This is Audio EXP for the 26th of June 2021, and the title of this episode is “Has TSR Games ruined the TSR name?”
[The following is a transcript of Audio EXP: #102]
The world’s oldest RPG publisher is in the process of being sold, and we’re told the new owners, who remain mysterious and unknown, will take some of the old products off the electronic shop shelves at DriveThruRPG.
I’m talking about Flying Buffalo who publishes Tunnels & Trolls.
I imagine the last two weeks have been weird for Flying Buffalo as they broke the news and may not have seen the reactions they were expecting. In part, there’s been little said because the deal isn’t done. It’s also because the hobby community has been shouting about other things. One of which Ken St Andre, who created Tunnels & Trolls, mishandling a situation on Twitter and apparently seeming to fail the “Do you oppose Nazi’s” wisdom check. He has since apologised.
However, that’s just a taster of things to come. It’s worth calling out that whoever is buying Flying Buffalo is, I’m told, serious about pulling some of the old games, but there are two deals on the Bundle of Holding that can get you a big chunk of the library at a discount. It’s live for about three more weeks.
TSR Games announced their return this week. That should be big news because that’s the name of the company formed to bring Dungeons & Dragons to the world.
The problem was that it had returned before and had not gone away. It was further complicated by just plain weird comms behaviour from this new TSR Games, who made no such announcement on their own social media. There’s also the involvement of one E. Gary Gygax Jr, who later turns out to be Ernie G. Gygax Jr, who changed the emphasis on his name, one supposes, to remind readers of the connection between TSR and Gary Gygax, the co-creator of D&D.
As I’ll call them, TSR Games (3) also said a much-delayed Kickstarter project called GiantLands was now a TSR Games, and from there, we even get to plans to build a theme park.
But we’re only at the start of this journey into chaos.
I think this is the correct order.
As gamers tried to work out what was going on with TSR Games (3), the company then announced a reboot of Star Frontiers and showed a D&D branded cover of the original Star Frontiers Alpha Dawn.
Even as I wrote up the news, I had to note the risk of showing a D&D branded book in a post saying you’re creating it. The context wasn’t clear. It might well be the case that Hasbro’s lawyers detected a tremor in the Force.
We later find out that TSR Games (3) has the rights to Star Frontiers’ name, as they do the name TSR Games. But this will be an entirely new Star Frontiers and not a D&D game.
Stick with me. Remember how TSR Games were saying that GiantLands was their game. Well, James M Ward is making GiantLands. It’s his game, with other old veterans from the industry, including Ernie Gygax, involved with it.
James M Ward tells his Facebook audiences that he’s never heard of this new TSR Games. He doesn’t even see how anyone could pick up from where the old TSR left off.
Meanwhile, Ernie Gygax, using the E. Gary Gygax Jr version of his name does a YouTube interview that seems to dispute concepts like Gender Identity and say that the new TSR Games will be for anti-modern gamers who now feel left out.
Gender Identity is a weird thing to dispute. Do you feel like a man? Is that the gender you think you have? That’s Gender Identity. It’s a sense of self. If your answer is “no”, then you still have a Gender Identity. The only case in which Gender Identity isn’t a thing is if your gender is assigned to you by someone else, which takes us into trans rights, an increasingly important battle across the so-called civilised world.
The anti-modern comments are awkward too. D&D was new. It was anti-modern at the time. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax didn’t say, “Hey, this is how it was when we were kids, let’s keep it that way,” and they didn’t say, “I’m nostalgic for how things used to be, let’s revisit that”. They did the opposite and did something new.
But yeah, some gamers feel nostalgic and want to play games that bring back those memories. That’s cool. It’s brilliant they can. The OSR community is strong. It doesn’t stop roleplaying games carrying on the path of evolution started by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson back in the 70s. You’re not a gatekeeper if you like OSR. You’re not cancelling anyone if you spend the weekend playing a retro-clone.
Now, I’m talking about cancel culture and gatekeepering because, sadly, that’s where this story takes us. Let’s get back to TSR Games.
By now James M Ward has remembered who the new TSR Games are, or one of his so-called friends have finally been kind enough to tell them they started a company without him. He confirms that GiantLands is involved.
On the YouTube video, Ernie Gygax says that GiantLands are a licensee.
We also discover that TSR Games (2), who publish Top Secret and who tried to publish the Gygax Magazine until it hit legal challenges, is still going.
All that happened was the TSR Games trademark owner, Jayson Elliot, let it lapse. Ernie Gygax swooped in and bought it up. However, he’ll let Elliot and TSR Games (2) continue by charging them a token fee.
Although he could have simply warned Jayson Elliot of the lapsing trademark as the honourable thing, he presents that fee as a kindness. I wonder whether entering into a commercial relationship on the value of the TSR Games brand will be a decision with repercussions later.
The reaction to the interview was as you’d expect. It divided people into loyalists and those alarmed, disappointed and horrified. Protests begin on Twitter. People want to see GiantLands distance themselves from TSR Games if TSR Games (3) fails to clearly articulate a trans-rights position.
TSR Games (3) on Twitter fights back, getting angry and defensive. A low point is when TSR Games tweets;
If you don’t like Gary Gygax you probably shouldn’t play D&D.
If you’re reading the transcript of this on the Geek Native blog, I’ve embedded that tweet.
That is gatekeepering. You can play D&D if you like; it’s not conditional on you liking anyone or doing what TSR Games (3) says.
Loyalists defend TSR Games (3) by claiming they’re victims of cancel culture. Of course, they’re not. They’re not cancelled at all. They’ve plenty of platforms to share their views that’s adding all this heat into the debate. They’re being amplified, not cancelled.
Then, last night, Luke Gygax – who is heavily involved in the tabletop RPG community – and Gary Con, which he runs – make it clear. They are not involved with TSR Games (3). No one in the Gygax family is involved with TSR Games (3), except Ernie.
TSR Games (3) tweets back to accuse Luke Gygax of making things up and saying he was never part of TSR.
Although there’s probably more fuel being thrown onto the fire as I write this script, that brings up to date.
This podcast is billed as a highlights show. I pick the stories from Geek Native that interested readers and me the most and talk about them. It’s a chance to be more opinionated than otherwise. While Geek Native is a blog, not a newspaper, subject to much more personal interpretation, this whole TSR Games (3) drama has been awkward and uncomfortable.
Increasingly it feels like we’re all being forced to watch a family fight. I’ve tried to make the blog post coverage as “this is what happened” as possible, resisting the urge to get too deep into the rabbit hole of opinion because I imagine most readers want to be brought up to speed first. But it’s been hard. I’m thankful I have this chance at the weekend to editorialise a bit more.
I also wonder what Jayson Elliot and TSR Games (2) are thinking. Are they pals with Ernie Gygax? Are they still friends after he snatched the TSR Games trademark back? Elliot has a company, albeit one that Ernie Gygax implies is struggling, that rests on the name recognition of TSR Games.
Thanks to the events of this week, thanks to the Ernie Gygax YouTube interview and TSR Games (3) on Twitter, that perception of TSR Games has undoubtedly changed significantly. You might well ask, has it been ruined?
Will GiantLands divorce themselves from TSR Games (3), and will TSR Games (3) be welcome in conventions. I don’t think we’ll be seeing them at Gary Con.
This week you may have seen some gaming companies, like Level Up Dice, announcing they won’t be attending any more Supanova hosted conventions.
What happened there, happened in Australia, and it centres around a vendor at the convention selling fascist merchandise. Rather than oppose Nazis, as Ken St Andre reassures us he’d do without prompting, this convention let someone sell openly fascist flags and other material.
Supernova has said they’ve investigated, and it used security to remove the vendor from the convention. In other words, the convention organisers reacted in real-time and threw the fascists out. But, for some, it’s too little too late.
I’m sure the convention scene is struggling around the world and desperate for business. I saw UK Games Expo running ads for Coiledspring Games for example.
But all this comes with a risk. People just don’t want to associate with hate. They don’t want to support it with their cash. It’s not cancel culture to decide where and how to spend your money.
As it happens, before all this broke out, Geek Native had written up an actual example of cancel culture from the tabletop games industry.
It’s widely known that Charles Darrow invented Monopoly, with the Parker Brothers doing a great job at selling it. It’s less well known that this makes Charles Darrow the first game designer to become a millionaire.
That’s widely believed, but it’s wrong.
A woman called Lizzie Magie actually invented Monopoly. Darrow bought some rights, tweaked the rules, and took it from there. Lizzie Magie’s involvement has been cancelled.
Hasbro, who own D&D and Monopoly, don’t yet seem to have recognised this.
No doubt, the complication there was that the original idea for Monopoly was to play two rulesets and compare the outcome. The game we know today is the capitalist version which results in one winner and everyone else bankrupt. The other version was socialist. I wonder how that one ends.
I think Hasbro should, at least, recognise Lizzie Magie.
I had started this week fresh on the fall out from Wizards of the Coast, as Hasbro company, and their poorly worded survey with D&D fans. We now believe that the company is considering a subscription model and even what might be a virtual tabletop.
Long time listeners will know that I’ve often lingered on the crucial link between virtual tabletops, marketplaces, and a subscription service’s healthy income.
So, I set up an unofficial survey. As of today, 219 people have taken part. I wanted to see if people thought an official D&D virtual tabletop was a good idea. I wanted to see if they would pay for a subscription service. I thought about whether the D&D books would come with that or whether people would pay the D&D VTT marketplace new money to buy D&D rulesets that integrated with the virtual tabletop.
Once you’ve taken part in the survey, you see the results, but I’ll loop back to them from time to time for further write-ups and keep the survey open.
Now, I figured that some people might think they’ve already paid to have D&D played virtually because they’ve bought downloads from D&D Beyond. I put the multiple-choice question “Who owns D&D Beyond?” in the survey.
As of today, most people can’t answer it.
Yes, I know talking about it will bias the survey, but it’s certainly food for thought. Isn’t it?
It certainly highlights the value in keeping control of your brand and what you can achieve if you use it to empower innovation.
Sadly, this week there’s an example of what can happen when it goes wrong. Nightfall Games are currently, I imagine, busy with their Terminator franchise.
Many know the British publisher for the SLA Industries RPG. That’s fine, but the spin-off skirmish game Cannibal Sector is being scrapped.
It’s been a rough ride. The Kickstarter for the game was created by Daruma Productions, with Nightfall’s blessings, and even picked up a “Project We Love” badge, but things went downhill fast.
When it became clear that Daruma couldn’t deliver on their promises, Nightfall stepped in and did it for them. I think that’s very impressive. I wish all brand owners did that.
However, I suspect the damage was done, and now so few people play Cannibal Sector that Nightfall can’t keep it going. What a shame.
Let’s move back to the lure of subscription models and find a more hopeful example of what the future of tabletop play might look like.
Games Workshop told us the pricing of their subscription service, Warhammer+, which weighs about £5 a month or $6, with a discount for a year-long membership.
But what is it?.
Well, it’s more Netflix than anything else. You do get two free Citadel miniatures a year while you’re a member, but the bulk of Warhammer+ lives on your digital screens.
Angels of Death and Hammer & Bolter, two animated shows, will stream to subscribers, with ten or so more shows to be announced.
Subscribers also get access to live shows about lore, painting and the hobby.
It all sounds very new, doesn’t it. I’m excited but disappointed too. I’m excited by the potential, but I don’t have either the money or the space to do Warhammer war games. I had hoped to watch the new Warhammer shows, perhaps as a way to rekindle my interest, but disappointed that, for now, they seem to be out of reach.
At the very least, it’s an example of how old and new can coexist. Old wargamers with this new digital hybrid.
Of course, even in the OSR tabletop roleplaying scene, old and new coexist. By a chance of timing, in an interview that was done in May and saved up until this week ahead of the Kickstarter launch of Chromatic Dungeons, I talked to Rod Waibel about just that.
You see, Chromatic Dungeons is a retro-clone that does it hardest to be modern.
In the brief interview, we tackle the question “What is OSR?” That’s one I find hard to answer as it seems to mean something different to different people. I got in trouble once for suggesting it’s a bit of a strawman, or a scarecrow, in that it really distorts perceptions about other RPGs, attacks them and defines itself as “Not that”. Despite the heat I got, I think I might be right.
We also talk about representation in the artwork. We talk about the OSR community. We did this months ago, so I hope the timing favours Rod and the game, and I’ve not helped launch the project into an inferno.
The launch alert page for the project is live.
If you don’t know Kickstarter well, the alert page is the project before it launches. Notably, the URL does not change. So you can bookmark the alert page and then go back to the same page to interact with the campaign when it launches. There’s a button to press, if you want, to make sure you get an email alert for when it does.
It’s a reminder that I should make sure I define words or avoid jargon whenever possible. In this week’s Genre Police, Ben talks about a shared language for RPG terms.
Why? Well, his group all had different meanings for “West Marches” style games. Do you know what it means?
As it turns out, Ben ran a survey and found that people had different ideas of what a hexcrawl was, and railroad and homebrew.
I had no idea of what was meant by West Marches, so I learned from this Genre Police.
Another example of the community appreciating a bit more support on a gaming topic comes from Kickstarter. A project from Eventyr Games is The Wanderer’s Guide to Merchants & Magic.
All the 5e supplement offers are price lists for magic gear in D&D, rules for trading and shopping. Sound basic, right? The campaign asked for only €2,500.
It’s about to close, there are a few days left to take part. It’s currently at about €75,000 in pledges. It turns out that loads of people could do with more rules around buying and selling loot in D&D 5e.
I also have an example of what happens when a publisher listens to feedback from the community. I reviewed Cubicle 7’s Death on the Reik Companion.
Death on the Reik is one part of a multi-part campaign for the fantasy RPG. Each book is already a separate purchase, the campaign already famous from its initial success 30 years ago, and here C7 are selling extra books for it as Companion pieces.
Milking it? No. Not at all. You don’t need the Companion to run the adventure. You might want it, though. Importantly, I think the Companion has a broader general purpose, even in games outside Warhammer, with its list of herbs or advice on river travel.
Now, we’re pushing against this being a short and snackable podcast, but I think there’s time to highlight some other bundle deals and one competition.
Itch have launhed Summer Tabletop Select Bundle which offers 6 good RPGs for $12.
We’ve already mentioned the Tunnels & Trolls deal at the Bundle of Holding, which leaves us Humble Bundle this week to mention. You can find a lot of Van Helsing digital comics from Zenescope there this week.
Lastly, news for listeners in the UK, as that’s where I can ship the prize too. A copy of the board game Big Dig is up for grabs. It’s a game where you get to scribble on a wipe-clean board and play reverse Tetris as you dig out squares to get to shapes.
On that note, let’s wrap there. Keep safe, treat vampires with caution, and we’ll see you next week.
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