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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! "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...

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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Reynard

Legend
Supporter
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
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.
 

Hurin70

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.
 

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