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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darjr

I crit!
Speaking as someone who is playing Adventures in Middle Earth (AIME) right now, I don't see it competing with more open ended systems/worlds.

The great part of AIME is taking a deep dive into Tolkien atmosphere which requires a lot of buy in from the DM and players. Not particularly easy (or even possible?) to do at conventions, one-offs, etc... it takes a decent amount of setup and is pretty harsh compared to more "gamey" worlds like FR.

I'd have expected it, even if Williams had picked it up, to be a direct competitor to all their other product lines, thus cannibalizing the profit margins without increasing total sales much. They'd have paid to produce more books (and you know LOTR would have needed top-notch illustration, editing, and printing...) but would the company have sold that many more books?
Cannibalizing other TSR lines was a Williams era TSR specialty. And for us customers while it lasted it was kinda amazing.
 

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SMHWorlds

Adventurer
I think that is we take the question in the context of the day, not in the context of today, it paints a very different picture. It may be hard to remember but MERP and ICE were one of the big ones even then. Rolemaster, Spacemaster, MERP, and Silent Death. I imagine they were never as big as TSR, but D&D was a phenomena. That TSR could market the hell out of their game is not in dispute. So why wouldn't TSR want that license even without the novels? Whether they would have done anything worthwhile with it, is not the issue. Trying to turn Ms. Williams into some kind of seer who could tell the ME franchise would not have been worth her time is utter nonsense; they bought up the Buck Rogers license, right? Yes it was likely more affordable but it was also less of a seller and no one else (correct me if I am wrong) had touched prior to that.

No trying to paint this as a smart business decision does not fly with me. At the time not only did TSR have talented writers and designers, but also a cache of talented artists. Imagine Elmore or Brom being turned loose on a ME product line? Or any of the other very talented artists. I suspect one of our beloved 2E settings (Spelljammer, Planescape, Dark Sun) would have suffered and been lost, but the products would have been interesting and they would have sold well, I feel safe in saying. Whether you would have done so is irrelevant. People spent thousands of dollars on a ME rpg, MERP, that many felt was complex or gimmicky. How many more would sold if it had been paired with 2E? I bet a lot.

Taking a step back, for those who were not there or who choose not to remember, but buying RPG products was a bigger habit than playing rpg products and it always has been. One of the reason the industry continues on is due to the ideas of collecting and completionism. I have more RPGs than I could run in month, if I ran one or even two games a day, 4 hour sessions each. Some of them I have not looked at in years. So yes, people would have bout ME AD&D. Whether they played it or not, who knows?

Another tangent about the person who poo-poo'ed Star Wars, the RPG. Take a read of this article and I think it will prove enlightening. If WEG could be instrumental in reviving Star Wars., then TSR would have stood a great chance with ME, in my opinion. I could be wrong. Those who were part of the process at the time would know better than I. But from the ground level, I think it was a missed opportunity.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I think people over rate the appeal of Middle Earth as an RPG.
I don't think the point of TSR acquiring the rights would necessarily have been to put out a standalone Middle Earth-based RPG, but instead (I hope!) to take what they could from that IP and incorporate it into the game they already had: D&D.

Halflings become Hobbits. Treants become Ents. Middle Earth becomes maybe another setting (not like 2e era TSR was any stranger to those!). Sauron becomes the uber-villain of all uber-villains. And the adventures and modules almost write themselves...and sell themselves, too. :)

In 1992 who would be your target audience? People who like fantasy RPGs already have D&D for similar genres.

That leaves a theoretical amount of people out there who want to play an RPG set on Middle Earth.
Yes, this is the problem: it's already 1992 by the time this happens. Far far better had this been done ten years sooner, when both LotR and D&D were really big deals.

But even in 1992, not taking this opportunity counts as a colossal miss.
 

SMHWorlds

Adventurer
As an addendum to what I said, I forgot that Ms. Williams had the rights to Buck Rogers already, due to family connections. So that piece of information may not have been as relevant to my comments.
 


Parmandur

Book-Friend
I think that is we take the question in the context of the day, not in the context of today, it paints a very different picture. It may be hard to remember but MERP and ICE were one of the big ones even then. Rolemaster, Spacemaster, MERP, and Silent Death. I imagine they were never as big as TSR, but D&D was a phenomena. That TSR could market the hell out of their game is not in dispute. So why wouldn't TSR want that license even without the novels? Whether they would have done anything worthwhile with it, is not the issue. Trying to turn Ms. Williams into some kind of seer who could tell the ME franchise would not have been worth her time is utter nonsense; they bought up the Buck Rogers license, right? Yes it was likely more affordable but it was also less of a seller and no one else (correct me if I am wrong) had touched prior to that.

No trying to paint this as a smart business decision does not fly with me. At the time not only did TSR have talented writers and designers, but also a cache of talented artists. Imagine Elmore or Brom being turned loose on a ME product line? Or any of the other very talented artists. I suspect one of our beloved 2E settings (Spelljammer, Planescape, Dark Sun) would have suffered and been lost, but the products would have been interesting and they would have sold well, I feel safe in saying. Whether you would have done so is irrelevant. People spent thousands of dollars on a ME rpg, MERP, that many felt was complex or gimmicky. How many more would sold if it had been paired with 2E? I bet a lot.

Taking a step back, for those who were not there or who choose not to remember, but buying RPG products was a bigger habit than playing rpg products and it always has been. One of the reason the industry continues on is due to the ideas of collecting and completionism. I have more RPGs than I could run in month, if I ran one or even two games a day, 4 hour sessions each. Some of them I have not looked at in years. So yes, people would have bout ME AD&D. Whether they played it or not, who knows?

Another tangent about the person who poo-poo'ed Star Wars, the RPG. Take a read of this article and I think it will prove enlightening. If WEG could be instrumental in reviving Star Wars., then TSR would have stood a great chance with ME, in my opinion. I could be wrong. Those who were part of the process at the time would know better than I. But from the ground level, I think it was a missed opportunity.

Well, we don't know the numbers: from a ROI point of view, this might have very well been iffy looking. Hard to say without hard facts.

But TSR made the big bucks on novels: if they had a franchise like Middle Earth, they could have made serious bank there.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
The counterpoint is that unsuccessful businesses are unsuccessful for a reason.

The structural issues with TSR would not have gone away with a LoTR license. Little things like booking revenue that didn’t exist, and producing products no one bought, and having no clear idea what they had in inventory.

A counterfactual that has TSR surviving has them, um, not being TSR. ;)

Well, this counterfactual also involves Christopher Tolkien not being Christopher Tolkien, honestly. You are not wrong, but more money could have kept the dance going longer...

It's just such a horrifyingly charming idea, TSR Middle Earth novels ... Reminds me of how my wife enjoyed the Hobbit movies not as Tolkien, but as "pretty good Warhammer films."
 

Zardnaar

Legend
I think that is we take the question in the context of the day, not in the context of today, it paints a very different picture. It may be hard to remember but MERP and ICE were one of the big ones even then. Rolemaster, Spacemaster, MERP, and Silent Death. I imagine they were never as big as TSR, but D&D was a phenomena. That TSR could market the hell out of their game is not in dispute. So why wouldn't TSR want that license even without the novels? Whether they would have done anything worthwhile with it, is not the issue. Trying to turn Ms. Williams into some kind of seer who could tell the ME franchise would not have been worth her time is utter nonsense; they bought up the Buck Rogers license, right? Yes it was likely more affordable but it was also less of a seller and no one else (correct me if I am wrong) had touched prior to that.

No trying to paint this as a smart business decision does not fly with me. At the time not only did TSR have talented writers and designers, but also a cache of talented artists. Imagine Elmore or Brom being turned loose on a ME product line? Or any of the other very talented artists. I suspect one of our beloved 2E settings (Spelljammer, Planescape, Dark Sun) would have suffered and been lost, but the products would have been interesting and they would have sold well, I feel safe in saying. Whether you would have done so is irrelevant. People spent thousands of dollars on a ME rpg, MERP, that many felt was complex or gimmicky. How many more would sold if it had been paired with 2E? I bet a lot.

Taking a step back, for those who were not there or who choose not to remember, but buying RPG products was a bigger habit than playing rpg products and it always has been. One of the reason the industry continues on is due to the ideas of collecting and completionism. I have more RPGs than I could run in month, if I ran one or even two games a day, 4 hour sessions each. Some of them I have not looked at in years. So yes, people would have bout ME AD&D. Whether they played it or not, who knows?

Another tangent about the person who poo-poo'ed Star Wars, the RPG. Take a read of this article and I think it will prove enlightening. If WEG could be instrumental in reviving Star Wars., then TSR would have stood a great chance with ME, in my opinion. I could be wrong. Those who were part of the process at the time would know better than I. But from the ground level, I think it was a missed opportunity.


The reason the picked up the Buck Rogers licence was because Lorriane Williams family owned the IP. Essentially she milked D&D to enrich her family/herself.

It's not a missed opportunity, TSR would still have gone under.

The only possible exception would be a hypothetical game that was a smash hit on the same level as D&D without eating into D&D's sales

Since no version of MERP has ever sold the numbers required it's highly unlikely TSR would have done any better.

At best it's probably worth a few million, TSR needed tens of millions.

By the time they could have brought it to market odds are it's to late.
 


Parmandur

Book-Friend
Oh, I love the idea! But given what I've heard of the structural problems at TSR, I don't know that there is any possible single magic bullet; in fact, a bad licensing deal (ahem!) could have saddled them with such a liability that no one (including WoTC) would have tried resurrecting them as constituted for some time.

Well, and the novels were what got them in the end: mass producing schlocky Middler Earth novels would have been as much of a bubble as the Forgotten Realms, in all likelihood...
 

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