Do you realize its been 20 years since Wizards of the Coast bought TSR?
Yeah! It happened on April 10, 1997.
There’s an entire generation of gamers who never experienced their Dungeon and Dragon magazine subscriptions stop arriving in the mail. Who never watched as one D&D group after another fell apart to play the dozens of other new RPGs on the market, or worse, Magic: The Gathering.
Think about it: back then, Vampire: The Masquerade was new as was Mage: The Ascension and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. So was Rifts. What you now know as FATE, back then was known as FUDGE. Even Wizards of the Coast had its own RPG called Everway for a brief time. GURPS, by Steve Jackson Games, was still going strong from the 1980s; as was Middle-Earth Roleplaying, by Iron Crown Enterprises.
Other, now lesser-known RPGs made their appearance: C.J. Carella’s WitchCraft and its apocalyptic counterpart Armageddon: The End Times. Some pushed the envelope and addressed contemporary issues, like Underground.
Shadowrun started off as a game for advanced gamers. “As it turned out, everyone was looking for something new and different,” said Sean Patrick Fannon in The Fantasy Role-Playing Gamer’s Bible, page 188.
The FRPGB was first published in 1996, right before TSR went bust.
Imagine: you start playing The World’s Most Popular Roleplaying Game, bought a small library of books and supplements, and then a few years later the company starts to go under, and then this upstart collectible card game company from Seattle buys them out.
Which leads to my first lesson:
1. Knowing about the “ins” and “outs of the RPG industry doesn’t make your game better.
In fact, it can bring only worry and distraction.
In my early years in the hobby, I had no idea how much financial trouble TSR was in, no clue that the company had ousted Gygax in 1985, and quite frankly, now I almost wish I never found out. The knowledge didn’t improve my games.
Yet there’s always somebody crying wolf, proclaiming doom and gloom. Or somebody insisting you should know the industry because it matters for some reason.
Well guess what? So long as you can find good players for your favorite RPG, things will be okay. However…
2. Beware the power of marketing, it may destroy your group.
“Man this City of Greyhawk ® campaign bites. You people should dump this stupid world. It’s a dead world anyway. Let’s get a Realms campaign going. I had a character who was Elminster’s nephew and he…” –Roger E. Moore, “Final Quest: They Deserved It”, Dragon 228, page 17, published April 1996.
Moore was joking. It comes from list of “famous last words” uttered by player-characters.
The context is a bit more serious: By 1996, TSR had abandoned the Greyhawk campaign setting to push the Forgotten Realms. The Forgotten Realms got the most supplements and rulebooks. The Forgotten Realms got the storylines and fiction (with, perhaps Dragonlance tied for first place). The Forgotten Realms got content in nearly each issue of Dungeon and Dragon magazines.
To this day, I’m not certain if many people really wanted or desired The Forgotten Realms, or if TSR created that desire by inundating the player base.
What I do know is that it worked. One of my players became a rabid Realms fan after he had read the books and bought the boxed set. He couldn’t stop talking about it, and insisted I check out the Drizzt Do’Urden books, which were okay reads for the time.
Outside my little group, I encountered people either playing The Realms or something “not-D&D.”
Playing an RPG which was “not-D&D” was fairly popular back in the 1990s. And that’s how many of the alternative games were marketed. D&D was obsolete. Other games had better systems.
“Not-D&D” could also mean Magic: The Gathering. My first year in college was rough: hardly anybody played RPGs, just Magic. You didn’t even bother trying to start a campaign.
The best example of the power of marketing comes later in the 1990s, when Wizards fo the Coast promote D&D 3e.
There’s also subtext whenever an RPG company publishes a new edition to their rules: Your old RPG books are now obsolete. You have to buy new stuff or be left behind with no friends! HA HA HA HA HA!” (Okay, maybe the laughter is a bit of hyperbole, unless we’re talking D&D 4e: they were laughing. Not so much for 3e. For the most part, people were ready for a change.
3. Gamers can be easily distracted.
In the 1990s, I bought into Planescape, Ravenloft, Greyhawk, and Dark Sun. I picked up the Spelljammer boxed set. Planescape was my favorite, I bought whatever I could for that.
At one point I went crazy and purchased The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting boxed Set, The Ruins of Zhentil Keep, and the Ruins of Myth Drannor. I didn’t like the Realms, but wanted to see what my Realms friend kept fussing about.
I got my hand on every “splatbook” which looked remotely interesting. The Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide taught me the foundations of being a good Dungeon Master.
I bought and tried other systems: Middle Earth Role Play, by Iron Crown Enterprises; Star Wars, by West End Games; Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, by Games Workshop. But I always came back to D&D–or at least tried to, since nobody during my first year in college played it. Shadowrun. I ran a brief superhero campaign using FUDGE.
What was I looking for? Ideas? The key to enlightenment? The means to keep up with the Joneses? To be the gamer with the most swag on my block? I don’t know.
Here what I do know: these distractions kept us from focusing on what’s really important–playing the game itself and finishing what we start.
My first RPG campaign when all over the multiverse, from Greyhawk, to Ravenloft, to Planescape and back again. It lasted for almost 10 years. And then fell apart just three sessions shy of completion.
4. Quantity Does Not Equal Quality.
In retrospect, much of what I did and much what was going on was downright absurd.
Many were shocked that TSR went under. Hindsight, of course, being 20/20 we can easily see the writing on the wall. Had TSR been paying attention, they should have seen their player base dwindling (maybe they did? I’m not sure).
The fact is: they got lazy. Yes, I said it.
When I first started in the hobby, I didn’t know any better. In retrospect, much of what TSR published wasn’t that good.
Just look at the Forgotten Realms. TSR designers were so hellbent on creating material to cover every region they pulled stuff from real world history whenever they could. Maztica. The Horde. To name but a couple.
And when they didn’t have time to fill in the details, they let the Dungeon Master finish the job. Best Example: The Ruins of Undermountain. What does it claim? “A 128 page book describing Undermountain, its history, its horrors, and details of the first three levels of the dungeon?
What do you get? Poster-sized maps of the dungeons, full of un-keyed empty rooms and hallways. You have to do the work yourself.
The same goes with nearly every single supplement for the Realms, and most of the campaign settings for that matter. After all that reading and studying, you still have to do the work yourself. At least with Planescape, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, and Greyhawk supplements, you didn’t have Elminster delivering a condescending monologue at the beginning.
Remember that joke version of Castle Greyhawk? Or “Puppets” the module straight from a Forgotten Realms “living city” campaign with “Greyhawk” slapped on the cover? Player-character screens?
Even Planescape wasn’t immune once you figured out it they had taken the already screwball cosmology from AD&D and smooshed it with Norse Mythology and late 19th Century London, and then dumped Philosophy 101 on top of it.
5. What really matters is the friendships at the tabletop.
In the end, dredging up 20 years of gaming history, point out TSR’s follies, and bashing The Realms doesn’t mean a thing.
The only thing that mattersis what happens at the tabletop. All that hullabaloo about the Industry and concerns about the next big RPG is nothing compared to how you spend your time while playing the game.
I learn this lesson back in April of 1995, from an article called “The Auld Alliance: Insights into a Long-Lasting Gaming Group,” by Arthur Collins.
If you’ve got the time, you should look it up.
It’s in Dragon #216 and is well worth the read.