Every company interacts with the rest of the industry in a different way. For Chaosium it’s been more than 40 years of licensing, while Target Games created and defined roleplaying in its home country of Sweden. Dave Nalle’s Ragnarok Enterprises instead influenced designers and publishers through interactions in A&E and Abyss.

As for TSR, the founder of our industry: as wags have put it: they sue regularly.

That’s obviously not even close to fair, as TSR founded the whole industry and in doing so indirectly influenced every single roleplaying publisher out there. But, after a cooperative few years after their foundation, TSR tended to sue as their most direct interaction with other roleplaying publishers.

This article, the first of a few tracing TSR’s interactions with the rest of the industry looks at those direct connections: the licenses TSR offered (plus a few other connections), the major, publisher-related lawsuits they filed, and also the major lawsuits filed against them.

The Early Days

TSR didn’t start out being so litigious. In its earliest days, TSR was happy to take on licensors and otherwise arrange deals with other publishers. It was only after their success started to ramp up (and after the company was taken over by first the Blumes and then Lorraine Williams) that it became more litigious.a

So, here was the totally different TSR of the ’70s:

Guidon Games (1974). Gary Gygax did some of his earliest published work for Guidon Games so when Don Lowry moved on to another things, Gygax was happy to have TSR purchase three games that he’d worked on from them: Chainmail (1971), Tractics (1971), and Don’t Give Up the Ship (1972).

LORE (1975, 1976). In its earliest days, TSR formed connections with other companies by offering to distribute their products. Thus, in 1975, they started distributing three early (and unlicensed) Tolkien board games. The next year they even acquired rights to reprint one of them, LORE’s The Battle of Five Armies (1975, 1976).

Wee Warriors (1976). As D&D took off, TSR was also willing to distribute the earliest third-party products for the game, and that started with Wee Warriors, who was one of the most innovative super small-press publishers in the early RPG field, putting out the first character sheet, The Character Archaic (1975), and the first standalone adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen (1976). TSR never licensed Wee Warriors for their D&D products, but around 1976 they started exclusively distributing their earliest releases, and even after that deal ended in 1977, TSR didn’t sue them or anything.

Games Workshop (1975). Distribution is a two-way street: just as TSR could help other companies in the US, they also needed help on foreign shores. So in 1975, they gave Games Workshop an exclusive three-year license to sell D&D into Europe, and in 1977 they doubled-down by offering them a license to produce their own books, resulting in GW’s own edition of Holmes’ Dungeons & Dragons (1977) and a few other rarities. But by 1979, TSR had grown big enough that they were trying to purchase GW, and when that didn’t work, they set up their own competitor: TSR UK was founded in early 1980. That was the end of GW’s cooperative relationship with TSR, other than a surprising collaboration on miniatures in the mid ’80s, and overall that’s a pretty good overview of how TSR changed in its relationships to other companies from 1975 to 1980.

Fantastic Dungeoning Society (1976). In those early days, licenses weren’t always required. Jennell Jaquays and friends in the Fantastic Dungeoning Society of Spring Arbor College reached out to TSR to get the OK to release a D&D magazine, The Dungeoneer (1976-1981). Though there was never a formal license, Tim Kask did send them a letter saying it was OK. Jaquays’ magazine was absorbed by Judges Guild toward the end of 1977.

Judges Guild (1976). That brings us to TSR’s other official early licensee, Judges Guild, who picked up a license to D&D in 1976, then AD&D in 1979. In fact, they initially felt that their right to publish D&D accessories was exclusive even of TSR! However, those rights started being pulled back by TSR in the ’80s: first D&D in 1980, then AD&D in 1981. And that was the end of TSR’s age of licensing.

Random House (1979). Perhaps it would be more correct to say that TSR’s era of licensing other RPG publishers had come to an end, because they were now moving to bigger fields, looking for other sorts of partners. One of the most crucial was Random House, who TSR contracted in 1979 to start pushing their books and games into mass-market stores. TSR would also end up with an option to get advances on the products they shipped, which by 1996 would prove to be a big problem …

What’s really striking in looking at the chart of these early licenses and other interactions is that this cooperative ecosystem could have continued, but instead it was about to grind to a halt.

A Lawsuit of Their Own

The funny thing is that in its early days, TSR seemed more likely to attract lawsuits than to file them. In the ’70s that seemed to stem from their casual business attitude; and in the ’80s it seemed to originate with the Blumes and Lorraine Williams being much more cut-throat in their business attitudes.

The first few legal complaints directed at TSR came from companies:

Elan Merchandising (1977). Lots of people were publishing unlicensed J.R.R. Tolkien products in the ’70s, but TSR was probably one of the most egregious, between references in D&D and distribution of three complete war games, one of which they were publishing themselves. That’s probably why Elan Merchandising chose to send them a cease & desist (C&D) notice after they acquired the Tolkien rights from UA around 1977. TSR promptly began scrubbing hobbits and ents from OD&D.

Chaosium (1980). Jim Ward characterizes what TSR received from Chaosium as a “C&D”. Knowing most of the principals at Chaosium, I find it unlikely that anyone wrote anything that antagonistic or legalistic. In any case, at the time Chaosium held contracts giving them gaming rights to Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion novels and H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos stories. But TSR published deities for both of those fictional settings in Deities & Demigods (1980), and Chaosium complained. The end result was that Chaosium granted rights to the usage based on a thank-you in the credits (but the Blumes quickly decided to remove the mythos entirely because they didn’t want to mention another roleplaying publisher) and that Chaosium got rights to use D&D stats in Thieves’ World (1981), which would be one of the last major licensed uses of the D&D game under TSR.

After that, the lawsuits against TSR became personal.

Dave Arneson (1979, 1984). Arneson twice sued TSR for royalties, once for the core three D&D books and once for the later Monster Manual II (1983). The first time he won an agreement giving him 2.5% of gross (down from the 10% of his original agreement with Gygax), up to $1.2M a year, and the second time a court confirmed that the Monster Manual II was included, infamously saying it was a “revised edition” of the Monster Manual (1977).

Rose Estes (1985). There’s not much written about Rose Estes’ suit, other than what Gigi D’arn reported in Different Worlds #39 (May/June 1985): “Rumour reports that ROSE ESTES, author of many Endless Quest books, is suing TSR for reneging on a stock purchase plan.”

Gary Gygax (1985). After the Blumes sold their stock to Lorraine Williams, granting her control of TSR, Gygax tried to get a court to reverse the sale, but the court declined, noting that the Blumes had given Gygax first right of refusal on the stock. Gygax left TSR shortly thereafter.

Will Niebling (1987). Niebling was the Executive VP of Sales & Marketing at TSR starting in 1979, until fired by the Blumes in 1982 after they failed to force him to resign. His lawsuit, like Estes’, was about a stock option that TSR was refusing to honor. To be precise, he had a ten-year option to buy 500 shares of TSR at $125 a share. In 1987 a jury agreed with Niebling in a rare TSR legal issue that resulted in a trial, saying that the shares were worth $3,000 at the time Niebling was forced out. TSR balked at the $1.4M that they owed to Niebling as a result and so appealed … which they also lost.

Do They Sue Regularly?

We’re now moving on to the lawsuits that TSR is best known for, when they terrorized the industry in the ’80s and ’90s, particularly any company that Gary Gygax had anything to do with. It should be noted that the TSR lawsuits were a strategy from high up: they were the product of TSR management, not the designers, developers, and editors that made up the company.

SPI (1982). Not exactly a lawsuit, but TSR’s interaction with beloved wargaming great, SPI, set the tone for the legalistic nature of their future relationships with the rest of the industry. In early 1982, TSR loaned $425,000 to SPI, secured against their intellectual properties. Two weeks later, they called in that loan, which SPI could not repay, and thus “initiated a legal and economic chain of events” to acquire SPI, to use TSR’s own words. Their next step was to claim that they’d acquired SPI’s assets, but not their debts, and thus (for example) didn’t have to fulfill subscriptions to readers of Strategy & Tractics. This was likely the start of fans’ love/hate affair with TSR. Interestingly, TSR acquired two new roleplaying games from SPI: Dragonquest (1980) and Universe (1981). Other than a third edition of Dragonquest (1989), TSR (and later WotC) has ignored these properties.

Mayfair Games (1984, 1991). Mayfair was the first roleplaying competitor to poke the bear. Not only did they publish “generic” adventures for use with AD&D, but they went further: starting with their fourth “Role Aids” product, Dwarves (1982), the adventures said they were “suitable for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”. Though Mayfair’s careful use of TSR’s trademark was likely legal, TSR sued; when Mayfair didn’t budge, rather than create a legal precedent, TSR ultimately gave Mayfair a royalty-free license to keep producing their products as long as TSR’s trademark was noted in a very specific way.

In 1991, TSR filed a new complaint against Mayfair, this time claiming that they’d violated the licensing agreement, and everyone agreed that there had been a number of variations from the set formula, most notably in Mayfair’s City-State of the Invincible Overlord (1987), which stated that introduction-writer Gary Gygax was the “creator of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”. (That’s the problem with licenses: they can take away your existing rights.) In 1993 a judge ruled that there were violations, but not enough to end the contract. But after two exhausting years of legal battle (a suit-by-exhaustion technique that TSR perfected in the late ’80s and early ’90s), Mayfair had had enough. They sold off all the Role Aids properties to TSR, who promptly plopped those in the vault as well — other than two unpublished books, Chronomancer (1995) and Shaman (1995), which were published by TSR directly.

New Infinities (1987). New Infinities was Gary Gygax’s attempt to get back into the roleplaying world following his departure from TSR. Gygax had explicit rights to continue his Gord the Rogue novels and New Infinities’ premier RPG, Cyborg Command (1987), didn’t look anything like D&D, and so that didn’t give TSR a lot of opportunity to go after Gygax’s new company. At least not until they began their “Fantasy Master” line of generic FRPG supplements with Frank Mentzer’s The Convert (1987), an adventure that he’d written for the RPGA and gotten permission to bring with him to New Infinities. But, he didn’t have that permission in writing, and so TSR was able to file an injunction against publication of The Convert and even after that was lifted, they were able to keep New Infinities in court for the rest of the young company’s life.

GDW (1992, 1992). Gary Gygax’s next try at publication was a brand-new FRPG called “Dangerous Dimensions”, to be produced by the publishers of Traveller (1977). This time, TSR took the name and trade dress as the attack point on Gygax’s new product, issuing a C&D because they said it was too similar to D&D. So GDW changed the name to “Dangerous Journeys”, no problem, and soon published their core fantasy book for the system: Dangerous Journeys: Mythus (1992). TSR sued, saying the game was derivative of AD&D (1977-1979), using claims so broad that they could have sued the majority of the roleplaying field under the terms. GDW held out for nearly two years of court proceedings but in the end they were so financially exhausted that they sold Dangerous Journeys to TSR. They closed up shop less than two years later.

The Internet (1994). For (nearly) their final act, TSR sued the whole internet — or at the least they sent C&D notices to all the internet fans hosting D&D sites, and even to fans of other systems such as Ars Magica (1987), who at the time wanted nothing to do with TSR because of their years of litigiousness (and that would include this author). Much fan material was removed; some of it moved to TSR’s officially blessed site, MPGNet; and TSR looked very bad in the process.

If there’s one other interesting lesson here, it’s that Wizards of the Coast is likely sitting on the rights to a treasure-trove of unavailable classic RPG material, including Dragonquest, Universe, Role Aids, And Dangerous Journeys.

The End of the Beginning

TSR’s end came quickly in the years 1996 to 1997, with a few final interconnections of note.

Random House (1996). For a decade and a half, TSR had been well-supported by their distribution deal with Random House, but it had an implicit danger: the ability for Random House to return products, which would result in TSR’s requirement to return related loans. In 1995 and 1996, returns from Random House increased, and those loans got called in, resulting in a lawsuit when TSR didn’t pay. Already on shaky financial grounds, TSR’s status grew increasingly dire. (And obviously, there’s a real irony here: that one of the final dominos in TSR’s demise was a loan getting called in, just as they did to SPI a decade and a half earlier; and that after decades of using lawsuits to damage other companies, they now faced a severely damaging lawsuit themselves.)

(There’s more details on the whole Random House deal in Benjamin Riggs’ forthcoming Slaying the Dragon, due out next year from St. Martin’s; I only know about the actual lawsuit from him.)

Five Rings Publishing (1997). Eventually, Lorraine Williams gave Bob Abramowitz of Five Rings Publishing an option to purchase TSR, to resolve the debt-spiral that had resulted from Random House calling in their marker, and which now had TSR producing no products. But Five Rings couldn’t actually afford the purchase themselves.

Wizards of the Coast (1996, 1997). Here’s the funny bit: not only was TSR filing lawsuits to the end, but one of them was against Wizards of the Coast! It was over a Magic: The Gathering video game being produced by Acclaim called The Planeswalker War. TSR claimed it infringed Planescape (1994). Acclaim changed the name, and the suit was dismissed on April 9, 1997.

On April 10, 1997 Wizards of the Coast then announced that they’d picked up that option Five Rings had negotiated and were purchasing both Five Rings and TSR, bringing to an end 24 years of licenses and lawsuits. As of last year, Wizards of the Coast has now owned D&D longer than TSR did.

Final Notes

We’re not done yet! There are also some licenses of note that go beyond roleplaying book manufacturers, focusing mainly on miniatures. And there was at least a lawsuit or there too. Watch for that follow-up article soon.

Beyond that, TSR likely filed many more trademark disputes and other lawsuits, and also sent many more C&D letters. C&Ds are known to exist for an early character sheet and for a drawing of a beholder, for example. Trademark violations are known to have been filed against SEGA and the Krypt Keepers in 1996 alone. There’s a reason that many people claimed “They Sue Regularly”.

The litigious side of this article was mainly a listing of the most impactful highlights as related to roleplaying professionals and roleplaying publishers. But, if you know of other lawsuits by or against TSR that deserve mention, let me know. I’d also love to see any actual court filings: the only full documents in my files are related to the two Arneson cases, the Niebling case, and the last Mayfair case.

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #47 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.


Appelcline, Shannon. 2008. “Games & The Law, Part Seven: The D&D Dilemma”. Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities. https://www.skotos.net/articles/TTnT_/TTnT_209.phtml.html.

Appelcline, Shannon. 2012. “The Compiled Wisdom of Gigi D’arn”. Designers & Dragons: The Column. https://www.rpg.net/columns/designers-and-dragons/designers-and-dragons20.phtml.

Costikyan, Greg. 1996. “A Farewell to Hexes”. Personal web site. http://www.costik.com/spisins.html.

DM David. 2019. “The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods”. DM David Blog. https://dmdavid.com/tag/the-true-story-of-the-cthulhu-and-elric-sections-removed-from-deities-demigods/.

DM David. 2020. “1994: TSR Declares War on the Internet’s D&D Fans”. DM David Blog. https://dmdavid.com/tag/1994-tsr-declares-war-on-the-internets-dd-fans/.

Riggs, Ben. 2019. “In Forgotten Lawsuit, TSR Sued Wizards of the Coast”. En World. https://www.enworld.org/threads/in-forgotten-lawsuit-tsr-sued-wizards-of-the-coast.669252/.

Riggs, Ben. Scheduled for 2022. Slaying the Dragon.

Much of the rest of the background for this article came from research done while working on the original Designers & Dragons volumes, so take a look at TSR [’70s], GDW [’70s], Mayfair [’80s], and New Infinities [’80s] for more.

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