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.

 
Last edited:
Russ Morrissey

Comments

Zardnaar

Hero
Ryan Dancey described seeing all the returns in the TSR warehouse, especially novels. But you have to view that image in context. The returns were not there simply because no one wanted the products. When Ryan toured the TSR warehouse, it was after Random House had flushed all TSR products out of their system, because the book trade distribution deal TSR had with Random House had collapsed. RH returned all the products and demanded repayment of all the money they had paid to TSR on receiving those products--every penny paid for any product that had not yet sold--because their deal with the company was over. If RH had held on to the books, a significant portion of that stuff would have sold.

Yes, TSR had been overprinting and overshipping products to Random House, because the company got paid on ship, not sale. (And fiction authors were paid royalties months after reported sales; so TSR held the money they received from RH on a novel's ship until sales were recorded and royalties eventually issued, meaning they made interest on that money during that lag. Giving them more reason to overship.) Yes, the company was cannibalizing its market by publishing too many different game lines and, with fiction, too many individual books. Remember, though: those books were still selling, just not to the level at which TSR was shipping them to Random House. And there were people in house at TSR warning upper management this was a bad practice as far back as 1990 or 1991.

Had TSR not been, essentially, digging the debt hole with Random House deeper with every product ship in the mid-1990s--had the company set realistic sales targets and not used Random House as an ATM--they probably would not have swamped themselves financially. That's not the only reason the company floundered, though, so who knows if it would have been enough to save them?

--Jim Lowder
I read an interview with Stan! IIRC.

He said something like Dragondice ordered 1 million sets sold 70k.

And Al Qadim made money while lavish production cost on Planescape caused it to lose money.

I've had suspicions on the Darksun boxed set as well. 2 posters, cloth map several books etc.
 

JLowder

Explorer
I read an interview with Stan! IIRC.

He said something like Dragondice ordered 1 million sets sold 70k.

And Al Qadim made money while lavish production cost on Planescape caused it to lose money.

I've had suspicions on the Darksun boxed set as well. 2 posters, cloth map several books etc.
There were individual products that were not priced out correctly, but overall, the game products made money. Overprinting was an issue, but one complicated by the Random House distribution deal and general upper management irrationality and unwillingness to listen to the line and product editors. There were several products from which TSR made great money on the initial sales, but then went back and overproduced so badly they ended up as losers. DragonDice and Spellfire were examples of that, as I recall, but I was not part of those product teams.

--Jim Lowder
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
In all honesty, we should be glad it never happened. Just think, instead of the Peter Jackson movies, we would have ended up with a LoTR movie akin to the Dungeons and Dragons movie. ;)
Why would anyone think this was likely to happen? The rights in question were for the RPG and some merch. Nothing else was on the table, certainly not the movie rights that were already being handled by Saul Zaentz (or mishandled if you were arguing from Ralph Bakshi’s perspective).
 

darjr

I crit!
I read an interview with Stan! IIRC.

He said something like Dragondice ordered 1 million sets sold 70k.

And Al Qadim made money while lavish production cost on Planescape caused it to lose money.

I've had suspicions on the Darksun boxed set as well. 2 posters, cloth map several books etc.
Wait, Darksun boxed set had a cloth map?
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
Why would anyone think this was likely to happen? The rights in question were for the RPG and some merch. Nothing else was on the table, certainly not the movie rights that were already being handled by Saul Zaentz (or mishandled if you were arguing from Ralph Bakshi’s perspective).
I was making a joke
 

LuisCarlos17f

Explorer
D&D is crunch, LofT is fluff, D&D is a LEGO box where you can use the piece to build new and different things, and LotR is a snow globe, beauty, but only to be watched. D&D is superheroes saving the day, LotR is epic+tragedy. D&D is finding a new surprise tomorrow, LotR is crying for the lost past.

And today you don't need buy books to get the lore, because reading wikis is enough.

* How do you imagine the plot of the failed sequel "the new shadow"? Tolkien had got some ideas, and I like the concepto of young generations with the full stomach like to play being "bad guys" because they don't know what is suffering hunger, fear and injustice...(but if you are a nerd suffering school bullying).

* TSR had got the copyrights of Conan the Barbarian, and those titles are forgotten.

* I like the idea of something like the worldscape from Pathfinder, a demiplane to allow crossovers with other franchises. (Hmmmm, how would be a crossover between Gamma World and M.A.S.K?, oh sorry,this is another matter). Maybe this "arena" world could be the next setting, perfect to introduce the D&D version of Hasbro franchises.
 

Count_Zero

Explorer
Ahem (scroll down to the list of what we’re doing).

:)
That is awesome. My hope is that around the time the Amazon LotR series comes out and the general public (or people who sell things to the general public) starts thinking about Lord of the Rings again, this gets picked up by Target (or it even gets picked up by Target before that).
 

Von Ether

Explorer
Back in Lake Geneva, Rateliff communicated this to TSR CEO Lorraine Williams. Rateliff said, "Her immortal words were, ‘Not worth our while.’”
But it was totally worth her while to shove the Buck Rogers IP onto TSR and double dip into the company coffers to do it (licence fee and finder's fee or some such) since her family owned the BR rights?

She might have been right, but it wouldn't surprise me if this was another bone-headed move of hers
 

LuisCarlos17f

Explorer
Now I am thinking.... if Prime Video by Amazon produce that teleserie set in the second age of Middle-Earth, and it is a blockbuster... Hasbro could try an agreement for the toys.

* LotR is Enya singing chill-out music and D&D is Within Temptation, Nightwish or Sabaton singing epic metal.

* We don't need followers of the ring ir our D&D world, but sometimes I miss valar and maiar

* What if human from the Earth would be abducted by the dark powers from the demiplane of dread (Ravenloft) and their dark realms are "clones" of famous franchises? Maybe a fan of Lovecraft's myths would hate to live as in a Tolkien's book.
 
I think people over rate the appeal of Middle Earth as an RPG.

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.

Basically I don't think there is a significant market out there for MERP.
MERP had over 100 sourcebooks/scenarios. It was printed in several countries, I myself started with the Games Workshop boxset, and multiple languages.

Of course it wasn’t as big as D&D but to suggest it didn’t have a significant market is plainly wrong.
 

Zardnaar

Hero
MERP had over 100 sourcebooks/scenarios. It was printed in several countries, I myself started with the Games Workshop boxset, and multiple languages.

Of course it wasn’t as big as D&D but to suggest it didn’t have a significant market is plainly wrong.
Lorraine said it wasn't worth their time, and then later in this thread some MERP sales figures came out.

Those figures are around half of a BECMI boxed set (released 1991) that wasn't the red box and in its lifetime it sold slightly more than 2Es first year sales. This was not peak D&D either. 3.0 on release sold in a month what MERP sold in its lifetime.

That gives you the idea of the scale involved.

When Lorraine said that it was also when D&D was on a downward slide. They already had 2 or 3 product lines all of which were selling more. If you've got a product that sells 30-40k a year and several other products that sell 10 times that amount what are you going to go with?

The OP states her words were "Not worth our while".

People seem to think MERP is worth millions and millions. Its not. Its worth something of course but Lorraines words make a bit more sense when you look at the scale of things circa 1992. Its a similar genre to what you already are making and what you're already making sells a lot more.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
LotR is Enya singing chill-out music and D&D is Within Temptation, Nightwish or Sabaton singing epic metal.
Complete side note here to mention this most bizarre concidence: this is the second time in as many weeks that completely out of the blue I've seen/heard Nightwish, Sabaton (who aren't exactly similar bands!), and D&D mentioned together.

The other time was in a pub in Seattle on Labour Day weekend - three guys were sitting next to us chatting, and within the 5 minutes before they left Nightwish, Sabaton and D&D all came up in their conversation.

Weird.

/side note
 

Zardnaar

Hero
Complete side note here to mention this most bizarre concidence: this is the second time in as many weeks that completely out of the blue I've seen/heard Nightwish, Sabaton (who aren't exactly similar bands!), and D&D mentioned together.

The other time was in a pub in Seattle on Labour Day weekend - three guys were sitting next to us chatting, and within the 5 minutes before they left Nightwish, Sabaton and D&D all came up in their conversation.

Weird.

/side note
I like Nightwish and Sabaton, Within Temptation not so much but I like the song they do as a duo with Nightwish's old singer.


Or Woodstock Poland. Big crowd.

 

Sword of Spirit

Adventurer
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.
I guess we can think of those settings as TSR's "dying gifts" :)

With apologies to anyone who suffered personal setbacks from the collapse, from a standpoint of creative contribution I think it was well worth it.
 
Lorraine said it wasn't worth their time, and then later in this thread some MERP sales figures came out.

Those figures are around half of a BECMI boxed set (released 1991) that wasn't the red box and in its lifetime it sold slightly more than 2Es first year sales. This was not peak D&D either. 3.0 on release sold in a month what MERP sold in its lifetime.

That gives you the idea of the scale involved.

When Lorraine said that it was also when D&D was on a downward slide. They already had 2 or 3 product lines all of which were selling more. If you've got a product that sells 30-40k a year and several other products that sell 10 times that amount what are you going to go with?

The OP states her words were "Not worth our while".

People seem to think MERP is worth millions and millions. Its not. Its worth something of course but Lorraines words make a bit more sense when you look at the scale of things circa 1992. Its a similar genre to what you already are making and what you're already making sells a lot more.
No, I’m taking issue with your statement that there was 'no significant market' for MERP. That’s obviously untrue given the amount of MERP books produced.
 

Zardnaar

Hero
No, I’m taking issue with your statement that there was 'no significant market' for MERP. That’s obviously untrue given the amount of MERP books produced.
That is fine but relative to D&D and the scale. D&D in the same time frame sold over a million units, hell if you cherry pick 83 to 91 its even higher.

MERP went under, so did 2E, both had lots of books.

I gave Lorraines exact quote in the OP, we know roughly how much 2E sold and when and we also know how many sets the black box sold. Both of them dwarf MERP using the knowledge Lorraine had in 1992.

Its a relative thing, MERP put up good numbers for a not D&D RPG but its not D&D scale.

IN 2E first year they sold around 270-280k copies thats almost the lifetime sales of MERP. That black box sold 500k and then ad a follow on box released 1992 IIRC.

If one product outsells the other by a factor of 10 roughly in a year what are you going to focus on?

Lorraines quote "its not worth our while". Context look at early 2E sales before it tanked, look at BECMI sales which had the Rules Cyclopedia and 2 boxed sets released around that time frame.

I never said MERP was worth nothing, its context. If you have 3 or 4 products all of which outsell MERP Lorraines quote makes perfect sense IMHO.
 
MERP went under, so did 2E, both had lots of books.
MERP (Iron Crown Enterprises) did not go under. ICE got the license pulled because they started doing things with Middle-Earth that were outside the deal. ICE never folded, but was rather bought by another company in 2001, two years after the loss of the license.

And as others have said, at its most popular, MERP was the second best selling fantasy rpg, only behind D&D.
 

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