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!

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"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
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.
 

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, wasn't good enough for D&D. She had high standards and it was clear to her that J.R.R. Tolkien just wasn't good enough for her. Sarcasm included...
 

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

Explorer
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

Explorer
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

Hero
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

Explorer
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.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
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.
 

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