The Fall of the RPG Professional
  • Fall of the RPG Professional


    We previously discussed how the hobby industry of role-playing transitioned to a full-blown business, and with it, an entire cadre of professions: game designers, writers, and artists. As tabletop RPGs have increased in popularity and scope, these professions have benefited. And yet, the code of conduct that governs the hobby is still being formed -- and for evidence of that we need look no further than the two companies who have stewarded the Dungeons & Dragons brand.


    The TSR Years

    As we established in the previous installment, TSR was only too happy to provide ethical guidelines to its writers. But those rules didn't always apply to the company's leaders. Co-creator of D&D, Gary Gygax himself, would grapple with the definition of professional conduct in the company he helped create.
    It was largely because of Lorraine Williams' professional experience that she was brought into the company, as told by David Ewalt in Of Dice and Men:

    At first, newspaper heiress Lorraine Dille Williams seemed like the perfect ally: She was rich, she was interested in publishing, and she had experience managing midsized organizations. So he asked her to invest in the company and help him retake control. Williams, sensing the extent of TSR’s mismanagement, told Gygax that making an investment would be “money down a rat hole.” Instead, she suggested a different kind of help: to go to Lake Geneva and take a position in the company where she could help rein in TSR’s finances.

    Things went south after a few months:

    Williams says that once she took on the job of TSR’s general manager in the spring of 1985, she learned the true extent of the company’s financial problems— and Gygax’s complicity. “The whole structure of the place was that they had all sorts of offshore operations, and they had integrated profit-sharing plans that only benefited the shareholders, which were Gary, Kevin and Brian Blume, and some family members,” she says. “I mean, [TSR UK] owned a house in the Isle of Man. You wouldn’t have believed [Gygax’s] temper tantrum when we told them that had to be sold.”

    Gygax was in California at the time attempting to establish a Dungeons & Dragons movie. This was beneficial to the D&D brand in the short-term with successes like the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, but it came with a high price tag:

    This and other successes with the Dungeons & Dragons game and cartoon, such as a lucrative licensing agreements with toymakers Mattel, LJN, and Larami, had afforded Gary luxuries such as his rental of a six-acre Beverly Hills estate once owned by fabled producer/ director King Vidor, complete with a bar, pool table, hot tub, and peach tree. From the patio of King Vidor’s mansion one could see all the way to Catalina Island and hear the occasional howl of a coyote. After only a year, Gary had fully assimilated into the Hollywood lifestyle, enjoying the ambience of the culture. Of course, this lifestyle also had its hazards, which for Gary included an appetite for young women and a growing taste for cocaine and other recreational drugs. For lack of a better term, Gary was living the “high life.” It was not uncommon for him to be seen in one of the “power booths” at the celebrated Beverly Hills Hotel in company with one or more twentysomething Hollywood starlets. He was also known to host extravagant parties at his estate, including an especially memorable event hosting contestants of the Miss Beverly Hills International Beauty Pageant.

    If Gygax was the proto-game designer, he was certainly the most financially successful one at the time. Unfortunately, Gygax's expenses were eventually no longer tolerated by TSR's management:

    On another occasion, Williams recalls that “Gary went ballistic” when she informed him that the bank wouldn’t advance any more money to fund his expensive Hollywood projects and operation.

    The conflict between Williams and Gygax would continued well beyond the company:

    According to TSR employees, this feud was indeed personal. Gary had allegedly disrespected Williams publicly at a Gen Con event, pointing out her lack of knowledge and involvement in Dungeons & Dragons. This was supposedly a significant motivating factor in her approaching the Blumes and eventually gaining control of the company. According to Williams, her motives were simple: “I may not have understood it one hundred percent, but I understood intellectually that it was the right product for the right time.” She also apparently felt entitled to purchase the Blume shares without Gary’s knowledge, so as to prevent him from carrying out his desire to “just try to screw it up, and to once again try to thwart the ability of the Blumes to sell their stock and to get out and to go about their lives.”

    In the end, the conflict between the two could be characterized as a dispute between running TSR as a hobby company or a ruthless business. Williams' efforts firmly established TSR as a business first -- to eventual disastrous effect. Gygax may have taken an unorthodox approach to the brand, but he understood what gamers wanted because he was one.

    When Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR, there was a promise that things would be different. But in many ways, the struggles that TSR went through were repeated by WOTC years later.

    The Wizards of the Coast Years

    Wizards of the Coast's ascension largely parallels what happened with TSR, in which people who joined the gaming industry for fun were gradually disappointed to learn that the hobby had become a business, as per John Tynes' article in Salon:

    I worked at Wizards back in its halcyon days, when we all bought into Peter’s vision. Today, as I watch the carnage wrought upon another crop of idealistic and iconoclastic start-ups — the new-economy dot-coms — it is hard to escape the feeling that the story of Peter and his company, Wizards of the Coast, stands as an eerie prototype for the entire dot-com experience. Wizards blazed a trail through corporate culture that turned old notions of professionalism and workplace community on their head in the pursuit of a Utopian ideal where geeks would be rich, be cool and get laid. Unlike the dot-coms, however, Wizards survived and even thrived because Peter learned an important lesson early on: Kill your illusions before they kill you.

    Peter Adkison had a vision for his company that eventually clashed with the HR policies of a corporate infrastructure. He learned this the hard way by playing a game of Truth or Swill with his employees. Meant to break down boundaries and encourage social bonding, Truth or Swill involved confessions about intimate encounters in the workplace. It was something friends might do in private:
    Among a group of friends or colleagues, a game like this can be an amusing if occasionally disastrous good time. But among co-workers, on an official company function, with the CEO of the company and Linda, the head of human resources, openly participating, well … it was a train wreck.

    The incident was a flashpoint between doing what you want and toeing the line in a business setting. The results reverberated throughout the company:

    On Monday morning, I was summoned to a private meeting. Peter was there, as were Lisa and Vic, an abashed Linda, Brian the barefoot company attorney and Corey. They’d invited Corey since he was one of the organizers of the game, but I was present as some sort of vox populi, a representative of the rank and file. I wondered if Peter had asked for me. The upshot was simple. Peter believed he’d done no real wrong, since his participation was emblematic of the kind of geektopia he was trying to build. The other stone-faced managers thought he was a fool. Corey angrily promised to shun any future company social events, as he felt he no longer had permission to communicate with his co-workers on anything other than a purely professional level. I mostly kept quiet — the whole ugly scene was just depressing. After the meeting, the board of directors reprimanded Peter and docked him a month’s salary.

    In the end, Peter moved on, as did many of his employees at the time, and Wizards of the Coast was sold to Hasbro. Peter stated in the article that he has no regrets:

    Although Peter now acknowledges the strait-laced responsibility a CEO has to his or her shareholders, to some extent he mourns the “different sort of company” he says Wizards could have been. He looks back on the weekend of the Truth or Swill game wistfully. “I still don’t think what we did was wrong. But society does, unfortunately.”

    The drama inside Wizards of the Coast -- what might be appropriate in how someone engages with mature topics -- has also been taking place online.

    Mature Content in the Marketplace

    Adult content in the tabletop publishing world is not new; White Wolf had long dominated the topic with its Black Dog imprint, which dealt with controversial subject matter:

    Black Dog Game Factory was a label used by White Wolf, Inc. for the publication of a number of books in their original World of Darkness RPG line. Books published by Black Dog had adult or mature themes, though not all Black Dog-published books dealt with sexual material. Some are labeled as adult because they deal with themes of strong violence or evil (such as Hunter Book: Wayward), religious themes (Cainite Heresy), or controversial subject matter (the Holocaust-based Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah).

    As we discussed in the previous installment, the Book of Erotic Fantasy tested the boundaries of WOTC's D20 System Trademark License...and those boundaries were violence, gore, sexual themes, and prejudice. When WOTC rapidly changed its STL to include this new language, publishers moved to the Open Game License, which has no such standards. And of course, WOTC later published The Book of Vile Darkness, which dealt with similarly adult-themed content.

    This gave rise to the OGL movement and later, the Old School Renaissance, unfettered by WOTC's standards. Eventually, those standards were tested again with a controversial product on DriveThruRPG. Stewart Wieck, CEO of OneBookShelf and DriveThruRPG spoke out about the controversy, acknowledging that they had never engaged with content policing before:

    Because this system has worked so well for so long, over a huge volume of products, we have had no need to create a content guideline for what we will not sell on DriveThruRPG due to its offensive nature. Further, in the case of roleplaying games, especially new games put out by independent creators or new companies, our marketplaces are a key distribution channel. If we were to ban an RPG product, the de facto result is very much like censorship. That fact causes me grave concern, for if we were to create a content guideline that all publishers on our store must follow, and then ban titles that do not meet those guidelines, then we would be playing dictator with the RPG art form, and that is a role I am acutely uncomfortable playing.

    Once again, history was repeating itself. Just as WOTC discovered that it took just one high-profile publisher to cause controversy, DriveThruRPG encountered a similar problem. It was nearly impossible to police such a high volume of publishers, so when one product sparked controversy, DriveThruRPG was forced to reexamine its entire system. Here's where DriveThruRPG ended up:

    So, going forward, our offensive content policy is simply going to be this: Offensive Content: We'll know it when we see it. I will be the final arbiter of what OneBookShelf deems offensive. I will tend to err toward including content, even when it challenges readers and deals with sensitive issues, so long as it does so maturely and not gratuitously.

    Like the changes with the STL, DriveThruRPG's new policy affected professionals who relied on their products for income -- some of which feature adult themes. Wieck acknowledged this change in his post, with the promise of a reporting feature in the future:

    There will be no "grandfathering in" of past content. Where we find offensive content on site, even if we have permitted it in the past under our prior policy, we will remove it. We are no longer a wide-open marketplace, and some publishers may need to find a different place to sell some of their content (or all of it, if they decide to leave DriveThru entirely).

    It remains to be seen if there will be a competitor to DriveThruRPG that provides unfettered access to more mature content.

    Now What?

    In some ways, the onus on what content was appropriate for certain audiences shifted from publishers like TSR and WOTC to distributors like DriveThruRPG. In the brick-and-mortar world, the barriers between these markets are strictly defined on store shelves; on the Internet, there are much fewer barriers to viewing and finding mature content. If DriveThruRPG's experience is any indication, the RPG community is still figuring out how to navigate the world of mature and kid-friendly content. In the final installment, we look at how the geek communities have created and implemented their own codes of conduct.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 2 Comments
    1. Darth Solo's Avatar
      Darth Solo -
      TSR went too deep with staffing while committing to various dead-end ventures (a textile company?). If they had stuck to gaming, finalized a real movie deal, and had a better attitude towards women (damn Gary) they would still be on top. I remember the TSR commercials on TV and that scene in "E.T." where Elliot plays D&D. TSR was huge, bigger than any modern rpg company.

      Honestly, I think many of the modern companies that could make a push to become a Fortune 500 are limited by the equally limited corporate vision. It seems rpg publishers are afraid to fail. Always a bad business strategy. Rather, be afraid you might conquer the world. Wen you do, eat the fear and push pieces.

      In my dream world, Green Ronin, Chaosim, WotC, Evil Hat, and Paizo combine their resources to form one peerless rpg company of unlimited imagination. Based in Indy next to their yearly event. Brash and fearless. Fail? That's what lesser companies do when they lose their vision. Make Margaret Weiss CEO.

      Until then, I wander through this rpg silver age. Waiting. Jeff Dee and Jack Herman for president!
    1. talien's Avatar
      talien -
      Quote Originally Posted by Darth Solo View Post
      TSR went too deep with staffing while committing to various dead-end ventures (a textile company?). If they had stuck to gaming, finalized a real movie deal, and had a better attitude towards women (damn Gary) they would still be on top. I remember the TSR commercials on TV and that scene in "E.T." where Elliot plays D&D. TSR was huge, bigger than any modern rpg company.

      Honestly, I think many of the modern companies that could make a push to become a Fortune 500 are limited by the equally limited corporate vision. It seems rpg publishers are afraid to fail. Always a bad business strategy. Rather, be afraid you might conquer the world. Wen you do, eat the fear and push pieces.

      In my dream world, Green Ronin, Chaosim, WotC, Evil Hat, and Paizo combine their resources to form one peerless rpg company of unlimited imagination. Based in Indy next to their yearly event. Brash and fearless. Fail? That's what lesser companies do when they lose their vision. Make Margaret Weiss CEO.

      Until then, I wander through this rpg silver age. Waiting. Jeff Dee and Jack Herman for president!
      A lot of what you're talking about is right place, right time. Gygax, expert marketer that he was, always knew there was room for a D&D movie. He got that D&D had to be more than just a game, but a brand, and he pushed hard for that. But the timing has to be right, and Hollywood in particular has to be receptive.

      All signs point to things about to change in RPGs favor. Shows based on RPGs, actors interested in RPGs, writers talking about how RPGs influenced them. With the new D&D movie coming out and backed by a major studio, the profile of RPGs will definitely be elevated.

      If the movie is terrible, it will probably herald the end of the brief-lived renaissance of RPGs.

      If the movie is great, it could well usher in a new age similar to what happened with comic books and movies (and let there be no doubt, Hasbro is actively pursuing Marvel's strategy). What then becomes frustrating is how little comic books have directly benefited.

      In fact, you just gave me a great idea for an article, thank you!
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