When it comes both to the designers writing the game materials and the publishers releasing them commercially, Dungeons & Dragons is in a Ship of Theseus situation: Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and TSR as a whole ceased being involved in the game’s publication decades ago, and have ceased participating in mortal life in general for a good while at that (setting aside recent attempt to revive the TSR name, with varying levels of personal dignity and good taste involved).
However, whilst companies cease to exist once they have been dissolved as legal entities, human beings often kick around for much longer after you’ve dismissed them. After he was turfed out of TSR in 1985 and control ended up in the hands of Lorraine Williams, Gary Gygax saw to it that his version of events was promulgated far and wide. Years later, when the Internet was a thing and when forums like Dragonsfoot, through their advocacy of pre-Wizards of the Coast editions of D&D, were laying the foundations of what would later become the OSR, Gary was only too glad to make posts further pushing his recollections, fuzzy though the passage of time may have made some of them.
Dave Arneson, by contrast, was a somewhat quieter figure for the last decade or two of his life. However, this was not always the case. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the aftermath of his departure from TSR, he would vociferously promote his own version of events, especially when his years-long dispute with his former employers over the D&D royalties situation kicked into high gear. Even at this early stage, Dungeons & Dragons was already the 800 pound gorilla of the RPG market, with success of orders of magnitude greater than its competitors, and TSR had a tendency to throw that weight around; this created enough resentment that Arneson found many willing to accept his side of the story.
Such situations where competing narratives about an event obscure the truth are far from uncommon in history, and it’s the mark of a good historian to be able to pierce through them and provide an account supported by the facts and dispelling the misconceptions generated by years of gossip and rhetoric. Game Wizards, published as part of the Game Histories range from MIT Press, is Jon Peterson’s latest attempt to do exactly that.
Isn’t This Where We Came In?
Game Wizards is simultaneously a stand-alone book and a sequel to Playing At the World. It’s a stand-alone book in the sense that it is very much a history of TSR as a business, not a history of Dungeons & Dragons as a game: detailed discussion of game design and the influences which fed into D&D and the early evolution of the fan community that embraced it aren’t really in Game Wizards‘ wheelhouse, and were covered perfectly adequately in Playing At the World. On the other hand, it’s a sequel to Playing At the World because, whilst an early section recounts the formation of TSR and the publication of D&D from a business perspective (thus, as a matter of necessity, restating some information from Playing At the World), the bulk of the book is concerned with what happened next.
(You can also find some faint linkages to The Elusive Shift, though it’s less of a direct sequel to that because The Elusive Shift was a discussion of the RPG hobby in general, rather than D&D specifically, and focused less on designers and publishers and more on the community of gamers inspired by these products and the philosophies of roleplaying they developed.)
In Playing At the World Peterson was able to show how Gygax and Arneson’s accounts of how they made D&D were simultaneously kind of true whilst not capturing the whole story. They’re both true in the sense that Gygax and Arneson both told the same general story about the creation of the game (though they did not necessarily tell the same story at the same time, and nor would they consistently stick to it), a story which Playing At the World fairly thoroughly substantiates it.
The story goes like this: Arneson came up with the basic creative idea, the underlying RPG format (adapted as it was from precedents in the wargaming world like “Braunstein” games), but his notes on what he’d done were rather muddled and incomplete, and certainly wouldn’t have passed muster as a commercial product; Gygax picked up the basic idea and then did the legwork in expressing the concept in such a manner that other parties would have a hope in hell of actually using the original D&D booklets to actually play a game. (Sure, the OD&D books aren’t exactly exemplars of clarity – but they were expressing a very new concept, and some of the concepts are less unclear if you read them from the perspective of a seasoned wargamer, which was the audience Gygax was writing for.)
There’s a lot of places where Gygax and Arneson’s accounts diverge, but ultimately the big difference between them comes down to a very simple thing: each of them tended to think that his own portion of the work was the genuinely hard bit in creating D&D, and tended to minimise the contribution of the other creative partner. This is only natural: when it comes to your own tasks, the stuff you have to do by yourself, you’re aware of all the complexities and all the effort it involves, but when it comes to someone else’s task, where perhaps you don’t see their entire work process and only see the outputs, it’s easy to underestimate how much work that involves. (See my article on the collapse of the Troy Has A Camera YouTube collective for another example of this at play.)
In Gygax and Arneson’s case, working on their respective contributions in two different cities in a pre-Internet age, underestimating the other’s contribution was all too trivial. For Gygax, labouring away to try and present this information in a logical fashion that could be followed and acted on by others, it was easy to see Arneson as an “idea guy” who tossed a vague concept out there and then left it to others to actually implement it. On Arneson’s side of the equation, whilst there’s some basis to think that RPGs were an idea whose time had come, it’s far from obvious how Gygax himself would have come up with anything like D&D without Arneson’s underlying ideas to inspire him.
So much for the backstory: Game Wizards then takes us through the rest of the saga of TSR’s early years, from 1975 to 1985 – when Gygax would find himself ousted in the Lorraine Williams-engineered boardroom sting operation that Peterson dubs “The Ambush at Sheridan Springs”. Each year has its own chapter dedicated to it, and as the book progresses you get a feel for how what was at first a rag-tag group of gamers with no particular business experience ended up becoming a more professionalised, corporate institution. As time goes by shareholder summits and board meetings become more important than the annual convention circuit, a trickle of money becomes a flood, and an explosion in the game’s popularity around the turn of the decade brings with it massive profits – and inspires massive hubris. Eventually, Gygax’s ouster comes hot on the heels of several years in which TSR turned a loss.
Satanic Panic and Commercial Frenzy
Peterson lays out how whilst D&D sales trend steadily upwards for much of the 1970s, it’s the James Dallas Egbert III “steam tunnel” incident – and the media circus which ensued that sowed the seeds for the later “Satanic Panic” allegations of D&D being an occult training text – which really strapped a rocket to the game’s commercial performance. Peterson addresses these matters briefly, because they impacted on some of TSR’s business practices – around the time that Patricia Pulling’s risible Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons campaign group was making waves, TSR was developing plans for “RPRs” – “Religious Persecution Responses”.
That said, Peterson is able to bring up some information which I hadn’t absorbed from Kent David Kelly’s The Steam Tunnel Incident, which is the best writeup I’ve otherwise found of the James Dallas Egbert case. In particular, Peterson teases out how William Dear – the maverick private detective whose heavy-handed involvement in the affair led to, among other disasters, the association of the case with D&D in the first place – kept trading on the D&D connection and his supposed insights into the dangers of the game (by and large all nonsense) even after the release in 1984 of The Dungeon Master, his account of the case, in which he made it clear that actually D&D had nothing to do with Egbert’s disappearance.
For Dear to make headline-grabbing statements after Egbert’s 1980 suicide that he was keeping a secret on Egbert’s behalf – whilst not being especially firm in stating that the secret didn’t have something to do with D&D – was bad enough. (The supposed secret, which Kelly discloses in his book but Peterson does not address here, is that Egbert was gay, and his disappearance was partially inspired by his struggles with this. Dear might be bullshitting, but probably not – there’s corroboration elsewhere that Egbert had been subjected to a degree of homophobia, including a college roommate demanding a room reallocation on learning Egbert was gay. Then again, Egbert’s sexuality was not really relevant either to D&D as a publishing phenomenon or TSR as a business.)
For Dear to call his account of the case The Dungeon Master, implying that the case was all about D&D when he knew goddamn well that that entire line of inquiry was a red herring, was even worse. But hell, there was that Tom Hanks movie which riffed on the case, doubtless Dear realised there was money to be had working that angle; when a shameless huckster like Dear acts like a shameless huckster, it’s infuriating but not surprising. (Peterson mentions Mazes & Monsters in passing but doesn’t cover Skullduggery; admittedly, movie reviews would be outside the scope of his book, but I’d love to hear his response to the latter, which is sort of a deformed Canadian sibling to Mazes & Monsters in which cast, crew, director, and writer all seem to completely lose the plot.)
For Dear to appear alongside Pat Pulling at a talk about the dangers of D&D, subsequent to his publication of a book which should have made it crystal clear that D&D was not involved in Egbert’s disappearance, is utterly shameless. Though Peterson aims for academic detachment for much of the book – necessary when trying to write a fair and accurate account of emotive disputes like the Arneson-TSR feud – his poker face slips a bit when talking about Dear, but given Dear’s deeply obnoxious behaviour and damaging actions I think this is entirely excusable.
It’s interesting to contrast Peterson’s reporting here on how TSR would deliberately adopt policies to soften some of its content in order to soothe the wailing of outraged evangelical non-customers with the accounts that you might have heard Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone of Games Workshop fame give of the Satanic Panic era, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing one of their talks about the early history of Games Workshop or Fighting Fantasy. I’ve had the pleasure twice, and both times they’ve relayed a little anecdote about how when a concerned mother went to the media complaining that Fighting Fantasy books were teaching kids the occult (including spells which would let them levitate!), sales went through the roof.
That’s certainly consistent with the way sales of the Holmes-edited Basic Set spiked in the wake of the Egbert case, and suggests that the Bischoff Principle (“Controversy Creates Cash”) was very much in effect, but whilst Games Workshop never felt the need to change their content to appease conservative objections, TSR took a different tack. Sure, arguably the situation in the US was rather different from that of the UK – but then again, we’re talking the era when the “video nasty” moral panic saw extensive censorship of horror movies in Britain, so maybe not.
Perhaps TSR made the wrong call in not just carrying on as usual, despite rising evangelical opposition to their products – or maybe they didn’t. One suspects that British parents tended to be more lenient on average (with the usual outliers) when it came to RPGs because they seemed to involve books and maths and careful planning and stuffed that look a lot like homework, and they’d have rather had their kids have their nose in a book than watching video nasties or out on the streets. On the flipside, with American culture skewing somewhat more anti-intellectual than British culture, the same emphasis on book-learnin’ might have made American parents more nervous, not less.
Unfortunately, Game Wizards doesn’t go all that deep into the rise and fall of TSR UK, or for that matter into deep detail about TSR’s business relationship with the nascent Games Workshop; this sort of information might have been the victim of the need to keep the book within manageable constraints, or have been limited by Peterson’s access to information; as a US-based author he would likely find it easier to conduct interviews with people based on that side of the Atlantic, and review documentary evidence held in the US.
Arneson In the Wilderness
When it comes to the subjects Peterson does go deep on, however, the level of information presented is impressive. (Peterson throws in some nice ways to convey some details as the book progresses; at the end of each chapter is a “turn report”, as you might see in a postal Diplomacy game of the era, giving a breakdown of TSR’s revenue for that year and other metrics.) Peterson has likely been helped by the fact that he worked on Art & Arcana, an official D&D history book from Wizards of the Coast; whilst the post of “official historian” is often a thorny one, since it frequently involves accepting patronage from (and needing to stay in the good books of) the very persons or institutions you’re writing about, here Peterson seems to have been able to get access to extensive amounts of TSR documentary history, much of it not particularly complimentary, and does not seem to have been under many restrictions on how he uses it.
(The aforementioned Ship of Theseus situation probably helps here. Anything which Peterson reports which reflects well on TSR or D&D buoys D&D. Anything he reports which is less than favourable can be trivially brushed off by Wizards – it was a different company and different people who were responsible, after all.)
Interesting though the big-picture business matters are, the personal histories involved here are also fascinating – after all, Peterson concludes his history once Gygax is turfed out of TSR, and the cover depicts Gygax and Arneson in adorable miniature form. Gygax’s post-TSR career – including the legal harassment he faced from TSR, such as when they made the dubious assertion that his Dangerous Dimensions game was a bit too close to Dungeons & Dragons (necessitating a title change to Dangerous Journeys) – is fairly well-known; there was a brighter industry spotlight on what went down at the time, early Internet discussion venues and websites would have documented much of it, and as I mentioned above, Gary was happy to regale readers on the Dragonsfoot forums about it.
Arneson’s post-TSR career, however, I’ve always been less well-informed about, and I don’t think I am alone in this. It certainly doesn’t help that Arneson was never as prolific a designer as Gary was – whether pre- or post-TSR. Whilst Gary put out a trickle of new designs for the rest of his life, even as he was starting to slow down (Lejendary Adventures was his last full-fledged RPG design, and in his last few years he was working with Troll Lord Games on putting out OGL versions of some of his home campaign notes in the Castle Zagyg series), Arneson was less so. As is documented in Game Wizards, Arneson was quick to announce forthcoming projects, but slow to actually write the damn things: such projects as emerged nearly always involved him working with a co-author, and signs are that said co-authors would usually need to do the bulk of the heavy lifting (Arneson being the perennial “idea guy” who can’t quite follow through on those ideas, at least in terms of turning them into viable commercial products).
Between a lack of particularly significant game design credits and a generally more reticent approach in later years, Arneson ended up rather fading into the background – a process helped by the tendency by the media, even in the time period Peterson chronicles here, to accept Gygax as sole creator and gloss over Arneson’s contribution. If you came into the hobby around the time I did (early 1990s), you’d be forgiven for thinking that Arneson vanished almost entirely after leaving TSR.
As Peterson chronicles here, he very much did not. Sure, being sidelined by TSR meant being overlooked by the mass of gamers who only played D&D and whose only source of industry information was Dragon magazine – a significant chunk even back in the day. But Peterson outlines how Arneson’s “great War” against TSR over what he believed to be withheld royalties, a lack of credit, and Gygax botching the execution of the original D&D release was a big, big deal in the early hobby, and not an especially quiet one either. The Holmes, Moldvay/Cook, and Mentzer versions of basic D&D, and 1E AD&D, would both find themselves shaped by these and other issues which had less to do with grounded game design and more to do with asserting control over the IP.
Judging from the information here and my own knowledge of IP, Arneson’s position was pretty doomed; barring radical revision of the intellectual property laws, he would never have had much of a case to stand on if the case had gone to full trial rather than being settled out-of-court. (Not that TSR settling out of court wasn’t the smart thing for them to do: fighting a case in trial is expensive, judges sometimes reach surprising decisions, and a settlement can get a matter done and dusted much faster, easier, and cheaper than fighting it out all the way.)
Arneson’s basic problem was that he was building his case that he had contributed the core idea of D&D, and that was worthy of recognition. As Peterson correctly notes, the problem is that copyright law generally doesn’t cover core ideas, not without a significantly closer collaboration between idea-maker and the person who actually implements the idea than actually happened in the development of D&D. Since Arneson had admitted that Gygax was responsible for the text of the game (and rarely spared an opportunity to have a crack at Gary for that implementation), and indeed by pushing the “central idea” motif suggested that the execution hadn’t really been down to him, that made his copyright claims tenuous.
I’ll add something here from my personal expertise: in intellectual property circles, the way you generally cover the “core idea” of something truly innovative is a patent – but Arneson would also be out of luck here. For one thing, game mechanics in the abstract are generally not held to be patentable; whilst some game mechanic-related patents have been granted over the years (generally whenever the examination approach at the US Patent and Trademark Office swings towards the permissive end of the scale), this has usually been in conjunction with some sort of equipment or other physical paraphenalia. A game played in the imagination or with pencil and paper is a poor candidate for such coverage.
Secondly, a patent must be novel and inventive over what was circulating in the prior art. Here, again, Arneson may have had trouble. An argument could be made that what Arneson had done was essentially taken the approach of “Braunstein” games – as publicly demonstrated at wargaming events and documented in the fanzines of the day, thereby entering the prior art – and applied it to fantasy adventures. Sure, sure, bringing in the Chainmail rules was another wrinkle – but one could argue that it’s obvious to use a set of fantasy wargaming rules for the purpose for which they were designed and published (namely, resolving fantasy combats). A hypothetical D&D patent would not only need to get past the subject matter hurdle, but might also struggle to show novelty and non-obviousness in the precise legal sense the patent office applies, since it is an evolution of previous types of games, and that evolutionary step, though it makes all the difference, might yet have been considered to be not enough in the eyes of the patent office.
Furthermore, if you don’t file for your patent in good time, you lose the opportunity; even considering the US practice on grace periods on inventor disclosures, Arneson had waited too long by the time he left TSR, so even if he had submitted a patent application for RPGs (an application which, I reiterate, would have had trouble getting granted in the first place) on the day he was turfed out, it was too late. Between the original publication of OD&D and his fanzine reports on Blackmoor which preceded it, the cat would have already been let out of the bag.
When you combine all these factors, the prospects of Arneson actually having been able to claim the ownership of the core idea to the extent that he was trying to assert were basically nil. Believe it or not, that’s a good thing. Though Peterson does not go into the patent angle (and why should he – Arneson never took that option, and would have been foolish to do so), he does point out the big problem that would have faced the entire industry had Arneson won on the basis of “it’s my creative idea, so I own it”: not only could it have left Arneson in control of Dungeons & Dragons, but it might have had a disastrous chilling effect on the rest of the industry, since if other early RPGs all were riffing on the same central idea, shouldn’t Arneson have got co-authorship credit and royalties on those too? It is lucky for the long-term health and diversity of the field that this legal absurdity did not come to pass.
That did not stop other companies at the time from gladly giving Arneson a pulpit to air his views. Perhaps they were being short-sighted – or perhaps some of them knew this was the case, but also made the (in the long run, correct) assessment that Arneson’s case would never get that far, and decided to encourage him anyway just to throw some flak at TSR without taking much of the risk themselves. (After all, it was Arneson sticking his neck out here.)
Or maybe, just maybe, they regarded TSR as the bigger bully. By the 1990s, TSR had become known as “They Sue Regularly” by Usenet wits. Whilst Shannon Appelcline has produced an overview of major legal entanglements in TSR’s history which suggests that when it came to actual lawsuits filed, TSR was sued more frequently than they sued in the early years, the history Peterson turns up here shows that TSR were unafraid to use soft power and the threat of a potential lawsuit down the line to get their way; sending Tim Kask out on the convention circuit to suggest that TSR might go after any game which had a class and level system is a particularly striking example of this.
However, Arneson’s role in the book involves far more in the way of hot air and legal threats than it does him actually knuckling down and finishing off a game design, and over the course of the history there’s a sense of him drifting further and further into the periphery of the hobby. Successive companies concluded that he was long on promises and short on delivery, and as a result backed away from collaborating with him. When his fantasy heartbreaker – bearing the astonishingly heartbreaker-ish title Adventures In Fantasy – finally emerged, it sank like a stone. Arneson would blame its miserable commercial performance on a failure by original publisher Excalibre to do sufficient publicity (he’d buy back the rights from it and rerelease it himself through his Adventure Games outfit), but it is harder to wave aside the wave of poor reviews it faced from the gaming press at the time, even from sources which had absolutely no reason to do TSR any favours.
Looking over reviews and retrospectives, it seems like Adventures In Fantasy had two big problems. The first was that it threw in needlessly fiddly game mechanics which did not seem to serve much of a good purpose. To work out starting hit points, for instance, you take your Strength divided by two, Stamina divided by three, and Dexterity divided by four, add those three values together, divide by five, and round up. Say what you like about the arbitrariness of hit points in TSR editions of D&D, but at least you can figure them out quickly.
The other problem Adventures In Fantasy had, and this is what Peterson quite adeptly illustrates (he doesn’t delve into the system that much here) is that it released in 1979 – when D&D had some five years’ head start on it, and the game design principles therein had already been leapfrogged by the likes of Chivalry & Sorcery and RuneQuest – and it had a high price tag for the time. Excalibre was selling it for $25, and even when Arneson got the rights back he was selling it for $20, just for a box of rulebooks. By contrast, the same $20 would get you the 2nd edition RuneQuest box – complete with core rulebook, Fangs book of pregenerated monster statlines, Apple Lane module, Basic Roleplaying pamphlet, and dice – and leave you with 5 cents in change. As reviews at the time noted, demanding a premium price for a fairly cheaply-presented product that is at best competent-but-unimpressive and is at worst pointlessly fiddly puts you on a hiding to nowhere.
The next year, SPI dropped DragonQuest, offering more polished rules than Adventures In Fantasy with better production values and a similar page count, costing less than $10. DragonQuest would end up killed off by TSR as a result of their chicanery with SPI – though there’s reason to believe from the evidence Peterson recounts here that TSR had gone into that situation not quite realising how badly off SPI were, and so perhaps it wasn’t premeditated murder so much as accidental homicide. By contrast, they didn’t need to kill Adventures In Fantasy, the market did the job just fine.
Arneson’s Adventures In Fantasy co-author, Richard Snider, would go on to design Powers & Perils for Avalon Hill, a game described by some as being a sort of spiritual successor to Adventures In Fantasy. It seems to have gained more of a following, albeit a small one – but since Powers & Perils and Lords of Creation, which emerged from Avalon Hill at around the same time, were commercially disappointing compared to the success of Avalon Hill’s third edition of RuneQuest (as later repackaged by Games Workshop), one suspects that any efforts by Snider to get Arneson brought into Avalon Hill were unlikely to go anywhere. Peterson gives some coverage to Avalon Hill’s big 1984 bid to finally get a foothold in the RPG market (having conceded to TSR and others a decade-long head start), but does not go into any particular depth on it because he’s just noting it as something they were doing in response to TSR’s successes – and it’s TSR who are the stars here.
They Screwup Regularly
Peterson’s a gamer like us, and you don’t write this many books about the early days of the hobby if you don’t have at least some affection for the games, designers, and publishers of the day. Nonetheless, he’s not here to let TSR off the hook, especially since the financial pickle they got themselves into is key to the climactic events of the book (the aforementioned Ambush at Sheridan Springs), so for his description of events to make sense in context he needs to shine a bright light on the company’s errors.
In the early years, these seem to largely arise from the fact that TSR began as a fairly informal outfit dominated by a group of personalities – with Gygax and the Blume brothers holding the levers of power for most of the timespan discussed here – who were big on enthusiasm, but perhaps a bit short on professionalism. Some of the anecdotes here essentially constitute lighthearted japes with no particularly negative impact on TSR or the broader market; there’s a hilarious story about Erol Otus mucking about in the crawlspaces at TSR’s headquarters, planning on pranking Zeb Cook by making spooky noises above his desk, only to fall through the ceiling and end up dangling from a hole above Tom Moldvay’s desk. Once you’ve heard that story, you’ll never look at the B/X rules the same way again.
In other instances, TSR allowed themselves to pursue silly personal grudges and beefs which served no sensible purpose for them and just served to antagonise the rest of the industry and create bad feeling. Peterson recounts how Gygax, justifiably proud of what he had achieved with GenCon (which preceded the formation of TSR by some years), got a real bee in his bonnet about Origins. Though Gygax had some reasons to be annoyed – Origins running in the Midwest one year seems to have impacted GenCon in ways which it’s hard to believe were not intentional – Peterson describes how he kept this particular grudge going for an absurdly long period of time, well past the point when a company as big as TSR shouldn’t have been letting such petty beefs steer its policy.
Then you have the shift to a more professional, corporate TSR, which brought with it its own problems. As Peterson describes, Gygax simultaneously didn’t enjoy the process of management and would have preferred to spend his energy on creative endeavours, but at the same time was possessive enough of the company that he didn’t let himself step away from management duties, even when it transpired that he wasn’t necessarily all that good at it. The Blumes aren’t blameless either – the sprawling range of Blume family members who got neat jobs at TSR eventually became a contentious matter, especially when some instances of favourable treatment arose which inevitably (and probably correctly) were regarded as favouritism.
Towards the end of the period under discussion, TSR was blundering into a sequence of self-made disasters. A doomed bid to branch out into needlecraft turned out to be a pointless money sink. A botched division of the company into a clutch of separate endeavours created a situation where the Gygax-helmed Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment Corporation, which was tasked with stuff like the Saturday morning cartoon and the movie Gygax wanted to get made, was awkwardly tied up with the rest of TSR in a way which was expensive and difficult for both parties.
A particularly shocking example of how the head honchos at TSR needlessly alienated talented employees comes in the form of the Rose Estes situation. Rose was an employee of long standing; in 1979, she was the one who answered the phone and bewilderedly asked “what boy?” when asked what TSR knew about the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III. More recently, she had been responsible for setting up the Endless Quest series of Choose Your Adventure-esque gamebooks based on TSR properties; as well as being in overall charge of the line, she wrote the first seven releases herself.
Endless Quest was a monster hit; in 1983, the year after it debut, it brought in $4.3 million in revenue, and given that TSR’s total revenue that year was $26.7 million, that’s a big deal. (It is an especially big deal when one considers that paperback book publishing requires none of the additional manufacturing expenses of, say, making miniatures or dice, or producing boardgames, so though Peterson doesn’t give precise figures here, I would not be surprise if Endless Quest ate proportionately less of that revenue in manufacturing costs than most of TSR’s other product line did.) That means that a bit over one in every seven dollars TSR earned that year was basically thanks to Rose’s work. With their strong showing in the paperback book market, they paved the way for the later monster success of the Dragonlance trilogy. Good going, right?
Shit hit the fan when Rose decided to exercise some of her stock options and buy some of those sweet, sweet TSR shares. And why shouldn’t she? After all, those stock options were part of the package of benefits being an employee of the company gave her, and she had a right to them, and investing some money in the company she’d done so much to help would be a nice show of support in a year when TSR was posting a small loss (which, again, without Endless Quest would have been a quite startling loss). Keeping Rose happy by honouring the stock purchase is a no-brainer, right?
TSR management said “fuck you, no sale”.
The exact reasoning behind TSR’s decision is not outlined here by Peterson. Admittedly, Rose’s attempt to purchase the stock happened in 1982 – perhaps before it was apparent just how big of a hit Endless Quest would be. And it should be noted that Gygax and the Blumes alike were leery of letting other parties develop much in the way of TSR stock holdings – they didn’t want the company to fall into the hands of outsiders, and they had bad memories of Dave Arneson passive-aggressively showing up to stockholder meetings for years after he’d exited the company, using his shares as his ticket to create a big awkward atmosphere.
However, an even more awkward atmosphere arose from the refusal to honour the stock options. Frank Mentzer was describing the incident in a report to Gygax as a “documented breach of promise” – one which TSR staff became generally aware of in short order, badly hurting morale. Mentzer’s report, which is the closest thing Peterson offers to the reasoning behind TSR’s refusal, suggests that the “extenuating circumstances” involved Brian Blume offering those stock options when in fact he shouldn’t have – another example a Blume blunder damaging company morale.
When internal company communications are essentially admitting that Rose has been stiffed, you know it’s a bad situation. Breaking such a commitment under ordinary circumstances would be bad enough – breach of contract, which I suspect is what this would be in many cases (since, after all, those stock options had to be offered in writing somehow) is never something you want to do lightly. Breach of contract with an employee whose work has been extremely valuable to the company is an absolutely boneheaded move, because you’re penalising precisely the sort of person you should be rewarding. Any other TSR staffer would surely look at the situation and think “If a high-performing employee responsible for a majorly successful product like like Rose can get stiffed by the management, what’s stopping the bosses from screwing me over?”
What really compounded the error, though, was the way TSR management failed to work constructively with Estes on the situation; she would resign in 1983 when her efforts to negotiate better compensation failed. Screwing Rose once over the stock options was sloppy and unfair in its own right. Not playing ball with her in 1983, when the Endless Quest sales figures would surely have shown she was a goose merrily laying golden eggs, was downright foolish. Maybe she was asking for too much of a pay rise – but you’d think that if management had just sucked it up, taken their lumps, and let Rose buy her damn stocks they might have kept her onboard. She would return later – her last work for TSR being a string of Greyhawk novels from 1986 to 1989 – but it shouldn’t have taken her first quitting and then taking the company to court, and then Gygax and the Blumes losing power to Lorraine Williams, for TSR to play fair with Estes. Hers is just one story outlined here, and it’s the sort of account which makes you think the Gygax-Blume regime at TSR deserved to fail.
In Defence of Lorraine Williams
Lorraine Williams has been a bit of a hate figure for gamers over the years. Misogyny, conscious or otherwise, may be part of this, as might be the fact that Gygax fans would regard his departure from TSR as the beginning of the end. There’s also a slew of TSR policies ascribed to her which are felt to have taken the company in the wrong direction. However, as I read Game Wizards I realised that a wide swathe of the things that Williams is blamed for are things which TSR was doing well before she ever became involved in the company – in many cases for years.
Railroady Dragonlance modules and product lines where the gaming product existed to push the novel line? Well underway by the time Gygax brought her onboard, having met her in Hollywood. (She was the sister of Flint Dille, who Gygax had been working with on a D&D movie script.)
Content policies which watered down the darker content as a misguided attempt to appease outraged parents who’d never be satisfied with anything short of D&D being pulled from production? Those are all part of the “Religious Persecution Response” plans that had been drawn up years prior.
A litigious attitude and a tendency for TSR to regard itself as bigger than the rest of the industry, and to overstate its rights? Sure, taking down those AD&D netbooks back in the early days of the World Wide Web was irritating, but TSR had a reputation as an industry bully dating back to the 1970s.
A shift away from an informal culture and being a company by gamers for gamers into being a professional corporate environment where gaming was no longer the highest priority in the view of management? Already happened; TSR was going corporate before the 1970s were out, the indie punk rock days of D&D were over in a mere handful of years.
A proliferation of additional campaign settings which, whilst perhaps exciting at the time and which all had their own fans, perhaps diluted the product a bit too much? Again, Dragonlance was already well in hand when Lorraine came on the scene, and Forgotten Realms was looming on the horizon.
Decisions taken on the basis of nepotistic self-interest, rather than what was good for the company? Oh, sure, Lorraine tried to make the Buck Rogers RPG a thing – but hey, at least that resulted in TSR getting new products out based on a well-recognised licence. Much of the Blume and Gygax family nepotism documented in the book were far less productive by comparison.
Though Game Wizards does not address the Lorraine Williams era in detail, its coverage of the pre-Williams era is enough to establish that TSR was not some sort of utopia before Williams showed up. Pick out more or less any criticism which the fandom has levelled at Williams over the years, and you can find some precedent for it already existing in TSR when she arrived. Maybe you could argue that she should have changed those aspects of corporate policy and internal culture once she was in charge, and maybe you can blame her for taking some of them further, but you can’t claim they originated with her in the first place. They were part of the package she inherited when she mounted her coup.
There are also two achievements Williams can claim which you need to give her credit for. Her lesser achievement is that the end of her tenure as head of the company, she successfully concluded the company’s sale to Wizards of the Coast; die-hard fans of the TSR era might see that as a bad thing, but had she not found a buyer who could cover the company’s debts, the future of D&D might have been in serious jeopardy.
Her major achievement, though, is that after taking control of TSR in 1985, she kept it alive until 1997 – a tenure more or less as long as Gygax’s. As Peterson outlines, her takeover happened in a year when TSR’s future was far from guaranteed. The company suffered some $3.8 million in losses in 1985, their lines of capital were in peril, and doom threatened. Turning that ship around was no easy task, but turn it around Williams did; if she hadn’t, there’s every chance the company would have collapsed in short order, rather than bringing us the era of 2E, Planescape, and Baldur’s Gate.
As Peterson makes starkly apparent, in 1985 TSR had big, big problems – and it’s clear in retrospect that one of those problems was Gary Gygax. At a time when TSR was in a financial crisis so severe that the survival of the company was at stake, Gygax was living it up on the West Coast, trying to get his Hollywood dreams for Dungeons & Dragons off the ground whilst having a grand old time on a rented ranch which was costing $10,000 a month – and that’s in 1985 money. This and other extravagances might have flown in a year when TSR was making millionjs of dollars in profit – but not when they were facing their third loss-making year in a row.
Furthermore, Gygax’s 1985 bid to centralise power back towards himself had prompted the banks to tighten the leash (with the American National Bank slashing TSR’s line of credit by over half), since they lacked confidence in him as the top man. You can certainly make an argument that by ousting Gygax, Lorraine Williams saved TSR – and indeed, you could argue that Gygax was ultimately doomed not by Williams taking action to remove him, but by TSR’s creditors making these gestures of no confidence in him, and that if Lorraine hadn’t taken action, then either someone else would have or the banks would have lost patience and pulled the plug entirely. If the consequences of Lorraine’s actions meant Gygax was out of a job, that’s certainly sad for Gygax – but had she not acted, how many others, who’d been rewarded far less richly for their roles in the company, would have been on the dole?
Peterson treats Williams as objectively as he can, acknowledging her ruthless actions whilst shedding light on her motives, but treating her even-handedly and fairly ultimately means being kinder than the sort of demonisation she’s suffered at the hands of some hobbyist writers and gossip-mongers over the years, and I found myself much more inclined to support her actions by the end of the story. Was the method Williams employed to take control – involving crafty negotiations with the Blumes and some stock purchases which went under Gary’s radar – a little sneaky? Well, yes – but in subsequent legal proceedings it was held to have been consistent with the company’s rules. Among the many, many aspects of TSR that Game Wizards illustrates, Gygax, the Blumes, and other TSR high-fliers liked to think of the world of business as one more game they were playing. It just so happened that Williams was a better player.
Game Wizards is another great read from Peterson for anyone interested in the hobby’s history, and leaves me excited to see what Peterson applies his talents to next. I certainly think there’s scope for him to turn his hand to tracking the fortunes of the non-TSR segment of the industry, going on deep dives into how Chaosium fostered a distinctly different roleplaying culture on the West Coast, or Avalon Hill’s belated entry into the industry. Equally, I think there’s plenty of room for a book covering the Lorraine Williams years; as I’ve outlined above, there’s surely just as many myths surrounding her tenure as there were around Gary’s, and whilst the history of TSR and D&D under the control of Gary Gygax is of foundational importance to the hobby, the game is bigger than just Gygax (as those early fanzine contributors that Peterson quotes so often liked to note).