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I Was a Gen Con Spy For TSR

I Was a Gen Con Spy For TSR

In his My First Gen Con post, Colin McComb cryptically hinted at a secret assignment to spy on Gary Gygax. At last, the truth can be told…

In early August of 1992, I was summoned to the executive area of TSR. I was constantly concerned about my job (a quirk that would lead to a memorable April Fool’s joke a year or two later), and to be summoned to the executive area generally meant bad things were about to happen. I arrived in a superior’s office, and an even-more superior person was in there as well. They told me to shut the door.

They explained to me that Gary Gygax—one of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons, the preeminent pioneer of the industry, the ousted owner of the company—was going to demo a game at Gen Con. That game was originally called… Dangerous Dimensions! DD! Like… Dungeons & Dragons! Clearly, went the thinking in Executive Land, even though the name had been changed to Dangerous Journeys, this meant that Gygax was trying to cash in on TSR’s intellectual property. They wanted to stop him in his tracks.

They selected me, they said, because I was still young and didn’t know a lot of people in the industry. I could get close to Gygax, watch him demo his game, attend his lectures, and I’d look like any other fan. But I had a secret: I would wait for him to slip up and start talking about his game in terms of Dungeons & Dragons, and then TSR could totally drive him out of business for good! They presented me with a fake Gen Con badge with a non-descript name, slotted out some time for me in my Gen Con schedule, and that was it. I was a spy.

I didn’t feel good about this. But hell, I had dreamed of being a game designer since I knew that such a job existed. Working at TSR was heaven. And all of this, they suggested without saying so, might disappear if I said no.

So I went to Gen Con. I worked my schedule. And when the time came, I slipped into the bathroom, changed my shirt and my badge, and ambled over to where Gary was demoing Dangerous Journeys.

It wasn’t crowded there. A few people stood around, playing the game. When I stood at their periphery, Gary Gygax looked up… looked me right in the eye… and said, “Do you want to learn how to play?”

Imagine that. The founder of the industry, the guy who wrote some of the most important books in my life, the man whose name nailed down certainties in the games I had spent years playing, and he wants to teach me how to play his game. But instead of jumping in with delight, I’m standing there with snakes coiling in my gut, a traitor, as the man who made my dreams possible kindly opens the door to someone who might destroy him.

“No,” I said, “I’ll just watch.” And I stood and watched as Gary Gygax taught some other lucky bastards how to play his game.

I went to his seminar the next day and listened to him talk to a half-full room of people about his new game, and I realized that even if he said that his game was going to replace Dungeons & Dragons and that everyone should go burn down the TSR castle in the Exhibit Hall, I would never report that back. Never.

At the debriefing, they asked me what he’d said.

“Not much,” I said. “He’s clean.”

TSR sued anyway.

Colin McComb won two Origins Awards for his work with Second Edition Dungeons & Dragons, worked extensively on the Planescape line, and helped create the campaign setting of Birthright. He left TSR to work at Interplay/Black Isle Studios, where he helped design the cult classic computer RPG Planescape: Torment, the post-apocalyptic classic Fallout 2, and other games. Since then, he has worked with a variety of companies including Paizo, Malhavoc Press, and Planetwide Games, and is a co-owner of 3lb Games where he creates mobile applications for kids. Colin contributed his insights and expertise to the Kobold Guide to Game Design Vol. III: Tools & Techniques.

(Check out Colin’s new column on game design right here on KoboldQuarterly.com: Now, the Twist.)

50 thoughts on “I Was a Gen Con Spy For TSR”

  1. This is actually a very compelling real life story. Sure maybe not on the grand scale of some Matt Damon film about a CIA operative wrestling with moral dilemmas, but a very personal, down-to-earth tale. I actually found myself wondering what I would do in Colin’s shoes.
    I’m completely sincere. This is a great story.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. I’m with Curn_Bounder on this: wow, that must have been *really* tough to deal with…

    And to think that they still sued… :(

  3. Hey there. Dave Newton here (as in the “with Dave Newton” special ingredient co-author of Mythus).

    We knew going into the con that year that there would be people from TSR trying to sabotage the game (they had tried a restraining order earlier when it was DD – an honest mistake that must have been a subconscious thing; Gary didn’t want the game tied to Dungeons & Dragons at all).

    Always upbeat, I don’t think Gary ever let it get to him, though I think he was saddened that some of the people at TSR were former friends turned enemies because of Lorraine and the Blumes.

    What an awesome guy he was. I’ll always be humbled and honored to have worked with him. By the way, I wish you would have played. :)

  4. they sent you in without so much as a laser saw wristwatch or .22 derringer cleverly disguised as a fountain pen? they had Top Secret, no excuse.

  5. Glad to see Dave Newton is still around!

    It’s too bad they never left Gary alone. Looking with hindsight, Mythus and other games would not have been a big threat to D&D, and it would have been nice to see him come back under a large publisher without interference. He was able to return again with Lejendary Adventures, but it was sad to see him put so much damn work into that system only to have to abandon it completely.

    Shortly before he died, I remember having one conversation with Gary and Gail about old TSR staff and who he considered a “good guy”–it was a short list.

    I remember Gail saying something about how a lot of people changed or “got weird” after Gary left as the clashes between the old and new owners affected people. It took WoTC and the works of it’s chiefs to repair those strained relationships after they purchased TSR.

    But yeah, work can change relationships and not for the better. Being a lot older now…I know how “politics” affect working environments. It’s too bad the way it interferes with friendships. During the Mythus suit Jim Ward switched from one of Gary’s friends to enemies, then they repaired their friendship after (I believe) Ward left WoTC.

  6. Let this be a lesson to us all to be wary of allowing such betrayals to infect the design companies we work with today: WoC, Paizo, KQ, Etc., Etc.

  7. Great story thanks for sharing.

    In the future, have some backbone, and stand up for what you believe to be right. You should have told your overseers “no thanks”. If more people stood up for what they (at least said afterward) believed to be right think of all the terrible things that may not have happened.

    Your boss is not your God.

  8. Just for the record, and Mythus really doesn’t need any more fanboys.. that game is one of the best things I’ve every played and still has significant space on my primary bookshelf for the occasional game or oft needed creative floon boost.

    As to the story, not surprising. There’s a certain amount of scumminess inherent in all business that seems to amplify the closer you get to media companies. I’m glad this finally got out there.

  9. @Tom
    I completely agree with what you say, but c’mon you have to be sympathetic.
    I mean, a young man, living the dream, the person who seemingly holds that dream in his/her hands asks you to do something unethical. . .
    That’s a true test of character that I could only hope I would have (or still would) pass.
    And of course, in the end the story is good because our hero makes the right decision.

  10. “In the future, have some backbone, and stand up for what you believe to be right.”

    To be fair, he has, and he did. He just forgot to mention it to his “superiors”. The only people he really betrayed were deranged, malevolent executives. I’m sure, if they had a shark tank, he’d have pushed them in, but you can’t have everything.

    Personally, I’d have agreed to spy on Mr Gygax, but I’d have worn a raincoat and fedora and brought a newspaper with eyeholes.

  11. great sory, thanks for sharing. all gary stories should be preserved for the future. “to amke history, you have to know history” (or something like that :P)

  12. Bill Cousino/Elises husband

    Heres your Bozo button..the trash comes out..who cares..true colors come out of people trying to cash in on others. And this affected Gary how??
    I agree with J.E. Dumb

  13. I think it was an opportunity to exercise his moral character and display some personal courage. Unfortunately Colin took a coward’s path, IMO. I doubt that his spying had any impacy on the course of events- even if he did report back to the Lump directly. A coward dies a thousand deaths- every time they bend to others due to fear. But I am probably a little biased on this topic. Perhaps I judge too harshly.

  14. People “spy” all the time. Stop thinking it’s noble to be above it.

    As it was, nothing came of it, a young person learned a moral lesson, and NO ONE would have known about it if the full-grown adult hadn’t told the story now.

    These charges of “cowardice” are empty. It wasn’t war. It was business.

    Now, if industrial espionage had been the actual crime (rather than just watching a game creator display a game and reporting back to an employer), maybe I’d entertain these overblown charges of moral turpitude.

  15. @The Outsider: This is industrial espionage. I mean they made him a FAKE badge and everything. Geez. You think if Gary would have displayed some new novel game concept TSR would have said “Well good for him!” and let it be? Come on. They would have aped it and put it on the market in weeks then sued Gary over that as well. Not to mention the moral bankruptcy on display.

    @Luke: You are correct. Colin was aware of what he was doing. His moral compass even made him feel bad about it but he did it anyway. Why? Out of fear? greed? Who knows. Only Mr McComb.

  16. Great story, Colin. As for any accusations of cowardice and such, screw that noise. You were young and did what you thought you had to and that’s it.

    Me, I would have played the spy game and then filled the execs at TSR so full on false info that they would have looked like idiots in court. And, of course, I would have told them where to shove their job.

  17. Luke, you’re absolutely correct. I took the assignment out of fear of losing my job. You’ll note that I said as much, right up there in the 4th paragraph.

    I’ll gladly accept the charge of cowardice going in.

    Coming out? Not so much.

    Note that having accepted the gig, I failed in that position. Deliberately.

    Justification, like hindsight, is 20/20. Nevertheless, looking back on a minor incident from 18 years ago, I judge myself harshly for accepting the assignment in the first place, and redeem that with the knowledge that I ensured that the assignment would fail in order to minimize damage to your father, and that I did so deliberately.

    I’m content with how I handled the situation. I learned some hard and valuable truths about myself and the company for which I worked. You might feel differently. You’re certainly entitled to your opinion.

    On a personal note, my condolences on the loss of your father. He was a great man.

  18. For me, that’s the definition of Chaotic Good, nice story Colin and thanks for having the courage to share it. I just hope the plotting executive gets what he deserves in one of the 666 Abyssal layers (punishment applied using 1e rules).

  19. Another point: if Colin had told his bosses that he wasn’t going to spy on Gary for them, not only might he have been fired from his dream job, but they could have found someone else to do the job – someone who WOULD have done his or her best to “get the goods” on Gary. It sounds like it was in Gary’s best interests that this spying gig went to Colin and not to someone else.

  20. Lucky Ace XIII

    I’m struggling a bit ’cause at least a third of you (beyond the one explicitly calling it out) MUST have played Top Secret and yet not even Mr. McComb seems aware that the story line here is one of a double agent! Accepting the malicious assignment and then ensuring it’s failure is the very portrait of the noble double-agent.

    That Mr. McComb didn’t at first know that he was a double agent is perhaps disconcerting. That he doesn’t appear to know even now might be sad, but the point is he did the right thing and PREVENTED any harm from occurring in this opportunity for direct harm from nefarious, mean-spirited and ignoble shysters.

    Were it all done subconsciously, I’d still stay, bravo.

  21. Anybody played Dangerous Journeys? It was my first RPG – found it in the fantasy/scifi section of the local bookstore, never looked back.

    It’s really nothing like D&D, and was a pretty amazing game for the time in my opinion.

    I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to narc on your hero to keep your job.

    And they still sued.

    I agree with the Chaotic Good comment.

  22. :Tom and Luke:

    You know, it took more guts to fess up after growing out of being the earnest and scared kid he was, to be able to tell the story today. It is easy, very easy to heap encomium on the kid when really, he
    a) didn’t give TSR any useful info, and
    b) employment was very different back then, and
    c) he had the good grace to very nice and humble about the whole thing.

    TSR did what they did to Gary. They poisoned the company, tried to kill off its connections to its founder, and released a half-assed product that hung around for 15 years while a better product could have been released. Don’t blame Colin for any of that. He was just an earnest kid doing what he could to stay close to the industry he was in awe of.

    Lighten up, and give credit where credit is due. I am sure Gary would have been more forgiving than either of you.

  23. I will glady say, thank you for sharing this. And your mind should be at ease now.

    Company machinations are alwyas dirty pool anyway.

  24. Andrew Hackard

    Having known Colin for many years now, I have never had any reason to consider him anything less than a truly stand-up guy. This story doesn’t change that. All of us have done regrettable things in our lives. The best among us learned from these mistakes and vowed not to repeat them, and indeed use those experiences as teachable moments for those who follow.

    Colin, I’m sorry you were put in that position, but I’m glad YOU were put in that position. Others might not have remembered to pack their conscience for the trip.

    Luke, please let me echo Colin’s condolences on the passing of your father. He was a pioneer, and my life is certainly richer because he shared his ideas with the world.

  25. Interesting story! Having spent spent some time in the fantasy publishing industry it surprises me that they would send anyone but a lawyer to witness the game demo. (Like you, Colin, I’ve worked with the Cooks at Malhavoc and spent about a decade with Wizards and, most enjoyably, on Dragon magazine…albeit as an art director.)

    Gary NEVER seemed like big potatoes. When he was toying with chat-room roleplaying, (during the period where MMORPGs were putting the final nails in the coffin of MUSHes and MUDDs), I happened to drop in to participate in Gygax’s world. I’m not typically star-struck…I kicked Lou Ferrigno out of our shared cab at Wizard World, as evidence…but in Gary’s presence I was tongue-tied.

    He’s a legend and a personal hero. You were absolutely right to protect the man and not the machine. Good for you!

  26. I think it was an opportunity to exercise his moral character and display some personal courage. Unfortunately Colin took a coward’s path, IMO.

    Why should anyone care about your opinion? Because your daddy invented a game? And who are you to call anyone a “coward”?

    I doubt that his spying had any impacy on the course of events- even if he did report back to the Lump directly.

    Apparently it didn’t have any “impacy” on your spelling, either.

    A coward dies a thousand deaths- every time they bend to others due to fear.

    If he died one death -let alone a thousand- he wouldn’t be here now to tell his story now would he?

    But I am probably a little biased on this topic. Perhaps I judge too harshly.

    –Luke Gygax

    Judge too harshly? Nah, you’re just a drama queen who probably just feels resentment against someone who got a job at TSR in spite of the fact that his last name wasn’t Gygax.

    Seriously, I don’t see how you can pontificate about anything -let alone another person’s courage- from atop your high horse. I just want to know how you mounted the animal with your head up your backside.

    Perhaps I judge too harshly. Then again, perhaps not.

  27. To Colin and Andrew: Thank you for the kind words. He was a good man and a great Father.

    I base my OPINION on my values. I have served in the Army for 20 years and I attempt to lead my life by a set of values. One of these is having the personal and moral courage to what is right always. So that may be quite different from other people’s perspectives.

    To Elfdart: I believe we are all expressing our viewpoints here- so my opinion is germain. I did indeed make a spelling error as I typed the comment late in the evening with the lights out in shared quarters in Iraq. I am fallible. I never pursued employment in the RPG industry despite the opportunities available to me and the encouragement of my Father. I have different interests and aptitudes. Perhaps if I meet you in person- and you have the personal courage to identify yourself to me- we can discuss this matter further.

  28. Aw, did someone get his feathers ruffled? Looks like someone who enjoys dishing it out can’t take it.

    And I love the way you try to bring your uniform into the discussion -as if that had anything to do with the price of tea in China. I’ve had too many family members and friends serve this country to see a loser like you sully the uniform by throwing it down like a trump card in a discussion (about a company that made games, no less!) without being called on it.

    Perhaps if I meet you in person- and you have the personal courage to identify yourself to me- we can discuss this matter further.

    Oh grow up.

  29. LOL. Yes, you got me. How can I dispute your reasoning and logic. Clearly 20 years as a Soldier has no impact on how I see the world and is only a weak attempt to save face. Your opinion is highly valued by all and I am so ashamed….

    Go pound sand.

  30. LOL. Yes, you got me. How can I dispute your reasoning and logic.

    Judging from what you’ve posted already, you can’t.

    Clearly 20 years as a Soldier has no impact on how I see the world and is only a weak attempt to save face.

    Since military service has nothing to do with ethics (just ask William Calley) it’s just a red herring on your part meant to change the subject: That you were a complete tool towards someone who admitted he did something he wasn’t very proud of and has regretted ever since. But then I suppose you’ve never done anything you weren’t proud of, right?

    Your opinion is highly valued by all and I am so ashamed….

    You ought to be.

  31. Elfdart,

    Luke was one of the people who directly saw the impact when Gygax was forced out of TSR. I did not see him totally condemn Colin, just express disappointment.

    As far as Gary being forgiving, he was, as I mentioned regarding Jim Ward above. But he also didn’t like betrayal–he never forgave Lorraine, for instance. I really don’t like it when people who aren’t either friends or family think they “know” Gary and start hypothesizing what he would do.

    But most people can understand where he’s coming from. Do you expect him to say nothing, or expect this subject not to sting Gary’s sons and daughters? It’s easy for most of you to say “you should forgive”, because this particular incident doesn’t not directly effect any of you. Forgiveness isn’t free and doesn’t come cheap.

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish Elfdart.

  32. Elfdart, seriously – ENOUGH!

    Colin was good enough to share an interesting story about a difficult situation he was put in many years ago. Luke had an understanably strong opinion about it. End of story. There is no reason for you to get this nasty and rude.

    Colin – thank you for sharing the story -it was intersting and showed that, in the end, you did what you thought was right.

    Luke – Your dad sounds like a great person and I am very thankful for the game he gave us all! And, thank YOU for what you are doing over in Iraq.

    Elfdart – Please, just drop it.


  33. All right, look:

    I appreciate people sticking up for me. I do. It was a hard situation, it was hard to write about, and I’m not proud of it. But there’s no need to demean and belittle each other over an incident that occurred 18 years ago.

    I have accepted Luke’s criticism of my actions, and I hope that I’ve improved in the years since then.

    I can and will stick up for myself if necessary. This is not that time. Luke and I have exchanged opinions, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s that. If you want to start fights, don’t use me as a pretext.

  34. Feh, they didn’t ask him to do anything illegal. They didn’t even ask him to do anything unethical. They asked him to walk over to a *public* booth and watch a *public* display of a game to see if it was a violation of their company’s copyrights. This isn’t industrial espionage, any more than it would be if Sony sent employees over to the Nintendo booth at E3 to see what the news is.
    Yes, Colin was put in an awkward position.
    Yes, it was shady that TSR gave him a fake badge.
    Yes, TSR’s owners were pretty crazy. Paranoid and litigious, in fact.
    Yes, it was a crappy thing for them to ask a new employee to do.
    No, Colin didn’t do anything wrong.
    In fact, Colin made the best choice–he went and looked as directed, and didn’t report anything back to TSR’s suits. The hardest choice, in fact, because Gygax couldn’t hurt him for his actions and TSR could.
    And TSR sued Gygax anyway, which shows that having Colin do this was just a sham on their part, anyway.

  35. Commenting is now closed for this post, and a few comments have been deleted. We want to keep the dialogue open and free here, but we will not tolerate abusive language. We understand tempers are running hot right now on both sides of the argument, but that will not be an excuse for being uncivil. Let’s try to remember that we’re all here for same thing: the love of RPGs.

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