Saturday, June 27, 2009

Interview: Kevin Hendryx (Part II)

4. Do you recall why this reorganization occurred? Was this part of TSR's phenomenal growth in the early 80s or was it the result of other internal pressures within the company? 



We were not privy to TSR's executive management decisions, except what we were told or what was rumored, so in a way I can't answer this except from my own perspective, and according to what we believed at the time or might have learned later. 

Tensions and tempers ran hot during that period. Product Development was full of a bunch of mainly younger, intense guys bursting with energy and enthusiasm; above us were more and more non-gamer business and marketing men, who seemed to have the ear of the executives and whose priorities were not our own.

The conflict between these attitudes and expectations led to unpleasant situations at TSR beginning in mid-1981 and recurring at regular intervals thereafter, as far as I am aware. The company would periodically swell with new staff, then constrict when times grew lean. People were summarily fired or laid off at the whim of management. The problems in early 1981, however, were not financial, but philosophical. In those days, cronyism was rampant at TSR, at every level -- old friends, in-laws, and whole families dominated entire divisions. Some factions were more powerful or better connected than others.

By and large, the creative wing wasn't involved in the ego games and power struggles -- Product Development was physically isolated at that time, in our own building downtown along with the Dungeon Hobby Shop and Dungeon Distributors and the RPGA, and the managers were on the outskirts of town in the new building and warehouse. We didn't marry or get born into our jobs. We had no little hubris about being the "content providers" as it were, while the rest were doing whatever it was they did. We often felt that the Blumes and Gygaxes and their associates, like Will Neibling, were arrogant and greedy, were in over their heads as businessmen, and treated the company and its employees like NPCs in a big game they were playing. 



Tremendous growth and inflows of cash made it possible to grow both responsibly and irresponsibly. We had a large design and art staff that was the envy of smaller publishers. We weren't dependent on the vagaries of freelance submissions; we could generate quality products completely in-house, but at the same time, we weren't paid particularly well and TSR insisted on owning all rights to everything we produced, as opposed to honoring earlier agreements to pay royalties for in-house productions. This led to many confrontations, as you'd expect, especially when the serfs saw the executives buying big houses and fancy automobiles or other “bling.” 



The sales and marketing honchos at the company were interested in pursuing licensing agreements and other aspects of mainstream game publishing, like the big boys at Mattel or Parker Brothers or Hasbro might do, which meant branching into children's games
à la Fantasy Forest (Candyland with dragons) and movie tie-ins like Escape from New York. Not all the design staff was interested in working on such things; we all preferred to explore original concepts or work within the hobby game arena. Some of the guys were more vocal about their disinclination to toe the company line than others, and ultimately some of the big bosses decided to crack down and force the issue. Maybe they'd been taking management courses and wanted to do things the way other companies did.

So we were all obliged to "reapply" for our jobs in a formal sense -- this was April 1981 -- and the people in charge of the process used this as an excuse to abruptly terminate some of the troublemakers for having bad attitudes. This led to some others quitting in protest. And that was the first of the infamous TSR purges. (I recall Jim Roslof returning from a weekend out of town to discover he was alone in the art deptartment, basically.) It put the rest of us on alert as to what we could expect in the future, so those of us who had been spared but were extremely upset and unhappy at the turn of events began to make plans to leave.

By the end of that summer, more of us were gone, including me. 

TSR continued to make new hires, replaced those who left, and was a very different place by the end of the year. We who were gone referred to ourselves as the "Terminati" and that bygone era as the "Golden Age" in our wishful way. It was a short period of time, but very intense. To this day, I've never had such an engaging job or worked with more creative and inspiring people. Some of the close bonds formed then have continued, and to this day I feel great kinship with all those with whom I worked in Lake Geneva, even our then-antagonists. And
requiescant in pace

5. After you left TSR, you went to work for Metagaming as a product development manager. What projects did you oversee during your time there?

I had arranged to return to Austin and join Metagaming full-time before I decamped from Lake Geneva. Howard Thompson was pleased to pick me up again after what he felt was TSR's "training" me. Metagaming didn't pay as much, but in those days Austin was a cheaper place to live and it was good to be back in familiar surroundings after the disorientation of small-town Wisconsin and what had become the oppressive, paranoid atmosphere of TSR Hobbies in those days (at least, to us young snot-nosed punks in Product Development). 

It's difficult to recall precisely what games I worked on while at Metagaming in 1981-82; there are websites that chronicle this stuff better than I remember it now, and I sold off most of my games and documents and memorabilia from this period to collectors. I continued to receive and review outside submissions, coordinate playtesting, copyedited and did layout for a number of games, and proposed original projects that never got off the ground due to Thompson closing down Metagaming's in-house production staff in the spring of 1982. I recall Dragons of Underearth by Keith Gross and supervising some Fantasy Trip modules like Orb Quest and some TFT things licensed to other publishers à la the Judges Guild/TSR arrangement, as well as a few MicroGames like Helltank Destroyer. Thompson was always tinkering on a sci-fi RPG system he felt would be the equivalent of TFT but I don't think he ever got his design finished. It was going to come out in separate volumes, like TFT, beginning with an individual combat system game and then spaceships and then more sort of RPG supplemental material. I think a lot of games in progress were stillborn when Metagaming was deep-sixed.



6. Like a lot of tabletop RPG designers, you eventually entered the computer games industry, working first for Coleco (which seems to have hired a lot of RPG talent). Did you find the transition into video games difficult? Were there many similarities between the two industries or were they completely different?

I went to Coleco in spring 1982 and remained there as a game designer in the home video game division until summer 1983. Coleco's revolving door saw a legion of designers from other companies pass through -- Lawrence [Schick -- JDM] once remarked that Coleco had the largest collection of RPG designers not designing RPGs of any game company in the world. Many of them came after my time and our paths did not cross, unfortunately. I enjoyed some aspects of Coleco, but not nearly as much as TSR, and when I left Coleco I left the game business, as it turns out. I've never been able to get back in since, on the occasions when I've tried -- I hoped to work for Origin Systems in the early 1990s, I even made inquiries at TSR again in the mid-1990s, and WOTC/Hasbro and Cranium since then -- but I don't have any background in computer gaming, so I'm hopelessly behind the times anyway. 



I did find the technical aspects of video gaming during my Coleco stint more difficult to assimilate than conventional games, and computer gaming would probably have been even more so. I'm not much of a technophile, much more a technophobe. I also grew weary of the shoot-em-ups that dominated home video gaming, and I realized long ago that I have no interest in catering to teenage boys' power fantasies anymore, if I ever did. I realize there's more to computer gaming than this, but this is what seems to drive the industry, this pandering to adolescent male wish-fulfillment. I'd rather be involved in something more challenging and grown-up and more, well, whimsical. Or painting miniatures. I'm so old school, I have one room, hard wooden benches, and hickory switches in my brain.

7. Whimsy is something I strongly associate with the early days of roleplaying. Is it a quality you tried to include in your own game designs over the years?

Certainly! Although I've had little opportunity to indulge in this professionally since the 1980s. My game designing since then has remained private, ephemeral, in an almost sand mandala-like way (elaborate miniatures games that can never be repeated; RPG campaigns that have returned to the Immateria from whence they came; many game designs or rules unpublished and unfinished through lack of time). Putting a "Divine Wrath" rule in The Fury of the Norsemen was an early attempt to inject a fantasy element into an historical topic, and one that was not universally appreciated.

If I'd stayed at TSR I think I'd have worked on many more oddball games. The first assignment I had there was a rewrite/cleanup of The Awful Green Things from Outer Space. I'm a big fan of Tom Wham's simple but always elegant games like AGTFOS, the original Icebergs, or Gangsters! These are classics in my mind, and I'd like to see some Euro-game publisher snap them up and make refined, jazzed-up editions available to us. Just imagine Green Thing miniatures! Wham was sort of on permanent retainer at TSR as an affiliate game wizard deluxe, not bound to any time clock or protocols. He kept his own schedule and counsel. But he always came out with amazing ideas. 



I try to incorporate similar concepts in certain boardgames on my "In Process" shelf. Most of what I'm interested in as a designer are still boring ol' miniatures rules and hex wargames and RPGs, but I've also got some simmering concepts for multiplayer boardgames in the newer Euro style, with varied game-play and nice components that allow for a lot of variety and intricate, integral game mechanics. I hate to give away too many ideas, but many of these involve a mix of history and whimsy. Now my challenge is to find time to work on them, since I'm doing so purely on spec or for my own enjoyment, I've not got any publishing deal in the works for anything. Self-publishing via my CafePress shop is always an option for simpler projects like miniatures rules. It makes them available for those who are interested, without convincing a regular publisher to go broke on them. Because there's nothing like self-published game rules on CafePress to get you that villa in Tuscany or that third yacht, you know?

8. Do you still play RPGs today and, if so, which ones?

Alas! Playing RPGs with my brother Game Wizards in Lake Geneva, and to a lesser extent in Connecticut (Coleco), surrounded by unparalleled talent and creativity and bonhomie, so completely and hopelessly spoiled me that I've never been able to replicate the enjoyment of the early 1980s with any other groups. I've not been able to hold together a group as a DM in Austin due to job pressures and time constraints and the distractions of adult life, and my efforts to find a simpatico group to just play with has also met with failure. The last time Mary and I tried, back in 2000, the DM flaked out after only a few months and disbanded the campaign, and I've not made the effort again since. But not for lack of interest. Any mature but convivial, collegial, easy-going and non-neurotic gaming groups in Austin who are looking for players, give me a shout! I am active in the Lone Star Historical Miniatures group that meets regularly at the Great Hall Games store in Austin for toy soldier battles (also boardgames), and we play a lot of skirmish-level gaming that has a high element of role-playing involved. And I've been talking to some of the ex-TSR gang about a reunion at GaryCon this coming March, in Lake Geneva, so we'll see what comes of that.

13 comments:

  1. The "sci-fi RPG system" that Kevin is referring to was "Starleader: Assault". This was one of the very last releases from Metagaming and it bombed, mostly due to lack of a full development cycle and rush to market mentality. I sometimes wonder if the failure of this pet project of Howard's was part of what prompted him to shut down Metagaming so abruptly.

    If you interview Kevin any further, would it be possible to ask him more about his recollections of Metagaming and Howard Thompson? I am especially interested in his impressions of Howard's personality (given that he comes across as something of a vengeful lunatic with regards to the whole split with Steve Jackson) and the actual closure of Metagaming and what brought it about so suddenly.

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  2. This is the best interview yet. I very much appreciate Hendryx's insider views on TSR's early 80s incarnation, which seem especially valuable given his "in-the-trenches" position at the company. This is good and important work, James.

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  3. The culture of the executive excess at TSR in the beginning of the 1980s was not unique to TSR. It was the sign of the corporate culture of rhe time - the shenannigans at the corporate HQ at (now defunct) Braniff Airlines, and the way the savings and loan sharks were lighting cigars with their custoemrs savings. That time was the heart of the wave that brought the very first SNL scandal.

    Big question for the Alternative History fans: WHAT IF: Gygax never brough the Blumes on board? (who would have never brought Lorraine what's her face on board)

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  4. Thank you James (and Kevin!) for these great interviews. I was a big fan of Metagaming and TFT around the period that Kevin was there, though he was pretty much there for the downfall as well (not at all his responsibility). Others may find these Metagaming documents at the Microgame HQ Archives, many that originated from Kevin, of interest.

    Ah, yes. "Starleader: Assault". Ahem. Oh dear.

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  5. With respect to the alternate history question, I don't think it would have made any difference. Unfortunately, in this mercantile society of greed and self-absorption, very few individuals have the wisdom to exercise sound judgment in the stewardship of abundant resources. D&D was no doubt doomed by it's financial success. The smell of financial success draws bean counters and suits the way a wounded animal draws hungry predators. The names would've been different, but the results would've been the same.

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  6. Great interview. Thanks for this. Having just returned to gaming, I'm finding all the behind-the-scenes Lore fascinating.

    "In those days, cronyism was rampant at TSR, at every level -- old friends, in-laws, and whole families dominated entire divisions. Some factions were more powerful or better connected than others."

    Makes me view The Temple of Elemental Evil in a whole new light.

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  7. Great interview, the inside baseball about TSR back in the day is interesting to say the least.

    I had no idea Hendryx was a local boy (Austin that is)!

    Thanks Norman for the plug for the Old School get together. We're tentatively shooting for July 11 with some gaming before hand. And we'd be honored if your interviewee could make it.

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  8. Kevin might be interested in this Old School Get together

    Also of possible interest: the North TX RPG Con #2 next June, at Bedford/DFW. Details @ http://www.ntrpgcon.com/index.php?option=com_fireboard&Itemid=55&func=view&catid=2&id=138. This year was great!

    Allan.

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  9. WHAT IF: Gygax never brough the Blumes on board?

    No Blumes would have meant either no D&D (since their father, Melvin, put up a lot of the money to publish OD&D) or another "money man," who might not have had any connection to or understanding of the hobby.

    You have to remember that, for all the bad decisions they made later, the Blumes were friends and (in the case of Brian anyway) collaborators of Gary. Much like the disintegration of the relationship with Arneson, I suspect that it was money and success that drove them apart and resulted in the history we got, not some fundamental flaw in any of the people involved.

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  10. A fascinating look at how things went wrong in TSRville. Thanks!

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  11. James,
    I did some additonal reading on the Blumes and the Williams. Gygax himself later admitted that if he and Kaye did not bring in the Blumes for the money, they would have been able to release the OD&D under their own steam around 1975. The money that Blumes have put up amunted to $1,000.00 USD. Not that much money even in 1970. Then again, Gygax was not rich and took on work as a shoe repairman so that he can work from home and write. $1,000.00 USD back then was less than a car loan (but more miney that ten bills today). Could he have gotten that kind of a loan from the bank? Blumes, on the other hand, packed the board of directors of TSR with their friends, local businessmen: a pharmacist, a lawyer and one other. friends of Blume Sr, who had nothing to do with the hobby, and ruled exclusively in their support. Gygax himself brought Lorraine Williams (from Hollywood where he met her father) to do away with the board of directors, which she did, then Gygax had a falling out with Williams, after he tried to replace Williams with his wife as a CEO. In all this Gygax seems like a failed devil from the nine planes of hell.

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  12. It's very hard to say what might have happened if the Blumes hadn't been brought on board and my position remains that the eventual falling out with them, much like the falling out with Dave Arneson, was neither inevitable nor solely the result of their real flaws.

    Much as I loved and respected Gary, his perspective on many events, especially those 30 years gone, was not always a wholly accurate recollection of them and certainly not an unbiased one. That's not to say I discount his recollections by any means, but I do cast a skeptical eye on many of them.

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