TSR Ryan Dancey: Acquiring TSR

In the winter of 1997, I traveled to Lake Geneva Wisconsin on a secret mission. In the late fall, rumors of TSR's impending bankruptcy had created an opportunity to made a bold gamble that the business could be saved by an infusion of capital or an acquisition with a larger partner.

In the winter of 1997, I traveled to Lake Geneva Wisconsin on a secret mission. In the late fall, rumors of TSR's impending bankruptcy had created an opportunity to made a bold gamble that the business could be saved by an infusion of capital or an acquisition with a larger partner. After a hasty series of phone calls and late night strategy sessions, I found myself standing in the snow outside of 201 Sheridan Springs Road staring at a building bearing a sign that said "TSR, Incorporated".

Inside the building, I found a dead company.

In the halls that had produced the stuff of my childhood fantasies, and had fired my imagination and become unalterably intertwined with my own sense of self, I found echoes, empty desks, and the terrible depression of lost purpose.

The life story of a tree can be read by a careful examination of its rings. The life story of a corporation can be read by a careful examination of its financial records and corporate minutes.

I was granted unprecedented access to those records. I read the TSR corporate log book from the first page penned in haste by Gary Gygax to the most recent terse minutes dictated to a lawyer with no connection to hobby gaming. I was able to trace the meteoric rise of D&D as a business, the terrible failure to control costs that eventually allowed a total outsider to take control away from the founders, the slow and steady progress to rebuild the financial solvency of the company, and the sudden and dramatic failure of that business model. I read the euphoric copyright filings for the books of my lost summers: "Player's Handbook", "Fiend Folio", "Oriental Adventures". I read the contract between Gary and TSR where Gary was severed from contact with the company he had founded and the business he had nurtured and grown. I saw the clause where Gary, forced to the wall by ruthless legal tactics was reduced to insisting to the right to use his own name in future publishing endeavors, and to take and keep control of his personal D&D characters. I read the smudged photocopies produced by the original Dragonlance Team, a group of people who believed in a new idea for gaming that told a story across many different types of products. I saw concept artwork evolve from lizard men with armor to unmistakable draconians. I read Tracy Hickman's one page synopsis of the Dragonlance Story. I held the contract between Tracy and Margaret for the publication of the three Chronicles novels. I read the contract between Ed Greenwood and TSR to buy his own personal game world and transform it into the most developed game setting in history - the most detailed and explored fantasy world ever created.

And I read the details of the Random House distribution agreement; an agreement that TSR had used to support a failing business and hide the fact that TSR was rotten at the core. I read the entangling bank agreements that divided the copyright interests of the company as security against default, and realized that the desperate arrangements made to shore up the company's poor financial picture had so contaminated those rights that it might not be possible to extract Dungeons & Dragons from the clutches of lawyers and bankers and courts for years upon end. I read the severance agreements between the company and departed executives which paid them extraordinary sums for their silence. I noted the clauses, provisions, amendments and agreements that were piling up more debt by the hour in the form of interest charges, fees and penalties. I realized that the money paid in good faith by publishers and attendees for GenCon booths and entrance fees had been squandered and that the show itself could not be funded. I discovered that the cost of the products that company was making in many cases exceeded the price the company was receiving for selling those products. I toured a warehouse packed from floor to 50 foot ceiling with products valued as though they would soon be sold to a distributor with production stamps stretching back to the late 1980s. I was 10 pages in to a thick green bar report of inventory, calculating the true value of the material in that warehouse when I realized that my last 100 entries had all been "$0"'s.

I met staff members who were determined to continue to work, despite the knowledge that they might not get paid, might not even be able to get in to the building each day. I saw people who were working on the same manuscripts they'd been working on six months earlier, never knowing if they'd actually be able to produce the fruits of their labor. In the eyes of those people (many of whom I have come to know as friends and co workers), I saw defeat, desperation, and the certain knowledge that somehow, in some way, they had failed. The force of the human, personal pain in that building was nearly overwhelming - on several occasions I had to retreat to a bathroom to sit and compose myself so that my own tears would not further trouble those already tortured souls.

I ran hundreds of spreadsheets, determined to figure out what had to be done to save the company. I was convinced that if I could just move enough money from column A to column B, that everything would be ok. Surely, a company with such powerful brands and such a legacy of success could not simply cease to exist due to a few errors of judgment and a poor strategic plan?

I made several trips to TSR during the frenzied days of negotiation that resulted in the acquisition of the company by Wizards of the Coast. When I returned home from my first trip, I retreated to my home office; a place filled with bookshelves stacked with Dungeons & Dragons products. From the earliest games to the most recent campaign setting supplements - I owned, had read, and loved those products with a passion and intensity that I devoted to little else in my life. And I knew, despite my best efforts to tell myself otherwise, that the disaster I kept going back to in Wisconsin was the result of the products on those shelves.

When Peter put me in charge of the tabletop RPG business in 1998, he gave me one commission: Find out what went wrong, fix the business, save D&D. Vince also gave me a business condition that was easy to understand and quite direct. "God damnit, Dancey", he thundered at me from across the conference table: "Don't lose any more money!"

That became my core motivation. Save D&D. Don't lose money. Figure out what went wrong. Fix the problem.

Back into those financials I went. I walked again the long threads of decisions made by managers long gone; there are few roadmarks to tell us what was done and why in the years TSR did things like buy a needlepoint distributorship, or establish a west coast office at King Vedor's mansion. Why had a moderate success in collectable dice triggered a million unit order? Why did I still have stacks and stacks of 1st edition rulebooks in the warehouse? Why did TSR create not once, not twice, but nearly a dozen times a variation on the same, Tolkien inspired, eurocentric fantasy theme? Why had it constantly tried to create different games, poured money into marketing those games, only to realize that nobody was buying those games? Why, when it was so desperate for cash, had it invested in a million dollar license for content used by less than 10% of the marketplace? Why had a successful game line like Dragonlance been forcibly uprooted from its natural home in the D&D game and transplanted to a foreign and untested new game system? Why had the company funded the development of a science fiction game modeled on D&D - then not used the D&D game rules?

In all my research into TSR's business, across all the ledgers, notebooks, computer files, and other sources of data, there was one thing I never found - one gaping hole in the mass of data we had available.

No customer profiling information. No feedback. No surveys. No "voice of the customer". TSR, it seems, knew nothing about the people who kept it alive. The management of the company made decisions based on instinct and gut feelings; not data. They didn't know how to listen - as an institution, listening to customers was considered something that other companies had to do - TSR lead, everyone else followed.

In today's hypercompetitive market, that's an impossible mentality. At Wizards of the Coast, we pay close attention to the voice of the customer. We ask questions. We listen. We react. So, we spent a whole lot of time and money on a variety of surveys and studies to learn about the people who play role playing games. And, at every turn, we learned things that were not only surprising, they flew in the face of all the conventional wisdom we'd absorbed through years of professional game publishing.

We heard some things that are very, very hard for a company to hear. We heard that our customers felt like we didn't trust them. We heard that we produced material they felt was substandard, irrelevant, and broken. We heard that our stories were boring or out of date, or simply uninteresting. We heard the people felt that >we< were irrelevant.

I know now what killed TSR. It wasn't trading card games. It wasn't Dragon Dice. It wasn't the success of other companies. It was a near total inability to listen to its customers, hear what they were saying, and make changes to make those customers happy. TSR died because it was deaf.

Amazingly, despite all those problems, and despite years of neglect, the D&D game itself remained, at the core, a viable business. Damaged; certainly. Ailing; certainly. But savable? Absolutely.

Our customers were telling us that 2e was too restrictive, limited their creativity, and wasn't "fun to play'? We can fix that. We can update the core rules to enable the expression of that creativity. We can demonstrate a commitment to supporting >your< stories. >Your< worlds. And we can make the game fun again.

Our customers were telling us that we produced too many products, and that the stuff we produced was of inferior quality? We can fix that. We can cut back on the number of products we release, and work hard to make sure that each and every book we publish is useful, interesting, and of high quality.

Our customers were telling us that we spent too much time on our own worlds, and not enough time on theirs? Ok - we can fix that. We can re-orient the business towards tools, towards examples, towards universal systems and rules that aren't dependent on owning a thousand dollars of unnecessary materials first.

Our customers were telling us that they prefer playing D&D nearly 2:1 over the next most popular game option? That's an important point of distinction. We can leverage that desire to help get them more people to play >with< by reducing the barriers to compatibility between the material we produce, and the material created by other companies.

Our customers told us they wanted a better support organization? We can pour money and resources into the RPGA and get it growing and supporting players like never before in the club's history. (10,000 paid members and rising, nearly 50,000 unpaid members - numbers currently skyrocketing).

Our customers were telling us that they want to create and distribute content based on our game? Fine - we can accommodate that interest and desire in a way that keeps both our customers and our lawyers happy.

Are we still listening? Yes, we absolutely are. If we hear you asking us for something we're not delivering, we'll deliver it. But we're not going to cater to the specific and unique needs of a minority if doing so will cause hardship to the majority. We're going to try and be responsible shepards of the D&D business, and that means saying "no" to things that we have shown to be damaging to the business and that aren't wanted or needed by most of our customers.

We listened when the customers told us that Alternity wasn't what they wanted in a science fiction game. We listened when customers told us that they didn't want the confusing, jargon filled world of Planescape. We listened when people told us that the Ravenloft concept was overshadowed by the products of a competitor. We listened to customers who told us that they want core materials, not world materials. That they buy DUNGEON magazine every two months at a rate twice that of our best selling stand-alone adventures.

We're not telling anyone what game to play. We are telling the market that we're going to actively encourage our players to stand up and demand that they be listened to, and that they become the center of the gaming industry - rather than the current publisher-centric model. Through the RPGA, the Open Gaming movement, the pages of Dragon Magazine, and all other venues available, we want to empower our customers to do what >they< want, to force us and our competitors to bend to >their< will, to make the products >they< want made.

I want to be judged on results, not rhetoric. I want to look back at my time at the helm of this business and feel that things got better, not worse. I want to know that my team made certain that the mistakes of the past wouldn't be the mistakes of the future. I want to know that we figured out what went wrong. That we fixed it. That we saved D&D. And that god damnit, we didn't lose money.

Thank you for listening,
Sincerely,
Ryan S. Dancey
VP, Wizards of the Coast
Brand Manager, Dungeons & Dragons

 

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Ryan S. Dancey

Ryan S. Dancey

OGL Architect

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
Arguably, with the class options in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, the supplements have arrived.
I suppose it also depends on what one thinks are the half-baked parts.

Tasha's didn't even touch many of my personal quibbles, many of which involve the fundamentals of the subclass system and how it fails characters (especially wizards). People love to gripe about rangers, but I've had no issues with rangers in my own games. I suppose it's a matter of play style.

5e does a great job at unifying different edition concepts under one system. But like any compromise, it struggles to incorporate the nitty-gritty. But luckily, that's where having a DM and decades of experience come into play.
 

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Jaeger

That someone better
From the OP: "I read the entangling bank agreements that divided the copyright interests of the company as security against default, and realized that the desperate arrangements made to shore up the company's poor financial picture had so contaminated those rights that it might not be possible to extract Dungeons & Dragons from the clutches of lawyers and bankers and courts for years upon end."

Had TSR been allowed to actually go bankrupt, those assets would have been spread among a number of creditors...

Not to mention what a world without D&D for several years would have done to the RPG business as a whole. I'd wager that a lot of game stores would be hurting in the wake of that.

A clone would have been made.

Without TSR around to use lawfare and sue them for using uncopyrightable game mechanics, there were enough viable RPG companies around then that someone would have filled that void.

All those laid off TSR guys would have known the down-low, and a few of the smart ones would have recognized an opportunity.

A really clever one would have hunted down G. Gygax, and had him lend his name to their clone as the spiritual successor to D&D. Game. Set. Match.

Essentially a "pathfinder" type D&D clone RPG would have come to the fore 11 years earlier than it did. Except it probably would be called 'Legendary Adventures' or some such.

So people would have kept playing "D&D" - just calling it by a different name.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Every product should be released before a designer/creator/author feels the product is perfect. Doesn't matter if it is a RPG game system, an adventure, a car, computer, or house.

There is a point of diminishing returns and polishing a turd. Or now days the software concept of Minimal Viable Product. Properly run business require that products are sent to market when they are "good enough".
I couldn't disagree more.

If something - particularly something mechanical - isn't perfect, it shouldn't be released until it is.

Otherwise, the end user (i.e. consumer) has no valid reason to trust the product, and can easily end up feeling (or actually being) ripped off.

In the case of an RPG where the whole thing is fairly malleable anyway, a few clear and up-front disclaimers to the effect of "these are but guidelines" can paper over many sins.
 


EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I would agree and strongly suggest 5E also needed another 6-12 months in the oven, too (probably closer to 6 than 12). I think this is most obvious with the DMG, which is utterly stuffed with half-baked systems and ideas (to the point where at least one optional system seems to be a failure to even work through their own idea, leading to a perverse mechanic), and in the early products for 5E, but also in some of the class design in the PHB, where some classes feel like they got design-in-depth, and others have a very "Well, close enough, go with it!" vibe.
Honestly, a huge problem with the 5e playtest was simply that they adamantly refused to settle on a design for two friggin years. They kept throwing systems out entirely and replacing them with something else. If something didn't poll super well, it was trashed, no iteration, no refinement, no second chances. That's not an effective way to design anything, because it means every model is an incredibly raw prototype.

While bits and pieces of design were retained over the long haul of the public playtest, most of 5th edition only crystallized in the final six months of public playtesting and subsequent internal playtesting--the majority in the latter bit, so we never got to see it. They released one Sorcerer and one Warlock, it didn't poll well enough, so they pulled it and we saw nothing more until release. They built systems specifically dependent on the Specialties idea, and then scrapped it in something like the penultimate playtest doc. The whole playtest was riddled with these problems, and you can see it in the final product. It's a significant part of why the Beastmaster Ranger isn't up to par, despite the extreme overriding goal of the playtest being "did you find it fun?" to the exclusion of potentially-more-useful feedback.

5E wildly overcompensated with it's obsessive surveys, and strange approach to playtesting, which caused it to "listen" well but only to a subsection of the audience, and they failed to do what companies who want to listen have to do, and think carefully about who they're hearing from and when to accept input, and when to question it
Honestly, it's worse than that. Their surveys were, and are, almost always terribly designed. Nearly every poll during the playtest was a push-poll, very clearly steering players toward a particular answer. And you can bet your britches they didn't actually have anyone trained in statistics to analyze the polls; they looked at raw data only and did only the most cursory analysis. ACTUAL survey-design and statistical analysis is expensive, and I guarantee you the D&D team believed they didn't need such expertise despite literally writing surveys and trying to interpret statistical data.

I see what you are talking about with the 5E rulebooks, but...4E's errata was to fundamental math issues. 5E's math base has proven quite durable with no serious errata.
Well, other than saving throws being an ongoing problem (e.g. the "ghoul surprise"), short rests being much too infrequent compared to long rests, CR being unreliable, players frequently complaining about monsters just being big fat bags of HP, the "a peasant can deceive the Prince of Lies himself 25% of the time while literally the most gifted being on the planet has a similar chance of failure" problem, and multiple subclasses being distinctly inferior compared to later replacements (e.g. Beastmaster vs the upcoming drake-taming subclass, Four Elements Monk vs. Sun Soul, Hexblades in general, etc.)

It's not that 5e couldn't benefit from errata. It really, really could. But the developers are allergic to errata. When fans complained about Storm sorcerers getting bonus spells, when no other subclass did, what did they do? They didn't say, "Oh, hey, you're right. We'll issue some errata to grant those subclasses bonus spells known, 'cause it is kind of a problem that Sorcerers have so few spells." Nope, instead they said, "Ah, we hear you loud and clear! We'll nerf Storm to match all the other subclasses!" And how many times have they experimented with a new Ranger, only to never actually publish anything? No, 5e could DEFINITELY use some errata. But they won't actually do it, because that would upset the vocal minority who never want their books to change at all.

Further, the only "fundamental math issues" were in the brand-new Skill Challenge system, in stealth (which has been a spicy subject in 5e as well!), and the controversy over the Expertise "tax" feats (which I still maintain was a very intentional design move, that they backed off of because players disliked it). 4e, by and large, had the most balanced math of any edition, ever. Yes, it had some spots that needed fixing. But at least its creators were willing to fix it, instead of trying to dance around the issue.
 

Remathilis

Legend
I know this may be thread necromancy, but here is my 2 coppers [also, do not respond if you want to start a flame war]:

I had my teeth cut on A DD in 1982 and was hooked. Especially the UA! When second edition came out, I felt betrayed and did my best to ignore it. I was so cynical by the time 3.0 came out, I would sing the munchkin song from the wiz of oz and refused to even acknowledge it. 3.5 came out and I had to capitulate and go with it as no one else was out there anymore. I felt it was way unbalanced, and that Pathfinder was a great attempt to balence it out.

4 and 5 I felt that wotc was just trying to make new things to keep grubbing up money.

I am probably wrong on most issues, but they are a personal opinion.

clink, clink my two coppers
OD&D(1974) is the only true game. All the other editions are just poor imitations of the real thing.
 



Parmandur

Book-Friend
Honestly, it's worse than that. Their surveys were, and are, almost always terribly designed. Nearly every poll during the playtest was a push-poll, very clearly steering players toward a particular answer. And you can bet your britches they didn't actually have anyone trained in statistics to analyze the polls; they looked at raw data only and did only the most cursory analysis. ACTUAL survey-design and statistical analysis is expensive, and I guarantee you the D&D team believed they didn't need such expertise despite literally writing surveys and trying to interpret statistical data.

Except we know that they did hire outside statistical experts through Hasbro.

Well, other than saving throws being an ongoing problem (e.g. the "ghoul surprise"), short rests being much too infrequent compared to long rests, CR being unreliable, players frequently complaining about monsters just being big fat bags of HP, the "a peasant can deceive the Prince of Lies himself 25% of the time while literally the most gifted being on the planet has a similar chance of failure" problem, and multiple subclasses being distinctly inferior compared to later replacements (e.g. Beastmaster vs the upcoming drake-taming subclass, Four Elements Monk vs. Sun Soul, Hexblades in general, etc.)
Most of these are failures to read the rules Tham with the rules themselves (particularly the Skill examples).
 

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