Showing posts with label Lake Geneva days. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lake Geneva days. Show all posts

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Survey

So, I continue to unearth items from the old TSR days in my slow progress through the Box Room. These range from the no-longer-of-use-to-anyone (a unopened box of business cards from Sheridan Springs Road) to still-interesting. in a historical kind of way.

One of the more intriguing of the latter is a plastic bag full of print-outs that turn out to be a hundred or so blank copies of a survey, all neatly hole-punched for placing in a binder but all blank. I remember the management at TSR had a great aversion to surveys, since the results inevitably contradicted their pre-formed opinions about our audience.* Nonetheless, I did do the occasional quiet surveys among the staff in the R-and-D department at TSR, to satisfy my curiosity about gaming habits among my co-workers, such as one in which I asked folks which rules they did and didn't use in their ADandD game.**

I forget the context for the survey I've just re-discovered, which is geared more towards habits among gaming groups: probably I printed this up to hand out at a GenCon seminar (circa 1994, '95, or '96). But if that's the case, I don't know why they weren't ever distributed. In any case, I think some of the questions still highly relevant, so I thought I'd share. Here's the Survey:



What was the first role-playing game you ever played?

What is your favorite role-playing game?            Why?

What role-playing game do you play most often?            How often do you play?

Do you ever use modules, or do you make up your own adventures?

Do you ever run the same adventure more than once (i.e., with different groups)?

What's your favorite module of all time?            Why?
Last favorite?            Why?

Have you ever bought the rules to a game because you read and liked one of its modules?

Are there any games you regularly buy just to read, not to play?

How much influence does cover art have on whether or not you buy (or play) a game product?

Outside of a tournament, how often do you run or play a game using pregenerated characters from a module?

What is your campaign's most useful "home rule"?

Does your regular gaming group stay with one game system (e.g., AD&D), or does it "graze", continually moving from one game to another?

Within your group's favorite system, do you rotate between various settings (for example, AD&D's Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, & Planescape; GURPS' Supers, Space, & Horror; Call of Cthulhu's 1920s setting, Cthulhu by Gaslight, Cthulhu Now), or do you stay in the same game "world"?

How does your group usually integrate new characters into an ongoing campaign?

Are they usually 1st-level/unskilled/beginners, or a compatible level with the rest of the party?

How often does the whole group roll up new characters?

How many people are in your regular gaming group?

What's the usual male/female ratio in groups you've played with?

What's the racial mix of your regular gaming group?

How often do you play a character of the opposite sex?

How often do you play a character of a different race (e.g., Caucasian)?

Have you ever played in an all-male or all-female group?
Was it noticeably different from your regular campaign?

Is there more than one GM in your gaming group?            If so, does this affect the quality of play?            Do the various GMs take turns running the same campaign?

When was the last time your group invited someone who'd never played a role-playing game before to join in?


--John R.
current reading: IRON TEARS

*as in one DUNGEON magazine survey, which showed that the average DandD player was the age of a college student or recent graduate therefrom, whereas management was gearing product lines towards an imagined audience of ten year olds

**two rules nobody, but nobody used were encumbrance and weapon speed factor.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Gary Gygax and the Chili Festival

So, one of the odder things to turn up in the preliminary sorting of old TSR stuff was a clipping from a local news paper of TSR founder and DandD co-creator Gary Gygax judging a local chili contest. I've attached a scan below, but being low-res newsprint the image doesn't reproduce all that well. Gygax is the second from the left.

I have no memory of this clipping at all, or any idea how it found its way into those papers. The date was sometime between February 5th (the date of the contest) and 14th (since, as Jeff Grubb pointed out, there's an add for Valentine's Day on the back), but I don't know the year; probably '95, '96, or '97. Nor do I know where it appeared, other than some local area paper (the classified ads on the back include return addresses for Delavan, where we were living at the time, as well as Elkhorn, where Jim Ward lived, and Whitewater, a little further off). The event was probably held at the Grand Geneva resort (since the contest's name is given as the "Grand Geneva Winter Carnival"), right there in Lake Geneva. I don't know what year this first such event was, but according to their website they're still having it as recently as this past February.*

It's kind of nice, though, to see Gygax in a non-gaming context, and to know he achieved some status as a local figure in his own hometown.

Here's the link:

--John R.
current audiobook: CATCHING FIRE (resumed)
current book: THE PRYDAIN COMPANION (MIchael O' Tunnell), tales of the Tuatha de Danaan (Lady Gregory)


Colin McComb of the Clan McComb

So, I've finally started to tackle the huge job of sorting through all the old boxes of TSR stuff -- not games but all sorts of paper: memos, meeting notes, schedules, galleys, and the like. One of the first things I found were color print-outs of prototype covers for the RAVENLOFT line, which help me more or less date this box to 1995/96, the five products being SERVANTS OF DARKNESS, CHAMPIONS OF THE MIST, the DOMAINS OF DREAD hardcover, THE SHADOW RIFT (which I wound up contributing to), and THE FORGOTTEN TERROR. Also here was a newspaper clipping of Gary Gygax helping to judge a cooking contest, a bunch of old business cards, a departmental survey (more on this in a separate post), two memos from our department's boss chiding the designers and editors for not meeting deadlines, and a sign-up sheet for Colin McComb's going away party. I took this last item and showed it to several fellow ex-TSR/ex-WotC folks, who thought it probably dates from August 1996 (though August 1995 is also a possibility).  Since it records a moment in time like a sort of time capsule, I thought I'd post an image and a transcription here, for those who might be curious about the group of people who produced so much good material back in what is now nearly twenty years ago.

First, here's a picture of me holding up the page in question. This was taken Wednesday night by JD Wiker at Steve Brown's birthday dinner -- just to show that we're still doing the same kind of thing all these years later (three of us on that sheet were actually at this week's dinner).

Next, here's the actual sign up sheet

Finally, here's my transcription of the name, since not all of them come through on the image. I've added some descriptors, but these may not be entirely accurate, since people moved around between jobs (such as Bill Connors and Steve Miller, hired as editors but then moved over to design, or Skip Williams, long a stalwart of the RPGA later moved over to RandD as a designer) and I don't know for certain the exact date of this event (probably 1996, but possibly 1995).  

First column:
Tony Szczudlo [artist]
Skip Williams [RPGA/designer]
Carrie Bebris [editor]
Thomas Reid [editor/creative director]
Monte Cook [designer]
Dori Watry [editor/creative director]
Dan Wenger [marketing, some (freelance?) design]
Lester Smith [designer]
Michelle Vuckovich [editor, periodicals]
David Eckelberry [editor]
Ray Valese [editor]
Val Valese [editor]
Jon Pickens [longtime editor]
Sean (Reynolds, I assume) [computer guy]
John D. Rateliff [editor]

Second column:
Mary Fleming [?]
Miranda Horner [editor]
Steven Schend [editor]
Sue Cook [editor]
Stan! (i.e., Steve Brown) [editor, designer]
Cindi Rice [editor]
William W. Connors [designer]
Shawn Costa [?]
Anne Brown [editor]
Duane Maxwell [designer/editor]
Bruce Heard [scheduling director and freelance coordinator]
Steve Winter [creative director]
Phil Athans [book department[
Doug Stewart [editor]

Third column:
Steve Miller [editor > designer]
Diezel [artist and mapper]
Rich Baker [designer]
David Wise [editor > creative director > department head]
Jeff Easley [artist]
Alan Pollack [artist]

Colin himself, of course, was a designer, and a very good one: one of those overlooked figures like Rich Baker or Bruce Nesmith (or, as editors, Andria Martin and Miranda Horner) who never got nearly enough recognition for just how good they were.  

So, best wishes to Colin here and now, with good memories of there and then.

--John R.

P.S.: By the way, this isn't by any means a complete list of everyone who was in the department at the time -- I can think of a dozen or so more designers and editors whose names aren't on the sign-up sheet -- probably because they had some other commitment that day: Slade and Bill S. and Michele C and Bill O. and Dale and Julia and Bruce C. and Keith and Andria and Karen and Harold and Ed and Roger. And I'm probably still forgetting a name or two even then. It was a big department. --JDR

Saturday, February 23, 2013

TSR documentary

So, I'm back.

Which is ironic, since I'm about to go away (on a trip, to a Tolkien conference), though at least I shd be on line for the duration.

The recent lack of posts has been due to my being on deadline, drafting my plenary paper for the upcoming Valparaiso conference. And no sooner had I gotten the draft done (me, early for a deadline; there was much rejoicing at the early Dance of Doneness) than I had a review due (or a little past due). That now being off as well, barring any requested revisions, it's high time I started dealing with the backlog of blog topics I've been wanting to get to.

First and foremost there's this documentary of TSR, filmed back in 1997, which has been making the rounds online lately. It's great fun seeing familiar faces from my co-workers--in some cases with more hair and less grey--back in the Lake Geneva days, this having been filmed in the final days of TSR as an independent company (just before the buyout by Wizards of the Coast and the move from Wisconsin to Renton).

Here's the link:

Particularly impressive are the bits from Gygax: this is the best interview I've seen, heard, or read of his, esp. where he's straightforwardly discussing his and Arneson's respective contributions to the game. Gygax had a tendency from the mid-80s onward to engage in revisionist history,* but not here. Good for him, and good for them for getting it down and preserving it. It captures him at his most outgoing, good-humored, and appealing self.

Since they don't identify who most of the TSR employees shown in the film are, thought I'd name-check a few. Those who were identified include Lorraine Williams (owner and boss), plus group leaders Steve Winter, Harold Johnson, and Thomas Reid.  We see Bill Slavicsek running an ALTERNITY game for Rich Baker (who co-created that game with Bill), Dale Donovan, Michele Carter, Dave Eckleberry, and Sean Reynolds. We also see the DUNGEON boardgame being run with great gusto by Jeff Grubb for a trio which includes Dori Watry, Dawn Murin, and I think Bruce Nesmith. We don't actually see anyone playing D&D, oddly enough, aside from Bill Conners running a demo at GenCon.

We see artists (Diesel, Todd, I think Rob, and esp. Jeff Easley), who they keep coming back to (it being more visually appealing to show artists painting than to show writers writing or, God knows, editors editing). I suspect this is why the piece is short on editors: I didn't see Anne or Andrea or Sue or Julia or Keith or Miranda or Stan. Some of those I'd love to see are absent for another reason: like me, they'd been let go in the Great Christmas Layoff of December 1996, just before this was filmed. Some of us were hired back as soon as WotC bought the company that summer; others who'd survived the lay-off decided not to make the move out to Seattle. So for both its virtues (it handles the Egbert flap with even-handed dispatch) and vices (they keep showing video from that horrible DRAGONSTRIKE game, and its even worse never-released sequel WILDSPACE), it serves as a neat little time capsule of a lost world.*

I guess nostalgia is all about remembering the good parts version of events and not the other side (which wd make a great story all on its own). If there's time, I'll have to swing by the old 221 Sheridan Springs Road when I'm in the area week after next.

--John R.
current reading: FROST by Donald Wandrei, and THE COMPLETE CALVIN AND HOBBES TREASURY by Bill Watterson, Vol. III

*e.g., when he claimed Tolkien had no influence on DandD

**including the little bit of footage from GenCon, and the (since discarded) TSR Castle dominating the Dealer's Room/Exhibit Hall in MECCA (since destroyed by Milwaukee and replaced by a newer conference center with less room, a prime factor in GenCon's leaving Milwaukee altogether)

Monday, April 2, 2012


So, a few weeks ago I got an invitation to attend a gathering of old friends, fellow former employees of TSR, in conjunction with 'GaryCon', a small rpg convention being held in the Lake Geneva area. If I'd been in the area I'd certainly have tried to drop by, but two thousand miles is a lot to travel at short notice, especially in a year that looks to be full of trips: to a Tolkien event in Commerce, Texas next month; Kalamazoo the month after; another gathering in mid-summer, a trip to England in the fall, and one to Marquette in October --plus, of course, such trips due to family emergencies as may arise.

Luckily, as Janice pointed out to me a few nights ago (Tuesday, while I was making us some Moroccan soup, the only dish I know how to make that calls for saffron), Bruce Heard has elected to post three detailed day-by-day accounts of the event, here:

and here:

and here:

Looking through these evokes a lot of nostalgia. TSR was a terrible place to work, in that they gave you far more work to do than you could get done in the time allotted, forcing everyone to work evenings and weekends week after week, month after month, year after year (more than one of my co-worker's marriages fell apart under the strain).

But, contrasted with this, it was a great job because you got to work on D&D all day every day, which was amazing: to do the thing you love as your job makes you one of the luckiest people in the world. And you got to work with the most amazing group of talented, quirky, creative, likable, people-who-get-it co-workers you cd ever ask for. People who loved games so much that in addition to working on games all day they played games during their lunch hour in the Games Library; most were also in at least one, often two evening games that meet weekly after hours.

Looking through Bruce's report, I'm glad to see so many people who were my co-workers could make it for the Lake Geneva event: Bruce himself, Diesel, Dale & Cindi, Jeff Easley (shd I mention that editing WRATH OF THE IMMORTALS was my first solo/non-mentored editing job at TSR?), Jim Lowder (the one TSR employee I'd known long before starting at the company, from his Marquette days), Jon Pickens, Lester, Sue, Jim Ward (originator of the annual telling of the story of The Day That Will Live In Infamy), Skip & Penny (Skip and Jean Rabe being the other two TSR employees I knew before starting work there, from my having helped out with RPGA tournaments at GenCon for several years; the first job I applied for at TSR actually having been with the RPGA, a few months before I landed the editing job), Karen, Harold, Dave Wise, and others. There were other people whom I know but who didn't overlap with my time there, like Margaret Weis and Doug Niles; others I've met or at least seen in person but who wdn't remember me, like Mike Carr (the man who knows where all the bodies are buried) and Frank Mentzer and Tom Wham; and still others who remain for me wholly in the realm of legend, like Tim Kask (the original editor of THE DRAGON, and later of his own successor magazine which I quite liked when I discovered old copies of it a decade or so later) and Dave Megarry (creator of the DUNGEON boardgame), Allen Hammack and Jean Black.

As many people as showed up, there are others I'd love to see at such a gathering who seem not to have made it: Slade Henson, Steven Schend, Colin McColm, Andria Hayday (the best editor/developer they ever had), Miranda Horner, Julia Martin, Roger Moore, &c &c. And some who aren't with us anymore, like the late great Dave Sutherland (TSR employee #6), who had seen it all and was full of stories about the legended past. Luckily, some of my friends from the old days I still get to see on a regular basis: Jeff Grubb, Wolfgang Baur, Steve Winter, Steve ('Stan') Brown, and Monte Cook are all in my gaming group, while occasionally but less often I get to see other friends like Bruce Cordell (whose first TSR product I edited, some fifteen years ago now), Steve Miller, & Rich Baker (who started work there just a week after I did but whose tenure there stretched a full twenty years). In the end its the memories, the friendships, and the publications resulting from all that creativity that remain behind. Thanks to Bruce for stirring old memories, but in a good way.

--John R.
--not older than dirt, but definitely paleolithic.

Friday, October 7, 2011

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today . . .

So, I thought of naming this post something like "TSR (New Fish, Twenty Years On)", but in the end had to go with the Sgt. Pepper reference.

Today marks exactly twenty years since I started work at TSR, back in the Lake Geneva days. I was one of four new hires that month, so we all had the 'New Fish' lecture together from Jim Ward, the head of our department; my immediate bosses were Steve Winter (AD&D core group) and Bruce Heard (D&D group).

Of the four of us, I started first (Monday October 7th, 1991). Rich Baker and Thomas
Reid started together a week later (Monday October 14th) and Wolfgang Baur started the week after that (Monday October 21st). I suspect I started a week before Rich and Thomas because when the nice lady at TSR called and offered me the job and asked when I could start work I answered, well, that afternoon and the next day are pretty busy; would the day after tomorrow (a Wednesday) be okay? They assured me that the next Monday (the 7th) wd be fine, which gave me the rest of that week to finish up my paper on Charles Williams' best play (TERROR OF LIGHT) for the Huttar-Sckakel collection (THE RHETORIC OF VISION, eventually published in 1996). I was living in Milwaukee at the time, so I cd commute from where we lived on the Lower East Side; I suspect the others got hired on the same day and were given two (or, in Wolf's case, three) weeks to move into the area.

A lot of water under those bridges since then. Rich quickly became one of TSR (& later WotC)'s best designers, as well as at one point a brand manager (of the Forgotten Realms) and novelist in the TSR book line (I recommend his Ravens' Bluff novel, although my favorite of his novels, the BIRTHRIGHT one, never got published in its original form, alas). And now Rich has just completed the unprecedented achievement of spending twenty consecutive years working in the rpg department at TSR/WotC. No one else has ever done that in TSR/WotC's thirty-eight year history,* and there can't be many at any rpg company who can boast a similar record.** Well done, Rich!

Thomas*** went from editing (with the occasional freelance design) to eventually brand manager of the core AD&D line (wh. throughout the early nineties was overseen by Steve Winter, one of the unsung heroes of TSR days), before eventually leaving to work in the computer game industry, like so many others who got their start in rpgs (cf. Jeff Grubb as an outstanding example). Last I heard, he was back in Austin, still working on novels and computer games.

Wolf I see the most of, since we're in the same gaming group (though with the newborn his attendance is mostly in abeyance right now). He became consecutively the editor of DUNGEON and then DRAGON, as well as building up quite a reputation as a freelance designer, particularly of al-QADIM. He was also the first of us to leave TSR, making the move to Wizards well before TSR went on the rocks and eventually leaving WotC in turn before the layoffs started there a few years later. These days he manages his own little rpg empire, Open Design (for which I've freelanced several times), with his own magazine KOBOLD QUARTERLY.

And I, through three distinct stints at TSR (1991-1996), WotC (1997-2001), and WotC/Hasbro (2003-2005), got to work with a lot of great people, many of whom I still consider close friends, and got to work on a lot of great projects, most of which I'm proud to have my name on. And through it all, in what little bit of "free time" I cd manage, I kept plugging away at MR. BAGGINS, which I'd started in earnest just about the time TSR hired me (Taum having died in August, less than six weeks earlier), though in the end I was only able to finish it by working full-time on the thing in the year and a half after I left WotC for the final time. And since then it's been the Independent Scholar route, buttressed by the occasional freelance.

*Kim Mohan, their managing editor (the final set of eyes who proofreads every rpg product before it goes out the door) has been there longer overall -- I remember he got his twenty year pin not long before I left for the last time in December 2005 -- but he'd had a hiatus, having worked at TSR (where he was the second editor of DRAGON MAGAZINE), left to follow Gygax to New Infinities, and then came back after Gygax's new company collapsed.

**Lynn Willis of Chaosium, perhaps?

***historical trivia fact: Thomas's grandmother is one of the two people who could testify that Lee Harvey Oswald had been in the Texas Book Repository at the time Kennedy was assassinated in Dealey Plaza, having run into him at the soft drink machine as he was making his way downstairs a minute or so after the shooting (the other being Robin MacNeil, later of the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, who had a brief exchange with Oswald as the later was leaving the building).

Update: having half-drafted this piece, I fell into one of my not-posting spells that strike every now and then, and so am only now (Fr. 10/14) resuming. In the meantime I've been able to see a few more old friends from TSR days of yore: Miranda Horner, Bruce Cordell, and Monte Cook. Been good to reminisce and catch up a bit on what they're doing now. Many the best thing about working in the rpg industry is the number of really interesting, really nice people you get to meet along the way. --JDR