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.

SlayingtheDragon.png




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?
 
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

Is the $30k the entirety of the pay though? Wouldn't Weis get residual payments for each book sold?
An excellent question, and I presume so, but don't really know how much per book or how many books were sold. Obviously I'm not an expert on all this.
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.
It is, and I did mention Stephen King to highlight that volume helps. But, again, unless you are Stephen King (or the like), do you have 2-3 books per year that consistently get such an advance and/or have residuals to match? Looking at Weis' bibliography page on wikipedia, it looks like she's had 68 books (many of which co-authored, so split payments) over the past 38 years. That's ~1.8/year. Assuming (only for simplicity) that each one got the same (adjusted) advance, and that advances are maybe 1/2 the total compensation on average*, that becomes $270k-modern/year once averaged. That shifts it to I guess 'really nice normal folk money'-levels (where I work there are plenty of doctors, lawyers, IT professionals and executives who do better, but factoring in student debt and such maybe it's on par), but less than, say, the surgeon I know. That's just less than I expected (again, huge amount of missing knowledge in this analysis).
*this is a wild stab in the dark in absence of any information on the subject of residuals, and also how sales of W&H novels have done over time.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

DorkForge

Explorer
An excellent question, and I presume so, but don't really know how much per book or how many books were sold. Obviously I'm not an expert on all this.

It is, and I did mention Stephen King to highlight that volume helps. But, again, unless you are Stephen King (or the like), do you have 2-3 books per year that consistently get such an advance and/or have residuals to match? Looking at Weis' bibliography page on wikipedia, it looks like she's had 68 books (many of which co-authored, so split payments) over the past 38 years. That's ~1.8/year. Assuming (only for simplicity) that each one got the same (adjusted) advance, and that advances are maybe 1/2 the total compensation on average*, that becomes $270k-modern/year once averaged. That shifts it to I guess 'really nice normal folk money'-levels (where I work there are plenty of doctors, lawyers, IT professionals and executives who do better, but factoring in student debt and such maybe it's on par), but less than, say, the surgeon I know. That's just less than I expected (again, huge amount of missing knowledge in this analysis).
*this is a wild stab in the dark in absence of any information on the subject of residuals, and also how sales of W&H novels have done over time.
I'd wager that it was enough money to live very well off of, but that any author that's actually worth a lot of money makes it through alternative revenue streams:

  • Paid signings and readings
  • Merch
  • Movies and games

JK Rowling isn't a billionaire because the books sold well, for example.

I just don't think there's the kind of money in books to pay authors the kind of sums you were thinking of after production and every taking their cut.
 

I just don't think there's the kind of money in books to pay authors the kind of sums you were thinking of after production and every taking their cut.
Just to clarify -- I was very aware that, on average, being an author is not a great way to make a living. I just thought it was more similar to actors and musicians -- 99-99.99% of people do not make it big, but the people I can name off the top of my head make far and away more than my work peers and I. I just thought that the Weis and Hickmans of the worlds, while not Mick Jaggers and Meryl Streep's, would have been like maybe Zach Braff and Peter Cetera. Perhaps I'm adding a 0 or two to how many units sold being on the bestseller list implies (since you are right, there are about 5-6 cuts taken out of $5-20 books before they get back to the author).
 

Staffan

Legend
Is the $30k the entirety of the pay though? Wouldn't Weis get residual payments for each book sold?
My understanding (which could be utterly wrong) is that publishers usually have a standard royalty rate (X% or Y dollars/cents per copy sold), and don't vary that much. You get that rate whether you are Stephen King or a nobody. However, high profile authors can usually negotiate a higher (non-refundable) advance, which can often be so high that the publisher doesn't really expect it to pay off. This then becomes a stealth method of effectively paying high-profile authors higher royalties without changing the contracted numbers.
 

Von Ether

Legend
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).
And they have proven that psychologically, many such lucky people will eventually justify their windfall to their own attributes and supposed acumen. Or worse yet, assume that others must be dumber for not making their own fortunes so easily.
 

Von Ether

Legend
I'd wager that it was enough money to live very well off of, but that any author that's actually worth a lot of money makes it through alternative revenue streams:

  • Paid signings and readings
  • Merch
  • Movies and games

JK Rowling isn't a billionaire because the books sold well, for example.

I just don't think there's the kind of money in books to pay authors the kind of sums you were thinking of after production and every taking their cut.
Funny story, the writer for First Blood though his agent was crazy for haggling over the rights on action figures for a dark novel about 'Nam vet hiding out in the woods.

The movie based on that book took the title from the protagonist, Rambo.
 

GreyLord

Legend
Is the $30k the entirety of the pay though? Wouldn't Weis get residual payments for each book sold?

Probably (in otherwords, yes, she would probably get royalties off of each book sold). They get an advance (or normally, that was how it worked) on the book. This was an advance on the royalties expected.

The publisher estimated how much money a book might make, then made a safe proposal on how much they would pay the author in advance for the book. It would be assumed the book would make FAR more for the publisher than that amount.

The author also would normally make money from royalties as well, assuming the book made enough to get to the point that royalties were more than what the advance was.
 

SAVeira

Explorer
Funny story, the writer for First Blood though his agent was crazy for haggling over the rights on action figures for a dark novel about 'Nam vet hiding out in the woods.

The movie based on that book took the title from the protagonist, Rambo.
Given the amount of toys I have seen for Rambo, it was a smart move.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Funny story, the writer for First Blood though his agent was crazy for haggling over the rights on action figures for a dark novel about 'Nam vet hiding out in the woods.

The movie based on that book took the title from the protagonist, Rambo.
The original movie, before the sequels, was also called First Blood.
 


Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
It still surprises me a bit that the story of a Vietnam vet dealing with PTSD and abusive cops turned into an action movie franchise. The 80s were weird man.
Well, it helps that Stallone extensively re-wrote the script so that Rambo never deliberately kills any of the cops or soldiers who go after him, no matter how sadistic or aggressive they are. The worst of them die in poetic justice quasi-accidents due to their own recklessness.

This tones down the darkness of the original book and the several screenplays based on it that people had tried to do prior. The earlier versions of the story made Rambo less sympathetic, or where they did make him sympathetic, were critical of the Vietnam war and the government.

The final version of the movie avoids making Rambo a murderer, and almost completely avoids actually criticizing the US government. This leaves the way open for him to be "rehabilitated" as a heroic soldier working for the authorities. :/

But yeah, that first movie still shows some of the original darkness and nuance, that were completely abandoned to make it an action franchise. The action figures and toys still weirded me out, though, even as a kid.
 
Last edited:

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
It still surprises me a bit that the story of a Vietnam vet dealing with PTSD and abusive cops turned into an action movie franchise. The 80s were weird man.

So I have an idea for a film!

Sure, what is it?

Well, how about we get comedian Andy Kaufman for a rom-com. You might know him for his anti-humor and cringe comedy?

Loving it already! Who is the love interest?

Star of Broadway .... BERNADETTE PETERS!

I'm loving it! Those are two face America loves.

Oh, no. You don't want their faces. They will be .... ROBOTS. Robots with a child!

You had me at ROBOT! So, who do we get to voice the child-bot?

Who else? Beloved stoner icon Jerry Garcia!

BOX OFFICE!

And this is how Heartbeeps came to be. THE 80s!
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
But yeah, that first movie still shows some of the original darkness and nuance, that were completely abandoned to make it an action franchise. The action figures and toys still weirded me out, though, even as a kid.
They made a kids cartoon! I was a young teen when it came out (I think I was 13-14) but I remember thinking "that doesn't seem right".

(Speaking of Stallone - I don't know if the Rambo cartoon was weirder or less weird than the fact that they wanted to put Rocky Balboa into the GI Joe toy line. I even owned the comic book where they wrote him up as a member of GI Joe before the deal fell through. The 80s were so weird.)
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
And this is how Heartbeeps came to be. THE 80s!
True story - for a good solid decade I thought I had imagined the existence of Heartbeeps. Nobody I knew ever heard of it and my descriptions of it made it sound like a fever dream.

When the Internet reached the point where it could confirm the existence of Heartbeeps for me it was a good day for my mental health, but a bad day for my belief in humanity.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
True story - for a good solid decade I thought I had imagined the existence of Heartbeeps. Nobody I knew ever heard of it and my descriptions of it made it sound like a fever dream.

When the Internet reached the point where it could confirm the existence of Heartbeeps for me it was a good day for my mental health, but a bad day for my belief in humanity.

If you want to understand the movies of the 80s, I find that this anecdote from Paul Schrader (about his experience directing Cat People*) is very helpful:

One day, I had been doing some coke in my trailer, I didn’t want to come out. My AD [assistant director] came in to get me. He started doing drugs. The second AD came in to try and get us both out. Then the three of us were there doing coke… Somebody said, "How are we gonna get anybody to direct this movie?"



*The next time someone tells you that the movie Cats was messed up, tell them to watch the 1982 Cat People and get back to you.
 

MGibster

Legend
It still surprises me a bit that the story of a Vietnam vet dealing with PTSD and abusive cops turned into an action movie franchise. The 80s were weird man.
With the runaway success of Star Wars action figures in the 1970s, everyone wanted a piece of that action. You think Rambo is weird? They made action figures for children based on the movie Alien.


 


Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
All these excerpts have definitely had that effect on me too. I know that’s their purpose, but damn has Ben Riggs really been able to show what was really happening behind the curtain with D&D like no other book I’ve heard of.
Exactly!

I was gonna end up buying it anyway, just not, you know, today.
 



Visit Our Sponsor

Latest threads

Dungeon Delver's Guide

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top