I’ve seen quite a few interviews about Gygax Magazine and the revitalized TSR on the web recently, filled with speculation, half-truths, and more than a little bias about what the company and the publication is all about. I’ve known about the publication for months of course because I met Jayson Elliot at ConnectiCon and he invited me to contribute to the magazine. It took us awhile to synchronize our schedules, but I was able to catch up with the founder of the new TSR to dispel these rumors and get to the bottom of exactly what’s going on with his company and the magazine.
Michael Tresca (MT): Can you tell us how TSR and Gygax Magazine came about?
Jayson Elliot (JE): As a gamer I started playing in the early 1980s when I was 12 years old. We started with the Mentzer Red Box. Being 12-year-old kids we didn’t know the difference between Red Box and AD&D books – one kid had a Moldavy box, one kid had a Mentzer box, so we just mixed it up. We gamed all through high school and college. My hobbies have always been gaming, music, and starting weird-ass projects.
I actually tried to launch a video game arcade at an outdoor pool and in the pool house next to it. It was a big brick building that had a central area. I pitched trying to get it turned into an arcade – at 10. It ended up becoming part of a community college. I’ve always been about startups.
When I was in college I started my first magazine. With my best friend in college we started IndustrialnatioN, a magazine about industrial music. There was a web site up with all the old issues, but I’d like to bring it back some day so I took the page down. I started Permission Magazine, a year and a half after that, because Paul kept going with IndustrialnatioN, so I started a Goth magazine called Permission. By the mid-90s we each had the largest magazine in our genre. At our peak Permission had 60,000 readers, which made it the largest Goth magazine in the world. This is the 20th anniversary this year, so in keeping with my deadline I’m going to an anniversary issue next year.
MT: How did you make the jump from a Goth magazine to a gaming magazine?
JE: The Goth community of the nineties and the gamer community has a lot of overlap – the only thing I’m missing is Renn Faires – but I’ve done two magazines already. I’ve spent the last few years in tech, I’m also a user experience guy, so I’ve been involved with startups and things.
MT: How did this lead to TSR?
JE: In 2011 I decided to see if the trademark for TSR was available. Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) as a corporate entity ceased to exist when Wizards bought it. When I found out it was, I grabbed it right away. The old TSR is gone; our new incarnation is not the same one. Trying to compare our company to that one would be getting into metaphysics. The name TSR, the trademark, is something Wizards chose not to keep. When we registered the trademark, we said we’re starting a new gaming company called TSR, based in New York rather than Lake Geneva.
I didn’t want to do anything with it unless I worked with the originators of the gaming industry. And if I couldn’t work with those people I wouldn’t do it.
Reaching out to people works really well. Most people are really approachable and like to talk. I connected first with Ernie (Gygax) and then with Luke (Gygax) and then Tim Kask and then everybody else. We decided to do a magazine.
MT: Tim Kask, the original editor of Dragon Magazine?
JE: Tim is acting as my mentor as I put Gygax Magazine together. He’s been increasingly involved with it. Tim’s advice has been incredibly important and I can’t express my gratitude enough.
MT: Who else from Dragon Magazine’s heyday will be involved?
JE: Right now we have a lot of people contributing to the magazine that were around in the 70s and 80s. We’ve got a lot of the original TSR artists involved, and there’s a lot of people who were really instrumental early on who are not involved yet but might be involved in the future. We also have people writing for us like Len Lakofka, and Jim Ward — Margaret Weiss is on our board of directors! Lots of people directly or indirectly tied to the old TSR are involved.
MT: TSR comes with a lot of history.
JE: Right. If a new company called TSR starts making a game, it’s going to be weird because we don’t have a million dollars, can’t burst onto the scene, so it would disappoint people – we would be an indie publisher on Xerox machines – even though that’s TSR got started the first time around. We couldn’t just use the name TSR and start that way.
So instead the one thing I thought would be credible would be if we did a magazine. The goal of TSR is to get people gaming again, to expand the hobby, so we don’t let tabletop gaming become a niche thing that people do in their basement on dark wintry nights. Gaming grows the more people get into it, so a magazine is a great way to promote gaming because it helps the hobby – it also means we’re not in competition with other publishers, but instead can bring them together.
That’s why we decided to start with a magazine. That, and the fact that I’ve done magazines before and I really love the process of doing them.
MT: What is the new TSR’s purpose?
JE: I’m not going to discuss much beyond the magazine, but I’ll talk about what the new TSR’s not going to do. We’re not going to be making the next role-playing game. It’s already been made several times over. There’s so many games that I would call the great role-playing game, obviously AD&D and D&D included. I think what D&D Next is doing makes perfect sense. We’ll definitely be covering it in the magazine. As a company, TSR has no plans to compete with a RPG because it’s not something people are clamoring for: You can play Pathfinder, 4E, retroclones, and plenty of indie games.
We’re not going to be releasing any of Gary Gygax’s old or unpublished IP of his. All of the copyrights of his are either held by Wizards of the Coast or the Gygax estate. Although it’s TSR and we have a product called Gygax Magazine, we don’t have the rights to any of Gary’s stuff.
MT: So Gygax Magazine won’t focus exclusively on Old School gaming.
JE: I want to emphasize this is not a retroclone magazine. It’s not an old school gaming magazine; we’re covering new games, we’re covering stuff out now and coming out in the future, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to ignore the old stuff. When you see the print copy it will look just like Dragon Magazine from the 80s. You’ve seen the logo. In the back will be “What’s New With Phil & Dixie” and Len Lakofka’s column. It’s kind of equivalent to Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons boxed set. It was a red box that contained new rules but had the feel of an old school box. We’re covering new games with the look of an old school magazine, but we will also cover out-of-print games. There will be articles covering AD&D, particularly with Len Lakofka’s new column, “Leomund’s Secure Shelter,” (resurrecting Lakofka’s old Dragon Magazine column, “Lemund’s Tiny Hut”). The magazine faces the reality that old school and new school gaming are not two separate things, there’s just gaming.
MT: Let’s get this out of the way: It seems like word leaked about Gygax Magazine before you were ready to announce it. How did word get out?
JE: I think what happened was that I had to send a press kit out to advertisers see if they were interested in running an ad. I didn’t tell anyone to not share, that the magazine was a secret, but I think one of the advertisers was surprised to see what it was about. I realized afterward that when I sent ad rates out to advertisers somebody would probably leak the news. But nobody broke a confidence or betrayed a secret, I just forgot about the advertisers.
MT: But word did get out.
JE: My desire was not to say anything publicly until the magazine was actually out for two reasons:
- I didn’t want a bunch of people speculating about things; no matter how much people speculate, you’ll never meet their expectations, high or low. If you said you were going to build a car that runs on water, people would be upset because it didn’t run on carbonated water. We never wanted to overinflate expectations.
- Because this was a first issue, the first anythings are notoriously difficult to manage because there’s all these problems you don’t face later on. The biggest one is trying to make sure we hit deadlines – I’ve set myself a couple of deadlines. As Douglas Adams said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
MT: Is the magazine ready?
JE: The magazine is ready, but there’s all these last minute things you have to fiddle with. We’re working on the cover now. These things take time. Now there’s pressure to get things out as soon as possible. The leak was definitely not part of the plan; I wouldn’t have announced the magazine unless it was ready go.
MT: What’s been the reaction to the accidental announcement? Some people thought it was a hoax.
JE: I’m surprised that it didn’t bother me that much. You’d think with some of that stuff that it would. I guess I looked at it and went “Okay, if you think it’s a hoax, then you can keep on thinking that until you have a copy of it in your hands.” Some people thought it was an old school thing, reprinting Gary’s stuff – I could spend time addressing these issues, but I’d rather just produce a magazine.
I really don’t like the idea of people announcing things they’re going to do. Just do ’em.
We now have a community manager as of last week, so someone will actually be able to start answering questions and responding to rumors. Getting things up and running was hard because we didn’t have someone in charge of talking to people. She’s now running the Facebook and Twitter site and even the new, supersecret MySpace. Susie the Banshee is our community manager and is hopefully able to answer more questions.
MT: I know we spoke previously about a Kickstarter to help launch the magazine. How will that work?
JE: I don’t believe in doing a Kickstarter before you’ve actually accomplished anything. We are going to do a Kickstarter next year, but not until people have already had a chance to see a finished magazine. We’ve really got to prove ourselves first.
MT: So how are you funding the publication?
JE: The way I’m doing it is this first issue and probably the second one are going to be self-funded. This is basically coming out of my pocket. I’m not a wealthy guy or anything, but I really, really care about this and have been saving my money, socking it aside to do this. So I guess in one sense I’m going to take the magazine’s success or failure really personally. It will be enough to get us through the first couple of issues, and then we’ll do a Kickstarter to sell the subscriptions and sell the magazines and ads. Advertisers pay on credit, subscriptions and distributors come back later, you can’t wait for that stuff to come back in. We’re going to do a Kickstarter to make sure the magazine continues.
MT: Any stretch goals in mind?
KS: If people like the magazine, hopefully they’ll be interested in stretch goals like being able to put cool inserts in. There’s a number of projects that have come up that might end up as stretch goals because we have to look at them and decide which one is the coolest. That’s all I can share at this point, but there will be more to come when we announce the Kickstarter next year.
MT: There seemed to be a lot of speculation about the rights to the Gygax name. Is there anything you’d like to say about the Gygaxes’ involvement?
JE: First of all Luke, Ernie, and I, are the three partners in this. We chose to the go with the name Gygax Magazine as a way of stating our intentions. It’s a signal to the kind of magazine we are. We’re a gaming magazine and we’re respecting tradition. We recognize that Gary Gygax was one of the father’s of the hobby — obviously not the only one — but the fact that he was the most prolific and got everything going, it’s fair to point to Gygax as the genesis of all of this. Luke and Ernie are gamers as well, were involved at the beginning, and are continuing his legacy with Gygax Magazine.
MT: Was the magazine’s launch a surprise to Gail Gygax?
JE: No. I talked to her before we did this. Gail Gygax has been very nice this whole time. She and I have been talking all through this process. I’m hoping she’ll be involved in a material way, but whether she is or isn’t, she has been really supportive. Gail wants what’s best for Gary’s legacy and for the gaming industry as a whole. I really do think she has the best interests at heart. I do think that people who have a tendency to speak on behalf of Gail without being her representative should really back off. She’s the only one who should speak for herself.
MT: When will we the magazine be published?
JE: I don’t know. No, just kidding! Probably early January, 2013. We’re incorporating Kobold Quarterly into it too.
MT: Wait, what?
JE: As you know, Kobold Quarterly is going away. We didn’t have any plans to cover Pathfinder in Gygax Magazine, so I asked Wolfgang Baur if he was up for it and he agreed. So we have a section of the magazine called the Kobold’s Cavern, and Wolfgang is the editor of that section, which means we’ll have Pathfinder content in Gygax Magazine. Of course that means we had to change our plans to incorporate the content into it.
MT: That’s great! Are you happy with the final product?
JE: I couldn’t be more pleased with what’s in the magazine. And I just keep looking at it and thinking this is awesome.
MT: Will the magazine be in print or PDF?
JE: I won’t be making a PDF available until all the print magazines go out in the mail. I don’t want the first impression of Gygax Magazine to be a PDF. I want the first pictures shared online of it to be a photo of the magazine in their hands. PDFs are great and they’re super convenient, but it’s not the same as holding it in your hand, flipping through it, and seeing a two-page spread, and really feeling it.
MT: Where will Gygax Magazine be distributed?
JE: At the very beginning they’ll have to order it directly from us. Hopefully within a month or two it will actually be in game stores as well. We’ll also do as many cons as we can. And of course DriveThruRPG and game stores around the country eventually once we get the distributors lined up.
MT: How will local game stores figure into your distribution plans?
JE: There’s nothing more important than game stores. You’ve got support them. Any publisher who cuts a game store out of the loop to save an extra ten cents is an idiot. Game stores get new players into the hobby and bring existing players together. It’s a community, a font of knowledge – if you lose a game store, you lose the hobby.
Speaking of distribution, I think as we talk about what TSR’s going to do in the next year or two, a really important piece of it might be trying to have an indie developers resource. Some kind of school, “here’s all the things you need to know” toolkit. Most game publishers don’t know anything about dealing with distributors – they find out the hard way by doing it themselves.
MT: It sounds like you’re a gaming advocate.
JE: TSR’s mission is to keep people gaming face-to-face. That’s the entire reason that I’m doing this company, it’s not to have a nostalgia trip or to put any one particular product out. There are so many things that matter about gaming with other people in a physical space that need to be preserved and I think that we need to be a part of doing that.
In 70s and 80s it was all about the social dangers of Dungeons & Dragons. Nowadays it’s bringing people together. For example, my best friend out in California has got two kids, the boy is eleven, the girl is a little older. The boy was just playing a lot of video games. It was starting to affect him in negative ways; he wasn’t getting out to see his friends a lot…all the things that happen when a kid plays too many video games. So I said we we’re going to teach this kid to play Magic: The Gathering. He loved Magic – his favorite tabletop game before that was Munchkin. He loves anything with cool cards, he had played a little Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh, but tabletop games were the one thing that made him want to get away from video games. Now he goes down to the game store, it’s a safe place to hang out, he’s more socialized, it brought him back to being a brilliant kid. There’s a social benefit to loving tabletop games.
MT: It seems like tabletop gaming is becoming more culturally accepted.
JE: The fact that so many high-profile people have done gaming things publicly has really helped the tabletop gaming industry as a whole. Stuff like I Hit It With My Axe, Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop, even Vin Deisel makes a big difference. Who would have expected Vin Deisel to write a book about D&D? Community made a big difference.
MT: But not everyone gets it…
JE: Unfortunately, The Big Bang Theory is a “geek minstrel show.” It’s basically a whole show about Erkel – imagine every single character being Erkel!
MT: Gary had a column in Dragon Magazine called “The Sorcerer’s Scroll.” Do you see you doing something like that from Luke or Ernie?
JE: When Gary Gygax wrote Sorcerer’s Scroll it became the canonical word about Dungeons & Dragons. Gary was the father of D&D, not Top Secret, or Boot Hill. The thing that’s different about Dragon Magazine vs. Gygax Magazine is that even though Dragon Magazine was never a house organ, they were the biggest publication covering D&D. One of the major changes in our publication is that Gygax Magazine doesn’t print official D&D rules – you still go to Dragon Magazine for that – and Dragon Magazine is now exclusively D&D. Conversely, Dragon magazine is never going to publish a Pathfinder article.
Speaking of Pathfinder, D&D isn’t the only game in town anymore. Now there are two 400-hundred lb. gorillas instead. For those reasons we can’t make any canonical statements about anyone else’s game, including D&D.
MT: But you will allow other publishers to create canonical content for their games?
JE: If Dennis Detwiller wants to say something about Godlike in our pages, he can certainly do that in Gygax Magazine. I just have to plug Godlike – I think it’s the most exciting new game out there. When it comes to other games, if someone wants to write an official new rule we would welcome it.
MT: So you’ve been in touch with Wizards of the Coast on the magazine as well?
JE: I’ve been talking with the D&D brand team and the D&D press team and letting them know that we will be covering their stuff and they’ve been letting us know how they’ll support us. If we write something about D&D that’s a rules variant or new monsters or treasure, we’ll send it over to the D&D brand team – not to get a blessing, because we won’t represent it as an official rule – just to make sure we’re not doing something is systematically silly. Not to get their approval or licensing. We’re going to make sure that any D&D content we produce will work and work well, but it won’t be the official word on the games.
MT: What is Ernie and Luke’s involvement in the magazine?
JE: When Ernie was 11 years old he was just sitting with his dad playing D&D before it was D&D. Obviously they’re active, contributing to the publication, but the stuff they’re writing about is more a historical look at what gaming was like then and now with Gary. Ernie’s got a piece called Between the Dungeons – what you can do to adventure when you’re not on an adventure. From Luke and Ernie’s perspective, when we see them doing something specifically game-related it will be less about articles in Gygax Magazine and more about new products from TSR. What they’re writing in the magazine today is about topics that are of interest to people – inside baseball stuff. They’re just keeping an eye on the direction of things. They direct where we go with it so it’s something they can be proud of.
MT: I just want to take this moment to say that as a kid I was a huge Melf the Elf fan. All my characters were grey elves inspired by him – I had the Melf action figure as a kid. Think we’ll see any new Melf content in the future?
JE: Melf was Luke’s character. We’ll all be at Gary Con so you can ask him there. But that’s too far in the future to speculate right now.
MT: How can people contribute or subscribe to the magazine?
JE: When we open up the whole web site we’ll have contributing information. But you can sign up at our web site to learn more. We’ve had over 1,000 subscribers so far.
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