In 1981, Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR printed an adventure so scandalous that when newly printed copies reached key TSR management, they ordered the entire print run sent to dumpsters rather than to distributors. According to legend, the art featured a bound, naked woman menaced by leering monsters, and another art page that mocked TSR’s owners by putting grotesque versions of their faces on three-headed creatures. The legends proved exaggerated, but because surviving copies sold at auction in shrink wrap for sky-high prices, few knew the truth.
“I think that the reaction to the module is more interesting than the module itself,” said TSR design head Lawrence Schick. “The actual content of it is only mildly eccentric by current standards. It’s more a matter of what light it shines on the management reaction at the time, and the ‘Satanic Panic.’ It’s like Bigfoot, except the first edition of this module actually exists. It can be seen.” (Teaser: Schick’s likeness appears as one of those monstrous heads.)
The true story mixes the trials of the first woman to work at TSR as a D&D designer, a cheeky bit of rebellion by the TSR art staff, and executives fearful of provoking angry parents at a time when the media consistently painted D&D as a “bizarre” game enjoyed by “secretive” and “cultish” players.
In 1979, 23-year-old Jean Wells responded to an ad in Dragon magazine seeking game designers, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax liked the ideas she pitched well enough to hire her. “Gary and I corresponded from around Thanksgiving until mid-January when he flew me up,” Wells said. “I spent three days at his house.” Wells became friends with Gary and his wife Mary, who Wells taught how to make southern fried chicken and tried to show the game. “We liked each other, but Gary knew I didn’t know how to really write rules. He told me he’d teach me how to do them his way. He was hiring my imagination and would teach me the rest.”
Gygax said he wanted “to give the game material a feminine viewpoint—after all, at least 10% of the players are female!”
D&D insider John Rateliff wrote “Wells’ hiring was a deliberate attempt by Gary Gygax to expand beyond the all-male perspective that had dominated the design department for the company’s first eight years—no doubt with an eye toward attracting a female market to match the burgeoning youth market the game had already tapped.”
Wells became The Sage who answered rules questions for Dragon magazine. Readers enjoyed how she answered even the strangest questions with poise and wit. She contributed art for the eye of the deep and for the rat to new printings of the Monster Manual. For Gygax, she edited B2 Keep on the Borderlands (1981). When Gen Con needed an extra DM to run the D&D Open competition, Jean stepped up. “I grabbed my stuff and met the team and did that. One of the semi-washed teenaged boys on the squad there looked at me, gaping, and said, ‘It’s a woman!’. I said, ‘10 points for perception.’”
However, Gygax lacked time to develop her design skills, and no one else filled in. Instead of getting design assignments, she got filing and administrative tasks. “I don’t think my sex had anything to do with it being difficult for me,” she said. “I lacked a proper mentor and that is what I believe made it difficult. I believe that lacking a mentor cast me into the role of token female.” She underestimates the disadvantage of being dismissed as a token.
Still, Wells paid her dues and earned an assignment writing a teaching module for D&D. That project became B3 Palace of the Silver Princess (1981). But now, her friendship with Gygax may have hurt her chances of success.
The adventure let players explore the haunted ruins of a castle and dungeon 500 years after its silver princess mysteriously disappeared. The adventure includes clues to the princess’s fate for players to discover, and the discoveries can prove surprising. Reviewer Merric Blackman praises the adventure’s attention to non-player characters. “Wells’s work gives hints to the palace existing in a greater world: there’s a wilderness outside it, and NPCs that are described to be more than simple opponents or allies.”
Wells delivered something more than a first adventure; she created the foundation for a campaign. The original describes the wilderness around the palace and includes rumors and random encounters. Wells created the keep above the dungeon to give characters a home base for future adventures. The dungeon includes multiple collapsed tunnels and advises, “To expand the dungeon, the DM need but open up the blocked passageways and add new and challenging dungeon levels.”
But in 1981, such an old-school, sandbox design might have just seemed old fashioned to the rest of the design team. Surely, one of Wells’s instructional tricks seemed outdated. Like in B1 In Search of the Unknown (1978) by Mike Carr, Wells left blank spaces for new DMs to fill with their own traps, monsters, and treasures. Gygax had already dropped that technique when he wrote Descent Into the Depths of the Earth (1978). To be fair, Wells improved on the method by leaving the spaces for rooms that start empty but that a DM might want to fill later. Justin Alexander writes, that the space “emphasizes that dungeon keys are designed to evolve and change over time: These rooms are empty now, but perhaps they will not be the next time the PCs come here.”
Later when Tom Moldvay redesigned Silver Princess to create the version that reached stores, he abandoned the content that created the backbone for a campaign. He reworked the sandbox adventure in favor of the newer fashion of designing for a particular story. For example, he eliminated a staircase leading to the lower level, forcing players to take a more linear path through the dungeon to the final foe and to the story’s climax.
For all the original adventure’s virtues, it suffered from inevitable rough edges. “Jean did pretty well, though there were a few errors characteristic of a newbie who didn’t know the ropes,” wrote TSR insider Frank Mentzer. “I was also involved in the playtests. I helped a bit, critiquing some of the details, but didn’t give it a full checkover. I didn’t have time.” Mentzer assumed development and editing would lead to improvements, but Wells’s friendship with Gygax let the project skip some of the usual development process.
After a year of paying dues, the adventure stood as even more than Wells’s big shot, it also gained a personal investment, perhaps too personal. “The Silver Princess character was also her persona in the Society of Creative Anachronism—a hauntingly lovely woman who destroyed hearts,” artist Bill Willingham wrote. “It was clearly the private fantasies of the author.”
Wells wanted to protect her work, and so she leveraged her relationship with Gary Gygax. Game developer and designer Kevin Hendrix wrote, “When this thing came through, and the development people wanted to edit it, Jean went to Gary and said—and I know I’m going to make this sound more harsh than it actually was—‘They’re changing my stuff, tell them not to do it.’ And Gary reminded us all that we were not to change the designers’ word or intent in the work.” So, a new hire, editor Ed Sollers, got the project and only did proofreading.
Despite the flaws that skipped development, Menzer still rated it as publishable “and potentially popular for Jean’s style (notably different from other writers).”
Instead, the adventure’s art destroyed Well’s chance at design success and landed virtually the entire print run into a Lake Geneva landfill.
Part 2: Scandal!