Why Dragonlance's Margaret Weis Left TSR: A Slaying the Dragon Excerpt

This excerpt from Ben Riggs' new book, Slaying The Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons describes how Dragonlance changed the course of Margaret Weis' life, and why she left TSR.

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TSR was a company that discovered geniuses, and paid them to create worlds for the rest of us to live in. The company knew it needed brilliant minds to do this work. It went to great lengths to find creative souls to employ. Yet it was less than careful about retaining them. Once these worlds were created, management's attitude seemed to be that these great minds could be replaced with cheaper labor. So New York Times-bestselling authors and pioneering game designers would be discovered, nurtured, and then allowed to leave the company. It happened to Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. It was a fate that would also befall Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.

Margaret Weis said that the success of Dragonlance, “changed my life,” because it allowed her to leave TSR.

Why did Weis want to leave? Her work at the company transformed her from a book editor to a New York Times-bestselling author. And why couldn’t the company convince her to remain? It had discovered her, groomed her, and marketed her as an author for years. The company had a vested financial interest in keeping Weis right where she was, producing Dragonlance novels. Why couldn’t it do so?

When I asked Weis why she left, she immediately spoke of Lorraine Williams. She clearly felt that Williams took the company in the wrong direction. She said, “The creative spirit in the company seemed to die when Gary was gone. He truly cared about D&D. After he was ousted, management seemed to care only about making money, though without any real idea of how to do it. All the while spending money on wasteful projects such as remodeling offices and promoting self-interests (such as Buck Rogers).” Weis said, “I never really interacted a whole lot with Lorraine, but when I did, I really didn’t like it.”

Furthermore, TSR was simply not paying Margaret Weis what she was worth. Weis and Hickman proposed another book series, entitled the Darksword Trilogy. The books would tell the story of a man born into a world where everyone has magical powers, but he was born without them. The company decided to pass on it. Weis and Hickman then took the Darksword Trilogy to Bantam Books. A few weeks passed, and the pair’s agent, Ray Puechner, called Weis to say that Bantam wanted to make an offer.

Weis said, “Oh wow! That’s really cool.”

Puechner said, “And they want the whole trilogy.”

Weis said, “Great.”

“And they’re going to offer you $30,000.” (That’s almost $75,000 in today’s dollars.)

Weis was excited by that number. She said, “We’d been getting a pittance from TSR” for the novels they’d been writing so $30,000 for the trilogy seemed like a great deal of money.

Enthused, Weis said to Puechner, “$30,000 for three books!”

And Puechner said, “No no no. That’s for each book.”

Weis said, “Oh my gosh!”

At the time, Weis said that even though she was a bestselling author whose work had helped keep the company afloat during troubled times, she wasn’t making $30,000 a year. The company was paying her like a freight handler or entry level graphic designer.

She called Tracy Hickman to tell him the good news, and that was when they decided to leave the company. The capitalist calculus of it all was brutal and swift. Bantam was offering them more than their annual salary per novel. It was more money for less work. Who wouldn’t take that offer?

Success at TSR meant that Weis and Hickman could leave TSR.

When artist Larry Elmore heard that Weis and Hickman would be departing to write fantasy novels for Bantam, he wanted a piece of the action. Could they get him the job of painting the cover of the first novel?

It is worth noting that to the artists working in Lake Geneva, painting fantasy covers for the New York publishing houses was seen as the big time. Doing their novel cover for would be a real step up in terms of prestige for Elmore.

The publication of a book by Bantam was a similar step up for Weis and Hickman, and when she responded to Elmore’s request, she had skyscrapers and Times Square goggling her eyes. She said, “I don’t know Larry. This is a big New York publisher.”

But she wouldn’t forget his request.

Later, the pair were flown to New York by Bantam. There, in the city where shining towers touch the sky, and the subway trains rumble like dragons in their dens, the big wigs at Bantam took them out for lunch.

Margaret Weis of Independence, Missouri was meeting with a major publisher in a city so absolute and grand and final that on the east coast you can simply say, “the City,” and everyone knows you’re talking about New York. She described her emotional state at that moment on the day she was taken out for lunch in New York City with a single syllable of onomatopoeia: “Woo!”

But despite the majesty of her surroundings, and the corresponding majesty of the big wigs taking her out for lunch, she didn’t forget Larry Elmore, who was stuck back in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, painting in the former Q-tip factory on Sheridan Springs Road.

But the skyscrapers and the food and the suits! What would the big wigs say about Larry Elmore? Would they say they never heard of him? Would they laugh at her for being a mid-country rube to think that her friend who painted elves and dragons in outstate Wisconsin could make the grade in New York City?

Weis recalled that “with fear and trepidation, I said, ‘You know, if it would be at all possible Larry Elmore would really love to do the cover. . .’”

One of the big wigs replied, “‘Oh my God. We were going to ask you if there was any way you could get Larry Elmore to do the cover!’”

Elmore was hired, and not long after, he left the company as well.

The Darksword Trilogy was published by Bantam in 1988, along with a role-playing game called Darksword Adventures. Each had a cover by Larry Elmore. One can see in these books the outline of the product that might have been if it had been picked up by TSR. Clearly, a trilogy of novels would have been written, along with a series of adventures set in the world. But it was not to be. Weis and Hickman were gone.

Yet as was so often the case, TSR was not done with them.

Years passed. Weis and Hickman went on to write another trilogy, entitled Rose of the Prophet, again published by Bantam, again with covers by Larry Elmore, but set in a fantastic ideation of the middle east, with sheikhs and djinns and a pantheon of 20 gods.

Weis doesn’t remember at what convention or in what year Lorraine Williams threatened to sue her, but it was definitely at a convention. It wasn’t Gen Con, of that much she was certain. But it was at a convention, and Lorraine was there.

Weis was in the middle of a conversation when Williams appeared. She had a simple message to convey: She was considering suing her and Hickman over Rose of the Prophet. She believed that the pair had worked on material for the trilogy while at TSR. If so, it was company property under their contracts and she had standing to sue. With that, like a bad dream, Williams was gone.

If she had threatened to sue over the Darksword Trilogy, it would at least have made sense. The Darksword Trilogy was obviously developed while the pair had been at TSR. The company, after all, had turned the project down. The acceptance of the trilogy by Bantam and their commensurate pay raise was the reason the pair had left. The idea that Williams and her baying pack of lawyers could have found any hard, tangible, proof that the pair had worked on Rose of the Prophet at the company years after they left was at best unlikely. Furthermore, given the pair’s talents and proven sales track record, she should have been trying to woo them back by hook, crook, love, or money. Instead, she was haunting them at conventions to make illogical threats of legal action. That was likely to irritate Weis and Hickman, not win them back into the fold. And from the point of view of the bottom line, that was the winning move here: Get them back writing Dragonlance. After all, the pair were still making money for the company, selling tens of thousands of copies of their novels every year.

For their part, neither Weis nor Hickman took the threat to heart. She said, “It didn’t mean a whole lot. We actually thought it was just kind of funny.”

Yet to approach the pair of them at a convention to threaten a lawsuit seemed so excessively aggressive. Why would the CEO of a multimillion dollar company do that?

Weis said, “You had to know Lorraine.”

The break between TSR and Weis and Hickman seemed complete. Why would the pair ever come back while she was casually threatening frivolous lawsuits against them?

It is worth pausing for a moment to measure the caliber of disaster that the departure of Weis and Hickman represented. You couldn’t swing a vorpal sword in the company offices without beheading a genius. Every department was thick with them, women and men whose minds sparkled like obsidian in firelight. Given the success of Dragonlance, Weis and Hickman were certainly geniuses. But I believe I have interviewed dozens of company alumni that I would rank as creative geniuses for this book. So curiously, the quality that might make Weis and Hickman standout against the general populace was not what made them standout at the company.

They were, there is no other word for it, stars. Perhaps the first the company produced after Gygax himself. They had fanatical devotees who knew their names, even if in confusion they misgendered Tracy Hickman. The company sold 14 million copies of Dragonlance novels, settings, and adventures by 1997. At conventions, people would crowd their table for autographs. For years at Gen Con, Tracy Hickman hosted two hour sessions of what he called, “Killer Breakfast.” Fans came up on stage with D&D characters, and Hickman killed them as amusingly as possible, sometimes dispatching up to 200 in a go. Other fans have taken their books to war with them. One wounded veteran returned from Afghanistan and gifted the pair his Bronze Star and Purple Heart, saying they deserved them because the Dragonlance novels helped him earn those medals.

To call the people faithful to the works of Weis and Hickman a fanbase is to damn with faint praise. The pair reached out with their words and touched something elemental and profound within their readers.

Yet TSR seemed to believe that sort of allegiance from an audience could be replaced. It acted on a theory of interchangeable creativity, as though a novel or adventure would sell equally well irrespective of who produced it. Writers were machines that made words to sell. Other machines would make words if they would not.

Acting on this theory set a pattern that would recur again and again during the Williams era: the company would discover and support talent. That talent would mature, make amazing products, then leave, often due to low pay or perceived disrespect.

Once Weis and Hickman were gone, along came a crisis: What fantasy setting would replace Dragonlance, and what author would replace them?
 
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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

Staffan

Legend
What's amazing to me is that they kept finding them. I mean, obviously it is biased because we only remember the ones that made an impact (while writer X who produced novel or module Z no one likes has fallen off the radar), but it is still impressive. Speaks to how much people really really wanted to be part of the industry/get paid to be elbow deep in what they loved doing.
That kind of stuff is still going on. I remember when the Paizo staff were in the process of unionizing, and a lot of tea was spilled regarding how working conditions and salaries were bad because "You should be happy that you get to write for Pathfinder!"
 

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Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
That kind of stuff is still going on. I remember when the Paizo staff were in the process of unionizing, and a lot of tea was spilled regarding how working conditions and salaries were bad because "You should be happy that you get to write for Pathfinder!"
An argument that would carry some weight if the person saying it was ALSO underpaid, but underpaid folks rarely make such statements IME.
 

JLowder

Adventurer
This is why they should have forced nom de plume (owned by TSR) on their creative types.

Then they wouldn't have had an asset they could take with them (their name/reputation)!

How dare people think they own any products of their labour. Modern capitalism can solve this problem.

TSR management tested out the "house name" idea in the late 1980s with Richard Awlinson (All-in-One, get it?!), on the Forgotten Realms Avatar Trilogy. House names for company-owned series are nothing new. The Stratemeyer Syndicate, for example, had been using them with series such as the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew since the early 20th century.

In the Book Department we pushed back against the house name idea in various ways. As Avatar Trilogy editor I managed to include individual author bios inside the Awlinson books. (I am still surprised we managed to pull that off.) When the Avatar books sold well, the company decided to promote the individual authors, partly at the prompting of Random House, and (mostly) connect the writers to the individual works. The three books now have (mostly) correct author names on them. But upper management would continue to toss out the idea of house names for all the series books every couple of years.
 

Staffan

Legend
TSR management tested out the "house name" idea in the late 1980s with Richard Awlinson (All-in-One, get it?!), on the Forgotten Realms Avatar Trilogy. House names for company-owned series are nothing new. The Stratemeyer Syndicate, for example, had been using them with series such as the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew since the early 20th century.

In the Book Department we pushed back against the house name idea in various ways. As Avatar Trilogy editor I managed to include individual author bios inside the Awlinson books. (I am still surprised we managed to pull that off.)
Huh. I was under the impression that using a pseudonym in that case was, at least partially, because it's easier to identify books as belonging together if they have the same author. I guess I was giving TSR management too much credit.
 

JLowder

Adventurer
But given the excerpt above, I'm really curious why/how they were lured back to TSR for the Summer Flame/SAGA years, since Lorraine Williams was still in charge at that point.

Margaret and Tracy came back to work on Dragonlance fiction starting in the late 1980s, with the Tales anthologies. That was a half-step back to the company, not a full step. Freelance editor Pat McGilligan worked well with Margaret in particular and handled a lot of the liaison efforts on those anthologies, as their direct contact with the company. By then Margaret and Tracy had more clout because of their success in New York, which was helpful because they could demand better treatment, but upper management was still unhappy about their influence on the line. Also, it's important to note that the baseline TSR fiction contracts improved significantly starting around 1989, which helped set the stage for their full step back as writers in the 90s. It took a lot of work to get upper management to agree to the contract changes.

In the larger picture on fiction, it's really about how TSR kept coming up with ways to treat creators badly and drive them away. The authors generally want to continue working on worlds and characters they love and value, and with other talented writers, editors, and artists on the shared worlds they helped create.
 

SAVeira

Explorer
Huh. I was under the impression that using a pseudonym in that case was, at least partially, because it's easier to identify books as belonging together if they have the same author. I guess I was giving TSR management too much credit.
I thought the same thing originally. Years ago, when I worked in book, they came out and we would have shelved them by author not series. That did change once I started to see value in keep series together by, I was reading the genre unlike most of my co-workers.

However, I was wondering after I learn about house writers if it was an attempt to avoid creating "star" writers. Cause if a writer sold well, they might demand more money and when they did not get, take their name to the greater market.
 

JLowder

Adventurer
Huh. I was under the impression that using a pseudonym in that case was, at least partially, because it's easier to identify books as belonging together if they have the same author. I guess I was giving TSR management too much credit.
Getting the books in the trilogy shelved together was one of the reasons management cited for the Awlinson name, which made some sense. But we knew it was a test case. I mean, TSR fiction did not include author names on the spines at the time and the books were already shelved together as a series, so the Avatar Trilogy was going to be shelved in the Realms fiction section and likely together as a trilogy. Because the company leaned heavily on the shelving argument initially, that left me room to argue the actual author bios could appear inside the books. Middle management (in this case Mary Kirchoff and Jim Ward, both authors themselves) were sympathetic to the authors, so they helped push that through with upper management and marketing.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I thought the same thing originally. Years ago, when I worked in book, they came out and we would have shelved them by author not series. That did change once I started to see value in keep series together by, I was reading the genre unlike most of my co-workers.

However, I was wondering after I learn about house writers if it was an attempt to avoid creating "star" writers. Cause if a writer sold well, they might demand more money and when they did not get, take their name to the greater market.

Could be either, or both.

A long time ago, I worked for a while in a chain book-store of some renown for a short period of time. And they had a mandate to shelve by author, not by title (even for series). No matter what. Which made for ... curious shelving decisions which people were not allowed to change. So I can understand why a publisher might want to keep a certain continuity.

OTOH, every IP owner, from Marvel on has a vested interest in ensuring that the IP is more important than any individual creator. There is always a push-pull between individual talent, and the IP itself. Viewed cynically, it's because the company wants to make sure that the revenue accrues only to the company, not to the creative talent. Viewed less cynically, it's so that you don't get into a situation where the IP is so tied into a single person that issues with that creator tank or deleteriously effect the IP (.....Potter.....).
 

BenRiggs

Explorer
I still think it's regrettable that we're not getting her perspective on these events, however contemptible I think these acts were.
Author here! I agree with you 100%. Readers have told me they think I've been fair with Lorriane, so I still hold out home she will agree to an interview.
The book is going to be reviewed in the Washington Post, and it will include a regal drawing of her from the book. That might get her attention...
 


Helena Real

Dame of Solamnia
Painful to read the mistreatment of people, especially Margaret Weis who's awesome!

Also, ooph! I can only imagine the possibilities of having Thimhallan (the world of the Darksword stories) developed as a D&D setting instead of its own independent thing. It's a great series of novels and I think it could've been a cool fantasy setting: über-high magic with a sprinkle of technology.

Fascinating stuff all around! I think I'll try to get my hands on this books and read it when it comes out 😉
 

BenRiggs

Explorer
Painful to read the mistreatment of people, especially Margaret Weis who's awesome!

Also, ooph! I can only imagine the possibilities of having Thimhallan (the world of the Darksword stories) developed as a D&D setting instead of its own independent thing. It's a great series of novels and I think it could've been a cool fantasy setting: über-high magic with a sprinkle of technology.

Fascinating stuff all around! I think I'll try to get my hands on this books and read it when it comes out 😉
FYI It came out Tuesday, and you can get it anywhere books are sold!

Ben Riggs
 



Von Ether

Legend
Great article. I'm glad that Weis would be the kind of person that would worry about Elmore (and presumably vice versa).

I'm actually a little surprised that the awesome book advances were only $30k-then/$75k-now. I mean, I know being an author isn't a great way to become rich (more now even than then), but my notion was that that was because very few of them actually get to be bestseller list authors (and those that do mostly don't do so consistently, and one peak year with a huge payout won't sustain you forever). I thought best-seller list author in the 80s would be something like doctor-level income for that year.


The two are not incompatible. Lorraine Williams can have been an awful boss and people can have been all too ready to side with those disparaging her because of sexism (given that few, if any, of them would have had access to this information, it's not even clear on how this affects that).

It is disheartening that, once again, something like this comes up and people immediately try to frame the discussion as a battle between two sides, rather than we as a whole getting a clearer picture of how this company we all love and hate careened from micro-company working out of someone's home with a niche hit to huge company with a fad-riding product to collapse and bankruptcy over less than a quarter century. There are no sides and we all 'win' by this coming to light.
Sadly those days are gone. Harper Collins offered a friend of mine $13k a few years ago.
 

MGibster

Legend
This excerpt from Ben Riggs' new book, Slaying The Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons describes how Dragonlance changed the course of Margaret Weis' life, and why she left TSR.
As I understand it, Williams really alienated a lot of the creative forces behind D&D. I'd never heard anything about Weis in particular, but after reading it I can't say I'm particularly shocked. I've said it once and I expect I'll say it many more times, the more I learn about TSR the more amazed I am they managed to be so successful for as long as they were. If you strike gold, you can make money hand over fist even if you're a terrible business person (that applies to the whole of TSR not just under Williams' tenure).
 

MGibster

Legend
Yeah, up until this point we were giving her the benefit of the doubt because she was a woman trying to make it in male-dominated corporate America, so clearly the stories were overblown and misogynist propaganda.
Williams certainly deserves a good share of the blame for TSR's business failures under her tenure. But I do think she doesn't get the credit she deserves for saving TSR in the immediate aftermath of taking it over.
 

Sadly those days are gone. Harper Collins offered a friend of mine $13k a few years ago.
I think you missed my point. If a bestselling author back then was getting $30k then/ $75k adjusted, then my understanding of what they earned then was off. I know based on my profession my view of income is skewed, but I'm also an economics major and I still keep my eye on what $X gets you. $75k is above the national average household income, but it's not huge for an experienced professional. So not "freight handler or entry level graphic designer" as she was previously paid, but graphic designer with 5-10 years experience. If that (again, inflation-adjusted) was what the big NY publishing firms were paying top talent back in the day, in my mind those days never really were there at all.
 

MGibster

Legend
I think you missed my point. If a bestselling author back then was getting $30k then/ $75k adjusted, then my understanding of what they earned then was off. I know based on my profession my view of income is skewed, but I'm also an economics major and I still keep my eye on what $X gets you.
Is the $30k the entirety of the pay though? Wouldn't Weis get residual payments for each book sold?
 

DorkForge

Explorer
I think you missed my point. If a bestselling author back then was getting $30k then/ $75k adjusted, then my understanding of what they earned then was off. I know based on my profession my view of income is skewed, but I'm also an economics major and I still keep my eye on what $X gets you. $75k is above the national average household income, but it's not huge for an experienced professional. So not "freight handler or entry level graphic designer" as she was previously paid, but graphic designer with 5-10 years experience. If that (again, inflation-adjusted) was what the big NY publishing firms were paying top talent back in the day, in my mind those days never really were there at all.
Besides residual payments this also assumes that they're only putting out one book per year, when it was $30k per book. Given the high turn over of fantasy novels, I wouldn't be surprised if they delivered them all in a year for a total of $90k at the time.
 

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