The 2E era of D&D is known for having simultaneously the greatest emphasis on distinctive settings in the game’s history and the greatest downplaying of the classic dungeon-crawling mode of play on the part of the game’s publisher ever seen. This makes sense given the general ethos of the era.
For one thing, in gaming circles it was fashionable to run down playstyles you considered less sophisticated, and dungeon crawling was considered to be nonsense for babies who hadn’t grown up to do something more oriented around exploring a distinctive setting or playing through a GM’s preplanned story; whilst I don’t think TSR’s management at the time paid attention to such things, I could believe that their designers did. Another factor, which I think would have been much more on the mind of the Lorraine Williams-helmed board of directors, was that a large chunk of TSR’s D&D-related profits arose not from the game itself but from the various ranges of tie-in novels based on the various settings that had emerged ever since Weis and Hickman had turned the Dragonlance trilogy into an unlikely hit.
Infamously, it was the novels that put paid to TSR. They were published through an arrangement with Random House, who handled the process of getting them into the distribution chain and as such were the link between TSR and the major book shops. This had the advantage of being able to leverage Random House’s much better connections in the world of traditional book shops (as opposed to hobby stores), putting the novels and other TSR products in front of an audience other game publishers could only dream of.
The disadvantage of the arrangement, of course, is that TSR was keeping the book stores at arm’s length, and as a result they were less able to keep an eye on how many of the books were being returned unsold by the stores. The way the publishing industry worked at the time – I have no idea whether it still works the same way in these devastated post-Amazon/ebook years – was that unsold books would get returned to the publisher by distributors in return for a full or partial refund. This means that a problem could arise – as it did for TSR – if you ended up shipping far more product to the distributor than they and the bookstores they serve were actually able to sell, and especially could be a problem if the end-of-year returns from a distributor ends up being much larger than you expected.
That’s exactly what happened to TSR: Random House returned a massive amount of stuff to them at the end of 1996, and presented them with a huge bill for it. This wrecked their cashflow, in turn meaning that they couldn’t afford to print new runs of the material which was selling, making business impossible, and in 1997 Wizards of the Coast bought out TSR.
Wizards kept the old branding alive for the remainder of 2E’s run and then retired it, releasing 3E under their own name. Whilst 3E is sometimes held up, not without justification, as seeing a new embrace of dungeon crawling as a legitimate focus of play, at the same time if you take a close look at Wizards’ output after acquiring TSR you can kind of see that ongoing gear shift in process. The two supplements I’m going to be reviewing for this article include one of the last really great releases put out by TSR, and an early Wizards contribution to the game line; they form a two-book set which between them offer both the peak of the 2E ethos and the beginnings of 3E’s back-to-the-dungeon movement.