D&D General Lorraine Williams: Is it Time for a Reevaluation?

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Welcome to the first in, perhaps, an occasional series: Snarf Presents Hawt Taek Thursdays.

Ahem. Anyway, if you read my review of Jon Peterson's new book, or better yet read his book (Game Wizards, now on sale!), you probably see that it presents the ouster of Gary Gygax from TSR and the takeover by Lorraine Williams in a very different light than what was commonly received before. And it began solidifying some thoughts I have had that I wanted to put out, and see the reaction that it got-

Here it is- Lorraine Williams was a positive influence on D&D.

Let me start with the traditional narrative about Lorraine Williams (I'm just going to use "Lorraine" from here on out, because her first name is more distinctive) that many older gamers either say, or have been taught-

The Great God Gygax ran his kingdom of TSR, and all were happy. But one day, Gygax did the unthinkable- he allowed in a non-gamer by the name of Lorraine. And Lorraine did conspire in the darkness with the Brothers Blume and overthrew Gygax from his throne and banished him from his kingdom. It was only too late did Gygax realize that this person he had trusted was actually the Wicked Witch Lorraine, who hated all things good, gamer, and TSR.

And thus was the Golden Age of TSR ended. From then on, the Wicked Witch Lorraine belittled all the gaming citizens of TSR, and ensured that all of the great gold and treasures of TSR would go to her own treasuries, starving the kingdom. The Wicked Witch Lorraine did not even see that a new, goodly Kingdom of Carding Wizards was gaining power on her borders. This continued for interminable ages, until one day, with the treasury of TSR depleted, Kingdom of Carding Wizards invaded and took over the Kingdom of TSR, and the Wicked Witch Lorraine fled, never to be seen again.


I exaggerate, but only slightly. There are some gaming circles were the name Lorraine is roughly akin to Voldemort.

But how true is that narrative? I would stipulate that the basic beginning and ending facts are true- yes, she ousted Gygax, and yes, she was the one forced to sell out to Wizards of the Coast. Is that it, or is there more nuance to the story?


A. The Good That Gets Overlooked.

This is the important part- I think that there is a lot of good that people tend to forget. Let's start with the most basic; if you read Game Wizards, or have a passing familiarity with what happened, you quickly understand that Lorraine was not the villain in the ouster of Gygax- she was the hero. Quite literally, she saved TSR. The sheer amount of details and the repetition of them truly paint the picture, but in brief, TSR had massive debts, Gygax was both ignoring the financial issues (and the banks), ignoring meetings, spending TSR's money, and also demanding (in his capacity as majority shareholder) that TSR begin dramatically increasing royalty payments to him. To add to all of that, he negotiated a deal with the Brothers Blume and then reneged on the terms. In short, he was a disaster, and was quickly running what was left of the company into the ground. Lorraine didn't pull this off by herself- all the people involved with TSR at senior levels except Gygax knew the score. If you are a fan of shows like Succession, it's like a scene where the person comes into dictate terms, and realizes that no one is supporting him. Not a single person. More importantly, at the time there were a lot of outstanding liabilities other than just the terrible debts they already had due to poor projections and governance- such as the multiple suits due to the promise of stock options that TSR chose not to honor (settled under Lorraine's watch).

So she should get credit for saving TSR, in my opinion.

The second thing is we should reflect on the intellectual property that was developed during her tenure. Sure, you can't beat the very original few years, simply because it developed a lot of the vocabulary (classes, levels, AC, etc.) and lore (Fighters, Clerics, Beholders, Mind Flayers, Githyanki etc.) that still resonate today. But let's do a quick check into what happened during her reign-
1. Signed the contract with Ed Greenwood and began developing Forgotten Realms as a D&D property.
2. Published the Manual of the Planes, the first major step in going from the prime material centric (with multiple planes) to the outer planes model we are used to today. (Yes, I have mixed feeling on this one).
3. Successfully launched 2e. There's a lot more to this- but this is already a long post.
4. Launched campaign settings we continue to be familiar with today (other than FR!), such as Spelljammer, Ravenloft, Hollow World, Dark Sun, Al-Qadim, Birthright, and Planescape.
5. Drizzt. sigh Okay, whatever your feelings about Drizzt specifically, or about the quality of writing in TSR's books in general, there was a massive explosion of titles and fantasy novels in the D&D world that brought new people to D&D.

Overall, and without going too far into the details, that's a pretty solid track record! What about the other side?


B. What About the Bad?

Well, here (without getting into the "not a gamer" thing, which I'll address in the next part), I'll put it simply-
SCOREBOARD.
That's the common refrain in sports events- you can make all the excuses you want, but at the end of the game, the only thing that matters is the final score. And business is a lot like that. Sure, there's reasons. There's extenuating circumstances. There's bad economies. But at the end of the day, TSR collapsed under Lorraine's watch. That's the alpha and the omega the end.

...and yet, businesses fail all the time. It's sad, but true, that a lot of businesses fail (or have issues) and the CEOs/owners get fat payouts. I mean, don't look at what happened with WeWork. Seriously, don't. More importantly, we don't usually have a specific level of vitriol toward the person running the business. I mean, it's not like "Blume" is a dirty name in the gaming community!

I would start by looking at why TSR failed the second time. Unfortunately, we don't have the full account like we did with Jon Peterson's book, but there have been scattered accounts here and there (there is a post by Ryan Dancey, for example, here). I think that the failure of TSR is like the old saying .... it happened slowly then all at once. There were warning signs- the rise of computer games, the rise of Games Workshop (which made money with miniatures, a market TSR was not in), and most importantly, the rise of WoTC, which was making insane profits off of a ... card game. The industry itself was having issues, with many major distributors suffering and going under. TSR tried to adapt (Dragon Dice, for example) and tried to expand (pushing out more profitable fiction hardcovers), but, much like the 80s, they were in a trap of their own creation. The success of the many of the 2e supplements had saturated the AD&D market, and their attempts to expand through Dragon Dice other means were not successful (not to mention much more costly than the cards WoTC was making). That, plus the Random House contract, meant that a company that looked like it was going gangbusters, or at least okay, in the early 90s, faced a cash crunch in '95, and was decimated and sold to WoTC in '97.

Not great, Bob. But ... understandable.

Oh, the Buck Williams thing? Without going too far into the weeds, not the best look, but also not surprising in closely-held corporations. It wasn't a factor in TSR's demise.


C. So ... why the Hate?

I have a few theories I'd like to throw out-

1. Lorraine ousted Gygax. This is the most simple. Gygax was, for many people, D&D. So she was always going to be the villain in any morality play.

2. Lorraine wasn't a gamer. This is a little more nuanced, especially consider that, for example, Kevin Blume wasn't really a gamer either. But Lorraine never cared much about the "community" in the sense of gamers. She wanted to run TSR as a company, with products. This tends to be a reciprocal thing- you don't care about us, we don't care about you.

3. Surprise. I'm not sure I agree with this, given there was a lot of hate even before the collapse, but ... I think a lot of people were genuinely shocked that TSR collapsed suddenly, and, moreover, it was sold to a "mere" card company. It's more difficult to understand now, but there was a sizeable number of people that thought that D&D was it, and M:TG was just some kids playing a silly game. Kind of like how, way back when, wargamers thought what they were doing was it, and D&D was just kids playing a silly game. Anyway, the collapse and sale of TSR was shocking to a lot of people, and Lorraine was a convenient target to blame.

4. Misogyny. Not to put too fine a point on it, but female executives were not common in the 80s and 90s. And the gaming community could be rough. I'm not going to spell this out for you, I'm just going to say this- Lorraine was probably treated a lot worse than a comparable male executive would have been.


D. Conclusion.

Look, I think two things can be said- first, Lorraine wasn't a great owner. I wouldn't say that. In the end, SCOREBOARD is a valid argument. But I do think it is important that we balance that ending with the fact that she both helped save TSR in the 80s, and also was at the helm for a number of products that still resonate with people today. If you love Forgotten Realms, for example, you can thank Ed Greenwood. And you can tank Jeff Grubb. But it was Lorraine who was running the company during the big FR bet.
 

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Well thought through and written. I don't see any flaws.

I will add that I think most of the community was (and still) cares naught about the business of D&D. And perhaps they shouldn't. But in the end, what they knew (or specifically did not know), and the idolization they/we had of Gygax was really the most important part of setting the tone of vehemence against Lorraine. Simple put, most gamers idolized Gygax, they had no idea (or interest) of the business or realities, Lorraine "fired" Gary, therefore she was "bad".
 

Welcome to the first in, perhaps, an occasional series: Snarf Presents Hawt Taek Thursdays.

Ahem. Anyway, if you read my review of Jon Peterson's new book, or better yet read his book (Game Wizards, now on sale!), you probably see that it presents the ouster of Gary Gygax from TSR and the takeover by Lorraine Williams in a very different light than what was commonly received before. And it began solidifying some thoughts I have had that I wanted to put out, and see the reaction that it got-

Here it is- Lorraine Williams was a positive influence on D&D.

Let me start with the traditional narrative about Lorraine Williams (I'm just going to use "Lorraine" from here on out, because her first name is more distinctive) that many older gamers either say, or have been taught-

The Great God Gygax ran his kingdom of TSR, and all were happy. But one day, Gygax did the unthinkable- he allowed in a non-gamer by the name of Lorraine. And Lorraine did conspire in the darkness with the Brothers Blume and overthrew Gygax from his throne and banished him from his kingdom. It was only too late did Gygax realize that this person he had trusted was actually the Wicked Witch Lorraine, who hated all things good, gamer, and TSR.

And thus was the Golden Age of TSR ended. From then on, the Wicked Witch Lorraine belittled all the gaming citizens of TSR, and ensured that all of the great gold and treasures of TSR would go to her own treasuries, starving the kingdom. The Wicked Witch Lorraine did not even see that a new, goodly Kingdom of Carding Wizards was gaining power on her borders. This continued for interminable ages, until one day, with the treasury of TSR depleted, Kingdom of Carding Wizards invaded and took over the Kingdom of TSR, and the Wicked Witch Lorraine fled, never to be seen again.


I exaggerate, but only slightly. There are some gaming circles were the name Lorraine is roughly akin to Voldemort.

But how true is that narrative? I would stipulate that the basic beginning and ending facts are true- yes, she ousted Gygax, and yes, she was the one forced to sell out to Wizards of the Coast. Is that it, or is there more nuance to the story?


A. The Good That Gets Overlooked.

This is the important part- I think that there is a lot of good that people tend to forget. Let's start with the most basic; if you read Game Wizards, or have a passing familiarity with what happened, you quickly understand that Lorraine was not the villain in the ouster of Gygax- she was the hero. Quite literally, she saved TSR. The sheer amount of details and the repetition of them truly paint the picture, but in brief, TSR had massive debts, Gygax was both ignoring the financial issues (and the banks), ignoring meetings, spending TSR's money, and also demanding (in his capacity as majority shareholder) that TSR begin dramatically increasing royalty payments to him. To add to all of that, he negotiated a deal with the Brothers Blume and then reneged on the terms. In short, he was a disaster, and was quickly running what was left of the company into the ground. Lorraine didn't pull this off by herself- all the people involved with TSR at senior levels except Gygax knew the score. If you are a fan of shows like Succession, it's like a scene where the person comes into dictate terms, and realizes that no one is supporting him. Not a single person. More importantly, at the time there were a lot of outstanding liabilities other than just the terrible debts they already had due to poor projections and governance- such as the multiple suits due to the promise of stock options that TSR chose not to honor (settled under Lorraine's watch).

So she should get credit for saving TSR, in my opinion.

The second thing is we should reflect on the intellectual property that was developed during her tenure. Sure, you can't beat the very original few years, simply because it developed a lot of the vocabulary (classes, levels, AC, etc.) and lore (Fighters, Clerics, Beholders, Mind Flayers, Githyanki etc.) that still resonate today. But let's do a quick check into what happened during her reign-
1. Signed the contract with Ed Greenwood and began developing Forgotten Realms as a D&D property.
2. Published the Manual of the Planes, the first major step in going from the prime material centric (with multiple planes) to the outer planes model we are used to today. (Yes, I have mixed feeling on this one).
3. Successfully launched 2e. There's a lot more to this- but this is already a long post.
4. Launched campaign settings we continue to be familiar with today (other than FR!), such as Spelljammer, Ravenloft, Hollow World, Dark Sun, Al-Qadim, Birthright, and Planescape.
5. Drizzt. sigh Okay, whatever your feelings about Drizzt specifically, or about the quality of writing in TSR's books in general, there was a massive explosion of titles and fantasy novels in the D&D world that brought new people to D&D.

Overall, and without going too far into the details, that's a pretty solid track record! What about the other side?


B. What About the Bad?

Well, here (without getting into the "not a gamer" thing, which I'll address in the next part), I'll put it simply-
SCOREBOARD.
That's the common refrain in sports events- you can make all the excuses you want, but at the end of the game, the only thing that matters is the final score. And business is a lot like that. Sure, there's reasons. There's extenuating circumstances. There's bad economies. But at the end of the day, TSR collapsed under Lorraine's watch. That's the alpha and the omega the end.

...and yet, businesses fail all the time. It's sad, but true, that a lot of businesses fail (or have issues) and the CEOs/owners get fat payouts. I mean, don't look at what happened with WeWork. Seriously, don't. More importantly, we don't usually have a specific level of vitriol toward the person running the business. I mean, it's not like "Blume" is a dirty name in the gaming community!

I would start by looking at why TSR failed the second time. Unfortunately, we don't have the full account like we did with Jon Peterson's book, but there have been scattered accounts here and there (there is a post by Ryan Dancey, for example, here). I think that the failure of TSR is like the old saying .... it happened slowly then all at once. There were warning signs- the rise of computer games, the rise of Games Workshop (which made money with miniatures, a market TSR was not in), and most importantly, the rise of WoTC, which was making insane profits off of a ... card game. The industry itself was having issues, with many major distributors suffering and going under. TSR tried to adapt (Dragon Dice, for example) and tried to expand (pushing out more profitable fiction hardcovers), but, much like the 80s, they were in a trap of their own creation. The success of the many of the 2e supplements had saturated the AD&D market, and their attempts to expand through Dragon Dice other means were not successful (not to mention much more costly than the cards WoTC was making). That, plus the Random House contract, meant that a company that looked like it was going gangbusters, or at least okay, in the early 90s, faced a cash crunch in '95, and was decimated and sold to WoTC in '97.

Not great, Bob. But ... understandable.

Oh, the Buck Williams thing? Without going too far into the weeds, not the best look, but also not surprising in closely-held corporations. It wasn't a factor in TSR's demise.


C. So ... why the Hate?

I have a few theories I'd like to throw out-

1. Lorraine ousted Gygax. This is the most simple. Gygax was, for many people, D&D. So she was always going to be the villain in any morality play.

2. Lorraine wasn't a gamer. This is a little more nuanced, especially consider that, for example, Kevin Blume wasn't really a gamer either. But Lorraine never cared much about the "community" in the sense of gamers. She wanted to run TSR as a company, with products. This tends to be a reciprocal thing- you don't care about us, we don't care about you.

3. Surprise. I'm not sure I agree with this, given there was a lot of hate even before the collapse, but ... I think a lot of people were genuinely shocked that TSR collapsed suddenly, and, moreover, it was sold to a "mere" card company. It's more difficult to understand now, but there was a sizeable number of people that thought that D&D was it, and M:TG was just some kids playing a silly game. Kind of like how, way back when, wargamers thought what they were doing was it, and D&D was just kids playing a silly game. Anyway, the collapse and sale of TSR was shocking to a lot of people, and Lorraine was a convenient target to blame.

4. Misogyny. Not to put too fine a point on it, but female executives were not common in the 80s and 90s. And the gaming community could be rough. I'm not going to spell this out for you, I'm just going to say this- Lorraine was probably treated a lot worse than a comparable male executive would have been.


D. Conclusion.

Look, I think two things can be said- first, Lorraine wasn't a great owner. I wouldn't say that. In the end, SCOREBOARD is a valid argument. But I do think it is important that we balance that ending with the fact that she both helped save TSR in the 80s, and also was at the helm for a number of products that still resonate with people today. If you love Forgotten Realms, for example, you can thank Ed Greenwood. And you can tank Jeff Grubb. But it was Lorraine who was running the company during the big FR bet.
I think this is spot-on.

I mean, I never quite understood the hate-train for Williams, because everything people listed as "bad" seemed to be fairly standard stuff, and she presided over my favourite edition of D&D in terms of content. Certainly I can't see the argument that Gygax was somehow "better" or more suitable for the role, especially not based on what Gygax went on to do, and based on Gygax's comments about what he thought D&D was about and so on. I suspect had he been directing D&D in the the 1990s, we would have seen D&D actually, genuinely turn into "just another system", and it would have lost market-leader status and probably never regained it, because he'd have pushed it further into being extremely specific and niche and old-school. This wouldn't even have pleased people who like OSR games now, I suspect, because the existence of this very old-school D&D might well have stopped them from ever existing, let alone branching into the amazing forms they exist in now.

She certainly made some mistakes, everyone decision-making at TSR in that era did, but aside from the obvious personal deal with Buck Rogers, I can't see how she was a particularly bad. Not everyone whose company gets bought or who isn't making money is some monumental screw-up. A lot of the time they just can't find the path out - doesn't mean someone else could have - especially not Gygax of all people.
 

HammerMan

Legend
I always like to remember that the same way WoTC kept the lights on in 99 by buying TSR that was about to go away, Loraine kept the lights on through all of 2e.

by the way Hasbro is keeping them on now.

If you love D&D like I do, then yes Dave invented the game, and Gary popularized and fine tuned it, but the blume/Loraine/skip williams/monte cook/WoTC/Hasbro all did there parts... even if you hate some of what they did...enworld would be nothing without them
 



Staffan

Legend
One thing TSR did under her watch was being extremely overprotective of its IP. They demanded that people not host any AD&D material, self-written or not, except in "walled gardens" provided by TSR. And when GDW published the Gygax-written Dangerous Journeys, TSR launched an extremely frivolous lawsuit claiming ridiculous things as copyright infringement – things like "The First Aid skill is derivative of the Cure Light Wounds spell".
 

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