Monday, September 7, 2009

Interview: Evan Robinson

Evan Robinson worked at TSR as an editor and developer form 1980-81. He was part of the second large wave of employees hired by the company in the wake of D&D's success in the late 70s. During his time there, he worked on a wide variety of products but is probably bets known for the development of the A-series "Slavelords" modules. I recently asked Mr Robinson a few brief questions; his responses follow.

1. How did you become involved in the hobby of roleplaying?

I was introduced to board wargaming by my best friend Jeff Mazo when I was in about 4th or 5th grade. I was visiting the local hobby store on a regular basis when I found the original three-volume D&D in, I think, 7th or 8th grade, but it might have been as late as 9th. It was one of the original 1000 or so printed because it had Ents in it, and I think something else that the Tolkien legal people objected to. We had a little group that met pretty regularly to play wargames and some of them transitioned to the D&D games. We played incessantly through high school and college with a variety of games and game masters.

2. How did you become employed by TSR?

I came home for spring break my second year in college pretty well beat down and exhausted after a hard break up/make up/break up with my first serious girlfriend. I was driving my mother home from Coos Bay (we lived about an hour away) and she was looking at my latest Dragon magazine, found a 1/4 or 1/6 page ad for jobs at TSR and suggested that I apply. I did. I worked for weeks during the rest of the school year on an application and sent it off. They hired me, and I flew out Memorial Day weekend 1980 to start. Mt. St. Helens blew up and ruined my flight schedule, but Dave "Zeb" Cook came to Chicago or Milwaukee to pick me up.

I went to work with Zeb on Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend and moved into an office with Kevin Hendryx. We play tested his new version of The Awful Green Things from Outer Space for hours or maybe even days. It was an auspicious beginning.

3. Most of your credits while at TSR are as a "developer" or "editor." What were your responsibilities while employed there?

As a "developer" (we referred to ourselves as "Devo Units") I was responsible for taking game systems and documents from designers and testing them, finding holes in them, and making sure the language, spelling, and grammar were correct. I was also responsible for reviewing "bluebirds," or unsolicited manuscripts/games from outside the company. On occasion, everyone in the building was put to work reviewing galleys or comps as well.

4. Were you one of the victims of the employee "purges" Kevin Hendryx mentioned as occurring at TSR and, if so, what was your sense of why they were occurring?

I was.

Paul Reiche III and I had been blatant and obvious in our support for Dave Arneson during a TSR shareholders or board meeting (I can't remember which, and I can't remember exactly what we did, but I know that we thought Dave was getting a raw deal on something). We had been equally blatant and obvious, I think, in expressing our opinions as to the relative value (to the company and the world in general) of the Blumes, Gygaxes, and some other people. We were young and not subtle. I know from later experience that the Blumes and Gygaxes took no more (or not much more) advantage of the people working for them than do many corporate entities.

The "purge" may have been that -- I don't know the motivation behind TSRs express plan to move to "Candy Land-style games". But it may have been a run-of-the-mill corporate strategy change that just happened to hit all of our buttons about what we wanted to work on. I want to be clear -- we were not fired -- we were told that if we didn't want to work on this new company direction we'd be happier if we left. I went first, then Paul Reiche III.

I don't recall that anyone in management at TSR had any real business experience before they began to grow like mad. Certainly nothing like operating a start-up in a fast-moving rapidly growing new market like the initial paper games bubble of the early 80s. It seemed to us that nepotism was winning out over competence and that the rewards of company success weren't being passed down to the people who were doing the work (us) that mattered. Whether or not that attitude had anything to do with our reassignment to children's board games or not, it contributed mightily to our willingness to quit instead of sticking it out and doing some unpleasant work for a little while.

5. After TSR, did you continue to work in the RPG industry?

I never again worked in the paper RPG industry except to write a Top Secret module called Operation Seventh Seal, which TSR published later in 1981, which was the year I left. I did work on an unpublished computer version of Champions and on a published character creation program for the Hero System called HeroMaker.

6. Do you still roleplay and, if so, what games do you play?

Before I returned to graduate school in 2005 I was playing Champions weekly with a group in the Lower Mainland, but I ended up with classes scheduled on game nights for the next two years. I haven't returned to that group or any other since finishing school. I do have an iPhone app in review that does basic combat dice rolling for the Hero System.


  1. It always disheartens me to hear about the out-of-control nepotism that was running free through TSR at the time. I love the game, but man the company sounded like a real horror show.

  2. I imagine if we had any interest in the history of Johnson & Johnson or Boeing or the Democratic Party we'd find the same amount of nepotism at every stage - only practiced by vastly more socially-/financially-adept people. For ever as ever.

  3. From what I've read about TSR's great demise, management was in over their heads, regardless of the nepotism issue.

    I feel like it's too often used as an excuse when the real issue is incompetence. Having worked for a few family owned/run businesses that have excelled in management and employee relations, I think people are wont to use the excuse when things aren't going well. (And no, I wasn't one of the related.)