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

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.
It seems to me like, until sometime in the mid-late '90s, RPG design was seen as an "unskilled" or at least "amateur" field, both by the companies involved, and by the audience.

In discussions in the '90s you almost never heard "Maybe try the rules as they are - the designers were competent and playtested this heavily". On the contrary, the normal assumption was that basically any random DM was just as competent at game design as the people who actually made the game.

As the '90s progressed this attitude changed, I think because we started to see more and more designs which didn't seem slapped-together, full of contradictions and peculiarities and so on. Whether it was Feng Shui or Marvel SAGA or whatever people started to realize that maybe there was more to designing RPGs than just slapping some numbers on a page or making up rules that "sounded right".

Certainly WotC, with 3E, took a very different approach, perhaps partly because MtG had demanded it, and clearly believed "good game design" existed. And whilst the d20 boom brought "amateur hour" back to some degree, I think since then (and with more discussion of theory behind RPGs) we've seen a big change in how RPGs are designed. 5E actually has some rather poorly-developed bits that I think are the result of coming out of the oven slightly early, moreso than 3E/4E in some ways I'd say, but there's also a lot of very tight math and logic in there (much better logic than 3E too, I'd note).
 

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One of the big problems is the simple law of supply and demand.

You can find, even (especially?) now, plenty of absolutely free D&D material online...people make & release this stuff for fun. So when it comes to design, as people, say, it's harder to tell good from bad, and there's a lot of people willing to fill a designer's place if they don't like the salary...which drives down wages.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen
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.
This is much my thought as well.

In the 90s it looked like gamers had voted with their feet, moving en masse to Magic and to newer, shinier games, and away from D&D, looking at it as old-fashioned and to some extent marketed at kids (a hangover from late 1E, early 2E era marketing, especially). Even relatively hot concepts like Dark Sun, with its outstanding Brom art, somehow failed, though in retrospect we know TSR had screwed up their math badly and were losing money on those wonderful setting boxed sets. And after a couple of years of Magic, you got the rise of the first big MMOs (EverQuest dropped in 1999, ja?).

The details about TSR's management woes, the Random House deal and such have really only emerged pretty recently, and are probably only common knowledge among, as you said, a hardcore dedicated set of fans like us.

I am interested in this book as a complement to Game Wizards, covering the later, post-Gygax period at TSR. Although I hope it's either good (and obviates the need for Jon Peterson to cover the same period), or very bad (and gives Jon reason to do it better). :ROFLMAO:
 

Even relatively hot concepts like Dark Sun, with its outstanding Brom art, somehow failed
Just on this specific concept, did it?

I ask because my impression was the original Dark Sun boxed set was extremely successful, but then WotC put out a second Dark Sun boxed set to replace it, which showed a huge lack of understanding of why anyone might like Dark Sun, and IIRC, deleted all the Brom art - I just checked it absolutely did. The second version also just has drastically less style and "edge". The art is far more subdued, there's a lot less of it, the layout is I think objectively worse and more text-heavy (I have both to hand), and so on.

So to me it looks like the Brom/Baxa-era Dark Sun boxed set was a success, at least enough of one that they decided to double-down on it and put out a new boxed set, but that that second boxed set might well have been a failure. And with good reason - it moved in the exact wrong direction. Just as art and design and getting people excited about RPGs was being better and better done by competitors, WotC moved away from excitement and towards looking staid and nerdy.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen
Just on this specific concept, did it?

I ask because my impression was the original Dark Sun boxed set was extremely successful, but then WotC put out a second Dark Sun boxed set to replace it, which showed a huge lack of understanding of why anyone might like Dark Sun, and IIRC, deleted all the Brom art - I just checked it absolutely did. The second version also just has drastically less style and "edge". The art is far more subdued, there's a lot less of it, the layout is I think objectively worse and more text-heavy (I have both to hand), and so on.

So to me it looks like the Brom/Baxa-era Dark Sun boxed set was a success, at least enough of one that they decided to double-down on it and put out a new boxed set, but that that second boxed set might well have been a failure. And with good reason - it moved in the exact wrong direction. Just as art and design and getting people excited about RPGs was being better and better done by competitors, WotC moved away from excitement and towards looking staid and nerdy.
That's fair. It's an open question, and perhaps I'm inferring too much in assuming that the original box set lost money based on information that the 2E-era boxed sets in general lost money because as a rule their production costs were higher than their actual price.

I'm sure it was successful from the perspective of selling well and getting a bunch of gamers excited. But if its production costs were higher than its selling price....

Heck, that could conceivably be why TSR re-did it. Did Brom maybe negotiable a royalty deal or something, which TSR later regretted? Like what happened with Arneson, and with Mike Carr's In Search of the Unknown? If he was getting too high a cut, maybe they thought they could make it profitable by cutting him out and re-doing it, like with subbing B2 into the Basic boxes in place of B1.
 

Did Brom maybe negotiable a royalty deal or something, which TSR later regretted?
I remember reading somewhere that Brom thoroughly burnt himself out on the Dark Sun aesthetic though the sheer volume of work he produced for the line, and wanted to work in a different style for a while.
 

That's fair. It's an open question, and perhaps I'm inferring too much in assuming that the original box set lost money based on information that the 2E-era boxed sets in general lost money because as a rule their production costs were higher than their actual price.

I'm sure it was successful from the perspective of selling well and getting a bunch of gamers excited. But if its production costs were higher than its selling price....

Heck, that could conceivably be why TSR re-did it. Did Brom maybe negotiable a royalty deal or something, which TSR later regretted? Like what happened with Arneson, and with Mike Carr's In Search of the Unknown? If he was getting too high a cut, maybe they thought they could make it profitable by cutting him out and re-doing it, like with subbing B2 into the Basic boxes in place of B1.
The original DS includes some unusual elements like two flip-pads on good card stock with colour printing, and is generally produced to a higher standard than the 2nd version, so it's highly possible it was more expensive. I don't buy royalties or him taking a cut unless there's evidence, because that would basically be unheard-of for an artist back then (correct me if I'm wrong), and TSR had already been burned on that sort of thing, so I doubt they'd do it again in 1993.

However, the second version just makes a ton of bad aesthetic decisions to the point where it looks a lot more like there was a conscious hand behind them than it being accident or necessity. I feel it likely re-using Brom and Baxa's art would have been cheaper than commissioning a bunch of new art (which doesn't look "cheap" or anything, just nowhere near as sharp, memorable or stylish), and the layout/graphic design choices won't have saved money on the book interior, they're just bad. This is from an era when WotC made quite a number out outright-bad, like objectively-bad graphic design and layout decisions. The most spectacular being the reprint of the PHB, which is absolutely HIDEOUS and whoever was in charge of the graphic design/layout there (and cover choice and some of the interior art choices) should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. The 1st PHB for 2E is a work of art. It's not perfect, but it is extremely attractive. It's just outright pleasant to look at. I've had people who aren't D&D players comment on how it was, particularly the interior - but even cover's colour-dominance complements the interior. It's just good work. Then the second version comes along and it looks like a ogre who works as an accountant designed it whilst in a bad mood.

No idea what happened at WotC there. At the same time Planescape stuff is coming out with often-great visual design, but even that began to trail off and get a lot uglier. It wasn't a trend in general in the mid-late 1990s - plenty of other RPGs were highly attractive or even becoming more attractive in that period. Just not AD&D. Not all books were disasters, note, but the 2nd version of the PHB and the 2nd version of Dark Sun were.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
I remember reading somewhere that Brom thoroughly burnt himself out on the Dark Sun aesthetic though the sheer volume of work he produced for the line, and wanted to work in a different style for a while.
Yep. From Brom himself. He basically wasn’t allowed to do other stuff and it just burnt him out.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
The original DS includes some unusual elements like two flip-pads on good card stock with colour printing, and is generally produced to a higher standard than the 2nd version, so it's highly possible it was more expensive.
The revised boxed set (affiliate link) came with a cloth map of the Tablelands, so I'm not so sure about that.
 
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Jimmy Dick

Adventurer
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.
I've worked online for over ten years. You can easily do in person networking online. You don't even need Zoom for that. Zoom helps with some other aspects of networking but the pandemic is showing us that the need to have physical offices for most things is an illusion. I am teaching college courses in history via Zoom and live students in the classroom at the same time. I can connect with students either way at the same time. It's all in how you develop the material.

Networking is just an extension of conversation. It can be done via text messaging and e-mail for that matter. It works well via Discord too. You can actually meet more people online than in the physical world. Another thing the pandemic has shown us is that a lot of office problems can be eliminated via working from home. Office politics tend to decrease significantly and productivity increases. Makes you wonder just how much of the so-called networking was really about work related things.
 

ECMO3

Hero
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.
If the cost of print content is raised sales will decline and piracy will increase. Those two things are certain.

I buy most of the hardcover 5E books published by Wizards, but if they raised prices say 20% to increase the pay of their staff by 25% I probably wouldn't. This is especially true when virtually all of it is available online (legally or illegally). Cracking down on piracy is a losing battle as it will both not be effective and will alienate potential players. The internet wars waged by TSR1 in the very early days of the web were part of its downfall.

I do think royalties mentioned are an interesting proposition, cut salary a bit on a promise of a larger piece of the pie if things go well. Take the $50k a designer is making today and cut it to $45 with a penny in royalties on each sale. If they had done this this in 2020 each worker on TCE for example would have already made an additional $10k on the print copy and would be collecting for as long as it is sold. Unfortunately unions rarely go for that because of the risk involved and because of the disproportionate earnings it creats-if you work on a project that does well you make enough to buy a mansion, work on a failure and you make enough to buy a cup of coffee.
 

ECMO3

Hero
Networking is just an extension of conversation. It can be done via text messaging and e-mail for that matter. It works well via Discord too. You can actually meet more people online than in the physical world. Another thing the pandemic has shown us is that a lot of office problems can be eliminated via working from home. Office politics tend to decrease significantly and productivity increases. Makes you wonder just how much of the so-called networking was really about work related things.
There are some connections that can only be made in person - physical connection in specific and whether they are ethical or not, they are certainly part of the business world.

We can do a lot from home and in some ways it is even more efficient, but you can't do everything from home and I am not sure the statement that productivity increases is true across the board or even in general. I don't believe there is scientific data backing that up.
 

The revised boxed set (affiliate link) came with a cloth map of the Tablelands, so I'm not so sure about that.
Maybe some of them did? But I just checked mine, and it came with a pretty standard 2e-era paper poster map. A decent quality colour, glossy one, but certainly not cloth. And from memory, other box sets (planescape for example) from the same era came with multiple poster maps like this.
 

If the cost of print content is raised sales will decline and piracy will increase. Those two things are certain.
I think it's less certain, or at least smaller in magnitude, than you might think. WotC releases, what, 5 hardbacks a particularly productive year? If they raise the price of them from, say, A$60 to A$70, i think the vast majority of people who already pay A$60 five times a year will pay an extra $10 per book just as willingly.

I'm pretty sure (waaaay back in the Napster days, but I'm sure there's been more since) there was a lot of research done on the psychology of piracy, and most of the conclusions were that price doesn't really impact piracy rates that much. People who pirate something if it costs $50 would pirate it just the same if it cost $10. Piracy is largely driven by opportunity, not economics.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Maybe some of them did? But I just checked mine, and it came with a pretty standard 2e-era paper poster map. A decent quality colour, glossy one, but certainly not cloth. And from memory, other box sets (planescape for example) from the same era came with multiple poster maps like this.

Mine has cloth map and paper maps.
 


Zardnaar

Legend
Huh, weird. Mine doesn't, and doesn't even mention cloth maps on the back of the box.

Though mine was bought at a clearance, very late in the TSR implosion era. I wonder if later in the print run they quietly cut the cloth map to save a few bucks?

No idea. Mine was bought second hand.
 


I think it's less certain, or at least smaller in magnitude, than you might think. WotC releases, what, 5 hardbacks a particularly productive year? If they raise the price of them from, say, A$60 to A$70, i think the vast majority of people who already pay A$60 five times a year will pay an extra $10 per book just as willingly.

I'm pretty sure (waaaay back in the Napster days, but I'm sure there's been more since) there was a lot of research done on the psychology of piracy, and most of the conclusions were that price doesn't really impact piracy rates that much. People who pirate something if it costs $50 would pirate it just the same if it cost $10. Piracy is largely driven by opportunity, not economics.
Re: piracy I agree (though the very best way to fight piracy has been to make it easy to buy the product, and the best way to cause piracy is to make it hard or impossible), but I don't agree re: sales. You're going from A$300 to A$340, that's almost an entire book's worth of extra cost, and I'm also not sure as many people spend A$300 or local equivalent every year. I know even with Beyond, which is often cheaper, I've somewhat balked at the cost of buying every WotC book (and I already don't buy WotC adventures), and started limiting myself to buying books I'm definitely interested in and will use, because the money adds up. If WotC pushed prices up, then I'd quite likely buy a book less a year, because the odds are very good it would push at least one book out of consideration for me in terms of price/value. I feel like you're just thinking about the robot-people who automatically buy everything WotC puts out, and yeah maybe they'll continue, but I don't think they're the majority of the market (or are they?).
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Maybe some of them did? But I just checked mine, and it came with a pretty standard 2e-era paper poster map. A decent quality colour, glossy one, but certainly not cloth. And from memory, other box sets (planescape for example) from the same era came with multiple poster maps like this.
The product description on the DTRPG sales page says the revised boxed set has three maps, one of which is a close-up of the Tyr Region; that's the cloth map. Does your boxed set have three maps?
 

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