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TSR 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.
 

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Jim Ward

Jim Ward

Drawmij the Wizard

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
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...

The term "armor class" certainly makes sense because it was adopted from real naval terminology, and I can see lower being better from Royal Navy I believe, which had First through Fifth Rate for ships of the line, originally. Hit points came from actual naval wargaming, which was used heavily IRL when planning operations. The big thing that happened in the early days was that table lookup was considered totally normal. If you've ever played one of those Avalon Hill type wargames they're filled with lookup tables, so this would have been NBD to early players. But for some reason I thought there was some early version where AC went up... could be wrong. It's a small thing.
 

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Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
It seems that edition changes have been a bust for maximizing profit: quick infusions that do long-term harm.

I'm not sure I'd agree with that. Mid-edition re-covering and other things like that, certainly tend to be cash grabs. Often edition changes were really done with fixing the rules or pushing in a new direction in mind, though.

Of course they do sell a ton of books because most sales tend to be to core books, which generally have much higher print runs and thus better margins. They also generate a lot of buzz, which isn't bad for marketing either.
 

Parmandur

Legend
I'm not sure I'd agree with that. Mid-edition re-covering and other things like that, certainly tend to be cash grabs. Often edition changes were really done with fixing the rules or pushing in a new direction in mind, though.

Of course they do sell a ton of books because most sales tend to be to core books, which generally have much higher print runs and thus better margins. They also generate a lot of buzz, which isn't bad for marketing either.

Well, they are fraught enterprises: every edition WotC released before 5E had crashed and burned within five years (ignoring the "half edition" fiction of "3.5"). It's a boom and bust cycle, not necessarily the best model to follow. WotC us currently operating on an Evergreen theory, and it just might last.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Well, they are fraught enterprises: every edition WotC released before 5E had crashed and burned within five years (ignoring the "half edition" fiction of "3.5"). It's a boom and bust cycle, not necessarily the best model to follow. WotC us currently operating on an Evergreen theory, and it just might last.

Nothing's evergreen. There probably were things that WotC did in the past to make the boom and bust worse---the OGL in 3.X that induced the D20 glut was a good example, as did the way 4E got rolled out without the online development they'd over-promised---but I suspect many of those things weren't easy to foresee, even if they seem obvious in retrospect.

I wouldn't be unhappy with a 5.5 that cleaned up some of the rough spots that exist in the original 5E design.
 

Parmandur

Legend
Nothing's evergreen. There probably were things that WotC did in the past to make the boom and bust worse---the OGL in 3.X that induced the D20 glut was a good example, as did the way 4E got rolled out without the online development they'd over-promised---but I suspect many of those things weren't easy to foresee, even if they seem obvious in retrospect.

I wouldn't be unhappy with a 5.5 that cleaned up some of the rough spots that exist in the original 5E design.

I'm not saying the game won't change: I don't doubt that there will be a 6E eventually (no 5.5, 3.5 was apparently a marketing disaster per WotC). However, it will be more like the latest edition change for Monopoly or Magic: different and improved, but not necessarily heralded, and backwards compatible to make the transition easy on players (backwards compatibility with 5E is the number one design consideration for any theoretical future edition, as WotC has been at pains to say every time the topic comes up). WotC has, for example, gone out of their way to never, ever talk about "Fifth Edition" in marketing contexts. Just "Dungeons & Dragons," full stop. The upper echelons of the D&D community are fairly conscious of the edition situation, but WotC is not using edition as a marketing tool anymore, because it really didn't work.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
I'm not saying the game won't change: I don't doubt that there will be a 6E eventually (no 5.5, 3.5 was apparently a marketing disaster per WotC). However, it will be more like the latest edition change for Monopoly or Magic: different and improved, but not necessarily heralded, and backwards compatible to make the transition easy on players (backwards compatibility with 5E is the number one design consideration for any theoretical future edition, as WotC has been at pains to say every time the topic comes up). WotC has, for example, gone out of their way to never, ever talk about "Fifth Edition" in marketing contexts. Just "Dungeons & Dragons," full stop. The upper echelons of the D&D community are fairly conscious of the edition situation, but WotC is not using edition as a marketing tool anymore, because it really didn't work.

Well it worked GREAT in 3E for a while and brought in a lot of new folks, but failed badly in 4E. Sometimes people over-learn lessons from the past. Still, I don't mind substantial backwards compatibility so I'm OK with the notion of not making massive changes. In general, 5E is pretty smooth, maintaining a lot of what was good from Ye Olde Dayes but with more modern mechanics.

But it does certainly have some rough patches and missed opportunities. I totally get why bounded accuracy is generally a good idea, but they didn't really manage to make it work in a number of spots, most notably saves and skills at medium to higher levels. There are other areas I don't really like either, but some of that's more taste than messed up math. One of these days I should really write down all the changes I want, if for no other reason than that way I can just have all my house rules in one spot.
 
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Parmandur

Legend
Well it worked GREAT in 3E for a while and brought in a lot of new folks, but failed badly in 4E. Sometimes people over-learn lessons from the past. Still, I don't mind substantial backwards compatibility so I'm OK with the notion of not making massive changes. In general, 5E is pretty smooth, maintaining a lot of what was good from Ye Olde Dayes but with more modern mechanics.

But it does certainly have some rough patches and missed opportunities. I totally get why bounded accuracy is generally a good idea, but they didn't really manage to make it work in a number of spots, most notably saves and skills at medium to higher levels. There are other areas I don't really like either, but some of that's more taste than messed up math. One of these days I should really write down all the changes I want, if for no other reason than that way I can just have all my house rules in one spot.

It worked-ish. 3E was replaced by a new edition within 3 years, and 3.5 was ultimately a losing proposition in terms of profit improvement. 4E was a much more obvious "New Coke" style Trainwreck, but the 3.x edition changes were problematic themselves, and 2E never caught up with 1E per my understanding.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
It worked-ish. 3E was replaced by a new edition within 3 years, and 3.5 was ultimately a losing proposition in terms of profit improvement. 4E was a much more obvious "New Coke" style Trainwreck, but the 3.x edition changes were problematic themselves, and 2E never caught up with 1E per my understanding.

That's all true, but I think it misses the competition in the market. 3.X had the misfortune of being in the marketplace competing against a ton of D20 RPGs (which was, arguably, their own doing) as well as the widespread success of MMOs and collectable minis games (things that couldn't be foreseen), both of which took substantial market share from D&D. As I recall, Monte Cook said that 3.5 came out when it did not because it wasn't part of the overall business plan (it was for a few years later) but because 3.0 sales dove faster than they expected. 2E came out right when two big competitors emerged: The White Wolf games and, way more importantly, CCGs, both of which were certainly unforeseen by TSR management. So, in a lot of ways, the fight for market was a whole lot harder. Of course, one might argue that this doesn't account for why 5E has been so successful... to be clear, I don't know either, but I really don't think that things like live streaming of other people's games would be so popular was something anyone thought of in 2012.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
My theory with 3.0 was sales were so front loaded they hit saturation point a lot faster.

2E afaik outsoldvmostveditions but didn't hitv1E or red box numbers.

3.5 is the second worst selling D&D after OD&D, maybe 4E but I suspect that one sold well initially but cratered fast.

D&D can't really sustain a 2E to 4E publishing schedule. Prime example if milking the existing fanbase.

1E, B/X and 5E made a bigger pie.
 

ccs

41st lv DM
I don't doubt that there will be a 6E eventually (no 5.5, 3.5 was apparently a marketing disaster per WotC). However, it will be more like the latest edition change for Monopoly or Magic: different and improved, but not necessarily heralded, and backwards compatible to make the transition easy on players

It'll be heralded. And I bet I know when.
But I agree it will be very backwards compatible. You won't have to change (unless your only play is in the AL), but the improvements will encourage you to do so.
 



Parmandur

Legend
It'll be heralded. And I bet I know when.
But I agree it will be very backwards compatible. You won't have to change (unless your only play is in the AL), but the improvements will encourage you to do so.

The 50th anniversary would be a logical date, abstractly, but abstractions ≠ market realities. If 5E is still going strong, they won't do a new edition at that time.
 

Parmandur

Legend
That's all true, but I think it misses the competition in the market. 3.X had the misfortune of being in the marketplace competing against a ton of D20 RPGs (which was, arguably, their own doing) as well as the widespread success of MMOs and collectable minis games (things that couldn't be foreseen), both of which took substantial market share from D&D. As I recall, Monte Cook said that 3.5 came out when it did not because it wasn't part of the overall business plan (it was for a few years later) but because 3.0 sales dove faster than they expected. 2E came out right when two big competitors emerged: The White Wolf games and, way more importantly, CCGs, both of which were certainly unforeseen by TSR management. So, in a lot of ways, the fight for market was a whole lot harder. Of course, one might argue that this doesn't account for why 5E has been so successful... to be clear, I don't know either, but I really don't think that things like live streaming of other people's games would be so popular was something anyone thought of in 2012.

Right, 3.5 got moved up, as it was part of the plan: but it was a plan that did not work any time they tried it.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
The 50th anniversary would be a logical date, abstractly, but abstractions ≠ market realities. If 5E is still going strong, they won't do a new edition at that time.

Well it's 5 years away, it's a nice number for a new edition and 5E would be 10 years old.

Failing that an anniversary cover
 


Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
My theory with 3.0 was sales were so front loaded they hit saturation point a lot faster.

Could be, but this was definitely a time where the RPG industry as a whole started going down so I don't think it was just WotC.


3.5 is the second worst selling D&D after OD&D, maybe 4E but I suspect that one sold well initially but cratered fast.

I see 3.5 as more of a "we see sales going down and are trying to boost them" situation that didn't work. As I recall this was industry wide. Part of it was the glut created by all the D20 releases but it was affecting other companies, too.


1E, B/X and 5E made a bigger pie.

They did, but I do really think it's hard to conclude a ton from them. Nobody went into each of those edition changes saying "You know what, let's plot a failure."

I keep saying this too, but I really think the overall mix of competition that's out there makes an enormous difference. TSR and WotC was often its own worst competitor by diluting the market and making foolish decisions, but they also faced changing mixes of competition from other products. This was particularly true with 3.0, which started dying out in no small part due to the emergence of MMOs. 2E also had a lot of competition from the rise of CCGs.

D&D can't really sustain a 2E to 4E publishing schedule. Prime example if milking the existing fanbase.

Yeah, it's certainly difficult to sustain that level of publication. The costs are high and it fragments the market. Still, the material that came out for 2E in those days was really, really good as, indeed, was some of the 4E material.
 

Joe Pilkus

Villager
The insights of that time are quite interesting. As we were merrily playing D&D, we had no idea of the inanity going-on behind the scenes
 

GenghisDon

First Post
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).

You will not be happy to learn that the hate for many like that only festered over the decades. For all too many, it's as strong today as it was then.

Sad, but true.
 

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