I will do my best to recount my small part amidst the decline of TSR, but many of the original files are gone (or are on media which nobody can read), so the exact dates are a bit fuzzy.
I had been playing AD&D since the early ‘80 while in high school with two friends, but in total isolation. I rarely met anybody else with interest in it and so our games were pretty much limited to published materials and our own attempts to concoct our own. In fact, my first DM experience was with Village of Homlett and then I tried to write the sequel promised at the end of that module. It is probably a good thing that I lost those materials.
Sometime around 1988, I discovered rec.games.frp and related newsgroups on USENET. This changed everything for me, suddenly I was reading details of other people’s games, alternate rules, monsters, maps, stories, etc. This cross-pollination greatly improved my own game and rejuvenated my interest. I started buying material for the new Forgotten Realms setting and started a campaign based on it.
Within a couple of years, my university got connected to the internet, and we set up an ftp server on a Tektronix workstation sitting in the computer science lab (on more than one occasion the FTP site was down because a student bumped the network equipment behind that machine). One of the first things I did was start collecting the useful bits from rec.games.frp and populating my ftp site. On 10-Apr-90 I sent an announcement to rec.games.frp, and even more things started coming in and the site grew by leaps and bounds.
In early 1994 I took a new job. A few months later, an email was forwarded to me by my successor:
Date: Thu, 28 Jul 94 17:28:59 –0400 From: TSRInc@aol.com To: firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: TSR Copyrighted Material SYSTEM ADMINISTRATOR: Your site was recently included in a list of noted FTP sites for DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS and ADVANCED DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS gaming material. You should be aware that DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS and all related marks and properties are copyrighted by TSR, Inc. of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. You should also be aware that any items created without a specific license are infringements of TSR copyrights. Such items include (but are not limited to) any software, net.books, modules, tables, stories, or rules modifications which contain elements from our copyrighted properties, including characters, settings, realm names, noted magic items, spells, elements of the gaming system, such as ARMOR CLASS, HIT DICE, and so forth. To date, TSR has not licensed any of these net publications. On behalf of TSR, Inc. I ask that you examine your public net sites at this time and remove any material which infringes on TSR copyrights. Our intention is to find a way to license these and future creative efforts. In the meantime, remove them from your sites without delay. Please feel free to contact me with comments or questions. I will refer any pertinent queries to our legal department as soon as I receive them. Rob Repp, Manager, Digital Projects Group, TSR, Inc.
At this point in my life I was not prepared to deal with this: I had just taken a new job, I was a junior engineer frantically trying to learn new software and how to keep builds, and everything else, going. I was also teaching a system administration class at the University, and I was in the process of buying a house and preparing to move. So this was really the last thing I needed on my plate.
I was pretty angry about all of this, as I had nothing on my ftp site which infringed any copyrights. I read most everything that went onto the site, and I never would have permitted anything which outright copied TSR materials. Apparently, someone in TSR leadership must have felt than any fan-generated work represented competition that had to be stamped out. Since it was quite unlikely that any of these fans were capable of challenging TSR in court, it was an easy win for them.
As a result of all that, I don’t think I took any action. But TSR had been mailing other admins all over the University, and they shut down the site in September. They let me go in and pick out the non-D&D material and set up a new site. Over the next few weeks I butchered out 70 megs of stuff and brought the revised site back (here’s a message I posted about this). I sent mail to the TSR representative asking them to review in case I missed anything, but I never heard anything either way.
Since I had a fairly well-known FTP site and a lot of naive youthful enthusiasm, I thought I could have an impact on TSR. So put a README on the site explaining what happened to most of the content and encouraged everyone to boycott TSR. Within a week I had a manifesto posted there, further encouraging people to adopt freely distributed gaming systems to avoid this whole issue. If TSR wasn’t going to be nice to the fan community, we should abandon them. I had been active in the GNU Project for several years and clearly had delusions that I could be the Richard Stallman of FRP games. Hah!
I looked at various game systems and settled on FUDGE. I set to work reformatting the plain text rules into HTML and put that on the ftp site. Then I started putting together a fantasy supplement which was intended for former D&D players like me. That effort never got past an outline and a Texinfo formatted document (with no content). My gaming group started playing using FUDGE, but designing a game system is hard work, and the gaming sessions were not as much fun and both the game sessions and the fantasy FUDGE effort fizzled.
As this was going on, the arguments on rec.games.frp.dnd continued, though I was largely detached from that for the reasons mentioned above. Looking at the archives on Google Groups, it appears that the discussions continued for several years, with many people (including me) using the epithet T$R to represent the company’s apparent greed.
About 30 people pulled together a mailing list about the TSR situation, and some discussion ensued, both about legal options and alternatives like FUDGE. Unfortunately, this also quickly fizzed. The last email was in December of that year. One of the leading people in those discussions wrote an extensive article about this in his “Guildsman” fanzine. You can see this via the Wayback Machine.
So, what happened then? I don’t know, I barely thought about D&D until recently, so I had no idea what happened. Here’s what I have pieced together: It would appear that this legal action was part of TSR’s death spiral (listen to Why Did TSR Fail for details), and the bankrupt company was bought by Wizards of the Coast whose attitude towards the fan community was entirely different. The next edition of D&D was made freely available, which was a total reversal in policies. It seems like there is a lot of fan/3rd party material available, including on Roll20, DM’s Guild, and others.
So, with that, I officially retract my call for boycott, though I suspect only a handful of people remember it, and the only people still following it had, like me, abandoned gaming for other reasons. Since I started this article I bought the D&D Starter Set, so it is now officially official.