“My history has been written to be a work that will last forever.”
– Thucydides, book I, chapter 22
The last year or so has seen the tale of TSR told in two new books. Jon Peterson’s Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons (386pp, 2021) tells the story up to the departure of Gary Gygax in 1986. Ben Riggs’ Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons (286pp, 2022) is its de facto continuation, covering the period of Lorraine Williams’ stewardship until TSR’s acquisition by Wizards of the Coast in 1997.
Peterson’s book is, as you would expect from his previous publications, impeccably researched. His access to documentary evidence is unparalleled and he makes full use of it here. Private correspondence, legal contracts, financial records and more make his account not just comprehensive, but also balanced, considering issues from multiple perspectives.
Just as impressively, Game Wizards is engagingly written. Peterson’s scholarship has not prevented him producing a page-turner. In this he is no doubt aided by the source material, which is laced with envy, betrayal, hubris, conspiracy and outright incompetence.
As highlighted on the book’s cover, much of its narrative focuses on the relationship between D&D‘s creators, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, as it slipped from collaboration to litigation, but it also describes how vanity and ineptitude later steered TSR onto the rocks. Peterson tells the tale deftly, eschewing a heavy authorial voice and allowing the words and actions of the participants to tell the story. For example, he prefaces a series of breathtakingly maladroit managerial blunders with Kevin Blume’s boast that game-playing made TSR’s founders “intuitively good businessmen”.
Peterson also avoids the traps of hagiography and partisanship. He peels back the many layers of Gygax’s revisionist propaganda to reveal a considerably less favourable, but still appreciative, view of his contribution. He gives Arneson the prominence due to him for his critical role in D&D‘s creation, without denigrating Gygax’s own involvement. The portrayal benefits greatly from avoiding simplification and instead presenting subtleties with clarity.
It is hard to find fault with Game Wizards. It is at once approachable and erudite. It is comprehensive, yet cogent. If you have any interest in role-playing-game history and haven’t already read it, you really should.
Riggs’ book takes the narrative into the undiscovered country of TSR’s later years. The period following Lorraine Williams’ takeover has been neglected in the past, and Riggs has been able to unearth a wealth of new information about it.
A good deal derives from extensive interviews with first-hand participants in events. It requires great, and often unappreciated, skill and effort to gather this sort of information. Riggs deserves congratulation for his impressive success in this regard. There is, however, one obvious omission, which he himself emphasises, and unfortunately it is the most important actor of all: he was unable to secure the participation of Lorraine Williams herself. This leaves a significant gap in the overall account.
Riggs strives to correct the bias this creates, acknowledging repeatedly that Williams’ version of events might present circumstances in a different light. However, he is not always sufficiently critical of his sources. For example, he seems largely to accept his source’s view that Spellfire was a financial success, opposed by Williams out of irrational dislike. However, the book makes it clear that the source does not have any financial records to support this view, that TSR employees frequently had wildly inaccurate views of sales, that many games were unprofitable even when sales were strong and that TSR was operating under significant cash constraints. In my opinion the notion that Williams opposed Spellfire for sound financial reasons deserves to be given greater consideration. Riggs’ liberal application of the moniker “genius” to TSR employees also points to his enthusiasm at times compromising his objectivity.
Riggs’ greatest coup, though, is his documentary evidence. TSR’s later history is inextricably connected to its financial difficulties, and he has not only been able to uncover extensive data regarding products’ sales volumes, but also contracts critical to understanding TSR’s precarious financial position. He draws intelligent conclusions from this information, and successfully identifies the underlying cause of TSR’s failure. There is, I suspect, more that can be gleaned from the information he has gathered, but this is not primarily a financial history, and since he has generously shared much of his data on Twitter, others are able to fill in any gaps.
Riggs’ prose is pleasant and easy to read. Abstruse financial matters are explained clearly in terms that non-specialists will have little difficulty understanding. There are some cases where incorrect terminology is used (such as losses leading to “red ink on [the] balance sheet”), but they are likely to go unnoticed by general readers and are easily corrected by specialists. My principal stylistic criticism concerns the book’s structure. Before addressing the Williams years, it embarks on an extended recapitulation of D&D‘s history from its inception. This has the great advantage of making the book accessible to a wider range of readers as a standalone volume. However, it is a somewhat clunky and, at fifty-five pages, overlong opening. Much of the information seems unnecessary to an understanding of later events, and I wonder if a more selective and economical approach, possibly distributed through the later narrative as flashbacks at relevant points, might have been more elegant.
Slaying the Dragon is a very good book, which greatly advances our knowledge of RPG history. However, it falls short of being definitive in the way Game Wizards is. Riggs aptly christens Peterson “the Thucydides of role-playing games history”. By the same analogy Riggs is a Xenophon: a valuable continuator, but whose work does not reach the heights of his illustrious predecessor. Both writers’ books are entertaining and worthwhile reads, but Peterson’s is “a work that will last forever”.
Title art by Roger Garland. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.