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TSR April 4th, 1984: TSR's 3rd Purge

Life at TSR was very good and very bad. It started out in 1983. TSR had 386 employees and nepotism had raised its ugly head. You couldn’t throw a rock anywhere in the TSR offices without hitting a cousin, daughter, son, uncle, wife or husbands of any of those, or aunt of the Blume brothers and the Gygaxs working or barely working at TSR.

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Some of those relatives were wonderful.

Doug Blume was the only Blume with a business degree and he was great. Others were totally useless, didn’t game, and didn’t have any idea what D&D was. I can remember giving tax advice to one of the accounting Blumes when they should have known all about taxes and taxation laws for TSR; not good.

Anyway, in the fall of 1983 the bottom fell out of the hand held game market as well as the market for hobby games and stores just weren’t buying anything. The company was working with banks and those banks said TSR had to cut back on employees or fold. The two Blume brothers and Gary Gygax didn’t want their fat salaries to end so they started cutting back.

Eventually they went from 386 employees in the fall of 1983 to 86 employees without a cousin in the bunch in the summer of 1984. It happened in five different purges. I fell in the third purge of 55 people on April 4th, 1984.

I joke about it now, although it’s still a very painful memory. I really didn’t see it coming. Just before the first purge they sent around a questionnaire. It asked who you interacted with in the company and what your duties were. I don’t know if anyone else figured it out, but I figured out why they were asking. I filled several pages of notes on the various people I interacted with making the number large and including all the major figures in the company. To my mind I thought upper management wanted to know who they could afford to get rid of. If I dealt with lots of people I would have a better chance of surviving.

At that time I was in the Book Department. I was in charge of working with the freelance authors getting them on schedules and getting them contracts. It was a lot like herding cats, but I really enjoyed the work (more on that later). I had recently gotten a plaque joining what was called the TSR two million dollar club. All by myself with my TSR published products I had made TSR over two million dollars in profits. It was just a piece of wood, but I felt great in getting it. The plaque still hangs on the wall in my study. I also got my best job review ever and really felt I would be working at TSR for the rest of my working career. Did I say young Jim Ward was unusually naive in those days?

Life at TSR became not fun and got so that Fridays were terrible with no one wanting to hear their phone ring for fear of being called into the Human Services office to be fired. A purge in late '83 took out about 75 employees. None of them were in the design or book department. Another purge in early spring grabbed 50 more. Imagine what it is like to see person after person covered in tears as they take their boxes of possessions out of the building. Fridays became uglier and uglier.

If that wasn't ugly enough, the head of Human Services was a Blume cousin who cared noting about the employees of TSR. He was almost gleeful as he spent his Friday kicking out people at TSR.
I should have known better, but I really didn't see it coming. I was producing novels and other products for the novel department. I was writing articles for the DRAGON and Polyhedron magazine. I handled about 50 different outside authors and read all of their manuscripts to make sure they toed the line in regards to TSR trademark campaign worlds.

So, April 4th, 1984 comes around and 55 different people were fired that day. I was one of them and not happy. That week the wonderful people of design and editing ask to have a goodbye lunch with me. I set it up to go to the Pizza Hut that day. I was so sad I just couldn't make it to the lunch.

I was casting around for ways to pay the bills and came up with a few. I did dice games for Western Publishing, I worked on Tomb Raider and the Wheel of Time collectible card game, as well as sets for the Babylon 5 collectible card game. Designing collectible card games came easy for me.

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Off topic for a second, the person that replaced me at TSR was a secretary of one of the Blumes. She worked on the job for three weeks and quit. She said she was exhausted working at my position and she thought it would take at least two people to do all the work I did. When I heard this I shook my head not surprised at all.

One of the projects that paid me the most money was the creation of 1-on-1 books for TSR. In the early ‘80s a game called Ace of Aces came out. It had two books and they were filled with images of World War I airplanes dog fighting in the sky. Two people would look at the images in their books and give the other person a page to turn to in their book. The idea was to shoot down your opponent. They were a big hit and spawned a lot of sequels. I told Jean Black of TSR that I could write pick-a-path books like those and she loved the idea. So, while I was designing all those other things for other companies I was writing 1-on-1 books for TSR at $5,000 each. I couldn’t talk them into a royalty for the books, but I wrote a lot of them.

BATTLE FOR THE ANCIENT ROBOT – CHALLENGE OF DRUID’S GROVE – CASTLE ARCANIA – MARVEL’S DOOMSDAY DEVICE – DRAGONSWORD OF LANKMAR (my favorite one of all of them) – KING TAKES A DARE – and REVENGE OF THE RED DRAGON.

I was happy to do them, they were quick to write, and they sold great.

Then one day sixteen months after being fired some bright accountant type of the remaining 86 people realized that I was making more money in contracts than TSR ever paid me in salary.

Mike Cook hired me back. I was put in the design department. My first task was the designing of the Laser Tag game books. However, that is a story for another time.

Eventually, I rose through the design ranks at TSR to become Vice President of production. I managed to get our product line produced six months ahead of time with a lot of help from the great designers and editors of TSR. I laid myself off when I was asked to fire 20 editors and designers that didn’t deserve firing. That also is a story for another day.
 
Jim Ward

Comments



I experienced a similar fate at a company. They outsourced IT and finance, and every Thursday for about two months we had goodbye happy hours as people were either laid off in waves, or left on their own. The most I drank after college......Nothing is worse than watching your friends get let go, or leave when they really didn't want to. Of all the places I've worked, that's the place where I made the best friends....
 

Nosaje

Villager
Ugh layoffs, though I really have enjoyed the behind the scenes/history of TSR. I find these articles interesting because as a kid in the mid 80s playing D&D and not knowing the ups and downs of the company even before the late 90s issues.
 

rknop

Explorer
I'm confused... Babylon 5 came out in the early 1990s. (I know this well, because it partially defined my grad school career.) So, there wouldn't have been a B5 collectible card game in the mid or late 1980s.
 

Nepotism in any company is bad for the company. I've seen numerous times where a skilled/valuable employee was let go, only to be replaced by some incompetent relative of a senior manager. I've never been the one let go fortunately, but I've often been the one to have to take up the slack for the new idiot.
 

murquhart72

Explorer
You could actually see the change in "feel" of TSR between '83 and '84 through their books and marketing. I personally can't stand anything published after '83. It just feels too "corporate" or capitalist for me. The older stuff is what really got my imagination going. And I wasn't even a teenager at the time to realize all this.
 


EthanSental

Adventurer
I'm confused... Babylon 5 came out in the early 1990s. (I know this well, because it partially defined my grad school career.) So, there wouldn't have been a B5 collectible card game in the mid or late 1980s.
From Jim’s earlier article, it was around 1997 or later in that regard for Babylon 5.

“Since 1997 I have worked for other game companies. I worked at Precedence helping to produce the Tomb Raider, Babylon 5, and the Wheel of Time collectible card games,”
 



Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
Always amazing to look back at how much business has changed in just my lifetime.

TSR was putting out a lot of product back then, but these days a company with even that intensity of a release schedule might operate with barely a dozen employees. In those days you needed to manage your own inventories and distribution, sales and marketing, all in house... you had to have the majority of your creative staff in house and in the same place... you needed several full-time employees to handle the accounting that can now be done by a single business manager and a part-time bookkeeper with modern software and payment system integration... and of course, with an explosion of people comes an explosion of managerial overhead...

Today a single executive leader, a full-time business manager, a few full-time marketing guys, a book designer and a handful of creative editors managing a stable of freelance writers could manage the same level of output utilizing print on demand, drop-shipping, social media, modern accounting software... there's no reason to employ so many people in house. Heck, none of the full-timers would even need to live in the same city.

Quite a change.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
It’s hard as a fan to read about just how dysfunctional their favorite hobby producer was back in the day. It just screams of what may have been, if the company wasn’t run by massive egos with thin skins combined with ignorance and incompetence.
 




So it wasn't just that Lorraine Williams person who was to blame, the entire Blume clan was. Well, figures... :mad:
Actually Ward is pretty fair in his comments, he specifically calls out that some Blumes weren't useless (Doug Blume mentioned here, and Ward has always been fairly supportive of Brian's role) and that some of the nepotism extended to the Gygaxes....
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I feel very thankful that we are getting these details. A lot of "history" get lost because people don't think about writing down their memories of what happened.
 


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