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TSR's Amazing Accounting Department

The time is 1987 and I was the Vice President of the design and editors. It was a great job because TSR had amazing people doing the design and editing of product. I wasn't liked much by upper management at TSR after Gary left the company. I don't do well with authority figures that I do not believe know what they are doing. So I was fairly sure I didn't have long to work at TSR. However, I didn't count on the product schedule keeping me there for as long as it did.


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Note from Morrus -- this is the fifth of Jim Ward's series of articles here on EN World! Upcoming articles include SSI and AD&D Computer Games, and The Origin of Monty Haul! Please let us know in the comments about topics you'd like to hear, and don't forget to check out Jonathan Tweet's new column!


We, and I mean the company, got further and further behind in our release schedule because a great many of the managers and all of the upper management didn't know anything about roleplaying product and could care less. I was in the middle of things as Director of Product. The head of the company actually wanted TSR to do other things besides role-playing games that didn't include gaming at all. She had us doing things like Hollywood comic books and audio CDs instead of role-playing products.

Jack Morrisey was the head of sales and he was sharp. There wasn't anything about sales he didn't know. He always maintained that we needed to have covers and back cover text six months before the product released. This concept was because we needed retail stores and distributors to schedule our products in their monthly sales budget. At the time that type of TSR schedule wasn't coming even close to happening.

Against their better judgment, they made me a vice president of creative services and the schedule was my primary concern. I'm a goal-centered type of dude. Give me a goal and I'm on it like white on rice.

On this topic, I would like to give the product managers and Bruce Heard credit for doing the hardest part of the work. In those days we had product managers and a group of designers and editors for every one of the campaign worlds TSR produced. This means there was a Ravenloft product manager, an Al Qadim Product Manager, a Dragonlance Product Manager and so on. Most of my people were in at least two groups. They learned to love the products in their group and have a genuine desire to make an excellent product. I watched them like hawks, and they did the lion's share of the work. I did think of a great trick. I had all of the game designers from all the product groups, and we had a lot of them, give me their entire weeks worth of design work every Friday in a printout. I didn't have the time to read all of the material, but I could spend the weekend and read one of the efforts of a designer. However, none of them wanted to be judged as coming up short on their work. I would always hand back a review of that designer's material and tried hard to always be positive. You would be amazed at the volume of work that trick produced from the designers.

Eventually, thanks to everyone's efforts in about six months we had gotten ahead in the schedule and were six months early on the products and our department was very happy with the effort. Sales was ecstatic and orders went way up.

Then, horror of horrors, a new head accountant was hired.

At the time I was really happy with all the editors, designers, and artists at TSR. They are doing a great job in a timely manner. Bruce Heard was working great with the freelance people and doing a tremendous job of keeping them on schedule. When nasty events like a freelance designer falling off the grid; which happened all the time; Bruce was there with a good replacement. He and I argued a time or two, but I always respected his talents.

So, it was a happy and very satisfied “experienced and jaded James M. Ward” that walked into an officer's meeting. Unfortunately for me, Jack Morrissy wasn't working at TSR any more. We had a new sales guy that was an expert in mass market sales. Upper management really wanted TSR to crack the mass market sales area. It was a good idea, but TSR, in my mind, wasn't positioned with a product that would do that.

The new crazed head of accounting told me that TSR couldn't afford to be so far ahead in our production schedule. He tried to tell me it was costing TSR money to have products waiting to be sold for months at a time. He wanted to have the products finished exactly one month before the product was released.

People, I really couldn't believe what I was hearing. I appealed to the sales vice president about the timing of releases. He didn't back me up at all. I went through the design process and told them how truly difficult it was to create products with the typesetting, design, and art necessary in each one. The company was working on large boxed sets at the time and they took even more time. I talked about bumps in the schedule from designers and editors getting sick, to wrong estimates on how long some of the large projects would take.

It was all for nothing. I was sternly ordered to change the schedule so that releases were closer exactly one month before the due date. I walked out of the meeting shaking my head at the stupidity of upper management who knew nothing about the role-playing business and could care less.

I actually enjoy following orders if they make sense to me. This direction was totally against everything I had been doing for the last year and a half. The end result was that I never changed what we were doing. When asked about it at Vice President meetings I lied like a rug. The last two years of my stay at TSR the company made the most money they ever made on product schedules. The other vice presidents and the president of the company never noticed I didn't do what was ordered of me.

Although I didn't tell my people of that meeting, word must have leaked out somehow. I seemed to have earned a reputation as a Ranger protecting the Hobbits (designers and editors) from the Nazgul (upper management).

I don't feel bad about ignoring that order to this day.
 
Jim Ward

Comments

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
They were playing Russian Roulette with their whole business model, they got themselves in trouble way before 1993: they had a very strong run of luck.
They really started having some stern competition from White Wolf on one hand and many CCGs and computer games on the other. (And probably yet other hands I'm not thinking about.)

It's amazing how high quality a lot of the '90s TSR material really was, though. Planescape, al Qadim, and Dark Sun, just to name a few of their lines were really excellent. Seriously, take a look at the material from then---it was well-written, clearly thought through, and often had quite good art and play aids, too.

It might well have helped them to have update the ruleset more, though. 2E was really a bare update on 1E with the decision to make such a minimal change due to, as far as I know, the fact that there was a bunch of 1E material sitting in the warehouse.
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
They really started having some stern competition from White Wolf on one hand and many CCGs and computer games on the other. (And probably yet other hands I'm not thinking about.)

It's amazing how high quality a lot of the '90s TSR material really was, though. Planescape, al Qadim, and Dark Sun, just to name a few of their lines were really excellent. Seriously, take a look at the material from then---it was well-written, clearly thought through, and often had quite good art and play aids, too.

It might well have helped them to have update the ruleset more, though. 2E was really a bare update on 1E with the decision to make such a minimal change due to, as far as I know, the fact that there was a bunch of 1E material sitting in the warehouse.
Nope. Skip Williams did an interview years ago, and said the reason they kept things like descending AC was because they wanted players to be able to use their 1e stuff with 2e. Nothing about still having 1e material in a warehouse.
 

Von Ether

Explorer
Nope. Skip Williams did an interview years ago, and said the reason they kept things like descending AC was because they wanted players to be able to use their 1e stuff with 2e. Nothing about still having 1e material in a warehouse.
Ordinarily, I'd say a chapter on simple conversions would have taken care of that but my GM at the time was highly irked just because the tables were on the "wrong" pages.
 

Jer

Explorer
Ordinarily, I'd say a chapter on simple conversions would have taken care of that but my GM at the time was highly irked just because the tables were on the "wrong" pages.
I remember the sheer ugliness of some of the hate that 2nd edition got in my neck of the woods. It broke at least one game group apart because half wanted to upgrade and the other half actively despised every single thing about the new edition - from the artwork to the organization to every minor rule change (and if you really wanted to see them mad, get them started on the loss of the assassin or the introduction of the new bard to the game). I hesitate to think of what might have happened had there been any actual rule changes of the magnitude we expect of an edition shift these days.

(I assume they all outgrew it - Junior High Drama is the second stupidest kind of drama, second only to Ostensibly Grown Adults Who Should Know Better Drama, which is the stupidest of all).
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
Nope. Skip Williams did an interview years ago, and said the reason they kept things like descending AC was because they wanted players to be able to use their 1e stuff with 2e. Nothing about still having 1e material in a warehouse.
Of course, those explanations aren't really all that different, one's just a bit more diplomatic/positive spin than the other. The interview I recall is quite long but here it is. I'm trying to find the spot where they mentioned the fact that management wanted minimal changes, but I haven't yet.
 

Orius

Villager
A senior professor I knew in grad school had done a good bit of work on the topic of business failures. Especially a company that had a killer product generated by a founder can often last a long time on the momentum started that way, which can cover for a lot of business shenanigans. But yeah, TSR sure did seem to have some real problems along the way until they finally died.

It may be hard (and sobering for those of us of a certain age) to realize, but WotC has owned D&D for nearly as long as TSR. TSR went from 1974 to 1997, so 23 years, and WotC has owned it for 22....
Yeah, TSR had a lot of momentum from D&D, which is probably why it took them a bit over 10 years to finally burn out after Gary left.

And I'm aware of that bit about WotC -- and I'd add that they've had far fewer stumbles than TSR did during that time. The biggest weak spot they had was during the release of 4e and the big flop over pulling the .pdfs not long afterwards, and even that wasn't anywhere near the idiocies that TSR was doing.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
Yeah, TSR had a lot of momentum from D&D, which is probably why it took them a bit over 10 years to finally burn out after Gary left.
Yeah, and Gary for all his flaws, seemed to be a fairly savvy businessman. Still, it's a very difficult thing to scale a company up from small to medium sized and, from what I've heard of folks who run companies, one reason it's so hard is that you're always only a few bad decisions away from disaster, especially if your expenses are high, which, evidently, was what happened at '90s TSR.


And I'm aware of that bit about WotC -- and I'd add that they've had far fewer stumbles than TSR did during that time. The biggest weak spot they had was during the release of 4e and the big flop over pulling the .pdfs not long afterwards, and even that wasn't anywhere near the idiocies that TSR was doing.
I think it's really important not to let hindsight bias creep in. TSR certainly made a number of bad decisions and seemed to have truly messy internal politics, but that can often describe many organizations. I do suspect that being owned by Hasbro provides a lot of external discipline that, being privately held, TSR clearly lacked. However, 4E rollout was pretty nasty and I suspect that by 2011 the powers that be in Hasbro were more or less saying "do or die". A priori it's hard to know that 5E would be as much of a success as it has been. I doubt, for instance, that anyone was thinking about streaming live play seriously then, for instance. (To be clear, I actually don't care about all the social media hype and the like, but I'm pretty old skool and part of a demographic that WotC doesn't really care about.) The real test of an organization is during a downturn, though, so... we'll see how it goes when that comes.
 

Dausuul

Legend
Of course, those explanations aren't really all that different, one's just a bit more diplomatic/positive spin than the other.
What? Trying to ship outdated product in a warehouse so you can realize a little more profit is very different from supporting product in customers' hands, when you already have the profit.

Normally, if you want to maximize profits from a new edition, you make it deliberately incompatible with the previous one, and then you look at every sourcebook that sold well in the previous edition, and you reissue it using the new rules.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
What? Trying to ship outdated product in a warehouse so you can realize a little more profit is very different from supporting product in customers' hands, when you already have the profit.

Normally, if you want to maximize profits from a new edition, you make it deliberately incompatible with the previous one, and then you look at every sourcebook that sold well in the previous edition, and you reissue it using the new rules.
See what was said by Jon Pickens at 46:30 in this podcast where he talks about the biggest challenge regarding the transition between 1E and 2E: "You can't invalidate it." He noted that they were reminded about the warehouse full of product (presumably they were also likely worried about book returns but he didn't mention that). They talk more about why the revision was as light as it was about 49:00 with regards to the fact that Gygax was gone as well. I guess, ultimately, the exact motivation isn't that huge: 2E was constrained in terms of how much alteration was allowed by management.

In addition, what about "crazy management decisions by TSR business side" is inconsistent with that kind of reasoning?
 
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Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
Of course, those explanations aren't really all that different, one's just a bit more diplomatic/positive spin than the other. The interview I recall is quite long but here it is. I'm trying to find the spot where they mentioned the fact that management wanted minimal changes, but I haven't yet.
I’ll try to find the interview. The question asked of Skip was why they didn’t think of ascending AC when designing 2e. He responded, “Of course we thought of ascending AC, but we wanted the players, who had all of this 1e material already, to be able to use it in 2e”
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
I’ll try to find the interview. The question asked of Skip was why they didn’t think of ascending AC when designing 2e. He responded, “Of course we thought of ascending AC, but we wanted the players, who had all of this 1e material already, to be able to use it in 2e”
Oh I get it and there are different ways to represent this.

Other things in the interview I posted indicated they were wary of a backlash due to the fact that 2E was the first edition done without Gary Gygax. They talk more about it around 1:00:00 in, where they discuss how the consequences of that choice played out and caused a lot of problems for 2E.

The interview at around 01:14:00 and on also discusses quite a bit about the notion of "hero points" and other issues along with the tension of the wargame aspect of D&D versus the fact that having a very heavy simulation makes drama very difficult.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
I remember the sheer ugliness of some of the hate that 2nd edition got in my neck of the woods.
TSR was evidently very afraid of backlash, particularly due to the fact that this was only a short time after Gygax had departed. There was a good bit of it between every edition change.
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
I remember the sheer ugliness of some of the hate that 2nd edition got in my neck of the woods. It broke at least one game group apart because half wanted to upgrade and the other half actively despised every single thing about the new edition - from the artwork to the organization to every minor rule change (and if you really wanted to see them mad, get them started on the loss of the assassin or the introduction of the new bard to the game). I hesitate to think of what might have happened had there been any actual rule changes of the magnitude we expect of an edition shift these days.

(I assume they all outgrew it - Junior High Drama is the second stupidest kind of drama, second only to Ostensibly Grown Adults Who Should Know Better Drama, which is the stupidest of all).

Yeah, more than half the gamers I knew all got really upset that TSR sold out, and got “wussified “ for removing the assassin and demons and devils. Looking back, the overreaction is pretty embarrassing. But I was what? 16 or 17 when 2e came out? Not the most mature, we’re we lol
 

billd91

Earl of Cornbread
Normally, if you want to maximize profits from a new edition, you make it deliberately incompatible with the previous one, and then you look at every sourcebook that sold well in the previous edition, and you reissue it using the new rules.
I'm not sure that was the prevailing idea back in the late 1980s. How many other games had gone through a massive rewrite at that point? I know Villains and Vigilantes did from 1e to 2e (which much improved the game), but I also know of others like Call of Cthulhu where the changes were incremental and served to incorporate new ideas developed in supplements into the core.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
I’ll try to find the interview. The question asked of Skip was why they didn’t think of ascending AC when designing 2e. He responded, “Of course we thought of ascending AC, but we wanted the players, who had all of this 1e material already, to be able to use it in 2e”
If I recall correctly, AC used to be ascending in very early versions of the game and then it got switched. I'm not sure why.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
I'm not sure that was the prevailing idea back in the late 1980s.
I suspect that it wasn't, at least not explicitly.

How many other games had gone through a massive rewrite at that point? I know Villains and Vigilantes did from 1e to 2e (which much improved the game), but I also know of others like Call of Cthulhu where the changes were incremental and served to incorporate new ideas developed in supplements into the core.
Actually D&D had. Recall that AD&D was a pretty heavy revision itself, and D&D had been "forked" into two versions which coexisted since around 1980. A lot of the fear, I suspect, was about the fact that this was the first version with Gygax out of the picture.
 

Parmandur

Adventurer
If I recall correctly, AC used to be ascending in very early versions of the game and then it got switched. I'm not sure why.
I believe that is incorrect: my understanding is that the non-Chainmail rules in OD&D used some modified naval combat rules, which became standard D&D combat. The ships in these rules were put in "Armor Classes": First Class was hardest to hit, Second Class was slightly easier, etc...
 

Parmandur

Adventurer
What? Trying to ship outdated product in a warehouse so you can realize a little more profit is very different from supporting product in customers' hands, when you already have the profit.

Normally, if you want to maximize profits from a new edition, you make it deliberately incompatible with the previous one, and then you look at every sourcebook that sold well in the previous edition, and you reissue it using the new rules.
It seems that edition changes have been a bust for maximizing profit: quick infusions that do long-term harm.
 
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MGibster

Explorer
Speaking as a businessman (an MBA, no less!) living in 2019, looking back at business practices just a few decades ago... the idea that a company like TSR would be run by people who weren't enthusiastic about the product seems absurd. Today, upper managers are expected to be obsessive about everything their company does - it's product, it's history, the contours of the industry... the management-is-management model is dead.
Most of the executive at my company spent decades in the industry before they ascended to their current positions. But back in the 1980s role playing games had not been around long enough for anyone to have spent decades getting to know the industry. But I think your point stands. Rumor is that Lorraine Williams, who controlled TSR after the Blume's and Gygax left, had disdain for both her customers and TSR's products.

Even in the massive, dull megabank that I work for, we're expected to be "passionate team players", and while I'm a pretty deep cynic about my firm, I'm pretty obsessive about my industry - delving into history, the dynamics of the industry, new product, etc. The idea that the heads of a game company wouldn't be even more focused just seems nuts, especially given that's not exactly an industry known for generating great fortunes (Peter Adkison's Poke-Millions aside)...
Employee engagement is a big deal these days. I work in HR and you can bet I've made it a point to get to know the ins and out of the business even if I'm not directly involved running the show.
 

R_Chance

Explorer
I believe that is incorrect: my understanding is that the non-Chainmail rules in OD&D used some modified naval combat rules, which became standard D&D combat. The ships in these rules were put in "Armor Classes": First Class was hardest to hit, Second Class was slightly easier, etc...
In Chainmail Appendix B (of my only surviving copy, 3rd edition, TSR 1975) AC on the Man to Man Melee Table went from "No Armor" on up going right (no numbers) to "Plate and Shield" with separate categories for Horses (Unarmored or barded) :) The results gave you the number on 2D6 needed for a "kill" / Hit (in later D&D). No numbers for the armor types. The table matched Weapons vs. Armor. Just below that the "Individual Fire with Missiles" table ran from "1" on up to "8". presumably from No Armor to Plate and Shield. Horses were still listed as separate (no numbers). I think they numbered the AC on the second table to save space as each result listed three values based on range. Mind you they didn't explain which # was what armor from the above table, they just assumed you would know :D Again it was Weapon vs. Armor on the table. There were also tables for fantastic creatures vs. other fantastic creatures (including Heroes and Superheroes) that ignored armor and were for mass battles (which was what Chainmail was about after all).

Original D&D listed characters fighting ability by their equivalent in "men" or as a Hero / Superhero / Wizard etc from Chainmail with increasing ability as you leveled up. D&D directly referenced the system in Chainmail as being the one used for combat. Hits did 1D6 damage for all weapons as oppose to a "kill" with suggested variations for daggers and two handed swords iirc (-1 and +1 I think). And it didn't provide the system. That was in Chainmail and they assumed you would have a copy (we did, we were miniature gamers) :D They also provided an "alternate system" involving character level vs. Armor Class with Armor Class ranging from 9 "No Armor or Shield" on down to 2 "Plate Armor and Shield" that most players would recognize today from 1E AND 2E (although no armor became AC 10 in AD&D). Well, probably recognize it anyway. Book 2 of Original D&D gave monster stats including AC, Hit Dice etc. We switched to the alternate system for combat pretty quickly (using chits numbered 1-20 as we took a while to acquire those odd 20 sided dice) because it meshed with the monster stats and included the effects of character levels and classes. By the time the first D&D supplement (Greyhawk) came out in 1975 I think the "alternate" system was the assumed normal one. And Greyhawk introduced thing like different damage ranges for various weapons and sizes of opponents too! The two handed sword became *the* weapon to use against larger than man sized opponents (3-18 damage)...

If you wonder why there was so much innovation and homebrewing in the early days this might tell you why. It was all pretty much like this. Undefined, unorganized, and totally fantastic. It was a great time to be a gamer :)

*edit* For memory, grammar, etc.
 
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