Dragonlance: TSR & the Dungeon Hobbyshop

Hotel Clair

The Hotel Clair, original offices of the TSR game creative staff. The Dungeon Hobbyshop was on the main floor. My office was located on the third floor, the beveled corner on the right.

The first morning that I worked at TSR Inc. I arrived half hour before they unlock the doors. I was so excited and anxious to start work that I could hardly wait to begin.

Laura and I had found a ‘modular home’ to rent in Elkhorn, a town about twenty minutes north of Lake Geneva. It was actually more like a double wide trailer, set up on cement pillars and surrounded by a metal skirt. I remember thinking that the icy wind that blew over, around, and even under our home must have started somewhere in the Dakotas and did not slow down until the Allegheny Mountains. Our rental homes construction had some odd features. The access door to the water heater was on the outside of the house and that winter wind would often extinguish the pilot flame. This meant that often in the morning I would have to get up, take a cold shower, and then get dressed in my Arctic gear to excursion into the polar blast, open the exterior door, and attempt to relight the pilot flame with matches. It would not do to try to light the heater before I showered since it would still take too long for the water to warm up before I had to be at work.

TSR was a rather sprawling concern in Lake Geneva in those days. The main corporate offices had recently moved into a former pharmaceutical manufacturing facility on the north side of town. That was where the company’s mainframe computer was located as well as the offices for the corporate officers, marketing department and finance. Periodicals, however, were located in a home at the corner of Marshall and William Street across the street from a Pizza Hut.

But the offices of the game creative staff – – the game designers, editors, cartographers and artists – – were located in the center of Lake Geneva in what had been the Hotel Claire. It was a three-story building plus a basement which had been a landmark of the town since the 1800s. The main floor of the building was largely occupied by the Dungeon Hobby shop; a game store owned by E. Gary Gygax. The second floor was largely the domain of the artists, cartographers, editors and a number of game designers. The third and uppermost floor held additional editors and game designers as well is one conference room. Space being somewhat at a premium, I was installed in the conference room as my workspace and was soon joined their by two additions: Michael Williams who was brought in as an editor and Tim Kilpin, also an editor. Our escapades are the subject for another time.

It is humbling down to think of all of those great creative artists, writers, and editors working with such fervor in the cramped quarters of that old hotel. Larry Elmore, Clyde Caldwell and Keith Parkinson with paintings on their easels that would become classics. Mark Acres and Dave ‘Zeb’ Cook working on a new game called ‘Star Frontiers’. Allen Hammack in his third floor office on the south side of the building teaching me that being creative wasn’t enough and then being so amazing as to teach me how to write. And Jeff Grubb, who came to work only shortly after I did and who I came to know is not only one of the best designers I ever met but also became one of my greatest friends.

Desktop computers were still in their infancy in the early 1980s. All of our work was done at the time on what were called terminals; little more than a keyboard and a monitor screen.There was no such thing as a mouse or even graphic screen editing at the time; everything was done by editing individual lines on a monochrome green on dark screen. Each of these terminals was then wired through modems to the mainframe HP computer across town. Printouts had to be routed to central printers with tractor feed paper. It was all reasonably advanced business technology at the time although there could occasionally be significant delays between the pressing a key and a letter appearing on the screen for those of us so far removed in the old hotel.

One of the strange realities of the Hotel Claire was that when TSR purchased the building it was discovered that the main support steel on the north side of the building had rested through. This it caused the building over time to lean slightly toward the street. The week and supports were quickly replaced and the building properly supported, but this did not correct the northward slant of the floors. Since my conference room office was located on the north side of the building, this meant that my office chair, which had wheels, had a disconcerting tendency to roll away from the table her I was typing and toward the Windows of the room. I quickly learned to hook the toe of my right shoe behind the wheel of the chair and press it into the floor to keep the chair from rolling away with me. To this day, I often type with my foot unconsciously placed in the same location.

It was not long after I started working in this building that a report was handed me that opened the way for Dragonlance to become a reality. Soon we would move to new ‘cubicles’ adjacent to the corporate offices and Margaret would be hired to join the company as an editor … but in those days it was creativity taking on critical mass in a hundred-year-old hotel.

It is impossible for us as human beings to fully appreciate great times while we are living them and great people when we are among them. I look back now on those days in that ancient hotel and have come to appreciate those moments and those amazing people. I am humbled of the thought that I got to work with them, laugh with them, and struggle with them. It was an honor that I did not comprehend to walk those creaking floors and occasionally roll toward the window.

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