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RPG Evolution: The Road Trip That Changed a World

TSR's legacy of publishing fantasy worlds is well-known, but only one of them came about through a couple's adventurous car ride across the country in search of a new career: Dragonlance. Desperation Dragonlance's origins begin at a difficult time in Tracy and Laura Hickman's lives. Tracy explained in an interview with Matthew Peterson: Well, Dragonlance came about out of a lot of...

TSR's legacy of publishing fantasy worlds is well-known, but only one of them came about through a couple's adventurous car ride across the country in search of a new career: Dragonlance.



Dragonlance's origins begin at a difficult time in Tracy and Laura Hickman's lives. Tracy explained in an interview with Matthew Peterson:
Well, Dragonlance came about out of a lot of desperation, actually, I think, and very much out of hard times. In my case, my wife and I were out of work and had been out of work for several months and could not get a job, couldn’t support the family. But we had written together, my wife and I, Laura, had written several game adventure modules that we were kind of selling on our own. And now, in reflection, without a great deal of consideration for anybody else’s copyright...But at the time, we had heard that TSR Incorporated would purchase these adventures for maybe $500, which was an outrageous sum of money to someone who had none. And that winter we couldn’t take our children to church because we couldn’t afford shoes for them. So in an effort to buy shoes for our children we sent these two adventure modules into TSR hoping they would pay us something for them.
Those two adventures turned out to be Rahasia and Pharoah. Mike Gray, now vice president as Hasbro, recommended that the Hickmans might have better luck selling their adventures if they applied to TSR. Taking a gamble, the Hickman's packed their children in the car and set off for a new start:
And while we were crossing the plains, we were talking about what could we possibly bring to this company that would justify them paying us money to design games? And it was somewhere in the flat lands of Nebraska, and they are really quite flat, that we came up with the idea of dragons of war and riding these dragons into war and the whole basis of Dragonlance. So, it was actually us being out of work for six months that gave us the creative desire and the hunger I guess to create that.​

Basement-Dwelling Cook or Game Designer?

Tracy reminisced about the experience on his blog:
Our drive had really started four days before when we loaded what little we owned out of our apartment in Logan, Utah onto a moving van and drove south to meet my parents in Orem, Utah. That was at my sister-in-law's home where we said our goodbyes to my parents and they wondered when they might see us or their grand-children again.
The Hickmans' family wasn't too pleased with their decision:
My father said, “Son, don’t move to Wisconsin and fail. You’ve failed at everything you’ve done so far. If you fail in Wisconsin I can’t afford to bring you back.” So he said, “Why don’t you bring your family, come down here. You can live in my basement. I know the owner of the local Sizzler and there’s an opening as a cook over there.” So, presented the choice between living in my dad’s basement and working at the Sizzler, or moving my family across country and working as a game designer. It was really kind of a short trip for me to make that decision...I knew that I had to succeed at something. And I had a lot to prove. Which also, I think, in all of these difficult elements, and the difficult times that we lived through became a part of it.
Against his father's advice, the Hickmans set out on their adventure:
It was on that long road between the life we left behind and the hope we had for the future that Dragonlance was born and we couldn't see then how it would save us. We only could hope that we would be saved.
As if things weren't challenging enough, the Hickmans faced weather difficulties too:
From Orem, Laura and I drove eastward, leaving the Rocky Mountains behind us and travelling across the Great Plains in our Volkswagen Rabbit toward a life we could only hope would save us. Three days and a lot of freeway later, we drove into Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. It was St. Patrick's Day ... and we arrived in a snowstorm.​
The Hickmans couldn't even afford dinner at the hotel restaurant:
We brought our small children into the hotel room TSR had reserved for us. We did not yet have an address for the moving van that was somewhere behind us on the road. Being St. Patrick's Day, 'The Quiet Man' with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara was playing on the television. I went out that evening in search of food that I could bring back for my family since we didn't have enough money to afford the hotel restaurant. I found Su Wing's -- a Chinese Restaurant -- and brought back their take-out. I picked up a box of Hostess Ding-Dongs at the local store for desert. We told our children the foil-wrapped Ding-dongs were 'Blarney Stones': kissing each one and laughing before we opened them.
The Hickmans weren't the only ones facing struggles. Co-creator of Dragonlance Margaret Weis had her share of challenges:
I was coming off of a bad divorce. I was a single mom with two kids and wanted to get the heck out of Dodge. And I had applied to this company that I thought sounded really cool, TSR Incorporated. And I just found out about Dungeons and Dragons, the game, and I just thought that it was so neat. And they had a job up for book editor and I applied and interviewed with Jean Black, got the job, borrowed money from my parents, moved myself and my kids to Lake Geneva and got there, and the check was going to take two weeks to clear, so we lived off my daughter’s birthday money...But my job as book editor, I was put in charge of the Dragonlance project, to work with this guy named Tracy Hickman. [laughs] And heard him tell the story of Raistlin, and Caramon and Sturm and Tanis and fell in love with it.
Looking back, it's clear that both Hickman and Weis succeeded as much through their own skills as through force of will.

Dragonlance, Finally

In the end, Dragonlance went on to become a blockbuster for TSR both as an adventure and as a series of novels. The Dragonlance legacy is massive; as one of TSR's most popular novel series in the 90s, making TSR one of the most successful publishers of fantasy at the time. There are now nearly 200 novels in the Dragonlance franchise, which reached over 20 bestseller lists and sales of over $22 million.

And what of those two adventures? They were originally proposed to be part of a series known as "Nightventure". Both were published by TSR, laying the framework for future groundbreaking adventures like Ravenloft. This was also a pivot away from what is now known as the Old School form of dungeon-crawling. Tavis Allison's excellent sleuthing digs up a fascinating look at the Hickmans' vision that would influence many of TSR's adventures afterward:
  1. A player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing.
  2. An intriguing story that is intricately woven into play itself.
  3. Dungeons with an architectural sense.
  4. An attainable and honorable end within one to two sessions playing time.
The Hickmans didn't just help create Dragonlance, they ushered in a new age of adventure design.

Always Kiss Your Blarney Stones

The Hickmans and Margaret Weis have gone on to pen other adventures in a wide variety of game mediums. Tracy has never forgotten his humble roots:
Ever since then, we have celebrated St. Patrick's Day with Chinese food. The Ding-dongs are no longer wrapped in foil but we kiss them before eating them all the same. We do this each year to remind ourselves that desperate times -- and we were oh, so desperate then -- require hope in a new and brighter tomorrow.
He's philosophical about his fateful ride to a bright new future:
It became a part of the drive that we had to make this happen and to make it right. You know, I look back on those times, I don’t really begrudge those. We had an old saying that we used to banter around the company a lot which was, “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. And that was very true, I think, in our case.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Shirokinukatsukami fan
I also really enjoyed that. I tend to pay attention to D&D history tales, but this story of the Dragonlance road trip is new to me. Thanks for sharing it!


I had heard this story before, but I like it how new details always emerge. I am glad Mr. Hickman decided to decline his father's offer.


I really dont get it, how could TSR go broke and fail with such success in both novels and RPG's?


The article at wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/TSR_(company) tells some of it, and for a really good treatment look up "Designers and Dragons" by Shannon Appelcline, who did a Herculean amount of research. But the short tale is: From about 1980 to 1984 the company grew very fast very quickly, made a lot of unwise investments, and got in trouble really quickly. Gary tried to right the company, but for various reasons that didn't work out, and after he left the company fortunes see-sawed a bit from then on.

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