TSR D&D Historian Ben Riggs on TSR's Salaries in the 1990s

We're talking about the original TSR (TSR1) here, not the controversy-laden TSR3. Benjamin Riggs is a D&D historian, and his latest book Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons, which takes a deep dive into the sale of TSR to WotC in the late 1990s, is available to pre-order now.

Ben wrote about the salaries of TSR employees back in 1997.

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Hi! I’m a D&D historian, and given some of the issues around worker pay in the #TTRPG industry raised by the Paizo Union and others, I thought I’d tweet a little bit about pay at TSR in 1997, a time for which I have a ton of primary source documents.

First, let’s look at TSR as a whole. It had 94 American employees, and I believe 15 UK employees though my documentation on that is thin. The company spent $3,551,664 on payroll in 97.

The highest-paid person at TSR in 97 made $212,973. ($360,000 in today’s dollars.)

The lowest-paid person made $15,080. ($26,000 in today’s dollars.)

The highest-paid creative at TSR in 97 was an artist who took home a $100,000 salary. ($173,000 in today’s dollars.)

The highest-paid game designer made $50,000. ($86,000 in today’s dollars.)

The lowest-paid game designer made $27,500. ($47,000 in today’s dollars.)

I’m not an econ major or in business, but a few things jump out at me when I look at the payrolls and salaries as a whole.

First, game design seemed to have the lowest salaries as a group, excepting administrative assistants. It was also the largest group of employees on the payroll.

That said, hiring a full-time game designer based in outstate Wisconsin today and paying them $47,000 plus benefits seems a generous starting wage. That said, a starting game designer working on D&D at WoTC has to live in Seattle, which is not nearly as affordable as Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

While I haven’t done the math, at a glance, it looks like the average salary in every other department was higher. Cartography, books, sales, and art all seemed more financially remunerative than game design.

One reason for this could be that there was a massive layoff at TSR the Friday before Christmas in 1996. I do not know the salaries of the 20+ people laid off that day. It could be that they were higher-paid individuals, and since my data is from 1997, it leaves the RPG department looking underpaid.

But there were also people who had been with TSR for I believe 20+ years working in the RPG department who were still making less than $30,000 in 1997. I did not see anyone with that kind of longevity still making that little in any other department.

So perhaps management simply took advantage of the fact that people would work for less if they got to make D&D. A suggestion that might help ensure better pay for RPG designers going forward is royalties.

Gygax & Arneson made incredible amounts of money off their D&D royalties. Early D&D developers who were given royalties described them as a portal to the middle class. While not every adventure will sell so well that it will allow the designers to buy mansions, it would allow those whose work really took off to directly benefit.

Furthermore, royalties can provide income for a long time after work is completed, and one of the tragedies of the industry today is watching RPG legends beg for money to pay medical bills online. Perhaps royalties could provide long-term security for designers.

In sum, RPG designers are vital people to the lives of our imaginations. It is important they not just survive but thrive economically from their inspiring and important work.

If you find me amusing, consider pre-ordering my book on the sale of TSR to WoTC at [this link]!


Ben Riggs's Slaying the Dragon tells the secret and untold story of how TSR, the company that created Dungeons & Dragons, was driven into ruin by disastrous management decisions, then purchased and saved by their bitterest rival.

For twenty years, a story has been told about the first company that made Dungeons & Dragons, TSR, and the story goes something like this: Dungeons & Dragons created the genre of role-playing games in 1974, and that made TSR successful. In the 1990's, Wizards of the Coast created a new kind of game, the collectible card game. People started playing Wizards’ flagship product, Magic: The Gathering, and that competition killed TSR. In a twist worthy of a Greek tragedy, Wizards ended up buying TSR. It is a story of competition and creative destruction, as capitalism teaches us is right and good.

That story is entirely wrong.

Through hundreds of hours of interviews, endless research, and the help of anonymous sources providing secret documents, the true story of what happened to TSR and Dungeons & Dragons can finally be told. TSR did not so much die in capitalist combat as it bled to death of self-inflicted wounds. The true history is that of disastrous mistakes, and decisions founded on arrogance rather than good sense. Debts were racked up, geniuses driven from the company, and countless of thousands of products were shipped and sold at a loss, with no one noticing until after the fact. The story of TSR provides a negative blueprint, an example of what a company should not do in the geek business space.

And it is a story entirely untold until now.
 

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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey


Jimmy Dick

Adventurer
I think this is still a problem today for the game and the industry overall. The salaries are too low for a high expense area of the United States (Seattle). There is a mentality out there among people I've raised this topic with that raising the price of the printed content would negatively hurt the industry overall. I disagree with them. I also question how the revenue from some of the larger companies goes to their employees.

This cannot continue. I'm happy to see the Paizo employees unionize and I hope that spreads throughout the industry. It will be an uphill battle because I am certain that the big companies will fight to keep payrolls low so that the top earners continue to pull in the bulk of the profits. I wouldn't mind paying higher prices for my gaming content, but at the same time, I would like to see the revenue shared in a more equitable manner first.
 

J-H

Hero
I was thinking about this, and realized:
The barrier to entry for Game designer is "Have good ideas about what would be fun."
The barrier to entry for an artist is "Be able to do good art, in the right style, of the right things as directed."

It's a lot easier to find two dozen qualified RPG game designers than two dozen qualified RPG artists... thus, the artists command higher wages.
 




I graduated college and got my first job in 99. I was making probably $32k and living in a city with a higher cost of living than anywhere in Wisconsin. I would have killed to work as a game designer.

Certain jobs are career traps. In that they have shiny bait, but not a lot of growth potential and job skills don't translate well to other industries. Game designer is probably one of them. But you don't think about that as a young adult.

Still money isn't everything and there is something to be said about following your dreams even if it doesn't make you rich.
 



I think this is still a problem today for the game and the industry overall. The salaries are too low for a high expense area of the United States (Seattle). There is a mentality out there among people I've raised this topic with that raising the price of the printed content would negatively hurt the industry overall. I disagree with them. I also question how the revenue from some of the larger companies goes to their employees.

The real curse is forces that make creatives have to get business done in metros where they have to be incredibly successful to live. Or as they say in traditional publishing, "I have an New York agent so I don't have to live in New York."

It's sort of a curse, the talent goes somewhere cheap to live, helps establish a place as having culture which accelerates the gentrification, and prices, of the area.

At one time, a writer could make a living off the short stories they sold just down the street at the offices for the New York pulp magazines, those same writers headed west to the burgeoning TV market in LA. (and their original ranch style homes have been long replaced by literal mansions.)

Seattle is bit different due to the tech boom, but there are also some echoes with flow of designers/writers between ttRPG industry and the video game industry.

I'm not saying creatives shouldn't fight for a living wage, especially considering how creatives are always undervalued in any organization (Ask me who got paid more at the newspaper? the journalists in the content mines or the salepeople?)

But maybe it's also time for some of ttRPG companies to decouple themselves from Seattle, if at the very least so the company owners leave more cheaply and pass on the extra to their employees.
 


I was thinking about this, and realized:
The barrier to entry for Game designer is "Have good ideas about what would be fun."
The barrier to entry for an artist is "Be able to do good art, in the right style, of the right things as directed."

It's a lot easier to find two dozen qualified RPG game designers than two dozen qualified RPG artists... thus, the artists command higher wages.
I worked for Games Workshop in the UK in the 90s as a layout artist, doing page layout for Warhammer, 40K, Necromunda, Gorkamorka and loads of other games and supplements. I got paid £8000 a year for it. Loved my job, but couldn't afford to live on that salary so lasted only 5 years before I had to find a better design job that would put food on the table. Can confirm that games companies (or at least GW) definitely relied on a person's love of the hobby in order to pay less than the going rate.
 

robowieland

Adventurer
I'm very interested in the book, but the sales blurb confused me a little. Even before recent exposés such as Peterson's The Game Wizards, I thought it was fairly common knowledge that TSR tanked themselves through bad decisions.
For gamers of a certain age, yes. But I've encounterd younger D&D fans who don't even know what a TSR is.

Ben has specific examples of bad decisions from primary sources rather than hearsay on the Internet.
 


I'm actually looking forward to this one more than i did Game Wizards, simply because this is the era in which i was actually starting to be involved in the hobby. Some of the stuff I've heard about how TSR was run back then is completely off the wall, and if i didn't have it from primary sources then i wouldn't have believed it. Check out Lynn Abbey's posts about the writing process for her Dark Sun novels if you haven't already.

Mind you, the book I'm REALLY looking forward to won't be written for another 15 years, about the 3e->4e->5e period and the transition between editions. But that's probably less about corporate history and more about the creative process and game design, so might be a bit more niche. Not sure anyone is as interested as me in the 'what the hell were they THINKING' aspects of the Spellplague, for instance
 


Zardnaar

Legend
Those wages don't look that bad for Wisconsin at the time. Done worse for a whole lot less.

Game design is also an artistic endeavor. There's no degree or other qualification.

A good artist is probably harder to find than a game designer.

Seattle obviously requires a higher renumeration and/or some other perk eg company housing.
 

Hussar

Legend
Those wages don't look that bad for Wisconsin at the time. Done worse for a whole lot less.

Game design is also an artistic endeavor. There's no degree or other qualification.

A good artist is probably harder to find than a game designer.
The better question is, is it harder to find a good game designer than a good artist? Game design does have qualifications - a math degree in statistics would go a long, LONG way. Never minding hundreds of hours of experience in order to actually get the chops to be a good game designer. Even by the 90's, the video game industry was certainly employing all sorts of qualified designers.

The notion that "artistic endeavors" somehow need less qualifications really, really needs to die in a fire.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
The better question is, is it harder to find a good game designer than a good artist? Game design does have qualifications - a math degree in statistics would go a long, LONG way. Never minding hundreds of hours of experience in order to actually get the chops to be a good game designer. Even by the 90's, the video game industry was certainly employing all sorts of qualified designers.

The notion that "artistic endeavors" somehow need less qualifications really, really needs to die in a fire.

Good game designer obviously probably gets one of the higher salaries.

But yeah there's no qualification required so theoretically anyone can do it.

Obviously being creative with basic maths, English and history knowledge would help.

Otherwise it's mostly experience. Back then you had Dragon/Dungeon which they recruited from.
 

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