Sunday, February 7, 2010

Interview: Jean Wells (Part I)

Jean Wells was employed by TSR between 1979 and 1981, during which time she worked as an author, editor, and illustrator. She also inaugurated Dragon's "Sage Advice" column, one of the magazine's most enduring features. As the first woman hired as a designer by TSR, Jean Wells played a unique role in the history of both the company and the hobby. She was gracious enough to answers some questions I put to her, the first part of which appear below.

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

One weekend our dorm complex, made up of three male dorms and one female one, went on a camping canoe trip into the Ozarks. That Saturday night the guys who played D&D were pressured into running an off the cuff game for the curious. I remember the DM said when the huge doors were opened a cold wind howled blowing through the tunnel. I was the only one nosy enough to go up and see what was in there. Needless to say the guys around me were teased because a girl was brave enough to go and they weren't. When we got back to campus on Sunday the DM calling the dungeon let me look at his stuff. Soon I ordered my own and joined the D&D Gang of Statesmen Complex. I discovered I enjoyed running more than playing. It gave me an opportunity to use my creativity in an area I already liked, Medieval History and Fantasy. We used the White Boxed Set.

2. How did you come to be hired by TSR? What were your responsibilities during your time there?

I ordered a subscription to The Dragon magazine and they had an ad in it for someone to work in their Design Department. I applied. Gary and I corresponded from around Thanksgiving until mid-January when he flew me up. I spent three days at his house. We liked each other, but he knew I didn't know how to really write rules. He told me he'd teach me how to do them his way. He was hiring my imagination and would teach me the rest. I also suspect, but am not positive, that being a girl had a lot to do with it as well.

When I finally moved up to Lake Geneva it was about the same time the company exploded onto the market. I am afraid Gary never found the time to assist me as he and I had wanted. It left me lost at times.

Fortunately I met Skip Williams. He was someone I understood and felt at ease with, still just not at ease enough to tell him my problem. No one at that time had that much of my trust.

3. Was it difficult being the only woman on the design staff back then? I've interviewed other female pioneers of the hobby and their experiences vary wildly. I'm curious as to what the atmosphere was like at TSR at the time.

I don’t think my sex had anything to do with it being difficult for me. I lacked a proper mentor and that is what I believe made it difficult. I believe that lacking a mentor cast me into the role of token female. As for the atmosphere at TSR at the time it was crazy. Nothing was organized. We tended to do everything off the cuff seeing what worked and what didn’t.

We did have “girl alerts” that I helped with. Sometimes one of us would be staring out the window thinking or not, depending I guess on what was going on, and a pretty girl in a bikini would start to pass us. I would call out down the hall about her like anyone else who watched for the girls. But after Mike Carr, Steve Armour and Jeff Leason left the department, I didn't as much. It wasn't fun anymore.

4. Could you give some examples of what you meant when you call the atmosphere at TSR "crazy?"

There was a lot of fooling around on the third floor, craziness at times when the pressure of the deadlines began to eat at us. No one just sat at his desk and worked all the time. You couldn't or else you'd explode. I'd usually go to the Dungeon Hobby Shop or to Gen Con where Skipper was to blow off stream, drink a Tab and chat.

Creative energy just needed to be released, thus crazy things happened. The worst example of blowing off steam that I remember was the day the guys in Development were working on Top Secret or one of its modules. They'd bought toy machine guns and pretended to shoot the people on the street. Someone saw them. I saw them do it too. Later that day the FBI paid us a visit. No one was arrested, thank God. I never asked what was said. I was hoping I would just hear about it, but lips were tight. Like I said, that was the worst thing I remember. Mostly the craziness involved joking or playing jokes like shooting ping pall balls at each other.

5. You are the original Sage, answering questions about D&D submitted to The Dragon. During your time in this position, "Sage Advice" demonstrated a great sense of humor and wit, frequently poking fun at players and referees who took the game too seriously. Why did you adopt this approach?

I adopted this approach because this is who I am. I tend to look at humor in life. I believe in laughter especially when things are taken out of context and way over done. I chose the strangest most far fetched questions for two reasons. One, they were funny, and two they were also a sad statement on the depths that some people played this "game."

I felt the youngsters under the age of sixteen were spending far too much time being far too serious about a game when they needed to focus some of that attention back on their families and schools. I'd hoped the kids would see the humor in the situation and not take the game so seriously that every breath they took, every word they said was about D&D.

What ended up happening is I had quite a few women followers of my column who'd make their presence known to me ... somehow. I had male readers of course, but it is the women I remember best. I distinctly remember this one plump woman with short, bouncy, curly, brown hair running down the hall at Gen Con in Racine waving her magazine at me and telling me how much she loved "Sage Advice." She even told me that when The Dragon came, she'd lock the bathroom door, fill her tub with bubble bath and turn to my column first. I couldn't believe a complete stranger was telling me all this. I extracted myself from the crowd as politely as I could.

6. You're listed in the credits of the Monster Manual as an illustrator. Which illustrations are yours? Did you ever consider focusing on art rather than writing or did you see the two as complementary?

I don’t remember which drawings I did other than the horrible Sumatran Rat. At one time I did focus more on my art abilities. I was studying to be an Elementary School Art Teacher in college when I was hired. I like painting pictures with words better now, but I am considering doing some ink work for a friend and perhaps I can talk him into letting me write some of the scenes sans the monsters.


  1. I always got a kick out of the Sage Advice column. But I felt bad for Jean Wells, having to answer more than a few juvenile questions. Her restrain, in replying, must have been hurculean.

    One of my favorite questions from her Sage Advice column:

    Question: I am having a romance with a god, but he won't have anything to do with me until I divorce my present husband. How do I go about divorcing my husband?,

    Absolutely mind-boggling. I hope it was her in-game husband she was referring to. People were (and still are?) taking this game far too seriously!

  2. A very interesting interview. I also liked the approach of wit that was taken in the Sage Advice of the time and agree that the game shouldn't be taken too seriously.

  3. Very cool interview... I hope some discussion about Palace of the Silver Princess is coming up!

  4. This blog posting a month back on the wizards site by Steve Winter also mentions the girls in bikinis and he gun incident (plus pictures of the offices)

  5. this makes that address easier to read.

  6. I was playing Silver Princess today with my wife and 5 y.o. son, adapting it on-the-fly to "encourage non-violent approaches to problem-solving." It's a great module for that because it's so fun to explore. The "empty rooms" are interstingly described-- with tapestries, fountains, tapestries, etc. and it's easy to create the right kind atmosphere. I have great memories of it as a player, too.

  7. Thanks Jean and James for a great interview. Really love those old days of TSR stories. B3 has always been one of my favorites! Thanks!

  8. I posted this once on Dragonsfoot:
    "Jean Wells did some nice interior work for the original Monster Manual. She seems to have worked [at least] on the "pick-up" pieces that were added to the fourth print, including Eye of the Deep (a personal favorite of mine), Giant Rat (Sumatran), Otyugh (with "Dave"), and perhaps Fungi, Violet (no artist sig). The Pen & Paper RPG database also lists her as an interior illustrator for B3 (where she was also an author) and A4"

    Looking back at the MM right now, I note that the Eye and the Rat are each signed "Jean Wells" and the Otyugh is signed "Jean + Dave".

  9. Hi, my name is Stephan I'm the youngest of Jean's two sons. I wanted to personally thank everyone involved in the interview and everyone who read the article and commented, Jean has been very sick lately and this has brought a lot of joy to her in these very troubling times. When she told me about this interview she was very excited, I sometimes think she felt looked over and that her big shot "The palace of the silver princess" was know more for the fuss it caused than the actually story Jean tried to tell. I've played some RPGs in the past but never D&D, mostly because I prefer story then what's the best way to fight the monster, but I was always sadden that my mom is a great writer as well as a great artist and if things had gone the other way all you D&D players would have had tons of epic quests to enjoy. Thank you again for letting her know she wasn't just a ripple in the pond.

  10. Was great to have a blast from the past. I don't remember a Steve Armour, however, but Jean sure was correct in saying that, when Mike Carr left the production department it was less fun/enjoyable! I left for the Dungeon Hobby Shop shortly after Mike left the department. Ah, the good old days!!!

  11. As an artist I am personally touched by her son's post. Everyone wants to make a difference, to be recognized, it doesn't take much to make someone's day, and there are so many good things being done every day, it just takes a little effort to look around and notice