TSR Why I still love the Real TSR

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
We've had a lot of threads recently about nuTSR, and the various grifts that they have run, and while I can feel alternately bemused (at the stupidity of the principals involved with nuTSR) and angry (at the actions they take and the negative effect it has in sowing needless division in the hobby today), the one emotion I feel most is a deep and abiding sadness. And I thought I'd do something productive with that sadness, and write a thread talking about why this matters- why people like me still care about TSR, and about this brand, and these logos, and why the actions of nuTSR are so abhorrent.


1. The Necessary Disclaimer

I need to start by saying that when I am describing the good things about TSR, I am not absolving the corporate entity (TSR) or all the people associated with it from all sins. If you're familiar with the history of the company, you know TSR was not always a force of unalloyed good. The recent book about the early history of TSR exposed a great deal of the disfunction- such as the use of the company to pad the extended Blume family's coffers, and how good employees who questioned this were summarily dispatched. Nor do I question the unenviable position that iconic early contributors and/or employees like Darlene and Jean Wells were put in.

In addition, as TSR moved into the later 80s and 90s, it became increasingly synonymous in many people's minds within the gaming community with lawsuits, and as the internet took its first, nascent steps into the mainstream, with crushing any attempts by fans to show their love. TSR, as a corporate entity, could be high-handed, misguided, and also somehow managed to tragically squander its advantages in the industry not once, but twice (both the 80s boom and its position in the 90s ended in retrenchment in the first case and utter financial ruin in the second). Many times, it seemed like the products succeeded not because of TSR's corporate stewardship, but in spite of it.

So knowing all of that, why does nuTSR make me so sad? What is this legacy that I see some continually tarnishing?


2. The Power of a Brand

A lot of times, we think of "IP" as something big corporations, like the House of Mouse, uses to browbeat the rest of us and to extract what little money we have. Well, you're not wrong! But it has other, beneficial effects as well. One of those is the way we think of the protection of brands- which are really "marks" (trademarks for goods, service marks for services). All the fancy law is just a codification of a simple idea- consumers associate certain things (words, logos, etc.) with a brand, and when they see that brand, they expect to get the product associated with it. I could go on a long digression about this, but if you're confused, Coming to America has a good (if not entirely correct) illustration of this with the whole McDonalds/McDowells bit.

And TSR is a powerful brand for older gamers. Because those three letters evoke a lot of feelings. That sense of nostalgia for those products, for that time, for the people and the games you had... all of that is inextricably tied up for many of us with those letters and the products that we saw. So when it comes to TSR, we don't think of the corporate entity, or the various foibles, the way some of its employees and contractors were mistreated, or the internal fights.

Instead, we remember the products created by amazing people, and the powerful memories associated with them. This play on nostalgia is fairly common- its why old brands keep getting bought up ... sometimes with less-than-pleasant consequences (I'm looking at you, Intellivision Amico). But at its core, it can remain powerful. When I think back to old TSR, to REAL TSR, the first memory that pops in my head, always, is unwrapping I3, Pharaoh, that I had just bought at a Waldenbooks and staring at the amazing cover while hearing Doctor Doctor by the Thompson Twins blaring from a radio in another room (the 80s!!!). But there are so many like that- the first time I saw the DMG Efreet cover ... or cracking open the boxed set of World of Greyhawk which became my de facto campaign setting through today ... or getting each new copy of Dragon in the mail. I still can envision setting up the maps and chits for Star Frontiers on a big table while I was staying with my grandparents and working in another state. TSR, its products, its writers, and its artists was part and parcel of my life for decades.


3. The Products, and the People Who Made Them

And that's what I really want to emphasize. None of this is to trivialize the amazing creatives working on D&D today, or for the last two decades. But as good as it is, there is something about the magic of the original TSR products and the people that still calls to me and still evokes those memories.
OD&D- just all of it. And Dr. Holmes!
The 1e DMG and PHB and MM. The core three that started it all.
The "golden age" series of modules- the S Series, the I1-6, X1-5, B1-4, A1-4, GDQ, C1-2, T1, U1-3, WG4. So many great ones.
The B/X of Moldvay and Cook. And then Mentzer's BECMI with Aleena.
The crazy Fiend Folio, which brought us monsters iconic (the Gith) and ...less so (Carbuncle).
The different games- I was always a Star Frontiers and Gamma World stan.
The publishing arm in the 80s and 90s which started with Dragonlance and then moved to, well, a lot of stuff.
The 2e campaign settings... Athas, Spelljammer, and Planescape.
And, of course, the art. So much great art by so many great artists. The early, weird art and line drawings (exemplified by artists like Otus) and the switch to the more Elmore, realistic style of art, before eventually going in different directions in the 90s (Brom et al). And my favorite bit- Darlene's Greyhawk map, oft-imitated but never to be equaled.

I'm sure other people have other things that they think of, but when I think of TSR, I think of all the amazing products, by the amazing people, that created amazing experiences for me.


4. And This is Why nuTSR Sucks

I enjoy dunking on nuTSR as much (if not more) than the next person, but this is why their actions make me sad. As I wrote in the first section- TSR wasn't perfect back then, far from it. But despite TSR's many problems, TSR had an amazing group of creative people that put out a lot of great products for a very long time, and those products meant a lot to a lot of people, like me.

And it makes me incredibly sad that people are trading on the name of TSR (and Gygax, even if it is a family member) to capitalize on those warm feelings... when all they are doing is hurting this hobby. Every .... single .... time ... that TSR is brought up now, it's in the context of the joke that is what they are doing. And that's the biggest disservice possible to the many amazing people that made products that were beloved by so many.


Anyway, I had to get that out.

There are enough threads bashing nuTSR (which they deserve)- maybe if people want to use this to put up some good memories of TSR's products and/or the people that made those products?
 

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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I'll say this: for all the flak that Lorraine Williams gets - and from what I understand, most of it is deserved - she was the driving force behind the Black Boxed set ("The NEW Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons") of the early 90s, which used the card methods of teaching the game to great effect, at least where I was concerned.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
I've been thinking about this topic myself recently. I love those early days and 1e is still my favorite edition. So how to really honor the old TSR and creators?

It's not like LaNasa and others who keep saying they have to protect the old guard from wokeness (despite the most vicious attacks against them coming from LaNasa himself)

Tim Kask made a clear point a couple days ago: "There will never be another TSR. Most of them are dead. It was lightning in a bottle that will never be repeated."

He's right. Many if us keep trying to capture that nostalgia. I think the best way to honor those old games and people who created them is to keep playing them. Have fun with friends. Appreciate the work they did; the work that deserves appreciation and not the problematic parts. To know better, be better.

The answer is not to leap to their defense any time someone makes a criticism. It's not to try to portray yourself as part of that group (by using their old logos). Most of the actual people who there don't seem to want that anyway.

There were a LOT of great things about old school DnD, and I think there is still room for that style of play in the modern community
 

aco175

Legend
I have nothing but fond memories of the early days of TSR. It shaped my childhood and I still play today. Some of that may be childhood nostalgia mixed in to the warm fuzzies. Some of the products I liked are the early FR stuff like The North, Waterdeep, and Eveningstar. There was a lot of homebrew campaigns in 2e as well.

I was just going to say something silly like, "Put one finger on each hand up." after reading the title, but thought more.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
I remember opening my 11th birthday present and seeing that bright-red box with the red dragon on front, that iconic art piece by Larry Elmore, and being so excited to get past the plastic shrink-wrap that I accidentally marred the box (and would feel guilty about it for years). I remember getting the TSR Catalog in the mail every so often, and pouring over the grainy black-and-white pages squinting at the offerings, and mail-ordering The Saga of the Shadow Lord, and Test of the Warlords, and The War Rafts of Kron.

And I also remember how I once called to order my own copy of the Expert Set, after having saved my allowance for months, only to discover that the entire BECM product line was out of print. I could order a copy of the Rules Cyclopedia, though, and the lady on the phone assured me that it had the same content of all four sets, condensed into a single book. "The same stuff, all in one book?" I asked. "Yep!" she enthusiastically replied.

So I ordered it, and when it arrived 4-6 weeks later, I couldn't suppress my disappointment at the artwork. Yes, the rules were all there, and it was handy to have them all in a single book, but--ooof, that artwork. Don't get me wrong, Terry Dykstra did a great job and there are some awesome pieces in there. But I was just so looking forward to seeing all of the Elmore and Easley pieces I had missed out on when the boxed sets went out-of-print, and it just wasn't there. I had been deceived by omission.

What I expected:
1641779384070.png


What I received:
1641779351915.png


That was when I learned that the importance of the artwork in a fantasy RPG product cannot be understated. (I also learned that I need to be incredibly specific when I'm asking about the contents of an RPG product, especially when I'm buying it sight-unseen.) If the salesperson on the phone had told me that it "featured new artwork from Terry Dykstra!" I would have been all like, "Cool, I'll check it out!" or maybe "Ah well, I guess that's fine." But instead, I got the sales pitch of "it's ALL of the boxed sets you want, just in one book!" and that turned out to be only sorta correct.

I love my Rules Cyclopedia. It's still on my bookshelf, in tatters, its cover barely hanging on to its battered spine, right next to my pristine POD copy that I actually play with. In my whole collection of BECM D&D materials, this is the only one that doesn't match the set. The cover art is wrong, the font is wrong, the logo is wrong, the labeling is wrong. I know it's such a small gripe, but it bothers me--it's bothered me for decades. Inside and out, it doesn't look like it belongs:

20220109_220031_cr.png


Anyway, I thought I'd share a little about my favorite D&D book ever published by TSR...how I came to own it, and my first impression of it. I love the Rules Cyclopedia, I truly do, but it sure broke my heart.
 
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TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
Marvel Super Heroes! I mean come on. And the original Dungeon board game, the first 100 issues of Dragon magazine, those Tom Wham games and much more.

Even the 2nd TSR, a mere minnow compared to the original, but which came out with the excellent Gygax magazine and has put Top Secret back in print, is brought down by this association.
 


TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
...

And I also remember how I once called to order my own copy of the Expert Set, after having saved my allowance for months, only to discover that the entire BECM product line was out of print. I could order a copy of the Rules Cyclopedia, though, and the lady on the phone assured me that it had the same content of all four sets, condensed into a single book. "The same stuff, all in one book?" I asked. "Yep!" she enthusiastically replied.
...

I love my Rules Cyclopedia. It's still on my bookshelf, in tatters, its cover barely hanging on to its battered spine, right next to my pristine POD copy that I actually play with. It's my favorite D&D book ever written. But it broke my heart.

Well, and the Isle of Dread.
 



Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Early Dragon magazine with ads for companies large and small that totally sparked imagination. I could read those ads over and over.

OMG Yes! Those ads. It's hard to explain to people that grew up with the internet .. but the world was truly more mysterious back then. And it wasn't the big ads ... it was the small ads, for the games and products that you didn't see in stores ... sure, most of them undoubtedly sucked ... but those ads conjured the idea of these incredible games, just out of reach.
 



the Jester

Legend
I'll chime in with mad love for all those early modules and Dragon and Dungeon Mags (and Polyhedron- anyone remember the adventure where you had to hold out against a demon prince's forces while protecting someone with his true name or something like that?)! And Top Secret, and Gamma World, and Star Frontiers- and Knight Hawks!
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Snarf, I just wanted you to know that I have converted the carbuncle to 5e.


....there's always one person, always one.

So, what's this monster?

It's an armadillo.

Okay, an armadillo. Um and?

Oh, you don't understand. It's an armadillo ... WITH A GIANT GEM IN ITS HEAD.

Awesome? So, you're going to call it a ... gemadillo?

No. A carbuncle!

Oh, um, like that boil that Grandma keeps complaining about?

No! What's that? I mean the same definition that you, I, and Gygax use. You know, a bright red gem! Everyone knows that one, right?
 



mach1.9pants

Adventurer
I even enjoy the distinctive smell of my old gaming books!

I've read and re read BE... To a lesser extent CMI many times. Then I got my first AD&D book, then the FR box set... Just glorious days
 

Stormonu

Legend
Sometime around 1990, TSR lost its magic. By that time, its products were not driven by the former passion of its staff, but greed and the need to stay on top by its management - no matter how much it harmed the company or its image.

Before then, things were mostly grand! I was in over my head when I got the Holmes basic set, but I was gleestruck when I got my hands on the B/X set (only to be a little dismayed when instead of Companion we got BECMI). For my 8th grade graduation present, I was able to get myself the PHB, DMG & UA* from Toys'R'Us - along with an unhealthy amount of LJN D&D action figures... My friends introduced me to the looniness of Gamma World, the (disappointing because it wasn't anything like Star Wars, but hey - it was sci-fi) Star Frontiers games and the awesomeness of Marvel (which replaced our V&V games for the short term).

Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Ravenloft, Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Spelljammer - all were campaign worlds that wormed their way into my mind as they knocked the doors down for what you could do with this little game.

The 90's weren't good for TSR, and looking back, its easy to track their downfall - along with so many others that would suffer a similar fate - Sears, Toys'R'Us, K-Mart, Radio Shack, just to name a few. But for a short, brilliant time in my life, all was good with the world, and it was damn fun.

*Note: I didn't get the MM until about 3 years later, until then I used the FF & the monster stat section in the DMG.
 

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