TSR TSR's "Designeritus"

We had a lot of design talent in the heyday of TSR. Zeb Cook and Jeff Grubb strode the world like giants and put together some amazing million dollar profit centers. There were other designers and editors and supervisors that also generated great stuff.


However, I often had to get after those designers for something I called "Designeritus." Jeff Grubb bless his heart was the worst, but Troy Denning was also bad. They all tried for perfection in designing their products. They really wanted everything they wrote to be perfect and that is not possible. There was also the fact that upper management and the sales people were constantly pushing for quicker deadlines. That pushing was so hard that TSR started making covers almost a year ahead of the products being designed.

Often I felt I was Publius Horatius Corcles defending the bridge against the mass of upper management wanting to use and abuse my designers and editors. Most of the time I could patiently explain why it was impossible to turn over a boxed set in a month. Since I had done most of the types of products at TSR I was listened to. However, those dudes figured out they could get double duty from me and started giving me design assignments even though I was a full time supervisor. The last project I did for upper management was the Greyhawk Adventures hardbound. Normally, it would be a six month project and with a lot of help I turned it over in three months.

Let's get back to the idea of Designeritus. I would give each designer in and out of TSR (as we used lots of freelance designers) a rock solid deadline. I and their product managers tried to make sure they would be done by that deadline. They knew deadlines were important to the stability of the company. However, they would come to me and beg for two weeks more because they wanted to go over the material and improve it. It took me many months to realize I needed to add in even more padding to the schedule because they would always come and ask me for more time. I did finally figure it out. I would never give them two weeks but I often gave them a week. They had every right to be very proud of their design work. Marvel is still an unmatched RPG to this day. The Dark Sun that Troy and others worked on was and is terrific.

I did figure out a useful trick for the designers. I would have them give me all the material they had designed in a weeks time on Friday. They all wanted to make sure their amount of work looked good. I would take one of the turn overs and read it on the weekend and give that designer feedback on Monday. Deadlines became much easier to hit when the designers had to work hard every week.

In those days we worked on a year's schedule nine to ten months out. We knew how long it took to design a hardbound book, adventure, or boxed set. We would set that time aside for the writing. In the same way we knew how long it took to edit each work and we would set aside time to do that work. In the scheduling we had to figure in vacation time for each employee. Art work and mapping were factored in, but usually there was lots of over lap in the schedule for art and maps. Toy Fair was in March and we had to have catalogs printed by then. Toward the end of my time at TSR those catalogs were huge publications.

Like I said, they were amazing people. Upper management wasn't so amazing. While Gary was the boss, the creatives did very well. After he left, people took over that knew nothing about the hobby industry and could care less.

TSR and Six Months

The upper management at TSR often played dirty with us in design and editing. Imagine my horror when accounting came into my office with sales. They told me they needed a hardbound book to sell so that we could make enough money to pay the employees in the fall. I wasn't going to be the one to tell my group we had to suffer a loss in pay because the company wasn't going to make enough money.

I said sure the department could deliver such a product, but it wouldn't be until the Spring.

They said no, that won't do. We need it out the door in six months at the latest. I thought over the scheduling problem. We usually let designers have six months just to design a 160 hardbound book. We liked to play test the rules, proof read the rules, let an editor have it for two or three months, art had to be ordered and three months was allowed for that, the cover was vital. This product wouldn't be in the fall catalog so getting it into the budgets of distributors would be difficult at this late date.

I argued against the effort. Accounting kept bringing up the companies in ability to pay salaries. I was between a rock and a hard place. I took up the challenge of writing the book because all of the other designers were scheduled to the max.

Looking over all the excellent campaign worlds of TSR I was most familiar with the Greyhawk Campaign. Gary wasn't at TSR then so there hadn't been much Greyhawk material generated. Some of the concepts in the book were easy for me to write because I had played in Gary's game for years and years. Spells were easy to design as I had been developing Drawmij spells for years. Monsters were easy again. Some of the NPCs of Greyhawk had never been stated out and they were worth doing. I had always thought Zero level characters were a logical thing to develop.

I generated a detailed outline of things I thought our AD&D consumers would enjoy. Bruce Heard worked to get me some very good freelance designers and we got to work. We cut corners whenever we could. We started turning over art orders early. We didn't play test anything. I really regretted that as my Zero level characters could have used lots more development work.

The end result was that we did turn it over according to the deadline. Random House took a ton of them. It sold very well with the hobby distributors. We received a lot of favorable reviews.

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Jim Ward

Jim Ward

Drawmij the Wizard

Aaron L

The Dark Sun that Troy and others worked on was and is terrific.

I must say that is an understatement, Good Sir; the original Dark Sun boxed set was sublime. :D

I was actually fortunate enough to find an original Dark Sun boxed set on eBay in truly excellent condition about 2 years ago for $60, unopened and with the shrink wrap still intact! I got a genuine thrill when I popped the lid and saw the 1992 flyer to join the RPGA sitting on top of the other contents. And the maps! Oh my, those beautiful, wonderfully textured maps!

In fact, I hope to get the chance to use that beautiful box that is sitting on my shelf not 3 feet away from me to actually run a 2nd Edition AD&D Dark Sun campaign at some point in the near future, including even using the Battlesystem rules to have the PCs lead some forces in a skirmish to defend a village against a raid of Gith at some point. I've just always wanted to set up a situation for players to really take advantage of the Dark Sun Fighter's command abilities.

The revised Dark Sun boxed set is... best not spoken of very much. Using the fact that character ability scores go up to 25 as an attention-grabbing selling point of Dark Sun, but then deciding to revise and re-calibrate the ability score modifiers such that the high numbers merely equate to lower scores on the standard table... was not the brightest nor most honest idea I've ever encountered. The whole idea was quite upsetting to everyone I ever gamed with, and it was simply ignored by all of us.

Oh, how I long for the days of big, beautiful campaign setting boxed sets full of wonderful doo-dads, knick-knacks, trinkets, tchotchkes, and maps... oh, those wonderful lost maps! I can understand that the economics of boxed sets no longer make them viable (although I would quite happily pay a bit extra for the inclusion of such feelies with campaign settings once again, to help establish the look and feel of the setting and provide the added emotional connection that can only be provided by tactile sensations, and all of it inside a nice box to hold all the books for a setting all together, even on my extremely limited fixed budget!) But I mostly wish to the Happy Hunting Grounds that WotC and other publishers would at least return to including full-sized printed maps with their campaign setting releases! And not just some small tear-out map embedded between the pages that leaves a ragged-edged scar in the middle of your new book when removed, but actual, separate, folded up full maps of the world of the campaign setting, perhaps shrink-wrapped and bound in a pocket inside the back cover. It's always so frustrating to try to envision the full look of a campaign setting with only maps the size of a standard page to go by, and usually broken up into even smaller sections spread across several pages. I am certain that every gamer out there would rejoice if only publishers would start including actual, real, unattached, folded up large maps in their biggest books and campaign settings once again!

By the way, thank you so much for these articles; they really are a treat to read! :)(y):geek:


I STILL USe the material developed at this time. It is hard for me to switch editions because that second edition material is just so useful. If not for the 100 year time jump I would have probably been fully invested in 5e. Never the less because of that I stick to earlier editions when I run Forgotten Realms.

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Oh, how I long for the days of big, beautiful campaign setting boxed sets full of wonderful doo-dads, knick-knacks, trinkets, tchotchkes, and maps... oh, those wonderful lost maps!
Interesting. I disliked them quite a bit due to my propensity to lose things from the boxed set, end up with the box crushed, one of the booklets missing, and so on. Hardcovers have much more staying power and are easier to store. I do recall liking the maps, but I generally just look at them online now and, as often as not, I'd seem to lose one of the map halfs.

That Greyhawk Adventures book was one of my first purchases, mainly for the awesome cover, then the internals kept my imagination going with adventure ideas....Thanks! I pulled it out 6 months ago when my DM started a Greyhawk 1e campaign and the fun of 30 years ago and again now flew back in.

We enjoyed Greyhawk Adventures in our Spanishburg, West Virginia (junior high-era) gaming group. Was entranced by the evocative descriptions of the deities, such as Boccob (AFAIR, my character chose to be a devotee of said god).
I'm still into 0-level characters - have made Dungeon Crawl Classics' funnel method an integral part of my campaign.

Von Ether

The upper management at TSR often played dirty with us in design and editing. Imagine my horror when accounting came into my office with sales. They told me they needed a hardbound book to sell so that we could make enough money to pay the employees in the fall

I'm confused. Does that mean they were completely lying? Or manipulating the spreadsheet so the creative department bore the brunt of a red quarter?

Regardless, it still sounds like one of the two classic mid/upper management attitudes:
1. "It can't take that long/be that hard to do a project! They don't do the real work around here!" Read "real" as "My job makes me miserable and I suffered enough to get my masters/law degree."

2. CEO picks arbitrary projection on a hunch and then hammers the workforce to make it a reality. And then blame them when numbers fall short.

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