Wolfgang Baur (the_monkey_king) wrote,
Wolfgang Baur

Tales from the Olde Days

I worked at TSR in the early and mid-90s, and then at WotC for a few years after that. The current owners of the game have released a coffee-table book to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of D&D (which got trashed in a review on /.). I figured I might as well chime in with a story of my own about those days. Maybe montecook or Grubb Street or haetmunky will be inspired to do the same.

Back in The Day, I worked in the TSR magazine department, primarily editing Dungeon with Barbara Young but also assisting on Dragon with Roger Moore and Dale Donovan. To a certain degree, the periodicals department was removed from the rest of the company by business needs; we had separate advertising and editorial departments. In a more literal way, we were always tucked away from the rest of the company. When I first arrived at the company we were The People Under the Stairs, and later we scored the luxurious French Quarter, a set of new offices with actual glass doors that were down a hall and isolated from the TSR game design, editing, and art cubicles. We pretty much had our own little world going.

This was usually a good idea. But sometimes we had stuff to share with the rest of the company. In the era before email, we got a lot of paper mail. And one of my favorites was the prison mail. It was the perfect audience for RPGs: lots of time on their hands, already understood the 1e D&D philosophy of cash = XP, and unfortunately, none too bright. The magazine was often confiscated by the warden, and we'd get letters about that. The prisoners couldn't afford to buy the books and modules, and we'd get letters about that.

Some prisoners would be polite ("I have no money, but please send me the following books…"); others were less so ("Send me these free books or I'll find you when I get out"). I always thought that one day, the warden would confiscate the prison gamers' dice, and there'd be a riot until the prisoners figured out how to make paper dice or use chits or got a copy of the Amber diceless RPG. A few of these letters went down the long hallway to the R&D department, where they'd be posted for everyone to read. In particular, one such letter from a Mafia prisoner stayed up for a few weeks, as he offered to split the proceeds of writing his biography with a ghost author.

Maybe sometimes a kind-hearted soul would pay for a few books and postage and send a care package, but we never printed any of the prison mail, of course. When I first got there, I suggested we print one, just because it seemed so exotic. Roger quickly convinced me that TSR DID NOT want Gamer Moms skimming the letters column to run across phrases such as "Currently Incarcerated" or "Joliet Correctional Center" or the like.

But I sort of wish we had, even if only in an April issue. I mean, total deniability, right? Since people always think of fantasy as an escapist genre (a dubious idea, but I digress), it seems appropriate that the prison audience would love it. If you live in a physical prison, RPGs provide the ultimate time-burning imaginative getaway. It made me oddly happy to know that D&D had a home there.

And that's my story of the old days. Oddly enough, it's not covered in the 30th Anniversary book.
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