The earliest TSR products were digest-sized wargame products. I call them wargames because even Dungeons & Dragons was originally sub-titled "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures". Original D&D was three digest-sized books in a box. 1st edition Boot Hill was a digest-sized booklet. I've never had an opportunity to read the 1st edition rules, but the '79 second edition that I'm familiar with is still basically a 1:1 wargame with cowboy fluff. Warriors of Mars was a Barsoomian minis game by Tactical Studies Rules that was contemporary to both these games. Warriors of Mars rated heroes in levels much like OD&D and even suggested using OD&D for when heroes go adventuring in the pits below Martian cities. A few Barsoomian critters are to be found on the OD&D encounter charts, though they aren't statted out anywhere but in Warriors of Mars. During roughly this same period TSR was also putting out boardgames in 8 and half by 11 boxes. Two examples of this would be the earliest published incarnation of Dungeon! and the chess variant 4th Dimension. Empire of the Petal Throne came in a somewhat similar format, though as I recall the box was shallower and the cover art was more intricate and colorful. (As an aside, EPT was the Nobilis of its day. It was the Cadillac of RPGs: pretty, pricy, much admired but also considered too setting-rich to be playable by average gamers.)
In the second generation of TSR-brand RPGs (I am excluding AD&D, which at this point becomes its own special case. First edition AD&D was the second Cadillac of RPGs, though it lacked the horse-choking setting info of others.) everything went to the 8 1/2" by 11" box format, usually with two or three booklets in the box, an elaborate map, and counters. Examples of this wave of TSR rpgs would include the first three editions of the Basic D&D (et al.) line and the first two editions of Gamma World, though neither of these products came with counters. Most of the remaining examples of this era all relied heavily on maps and counters: Gangbusters, 2nd edition Boot Hill, both Star Frontiers boxed sets, and Mike Carr's Dawn Patrol. (It may be interesting to note that the precursor to TSR's Dawn Patrol product was a self-published game called Fight in the Skies. FitS first saw light in 1968. In my opinion FitS shares enough characterstics with the modern roleplaying game that it should be considered the first published RPG rather than D&D.)
It was this second wave of TSR rpgs that penetrated mainstream markets suffienctly to reach kids like me. Even a relatively isolated farm boy could find copies of these games at a shopping mall or department store. My friend Pat used to be able to get some of these products in the toy section of his local hardware store! My school chums and I owned nearly all the second generation boxed sets not too long after I got my D&D Basic set in the summer of '82 or so. Tom Novy had the Boot Hill boxed set, Dave Dalley owned a copy of Dawn Patrol (he also had at least one Avalon Hill game, Panzerblitz IIRC), Shawn Watson owned the 2nd edition Gamma World, and I got my hands on both Star Frontiers and Gangbusters. (Nobody ever got Top Secret for some reason. A few years later I bought a copy of James Bond007, locking out Top Secret.) Unfortunately, this was just too much game for our teeny little selfmade grade-school gaming group. It would be years before we would have a solid grasp on just Basic D&D. We weren't ready for a whole slew of other systems. Another problem was that it wasn't immediately obvious to us that the guy what owned the rules was normally expected to GM the darn thing. I'm not sure Tom Novy or Shawn Watson ever seriously considered running either of their games, for example.
For our first few years of roleplaying my friends and I hardly knew that other gaming companies existed. Sure, there were ads for other companies in the few issues of Dragon we had access to. But it didn't immediately seem obvious to us that we needed to try any other companies' products. Some may remember the term Marvel Zombies, an insult that I think is currently out of circulation. Marvel Zombies were an 80's phenomenon: kids who were hooked on Marvel comics and who never even considered buying a DC book. In addition to being tried and true Marvel Zombies, my friends and I spent a couple of years as TSR Zombies.
We eventually did branch out into other companies, notably Chaosium (for Call of Cthulhu, of course), West End (Ghostbusters), ICE (MERP/Rolemaster) and FASA (Doctor Who,Star Trek and most of all, BattleTech/Mechwarrior). A great deal of the motivation for our wandering eye may be explained by our first convention experience (Frontier Wars in Bloomington, Illinois). That's where I found my CoC boxed set and that's where we all fell in love with BattleTech. But our infidelity to TSR was also the result of our encountering the 3rd wave of TSR games: the universal color chart systems. I can name 4 notable examples of this generation: Marvel Super Heroes, Gamma World 3rd edition, Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space (a new edition of Star Frontiers masquerading as a supplement), and Conan the Barbarian. The revamped Top Secret/SI might have been one of the universal color chart games. I don't know. We had even less interest in that version than the earlier, cooler one.
First let me say that IMHO Marvel Super Heroes is a great supers RPG. I still love it. MSH was sort of a transition game from the earlier generation; it came with a big ol' map and some nifty counters. The four-color universal chart seemed absolutely perfect for simulating four-color comics. Keep in mind that this game came out back when the Punisher was a villain and Wolverine was a relatively minor character compared to Spiderman or Captain America. Everything was still bright and shiny in mainstream Marvel comics and a big chart that was red and white and green and yellow seemed like an entirely appropriate approach, especially when combined with the excellent FASERIP stat system and the ease of whipping up your own superpowers and characters.
But two other color chart games spelled the end of my love affair with TSR. I was really jazzed about both Zebulon's Guide and Conan when they were first mentioned in the pages of Dragon. Zebulon delivered more races, more skills, a bigger better starmap, more background info, and more equipment. It could have been a 5 star supplement had all of this great stuff not also been married to an unnecessary universal color chart. Keep in mind that of all the TSR games of the previous generation Star Frontiers might have been the one LEAST in need of a rules overhaul. Unlike the rest, it had a workable, if simplistic, core mechanic: percentage dice roll-under. Unlike MSH, the color chart itself didn't seem to be implemented particularly well. The damage mechanics grated on me. Who wants to switch from roll-a-bunch-of-dice to a crappy full/half/quarter max system? I didn't. The colors selected for the chart were even more stupid. One color band was blue and another was cobalt. Cobalt. You roll one number and you get a blue result. Roll another number and you get a *different* blue result. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
The Conan the Barbarian rpg was even worse. First of all, what idiot green-lit yet another fantasy game for TSR? Was AD&D, D&D, and Dungeon not enough? Perhaps the TSR fantasy branding was *not*muddled*enough* with only three games that involved swords and spells? If there was any justice in the world this beyotch would have been a hardbound sourcebook for first edition AD&D. Instead we got a crappy universal color chart mechanic. Know that I really, really wanted to like the Conan rpg. Robert E. Howard is to me what Tolkien was to most D&D geeks of the era. The film adaptation totally rocked my world. To this day it is one of my all-time favorite movies. I owned the f'ing Conan the Barbarian soundtrack on CD before I even owned a CD player. When TSR screwed up the RPG, it broke my heart. Don't get me wrong, the setting sourcebook, "The World of Hyboria", is awesome. I'd still use that (along with GURPS Conan) if I were to tackle a new campaign set in Hyborean Age.
While rooting around in my game cabinet this morning I found the Conan rulebook and the 16-page booklet. The smaller booklet contained stuff that should have been in the rulebook. I'm not sure why they thought rules like the skill descriptions and combat charts needed their own book. The character creation and combat rules look serviceable enough.
The CtB spells rules are interesting. They largely mimc CoC in that each spell is a special case of its own, isolated from other rules. There no spell lists or level charts, instead the spell system is basically freeform. What sets CtB apart from other freeform spell system is that each individual spell must be researched. Virtually any attempt to learn a new spell ought to be an adventure in and of itself. Furthermore, starting characters begin the game with no spells whatsoever. If you want to be a sorcerer you have to do things the hard way. Becoming a magic-using character ought to justify more than sufficient quantities of adventure. Magic has it price, however. There are good, clean rules for becoming obsessed with magic and for degenerating in crippled obsessed magic-using freak. Good stuff.
But again, overall I don't like this game. It and Zebulon basically led to me dropping TSR except for D&D products. Several thing annoyed me about the game: Conan was is used in almost all the examples and in the sample adventure. Starting characters are total wusses compared to the Cimmerian, so I feel like the examples basically spend their time showing how much your PC sucks compared to Conan. This would be easier to ignore if the examples were better written and actually worked well as examples. They don't. Instead they spend all their time flexing Arnie's muscles at you. Also, I can't find any "how you do stuff" rules. They're easy enough to figure out extrapolating from the combat section, especially if you have encountered other TSR universal color chart games. Still, its annoying that characters have all these skills and the game doesn't bother to tell you how to adjudicate a basic skill check. It's sloppy, sloppy design.
And then there's that damn color chart. This may sound like a minor point but to me it is huge: the dark and gritty world of Conan the Barbarian should not, under any conditions, be simulated using a game that refers to a chart colored lime green, pee yellow and basketball orange. It's just plain wrong. Maybe if the chart were redone to report crimson, black, and grey results I could work with it. As it stands, Conan the Barbarian is just the opposite of MSH. The universal color chart just plain doesn't fit. Even worse is the fact that maybe we could have gotten a 1st edition AD&D Conan hardbound, instead we get this stuff. It took CtB and Zebulon for me to realize that just because grown-up hardcore game geeks write the TSR product line that doesn't mean that a newbie like myself is obligated to like their games.
The color charts also made me wonder how much the designers at TSR really thought about the gamers out in the boonies. I didn't have access to a color photocopier. Heck, I'm not sure they even existed back in '85. If they did, I didn't know about it. Since you use the universal color chart for nearly every game resolution, having just one was a pain the butt. I suppose a black & white copy would have worked, but back then even getting a single black & white copy for something was not easy for my game group. The other alternatives involved buying extra copies of the game, which was such a luxury we couldn't justify it for anything other than maybe D&D, or we could make a copy of the whole damn chart by hand. Our solution? Not play these stupid color chart games. We did some MSH, but the rest of the 3rd generation went unplayed.
The next waves of design innovation over at TSR largely went unnoticed by my gaming group, of course excepting the release of 2nd edition AD&D. We devoted more and more of our time to BattleTech when we weren't playing AD&D or Basic/Expert D&D. We also got in at least one good session of Ghostbusters and MSH, as well as decent sized mini-campaigns of MERP and Call of Cthulhu. The CoC campaign might have lasted even longer had we not experienced a total party kill at the end of one session. But that's the way Cthulhu goes sometimes.
I have heard about the some of the later TSR products, though I've never taken at look at the rules. The card-based SAGA system still has its adherents. SAGA rules were released for Dragonlance and a totally new Marvel game. In the case of SAGA Dragonlance I find myself again wondering what the folks at TSR were thinking. If D&D is the company cash cow and D&D is what the overwhelming majority of customers play, what good does it do to switch a setting over to a non-D&D system? I haven't heard of too many people who still like the Amazing Engine universal rules, though you can find some folks who like at least on of the setting books: For Faerie Queen & Country. I'm told that the later TSR universal rules Alternity have some things in common with what would become the D&D 3E game engine. I don't know a darn thing about the roleplaying materials in TSR's Buck Rogers line. The boardgame is well thought of in some circles. (Fun fact: TSR bid $70K for the rights to the Star Wars license, losing out to WEG's bid of $100K. Anybody with their head on straight should have been able to tell you, even back in the mid to late eighties, that Star Wars was a MUCH more valuable license than Buck Rogers. How much did TSR pay for the Rogers license? A hundred grand.)
But rather than stick with TSR, I moved on to other games for my non-D&D needs. TSR had taken a wrong turn during the universal color chart period and I was now on a different course, a course that would lead to new things like HERO and Pendragon, with occasional forays into stuff like FUDGE or Traveller. Nowadays I'm playing Savage Worlds and running Heroes Unlimited, but I want to go back to those earlier TSR games. Maybe its just the fact that I'm thirty now and am a real adult and a father. Maybe its simple nostalgia, a retreat toward a golden age of gaming that never really existed. Still, I can't help but thinking that there's some value, some fun to be had, in playing some of those olds game that never got a fair shake from us back in the day.