Lorraine Williams, TSR, gaming history, Bullwinkle, Dancey

edited February 2007 in Story Games
In the "weird old games" discussion, there is mention of TSR's Rocky & Bullwinkle rpg, as well as
their game based on the TV show "Dallas".

The discussion "The Great Divide -- Story games in relation to traditional RPGs" is about a Ryan Dancey interview, in which he discusses brokering the deal in which WotC bought TSR; and the state of TSR at the time of the purchase.

Both of these topics relate to Lorraine Williams, who was then the head of TSR.

Her post-gygax vision for the company was to expand the audience of rpgs with games such as Bullwinkle... as well as games based on All My Children and The Honeymooners.

This review of the Bullwinkle game may shed some light on where she wanted TSR to go.




Is Lorraine Williams a great unsung storygame heroine? She was a woman. She sought to expand beyond dungeon crawling and hack'n'slash. She favored rules innovation. She oversaw a company that, according to Dancey, couldn't bear to slay any of their beloved, unprofitable children (product lines)-- to save the bottom line.


Sometimes I think about how Steve Jackson games had its back broken by legal bills, when they were raided by the FBI. I wonder what the company would have done if not for that intrusion.

What if Lorraine Williams' vision had been enacted a few years earlier, or later-- or now?

Comments

  • I think the essential question here -- and the thing that Matt identifies as the Great Divide -- is whether the desire to create and tell stories really is universal, or if it's something that only appeals to a small minority.

    Would a Bratz RPG work? Would a Lost RPG actually appeal to the people who watch Lost? Or is the majority of these audiences really only interested in experiencing what somebody else produces?
  • Posted By: Joshua BishopRobyWould a Lost RPG actually appeal to the people who watchLost? Or is the majority of these audiences really only interested in experiencing what somebody else produces?
    The amazing amount of fanfic and the volume of forum posts on Lost theories would seem to suggest that people do want an outlet to create and they want to do so with and in front of their peers.
  • edited February 2007
    Lorraine Williams is the crooked cement Soviet war monument in front of a landfill of thousands of tons of Dragon Dice. Innovative or Not, because of her terrible people and business management skills, attributing her to anything in the RPG world is the equivalent of wiping a booger on it.

    She might have been the Small Press DIY Gaming God-figure in terms of shared goals, but we'll never know; her ineptitude when working with other people, and numbers, have cast her into her role as the Boogyman of RPG History.

    -Andy
  • Judd -- yes, but how much of the Lost audience are also fanficcers? I'm guessing a very small minority.
  • Heh. We played Rocky & Bullwinkle last year. It was a good demonstration of how whimsical props and a shared commitment to having fun can trump turgid rules written in the "TSR staff" style.

    One can't mention Lorainne Williams in this context without also noting she was the inheritor of The Dille Family Trust -- the Buck Rogers IP. She tried to cram that license down her customers' throats at least twice.
  • Posted By: Joshua BishopRobyJudd -- yes, but how much of theLostaudience are also fanficcers? I'm guessing a very small minority.
    Right, but that's still a huge number. Huge. A small number of the people who watch Lost is still a pretty large number.

    And man, they churn out material. Jeff's wife writes fanfic along with her sister and the sheer volume of words they will write is staggering to me.

    I'm just sayin', there are people looking for creative outlets is all.
  • Fanfic! What an excellent example of a merger of the divide. A small group of the fans creates, the rest partakes. Both groups get their kicks off each other.
  • Posted By: Call Me CurlySometimes I think about how Steve Jackson games had its back broken by legal bills, when they were raided by the FBI. I wonder what the company would have done if not for that intrusion.
    I've never thought of SJG as a particularly innovative house. Most of their bread-and-butter products were evolutions of existing stuff rather than startling innovations -- GURPS from TFT, Ogre and Car Wars from the microgames of Metagaming, INWO from Magic:TG, and their "attack the leader with cute geek color" games like Munchkin and Chez * are Illuminati for a dumber world.

    I think that the only thing they ever did that was really groundbreaking was Toon. Maybe Killer, too.
  • Posted By: JuddPosted By: Joshua BishopRobyWould a Lost RPG actually appeal to the people who watchLost? Or is the majority of these audiences really only interested in experiencing what somebody else produces?
    The amazing amount of fanfic and the volume of forum posts on Lost theories would seem to suggest that people do want an outlet to create and they want to do so with and in front of their peers.

    Well, there are Buffy and Firefly RPGs, two series which also spawn a metric tonne of fanfic. How well are these games selling?
  • They are both talked about quite a lot on RPG.net, in my experience.

    They're not taking the world by storm, but they definitely have a player-base.

    I'm not sure whether those are gamers-who-enjoy-Buffy or Buffy-fans-who-tried-gaming, though.
  • Posted By: Andythe Boogyman of RPG History.
    Yeah, but Story Games is the Boogyman in plenty of gamerz minds, too.

    I know next to nothing about Lorraine Williams.

    What's she accused of?
  • Posted By: BentWell, there are Buffy and Firefly RPGs, two series which also spawn a metric tonne of fanfic. How well are these games selling?
    I don't think they were marketed towards people who write fanfic but more like people who play traditional RPG's who will buy anything with the Buffy or Firefly name on it.
  • There's a problem with trying to tap the fanfic market as a possible RPG market without thinking about it. You tend to fall into the old patterns, designing games that work like other games; but obviously, the fanfic writers (and readers!) aren't coming in droves to RPGs right now, so they aren't going to come in droves once you write your licensed Lost The RPG game. That's why Dallas! The RPG didn't work, that's why most of the licensed products don't work. At best, they get the intersection of the two sets (fans of Fanfic X and RPG players.)

    Here's what's important about fanfic:

    • although it's technically a creative activity, it's spurred by the show it's based on, and is mainly aimed at getting more involved in that setting (I doubt many fanfic writers think "damn, I need an outlet for my creativity! I know! I'll write fanfic! Which show should I pick?");
    • there's a learning curve for absorbing setting details, but little to no learning curve for the process of fanfic writing itself;
    • fanfic writing can be done with little setup;
    • fanfic writing can be done at practically any time, with few scheduling constraints;
    • fanfic writing can be done in tiny chunks.

    What I see when I look at licensed RPGs are, in general, the opposite of these things: more of a learning curve than just writing a quick story, longer setup time, planning needed to set aside a large time block. Come up with a game system that can be learned in just a few minutes, has minimal to no setup, and can be played at a moment's notice for 15 to 30 minutes at a time, then tweak that to specific settings and market it as a way to write fanfic with little effort, and maybe you can tap the fans who read but currently don't write fanfic.

  • There's also the question whether Lost: The RPG would fulfill any creative outlet fanficcers aren't already getting from just writing their fanfic, you know?

    I have to admit, the thrill I got when I discovered gaming is directly analagous to the kick I used to get from writing X-Men fanfic when I was thirteen -- this whole, "I'm telling myself stories! For fun!" thing that I'd forgotten about.
  • I suspect, based on my own experiences with fanficcers, that there's a substantial number of them who'd want nothing to do with what we think of as RPGs. For a fair number of fanficcers, the impetus to write fic is precisely an unwillingness to compromise their own private vision of the property. They're writing their perfect vision of the story as it should be, unconstrained by the demands of market, medium, or authorial intent.

    This does not strike me as a form of the creative impulse much given to collaboration or to the possibility that a roll of a die might mean the story comes out WRONG.
  • Just a thought: most RPGs require a core book which contains the rules and the setting.

    Fanfic authors and celebrants already have their core book in the form of the original material, and the impetus to go write about it some more. Trying to sell them an additional corebook isn't going to work.

    However, if you want to share your techniques for collaborative story creation and resolving different opinions on what the "right" story is for a group, then there may be some crossover. But it won't be from the people who are already creating without any outside help.
  • Posted By: Bent
    Well, there are Buffy and Firefly RPGs, two series which also spawn a metric tonne of fanfic. How well are these games selling?
    Interesting side note here: I don't know how well they sold, but my understanding is that the license ended up hurting EDEN recently because the studio first dragged their feet on a bunch of material that was ready to go to press, and then didn't renew the license with EDEN, so that all that material is unsellable (at least, unless they go through filing off serial numbers and try to publish it as the generic teenage monster-killing game).

    That's another factor keeping the divide in place: it's really difficult, from what I hear, to make a profit selling licensed games. There's too many ways things can go wrong, and you have to pay the licensing fees up-front. Conversely, people who hypothetically might buy the official LOST RPG probably wouldn't buy Spooky Castaways, the indie game of people with secrets on islands.
  • Does anyone else think that perhaps the single great failure of the whole experiment was trying to get rpgers to buy this stuff instead of, I dunno, someone else?

    Or, perhaps, calling this stuff "roleplaying games", rather than simply The [licensed material name] Game?

    Also, why licensed? It obviously takes a ton of dough up front. Why not create the fiction, then go from there? A sort of open-ended Dragonlance approach,I guess?
  • What I find interesting about Dragonlance is that the fiction and the game material were conceived as a unit, to expand an existing roleplaying product. As an aside, I wonder how many people were brought into playing AD&D after reading the Drizzt novels.

    I haven't (yet) picked up a copy of Dictionary of Mu but I think there may be something similar happening here (I suspect there is enough fiction in Mu to count as a collection of short stories, can anyone verify this?)

    To take it a step further, it should be possible to take an existing "indie" system, write an actual book based upon that system's setting (or create a new one) and sell it as a novel with a tie-in game. Except I think the barriers to getting published as an author of straight-out ficion are much higher.
  • Posted By: Doug RuffI haven't (yet) picked up a copy ofDictionary of Mubut I think there may be something similar happening here (I suspect there is enough fiction in Mu to count as a collection of short stories, can anyone verify this?)
    Other folks, please feel free to disagree with me but it is more of a collection of vignettes. I was pretty careful not to finish any stories but just seed 'em (in hopes of inspiring the readers) and move on.
  • edited February 2007
    Judd, thanks for answering that for me.

    Most game settings (including Judds!) are open-ended narratives (so the players can create their own stories from them) but looking at the "signature characters" and short tales in a lot of mainstream product (Exalted, I'm looking at you. Also the campaign that unfolds during the examples in Heroquest) it seems as though there is a place for more "closed" fiction as a means of marketing games, with Dungeons and Dragons leading the charge (endless novels, a cartoon series, a movie tie-in.)

    Many of these sucked as art forms in their own right, but I suspect they did a lot to market the game itself, because they gave a actual story for people to measure up against, instead of just a backdrop against which story could happen. Maybe some of that fluff isn't unnecessary after all?

    Note: I think there is a strong correlation with Actual Play reports being responsible for game sales. Once people can see exactly how the game creates story, they will pick up the game and will often steal elements from the AP for their own games. With settings like Dragonlance, there is already a story to steal from.

    2nd note: we do the same thing when we borrow mechanics from other people's games.
  • Posted By: Doug Ruff
    To take it a step further, it should be possible to take an existing "indie" system, write an actual book based upon that system's setting (or create a new one) and sell itas a novelwith a tie-in game.
    Ben Lehman and his brother are trying that with Drifter's Escape. James V. West publishes comic books with short games tucked inside.
    Posted By: Doug RuffExcept I think the barriers to getting published as an author of straight-out ficion are much higher.
    Is there some specific barrier you have in mind?

    My sense is that traditional fiction publishers are interested in the writers' identity. Are you a nubile nanny who had sex with famous clients? Did you flee an oppressive regime, with only your grandmother's wisdom and exotic good looks? Then they want to publish your novel. Even if somebody-else has to ghostwrite it. If there's something about you which could be featured in a This American Life segment on NPR, they'll want to sell you on that basis.
  • Posted By: Call Me CurlyPosted By: Andythe Boogyman of RPG History.
    Yeah, but Story Games is the Boogyman in plenty of gamerz minds, too.

    I know next to nothing about Lorraine Williams.

    What's she accused of?

    This handles the basics: http://pc.gamespy.com/articles/539/539628p1.html

    In essence, Lorraine Williams basically tried to morph TSR into a license-based house, since she was the inheritor of the Buck Rogers license. So she took whatever margin D&D was creating (which was considerable at the time) and put it into these other licenses which were marginal at best and marketed them badly. In order to sop more cash, she proliferated the D&D line, expecting gamers to simply buy everything they could to fund the stuff that wasn't working.

    That's my take on it, at least - while it's possible that it could have worked, Williams turned the company so hostile to its fans, especially during the absolutely crucial first days of the internet boom, that she failed to leverage any sort of brand loyalty and drove a lot of the hardcore (the people she was counting on to buy these metric tons of products) away, while choosing very questionable outside licenses to draw in new gamers.

    Plus, Dragon Dice. Hoo boy.
  • edited February 2007
    Here's the picture that's starting to emerge, for me. Please set me straight if it's inaccurate.


    Rpgs started-out as wargamer hobbyists-- not businessmen-- houseruling their games toward role-play.

    Those houserules begat actual published editions, which provided the credited authors with a certain authority; and provided published rules an aura of being 'official'. And a 'product'.

    Still, there was an informal fanzine-like culture of homebrewed rules. Dragon magazine emerged as a place where homebrew rules morphed into quasi-official product.

    The influential guys who remained hobbyists began to be eclipsed by those who assembled products. I don't know if there was grumbling back-then; but since then there has been grumbling about who did & didn't get due credit for their contributions to the hobby.

    TSR's game sales skyrocketed as rpgs became a fad. The hobbyists found themselves dealing with some serious 'real business' dollar amounts.

    Gygax used the opportunity to develop AD&D, for hardcore rules-junkie gamers. The Basic Set line was introductory, for the pubes. Sci-fi, espionage, gangster, western & other genres were supported. Apart from AD&D there was a charming consistency to the simple art and writing. AD&D had it's own powerful dense style. Fearing an end to the fad, TSR tried to diversify outside the rpg fad, into a 'hobby company'; buying a cross-stitch company.

    For me, TSR jumped the shark somewhere in here. Before the reign of Lorraine. The art got glossy and soul-less. The barely-professional hobbyshop look & feel began to be replaced by a chain toystore empty slickness. The kewl products were aimed at an incestous group of obsessive fanboys, like a prog-rock band's sequel to a concept album. Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Oriental Adventures... to me these products were slick. Without charm. For me, Marvel Super-heroes was an exception; likely because it maintained the simple charm of Marvel comics' house style (of the time).

    There was infighting about how the company would be run. A million plus dollar revenue shortfall had the company in a bad position, and Gygax was opposed to any long-term borrowing. A coalition of partners favored Lorraine Williams being given the helm; and Gygax being marginalized.
    Williams was already a party in the business. Not an outsider performing a hostile takeover.

    Gygax went to Hollywood, to develop the D&D cartoon and other properties. One thing his unit oversaw, was the licensing of the Amazing Stories name to Spielberg for his TV show. (The name goes back to the Buck Rogers property.)

    At first, Lorraine Williams' direction was expansive: seeing rpgs as potentially appealing to people outside the existing demographic, such as women. Right? How much of the grumbling about Dallas and All My Children; was the fanboys grumbling about the lack of kewl rules for armor? How much of the grumbling about the Rocky and Bullwinkle game is from those who think cartoons = kiddie; not remembering the show had a sophisticated edge? How many gamers didn't think a woman had any place running their clubhouse? How much of the bitching about how "her family owned the Buck Rogers property" is a smear to make her look like a rich interloper/ not a qualified manager for a long-mismanaged company?

    Well... that first direction didn't work out as desired. So the 2nd half of Lorraine Williams' tenure worked licensing in the opposite direction: instead of producing games based on outside licensing; TSR's own licenses were farmed-out to other companies. This part is news to me-- in that when I heard "Lorraine Williams wanted to turn TSR into a licensed based company; I only considered outside licenses. Not Dark Sun and Ravenloft video games. And the existing trend of TSR's own licenses growing ever-more self-referential as the mountain of supplement releases continued.

    Meanwhile, the fan culture of the internet was cropping up. And was seen as a threat to TSR's control of their properties. A threat to Dragon magazine and Rules Supplements. Like Paramount with Trekkies, the company found itself sending lawyers' letters to their most committed fans.

    And now the company was $30 million in debt. Ryan Dancey approched TSR, hoping to sell his company to them. Instead, he ended up offering to buy TSR-- using the money of unwelcome-suitor WotC. Speaking of a business whose revenues are based on licensing toys and cartoons: Pokemon.


    What did I leave out. Dragon dice?
  • Hey Curly, have you seen Ron's article on the the early days of D&D? It's pre-Lorraine Williams, but good for blowing a number of commonly-held myths about the origins of the game out of the water.

    It was at one time widely whispered that Lorraine Williams would proudly utter statements to the effect that she had great contempt for gamers and she most certainly was not a participant in the hobby herself. (Perhaps not surprisingly, I can't seem to find a credible source to corroborate this.) This was cited in on-line circles as the smoking gun that she was, in fact, The Devil. In fairness, this always struck me as more a re-assurance to potential investors that she was not running the company out of any personal sentiment for the hobby, that she was operating purely out of callous confidence that she could turn a profit. Still, telling your customers that you don't even believe the product you're selling them is even worthy of your own interest always struck me as a questionable business practice.

    But I think I get your point. Demonizing Ms. Williams is maybe akin to blaming Nikita Khrushchev for "screwing up" the Soviet Union.
  • edited February 2007
    Posted By: Call Me CurlyThe Basic Set line was introductory, for the pubes.
    The BECM line existed as a result of a legal dispute between Gygax and Arneson. It was one of the Many Dumb Things™ done by TSR. "Hey, let's divide the D&D fanbase between two incompatible game lines!"
    Posted By: Call Me CurlyHow much of the grumbling about Dallas and All My Children; was the fanboys grumbling about the lack of kewl rules for armor? How much of the grumbling about the Rocky and Bullwinkle game is from those who think cartoons = kiddie; not remembering the show had a sophisticated edge? How many gamers didn't think a woman had any place running their clubhouse? How much of the bitching about how "her family owned the Buck Rogers property" is a smear to make her look like a rich interloper/ not a qualified manager for a long-mismanaged company?
    Given that I had no clue who Lorraine was during that time, and that I am probably not alone (no Web back then, remember), I have a feeling that it all boils down to TSR not making products gamers actually wanted.
  • Lorraine Williams is not simply demonized for what she did for the line, but what she did to the people who were TSR at the time. There's tons of history out there on the net, so you should probably do a lot more research before going much farther with the theory that she was somehow responsible for a potential new creative direction (which, frankly, I think most people who are well-versed on the subject would say is utter rubbish). She is portrayed by the people who worked under her as being a pretty horrible boss who treated her employees terribly. There was all kinds of really ugly infighting at the time as well that left a lot of the true indy originators of the hobby with some dark memories and bitterness. It was not about conflicting creative agendas and trying to wrest such a narrative out of what happened is an erroneous a priori historical analysis.

    Go read some Grognardia. Knights of the Dinner Table as well.
  • image

    (there's no stigma against necroing threads at all here; save trying to recreate a fight in a Sunk/Closed thread)

    -Andy
  • Posted By: walkerpGo read some Grognardia
    You just told a 2007 poster to read a site that began in 2008.

    That's against the Story Games rules FAQ of 2017!
  • En passant par la Lorraine,
    Avec mes sabots,
    En passant par la Lorraine,
    Avec mes sabots,
    Rencontrai trois capitaines,
    Avec mes sabots,
    Dondaine, oh ! Oh ! Oh !
    Avec mes sabots.
  • Posted By: Mark WI suspect, based on my own experiences with fanficcers, that there's a substantial number of them who'd want nothing to do with what we think of as RPGs. For a fair number of fanficcers, the impetus to write fic is precisely an unwillingness to compromise their own private vision of the property. They're writing their perfect vision of the story as it should be, unconstrained by the demands of market, medium, or authorial intent.

    This does not strike me as a form of the creative impulse much given to collaboration or to the possibility that a roll of a die might mean the story comes out WRONG.

    To jump onto this zombie, while the above is true for one group, there's very large evidence of intersection between fanfic and roleplaying. If you look at sites like Insane Journal you'll see it's filled to the brim with collaborative storytelling games, mostly based in some sort of fan setting, usually playing canon characters. I've played in a number of these and they're essentially taking the fanfic impulse of wanting to tell a story in a established setting, with wanting to collaborate and roleplay with others. I find that these groups are largely populated with female players and most are coming from more of the fanfic side than from the rpg side. The games are generally system-free.
  • I've said it before (many times) and I'll say it again (many times): If The Bullwinkle & Rocky Role-Playing Party Game was published 20 years later, everyone would say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. We thought of all these things 5 years ago."
  • Aeon, could you talk—perhaps in a new thread—about your experiences in those forum fanfic games? They've always seemed really unappealing to me based on what I've heard about them and their lack of mechanics, it seems there's a risk that little happens in them of serious consequence. But I'd love to be proven wrong and to understand that sister subculture better.

    Matt
  • Perhaps the goal isn't risk of serious consequences at all?

    Strikes me that Happy Wallowing in Shared/Challenged Understanding of the Source Material is the more likely goal.

    Haing said that, I agree with Deliverator in that I'd also like to hear more about your experiences Aeon.
  • I've posted a few threads about it in the past, would also be happy to share my experiences.

    I don't think that the lack of risk is a clear goal, but given that the source material often puts the beloved characters at serious risk, when you do introduce risk, the participants leap all over it.

    The same is true for character mistakes and problems.
  • Wow, that's so weird. I totally didn't notice the date. My apologies for the necro, but the thread appeared on the first page (perhaps because I wasn't signed in?).

    Carry on.
  • Thread necromancy is always good and never bad. *folds arms defiantly*
  • Posted By: JDCorleyThread necromancy is always good and never bad. *folds arms defiantly*
    Well excepted that Walkerp almost created a black hole with his Time Travel Rules infringement as Todd noted!
    Posted By: Todd LPosted By: walkerpGo read some Grognardia
    You just told a 2007 poster to read a site that began in 2008.

    That's against the Story Games rules FAQ of 2017!
  • I'm in real trouble. I may have to actually switch dimensions as I'm now wanted across the entire time dimension for this gaff.

    Joking aside, the necro does demonstrate how much our collective knowledge of the history of the hobby has increased in the last 4 years. Because had I read this thread when it originated, I probably would have found it plausible that Lorraine Williams actually cared about game design.
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