REVIEW: Game Wizards by Jon Peterson

Jon Peterson is rapidly making a name for himself as the foremost academic expert on Dungeons & Dragons. This rise to prominence may have started back in 2012 with a book about the history of Wargames and RPGs before a momentary detour into D&D-themed art books but the last couple of years have been spent doing serious groundwork not only into the history of Dungeons & Dragons but also the early years of the RPG hobby.

Game Wizards is not the first long-form history of D&D, it isn’t even the only book on the early history of D&D to be published this year, but its desire to move beyond the broad narrative strokes of cultural memory lays down a gauntlet for all future RPG historians: You must be at least this rigorous to pass muster.

Peterson’s Game Wizards is ostensibly a history of the long-winded and ill-tempered conflict between E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson over the question of who wrote D&D and – by extension – who invented RPGs. In order to tell this story, Peterson devotes some time not only to the relationship between Gygax and Arneson but also to the early years of the RPG hobby, and Gygax’s tenure as president, CEO, and Chairman of TSR Hobbies prior to his defenestration at the hands of Lorraine Williams and the Blume brothers.

One of the primary challenges in writing about this period, these historical figures, and this subject matter, lies in selecting a narrative thread.  For example, you could write about:

  • The invention and early history of roleplaying games.
  • The invention of Dungeons & Dragons.
  • The history of Dungeons & Dragons.
  • The biography of E. Gary Gygax.
  • The biography of Dave Arneson.
  • The corporate history of TSR.

Different narrative threads demand not only different priorities and areas of focus, but also different historical ranges. For example, a good Gygax biography would not only look at the invention of D&D and his time as a corporate CEO, it would also involve some investigation of his youth, his relationship with the broader gaming hobby, his family life, and his attempts to develop a writing career after his corporate defenestration.

Alternatively, a history of Dungeons & Dragons would have to deal not only with the original set of rules that helped launch TSR, it would also deal with AD&D, AD&D second edition, D&D3, D&D 3.5, D&D Fourth Edition and D&D5.  It would also deal with the variants of OD&D that co-existed with AD&D as well as the settings, the novels, and the dozens of computer RPGs that have since been put out under an array of different licenses as well as the re-discovery of older editions of D&D under the auspices of the Old School Renaissance or OSR.

While there have now been a number of books written about this subject matter and all of them touch on different threads, no book has yet committed to exploring a single thread in any degree of depth. To be blunt, everyone seems to want to write about the time between the invention of D&D and Gygax getting fired and while they may frame their narratives in different terms and foreground different elements at different times, it’s really just the same set of events being picked over again and again. People need to either start probing deeper, or find something different to write about as I would say that the market for sprawling early histories of D&D is now completely saturated.

With regards to sprawling histories of Gygax’s tenure at TSR, Game Wizards is a definite improvement. Firstly, the book is focused on the astoundingly toxic war of words waged between Gygax and Arneson during the early 1980s. Obviously, there is some sprawl to other topics but these additional threads are only present because talking about stuff like how D&D was created, how TSR operated, and the birth of RPG culture is integral to understanding both the nature of the disagreement and its lasting repercussions for roleplaying game culture. Secondly, Peterson has actually bothered to do some proper research. So while books such as Witwer’s Empire of Imagination and Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men were content to revisit received opinion and quote a few self-aggrandising interviews from decades after the fact, Peterson actually went out and looked not only at the stuff that was being written in trade publications at the time, but also at stuff like records from court proceedings and TSR’s own internal documents. There are still substantial gaps in the historical record but we are at least moving beyond the realms of common knowledge, hearsay, and corporate propaganda delivered by grey-beard game designers who have spent forty years dining out on those halcyon days in which they collected Gygax’s dry-cleaning and copy-edited the RPG equivalent of shovel-ware. The scholarship is also top-notch as Peterson provides a source for literally every single quote in the book.

Game Wizards opens with a very clear characterisation of Gygax: On the one hand, we have Gygax the facilitator and dynamo that built GenCon and helped people to find publishers for their home-brewed wargame rules. It’s easy to see why people kept flocking to Gygax’s banner and how he managed to acquire a lot of clout without seeming to get very much accomplished. On the other hand, we have Gygax the incompetent, self-serving manipulator who struggled to hold down a job and encouraged people to invest in doomed projects as a means of ensuring that he at least would get paid. This image of Gygax as a flawed but inspirational figure who was a little bit older and a little bit more confident than the people around him is really important as it goes some way to explaining why gamers like Arneson were willing to trust him in the first place.

Even before Arneson turned up, Gygax had already befriended an amateur game-designer, encouraged them to get their work professionally published, and volunteered to help edit the game in return for a co-creator credit. It’s not that Gygax had a habit of stealing other people’s ideas, it’s more that he knew how to edit and how to get stuff published and, when the dust settled, Gygax was somehow always the only person to walk away with any money or credit.

Somewhat disappointingly, Peterson glosses over the exact nature of Arneson and Gygax’s creative partnership. Some accounts have suggested that Gygax did little more than edit Arneson’s rules into a saleable manuscript while some have suggested that Arneson shared an idea that Gygax turned into a set of rules. I suspect that Peterson glosses over the writing of D&D on the grounds that the exact nature of the creative partnership can never be determined. Given that we cannot time-travel and sit in on one of Arneson’s Minnesotan RPG sessions, we can only refer to the written record and the written record turns out to be incredibly difficult to parse as the venomous rhetoric-filled nature of the pair’s relationship means that both Arneson and Gygax have made wildly contradictory, inconsistent, and nonsensical claims about who created what and how. For example, if Gygax came up with all the rules by himself, why did he agree to a 50/50 split in the royalties? And if Arneson came up with the rules only for Gygax to type them up, why did Arneson admit that his RPG sessions were entirely based on the stuff that Gygax was sending him?

In my review of The Elusive Shift, I observed that Peterson’s thinking was clearly influenced by the old Role-playing vs. Roll-playing discourse that dominated discussion of RPGs in the 1990s and I think the same can also be said of this book. Having outlined both sets of arguments and summed up the outcomes of various sets of legal proceedings,  Peterson settles into agreeing with a view that Arneson wound up adopting in the aftermath of the final lawsuit. According to Arneson, he co-created D&D in so far as he came up with a lot of the fundamental concepts that distinguish RPGs from wargames. Without ideas like board-less play and being able to create a character that persists between sessions and grows more powerful with the passage of time, D&D could never have been written. This effectively squares the circle and allows us to accept that while Gygax may have written D&D, Arneson invented the table-top RPG. The role vs roll-playing stuff comes in at the point where Arneson suggests that the essence of D&D is not about rules but about the presence of certain basic concepts that shape the experience of play. Without those concepts, D&D could never have been written and by coming up with those concepts, Arneson co-created D&D. In other words, the details of system do not matter but concepts underpinning systems do.

There’s a lot that can be unpacked from Peterson’s portrayal of Arneson’s ideas. For example, it would be interesting to know how Arneson might feel about a boardgames like Gloomhaven and Arkham Horror that effectively try to ‘do’ RPGs without any of those big RPG concepts. It would also be interesting to know how he’d feel about non-traditional RPGs that fundamentally alter the big RPG concepts that he claims to have invented. There’s a lot to unpack here and I can imagine myself returning to some of these ideas in the future but I think a lot of their complexity comes from the fact that the opinions of both Arneson and Gygax were twisted by their falling-out as well as the need to adopt certain positions for the sake of on-going litigation. Peterson does a fantastic job of pointing out where the pair contradicted and agreed with each other over the years and roots those shifting positions in the nature of their working relationship within TSR.

Peterson’s depiction of TSR is absolutely brutal. He makes it clear that, even before Gygax had met Arneson, he was already prone to spite-fuelled rashness and the kinds of sharp business practices that yield a quick win whilst souring any future relationship with one’s opponents.

The souring of Gygax’s relationship with Arneson seems to have begun with the creation of TSR as while Gygax agreed to a 50/50 split in the royalties, he kept him at arm’s length when it came to creating the company. Once TSR was established and money started coming in, Gygax convinced Arneson to come and work at TSR but despite granting the young man a job as head of research, internal communications suggest that Arneson spent the bulk of his time working in the shipping department.

Some books have suggested that Arneson was a bad fit for TSR because he struggled to write in a corporate environment. Other books have repeated the account that was put about by TSR, which was that while Arneson had ideas, he struggled to write in complete sentences and so anything he wrote required so much editing that they might as well have just hired freelancers to turn his ideas into games.

Peterson doesn’t really speculate as to which of these is closer to the truth but he does suggest that Arneson was a bit awkward and a man who didn’t cope well either with hierarchical social structures or with the kind of critical feedback loop that is required for any publishing venture that dares to ask for money. Arneson’s awkwardness is certainly borne out by his fraught relationship with other publishers after his exit from TSR but it is worth bearing in mind that TSR Arneson was a very young and poorly-educated man and that post-TSR Arneson was a hugely wealthy man who could afford to walk away from any business arrangement that got his back up. It’s hard to say whether Arneson struggled at TSR because he was a prick or whether he became a prick because of his experiences at TSR but Peterson unearths a cartoon that was circulated during Arneson’s time at TSR that presented the then-head of research as tied up in packing tape. It’s also telling that when Arneson started to fall out with Gygax, Gygax’s first move was to demote him to working in the mail room for little more than minimum wage. While this is undeniably a dick move, it’s a bit less of a slap in the face if you assume that Arneson was already little more than a glorified packing clerk. Indeed, despite Arneson supposedly being responsible for researching new products, all of the new games published by TSR during Arneson’s time at the company came through Gygax’s relationship with the gaming community while Arneson felt not only marginalised within the company but also discouraged from doing any creative work of his own.

Peterson also makes it clear that Gygax’s treatment of Arneson was part of a much broader pattern. Right from the start, Gygax was a thin-skinned martinet and a small-business tyrant who burned through good will at an alarming rate of knots. The book is littered with stories of people arriving at TSR as wide-eyed idealists only to leave a few months later feeling utterly betrayed. TSR had a terrible habit not only of over-looking the people who performed well but also of punishing, vilifying and scapegoating anyone who tried to raise the alarm about mistakes being made. Gygax and his business partners the Blumes were short on managerial experience but long on ego meaning that TSR tended to hire either relatives or lickspittles and any attempts to deal with the mistakes made by either set of incompetents would be treated like a palace coup requiring first ill-tempered memos and then rounds of spire-fuelled layoffs. There’s one amazing moment where the company is starting to fall apart and TSR responds by firing one of their most popular module writers whilst paying an incompetent relative of the Blumes to go to college rather than coming into work.

TSR was a company that rotted from the head down and the flow of venom did not stop at company employees. As a gamer who was active in the 1990s, I can remember TSR having an absolutely terrible reputation for litigiousness but the fact that I entered the hobby after Gygax’s defenestration means that I never witnessed the ill-tempered broadsides that he would unleash upon the rest of the industry from his bully pulpit in Dragon Magazine. As president of TSR, Gygax seemed to spend his days engaging in ridiculous slap-fights with other industry figures. For example, Gygax got into a massive beef over whether Origins or GenCon was the national convention despite the fact that “national convention” was a meaningless title and neither convention, at the time, hosted more than 1000 attendees. This went on for absolutely years and I actually wonder whether Gygax’s unceasing ill-will towards the wargaming industry might not go some way towards explaining how and why RPGs left the orbit of wargames and wound up creating their own cultural spaces.

Peterson makes it clear that Gygax mistreated Arneson. He mistreated and demeaned him until he left a job that had uprooted him from his friends and family. He treated him so badly that when Arneson left TSR, he was only too happy to talk about his experiences at the company. Gygax seems to have viewed this as an act of betrayal and responded with his own set of rhetorical broadsides, an act that further poisoned the relationship resulting in a level of paranoia that could only end in litigation. This pattern plays itself out again and again throughout the pages of Game Wizards: Gygax alienated Arneson in exactly the same way as he alienated first the Blume brothers and then Lorraine Williams.

Peterson only touches on Gygax’s relationship with Williams quite briefly but it is fascinating to note that it only took six months for Williams to go from loyal investor and corporate catspaw to sworn enemy. The book ends with an epilogue that tries to account for this pattern: According to Peterson, Gygax was never all that interested in running a business. This meant that he tended to be somewhat hands-off with day-to-day operations. However, while he was never willing to develop his managerial skills or show much leadership, he saw other people stepping into that empty space as both a threat and an insult that could only be dealt with through shouting and bullying. Attempts by management to right the ship usually involved them hiring a professional business person who would assume day-to-day responsibility for administration until they ran into senior management’s reluctance to make changes, at which point they would be replaced by another business professional who would run into the exact same problem six months later. Indeed, one could argue that Gygax’s disastrous attempt to set up a media-focused West Coast office was just another example of his leaving management to other people and his attempt to get rid of the Blumes was just a manifestation of Gygax’s habitual resentment at other people doing his job for him. The ultimate reason for Gygax’s defenestration is that Lorraine Williams was not only willing to do Gygax’s job, she was also willing to defend herself when the backlash started to form. This might also account for why Gygax seemed so shocked by his defenestration; as both a businessman and a public figure, Gygax had learned that shouting, bullying, and throwing his toys out of the pram usually resulted in people simply disappearing from the field of play. He evidently tried this with Williams and was genuinely shocked when, rather than melting into the background, she built alliances and hit back.

The brittleness of the Gygaxian ego is also evident in the quality of the material that TSR produced. For example, Peterson shows that Gygax spent a lot of his time at TSR moaning about wanting to write and would frequently talk about stepping back from day-to-day management in order to become a full time writer but despite seeing himself as a creative, Gygax seems to have had about as much interest in D&D as he did in the running of TSR. He evidently spent years grooming Mentzner as a kind of creative consiglieri who proof-read everything with Gygax’s name on it in preparation for eventually assuming the leadership of TSR’s creative department. However, late in the book, Mentzner complains that TSR is putting out so much material that he simply does not have the time to do any quality control on the books being published and Gygax does not exactly fall over himself in order to pick up the slack. This made me wonder whether Gygax might not have viewed game-writing in the same way as he viewed management: He struggled to do it, but reacted with great anger and resentment whenever anyone tried to step into his shoes and do it for him. This might explain not only the awful nature of the stuff he published post-TSR but also the anger he directed at Arneson: By assuming credit for creating D&D, Arneson was reminding Gygax of how little game-writing he actually did. This pierced Gygax’s self-perception as a game-writer and so provoked a stream of anger and abuse.

Game Wizards is a very well-researched and written book. Peterson tells an intriguing story with a good deal of insight into not only the running of TSR and the history of the gaming hobby but also the humanity of the people involved. Peterson is never shy of sharing his conclusions but he is always careful to limit his speculation to that which has actually been recorded. Despite this being the third history of D&D I have read in the last year, I really appreciate the depth, rigour and clarity of Peterson’s writing. If you are going to read a book about the history of D&D then Game Wizards is the best the field has to offer but I do wish that people would expand the zone of their inquiries. For example, I find it interesting that while the Blumes were arguably more deeply involved in the running of TSR, relatively little is known about them beyond the fact that they hired all of their relatives. What did they want from TSR? What did they do after TSR? I would also love to know a bit more about Lorraine Williams as she did run TSR and helm D&D for the best part of a decade before the sale to Wizards of the Coast.

So yeah… this is an excellent book, but I have now read a number of books that are just like it and I would appreciate someone taking a slightly different tack.

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