Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Brief History of Tolkien RPGs (part three)


VI. Re-enter TSR: 1992.

And this is where I enter the story. I'd begun working at TSR as a games editor in October 1991, and it was well-known around the office (and indeed around everyone who knows me) that I was a big Tolkien fan; my expertise with fantasy literature in general and Tolkien in particular was one of the reasons they hired me (my dissertation was on the great Irish fantasy writer Lord Dunsany; hence I like to say that 'I have a degree in fantasy'). I had already,in my first few months there, edited The Complete Book of Gnomes and Halflings (which would have sold significantly better if they'd titled it The Complete Book of Halflings & Gnomes). Thus, when TSR began negotiations with Tolkien Enterprises to see if they could reach an agreement on a Tolkien license for a TSR Tolkien game, I was assigned to be the game's editor, while Bill Connors was assigned to write the game. Even though no license had yet been signed, we got to work on the project and the game was tentatively added to TSR's Master Schedule. Thinking you might be interested, I brought a few relics of it with me today: the prototype cover art by Robh Ruppel, character creation rules, and two versions of the character sheet (one of them marked up from a playtest). In hopes that TSR might be able to expand the line beyond what Iron Crown had been allowed to do, I was even dispatched to meet with Christopher Tolkien (as representative of the Tolkien Estate) and Mary Butler (who was in charge of managing the Tolkien line at HarperCollins, who had recently taken over as Tolkien's publishers), incidently becoming the first person to ever receive official permission to miss GenCon in order to attend those meetings.

In the end, however, the Estate was not willing to grant to TSR rights they'd adamantly denied to everybody else—unsurprisingly—such as permission to write and publish sequels and prequels to The Lord of the Rings, commission artbooks, release its own line of calendars, and the like. What TSR could do was exactly what Iron Crown had done: release its own Tolkien roleplaying game, which I have no doubt wd have sold v. well indeed. To which Lorraine Williams, president and owner of TSR, uttered the immortal line

'Not worth our while'

Thus died the TSR Tolkien game, banished into the land of might-have-beens. Shortly thereafter came news of the renewal of Iron Crown's license, and a new edition of MERP followed in 1993. While it's my impression that this later iteration was not as successful as the game's first run, it did well enough to see the release of some two dozen supplements, the last of which (Hands of the Healer, #2026) was released in 1997.

VII. By this time, Tolkien gamer's attention had largely shifted to collectable card games. The first such game, MAGIC: THE GATHERING, had been created in 1993 by Richard Garfield at Peter Adkison's request and was an immediate hit. By 1994 the rest of the industry was scrambling to put out their own ccgs. It is not well known, I think, that among the ccgs Wizards of the Coast had been asked to create at this time based on preexisting rpgs, such as JYHAD for White Wolf [1994], LEGEND OF THE FIVE RINGS for Alderac [1995], and NETRUNNER for R.Talsorian [1996], was a MERPs-based ccg for Iron Crown. When after a year or so Wizards decided not to do a Tolkien card game after all, the (sublicense) rights reverted to Iron Crown, which released MIDDLE EARTH: THE WIZARDS in 1995 to great success; it remained one of the best-selling ccgs for several years thereafter.

VIII. Despite the great success of METW, the associated roleplaying game languished, having either quietly lapsed or at least gone into abeyance after 1997. By 1999, the Tolkien license was up for grabs again, with anticipation of the Peter Jackson movies (already in production) raising the stakes. That's when the second Tolkien rpg I was involved in began to take shape, and by mid-2000 WotC was in serious negotiations for the license. This time around, I was scheduled to be one of the game's three writers, along with Rich Baker (a longtime Tolkien fan whose favorite Tolkien book is The Silmarillion, not The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings) and Andy Collins; Christian Moore, formerly of Last Unicorn Games and now the head of 'WotC South', was to head the team. The 320 page book would have been edited by Gwendolyn Kestrel, Jon Pickens, and Jeff Quick and was scheduled for a November 2001 release.

We did a good deal of discussion about what form the game would take: I wanted it to be a D&D game world, like GREYHAWK or THE FORGOTTEN REALMS, but the eventual consensus was that it would be a stand-alone but D&D compatible system, much like the Wheel of Time game that followed the same model a year later. I have not been able to locate any of my notes from that project, but I recall our debate over how to handle healing (with or without clerics) and whether or not to allow PC spellcasters; Rich's Ranger prestige class; and (best of all) Andy's truly awesome Nazg├╗l template. Whereas the old TSR Tolkien game from 1992 would have been a kind of D&D lite, catering to TSR management's obsession at the time with entry-level games,Nt5 it was clear that this was going to be a very, very good game. That's what made it so crushing when the license fell through. I was told, by the person in charge of negotiating game licenses, that she had deliberately decided not to pursue the Tolkien license in order to let a rival game company have it. Otherwise, she argued, we might be open to charges of being a monopoly, since we had just acquired the Star Wars license. I thought this implausible then, and I think the same today—but then this came from the same management team that justified cancelling another game by explaining that while it would have made money, it would have been 'the wrong kind of money'. Looking back at it after all this time, I think it far more likely that there was only so much money in the licensing budget to go around and, having chosen to line the capacious pockets of George Lucas, there simply wasn't enough left for another major license, particularly since the Tolkien game license, bouyed by expectations from the Peter Jackson films, wouldn't have come cheap. The fact that the folks in card R&D were adamantly opposed to creating a Tolkien ccg, for reasons they would never articulate, no doubt contributed something to the decision. So, WotC execs made the decision to go with Star Wars rather than Tolkien; from my point of view (amply supported by subsequent history), the wrong choice.

The one good thing that seems to have come out of it all was the appearance in 2000 by Hasbro UK of the Reiner Knizia boardgame THE LORD OF THE RINGS; an amazingly innovative design by a brilliant designer and probably the single best Tolkien boardgame ever. WotC, however, had so little interest in it that Hasbro soon sublicensed it to another company, and Fantasy Flight Games released all the follow-up tie-in boardgames, rather than Hasbro or WotC.


Mike Mearls said...

Hey John,

You mention in your notes cover art for the TSR LotR game, along with character sheets. Any chance that you could grace the Internet with scans of them?

Iain said...

I was going to ask the same thing.

My name is Jeff. said...

I didn't even know I was slated to work on that project. Now I'm even more disappointed!

Jeff_Grubb said...

But to finish up the story, should you mention the Decipher version as well? Did it pull from the MERPS lore or more directly from the movie?


halo_ov_fire said...

Thank you for writing. That was an interesting and informative read.

John D. Rateliff said...

I would love to be able to post Rohb's piece, which I like v. much, but I don't think I can. Since it's an unpublished piece, I wd need the permission of either the artist* or the copyright holder (in this case, I assume TSR, since it was done as a work-for-hire). So while I'm happy to share it with people, such as those who attended this year's MERPCon, I don't think I shd post the image. Sorry about that, folks. Those of you who are in the Seattle area, remind me to bring it along the next time we get together for lunch.

In the meantime, here's a brief description: it shows a gloved hand (Sauron's) holding up a golden Ring newly-minted. In the background we can dimly see the anvil upon which it was forged. The overall color scheme is red from the light of the glowing forge at Mount Doom.

--John R.

*so far as I can tell from a brief search, it's not online at his website,

Santiago said...

I can't believe that the people at WotC responsible for negotiating the licence were so thick-skulled as to think that it wasn't worth it, or that a Star Wars licence (a universe as ill-constructed as I can think of) would fare better than Middle Earth.

Oh well... As Einstein said: "Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the the universe."

Jeff H said...

If you're in a position to share, what was the "wrong kind of money" comment all about?

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Jeff H.

I'll be glad to share the "wrong kind of money" story, but that'll call for another post. I'll see what I can do.

--John R.