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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

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?
Yep, three maps.

One large map that covers from the Dead Lands in the south to the northern tip of the Forest Ridge in the North, from the Cerulean Storm in the east to the Misty Border in the west.

A second large map that continues the first northward, up to the Last Sea.

One smaller map, more zoomed-in, focusing on the Tyr region from the Forest Ridge in the NW to the Estuary of the Forked Tongue in the SE.

All three maps are paper.
 

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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Yep, three maps.

One large map that covers from the Dead Lands in the south to the northern tip of the Forest Ridge in the North, from the Cerulean Storm in the east to the Misty Border in the west.

A second large map that continues the first northward, up to the Last Sea.

One smaller map, more zoomed-in, focusing on the Tyr region from the Forest Ridge in the NW to the Estuary of the Forked Tongue in the SE.

All three maps are paper.
That's very strange. :unsure:

In his overview of the boxed set, Shannon Appelcline describes the cloth map as possibly being "TSR's most overproduced component ever," so you wouldn't think of it as having run out. Did you buy your copy used? Because all I can think of is that it was "reconstructed" (i.e. put together with components from other boxed sets) and someone substituted a paper map for the cloth one.
 

Echohawk

Shirokinukatsukami fan
That's very strange. :unsure:

In his overview of the boxed set, Shannon Appelcline describes the cloth map as possibly being "TSR's most overproduced component ever," so you wouldn't think of it as having run out. Did you buy your copy used? Because all I can think of is that it was "reconstructed" (i.e. put together with components from other boxed sets) and someone substituted a paper map for the cloth one.
That wouldn't explain the lack of a mention on the bottom of humble minion's box. My boxed clearly says "Three full-colour poster maps: One is a close-up of the Tyr Region, printed on cloth to make it especially authentic-looking."
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
That wouldn't explain the lack of a mention on the bottom of humble minion's box. My boxed clearly says "Three full-colour poster maps: One is a close-up of the Tyr Region, printed on cloth to make it especially authentic-looking."
Curiouser and curiouser. The scan from the TSR Archive has no such mention.

ds-rev-cs-back.jpg


Maybe they did reprint it without the cloth map at some point? I'll need to go check my own copy of the boxed set.
 

That wouldn't explain the lack of a mention on the bottom of humble minion's box. My boxed clearly says "Three full-colour poster maps: One is a close-up of the Tyr Region, printed on cloth to make it especially authentic-looking."
Wow, that's really weird. The back of my box says 'One is a close-up of the Tyr Region. The other high-quality maps detail the lands beyond the north, south, and west-expanding the area of the original campaign by eight times!' - it's basically exactly the same as @Alzrius's scan there.

I looked up Shannon Appelcline's overview - could he be using 'overproduced' in the sense of 'overly expensive and elaborate for its purpose' rather than 'produced in too large a quantity'? I still suspect someone at TSR belatedly ran the numbers on the cloth maps and realised they were excruciatingly expensive, and quietly substituted paper maps into later print runs.
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Okay, looking at my own boxed set, the back text is different:

ZMCD62M.jpeg


So apparently, at some point they ran out of cloth maps and changed the back of the box accordingly? I'm starting to suspect that the use of "overproduced" as "expensive and elaborate" is the correct interpretation of Appelcline's statement.
 

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:
I'd half agree with you there. I mean in the 90s I was well aware that White Wolf not D&D was the popular and innovative one (and we were playing Magic). But I remember at least knowing that TSR had a warehouse full of random crap including books since reading Dancey's PR autopsy in the early 2000s.
 

Jimmy Dick

Adventurer
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.
I disagree. Companies can make more money on digital sales than print sales. Right now, print is still the higher volume seller, but that will eventually change. But higher prices are not going to kill this industry at all. Some people will pirate content, but as we've seen repeatedly throughout history, that is not killing companies at all.
 

Jimmy Dick

Adventurer
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.
Again, my personal experience makes me disagree with you.
 


evildmguy

Explorer
I'd half agree with you there. I mean in the 90s I was well aware that White Wolf not D&D was the popular and innovative one (and we were playing Magic). But I remember at least knowing that TSR had a warehouse full of random crap including books since reading Dancey's PR autopsy in the early 2000s.
The toughest part of Dancey's autopsy, for me, was "We listened when the customers told us that Alternity wasn't what they wanted in a science fiction game." I adore Alternity still. Sure, I want it updated and revised since it's twenty plus years later (I do have the new one as well but it lost some of the "feel" of the original.) but the core ideas (the Durability track, the skill checks, which had to have influenced skill challenges, rank benefits, secondary damage) are still things I want to see in a game. It took a long time for me to understand how well the game works, whether by design or not, and to leave most things unchanged.

Ah, well.

Thanks for the discussion!
 

Jaeger

That someone better.
The salaries are too low for a high expense area of the United States (Seattle).
Yes.

But maybe it's also time for some of ttRPG companies to decouple themselves from Seattle

Hell yes.

There is no reason for any RPG company to be in an expensive area. None.

WotC can get away with it because of Magic money, and it is now plugged into a corporate giant. They are a total outlier.

Nobody else can. Although even though they are in a position to pay more to hire the best talent, every indication is that WotC doesn't pay much more than Paizo for freelancer work.


more heavily toward remote-work opportunities. Wasn't that one of the things that the Paizo union was fighting for?

Remote + Low cost of living area is a must.

Pazio should plan a move this year. It is the only way to make the union thing work.

Otherwise Pazio will be a very different company within 5 years.


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.

This, there are big conveniences to having direct access to people.

But RPG's can easily be done with a small core office group, and then the bulk of employee's/contractors largely being remote.


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).

This is something I find incredible, and it has happened for every WotC edition...

When you look at the quality of game design a one man shop like Kevin Crawford is able to turn out: (Stars/Worlds without number.)

I find the product WotC has turned out from a design team of top-tier "professional" game designers to be rather slipshod in comparison. When it should be the other way around!

IMHO at that level of resources, and design credentials, its rather inexcusable.
 

This is something I find incredible, and it has happened for every WotC edition...

When you look at the quality of game design a one man shop like Kevin Crawford is able to turn out: (Stars/Worlds without number.)

I find the product WotC has turned out from a design team of top-tier "professional" game designers to be rather slipshod in comparison. When it should be the other way around!

IMHO at that level of resources, and design credentials, its rather inexcusable.
There is a bit of irony to WotC's output compared to their reputation as the 800 pound gorilla.

The most two likely reason for the issues:
  • Each product is made by like 15 to 30 people as a way to speed up production. Even with the best communication, everyone is still essentially siloed. So even with all the talent on board, there are bound to be mistakes.
  • They are also cursed with design for committee with an aim for the widest possible audience. At some point a boss is going to come by and tweak something based on their gut vs asking why the employee did it that way in the first place.
What this means is that more props should go to Crawford. He is not your standard one-man rpg shop:
  • Others do great work too, but not at the speed he does it.
  • He knows his audience and what they want, and how they prioritizes those wants.
    • System agnostic tools first
    • A variant OSR game; as a distant second
    • A new setting coming in last
  • While other rpg companies also use KS as part of their business plan, he consistently delivers on time, which most don't.
So for even a one-man band, he's an outlier. He's set a very high bar and maintained it. OTH, he does what he is passionate about and probably super focused on each project. So he may not take kindly to "notes" from a committee or social media.
 


Yes.



Hell yes.

There is no reason for any RPG company to be in an expensive area. None.

WotC can get away with it because of Magic money, and it is now plugged into a corporate giant. They are a total outlier.

Nobody else can. Although even though they are in a position to pay more to hire the best talent, every indication is that WotC doesn't pay much more than Paizo for freelancer work.




Remote + Low cost of living area is a must.

Pazio should plan a move this year. It is the only way to make the union thing work.

Otherwise Pazio will be a very different company within 5 years.




This, there are big conveniences to having direct access to people.

But RPG's can easily be done with a small core office group, and then the bulk of employee's/contractors largely being remote.




This is something I find incredible, and it has happened for every WotC edition...

When you look at the quality of game design a one man shop like Kevin Crawford is able to turn out: (Stars/Worlds without number.)

I find the product WotC has turned out from a design team of top-tier "professional" game designers to be rather slipshod in comparison. When it should be the other way around!

IMHO at that level of resources, and design credentials, its rather inexcusable.
It is definitely odd that despite brilliant designers, WotC put out a rather 7/10 design with 5E and not even one that seems committee-compromised or the like. 4E had some similar issues, by the admission of the designers. 3E had enough issues to warrant 3.5E but didn't seem rushed out like a slightly underbaked pizza like 4/5E.

Especially odd as you say when non-WotC games often don't have this issue.
 

It is definitely odd that despite brilliant designers, WotC put out a rather 7/10 design with 5E and not even one that seems committee-compromised or the like. 4E had some similar issues, by the admission of the designers. 3E had enough issues to warrant 3.5E but didn't seem rushed out like a slightly underbaked pizza like 4/5E.
Point of information. 3.5 was in planning "even before 3.0 went to the printer" according to Monte Cook. It wasn't a response to any of the shortcomings (perceived or otherwise of 3.0) of which the best thing that can be said about it is that it massively improved the bard and the ranger while slightly (but only slightly) trimming the excessive number of skills, and cleaned up a few spells. Oh, and overpowering spellcasters harder by nerfing spell resistance and magic immunity. And making just enough changes that you needed the new rulebook (starting with changing the shape of a horse from 5ftx10ft to a 10ft square The problem it was designed to solve was the expected dropoff in the sale of core rulebooks once everyone who wanted them had them and it was planned by the business team.

As for not seeming rushed out I'd point out that it was more or less a rebranded and slightly tweaked version of 3.0 that changed just enough to not be quite compatible but most of the changes were polishing (and it still had abysmal balance, monk issues, caster supremacy, and more). And it was at least three years in development if they were starting the planning before 3.0 went to the printer; 4e was given two years for a game from scratch to launch and went back to the drawing board 10 months in.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Point of information. 3.5 was in planning "even before 3.0 went to the printer" according to Monte Cook. It wasn't a response to any of the shortcomings (perceived or otherwise of 3.0) of which the best thing that can be said about it is that it massively improved the bard and the ranger while slightly (but only slightly) trimming the excessive number of skills, and cleaned up a few spells. Oh, and overpowering spellcasters harder by nerfing spell resistance and magic immunity. And making just enough changes that you needed the new rulebook (starting with changing the shape of a horse from 5ftx10ft to a 10ft square The problem it was designed to solve was the expected dropoff in the sale of core rulebooks once everyone who wanted them had them and it was planned by the business team.

As for not seeming rushed out I'd point out that it was more or less a rebranded and slightly tweaked version of 3.0 that changed just enough to not be quite compatible but most of the changes were polishing (and it still had abysmal balance, monk issues, caster supremacy, and more). And it was at least three years in development if they were starting the planning before 3.0 went to the printer; 4e was given two years for a game from scratch to launch and went back to the drawing board 10 months in.

What I believe he said was the team was planning on a 3.5 eventually.

Sales of 3.0 was so frontloaded they hit saturation point very early and rushed 3.5 out the door earlier than planned. IIRC it was two years early.

Think what early plan was "we'll do a revision at some point mid cycle".

Then 3.5 burst the d20 bubble, underperformed, 4E rushed out the door and underperformed even worse.

There were some numbers released around a decade ago at PAX east iirc. At the time 3.5 sold around half of 3.0 and Pathfinder was around the lower part of the 3.5 estimate.

Out the gate 3E did well but sold Les than 2E PHB but 3.0 and 3.5 combined may have outsold 2E. 2E sold around half of 1E.

Golden age due to two product lines each one sold less than perhaps 5E but red box set and 1E PHB sold more than 2E, 3.0,3.5 and probably 4E+Pathfinder combined.

BECMI black box (not red) sold more copies than modern D&D editions comparable to 3.0 apparently.
 

Jaeger

That someone better.
The most two likely reason for the issues:
  • Each product is made by like 15 to 30 people as a way to speed up production. Even with the best communication, everyone is still essentially siloed. So even with all the talent on board, there are bound to be mistakes.
  • They are also cursed with design for committee with an aim for the widest possible audience. At some point a boss is going to come by and tweak something based on their gut vs asking why the employee did it that way in the first place.

15 to 30 is a ridiculous number of people unless you're crediting every piece of art in the book done by a different artist.

The design by committee does seem to be a WotC speciality...

And as for 'aiming for the widest possible audience' - IMHO it was the stakes and tension that have gradually been removed during the homogenization D&D has undergone during WotC's tenure that made the game in its earlier incarnations.

Certainly not now. Probably not within the next 5 years or so. But sooner or later the continued 'blandification' of D&D will catch up with it.


It is definitely odd that despite brilliant designers, WotC put out a rather 7/10 design with 5E and not even one that seems committee-compromised or the like. 4E had some similar issues, by the admission of the designers. 3E had enough issues to warrant 3.5E but didn't seem rushed out like a slightly underbaked pizza like 4/5E.

Especially odd as you say when non-WotC games often don't have this issue.

I think you hit the nail on the head here with: "committee-compromised"

IMHO part of the problem is that for D&D; "Lead Designer" does not mean what we think it means where WotC is concerned.

(granted these are off memory - it'd take me a bit to track down the actual sources)

On this forum it was related that Rob Henisloo for 4e had to really go back and forth with his team to make sure that casters and fighters were on equal footing. Mearls dealt with a similar issue with 5e; evidently having to continually push back against his own design team to get it as simplified as it is.

I just found those offhand comments completely flabbergasting. Yes a lead listens to his team, and takes into consideration their input. But then he makes the call, and that's it. Everyone moves forward to make it work.

There is no continued debating going back and forth, or pushback from the team that you are supposedly the lead of. It is an absolutely alien way to do things compared to what I have seen in many different other businesses.

This might be the reason why both editions were essentially 'finalized' last minute compared to the supposed length of "playtesting" they underwent.

( I also find it amazing that they don't rock up to the playtesting phase without a solid alpha build of the game already in hand...)

IMHO a lot of non-WotC games don't have these half-baked issues because there is one person, for the good or ill of the system that is designing to a singular vision from beginning to end.

But again, in my opinion, given the resources available to WotC compared to any other RPG publisher - there is really no excuse for this kind of thing.


Point of information. 3.5 was in planning "even before 3.0 went to the printer" according to Monte Cook. It wasn't a response to any of the shortcomings (perceived or otherwise of 3.0)

In my opinion it was almost a throw away line in Montes 'review' that signaled to me that it was in response to shortcomings...

Under: The Beginning of the Story
Two key phrases:
"Even before 3.0 went to the printer, the business team overseeing D&D was talking about 3.5. ...
And:
"...a clarification of issues that seemed to confuse large numbers of players"

3.0 was play tested, but given the nature of the ivory tower game design that Monte admitted to - and the sheer number of feats available upon release - there is no way to fully playtest all that in a truly comprehensive way given all the other changes that they made to D&D for 3e.

IMHO they were well aware of certain issues coming out of the playtest. I believe Monte and Tweet thought it could all just be handled through gradual errata.

Whereas the business team saw an opportunity for $$$...
 
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ECMO3

Hero
I disagree. Companies can make more money on digital sales than print sales. Right now, print is still the higher volume seller, but that will eventually change. But higher prices are not going to kill this industry at all. Some people will pirate content, but as we've seen repeatedly throughout history, that is not killing companies at all.

Piracy will increase if prices are increased, that is a certainty and it will cut into profits.

I disagree that it does not kill companies. I think it is more accurate to say it does not always kill companies but at times it clearly does. IBM invented the ,modern PC and was completely driven out of the PC business by piracy. Same with the Wright Brothers and the airplane in the 1910s.
 

Under: The Beginning of the Story
Two key phrases:
"Even before 3.0 went to the printer, the business team overseeing D&D was talking about 3.5. ...
And:
"...a clarification of issues that seemed to confuse large numbers of players"

3.0 was play tested, but given the nature of the ivory tower game design that Monte admitted to - and the sheer number of feats available upon release - there is no way to fully playtest all that in a truly comprehensive way given all the other changes that they made to D&D for 3e.

IMHO they were well aware of certain issues coming out of the playtest. I believe Monte and Tweet thought it could all just be handled through gradual errata.

Whereas the business team saw an opportunity for $$$...

In talking with folks who were very into the RPGA and living campaigns at the time, they put in a vote that 3.5's changes were due to the tournament-like nature of living games, which was a huge thing back then. For example the difference between the 3.0 Druid and 3.5 Druid. The 3.0 Druid relied on more DM judgement, which doesn't fly so much in organized play.

And frankly, any good business team is going to start thinking about the phase of a project. How marketing is going to collect data, what concerns the development already have, etc. Especially since an RPG hadn't been done on that scale before. (I can't remember how many copies they printed so the books could be sold at $25.)

The suits, though already had their eyes on the cash cow, Chainmail. Which was why 3.0 didn't have mass combat rules.
 

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