REVIEW: Slaying the Dragon by Ben Riggs

To paraphrase Homer Simpson: We’ve all thought about writing a history of Dungeons & Dragons at one time or another, but what about the victims? Hardworking historians like Jon Peterson, Michael Witwer or David M. Ewalt. These are people who saw an overcrowded market and said ‘Me too!’

Now… obviously there is some degree of truth to this gag. Dungeons and Dragons has been around for nearly fifty years and for most of that time the closest you could get to a book about gaming was Shannon Appelcline’s industrial histories, some stuff written from the point of view of theatre studies, and a sociological study that says a lot more about male-dominated social clubs at mid-western universities in the 1970s than it does about RPGs themselves. Then, after literally decades, the dam broke and it feels like we’re getting a new history of D&D published every six months or so.

While this is all technically true, it kind of fails to acknowledge that not all of those histories are particularly good and those that are good are quite often attempting to do subtly different things with subtly different results. Thankfully, Ben Riggs’ Slaying the Dragon is attempting something that is not only quite precise and well-executed but also a welcome addition to the field.

As I said in my review of Jon Peterson’s excellent Game Wizards:

“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 you can describe Game Wizards as a ‘history of D&D’, a more precise description would be to say that it uses internal documentation, legal filings, and contemporary journalism to examine the relationship between E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson as well as the consequences of their falling-out for TSR, the RPG industry, and the associated hobby. Invoking the same spirit of precision, Slaying the Dragon is not just a ‘history of D&D’ but an attempt to account for the rise and fall of TSR based upon interviews with former TSR employees as well as their surviving friends and family.

Slaying the Dragon has a very different aim to Game Wizards, it also uses a different set of methods and spreads itself out over a somewhat longer time-frame. Indeed, if you want to know how different this book is to previous histories of D&D, consider the fact that this book has Gygax defenestrated from the historical narrative about sixty pages into a 300-page book.

All of these subtle differences in method and viewpoint mean that Slaying the Dragon is not so much a competitor to Peterson’s Game Wizards, Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men, or Witwer’s Empire of Imagination, it actually complements those previous works and fills in some of the gaps in their respective narratives.

Slaying the Dragon is a book that is first and foremost concerned with letting some of TSR’s more junior employees tell their sides of the story. Riggs is fiercely protective of the reputation of his subjects; he keeps referring to them as geniuses and when individual stories start to stretch credibility or depart too far from existing narratives, Riggs will often present a respectful counterpoint based on an interview either with someone else who happened to be there at the time, or with someone who was close to another employee who has since passed away. The result is a D&D-focused history of TSR that balances the clashing egos at the top of the company with smaller but no-less-fascinating stories such as what it was like to work in the TSR art department and how the company’s corporate culture tended to slurp up creative people, chew them up, and spit them out into a cold Wisconsin winter.

To my mind, this book puts meat on the bones of three distinct historical moments.

Firstly, there is the matter of Gygax’s decision to assume control of the ailing company upon his return from California. The existing narrative has it that Gygax had left Wisconsin for Hollywood in an effort to get a D&D film made. While Gygax was away, his partners the Blumes hired a load of their relatives and sank a lot of the company’s cash into weird projects like needlepoint companies and raising a shipwreck from a nearby lake. Upon hearing of this mismanagement, Gary returned from Hollywood, presented the facts to the board and miraculously won them over resulting in the Blumes being exiled and Gary getting leadership of the company.

Riggs comprehensively torpedoes this narrative by pointing out the existence of a Wall Street Journal article in which Gygax enthusiastically endorsed the decision to buy the needlepoint company. A company which, it turns out, was going bankrupt anyway and was owned by someone related to the Blumes. Riggs also points out that Gygax did not actually sway anyone at that board meeting; he was made CEO because he had bought enough shares to have control of 51% of the company and he would have been named CEO even without going through the melodramatic rigmarole of publically humiliating his former partners.

Secondly, previous histories have made references to an entity known as ‘TSR West’ and this entity has often been confused with Gygax’s post-divorce sojourn in Hollywood. In truth, TSR West had nothing to do with Gygax, it was an entity set up to try and launch TSR’s new range of comics. The plan was to use TSR’s connections with hobby shops to get comics on shelves and then to use their connections with conventional book shops to sell what we would now refer to as graphic novels. At the time, the business plan was ambitious to the point of being visionary and it allowed TSR to secure some hefty lines of credit but a mishandled relationship with DC Comics forced them to abandon the initial business plan and produce these things called ‘comic modules’ that were halfway between pre-written adventures and comics. While that type of thing might well find an audience nowadays, back in the 1980s the hybrid nature of the product meant that neither hobby shops nor book shops knew what to do with them and so they failed to sell in either venue.

Much like Peterson, Riggs stresses that what success TSR did enjoy happened in spite of rather than because of the senior management team. Riggs presents TSR as a fiercely unprofessional workplace where high-energy shenanigans went hand-in-hand with managerial incompetence. While Peterson’s Game Wizards provides the portrait of Gary Gygax as an incompetent small-business tyrant who wouldn’t know a sound business decision if it hoovered up his last line of coke, Riggs paints a not particularly flattering portrait of his successor Lorraine Williams.

The third significant historical moment illuminated by Slaying the Dragon is perhaps the most valuable. The tendency of RPG histories to foreground first received opinion and then the bigger, more famous personalities means that Lorraine Williams’ tenure in charge of TSR has received relatively little attention; a fact not helped by her own extraordinary refusal to give interviews or even put forth her own side of the story. Riggs begins by making it clear how much he regrets Williams’ decision not to be interviewed for this project and he praises her for taking charge of an ailing company and keeping it afloat for well over a decade after the departure of the company’s founder. This being said, Williams’ leadership does not seem to have been a big improvement on that of Gygax.

Gygax’s problem was his ego. If Gygax made a mistake or events transpired to reveal the limits of his skillset, his first response was to kill the messenger and then denounce them from every bully-pulpit open to him as the guy who helped invent RPGs. These denunciations were not only savage, they were also (quite often) self-serving lies that served no purpose other than to buttress Gygax’s ego and to make it impossible for anyone to do the work which, though necessary, Gygax either could not or would not do. He was an incompetent, arrogant jerk and I imagine that working for him must have been an absolute nightmare.

Williams, by all accounts, was far more hands-off as a boss. Rather than rolling up her sleeves and getting involved in managing the company, she seems to have operated everything at arm’s length to the point where most employees had no lasting impression of her other than one of fear. For many TSR employees, the only context in which they even met Lorraine Williams appears to have been at their dismissal.

In Williams’ defence, this is a legitimate leadership style. According to both Gygax and Riggs, TSR had a spectacularly unprofessional work culture and any office where co-workers relate to each other as friends is going to struggle with someone who just wanted to do their job. If that person is a junior employee then they get quickly labelled ‘unfriendly’ and people find it socially awkward to have to deal with them. When that person happens to own the company, then that sense of social awkwardness will inevitably curdle into fear.

While Williams was socially aloof from the bulk of her workforce, she also appears to have been administratively remote and incredibly poor at communication though I suspect this may have been an institutional problem as much as a question of individual temperament. Indeed, one of the primary problems with TSR as an institution is that nobody outside of senior management appears to have been allowed access to any data on sales. For example, Riggs interviewed two different people about a VHS-based children’s game called DragonStrike and while one person was convinced that the game sold well, another pointed out that it barely shifted any copies at all and initial orders were so low that they wound up double-shipping the game to Random House in order to get the boxes out the door.

What this meant was that TSR’s editorial and game-design departments were pumping out vast amounts of content with no idea as to how any of it was being received by the public. For example, many of the more innovative game settings for which TSR is fondly remembered (e.g. Dark Sun and Planescape) were followed by a steady stream of branded adventures and supplements despite the fact that the box sets were not selling well-enough to warrant that level of support.

I must admit that this image certainly rings true for someone who saw the collapse of both TSR and White Wolf. The problem with these companies was never the games themselves as people were always going to buy weird fantasy box sets and new World of Darkness games. The problem was that each box-set and each game was followed by dozens and dozens of supplements and while loads of people will take a punt on a Planescape or a Changeling, not many people will follow that up by buying the twenty-five supplements that followed them let alone the next twenty-five supplements that all expanded on concepts introduced in the previous set of expansions. My memories of the late 1990s are of game-shops drowning in supplements for obscure areas of already inaccessible game-settings. I remember at the time wondering who was buying all of that stuff and now I have my answer: Nobody.

While this is pure speculation on my part, I wonder whether senior management’s aloof style might not have been as a much as product of TSR’s business model as the ruinous flood of supplements that made no money and only served to rack up huge debts over unsold product.

TSR reportedly got their money through a weird process known as factoring. Under usual sales processes, you receive an order, ship your product, and then issue invoices that eventually get paid minus returns etc. Under factoring, the invoices are all paid by a third party who hands you all of your money up-front in return for a percentage of the profits. TSR insiders referred to this process as the Bank of Random House as, at the start of the year, they’d ship a load of product to Random House and get all of the money up-front before any of that product had even reached the public.

In practice, this meant that there were at least two sets of buffers between TSR and the game-buying public and when sales started to slip, the only meaningful feedback TSR appears to have received was a bill from companies like Random House demanding monies for the shortfall in sales. TSR knew what was going out the door but they didn’t know what was winding up in dumpsters until it was too late. The lack of feedback combined with the fact that TSR’s customers were technically buying everything that TSR could produce meant that the editorial and game-design teams were both flying blind. They had no idea what was selling, so they just kept producing more novels, more settings, more supplements, and more adventures. Twenty five years later and eBay is still awash with unopened Mystara and Birthright supplements while every second hand bookshop in the English-speaking world is balls deep in Forgotten Realms novels as TSR spent its final years hurling product out the door so quickly that even if something did strike a chord and managed to turn a profit, those monies were instantly buried by the huge amount of debt and loss generated by the dozens and dozens of products that nobody wanted.

Williams ran a company that was institutionally incapable of reacting to market forces in a timely manner. By insisting upon getting all of the company’s money up-front, she was isolating the company from sales data that would have allowed them to stop throwing good money after bad and terminate unprofitable product lines. The fact that the company’s primary form of sales feedback appears to have been creditors demanding millions of dollars over unsold product also explains why Williams’ interactions with her employees were so robustly negative. With no detailed sales figures to drive managerial decision-making, senior management provided little leadership. What leadership senior management did provide came only after disastrous failures became apparent at which point there was nothing much you could do except lay people off in the hope of making pay-roll and keepings the creditors happy. This approach must have worked fine as long as sales were rising as profits were robust enough that the up-side insulated the company from the downside of bad-decisions and the lack of reactivity. When profits disappeared, there was no time and no space in which to make course adjustments: Leadership went straight from disinterest to lay-offs.

The fact that TSR’s management were either hands-off or blindly panicking also explains why they had such trouble keeping talent. Riggs shares one story about how Tracy Hickman was nearly caught up in a round of lay-offs despite the fact that his Dragonlance stuff had been almost single-handedly keeping the company afloat. Hickman was young and still relatively new to the company when the demand for lay-offs came down the line. As a junior in the game-design department, Hickman was in the line of fire until a member of staff with a background in computing took the hit on the grounds that he’d find it easier to find a new job. Equally baffling was the way that TSR lost R.A. Salvatore because they wanted him to double his work-rate. Salvatore was happy to produce three more Drizzt books for TSR but they wanted six and so they wound up getting none.

Slaying the Dragon is a deeply fascinating book that puts a lot of meat on the bones of previous histories of both D&D and TSR. While not as rigorous as the work of Jon Peterson, Riggs has taken the time to seek out surviving employees of TSR and present to us their side of the story. While those stories are inevitably going to be partial, self-serving, and blurred by the passage of time and countless retellings in convention bars, all of these stories have real value not only as social history but also for the way they pull back the veil on some of the more intriguing creative decisions made by TSR. This is a great little book, I just wish that someone would produce something similar for both White Wolf and Chaosium.

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