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Interview with James M. Ward

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 (AD&D) 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.

Thank 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…

JMW: That certainly is a loaded shotgun question. Let’s see how to best answer it, hmmmmmm.

61 (yes I’m older than dirt)

Bachelors of Education degree from Whitewater University (I was a teacher for a bit)

Are 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. . .

How did you discover gaming and especially role playing games?

JMW: 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. . .

When 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…

JMW: 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 D&D 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.

1980 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?

JMW: 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. . .

Were you aware about the disagreements first and the lawsuit(s) after between David Arneson and TSR?

JMW: 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 D&D. 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. . .

Tell 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?

JMW: 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 DragonLance series and those sold by the ton and the rest is history. . .

In 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?

JMW: 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. . .

In 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?

JMW: If I tell the truth about this question I will be sued into the Stone Age. So we will be moving on. . .

Albeit 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?

JMW: 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. . .

Tell 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?

JMW: It’s that Stone Age suing thing again. We will move on with me saying she doesn’t deserve credit for anything. . .

Speaking 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 years?

JMW: 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. . .

Besides D&D and 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…

JMW: 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 AD&D and the translations in 44 different languages and that would tip the scales in TSR’s favor. . .

Were 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?

JMW: 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. . .

What 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?

JMW: 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. . .

Another 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 market?

JMW: 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. . .

TSR 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?

JMW: 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. . .

Between 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?

JMW: 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 example, Ravenloft 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 Magic grabbed all of those people. I should have had the company produce a younger version of D&D or AD&D. I consider it one of my black marks in that I didn’t think of that. Oh well. . .

Tell 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?

JMW: 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 Magic was 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 Ravenloft 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) . . .

One of the things I always wondered about is TSR refusal to grant licenses to Wizards of the Coast to use D&D and AD&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 deals?

JMW: why would TSR or any company give millions of dollars in potential sales to a company that was a direct competitor?

Anyway, 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?

JMW: 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. . .

What was you reaction when TSR was acquired by Wizards of the Coast? Did they contact you after the purchase?

JMW: 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. . .

I’m 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?

JMW: 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. . .

I have read in your Wikipedia biography that from 2000 to 2005 you were president of Fast Forward Entertainment. How and why was this company launched?

JMW: 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. . .

FFE 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?

JMW: Nope. . .

What is your opinion about the gaming market at the moment, especially the tabletop RPG one?

JMW: 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. . .

JMW: 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...

 

 

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