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RPG Legends: Margaret Weis

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Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis - GenCon 2008
Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis in the exhibit hall at Gen Con 2008. Violetofthevalley at Wikipedia
The pantheon of great figures in fantasy is often filled with obscure members. Sure, there are authors like Tolkein and creators like Gygax in there, but most of the names are only known to those who are deeply engaged with the works themselves. It’s the works, though, that tend to be remembered by most. Even if they can’t remember the author’s name, they definitely remember the impact that their writing had on the genre.

Margaret Weis is one of those great authors of fantasy that is probably only known by those who are deeply enmeshed in the world of gaming literature. She’s done a great deal to shape the genre as both a writer and a publisher, but her name is largely unknown outside of those circles. If you brought up her biggest work, though, more people would pay attention. Margaret Weis isn’t just any author, after all – she’s the author behind the wildly popular Dragonlance books and who has become a major force in the world of tabletop role playing game publishing.

If you’re not already familiar with Margaret Weiss, it’s time to learn more. She’s responsible for more of the fiction you love than you might imagine.

The Life of Margaret Weis

Margaret Weis’ life has been a study in success. With a career that has spanned over three decades, she’s been a prolific author, editor, and publisher. She has outlasted many of her contemporaries in the fantasy genre, even if she never seems to have intended to make that her life’s work. She is one of the best-known women in the field and one of the defining voices, a person who helped to shape the face of modern fantasy and who is at least partially responsible for the vast number of RPG tie-in novels that have been published.

Weis has been married and divorced twice and has two children. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1990s, but both beat the condition and kept writing during her chemotherapy treatment. There are few in the fantasy community that seems to have a negative word to say about her, perhaps her most surprising feat. In a community that’s known for being contentious and fractured, Weis’ sterling reputation definitely goes to show both her quality as a writer and her quality as a human being.

Understanding what made Weis such a compelling author does, however, mean digging into her history. From her early life to her eventual role as a publisher, she has helped to define how the fantasy world works.

Early Life

Margaret Weis was born in 1948 in Independence, Missouri. She’d spend a great deal of her life in and around the city, eventually attending Missouri University. During her time there, she did two things that would irrevocably change the path of her life. First, she’d pursue a degree in creative writing – something that not only gave her training for what she’d do next, but that would also open many doors for her career. She also got her hands on a book that was just picking up popularity in North Amerca – J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Lord of the Rings”.

Weis was so enraptured by the trilogy that she simply couldn’t stop reading them. While the books often sparked life-long love affairs in others, Weis wasn’t so struck. She greatly enjoyed the books and considered them to be among her favorites, but she never dipped into the genre again. She said that there was never really another fantasy series that grabbed her in the same way as Tolkein’s novel – a surprising claim for someone who would go on to be one of the more important voices in the fantasy genre.

Career Before Gaming

Margaret Weis, like most writers, didn’t get her start in the fantasy genre. After all, it’s a hard genre to get started in today, to say nothing of the 1980s. Armed with relatively little experience there, it’s no surprise that she didn’t immediately dip her toes into those waters. Instead, Weis began her career in publishing with a far more typical set of circumstances – she leveraged her degree in creative writing to work for a publisher. It would be there that she gained many of the skills that would later help her as a fantasy author and as the head of her own company.

Weis worked for Herald Publishing House from 1972 to 1983. She was quite successful there, eventually becoming the head of the company’s Independence Press division. This was definitely an astonishing accomplishment at the time, but only the first of many things Weis would manage to do. As a successful advertising director and editor, she would put her degree to work in order to help the the company succeed and build up her own portfolio.

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It was also during this time that Weis would write some of her earliest works. She would primarily write books targeted towards children during the 1970s and 1980s, including a number of non-fiction books aimed at young children. This would be her primary experience writing for younger populations, but perhaps her most relevant writign would be aimed at prisoners. Weis wrote an adventure book for prisoners who had low reading levels, a process that doubtlessly helped her when she finally began writing fantasy novels later in her career.

Dragonlance

Weis’ transition to the gaming world started with something of a failure. She applied to TSR, the company that published Dungeons and Dragons, as a games editor. While she was turned down for that position, she did eventually find a home with TSR as a book editor. She spent three years working in that division, during which time she helped to both write and produce one of Dungeons and Dragons’ most enduring works – Dragonlance. Like so many other things in her career, it seems that her involvement in Dragonlance came about much more because of chance than because of design.

Weis and fellow editor Tracy Hickman were brought into coordinate a massive new project, which at that time was known as Project Overlord. The series would soon transform into Dragonlance, but it faced a rather major problem from the outset – the initial writer brought in to work on the project simply didn’t work out. Because of that difficulty and the amount of effort that Weis and Hickman had already put in, they decided to go ahead and write the novels that would become the core of the Dragonlance series.

Weis would work with Hickman significantly during the genesis of Dragonlance. TSR would tap them to write several books in the series, largely owing to their familiarity with the world as well as their enthusiasm for the project. They would be the writers of the initial, and perhaps best-received, trilogy in the series. In 1986, they would also write the Dragonlance Legends novels. Between the two major sub-series, they would also be responsible for writing quite a bit of what would become the product line, including several novellas and short stories. Dragonlance was a success, and much of that success could be traced back to Weis.

Weis’s relationship with TSR would be almost entirely defined by Dragonlance during her time with the company. It was absolutely the biggest novel series of the time and remained so until the Forgotten Realms novels began to take off. For her part, Weis seemed quite content to work on these projects. As Dragonlance grew from a simple trilogy to a sprawling line of its own, Weis’ stock would grow in the fantasy world to the point that she could strike out on her own and choose to create projects closer to her own heart.

Life After TSR

While Weis is probably best known for Dragonlance, the bulk of her career came after her involvement in the series. She left TSR in the late 1980s, a move that was probably prescient considering what would soon befall the company. She would go on to write quite a few novels and publish a few new games of her own. It was during this time period that she wrote her personal favorite series, Star of the Guardians. She became a rather prolific writer over the course of her post-TSR career.

Leaving TSR didn’t entirely mean leaving Dragonlance. She would sometimes pop in to add a new novel to the series, including novels written into the beginning of the 21st Century. It seems that Weis would be brought back into Dragonlance whenever the series needed a bit of a revival, something that Weis seemed more than happy to help with from time to time. Still, her primary focus did seem to be on her own work.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Weis has also become a huge figure in the world of game publishing. She is the head of Sovereign Press, which not only publishes the Sovereign Stone game line but also held the license to publish new Dragonlance works.

As the head of the Margaret Weis Productions, she is also responsible for the publishing of several licensed role-playing games, including those based on Battlestar Galactica. Weis has even served on the board of Mag Force 7, which produced the Wing Commander collectible card game.

If anything, her post-TSR career has been much more impressive than that which came before. Weis continues to work today, largely behind the scenes. While her best-known work is probably behind her as an author, she’s still a beloved member of the fantasy community and does sometimes make public appearances.

Legacy

Margaret Weis’s legacy can be found on the bookshelves of fantasy enthusiasts around the world. The Dragonlance books were more than just books about games – they were a legitimate kind of fiction that spawned countless imitators. Those deep, structured worlds struck a chord with writers around the world and there’s a bit of Weis inside each of those novels. It’s very hard to imagine the modern world of fantasy without the books that she wrote, even if Dragonlance has faded quite a bit from the public consciousness over the decades. It’s the kind of work that simply persists in the background.

It’s also important to keep in mind the amount of legitimacy that Weis brought to the concept of a game world as the basis for a book. It’s impossible to see the current run of Dungeons and Dragons novels having any kind of success if Weis’ own work hadn’t primed the market for their arrival. At the same time, the Dragonlance books made it far more acceptable for a tie-in novel to help flesh out a universe. While there were certainly others at the time, Dragonlance is the series that set the bar for that particular type of novel.

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You can’t discount Margaret Weis’ impact as a woman in the fantasy genre, either. She’s one of many strong voices that helped to pave the way for other women in fantasy. While she might not be the best-known name out there, her name’s association with a very successful franchise likely opened the door for many others.

Finally, Weis has made it possible for new voices to continue to be heard. As a publisher, she’s still putting out games that exist outside of the D&D juggernaut. It’s more important than ever that gamers have options and Weis’ companies are helping to make the field of gaming more diverse. If you enjoy having more choices when it comes to tabletop gaming, you should appreciate the work that Weis is currently doing.

Weis may not be as big a name as Gygax or Arneson, but she nonetheless had a huge impact on the world of gaming and fantasy. The worlds that so many of us love owe a huge debt to both her writing and her editing. Without Weis, the literature that we read today might not exist in the same form. Even if it did, it’s hard to say that fantasy literature would be quite as fun without Weis’ involvement.

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