By Ciro Alessandro Sacco
James M. Ward is a familiar name with many collectors and fans of Original
Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D)
and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
due to the long association with the almost legendary TSR Inc. where
he had various top duties (for example director of marketing) and
worked along the famous (or, for many fans, infamous) Dragon Lady,
Lorraine Dille Williams. It’s a pleasure and an honour being
able to interview him.
you very much James for agreeing to do this interview! As usual in
this kind of interviews, tell us something about you: age, education,
interests besides gaming (I guess) and current job…
That certainly is a loaded shotgun question. Let’s see how to
best answer it, hmmmmmm.
(yes I’m older than dirt)
of Education degree from Whitewater University (I was a teacher for a
there other interests besides gaming? I have a wonderful family with
three grown sons and they have given me five amazing grandchildren. I
love to read lots of different things but especially fantasy and
science fiction. I also write short stories and novels. My company
just came out with a fantasy anthology called Heroes
& Magic that sells on our website
and it has nine of my short stories. I have a pretty wife Janean who
takes great care of me and I try to give her some quality time as
well. . .
did you discover gaming and especially role playing games?
this is one of my favorite stories to tell. I was at a local book
store on the day they received their weekly new books. I was going
through the book racks selecting the latest Conan
novel, the latest Heinlein novel, and I kept at it until I had seven
books. There was a man doing the same thing beside me and when he was
done he had the exact seven novels in his hand that I had. We got
quite a laugh out of this. He, E. Gary Gygax, then went on to say he
had a game where you could play the character Conan and fight the
forces of Set. That sounded like fun to me. I went over to his house
and learned how to play D&D
on his patio. My first character was a wizard and we went to King
Kong island and the rest is history. . .
did you start working at TSR and what was your first role there? In
the 40 Years of Gen Con book you are credited with the phrase “I
got hired in 1980. I told Gary the second he could afford my
teacher’s salary; I would come and work for the company”.
Tell us something more…
from 1974 to 1980 I was a teacher in a rural high school called West
Grant. I liked being a teacher and was pretty good at it. But every
holiday and for weeks on end in the summer I drove my family down to
my home town of Elkhorn and I would go over to Lake Geneva and play
with Gary and his friends. My teacher salary in 1980 was $13,700.00
and Gary said he could afford me and I quit my teacher job (much to
my wife’s dismay) and I went to work for TSR with a smile on my
face that didn’t stop until 1984.
and 1981 were amazing years for TSR with a huge growth in sales, not
lastly due to the famous James Dallas Egbert III affair. But there
were conflicts in the upper management of the company, between Gary
Gygax and the Blume brothers (Brian and especially Kevin). What are
your memoirs of the Blumes? Do you think they were so ruinous
(especially Kevin that got a special place in Gary Gygax’s
demonology) for TSR as Gary Gygax often said?
I don’t like to speak ill of anyone, even people who hurt me
badly. I still have the pleasure of playing games with Brian Blume on
Friday afternoons. Brian tried hard to make TSR a success. He wanted
to do it in a logical business way. Kevin on the other hand just
didn’t know what TSR was and did terrible things to the
company. When things got tough they both bailed out of the company in
a way that slapped Gary hard in the face. That’s enough said on
that. . .
you aware about the disagreements first and the lawsuit(s) after
between David Arneson and TSR?
I did know what was happening. Again I don’t want to speak ill
of the dead. Mr. Arneson did contribute something to the creation of
However, it was Gary who was kind and said it was half when really
Mr. Arneson’s contribution wasn’t even 10% of the final
game. . .
us something about TSR Education department you launched, if the
Designers & Dragons
book is correct, in 1982, with Rose Estes (author of many Endless
Quest game books) and Jean Black. The
idea of using gaming as educational tool do seem a fine idea, it
worked marvels for making children and kids reading and (in not
English speaking countries) learning English language! What were the
division plans and projects? And why was it ultimately shot down?
I have to say you are asking some really hard hitting questions. No
one has ever asked me some of these things before. The education
department was a great idea. TSR had D&D
and as a side effect the game had players reading history, doing
math, and lots of other educational things. So the company set out to
create some D&D educational
products and actually did create three educational modules. However
Rose was writing Endless Quest
books for TSR and they were selling over 400,000 with each book.
Those book ‘bars of gold’ caused the education department
to become the book department. We dropped the education idea in favor
of concentrating 100% of the resources on creating more books.
Eventually we went from just game books to true novels in the
series and those sold by the ton and the rest is history. . .
1982 Gary Gygax was ‘ousted’ as CEO of TSR and sent to
the US West Coast to pursue licensing opportunities and so TSR
Entertainment (quickly renamed Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment
Corporation) was formed. In 1983 the Dungeon & Dragons Cartoon
Show premiered (and generated a lot of licensing) and a movie deal
was in the works… but troubles started at ‘home’.
In the sane year the company was reorganized and experienced a big
series of layoffs that reduced the employees from 350 to 100. Do you
have any memories of that? What were, in your opinion, the reasons
for TSR’s problems?
Memories of that, I still have the mental scars from that! I don’t
care what is in print; Gary was never ‘ousted’ from
control of the company. What would happen is this. Some business
decisions were made or controversial orders were given to people in
the company. Many of these orders were not in the best interests of
TSR. Those people who got those orders (and no I won’t say what
they were) would then go to Gary, lay out their reasons for not
wanting to do those orders and Gary would countermand the orders and
they wouldn’t be done. Eventually the other partners in the
company got tired of this and said to Gary, “Why
don’t we put you in an office in Hollywood and you can work on
movie deals?”. To Gary this
sounded like a great idea because being the creative type that he was
he could see a great benefit in this. He went to Hollywood. TSR got
the D&D Cartoon Show
and there were several other positive things accomplished like the
Goldman movie script. However, there were many ‘business’
decisions being made back at the company that Gary couldn’t
undo. In 1984 the company went from 386 people to 86 people and it
was a black time in TSR’s history. I fell in the third of five
purges with 55 others. . .
1984 Gary Gygax returned to TSR from the West Coast and was able to
get back at least partial control of the company, forcing Kevin Blume
to step down from the role of CEO. TSR was in a very difficult state
albeit some great projects (DragonLance and Marvel Super Heroes) were
in the offing. So Gary Gygax decided to hire a Vice President of
Administration, Lorraine Dille Williams, the famous (infamous?)
Dragon Lady. One of the defining moments of TSR and of the game
industry in general was the struggle between Gary Gygax and Lorraine
Williams for the control of the company in 1985 that resulted in
Gygax’s ousting. What were your opinions at the time?
If I tell the truth about this question I will be sued into the Stone
Age. So we will be moving on. . .
many people expressed and still express dismay and sadness for Gary
Gygax’s ousting from TSR, not everybody was unhappy in seeing
him go. For example Kim Mohan expressed very harsh criticism in an
interview with The Gamer
magazine and Don Turnbull, once head of TSR UK, made absolutely
scathing comments about Gary Gygax in the very same magazine. It was
and is very, very rare to see criticism or condemnation of Gary
Gygax. What was the atmosphere at the company after he left?
we all tried to carry on as best we could. All of us wanted the
company to be successful. At the time I was made vice president of
product and given a pretty free hand as to what TSR made. I’m
proud to say the company made the most money ever from my yearly
product lines. Of course, many of us looked on at Gary’s new
company and wished we worked for him. . .
us something more about Lorraine Williams. She has been target of
huge amount of criticism from fans, but various people (for example
Kim Mohan) credit her for installing a more professional attitude at
TSR and especially separating management and creative services. What
kind of person she was? Does she deserve credit for saving TSR from a
possibly fatal bankruptcy?
It’s that Stone Age suing thing again. We will move on with me
saying she doesn’t deserve credit for anything. . .
of books, one of the most interesting offerings from TSR was a Game
Buyer’s Price Guide 1985-1986,
perhaps the very first book about game collecting. You were one of
the authors of this book along Frank Mentzer and Jean B. Black. How
was this project born and why was not continued in the following
Frank Mentzer had a lot of great ideas. I’m proud to say that
even as we speak he and I are partners in Eldritch Enterprises, a new
RPG company along with Chris Clark and Tim Kask. Please check us out
at eldritchent.com. He was running the Gen Con auction in those days
and it was a huge affair selling 3,000 units over the four days.
Frank set up the auction store that sold even more product without
going to an auctioneer. In those days Frank was the primary
auctioneer doing eight plus hours a day. Tom Wham and I would help
out, but he did the bulk of everything and even today still does the
Gen Con auction as one of the auctioneers. Today, he tells me they
sell through over 11,000 units. So to make a long story a bit longer,
Frank had this wonderful program for the auction that he didn’t
create, but he did guide in its creation. The program listed every
product, said a bit about what it was, and listed its sale price at
the auction. Jean Black and I took all of those listings that Frank
gave us and turned it into a dandy book. It was to be a regular
thing, but the company was in big financial trouble in those days and
we didn’t have the resources to do more. . .
AD&D, TSR released some licensed
games and adventures, for example a Conan
RPG (in 1985) and a Marvel RPG (in 1984). Were they successful?
Judging from the number of releases, the Marvel
Super Heroes RPG was a great seller. Was
difficult acquiring such licenses and what challenges TSR had to face
to produce them? I have read that the competition for the Marvel
license was fierce with (for example) Games Workshop and Mayfair
Games pursuing it…
You know a person could write an entire book on just this one
question. I have to proudly say that I was one of the people who
shouted loud and long that TSR should be into many different
role-playing and gaming things. I would often say that it would like
using different baits to fish. The different baits attracted
different fish. The Conan and Indiana Jones games sold well, but not
great. Marvel sold very well and TSR did Marvel resource books that
listed characters and their gaming stats and those sold terrifically.
The licenses were easy to get because we were TSR. When the biggest
role-playing company goes out and says we want to do a game on your
concept, most people say, “Sure
where do we sign?” While the
competition was fierce the other companies weren’t even a
quarter of the size of TSR. We had massive distribution and would
show our sales figures of D&D
and the translations in 44 different languages and that would tip the
scales in TSR’s favor. . .
you involved in the design and production of Advanced
Dungeons & Dragons second edition?
What were the reasons for producing a second edition of TSR’s
bestselling game? ‘Just’ financial ones and, according to
Gary Gygax, the desire to stop paying him royalties?
first of all let me say I greatly respect and admire Gary Gygax. He
gave me my start in gaming. However, he got royalties for second
edition. I helped with first and second edition and their creation.
In second edition Zeb Cook did a great job taking the game and
clarifying it. The game was evolving and needed a new version because
there were a lot of role-playing concepts that were developing as
people played the game. I can remember having many long talks with
the sales department on the subject of second edition. They greatly
feared that the design department was slaying the goose that laid the
golden eggs. However, I knew the design department was making a
better, faster laying goose and TSR would have plenty of those golden
eggs with the next version. . .
were the reasons for dropping the Original
Dungeons & Dragons line in 1991
(some modules were released in 1992 but they were nothing really
significant)? Many people consider it one of the reasons for TSR
problems in the years after, given the line’s value for
introducing new people to the RPGs and the game industry. Do you
concur with that?
The reasons were mainly financial ones. TSR didn’t have to give
a royalty to Dave Arneson if no product was made for D&D.
very important area of interest for TSR was book publishing, starting
with the Endless Quest
game books line, pioneering with the very first DragonLance
novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight,
and then experiencing a real boom of titles, some of them not game
related. For some years TSR was one of the top fiction publishers in
the USA. Did TSR plan to expand aggressively in the book trade from
the beginning or just reacted to a favourable reaction from the
With the great success of the Endless
Quest books TSR hit the book market at
a run. Doing novels was a natural and having Margaret and Tracy as
writers was a huge plus as they are both very talented writers. The
book department took off like a rocket and TSR never looked back. . .
seemed having a real interest in pursuing lawsuits in the ‘90s.
Perhaps the most famous ones were hose against Gary Gygax and GDW
about their Dangerous Dimensions
(renamed Dangerous Journeys)
RPG. Designed by Gary Gygax himself, the game never had much of a
chance to stand in the market and Gary Gygax always maintained that
TSR lawsuits had the scope to ‘destroy’ him as a possible
competitor. When GDW and TSR reached an agreement and the entire DJ
stock was moved to the TSR warehouse in 1994, the game de facto
completely disappeared. What were, as far as you may recall, TSR’s
true reasons for suing GDW and Gary Gygax? Was he right?
When a company like TSR has a valuable concept like AD&D
is needs to protect that concept from those who would use the idea
and make their own products. The lawsuit against Gary was a simple
matter of Gary using too many of his AD&D
ideas in the Dangerous Journeys
game. He lost because he was guilty. TSR sent out many warnings about
lawsuits because it was necessary to protect the copyright of AD&D.
The company didn’t like the expense of such suits, but they
liked the idea of losing the rights to the brand name even less. I’m
quite proud to say I was often the expert witness in such actions.
The company never, ever went after a competitor to hurt or quest for
revenge. . .
1993 and 1996 TSR experienced another big series of financial
problems because, besides the hefty sums involved in the two lawsuits
I mentioned before (Gary Gygax noted that perhaps they helped to
bring TSR to its knees with no small amount of satisfaction…)
, the Magic
phenomenon hit the game industry like a giant meteor (in Italy the
RPG market was, in effect, annihilated…), the Dragon
Dice collectible dice game was a flop
(albeit after a promising start), there were too many AD&D
settings to choose from (so having TSR competing with itself,
companies should hate that) and TSR faced a multi million bill from
Random House for unsold books to be returned… or so the common
knowledge goes. You, an insider, do you concur with this analysis?
What was the situation at TSR at the time?
let me correct you in several areas. Magic
did indeed kill the RPG industry just like TSR and D&D
killed the war gaming industry in the last ‘70s. Dragon
Dice, an idea I started and Lester
Smith designed made $30,000,000 in its first year. I wouldn’t
call that a flop. There were never too many AD&D
settings. Each setting had its fan following and sold just fine. For
appealed to the horror fans while DragonLance
had a huge female following. Those products did not compete with
themselves in my mind. On the other hand, TSR did publish too many
novels and Random House was owed a huge debt. I partially blame
myself for the swirling end of TSR. The company owned the teen and up
market. In those days market studies revealed that 995 of the world
population new the term D&D.
There was huge money to be had in the 8 to 12 year old market and
grabbed all of those people. I should have had the company produce a
younger version of D&D
I consider it one of my black marks in that I didn’t think of
that. Oh well. . .
us something about the Spellfire
game. Legend has it was designed in a week end after the first design
was rejected because it was ‘too similar’ to Magic.
Is this true? Why TSR went for already seen art (sometimes used in a
terrible way), choosing not to produce anything new? Perhaps TSR was
in a hurry to bring the product to the market?
so, Magic the Gathering
was out in the market and gathering a following and a portion of the
hobby market share. I was instantly all over it saying TSR needed to
come out with our own collectible card game. She who will not be
named (and thus not able to sue me into the Stone Age) always claimed
a flash in the pan game and would be dead in six months. I was given
the task of designing a competing game. I brought together some of
the smartest designers at TSR: Steve Winter, Zeb Cook, and Tim Brown.
We worked on the game together. We had all the marvelous TSR art to
use. We had the many interesting campaign worlds to draw from. I made
sure we purposely designed an easy game that was nothing like Magic
the Gathering, mainly because they now
had big lawyers as good as TSR’s. It was never rejected in the
first blush of design because I knew all about Magic
and had played it many times. Again the game made the company a huge
profit. However, it wasn’t until the photograph cards in the
expansion that the game really took off. Those ultra rare cards were
all photographs of fantasy like things and people loved them. First
of all you could instantly tell the photo card was ultra rare by
looking at it (unlike Magic).
Second of all we made sure they were useful cards that everyone would
want in their game. Spellfire
took off like a rocket. However I wasn’t allowed to support the
game like Wizards was supporting their excellent Magic
game. They were doing great tournaments and lots of things to attract
the attention of the hobby industry. A certain unnamed someone
wouldn’t let me do the same thing. TSR was sold while Spellfire
was still doing well. Imagine everyone’s surprise (sarcasm
here) when the game was shut down by the new owners of the company.
On the subject of reused art, TSR had the best fantasy artist in the
world working for them. There was a great deal of jealously when the
game first came out. Why would I as a designer want not use the
hundreds and hundreds of great pieces of art for the game? I didn’t
have to use new art, and Wizards did and they were jealous of that
fact and spread a rumor that using old art was bad? That’s a
lot like saying I have the Mona Lisa hanging on my wall. Oh it’s
an old painting maybe I should hang it in the closet. Give me a break
(sarcasm again) . . .
of the things I always wondered about is TSR refusal to grant
licenses to Wizards of the Coast to use D&D
properties in any way or form. Considering Magic’s
huge success, D&D and
AD&D themed expansion sets or
‘compatible’ games would have been big sellers and netted
TSR a lot of money in royalties. Perhaps some Magic players could
have been intrigued enough to give TSR RPGs a try… Wizards of
the Coast’s Peter Adkinson told me he was really, really eager
to reach a deal with TSR. Why TSR was so stubborn in refusing any
why would TSR or any company give millions of dollars in potential
sales to a company that was a direct competitor?
in 1996 TSR crisis had reached a fatal point. According again to the
Designers & Dragons
book, you left the company “over
disagreements about how the crisis was handled”
in December 1996. You were Vice President of Creative Services. What
exactly were such disagreements?
I was asked to fire 20 people from my department. It was my thinking
that the department that I had groomed was perfect and very capable
of making TSR millions of dollars. At that time TSR had just made the
most money it ever had in $44,000,000 gross dollars. I pointed out
that if they wanted to get rid of people they shouldn’t be
getting rid of the people who where were spinning straw into gold
bars. I was told my opinion on the matter wasn’t wanted. I
tried for several weeks to talk them out of this. Finally, I couldn’t
ethically fire people who in my opinion were doing excellent work. I
quit. I went from a huge salary to no salary and the Ward household
struggled and is still struggling, but my conscious is clear on that
topic. . .
was you reaction when TSR was acquired by Wizards of the Coast? Did
they contact you after the purchase?
Wizards was kind enough to interview me after they bought TSR. I
didn’t want to leave the Wisconsin area and they always planned
on moving everyone out to the West Coast. I did some work for them
freelance, but didn’t find that very satisfying. I just made it
my policy to never do anything with them again. Peter and I didn’t
see eye to eye on things and so I looked elsewhere for work. . .
pretty sure you read Ryan Dancey declaration about TSR ‘failure’
in listening to its fans. When he visited TSR and got (of course)
access to any area or files at the company, he lamented the “gaping
hole” he found about consumer
profiling, surveys and feedback. Do you share his opinions about TSR
absolute lack of interest in understanding whom its fans were and in
listening to them?
again not wanting to bad mouth mr. Dancey, but his statement is
ridiculous. The RPGA was created to pay attention to what the fans
wanted. TSR had millions of consumer research cards telling us what
they wanted and I bet I personally read over a million of them. I had
my staff read them as well. The company sent out its designers and
editors to fifty plus conventions a year to hear what the fans
wanted. TSR paid over a million is scientific marketing studies on
our consumers and I read every one of those reports. To say the
company didn’t care about listening to the fans is
preposterous. I always made sure I knew exactly who the fans were and
what they wanted. . .
have read in your Wikipedia biography that from 2000 to 2005 you were
president of Fast Forward Entertainment. How and why was this company
Tim Brown had the great idea that Lester Smith and I should start our
own company. We intended to produce RPG product and started with
three fantasy modules. They sold well and we went from there. We
produced adventures and lots of source books. In the beginning the
sales were in the 5,000 plus category. However the bottom was falling
out of the RPG market as Magic
grabbed more and more of the market share pie. Eventually we couldn’t
sell enough role-playing product to be profitable and we had to shut
our doors. . .
was a quite prolific publisher, specializing in d20 products, but it
released a new version of Metamorphosis
Alpha. In 2003 however the company was
forced to recall four books and destroy them due to violation of the
OGL and d20 licenses. Were such violations a factor in the FFE
closing doors or the d20 glut was the main reason?
Nope. . .
is your opinion about the gaming market at the moment, especially the
tabletop RPG one?
few hobby companies these days can just sell role-playing products
and survive. It’s necessary to diversify and try to get into
several markets. That’s one of the reasons Eldritch Enterprises
created the Heroes & Magic
fantasy anthology. The company plans on doing more novels, board
games, and card games in the near future, as well as our ‘old
school’ role-playing product. I still believe that “the
story is the thing” in RPGs. If you don’t have a great
background story, you aren’t going to be successful. Many of
today’s games and certainly the 800 pound gorilla that is still
going strong don’t have a solid story in their game products.
That’s a mistake my new company isn’t making. . .
Just let me say finally, that all of my statements above are given
honestly as seen through the eyes of James M. Ward. Some people might
not agree with some of my memories, but the above are my memories...