Dragonlance: Selling the Dream

Winter_Night_PrototypesmIt is a truth in life that to make our dreams come true, we often have to conquer some pretty mundane territory. In 1983 the problem facing Harold Johnson and I was not how to create the extraordinary vision of Dragonlance … but how to get the company we worked for, TSR, Inc., to approve and back the project.

Nothing like it had ever been attempted before: a series of twelve interconnected adventure modules. We knew it would require a level of commitment from the company that had never been possible before. The company was expanding and diversifying at the time which put a strain on the available resources and meant increasing competition between the newly established divisions for toys, miniatures, brand products and ‘Endless Quest’ books.

So we decided to keep our entire project a secret.

I gave Dragonlance a code name: Project Overlord. I took the name from the code name that had been used for the D-Day landings in Normandy in World War II. It seemed fitting to me: a decisive battle that had required unprecedented planning. Then the next thing we did was to arrange a meeting with all of the TSR art staff … without the knowledge of the company outside of work. Larry Elmore volunteered his basement in the evening and there, with Larry, Keith Parkinson, Jeff Easley and a host of others. Harold and I told them about Dragonlance, something of the story and how we wanted to create something unique, fresh and new.

And much to our delight, they not only caught the vision of what Dragonlance was but what it could become. Larry volunteered to do a series of four concept paintings featuring the story as we knew it then (one for each of three modules as we envisioned it at the time) and others voluteered other art pieces as well.

Autumn_Twilight_Prototype2smTwo of those original paintings you can see here. It is remarkable now as I look back on it how many of the early elements of the story survived to become what we know as Dragonlance Chronicles. Sturm, Kitiara and Tika are easily recognizable but so, too, is Lorac and his Dragonorb, the exodus across the ice south of Pax Tharkas and the Blood Sea of Istar. The other features an easily recognizable Caramon and Raistlin as well as dragons, a draconian and flying citadels. Armed with artwork, hand drawn maps and a proposal for the project, I did something remarkable among game designers at the time…

I put on a suit and tie.

I remember there was some good-natured speculation at the time as to whether I was the only game designer who actually owned a suit and tie. I knew, however, that I was about to enter ‘suit’ territory in order to get our ‘Project Overlord’ off of the ground. So I started the campaign among the corporate officers with a basic strategy in mind:

  1. Present the concept to the heads of the various departments individually.
  2. Get their ideas as to what products they could produce for Dragonlance that would benefit and showcase their department.
  3. Once each of the department heads were invested in Dragonlance, call a general meeting of all the department heads and corporate officers to official ‘present’ the project proposal and, while they were still in the same room, get their approval.

Wearing my suit and tie, I met with each of the department heads as planned. Each one came up with ideas as to what they could contribute that would showcase their part of the company.

Attorneys often say that you should never ask a question you don’t already know the answer that will be given. By the time the great meeting was called, we knew the answer that each department would give. Gary Gygax was there along with the company officers and department heads. We sat in the conference room, told the story of Dragonlance as we revealed each of the four illustrations, then asked for the thoughts of each of the department heads. Not everything would eventually bear fruit. Toys, as I recall, was keen on producing a mechanical, wind up Tiamat. Beach towels came up at one point and there may have been something said about needlepoint. The miniatures division was quite keen on producing a line of Dragonlance miniatures (and eventually would do so). And the book division thought that a series of Endless Quest books … possibly even an actual novel … would be a good idea.

At the end of the meeting, Gary said, “This is exactly what we should be doing.”

Just like that, Project Overlord was a go.

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