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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.


( 9 sutras — Your wisdom )
Dec. 3rd, 2004 10:19 pm (UTC)
Too funny
You would think a warden would actually encourage D&D. I'm sure it is preferable to some of the other pastimes behind bars. GEEZ!
Dec. 4th, 2004 12:22 am (UTC)
The tradition of the magazines recieving prison mail is still going strong! Actually, your comment about the paper dice is amusing, because someone here (I think Erik Mona's the current caretaker) has some paper dice that a prisoner sent in to Dragon. He was proposing an article that basically detailed how to make paper dice of your own. The dice are actually pretty amazing, even if (or perhaps because) they use shiv technology. Unfortunately, the article proposal wasn't accepted, but those dice are still pretty nifty.

As for the 30th Anniversary book, my main complaint about it is the fact that the magazines aren't mentioned at all, as far as I can tell. :(
Dec. 4th, 2004 06:10 am (UTC)
Yeah, I always thought that Kim Mohan and Dragon never got enough credit for the great work they did defining 1e standards, and Roger Moore and Dungeon never got enough credit for the amazing work they did maintaining the audience through 2e (plus, hey, half-ogres and giant space hamsters).

Glad to hear someone's taking care of those paper dice. What exactly is "shiv technology"?
Dec. 4th, 2004 07:44 am (UTC)
By "shiv technology," I mean the technology developed in prisons to create knives and shivs out of otherwise harmless materials, like paper or soap or string. It's nice to know said technology can be put toward productive efforts like home-made dice. :)

And I definately agree. Three cheers for Kim and Roger for their years of service to the magazines. Yay!!!
Dec. 4th, 2004 01:20 am (UTC)
" Oddly enough, it's not covered in the 30th Anniversary book."

Neither are, as bigfootcountry pointed out, the magazines. GRR!!! >:( Erik Mona even wrote them a nice page of text about the magazines. Ah well, nothing we can do about it.
Dec. 4th, 2004 06:22 am (UTC)
Yeah, it's a dumb oversight, but clearly an oversight. Launching Dragon was a stroke of genius, and gave Gary an important outlet to speak directly to the fanbase before anything like the Web existing.

Later, Dark Lorraine cast Gary into the Outer Darkness, Roger Moore did a hell of job keeping a human face on the company. Not to mention, both magazines brought a lot of freelance talent in over the years.

I know coffee table books aren't exactly the venue for deep reflection, but I wish Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, Zeb Cook, Jeff Grubb, Monte Cook, Jim Ward, Skip Williams, and others had had a bigger voice in it. Not to mention Ed Greenwood, RA Salvatore, Troy Denning, Jeff Easley, Roger Moore, Lawrence Schick, Brom, Tracy Hickman, Dave Sutherland, Diesel, Erol Otus, Len Lakofka, etc.

I guess everyone's list of the crucial creators of D&D and its worlds is different, but I was hoping for more in-depth stuff with the creators and less Hollywood fluff pieces. Celebrities bore me, even if they are gamers.
Dec. 4th, 2004 08:09 pm (UTC)
C tells me that Privateer is getting similar requests. but they're not allowed to have dice in prison (anti-gambling) - they use spinners. they're requesting damaged books. besides IK, they also want the Warmachine stuff, but of course they can't have the minis, since they're all metal and already pointy. as far as they can tell, they're playing tabletop wargames with cardboard counters.
Dec. 5th, 2004 07:53 pm (UTC)

If only I hadn't spent the last 4 hours going through all my LJ Friends' posts....

If I can manage to eke out at least 1000 words on "The Dreaded Manuscript that Shall Be Named Golgotha," mayhaps I'll post a TSR Wage Slave story about Jeff Grubb Day (which is swiftly coming up on its 15th anniversary.....something which MUST be celebrated at the Owl & Thistle, methinks....)

Dec. 6th, 2004 05:49 am (UTC)
I hope to see your Jeff Grubb Day write soon. I remember the story, but I had forgotten that it was one of your first days at work.

Owl & Thistle, you say the word.
( 9 sutras — Your wisdom )

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