Author Ben Riggs has been making waves with his new book, Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons, which details the “secret and untold story of how TSR, the company that created Dungeons & Dragons, was driven into ruin by disastrous management decisions, then purchased and saved by their bitterest rival.”
Ben has been kind enough to provide the Dragonlance Nexus an excerpt from his novel detailing why Margaret Weis left TSR.
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?– Ben Riggs, Slaying the Dragon
To learn more about the history of Dragonlance and TSR, be sure to check our Slaying the Dragon product page.