TSR Jim Ward: TSR's "Designeritus"


Well, that was fun
Staff member
We had a lot of design talent in the heyday of TSR. Zeb Cook and Jeff Grubb strode the world like giants and put together some amazing million dollar profit centers. There were other designers and editors and supervisors that also generated great stuff.


However, I often had to get after those designers for something I called "Designeritus." Jeff Grubb bless his heart was the worst, but Troy Denning was also bad. They all tried for perfection in designing their products. They really wanted everything they wrote to be perfect and that is not possible. There was also the fact that upper management and the sales people were constantly pushing for quicker deadlines. That pushing was so hard that TSR started making covers almost a year ahead of the products being designed.

Often I felt I was Publius Horatius Corcles defending the bridge against the mass of upper management wanting to use and abuse my designers and editors. Most of the time I could patiently explain why it was impossible to turn over a boxed set in a month. Since I had done most of the types of products at TSR I was listened to. However, those dudes figured out they could get double duty from me and started giving me design assignments even though I was a full time supervisor. The last project I did for upper management was the Greyhawk Adventures hardbound. Normally, it would be a six month project and with a lot of help I turned it over in three months.

Let's get back to the idea of Designeritus. I would give each designer in and out of TSR (as we used lots of freelance designers) a rock solid deadline. I and their product managers tried to make sure they would be done by that deadline. They knew deadlines were important to the stability of the company. However, they would come to me and beg for two weeks more because they wanted to go over the material and improve it. It took me many months to realize I needed to add in even more padding to the schedule because they would always come and ask me for more time. I did finally figure it out. I would never give them two weeks but I often gave them a week. They had every right to be very proud of their design work. Marvel is still an unmatched rpg to this day. The Dark Sun that Troy and others worked on was and is terrific.

I did figure out a useful trick for the designers. I would have them give me all the material they had designed in a weeks time on Friday. They all wanted to make sure their amount of work looked good. I would take one of the turn overs and read it on the weekend and give that designer feedback on Monday. Deadlines became much easier to hit when the designers had to work hard every week.

In those days we worked on a year's schedule nine to ten months out. We knew how long it took to design a hardbound book, adventure, or boxed set. We would set that time aside for the writing. In the same way we knew how long it took to edit each work and we would set aside time to do that work. In the scheduling we had to figure in vacation time for each employee. Art work and mapping were factored in, but usually there was lots of over lap in the schedule for art and maps. Toy Fair was in March and we had to have catalogs printed by then. Toward the end of my time at TSR those catalogs were huge publications.

Like I said, they were amazing people. Upper management wasn't so amazing. While Gary was the boss, the creatives did very well. After he left, people took over that knew nothing about the hobby industry and could care less.

TSR and Six Months

The upper management at TSR often played dirty with us in design and editing. Imagine my horror when accounting came into my office with sales. They told me they needed a hardbound book to sell so that we could make enough money to pay the employees in the fall. I wasn't going to be the one to tell my group we had to suffer a loss in pay because the company wasn't going to make enough money.

I said sure the department could deliver such a product, but it wouldn't be until the Spring.

They said no, that won't do. We need it out the door in six months at the latest. I thought over the scheduling problem. We usually let designers have six months just to design a 160 hardbound book. We liked to play test the rules, proof read the rules, let an editor have it for two or three months, art had to be ordered and three months was allowed for that, the cover was vital. This product wouldn't be in the fall catalog so getting it into the budgets of distributors would be difficult at this late date.

I argued against the effort. Accounting kept bringing up the companies in ability to pay salaries. I was between a rock and a hard place. I took up the challenge of writing the book because all of the other designers were scheduled to the max.

Looking over all the excellent campaign worlds of TSR I was most familiar with the Greyhawk Campaign. Gary wasn't at TSR then so there hadn't been much Greyhawk material generated. Some of the concepts in the book were easy for me to write because I had played in Gary's game for years and years. Spells were easy to design as I had been developing Drawmij spells for years. Monsters were easy again. Some of the NPCs of Greyhawk had never been statted out and they were worth doing. I had always thought Zero level characters were a logical thing to develop.

I generated a detailed outline of things I thought our AD&D consumers would enjoy. Bruce Heard worked to get me some very good freelance designers and we got to work. We cut corners whenever we could. We started turning over art orders early. We didn't play test anything. I really regretted that as my Zero level characters could have used lots more development work.

The end result was that we did turn it over according to the deadline. Random House took a ton of them. It sold very well with the hobby distributors. We received a lot of favorable reviews.

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