In 1981, Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR printed an adventure so scandalous that when new copies reached key TSR management, they ordered the entire print run sent to dumpsters rather than to distributors.
The story of the adventure, B3 The Palace of the Silver Princess, began when Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax hired Jean Wells as the first woman to join the design team at TSR. After a year working mostly administrative tasks, Jean finally landed a creative assignment writing an adventure that would introduce D&D to new players. Perhaps the company’s management expected a woman to deliver a gentle module that would nurture D&D’s burgeoning young audience. Instead, she wrote a sandbox with the same grown-up sensibilities as prior TSR products.
Gygax had hired Wells because he liked her ideas, and she wanted her first module to show her unique voice. She feared that other developers would meddle, so she had Gygax remind the development team to leave her ideas intact and to limit changes to proofreading. Artist Erol Otus remembers “The module was sent in and the editors were told hands off. Don’t change Jean’s stuff. Send it through.”
TSR editor Stephen Sullivan says that the adventure “was what Jean wanted it to be. It was her baby. And for another place and another time, it probably would have been just perfect.” Wells and Sullivan collaborated on one of the module’s illustrations.
The liberty that Gygax granted the project gave artist Erol Otus a sense of creative freedom. For the module, he illustrated a group of 3-headed creatures called ubues. He says, “I remember asking Jean if the ubues could be male/female. I remember being thrilled when she said yes. I remember being really happy to put male and female together in different combinations and just thinking about what they’re lives would be like.”
Work on the adventure came after some recent firings, leaving tension between TSR’s management and creative staff. “We [artists] were down with the editors and designers,” says Otus. “We felt like we were a team.” In the spirit of team and perhaps as a cheeky dig at management, Otus drew the ubues’ heads so they resembled members of TSR’s creative team.
When the module reached print and upper managers saw the drawing, they saw the resemblances, but could not figure out who the picture mocked. Designer Lawrence Schick says, “There were a lot of in-jokes in there. And if you aren’t ‘in’ on the in-jokes, it can be easily misinterpreted.” Designer Kevin Hendryx says, “Management was very sensitive about mutiny in the ranks at the time and took all these perceived slurs or snoot-cockings as an insult and a challenge.”
Forty years later, Otus no longer remembers more of the creative process behind the picture, or even who the likenesses match.
Even though management found Otus’s picture of the ubues troublesome, another illustration in the adventure actually landed the print run in the garbage.
For the adventure, Wells imagined a new monster called the decapus that used illusion to lure prey. “I created the decapus to draw paladins into the room quickly without thinking and to be the first in. I wanted them to rescue the maiden whose clothes were torn and seemed to be surrounded by nine ugly men taunting her. Editor Ed Sollers thought it was a good idea and so did our boss Harold Johnson. It went through the channels with no problems at all until it had been printed.”
Artist Laura Roslof drew the creature’s illusion as Wells described. A woman dangles from a ceiling beam, bound by her own hair. Men taunt and poke her, “pulling at what few clothes she has on.” Just a year ago, such an illustration might have passed unnoticed. After all, in the October 1980 issue number 42 of Dragon, TSR printed a picture of a bound, naked woman on her knees before the corpulent, goat-headed figure of Orcus.
But in 1981, TSR no longer just catered to an older audience of wargamers and sci-fi fans. James Dallas Egbert, a gifted and troubled 16-year-old studying at Michigan State University, disappeared in 1979, and the detective searching for the teen blamed D&D. The case fired a media sensation that introduced D&D to America. Dragon magazine editor Tim Kask wrote, “Dungeons & Dragons is getting the publicity that we used to just dream about.” The attention led to rocketing sales, but news reports also consistently painted D&D as a “bizarre” game enjoyed by “secretive” and “cultish” players. By 1981, TSR strategy focused on making sales to younger gamers while comforting the parents who might worry about a game full of evil creatures and supernatural make believe.
The decapus illustration threatened to alarm parents. Worse, the drawing appeared in a teaching module for the basic D&D line, all targeted for younger gamers. “D&D was under attack by religious conservatives at the time,” explained Lawrence Schick, “and TSR thought that releasing the original B3 would be just throwing red meat to the mad dogs.”
According to Gygax, when copies of the newly printed module reached Brian Blume, he “pitched a fit.” Blume held a seat on the TSR board and was part of the family that controlled TSR. Only he and his brother held the power to overrule Gygax.
Jean Wells and her editor Ed Sollers were called into the office of art director Dave Sutherland. She remembered that TSR vice president Will Neibling waited “mad as hell.” She and Ed knew they were in trouble, but had no idea why. Neibling asked, “Why did you write S&M into a child’s module?”
According to Wells, neither she nor Sollers knew what sadomasochism was. “Ed and I just looked at each other and went, ‘What’s S&M?’ Will didn’t believe us, but we just stood there looking dumbfounded because we didn’t know.”
Kevin Hendryx remembers the blowback. “It happened very, very fast. One day they were handing out our office copies, and then one day we were told that supervisors were collecting copies, telling people to turn theirs in. Most of us, having got a whiff of what was going on, were busy squirreling ours away.”
Stephen Sullivan estimates that the print run numbered between 5,000 and 10,000 copies. Management made sure that TSR handyman Dan Matheson supervised the work of moving the stacks to the landfill and personally witnessed their burial. “I find it funny that management was so concerned about anyone filching copies of B3 that they had employees like Dan—who was a big, imposing bear of a fellow, burly and bearded—riding shotgun on the garbage dump,” says Hendryx.
“It really was just a tempest in a teapot,” Gygax wrote later. “Had TSR not made a fuss about it, I think it would have passed largely unnoticed. They’re going now for really high prices, but I think most of the people who get them are really disappointed because there’s nothing really very wrong in the thing.”
“Jean held onto her filing job, but her only shot at success was blown,” writes TSR insider Frank Menzer. “Tom Moldvay rewrote the module significantly, removing most of Jean’s flavor and replacing it with his own style and preferences.”
The trashing of her creative work left Wells feeling soured, but she rallied and pitched more creative projects to TSR. “Everything I suggested to someone, anyone, was shot down as not a good idea.” Soon, Wells would leave TSR, marry, and raise two sons. She died in 2012.