reliance (I presume) on war and gaming tactics.

Ronel visiting for T: My Languishing TBR: T
Terrifying Tokoloshe