TSR When TSR Passed On Tolkien

Benjamin Riggs recently revealed this tidbit of TSR history -- Lorraine Williams passing on the rights to Tolkien's works in 1992!

middle-earth-map.jpg

"So, in 1992, TSR almost acquired the rights to JRR Tolkien's work. John Rateliff was sent to London to negotiate the deal, missing Gen Con. (Apparently, no TSR employees were allowed to miss Gen Con, but he was for this...) He met Christopher Tolkien at the Harper-Collins offices, where he asked for the rights to make RPGs, merch, and new books set in Middle-Earth. Chris Tolkien said yes to the RPGs, and some merch, but no to the fiction line.

Back in Lake Geneva, Rateliff communicated this to TSR CEO Lorraine Williams. Rateliff said, "Her immortal words were, ‘Not worth our while.’”

She then passed on the whole deal."

Rateliff wrote the book The History of the Hobbit: The Hobbit / Mr. Baggins / Return to Bag-end.

 
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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

Reynard

Legend
I feel like those suggesting Williams passed because fiction rights were not offered are spot on.

Would official D&D Middle Earth books have been awesome? Hell yes! (How many of us tried to make 2E Tolkien games happen?)

But at the time only the fiction lines promised real returns and there was NO WAY Chris Tolkien was going to sell that right.

Now, the question is would TSR owned Middle Earth fiction have been good? I think if it was set in the 4th Age with the best of their writers working on it it could have been okay.
 

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Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
Looking at the comments, and Lorraine is once again getting blamed for a horrendous disaster, when the real tragedy is that Gary could have had those rights 10 years earlier for almost nothing. That’s how ICE got them. No one ever asked the Tolkien estate for licensing rights before for an RPG, so ICE got a great deal in 1982. Instead of changing names to avoid copyright infringement, Gary should have just made a licensing deal.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
"The company [ICE] enjoyed a sudden jump in status when it acquired the license to produce an official fantasy RPG based upon J. R. R. Tolkien's world of Middle-earth, which would come to be known as MERP ("Middle-earth Role Playing"). According to some interpretations, at the time of its publication ICE's Middle-earth Role Playing was the second best selling fantasy RPG after TSR's Dungeons & Dragons."
Iron Crown Enterprises - Wikipedia

No sources given, of course, but this accords with my own recollection of those times at least. MERP modules competed with TSR ones for top spot at my FLGS.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
TSR surviving would have required cash and new management probably no later than 1993.

Such management would need to cancel almost everything and not over print the novels or make dragondice.

I don't think the MERP licence would be worth tens of millions of dollars as an RPG and even if the got movie licence they didn't have the money required to make a decent LotR trilogy.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Probably not much money in a Tolkein RPG, the movies came later and they weren't on offer in any event.

From what I understand the rights are/were also rather a tangled mess. In fact, the sheer number of people needing to get paid was one reason The Hobbit movies became so bloated and crazy.

Additionally you are really competing with yourself.

That's a good point. In many respects what did '90s TSR in induced fratricidal competition among lines that fragmented their market. The RPG product of that time period was, in general, quite good but there was a lot of it. Ultimately, though, I think the very book arm that LW was interested in was the killer, as I recall they ended up running into debt problems when they had an unexpected number of book returns.

Didn't they do another RPG after the movies?
Yes, Decipher tried one. It was... interesting, but I think it suffered from a lot of the problems licensed properties often have. One particular issue was due to the fact that they essentially had to stick to what had been done in the movies and were fenced off from a lot of interesting directions. There was also a card game, which I think did better.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
From what I understand the rights are/were also rather a tangled mess. In fact, the sheer number of people needing to get paid was one reason The Hobbit movies became so bloated and crazy.



That's a good point. In many respects what did '90s TSR in induced fratricidal competition among lines that fragmented their market. The RPG product of that time period was, in general, quite good but there was a lot of it. Ultimately, though, I think the very book arm that LW was interested in was the killer, as I recall they ended up running into debt problems when they had an unexpected number of book returns.


Yes, Decipher tried one. It was... interesting, but I think it suffered from a lot of the problems licensed properties often have. One particular issue was due to the fact that they essentially had to stick to what had been done in the movies and were fenced off from a lot of interesting directions. There was also a card game, which I think did better.

TSR/WotC also don't have a good record of licences. They lost Star Wars when they made minis using an RPG licence instead of a toy one. Mistwell would say they were technically right but they lost the licence and SWSE was decent.

They did try different genres where you're not really competing in the same genre- modern, future etc but they didn't last long.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
From what I understand the rights are/were also rather a tangled mess. In fact, the sheer number of people needing to get paid was one reason The Hobbit movies became so bloated and crazy.



That's a good point. In many respects what did '90s TSR in induced fratricidal competition among lines that fragmented their market. The RPG product of that time period was, in general, quite good but there was a lot of it. Ultimately, though, I think the very book arm that LW was interested in was the killer, as I recall they ended up running into debt problems when they had an unexpected number of book returns.


Yes, Decipher tried one. It was... interesting, but I think it suffered from a lot of the problems licensed properties often have. One particular issue was due to the fact that they essentially had to stick to what had been done in the movies and were fenced off from a lot of interesting directions. There was also a card game, which I think did better.

Looking at the comments, and Lorraine is once again getting blamed for a horrendous disaster, when the real tragedy is that Gary could have had those rights 10 years earlier for almost nothing. That’s how ICE got them. No one ever asked the Tolkien estate for licensing rights before for an RPG, so ICE got a great deal in 1982. Instead of changing names to avoid copyright infringement, Gary should have just made a licensing deal.

But that doesn't play into the "Gygax Good, Lady Bad" narrative, which is deeply important in world history, I'm given to understand.

That would have been a super weird alternate history, too...
 

Zardnaar

Legend
At the time the licences were also cheap. WEG got Star Wars for cheap in 87 or so because Star Wars was more or less dead. No toys no movies.

I don't think Lorraine passing on them is something you can blame her for as they wouldn't have generated that much money anyway.
 


If we are going to do "what ifs" here is mine: TSR licenses LotR in 1992 and focuses their production pipeline on the hot new property. Dark Sun (launched in 1991) products get cancelled before the setting really takes off. Planescape (launched in 1994) never gets beyond DiTerlizzi's sketchbook. So we are potentially losing some of TSR's most creative work to get 2E splatbooks for Middle Earth. No thanks.

I'm also skeptical that the license would have been a financial game changer for TSR either. TSR had several big licenses - Marvel Super Heroes, Indiana Jones, and Conan (back when Conan was the biggest fantasy property in pop culture). None of them really set the world on fire. In fact, IIRC when WotC looked at TSR's books prior to the buyout they found licenses were one of the biggest sources of red ink.

Williams made lots of terrible decisions - but I am not sure this is one of them from either a creative of financial point of view.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Darksun could have probably stayed in print, but nothing new after 1994 in terms of lavish boxed sets.

No

Mystara
Planescape
Revised Darksun
Birthright

Al Qadim made more money apparently than Planescape.

Spelljammer was winding down and ended 93.

So to save TSR you would have to cancel most if not all the non FR settings. Ones that were cheap to produce might survive. And/or be redone in book form.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
Here's a much better source that gives a history of ICE: A Brief History of Game #8: ICE, Part One: 1980-1992 - RPGnet

It is much better sourced as the author talked to the ICE people themselves, who included Monte Cook (yes, that Monte Cook-- he was an ICE editor in the 80s, and wrote the excellent Darkspace supplement for Rolemaster).

A few quotes:
"MERP was one of the best selling RPGs in the mid-1980s, largely because of its success in the book trade and overseas. A couple of different reports suggest that first-edition English-language sales were in the 250,000-300,00 range. MERP did better in Europe than in the United States, and it was translated into 12 languages over its lifetime. "

"The Middle-earth campaign/background books, which began with Angmar (1982), and ran to 21 books by the end of the first edition, were the core of the MERP line. Edited by Fenlon and, later, Jessica Ney-Grimm, they were some of the best and most extensive setting books ever published for roleplaying, begun 5 years before TSR started a similar program for the Forgotten Realms. "

"ICE's revenue in 1996, supported by healthy CCG sales, was $6 million..."

At the time of its bankruptcy (right around the time the TSR ship was foundering too), ICE had published "more RPG products than anyone to date but TSR and... produced what the ICE founders would later report as the 2nd (MERP) and 3rd (Rolemaster) best-selling fantasy RPG games of the era".
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
One other thing to keep in mind: 1993 (at GenCon) was when Magic: the Gathering first came out, which put a big hole in many gamers' pockets for a while (and for some, still does!).
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
One other thing to keep in mind: 1993 (at GenCon) was when Magic: the Gathering first came out, which put a big hole in many gamers' pockets for a while (and for some, still does!).

Magic apparently has a larger audience buying more product now than ever before, which is insane.
 

Isn't it fun? An official D&D LofR could happen still, in a few years (and I am not kidding). How? Easy, when Cubicle 7 loses the rights, Hasbro could get them. But this needs a lot of diplomatic skills in the negotiations because Tolkien's heirs don't want their work become a Warcraft clone. I don't blame them.

* The true essence of Tolkien's work is a mixture of beauty and sad nostalgy for the past times and the emotional war scars hurt in the soul for the rest of your life, if you lose something, it will never come back, and this is the opposite of D&D where new things can appear and healing is easy, only drinking a potion. And in the Middle-Earth there is no a mannequinism balance between good and evil. Always Ilúvatar, the pantocrator (supreme creator) god was more powerful than Melkor or Sauron. And there is no magic casted by the good guys, but "celestial" creatures (Gandalf wasn't an ordinary human, but more like an angel) and "Charisma", divine gifts to help the rest of community. Calling magician to a Tolkien's elf is for this an insult. To get a miracle to have to offer to God the same you ask, love and obedience.

* Other option could be to create as spin-off a "mash-up" of Middle-Earth. The original "time sphere" wouldn't change at all, but there is a "mirror universe" where both mythologies are mixed. But I am afraid this would be a true "jump the shark".

* If you want to play a "The new shadow", the planned sequel, the threads I suggest are the moral corruption by the powerfuls (not only noble houses), the neophobia (fear for new things), the fight against nostalgy and sadness for the lost memories, the schisms (a false prophet creates a new religion, or a "Reform"), sharing/transmitting ideals your wisdom with the new generations (like the respect for the human dignity), and the wounds in the soul after the suffering.
 

Topramesk

Explorer
Here's a much better source that gives a history of ICE: A Brief History of Game #8: ICE, Part One: 1980-1992 - RPGnet

It is much better sourced as the author talked to the ICE people themselves, who included Monte Cook (yes, that Monte Cook-- he was an ICE editor in the 80s, and wrote the excellent Darkspace supplement for Rolemaster).

A few quotes:
"MERP was one of the best selling RPGs in the mid-1980s, largely because of its success in the book trade and overseas. A couple of different reports suggest that first-edition English-language sales were in the 250,000-300,00 range. MERP did better in Europe than in the United States, and it was translated into 12 languages over its lifetime. "

"The Middle-earth campaign/background books, which began with Angmar (1982), and ran to 21 books by the end of the first edition, were the core of the MERP line. Edited by Fenlon and, later, Jessica Ney-Grimm, they were some of the best and most extensive setting books ever published for roleplaying, begun 5 years before TSR started a similar program for the Forgotten Realms. "

"ICE's revenue in 1996, supported by healthy CCG sales, was $6 million..."

At the time of its bankruptcy (right around the time the TSR ship was foundering too), ICE had published "more RPG products than anyone to date but TSR and... produced what the ICE founders would later report as the 2nd (MERP) and 3rd (Rolemaster) best-selling fantasy RPG games of the era".

Yep, MERP was huge back in the days, particularly here in Europe, that's why the statement sounded strange to me.

Anyway, I think it's easy to criticize Williams in hindsight, but probably at the time it looked like a sound decision.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
MERP at its height was respectable for not D&D.

To put it in perspective though it sold about half of the black box of BECMI D&D which was released 1991 IIRC.

Which sold less than 2E.


And you're also selling the BECMI rules cyclopedia.

So you pay another company money to potentially eat into your own sales for a product that at best will sell half of a secondary or tertiary product you own.

It also took a decade to get to that number.
BECMI in it's death throes was outselling MERP. The scales are completely different.
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Since AiME used 5e rules, we know what middle earth and DnD being married looks like. And while AiME is a great book, you don’t see people playing it in conventions, flgs, or live streaming like we see with core DND. I had a horrible time trying to find players here in Portland to play it.

That's because they decided not to put out stats for most major characters from the books, such as Gandalf. I swear, if they'd done that then sales would have gone up at least thirty percent! :geek:

That’s hard for me to imagine because by then, Salvatore was full on Drizzt mode, with novels coming out with regularity. And they were super popular. So it would have had to be someone else.

I’m preferring to imagine Elaine Williams instead 😉

I think you mean Elaine Cunningham?

We probably can even now. The Tolkien suit involved the Battle of Five Armies game, which was a more substantive copyright breach; hobbits and ents and balrogs went as a precaution at the same time.

Fun fact: the "Tolkien suit" of 1977 was neither a lawsuit, nor did it come from the Tolkien estate. Rather, it was a cease and desist letter sent by Elan Merchandising, who at the time held the non-literary rights to Tolkien's work (source: Playing at the World, Section 5.10).
 
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Lord_Blacksteel

Adventurer
The idea that a LOTR RPG from TSR wouldn't have sold well in the 90's because MERP didn't sell as many copies as D&D is ridiculous. Nothing ever has until the misstep with 4E and the ascension of Pathfinder. There have always been other fantasy RPG's that sold well alongside D&D. Making it "official D&D" would have added to that, not reduced it.

Take the biggest RPG in the world, add on a boxed set like only TSR could do with the name "Lord of the Rings" on it with the books and maps and cards like those sets had and it would have sold better than any of their other campaigns of that era. Because, as someone else pointed out, beyond buying things to run or play, people buy a lot of RPG books because they're a nice object that relates to something they are interested in. A whole lot of people would have bought those books just to have them.

That said the novel thing is a real issue though because TSR at the time was big into the cross-media thing. All of their settings had a boxed set, supplementary books, novels, and computer games - yes Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Birthright all had these, not just the Realms - so not being able to go nuts with Middle Earth in the same way makes sense as a deal-breaker for management at the time.

It's an interesting what-if though. Imagine if it had worked out with say a ten-year license that ended up tying into the movies and a new edition of D&D around that time.
 


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