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

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Thanks to you both for the responses.
I'll third the confirmation that it's not an objective authorial voice, but TBH after reading (and quite enjoying) three books of Jon Peterson's, picking up an author with a, let's say, less understated opinion was actually kind of welcome.

Riggs' prose gets a little purple in spots, and he's definitely not trying to be really objective or pretend to be. I've complained about his profligate use of the term "genius" before. But overall he has an engaging voice and his bias is sympathetic to nearly every party he talks about. It's a very human, enthusiast's, tone.

If I had to choose one or the other I'd go with Jon. His rigor and detail are second to none, his understatement is scrupulous and sometimes genuinely funny, and he never gets florid. But he hasn't written a book about the post-Gary period yet, and may not. Riggs has come up with some really interesting facts, details, and stories I haven't seen anywhere else, and writes about them with some passion and dedication. I was happy to read it and am happy to have read it, a few cringes at points in the prose though there might have been.

If your first priority is objectivity maybe it'll be off-putting for you. If you're passionate about and interested in the history, it definitely helps fill in more of the picture in useful and sometimes moving ways, even if he oversells some stuff.
 

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Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
I'll third the confirmation that it's not an objective authorial voice, but TBH after reading (and quite enjoying) three books of Jon Peterson's, picking up an author with a, let's say, less understated opinion was actually kind of welcome.

Riggs' prose gets a little purple in spots, and he's definitely not trying to be really objective or pretend to be. I've complained about his profligate use of the term "genius" before. But overall he has an engaging voice and his bias is sympathetic to nearly every party he talks about. It's a very human, enthusiast's, tone.

If I had to choose one or the other I'd go with Jon. His rigor and detail are second to none, his understatement is scrupulous and sometimes genuinely funny, and he never gets florid. But he hasn't written a book about the post-Gary period yet, and may not. Riggs has come up with some really interesting facts, details, and stories I haven't seen anywhere else, and writes about them with some passion and dedication. I was happy to read it and am happy to have read it, a few cringes at points in the prose though there might have been.

If your first priority is objectivity maybe it'll be off-putting for you. If you're passionate about and interested in the history, it definitely helps fill in more of the picture in useful and sometimes moving ways, even if he oversells some stuff.
Yeah, there is a lot of great info in Rigg's book. But it's clearly written by a fan. Everyone he talks about is clearly dumped into a villain or hero or role. I made the joke earlier, but I did wonder if Bruce Nesmith paid Riggs, because it's mentioned a lot about what an underappreciated genius he is ;) I think he mentions it more often than he says "Massachusetts Man" (which is also a lot, btw).

I'm giving Riggs a bit of a hard time, but honestly, it's OK that he's a fan with biases. The book is still full of great info and worth the read.
 


Iosue

Hero
Yeah, there is a lot of great info in Rigg's book. But it's clearly written by a fan. Everyone he talks about is clearly dumped into a villain or hero or role. I made the joke earlier, but I did wonder if Bruce Nesmith paid Riggs, because it's mentioned a lot about what an underappreciated genius he is ;) I think he mentions it more often than he says "Massachusetts Man" (which is also a lot, btw).

I'm giving Riggs a bit of a hard time, but honestly, it's OK that he's a fan with biases. The book is still full of great info and worth the read.
Well, I don't know if Riggs was aware of it when he started his research, but I imagine he was floored to find that Nesmith not only had a hand in Dragonlance, and wrote the Ravenloft campaign setting, but also went on to be the lead designer for freaking Skyrim. Nesmith doesn't have the name recognition of Zeb Cook or Tracy Hickman, but he has one hell of a resume.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
Well, I don't know if Riggs was aware of it when he started his research, but I imagine he was floored to find that Nesmith not only had a hand in Dragonlance, and wrote the Ravenloft campaign setting, but also went on to be the lead designer for freaking Skyrim. Nesmith doesn't have the name recognition of Zeb Cook or Tracy Hickman, but he has one hell of a resume.
Oh sure, but I suppose the point is, is that every time you bring someone up in a book, you don't have to keep saying what a genius they are. We got it the first few times ;)
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I'm interested in this book, but when I read a line like "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" It makes me VERY leery of the objectivity of the author.

Can anyone who's read the book shed any light on whether this sort of verbiage is common, or if it's more of a one-off?
It is. And it put me off in the beginning. But it also makes the book highly readable. It doesn't come off as dry history. The author does not attempt to be neutral in every statement, but is fair overall. He shares is opinions openly. It is more like having a conversation with a game historian than reading a game history. And that actually makes it a refreshing read.

Also, he openly calls out and questions his biases at several points in the book. He points out where the information he has is one sided. This is particularly the case when talking about the Lorraine Williams. He points out that she wouldn't accept to be interviewed by him and that makes one-sided much of the story that involves her. He makes efforts to find reasonable explanations for some of her actions and decisions that do not, at first look, cast her in a good light. He highlights a lot of the good things she did as a businesswoman and a person. In doing so, he humanizes her in a way that a more dry, academic, disciplined neutral treatment would not.

He does the same with Gygax and Arneson as well. Yes, he'll use sarcasm and joke about certain failings, but he also shares his appreciation for what these people still accomplished and makes meaningful efforts to let those who knew them speak in their defense.

I really like the very humanizing treatment of the history that the book delivers. In my opinion, this book and the illustrated novel "The Rise of the Dungeon Master" are the two best biographical novels related to the hobby (the later more in terms of its treatment of Gygax and Arneson and their relationship--not Lorraine Williams). This is definitely the most humanizing treatment of Lorraine Williams I've read.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
In my opinion, this book and the illustrated novel "The Rise of the Dungeon Master" are the two best biographical novels related to the hobby (the later more in terms of its treatment of Gygax and Arneson and their relationship--not Lorraine Williams).
As a note, Shannon Appelcline (author of Designers & Dragons) wrote a piece on RPG.net about Rise of the Dungeon Master, and pointed out that there were several things in it that were wrong, incomplete, or misleading.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
As a note, Shannon Appelcline (author of Designers & Dragons) wrote a piece on RPG.net about Rise of the Dungeon Master, and pointed out that there were several things in it that were wrong, incomplete, or misleading.
Thanks for sharing that. Interesting and good to know about some of the historical facts being wrong it that book. But what I really like about the book was the humanizing of Gary and Arneson and showing how their relationship fractured and somewhat healed with time. I still think it is a beautiful book and worth reading, but I'm certainly not surprised that it doesn't have the academic discipline of Designers and Dragons. Disapointing that more fact checking wasn't done, especially given that it was written by a journalist, but it seems to have gotten the broad strokes right.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I am about 3/5s through the book and finding it meh.

The info is great, but the writing is actually making me wish for Jon Peterson's drier style (something I did not expect was possible). It reads like it wants to be something like Sean Howe's amazing (and highly recommended) Marvel: The Untold Story but falls short.
 

jeffh

Adventurer
It’s just so crazy. Lorraine Williams had a meeting with Christopher Tolkien that went like this:

Tolkien Estate: So we hear you would like the Lord of the Rings role-playing game license. This seems very possible.
TSR: Yes, and in addition to the role-playing game, we want to publish new LOTR fiction.
TE: Oh. We’re afraid new fiction is not on the table.
TSR: Fine, then we won’t do the role-playing game, then.
It wasn't quite that simple. The licenses for movies and for the books were held by different entities and somehow the RPG rights fell into the movie rights bucket. That entity, they had no immediately obvious problems working with, and so for a while it looked like a TSR Middle Earth setting, probably for D&D, was a go. But Williams/TSR also wanted to do new Middle Earth fiction. That fell into the book rights bucket, held directly by the Tolkien estate. John Rateliff (not Williams) met with Christopher Tolkien, and though they got along decently, the answer regarding new fiction was a firm and decisive "no". Upon hearing that, Williams or in any case TSR upper management responded as you describe.

(Source: Just read that part of the book less than 48 hours ago.)
 

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