Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil

In the nearly a year since I started this blog -- hard to believe it's been that long! -- I've tried very hard to get information from a variety of sources regarding the history of the hobby in general and of D&D in particular. It's been a fascinating, if regularly frustrating, endeavor and I'm very glad I've undertaken it.

One of the great difficulties I've encountered is that far fewer things about the early days have been documented than I would like. That means having to rely upon the often-incomplete memories of the people involved. Those memories are further cast into some doubt because they've been colored by decades of squabbles, disputes, and rivalries. Anyone who's read the Q&A threads on Dragonsfoot, for example, knows that, while it's been 35 years since the publication of OD&D, many of those associated with its genesis and growth still have decidedly strong feelings about some of the other people associated with them and aren't afraid to make their opinions known.

I'm not surprised by such behavior nor do I find it notably distasteful. Rather, I find it typically human, which is to say, I don't find carrying grudges for decades to be praiseworthy but neither do I condemn anyone who finds it hard to forgive past slights. Being someone who's borne a few grudges well past their sell-by date myself, I understand this phenomenon, even if I am trying very hard to overcome my own participation in it.

Which brings me to Brian Blume. Mere mention of his name is usually enough to send some grognards into fits of apoplexy, as he and his brother, Kevin, are frequently cast in the role of serpents in the Garden of Gygax, the source of all that is evil in the history of TSR. And, to be, fair, the Brothers Blume are responsible for selling their controlling stake in the company to Lorraine Williams in 1985, a vengeful act that had many negative consequences for the hobby and the industry well into the 21st century.

Yet, despite that, I find Brian Blume an intriguing figure. This is the guy who convinced his father to cough up the money necessary to publish OD&D in 1974. This is also the guy who co-authored Eldritch Wizardry, Boot Hill -- a highly underrated RPG -- and Warriors of Mars with Gary Gygax. By some accounts, he's also the creator of Vecna, an anagrammatic homage to Jack Vance. Indeed, Blume was reputedly an even bigger aficionado of pulp fantasy than was Gygax, whose own tastes in fantasy were obviously a bit more catholic.

And yet, so far as I can tell, no one has tracked him down to talk to him about the old days or to attempt to get his perspective on the story of TSR. Maybe someone has and I've just missed it, but, from what I have gathered, Brian Blume remains something of an enigma. Some, no doubt, are happy for him to remain so. He's clearly -- and rightly -- a controversial figure, but I can see no reason to treat him as a pariah, regardless of the bad business decisions he and his brother may have made or what Gary Gygax felt about him. I hold Gary's memory in high regard. Even so, that doesn't mean I shared his estimation of everything and everyone, particularly when, as is the case with Brian Blume, we don't have the other side of the story.

Maybe I take this history stuff too seriously, but one day I'd really like to talk to Brian Blume.

41 comments:

  1. It's nice to read this. I never met GG, but the interviews I've read always left me with the feeling that things were not as simple as the history that has been popularly adopted. More specifically, I've never come across GG sounding regretful for something he had done, which didn't sit right with me. Maybe I just missed it. However, whenever something very messy between people happens, both parties usually part feeling like that had done some things they shouldn't have. -Can't say that GG had an obligation to share it, however. It just never felt like the whole story to me and for all I know, BB might be a stellar guy.

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  2. "the Garden of Gygax"

    Gary stated that the Blumes had effectively taken over TSR by 1980. It was in 1977 or 1978 that TSR sent a cease and desist order to David Hargrave simply because he dared to mention "D&D" in his Arduin books. (To David's credit, he [with admirable panache] simply whited-out the D&D references and kept selling his books.) The 1979 DMG contains a magic item known as the "vacuous grimoire" which is a jab at Hargrave's Arduin Grimoire.

    In short, these nasty responses to Arduin came before the Blumes had effective control over TSR, so this is at least one thing that can't be clearly laid at their feet.

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  3. In short, these nasty responses to Arduin came before the Blumes had effective control over TSR, so this is at least one thing that can't be clearly laid at their feet.

    Oh, indeed. Of course, when Gary reviled the Blumes, he wasn't doing so because of actions like the Arduin incident, which he would have fully supported.

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  4. I suspect you're right that there's a "Brian Blume" side to the story. I never went to the cons myself in the old days; but friends of mine who did came back saying good things about Blume. They gave me the impression he was a fun person and more of a regular guy than either EGG or Dave Arneson. When the dirt about the Lorraine Williams TSR takeover began coming out in the '90s, I had a difficult time reconciling Blume's apparent role in the decline and fall with what my friends had said about him. I've always wondered whether his father was the real bad guy and if Brian was merely caught in a family loyalty bind.

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  5. I think it may be one of those things that will remain forever murky. Brian Blume as caught a lot of flak over the years, so his reluctance is pretty understandable.

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  6. James---

    Paul Stormberg has been in touch with Brian Blume for research assistance and to get his side of the TSR story, though how recently I don't know. Dave Sutherland also had a higher opinion of Lorraine Williams than EGG in terms of her ability to run TSR, FWIW (this also via Paul).

    Allan.

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  7. Actually, I've thought the same thing as Jimmy at the top here. As much as I found EGG to be warm, witty, creative, intelligent, generous, etc., the one thing I never saw him do was this: admit that he ever made a mistake. And in retrospect, I think that was (in the Greek epic sense) his tragic flaw.

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  8. They say "history is written by the victors", but these days it seems like it's written by whoever gets to Dragonsfoot first.

    Just some observations re: Gygax. Reading through his Q&A I found some rather unsettling references to his treatment of writers at both the Dragon and the UK magazine, whatever it was called. Specifically, he recounts, with a certain palpable glee, his curtailing of the "critical idealists" on his magazine staff that dared review a TSR game in a less than favorable light, even saying that he threatened to give them warehouse jobs if they continued to operate under any illusion of impartiality. Given that Dragon at least maintained some pretensions toward being something more than a house organ and would "review" TSR products in a manner that gave the impression of objectivity, I found his stories disturbing, and indicative of both an unscrupulous use of his power, and a mercenary ambivalence toward any thoughts of conflicts of interest. Not only that, he cast himself as the hero, bravely coming down on his insolent writers and punishing their misguided ideals. As someone who suffers from similar ideals, I found it all a little horrifying.

    What does this have to do with the current discussion? Well, despite the old school movement's tendency to enshrine and lionize Gygax, there's no question that he was willing to cast himself as the hero in his own story, no matter how questionable his actions may look in retrospect.

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  9. Obviously, the Lorraine Williams takeover resulted in D&D not being as good as it could have been. Ultimately it led to bankruptcy, the sale-or-return fiasco.

    EGG certainly did things that harmed D&D too, though - look no further than Unearthed Arcana!! >:)

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  10. he was willing to cast himself as the hero in his own story, no matter how questionable his actions may look in retrospect.

    If only this had been said in that previous thread about whether D&D is a "moral" game.

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  11. I agree with Fitzerman that EGG's boasting of his treatment of (eg) TSR UK for daring to review TSR products somewhat impartially in 'Imagine' magazine did not sit well with me. I do get the impression from Don Turnbull's writings that he might not have been the easiest person to get on with either, though - sometimes he came across as a bit condescending to the 'Yanks' who were employing him, and who formed the bulk of TSR-UK's market.

    We Brits *were* still getting over losing the Empire, though... :)

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  12. Actually, I've thought the same thing as Jimmy at the top here. As much as I found EGG to be warm, witty, creative, intelligent, generous, etc., the one thing I never saw him do was this: admit that he ever made a mistake. And in retrospect, I think that was (in the Greek epic sense) his tragic flaw.

    I dunno, I have read him fess up to mistakes here and there. Certainly, weapon speeds, weapon versus armour class modifiers and psionics were all things he claimed to regret including. I have the nagging feeling I have read him admitting to one or two business errors as well.

    They say "history is written by the victors", but these days it seems like it's written by whoever gets to Dragonsfoot first.

    I don't think anybody is really under any illusions about what Gygax was like as a business man. Just read his occasional rebuttal in Dragon to any criticism made of TSR or its products! Like anyone, gygax was multifaceted.

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  13. I've always wondered whether his father was the real bad guy and if Brian was merely caught in a family loyalty bind.

    It's a question for which I have no answer, but I'd like to know more regardless. I suspect there's some very fascinating history that remains unknown.

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  14. Paul Stormberg has been in touch with Brian Blume for research assistance and to get his side of the TSR story, though how recently I don't know. Dave Sutherland also had a higher opinion of Lorraine Williams than EGG in terms of her ability to run TSR, FWIW (this also via Paul).

    Very interesting. One of these days I really ought to have a chat with Paul.

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  15. Well, despite the old school movement's tendency to enshrine and lionize Gygax, there's no question that he was willing to cast himself as the hero in his own story, no matter how questionable his actions may look in retrospect.

    I think most of old schoolers are pretty well aware of Gary's foibles. My own regard for him is in spite of his flaws, which were many.

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  16. I don't think anybody is really under any illusions about what Gygax was like as a business man. Just read his occasional rebuttal in Dragon to any criticism made of TSR or its products! Like anyone, gygax was multifaceted.

    Absolutely.

    And before this gets any further: I do not want this to turn into a bout of Gygax bashing. Like many great men, he had vices as well as virtues and I think most of us who admire him do so with full knowledge of both. My only purpose in writing this was in pointing out that a pretty major figure in the early history of the hobby has largely been silent to date and I think that's a shame, because he probably has many insights he could share.

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  17. Kudos to you, James, for having the stones to say "I want to know the full story, even if it's not the story I want to hear."

    You definitely get a beer or two bought for you someday..

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  18. I would love to hear Brian’s side of the story.

    Gary once said something about occasionally seeing him around, but Brian would immediately flee the scene.

    If the Blumes had been all bad, they would’ve never entered the picture. Gary was not 100% saint, and Brian wasn’t 100% devil.

    As a student of the hobby and TSR, I’m more interested in having more perspective on what happened than on laying blame.

    I’d also love to hear Ms. Williams’ side of the story.

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  19. "EGG certainly did things that harmed D&D too, though - look no further than Unearthed Arcana!! >:)"

    Bad example in this case. UA (and OA, too) was rushed out in 1985 after Gary temporarily retook control to get some quick cash to get TSR out of trouble after years of the Blumes' alleged mismanagement (including accusations of gross nepotism). If this hadn't been done then, TSR might have gone under 10 years earlier than it actually did (although, I probably wouldn't use all the fingers on one hand counting the products put out in those 10 years that I would have actually missed).

    Blume has received credit (blame?) for some of the quirkier rules in AD&D such as unarmed combat and psionics. Most people don't like that stuff, but it fascinates me.

    I for one would love to hear the other side of the story. I love reading Gary's opinions on gaming, agreeing with him way more often then not, and think that he has one of the best records in gaming in terms of attaching his name to quality products. That said, he could certainly be a cranky old coot (can't we all?) and hearing the other side of the story would be nice.

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  20. Boot hill is awesome. I had a chance to read through it once thanks to an old friend.

    Hm... Perhaps James should try to seek out Brian and get his side of things? Just an idea.

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  21. I dunno, I have read him fess up to mistakes here and there. Certainly, weapon speeds, weapon versus armour class modifiers and psionics were all things he claimed to regret including. I have the nagging feeling I have read him admitting to one or two business errors as well.

    Actually, I would have held up those very examples as cases where I failed to see EGG admitting any mistake on his part. When I've seen him writing on those topics, I've seen him (a) blame other fans or proponents for "forcing" him to include those pieces, and (b) rather scornfully dismiss anyone who didn't consider it as obvious that those pieces should be ignored by more discerning gamers.

    If you had links showing otherwise I would sincerely be very interested in seeing them. It's something that's bugged me for a while that I couldn't find myself.

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  22. Oh, I don't mean to bash Gygax, exactly. I mean only to pinpoint the moment I realized the side of the story I knew came from your classic Unreliable Narrator :).

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  23. I started to track down Brian Blume at one point to find out the origin of Vecna. I got some phone numbers that did not pan out and then someone told me to read Corum.

    -Jester47, Vecna's Left Hand Man.

    captcha: kabfrood

    Great name for an ODD god.

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  24. I'd personally like to talk to that *#$!@ Lorraine Williams. In reading up on her, It kind of sounds like she was the Freddy Krugar of D&D. I mean, apparently she didn't let gaming happen at the company, so if a game was going to get playtested before shipping, it had to be done by employees on the sly on their own time. Jesus Christ.

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  25. Chris:
    "Bad example in this case. UA (and OA, too) was rushed out in 1985 after Gary temporarily retook control to get some quick cash to get TSR out of trouble after years of the Blumes' alleged mismanagement..."

    Umm, he could have rushed out a good product though (which I believe OA was), not one like UA which did a lot of damage to the game. I started playing D&D with 1e and UA, the sales guy told me I needed it... but my game would have been much better if I'd never heard of it.

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  26. Brian Blume still lives in Lake Geneva and showed up at the first LGGC a couple years back and played some card or board games -- I think someone got a picture of him. AFAIK he and Gary didn't cross paths.

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  27. Add me to the circle of people who would like to hear Brian's views. I find the contributions he had made to OD&D quite intriguing (EW being my favourite supplement of all), and am definitely interested to hear about his vision of the game, or even how he saw the business at that time and how he sees the whole thing in retrospect. We would need someone willing to ask hard questions, but asking them tastefully enough to get useful replies.

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  28. I'll never understand the Unearthed Arcana hate...but I digress...


    All this assumes that Brian Blume wants to be interviewed, of course.

    I don't think people haven't ever attempted to interview Brian Blume before. I do think that he's probably not as willing to do interviews.

    There's a lot of people from the "old guard" who just sort of drift away into life, and/or distance themselves from the old days. Dave Trampier is probably the most extreme example. But Len Lakofla has left D&D and gone back to bridge, Roger Moore hasn't been interviewed and actually sold his D&D collection when he left TSR as it became WoTC. Some people want to put the past behind them.

    While this seems strange to us fans, it's probably easier if you look at TSR as a job rather than a hobby. There are some jobs that give you bad memories, there are some things you don't like to talk about. The Blumes seemed less about writing games than managing the business.

    And since he was part of the business (as in accounting and finance), you never know if he signed NDAs or something when Lorraine took over.

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  29. Perhaps James should try to seek out Brian and get his side of things? Just an idea.

    I'd love to chat with Mr Blume for a few hours someday, but I'm not one to go out pestering a guy who's laid low for 20 years without good cause. Perhaps I am too polite.

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  30. Brian Blume still lives in Lake Geneva and showed up at the first LGGC a couple years back and played some card or board games -- I think someone got a picture of him.

    I have heard that he occasionally shows up at conventions and quitely plays games without making a big deal of his identity. That's the sort of setting in which I'd love to be able to catch his attention and chat for a while. I don't want to interrogate the guy, but I would love to hear his memories of the old days and what he thinks about them now.

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  31. We would need someone willing to ask hard questions, but asking them tastefully enough to get useful replies.

    That's the real trick. It's also the reason why I'm reluctant to call him up out of the blue and start interviewing him, even though I'm sure it'd be fairly easy to get in contact with him by phone.

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  32. Actually, I would have held up those very examples as cases where I failed to see EGG admitting any mistake on his part. When I've seen him writing on those topics, I've seen him (a) blame other fans or proponents for "forcing" him to include those pieces, and (b) rather scornfully dismiss anyone who didn't consider it as obvious that those pieces should be ignored by more discerning gamers.

    If you had links showing otherwise I would sincerely be very interested in seeing them. It's something that's bugged me for a while that I couldn't find myself.


    Right, he does tend to insist that other people persuaded him to include those things, but he always takes the ultimate blame for them by agreeing to include them. As regards this subject, I was thinking of the following:

    Forget weapons speed factors. I must have been under the effect of a hex when I included them in the bloody rules! (DF, 3.9)

    Psionics. as with weapons speed and the table of comparison of varying damage by armor type, was something I got talked into. (DF, 3.8)

    As to errors of his own creation:

    One of the most satisfying compliments I ever received was from one of the principals of Game Designer's Workshop, that laud in regards to the detail of the Order of Battle of the forces involved in the "Dunkirk" game. Since originally designing it, I have done more research, corrected some errors I discovered in the German OB, and one day I would very much like to see the campaign in play as a computer game.

    As to business mistakes:

    Lastly I stated that I planned to call a shareholders’ meeting
    soon and at that time there would certainly be a considerable
    change in the composition of the board. That was an error,
    certainly, But I was so full of indignation at how the stooges
    had facilitated the near-ruin of the company I could not
    restrain my better judgement.


    OD&Dities #10, p. 40.

    At that point I was ready
    to discharge her immediately, but I was advised against it,
    for the company was still very shaky. I decided to wait and
    that was a gross error indeed. Meantime, a third tender offer
    from the Blumes was presented.


    OD&Dities #10, p. 40.

    Perhaps Gygax was often unwilling to admit to be wrong, but I find that is true of most people. Certainly, it does not qualify as a tragic flaw to me, merely one typical to human nature.

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  33. Perhaps, write him an old fashioned handwritten letter...maybe because I am a librarian but this old fashioned form of correspondance...I find gets the most effective response (even if all other correspondance takes place on IRC).

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  34. Speaking of conversations, I was wondering: are you still planning on interviewing Mike Mornard?

    I'd love to see his recoollections gathered and organized more thoroughly, beyond just the snippets he posts here and there.

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  35. Certainly, it does not qualify as a tragic flaw to me, merely one typical to human nature.

    Very much agreed. While I lament the grudges that Gary nursed, I'm not willing to point fingers or deem them beyond the pale, as I myself have been guilty of similar behavior in the past and none of it was born out of a business dispute in which I lost control of the company I founded and the game I co-created.

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  36. Perhaps, write him an old fashioned handwritten letter...

    That is, in fact, my current plan.

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  37. Speaking of conversations, I was wondering: are you still planning on interviewing Mike Mornard?

    I'm waiting on his reply. I should probably go and poke him again to see if he's still willing to answer some questions.

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  38. Did you ever hear from Mr. Blume?

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  39. Did you ever hear from Mr. Blume?

    No comment at the present time. :)

    More seriously, when I have something I can share, I will certainly be doing so.

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  40. Paul Stormberg knows all, is supposed to be writing a book.

    I lost his cell phone number or I'd call him.

    Gary had two different audiences he talked to, and two different tones he took. With the first, he did not take himself seriously, but wasn't keen to encourage them to carp or kvetch.

    With the other he was much more blunt and honest. You need to read his more public statements with that in mind, that he isn't fully serious (or even trying to encourage disagreement, as with the made up "female dwarves have beards" line).

    As for the Blumes, I'd really like to hear what they have to say.

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  41. Regarding Lorraine Williams:

    Having spoken to a few people who worked at TSR in the later days of the business, I'm not entirely convinced that she was as much of a villain as she's been portrayed. There's no doubt that bad business decisions occurred, but I'd love to hear her side of the story. I suspect it would be very illuminating.

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