D&D’s first commercial release – “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures” – sold for $10 each in 1974, a small fortune for a wood-grained cardboard box containing three stapled pamphlets and some reference sheets. The games, all assembled in 1,000 in the house of Gygax, sold out in less than a year and quickly went to second printing. At the time, Gygax was working with game creator Dave Arneson and another friend, who had teamed up to found the company Tactical Studies Rules, or TSR. Arneson left TSR in 1976 after dispute over credit and royaltiesand TSR moved from Gygax’s basement to the former Hôtel Clair, a dump in downtown Lake Geneva, where its staff grew up.
At its peak, writes Ben Riggs in his new book, “Slaying the Dragon,” TSR had gross sales of over $40 million. It was “the big old dragon of role-playing companies.” He founded the industry and published the game that dominated the field. The early days have the feel of a Silicon Valley start-up, with an even more nerdy, low-budget vibe. “In its offices on Lake Geneva, dozens and dozens of genius geeks have come together to create games, novels and works of art that have flooded game stores and shopping malls around the world”, writes Riggs.
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In its earliest incarnations, D&D guides were published with apostrophes missing from their titles, as apostrophes were considered ugly and uncool. Employees jumped from beam to beam on the upper floors of the abandoned hotel, crashing into the offices below. Visiting bankers and would-be investors have found themselves caught in the crossfire of squirt gun and Nerf gun battles between publishers and game designers, or faced with hallways full of wind-up toys. The FBI made a visit when notes for an espionage role-playing game (RPG) were found in the trash and interpreted as part of an assassination plot.
Things got even stranger in 1979, when 16-year-old D&D enthusiast and prodigy attending Michigan State has disappeared. The IP hired by the boy’s uncle speculated that he had escaped through the campus steam tunnels in “a sort of game runaway”. When the teenager committed suicide, a year after being found alive, the media described D&D as a satanic cult. The grim media attention has made D&D a household name. Gygax said the Satanic Panic “did things for sales that you wouldn’t believe”.
“Playing RPGs Made Life Better,” Says Riggs, and certainly fattened Gygax’s bank account. Yet by 1985, D&D sales had plummeted, with box set and rulebook sales falling 79%. The tie-in novels and expansions sold well, but the company’s core products fell victim to market saturation. The rules of D&D were complex and took time to master. The company focused on products aimed at existing players, rather than trying to bring new players into the fold. An attempt to reach a younger generation with a D&D children’s board game and accompanying video failed miserably.
Instead of tightening the belt on the dwarf species, TSR went on a hiring spree. More disconcertingly, the company has invested in doomed ventures, including a tapestry business and an effort to reassemble a Lake Geneva shipwreck. By 1983, the company employed over 300 people, but a series of layoffs eventually reduced the staff to less than 100. Profits from TSR’s D&D-related novels kept the company afloat, even as the RPG department been reduced to a skeleton crew.
Riggs’ book, a gripping adventure in itself, features interviews with many key players, narrated by a super fan. (Riggs is the podcast host “Plot pointsa comprehensive look at role-playing games.) “TSR’s failure is a story of woes and mistakes kept secret for decades, here brought to light,” he wrote. “This is the story of an unemployed insurer, an heiress, a preacher’s son and a game like no other.”
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In October 1985, Gygax was ousted. Lorraine Williams became CEO of TSR – one of the few female CEOs at the time and the only one to run a company with a predominantly male staff and fanbase. An “adult” who could “talk to banks,” Williams pulled TSR from the precipice. Staff who owed back pay eventually received it, with interest. During his tenure, the company produced beautifully crafted box sets and companion CDs, bestselling novels, and a second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
Williams was reviled by male D&D fans, many of whom were then outraged by Gygax’s departure from the company he had helped found. Riggs laments that Williams refused to speak to him when he was researching his book: “I couldn’t help but wonder what role misogyny might play in his villainy.” TSR employed indispensable women including Margaret Weis, Jean Black and Mary Kirchoff, and while Riggs acknowledges their contributions, one yearns for a first-hand account of what it was like to be these pioneers, outliers in a world of ‘men. (In the final pages of the book, Riggs mentions “credible allegations of sexual harassment” at TSR.)
By the early 1990s, rival companies like White Wolf, FASA, and Wizards of the Coast were wooing players with products that were more character-driven than classic D&D. Magic: The Gathering, the massively popular collectible card game from Wizards of the Coast, has changed the field as much as D&D, shipping one hundred million cards a month. TSR’s attempts at competition grew increasingly desperate as the company flooded the market with new products – beautiful game sets so expensively produced and packaged that they lost money leaving the warehouse. Attempts to establish an office on the West Coast – to take advantage of the booming comic book, television and film market – failed. So did an attempt to license a Middle-earth RPG.
A distribution deal with Random House proved to be the fatal blow. To stay afloat, TSR had taken out huge loans from the publishing powerhouse. Mass shootings took place in the days leading up to Christmas 1996. Bags of unshipped products filled the office. Worst of all, Riggs reports, TSR had used the copyrights of dozens of his works as collateral with the bank and Random House.
In late 1997, two employees drove a van to a warehouse in Racine, Wisconsin. TSR had defaulted on its rent. The couple had an hour to salvage what they could of the meticulously crafted dioramas, miniature boxes and other materials that were the result of thousands of hours of work by TSR craftsmen and artists. “Like like not,” says Riggs, the remaining works were “crushed in a landfill.”
Yet there was another fateful roll of the many-sided die. In the spring of 1997, Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR, minus Lorraine Williams. Wired Magazine reported, “Disgruntled Fans Encourage D&D Takeover”. With Wizards of the Coast president Peter Adkison now in charge, former TSR employees have been rehired. Arneson, who had created D&D with Gygax, eventually received a large check for his intellectual property, as did Gygax’s widow. In 2020, Wizards of the Coast reported that over 50 million people played D&D worldwide.
Riggs undermines its compelling story with a gushing fanboy, an often confusing timeline, and prodigious statements that include a chapter epigraph of “Mrs. Dalloway. Such grandiose flourishes are unnecessary. RPG culture has influenced our world to a degree including Gary Gygax could only have dreamed of in his basement in Wisconsin all those years ago.J&D opened a portal for video and computer games, an industry now worth tens of billions of dollars, mass conventions like Gen Con (founded by Gygax), numerous books, movies, and TV shows, and immersive experiences like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. For those who aspire to return to the source, The Griffin and the Gargoylea D&D entertainment hub, is set to open on the shores of Lake Geneva in 2024. Role-playing games might not make life better, but they sure do make it a whole lot more fun.
Elizabeth Hand’s most recent novel is “Hokuloa Road”.
A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons
Saint-Martin Press. 304 pages. $29.99
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