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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


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Jimmy Dick

Adventurer
Or lean more heavily toward remote-work opportunities. Wasn't that one of the things that the Paizo union was fighting for?
Yes. The gaming world has learned something they should have already known because of the way they use freelancers, but it is possible to run a successful company with many employees working from home. Today's technology is making this extremely easy. I taught multiple college courses via Zoom during the pandemic. What it takes is a bit of reorienting the course to take advantage of the situation.

That's what the gaming companies need to do. The question is are the people running those companies capable of making the mental switch to make it happen? The talent is going to go with the company that pays them the most/offers them the better working arrangement.

I really think there's an opportunity here for a company ran by smart people willing to build it up through remote positions/freelancers by paying that talent well to put out a topnotch product coupled with a great marketing drive and grab a significant market share. WotC is in a great position as well to keep the market share it has if it can adapt to the new situation and use the 50th anniversary successfully.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Yes. The gaming world has learned something they should have already known because of the way they use freelancers, but it is possible to run a successful company with many employees working from home. Today's technology is making this extremely easy. I taught multiple college courses via Zoom during the pandemic. What it takes is a bit of reorienting the course to take advantage of the situation.

That's what the gaming companies need to do. The question is are the people running those companies capable of making the mental switch to make it happen? The talent is going to go with the company that pays them the most/offers them the better working arrangement.

I really think there's an opportunity here for a company ran by smart people willing to build it up through remote positions/freelancers by paying that talent well to put out a topnotch product coupled with a great marketing drive and grab a significant market share. WotC is in a great position as well to keep the market share it has if it can adapt to the new situation and use the 50th anniversary successfully.

You do miss out on in person networking though things like zoom only go so far.

Who you know is just as if not more important as what you know in a lot of job sites.

For RPG design that requires no formal qualifications......
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
...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....

And it is a story entirely untold until now.

I mean, except that this has been the prevailing story around here for... quite some time now. Years, if I am not mistaken, possibly decades. I don't recall seeing the "WotC killed D&D, and the bought it," narrative here, like, ever.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
I mean, except that this has been the prevailing story around here for... quite some time now. Years, if I am not mistaken, possibly decades. I don't recall seeing the "WotC killed D&D, and the bought it," narrative here, like, ever.

It gets mentioned but no one's really pushing that line.

Even if you don't like modern D&D TSR killed themselves. Purely self inflicted.
 


I mean, except that this has been the prevailing story around here for... quite some time now. Years, if I am not mistaken, possibly decades. I don't recall seeing the "WotC killed D&D, and the bought it," narrative here, like, ever.

At the time, it looked like people had simply voted with their feet. There’s probably as many different reasons why this happened as there are gamers, but when I started uni in 1996 there were Magic games running wherever you looked, and even when I joined the rpg club I couldn’t play d&d because nobody was remotely interested in running it. Everything was White Wolf there, or Call of Cthulhu, or Ars Magica. Home D&d games were no doubt happily going along at kitchen tables all over the place, but in what passed for the (largely pre-internet) broader rpg community, or at least the bit of it I saw, d&d was viewed as slightly embarrassing 80s kitsch, kids stuff really. All the bright colours and ADVENTURE and dragonlancey good vs evil heroics didn’t really sit comfortably in a decade where music was depressed and cynical, V:tM (with its Serious Storytelling and ‘brooding sonorous gothic sensuality overlaid on today’s hyperkinetic neon cyberpunk world’, as I’m pretty sure the cover blurb used to say) was the defining rpg, where comics competed to make the nastiest goresplattered antiheroes, and where everyone in every movie wore black trenchcoats. TSRs mismanagement and the explosive popularity of a rival fantasy hobby in MtG certainly didn’t help, but it would have been a challenging cultural period for d&d to navigate whoever was in charge.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
At the time, it looked like people had simply voted with their feet. There’s probably as many different reasons why this happened as there are gamers, but when I started uni in 1996 there were Magic games running wherever you looked, and even when I joined the rpg club I couldn’t play d&d because nobody was remotely interested in running it. Everything was White Wolf there, or Call of Cthulhu, or Ars Magica. Home D&d games were no doubt happily going along at kitchen tables all over the place, but in what passed for the (largely pre-internet) broader rpg community, or at least the bit of it I saw, d&d was viewed as slightly embarrassing 80s kitsch. All the bright colours and ADVENTURE and dragonlancey good vs evil heroics didn’t really sit comfortably in a decade where music was depressed and cynical, V:tM was the defining rpg, where comics competed to make the nastiest goresplattered antiheroes, and where everyone in every movie wore black trenchcoats. TSRs mismanagement and the explosive popularity of a rival fantasy hobby in MtG certainly didn’t help, but it would have been a challenging cultural period for d&d to navigate whoever was in charge.

The 3.0 ascetic probably would have worked post 1991.

D&D kinda grew up with it's audience on that one.

B/X and 2E kinda aimed at younger gamers.
 

Zil

Explorer
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.
I recall seeing a posting for a an entry level pen and paper game designer position in Seattle where one of the assets/qualifications they were looking for was a degree that included the Humanities and/or history.
 

Staffan

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.
The problem is that it's much easier to tell good* art from bad art than good game design from bad game design. You can pretty much instantly look at an artist's portfolio and tell if they're someone you want drawing art for your product or not. It's not so easy to look at a game and say the same.

And of course, what we consider "game design" also includes a whole lot of fiction writing – and when done right, the two support one another. But the same thing applies there, it's a lot harder to tell good from bad than with visual arts. And there's also a big difference between having the chops to design a whole game, and for designing bits and bobs that work with an already existing game – it's easier to design a spell than a magic system.

That applies both on a company level and a consumer level. As a reader, I was at first mightily impressed with Coriolis, for example. The writing was great, the setting was something that really pushed my buttons (essentially "Firefly but with Middle-Eastern instead of Chinese tones with a bit of Cthulhu Mythos thrown in"), but it took actually playing the game for me to realize that the mechanics really didn't work very well.

* "Good" is admittedly a nebulous term when it comes to art, but whatever either illustrates what it's supposed to illustrate correctly, or portrays whatever mood it's trying to inspire effectively.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
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.
The barrier of entry for art is a little higher.
 




Hasn't...it been understood for ages that TSR damaged itself, and WotC had basically nothing to do with it? The blurb above makes it sound like a shocking revelation that that's what happened. I've been hearing about the mismanagement, foolish business decisions, and self-inflicted problems for years, probably over a decade at this point.

Edit: Ah, and then if I'd just checked the second page, I'd have gotten my answer.
 

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.
I think there are a couple of issues here.

1) Not all RPGs will materially benefit from a degree in statistics. Most of the the math you need to design RPGs is relatively straightforward. Videogames will benefit more, particularly loot-centric ones where characters have a lot of different numbers (stats) to track.

2) Having such a degree doesn't indicate anything about your ability to design logical, easy-to-follow, or fun-to-engage-with rules, nor to design rules which are reasonably solid (i.e. not full of holes/issues). If anything a law degree might be more helpful here.

3) Hundreds of hours of experience, like having designed your own game, would certainly be good. However, we've seen a few times that a person can design a great game by themselves, and then not add very much or even be unhelpful on a project with multiple designers, and we've seen even within 5E some really trash-tier rules (in one case so bad they don't even do what they say they do, like literally) appear at least as optional rules in the core rulebooks (the Sanity mechanic for example literally doesn't do what it says it does, but I refuse to have the entire multi-page argument with the one guy who thought it did again lol so that's all I'll say!).

I'm not saying that you "need less qualifications", but I am saying that it's harder to assess what the right qualifications actually are. Like, does Vincent Baker have a degree in statistics? If not would you ignore the guy who designed Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World in favour of someone who did? Or Meguey Baker? (I'm genuinely asking because I can't find out - none of his bios list any degrees. I assume he has at least one but I have no idea what.) I think if we look at lot of people who have designed some really great RPGs, we'd find very few of them had specifically RPG-relevant degrees.

With art, it's likely you either will have a degree or even a masters, but the real test is creating art of suitable quality. And that's going to be a lot easier to show. I certainly wouldn't require a degree for someone doing art for an RPG, for example, not if they had a portfolio.
 

Willie the Duck

Adventurer
The sales blurb certainly is doing a good job of un-selling me, personally. However, it is important to remember that people like us, who spend huge amounts of time hashing over the game while not playing the game, are a minority. Forumites are what, half a percent of TTRPG gamers maybe (I know, hard stats on something like that is going to be impossible). I think HM's people thought TSR died of people playing other things notion is probably more widely held amongst the wider world of D&D-playing people. Those that probably could come up with TSR as the company that came before WotC for D&D by themselves, That probably remember the name Gary Gygax when you bring it up ('didn't he have a cameo on Futurama?'), and have no idea who Lorraine Williams or the Blumes are. I certainly know that in the 90s, there were a lot of people in my local circles who thought White Wolf and Magic: the Gathering were who/what were to blame for D&D's decline.

That said, are these the kind of people who are the target audience for a D&D/TSR history book?

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.

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.

I mean, except that this has been the prevailing story around here for... quite some time now. Years, if I am not mistaken, possibly decades. I don't recall seeing the "WotC killed D&D, and the bought it," narrative here, like, ever.

Hasn't...it been understood for ages that TSR damaged itself, and WotC had basically nothing to do with it? The blurb above makes it sound like a shocking revelation that that's what happened. I've been hearing about the mismanagement, foolish business decisions, and self-inflicted problems for years, probably over a decade at this point.

Edit: Ah, and then if I'd just checked the second page, I'd have gotten my answer.
it looked like people had simply voted with their feet.
 

Dausuul

Legend
I think there are a couple of issues here.

1) Not all RPGs will materially benefit from a degree in statistics. Most of the the math you need to design RPGs is relatively straightforward. Videogames will benefit more, particularly loot-centric ones where characters have a lot of different numbers (stats) to track.

2) Having such a degree doesn't indicate anything about your ability to design logical, easy-to-follow, or fun-to-engage-with rules, nor to design rules which are reasonably solid (i.e. not full of holes/issues). If anything a law degree might be more helpful here.

3) Hundreds of hours of experience, like having designed your own game, would certainly be good. However, we've seen a few times that a person can design a great game by themselves, and then not add very much or even be unhelpful on a project with multiple designers, and we've seen even within 5E some really trash-tier rules (in one case so bad they don't even do what they say they do, like literally) appear at least as optional rules in the core rulebooks (the Sanity mechanic for example literally doesn't do what it says it does, but I refuse to have the entire multi-page argument with the one guy who thought it did again lol so that's all I'll say!).

I'm not saying that you "need less qualifications", but I am saying that it's harder to assess what the right qualifications actually are. Like, does Vincent Baker have a degree in statistics? If not would you ignore the guy who designed Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World in favour of someone who did? Or Meguey Baker? (I'm genuinely asking because I can't find out - none of his bios list any degrees. I assume he has at least one but I have no idea what.) I think if we look at lot of people who have designed some really great RPGs, we'd find very few of them had specifically RPG-relevant degrees.

With art, it's likely you either will have a degree or even a masters, but the real test is creating art of suitable quality. And that's going to be a lot easier to show. I certainly wouldn't require a degree for someone doing art for an RPG, for example, not if they had a portfolio.
This is undoubtedly why Wizards hires designers who've already made a mark in the RPG industry. It's the equivalent of an artist's portfolio; you can see what they made and how it was received, and playtest it yourself. It ain't perfect--as in any industry, no matter how many certifications and portfolios and tests you look for, there's no way to know absolutely-for-sure that a new hire will work out--but it's decently effective.

TSR, of course, did not have that luxury in the early days. Still, there was a pretty lively RPG market going by the late '80s*; they could have adopted such a strategy. But it didn't seem like TSR execs knew or cared much about the quality of their output. And if you don't care about something, you're not going to pay much for it.

*Maybe earlier than the late '80s, I wouldn't know.
 

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