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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!

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

Comments

Zardnaar

Legend
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.
I don't believe it wasn't the biggest selling.

There's a massive gap between 1st and 2nd place. MERPs probably better not owned by TSR or WotC. I gave the numbers quoted earlier in the thread and there's numbers around for 2E and BECMI.
 

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Rafael Martin

Explorer
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 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.

Clearly, TSR CEO Lorraine Williams didn't think the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the man who created the modern fantasy genre, were good enough for D&D. She had very high standards and it was clear to her that J.R.R. Tolkien just wasn't good enough for her. Sarcasm included...
 
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Beothul

Explorer
Shortsighted at best, '92 may have been 25 yrs ago now, almost forgotten in the mists of time, especially after so much change and growth in the fantasy genre in print, film, and on tabletops. But, I would hesitate to give her too much benefit of the doubt. 92 was about 5 years before bankruptcy, and even if things were ok in 92, it was not long before the trends would show their ugly heads toward failure. Trends that had their source and roots in 92 and even earlier.

Surely decisions being made in '92 were part and parcel of the impending failure we now know of. Giving her some benefit of doubt here only confirms that the publishing side of the business, while presumably a money maker and a focus of the business model, was also an anchor that would contribute to the failure. Part of this is precisely the failure of decisionmakers like Williams not being able to see the bigger picture, or maybe more likely already constrained by the trends that ultimately lead to the bankruptcy such that she was not able to take advantage of the opportunity.

92 was less than 10 years before Jackson started making the movies, so if there wasn't a movie deal yet, it was surely being bandied about very seriously and Christopher knew this. Probably was not a secret in the business if TSR did any homework. He also knew how much work he had already done in all of Tolkien's additional works and how much was left to do. How many more books of his works have been published in the 2000's? This was a huge opportunity, measurable even in 92 and she missed it or couldn't see it.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
Probably was not a secret in the business if TSR did any homework. He also knew how much work he had already done in all of Tolkien's additional works and how much was left to do. How many more books of his works have been published in the 2000's? This was a huge opportunity, measurable even in 92 and she missed it or couldn't see it.
That makes me wonder why she didn't just offer to publish his work unless he was already locked in a contract?
 

That makes me wonder why she didn't just offer to publish his work unless he was already locked in a contract?
JRR Tolkien died in 1973, so he was not locked into any contract (insert Devil jokes here) and his son Christopher has always been notoriously selective about, and protective of, the rights to his father's works.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
JRR Tolkien died in 1973, so he was not locked into any contract (insert Devil jokes here) and his son Christopher has always been notoriously selective about, and protective of, the rights to his father's works.
The "he" I was talking about was Christopher. But perhaps he was holding out for a traditional fiction publisher?
 

Zardnaar

Legend
The "he" I was talking about was Christopher. But perhaps he was holding out for a traditional fiction publisher?
Unlikely the Tolkein estate hasn't really done any more major novels by new authors. Can't say I blame them once IP is opened up to others to play in.

The licence was RPG only. Looking at what MERP sold assuming they made $10 a book (1992 pricing it's probably generous) it's only a few hundred thousands a year (300-400k) and that's off the core book.

It's not worth millions a year. Even if you make more splat it might get revenue up but not profit.

Hence earlier statement MERP is worth something but it's not run away to the bank giggling. Tolkein was still niche before the movies.

Even if they got the movie rights they didn't have the money to make them at least in any serious way. Peter Jackson's trilogy was hundreds of millions of dollars and even with that no MERPG has set the world on fire since.

It's highly unlikely with what we know about TSR such an RPG would have done much better.

People think "oooh Tolkein it's money". The money is in movies and the Tolkein estate licensing the name out. Maybe video games.

The numbers don't stack up, we know what MERP sold, we know what 2E sold early on and we know what the black box sold.
 

aramis erak

Adventurer
Iron Crown Enterprise has the IP since 1984 when MERP came out. And they had it until 1999. So if Iron Crown could afford it, I'm sure TSR could have.
Iron Crown had a license for LOTR and the Hobbit, but nothing else.
How do I know this? Because that's all that their licensor had rights to.

Tolkien without those two was NOT a big deal.
 

The TTRPG are fluff and crunch. And today in the internet age you don't need to buy books to get information about the lore.

LotR is a masterwork of the fantasy genre, but it isn't a open world for a sequel. The same happens about Dragonlance.

It would be easier to create from zero a new world with that style.

LorR is as wine fermenting in a cellar for years. D&D is more like fast food, it may be delicious, but it isn't the same meal.

If the copyright ends in 2046, I don't want to imagine the crazy mash-up somebody will want to create.
 



Hurin88

Explorer
Yes, thanks for posting that Rpgresearch!

By the way, do you know when the Tolkienmoot 2020 will be? Are you sticking with October, or going back to July?
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
We had John D. Rateliff at one of our Tolkien Moot / MerpCon years ago and he explained this in some depth.
Really interesting, though he certainly made some predictions that weren't borne out.

It's interesting how much WotC is still obsessed with entry level games still.

I know I've argued that the Tolkien influence has been overplayed more than once, but that's for the folks who claim "D&D is predominantly Tolkien." It's obvious that there's a lot of Tolkien but there's pretty clearly other influences, too, especially in the early days. IMO the very early days of D&D were essentially analogous to fanfic that got way, way bigger than anyone expected.
 
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JLowder

Adventurer
It's interesting how much WotC is still obsessed with entry level games still.
Well, it is quite important for the continued existence of hobby games, as a hobby and a business, for publishers to offer multiple easy-access gateways to their lines. Intro products such as D&D Essentials or the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set give likely gamers the tools to start playing at a reasonable cost, with reduced time expenditure from the full game. There's a need for those products to be updated and reimagined regularly, since the audience changes and comes at RPGs with new mass media experiences that shape their expectations and the information they require.

TSR seemed obsessed with offering a gateway that would bring in the mass market, which is not quite the same thing. That's hoping you can turn out a version of the game that is accessible to anyone, with little to no effort, like basic Monopoly.

Cheers,
Jim Lowder
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
Well, it is quite important for the continued existence of hobby games, as a hobby and a business, for publishers to offer multiple easy-access gateways to their lines. Intro products such as D&D Essentials or the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set give likely gamers the tools to start playing at a reasonable cost, with reduced time expenditure from the full game. There's a need for those products to be updated and reimagined regularly, since the audience changes and comes at RPGs with new mass media experiences that shape their expectations and the information they require.

TSR seemed obsessed with offering a gateway that would bring in the mass market, which is not quite the same thing. That's hoping you can turn out a version of the game that is accessible to anyone, with little to no effort, like basic Monopoly.
I agree, and I also think that producing the "perfect" (or even a "great") intro set is not an easy task, hence the many repeated attempts at getting it right.

The recent "Stranger Things" and "Rick & Morty" starter sets are clearly attempts to reach new audiences that are primed for D&D . . . . and that's a brilliant move by WotC, I think!
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
I know I've argued that the Tolkien influence has been overplayed more than once, but that's for the folks who claim "D&D is predominantly Tolkien." It's obvious that there's a lot of Tolkien but there's pretty clearly other influences, too, especially in the early days. IMO the very early days of D&D were essentially analogous to fanfic that got way, way bigger than anyone expected.
I shouldn't jump in on this, as it's a perennial argument with lines already drawn in the sand, but . . . . (failed Wis save)

D&D certainly had many influences from fantasy/sci-fi/pulp fiction in addition to Tolkien, as well as from history and myth, when it was first birthed. And continues to evolve as the fantasy and related genres evolve too. D&D in many ways, has become it's own fantasy genre and I would argue has had as much influence back on the fantasy genre at large as Tolkien has himself (maybe even moreso).

But I roll my eyes at fans who downplay Tolkien's influence on D&D. The four classic races (human, elf, dwarf, hobbit, er, halfling), the classes of fighter, ranger, and wizard who would fit in quite well in Middle-Earth. D&D, to a large extent, looks & feels a hell of a lot like Tolkien . . . . even if the wizards are "Vancian", the rogues (sorry, thieves) are "Leiberesque", the paladins are "Andersonian", and the cosmology is (in part) "Moorcockian".
 

zedturtle

Jacob Rodgers
That was fun. Prophetic in some ways (Francesco and Marco got a stealth mention at the very end for War of the Ring and the idea that the next RPG needed to be built from the ground up for Middle-earth) and off-kilter in some other ways. One thing that is a constant truth is that it is a labor of love for those who get the chance to work on the property. :)
 

I shouldn't jump in on this, as it's a perennial argument with lines already drawn in the sand, but . . . . (failed Wis save)

D&D certainly had many influences from fantasy/sci-fi/pulp fiction in addition to Tolkien, as well as from history and myth, when it was first birthed. And continues to evolve as the fantasy and related genres evolve too. D&D in many ways, has become it's own fantasy genre and I would argue has had as much influence back on the fantasy genre at large as Tolkien has himself (maybe even moreso).

But I roll my eyes at fans who downplay Tolkien's influence on D&D. The four classic races (human, elf, dwarf, hobbit, er, halfling), the classes of fighter, ranger, and wizard who would fit in quite well in Middle-Earth. D&D, to a large extent, looks & feels a hell of a lot like Tolkien . . . . even if the wizards are "Vancian", the rogues (sorry, thieves) are "Leiberesque", the paladins are "Andersonian", and the cosmology is (in part) "Moorcockian".
To be honest, D&D often feels like the characters from the pulp era wandering around in Middle Earth. In other words, the setting most resembles Tolkien, but the "feel", character motivations and themes are what are most different.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
I shouldn't jump in on this, as it's a perennial argument with lines already drawn in the sand, but . . . . (failed Wis save) <...> But I roll my eyes at fans who downplay Tolkien's influence on D&D.
I don't think we're arguing at all. My issue is with the people who state either extreme (no Tolkien or only Tolkien).

To be honest, D&D often feels like the characters from the pulp era wandering around in Middle Earth. In other words, the setting most resembles Tolkien, but the "feel", character motivations and themes are what are most different.
I think that's a pretty good characterization, although I feel it's closer to The Hobbit than Lord of the Rings. Before Gygax went all Stalinist history on himself in the 1980s is exactly what he said in the 1E DMG when he was indicating his own influences. For instance, The Hobbit seems to imply the existence of rather more greed-oriented characters than LotR. The protagonists are certainly not heroic in the fashion of Frodo but instead much more like pulp heroes.

Trying to make D&D "feel" like LotR Middle Earth is a challenge, in no small part due to all those other influences which are as core to its identity as the Tolkien influences before it grew up and became its own identity that eclipsed its origins. IMO its very early days are like a cover band while by the late '70s it had become more like a band that had was doing its own originals, clearly influenced by what they had played in their formative years but now their own thing.
 

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