Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Flint Dille and Pimm's Cups

Flint Dille is an interesting character in 80s pop-culture. He's part of the family that owns the IP rights to Buck Rodgers, he's been involved in a ton of shows and games and media ventures over the years including, most famously, the Transformers and G.I. Joe cartoons from the 80s, and he was a good friend and writing partner of Gary Gygax when Gary was living in Hollywood (c. 1983-85). They co-wrote a series of "choose your own adventure" books (that I haven't read) and a screenplay (or possibly just a treatment) for a Dungeons & Dragons movie, presumably intended to replace the really dreadful screenplay TSR had commissioned from Oscar-winner James Goldman (excerpts from which can be read here (trigger warning: it's total garbage)).

Last year, Flint posted a bunch of excerpts from his in-progress memoirs to his Facebook page. One in particular (that I'd like to link to directly, but can't find, so I'm going with a cust & paste version that was re-posted here) stands out in my memory:
Somewhere in 1985, I threw a bunch of G.I. Joes and Transformers into a box and took the winding drive to the D&D Mansion. The idea was to see if it would be possible to make a miniatures game with Joe and the Autobots fighting Cobra and the Decepticons. The sand table was made for inch-tall (25mm) miniatures, so the scale was all wrong. We’d have to play this game outside.
Sometimes life all comes together in a perfect harmony. Disparate elements come together to a larger whole. Try as I might, I can’t pinpoint exactly what month or season it was. Say what you want to about Los Angeles, the weather is constant -- any day is ‘impromptu adventure day.’ There’s a reason the Movie Business moved here from New Jersey. But more to the point, weather won’t help me remember when this happened. 
I do remember the lawn, the tape measures and Gary and I. There were other people around, I just can’t remember who. I have to think that John Beebe, Joey Thompson, Donna and Penny, maybe Ernie and Peggy and possibly some Sunbow types (I can’t remember). That might have been the day Frank showed up. I can see him looking on the game stuff with amused distant fascination. And I can’t quite remember what triggered it, other than that it was the most natural thing in the world and it felt like that day when you were a kid and you decided it was time to build a fort.
There was a gigantic oval stretch of grass and some foliage created by the drive around the DDEC Mansion. I would have liked more terrain, but it was a good enough battleground. I don’t remember how long we discussed exactly how far a Joe gun could shoot or what the destruction power of Megatron in Gun Mode would have, or how long, in game terms, it would take for a Transformer to transform, but it was a matter of minutes. Usually, with this stuff it's best to jump in and figure it out as you go. Planning has a funny habit of making things not happen -- especially things like this which are done for the pure fun of it with no practical outcome in mind. It's important to note that nobody thought this should be a product or if somebody did suggest we make a massive miniatures game together with Hasbro, the talk disappeared like the smoke from our Camels. That wasn't the point. In fact, the point was that there was no point. I’m not going to declare that the best stuff happens for no purpose, but I’m tempted to. I will say that breakthroughs and ‘Perfect Moments’ often happen when there’s no practical purpose for them and nobody is trying to engineer them.
What I do remember was that at some point there were people holding trays of Gin and Tonics or Pimms Cups or some other British Imperial Drink and we were moving figures around fighting each other. We had to use tape measures, because the distances were far too long for yardsticks or rulers and I’m quite sure nobody was all that concerned about millimeters or even feet. The battle had begun.
It was a quintessential ‘80’s moment, but it felt like something out of a Merchant Ivory film of the day. Mansion. Exotic Environment. Civilized people. We were like bored ExPats or British colonials wiling away the remains of a day. I’d give a lot for a picture of it, but maybe the image in my memory is probably better. It hard for my mind not to insert people in period uniforms and fan chairs (I think there actually was one) and silver trays (I think there were) and probably Wellington’s Victory playing on a hybrid boom box cassette player of the day. Don’t think I had a portable DVD player yet. Napoleon and Wellington had nothing to do with Optimus and Megatron, but it somehow fit. The ‘80’s were a time when things fit together that weren’t supposed to.
It's not important exactly what scenario we created or who won or whether we even finished a game (It’s unlikely, there’s something disturbing about actually finishing a game), but that there was this moment when Transformers, G.I Joe, Chainmail and D&D all came together in glorious harmony. There are few things I like more than when things all harmonize, when irreproducible moments occur. They happen in small windows... Small windows of opportunity. This had to be 1985. There were clouds on the horizon for DDEC. TSR was bleeding money and sharks were circling. But that day, there was no trouble. The world was a symphony. 
I won’t say that it was all downhill from there. It wasn’t. But we’d reached the top of some mountain and for just a moment, I could see whole possibilities in the world that I’d still like to see realized.
There's a few different things I like about this story. One is that it's just a fun bit of reminiscence, well-told; a nice little scene. Another is that this is totally the kind of stuff my friends and I used to do as kids - set up large-scale battles in my basement or out in the yard using our G.I. Joe and Transformers toys and then play them out, including improvised dialogue. In those days we just called it "playing with toys", but looking back if we'd been trying to sound impressive we could have credibly called it "free kriegspiel" or "quasi-Braunstein" or whatever. So it's kind of funny to me to read about a bunch of adults doing pretty much exactly the same on the lawn of a Beverly Hills mansion. Third is the way this story intersects with the legend of Gary Gygax's Hollywood tenure, which is all coke-fueled hot tub shenanigans and fiddling away on the company dime while unsecured debt was piling up and people were getting laid off back in snowy Wisconsin. Yes, Gary's lifestyle in those days was pretty extreme, and that generated a lot of resentment among the fans and other employees at TSR that is still festering over 30 years later, but for all that he was still, deep down, a kid-at-heart who loved playing games with his friends, and I like knowing that. And, last but not least, is the "what if" thought about how, in some alternate timeline where Gary and Flint's sister (Lorraine Williams) were able to get along and work together, that maybe TSR and Hasbro might have struck some sort of deal to actually produce a set of G.I. Joe/Transformers wargame rules, and how awesome 11-year-old me would've thought that was.


  1. I know little about these Dille/Williams people but there was no resentment towards Gary Gygax in NYC amongst fans that I knew until the Dille family took over the whole D&D shebang and started promoting anti-D&D sentiment in the game. If Gary had walked into a 1985 game session that I was DMing in Connecticut with 15 people, who were all DMs themselves, they would have all crapped their pants. However if he had walked into a 1995 game session that I was having with 5 people who were familiar with the original game they would have been: "Who's this guy?"

    I had those Sagard books they're pretty badly done and most likely would have been overwritten if real WOG had continued with it.

    As for playing with action figures there were quite a lot of toys out there and I was playing and gaming with toys until I was 23 or 24 in the early 90's and I'll admit that I wasn't in a mansion or drinking to sex up the confession. The last action figure game that I played was around 1992. Its a simple one not as complicated as that DRAGON MAGAZINE Play-Doh thing. Simply a 1 mundane, 2 special, 3 extraordinary and dice rolls on a six sided decides who wins.
    I don't think that I need drinks or anything else to play with toys but it sure gives people a good excuse to get into foolish fun.

    1. I saw and heard a LOT of anti-Gary sentiment among the RPGA crowd (which had a lot of cross-pollenization with the lower tiers at TSR) when I started attending D&D cons in 1986-87. Not just snickering that his design sensibility was antiquated (though there was a lot of that too) but also innuendo that he was a bad person - a blowhard and a bully who stole credit for other people's ideas. Those voices got even louder around the time Dangerous Journeys was released (1992), and never really went away - you can still regularly find people bad-mouthing and assassinating Gary's character on rpg forums and blogs. The whole "cult of Dave Arneson" seems to be pretty much built around that idea.

      It definitely seemed at the time that the kids who were playing the game adored Gary (because in the text of the rulebooks he spoke to them like equals and treated them like adults - he wasn't afraid to use big words and treat "mature" content in a sober, non-sensationalistic way) but that "industry professionals" almost to a person hated and resented him and felt a sort of gleefeul schadenfreude whenever his post-TSR ventures would stumble or fail.

      I'm sure Gary was a tough guy to work for - he had a very "alpha" personality that I'm sure rubbed a lot of nerdy introverted types the wrong way (from Dave Arneson on down). I'm also sure when TSR was collapsing in 84 and people were being fired in droves that they resented that Gary was collecting 6-figure royalty checks and living in a Beverly Hills mansion (especially since they weren't privy to the fact that he was essentially a powerless figurehead, boxed out of almost all of the company's business and creative decisions). I can get that. But what I don't really get is why, 30+ years after all that happened, and almost 10 years after he died, there are still tons of D&D fans online fervently dedicated to bad-mouthing him and tearing down his legacy.

      Yes he said some kind of jerky-seeming things in Dragon editorials in the 80s, and yes a lot of people who worked for or with him seemed to resent him (but note: plenty more didn't - even some of the people who remained at TSR, like Jim Ward and Harold Johnson), but so what? That was all decades ago. Hasn't enough time passed that we can let all of that go and celebrate the fact that he created a really awesome game?

    2. It reminds me of how some of the old folkies are STILL, to this day, resentful of Bob Dylan "going electric."

      You can get an ear full of it in the No Direction Home documentary that Scorcese did. Or just Google Joni Mitchell's comments from after Dylan won the Nobel.

      Both cases of guys who were probably hard to get along with, who definitely did work that flew in the face of their respective subcultures' zeitgeist.

  2. Thanks for (re)sharing the Flint Dille memories. I'm just finishing up the Gygax bio Empire of Imagination (which is fine for what it is but could have much more detail), so this is a nice addition. I'd like to collect links to all of these biographically details in one chronologically organized site, but it'd be a major project. I am starting a new public G+ collection called "Gygax & Greyhawk" and I'm going to post a link to this post there.

    1. The second link in the post to the Knights & Knave page has several more anecdotes from Flint about Gary. This one was just my favorite :)

    2. Keep me posted on your new G+ EGG/GH collection, Zach!


  3. The Cult of Elemental Arneson?

    The Anti-Gygaxes are philosophically like the cult of Elemental Evil. They aren't really about the elements (D&D) but they know they have to twist it to serve something else. ;)