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

Mournblade94

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.
THe Lowest paid Game Designers were or ARE getting paid the starting Teacher Salary in the best States with a Teacher Union. Now the issue that beginning teacher will be there a year or so. By year 3 theyll be well over 50K a year. But these lowest paid salaries are not THAT bad considering the lowest tier of most middle class professions. Most of them are also not living in the NY/NJ area, though I don't know what Seattle cost of living is
 

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Jimmy Dick

Adventurer
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.
Piracy did not do in IBM's PC business at all. IBM's business strategy failed to keep up with a changing market. They could have competed, but chose not to. The cloning of IBM machines was not piracy at all. Plus, the cloning of IBM PCs is not at all the same as sharing PDFs. Please note that Paizo sells their products digitally and is doing fine. So no, the issue of PDF piracy is not going to wipe out the industry. If it was going to crush the industry, it would have done so by now.
 

( 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.
I don't think it's really the latter in all cases because what you're describing is not uncommon in game design generally, and the "singular vision" thing is largely a myth outside of stuff which genuinely is small press/indie with a single author. If you look at videogames this is particularly obvious (even smaller ones but which aren't just one person) - a lot of the time people attribute what's great about a game to a single individual - indeed they're almost desperate to do so - but in reality, it tends to be at least several people who are responsible for what is actually good about it, and AAA games which are truly great tend to have several people doing a remarkable job at the very least.

Mass Effect would be a good example of this - fans have been desperate to locate the "genius" behind what made ME great, and whilst a lot of people tried to pick Drew Karpyshyn, his independent work rather casts doubt on that, and it seems more like at the very least you have Casey Hudson who originated the entire concept, Preston Watamaniuk who was lead designer on all three games, Wall and Hulick who did the music, a guy whose name is escaping me who single-handedly wrote most of the Codex entries and also acted as the internal-realism guy (people seem to think Karypshyn did this, he did not), and Christina Norman, who changed the combat gameplay and made it actually-good (ME:LE basically backported a bunch of her stuff to ME1 I note). Obviously a videogame is a lot larger, but you'd definitely expect back and forth on design - and for good gameplay, that's actually helpful.

However I totally agree re: you parenthetical point. I don't think it's a problem to go back-and-forth and so on, some of the best games ever designed were made that way, and the vibe of 5E isn't one of committee-compromise (imho), but you need to come to the playtesting with a solid build of the game.

And 5E did not.

I think this partly has to be management/leadership issue at WotC, perhaps in part because MtG works so differently, given it's happened two, arguably three times now and also I would argue happened with non-D&D RPGs, like the SW ones, so you could increase that number further - d20 Modern was desperately underbaked too, even if it never got fixed. So maybe WotC are just starting design on stuff too late, and or pushing it out too early? Maybe they always have and always will?
 


MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
THe Lowest paid Game Designers were or ARE getting paid the starting Teacher Salary in the best States with a Teacher Union. Now the issue that beginning teacher will be there a year or so. By year 3 theyll be well over 50K a year. But these lowest paid salaries are not THAT bad considering the lowest tier of most middle class professions. Most of them are also not living in the NY/NJ area, though I don't know what Seattle cost of living is
Well, okay, but isn't the issue more that most publishers in the industry rely on freelancers and that the freelance rates aren't particularly good. Supply and demand and all that, I don't mean to jump into the argument on whether that should or should not be the case.

But if you were deciding on a career to go into just based on future financial security, becoming a school teacher is a much better route than a game designer.
 

Jaeger

That someone better
I don't think it's really the latter in all cases because what you're describing is not uncommon in game design generally, and the "singular vision" thing is largely a myth outside of stuff which genuinely is small press/indie with a single author.

Video game design, Yes. I have a friend that works at Crystal Dynamics - and the processes explained to me were nuts...!

But while there is some crossover/correlation between the two media, RPG's are different beasts.

There is no need for a overly large and sprawling design team. Gygax did AD&D1e largely on his own.

I understand that these days WotC would absolutely want more than one person to do it so things get released in a timely fashion!

But I think our difference in how we look at things is in how we interpret how things are fone at WotC..


However I totally agree re: you parenthetical point. I don't think it's a problem to go back-and-forth and so on, some of the best games ever designed were made that way, and the vibe of 5E isn't one of committee-compromise (imho), but you need to come to the playtesting with a solid build of the game. And 5E did not.

I agree that it would not be a problem when the team is on the same page.

But my take from the snippets I mentioned above was that the "leads" are literally having to pushback against their own 'design team' in order to get everyone to go in the same design direction.

When the dev team is not on the same page: That is how things get ' committee-compromised' in my opinion.
I think this is what happened with 4e and 5e. Which is why they came out with a half-baked feel.

Not rocking up to the playtest with an alpha build ready to go is a strong indication of that in my opinion.


I think this partly has to be management/leadership issue at WotC, perhaps in part because MtG works so differently, given it's happened two, arguably three times now and also I would argue happened with non-D&D RPGs, like the SW ones, so you could increase that number further - d20 Modern was desperately underbaked too, even if it never got fixed. So maybe WotC are just starting design on stuff too late, and or pushing it out too early?

Despite how we may interpret things differently - I believe that you are right, and the root cause is what kind of marching orders WotC management/leadership sets for the dev teams, and how it makes up those teams.

I'll still maintain that given WotC's level of resources and place in the industry, there is no excuse for such comparatively slipshod releases.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen
There is no need for a overly large and sprawling design team. Gygax did AD&D1e largely on his own.

I understand that these days WotC would absolutely want more than one person to do it so things get released in a timely fashion!
Gygax was famously prolific, putting out scads of material through the 70s (including marketing, correspondence with fanzines and so forth) as well as writing rules. But TBF, despite his singular control on it (plus then-rookie editor Tim Kask) 1E is still kind of a mess. The MM is pretty clean, although much of it is clearly written for OD&D. The PH is pretty solid and probably the cleanest piece of writing (despite the weapon adjustment vs armor rules never being fixed from Greyhawk), although of course a lot of core rules were held back for the DMG, and "cleanest writing" is still kind of backhanded praise when you look at stuff like the ability score charts. :ROFLMAO:

The 1E DMG is the real monster. I love the thing. His prose and advise in there are SO evocative and inspiring in many places. But some of the rules are incoherent and he clearly never really played with or tested (like grappling, overbearing, pummeling, and psionics), some rules incredibly cumbersome (like initiative) and other rules clearly written with the expectation that the reader was already familiar with and had a copy of the simpler, more gameable versions in OD&D, leaving much less clear and playable versions in the DMG which were really meant to be advanced additions to OD&D (such as diseases, poisons, basically everything to do with travel, as well as aerial and naval combat).

Sorry for the tangential semi-rant.
 

There is no need for a overly large and sprawling design team. Gygax did AD&D1e largely on his own.
That's not a good thing. AD&D 1E is a masterpiece of terrible, thoughtless, quasi-design. Some of it approaches anti-design.
When the dev team is not on the same page: That is how things get ' committee-compromised' in my opinion.
I think this is what happened with 4e and 5e. Which is why they came out with a half-baked feel.
I don't really buy it. I think you're expanding essentially a single comment into a whole systemic problem when there's ample evidence as to what the problem actually is, which is that they're producing half-baked games (mechanically at least).

The other issue is re: committee is that, for all their faults, no WotC game I can think of feels "designed by committee". It's not an uncommon feeling, note, with games of all kinds. Usually you see two things - confused or contradictory mechanics (like stuff included that doesn't need to be but is someone's pet), and the mechanics are extremely safe (because no-one could agree on riskier ones). You might sorta argue that for 3E, but I don't think for 4E or 5E or most other WotC games. If that was really the problem I'd expect to see at least some of them have this issue - but it tends towards the opposite, if anything. The mechanics aren't contradictory nor excessively safe (not even 5E, dropping bonuses/penalties in favour of Advantage/Disadvantage was huge).

Whereas virtually all of them, as noted, share this "half-baked" feel. They're cohesive, but in the way that a draft for playtesting say, a year or six months before it's due to go to the printer would be. I'm willing to believe some had problems with "getting people on the same page". But I think you agree that all leads back to the same place - management culture at WotC. Leadership is what gets people on the same page, and if someone fails to do that, it's likely that there wasn't a cohesive vision and/or there was a failure of leadership on two levels - first the guy leading, then the guy who appointed the guy.

I think it's mostly down to the culture saying "You're done" at a point before they're actually done. Resource-wise, whilst I agree they shouldn't be doing this, I don't think it's a problem you can fix with resources. It requires management to be willing to wait longer for something to be genuinely finished i.e. "When its done", and I think it's pretty clear WotC does not believe in "When its done" (it may now, but certainly up to 5E's release it did not).
 

Jaeger

That someone better
That's not a good thing. AD&D 1E is a masterpiece of terrible, thoughtless, quasi-design. Some of it approaches anti-design.

He was used as an example of a solo act making a complete product...

Devil's advocate: People can and have played AD&D1e RAW.

I have my own issues with it, but lots pf people still love it - even if only as a resource.



I don't really buy it. I think you're expanding essentially a single comment into a whole systemic problem when there's ample evidence as to what the problem actually is, which is that they're producing half-baked games (mechanically at least).

I do buy it, because the need to push back against what are ostensibly their own teams was mentioned more than once by two different Design "leads".

I just don't believe that is a coincidence. And is a leading cause for the half-baked nature of the games.


Whereas virtually all of them, as noted, share this "half-baked" feel. They're cohesive, but in the way that a draft for playtesting say, a year or six months before it's due to go to the printer would be. I'm willing to believe some had problems with "getting people on the same page". But I think you agree that all leads back to the same place - management culture at WotC. Leadership is what gets people on the same page, and if someone fails to do that, it's likely that there wasn't a cohesive vision and/or there was a failure of leadership on two levels - first the guy leading, then the guy who appointed the guy.

We have largely gotten playtesting drafts. And while we differ on how cohesive (especially 5e is), I think we get to the same place.

It's the Leadership that it the root cause. The amount of resources at WotC's disposal just removes any excuse that the leadership can mount.


It requires management to be willing to wait longer for something to be genuinely finished i.e. "When its done", and I think it's pretty clear WotC does not believe in "When its done" (it may now, but certainly up to 5E's release it did not).

While I can cut 3.x some slack for being overly ambitious, The same cannot be said for 4 & 5e.

And while it seems that for the foreseeable future WotC will be doing a more gradual edition model with 5e: i.e. the 50th annv "evolution" not-edition...

It will be interesting to see if anything changes when they do get it in their noggin to do a top down new edition.
 
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While I can cut 3.x some slack for being overly ambitious, The same cannot be said for 4 & 5e.
3E was ambitious and 4E wasn't? Sorry, no. That's one of the most fundamentally ludicrous things I've ever heard on this board and honestly calls your entire argument into question. 4E was if anything, more ambitious than 3E in terms of transforming D&D, approaching new mechanics and new ways of doing things, killing sacred cows, and so on. You might not like the ambition but it's ridiculous to pretend it isn't there.

5E was less ambitious than either, but still far more ambitious than, say, 2E (arguably than 1E, even, though I don't know that I'd go that far). It's main deal was being an "apology edition".
 

Jaeger

That someone better
3E was ambitious and 4E wasn't? Sorry, no. That's one of the most fundamentally ludicrous things I've ever heard on this board and honestly calls your entire argument into question. 4E was if anything, more ambitious than 3E in terms of transforming D&D, approaching new mechanics and new ways of doing things, killing sacred cows, and so on. You might not like the ambition but it's ridiculous to pretend it isn't there.

I never said 4e wasn't ambitious.

I said:

While I can cut 3.x some slack for being overly ambitious, The same cannot be said for 4 & 5e.

I cut WotC slack for 3e because it was their first crack at bat.

In hindsight they did two big things that added complexity, 1-20 lvl HP progression, and featapalooza ivory tower design. This introduced both complexity and scaling issues in the three core books that previous editions didn't have. It was all new.

And despite the things people liked about 3e, those factors caught up with it. Even 3.x never ironed out the issues.

I cut WotC no slack for subsequent editions because in my opinion they obviously didn't learn their lessons from designing 3.x and the resulting issues. Neither in scaling their ambitions appropriately, nor in putting in the time to really playtest and fix issues.
 

Staffan

Legend
I cut WotC no slack for subsequent editions because in my opinion they obviously didn't learn their lessons from designing 3.x and the resulting issues. Neither in scaling their ambitions appropriately, nor in putting in the time to really playtest and fix issues.
That's what happens when you replace your workforce every 3-5 years.
 

I cut WotC no slack for subsequent editions because in my opinion they obviously didn't learn their lessons from designing 3.x and the resulting issues. Neither in scaling their ambitions appropriately, nor in putting in the time to really playtest and fix issues.
That's fair - I focused on the wrong part of the sentence, sorry!

They haven't learned their lesson (or hadn't up to 2014) to a genuinely odd degree. Let's hope the changes to management and the massive $$$ they're making now cause 5.5 to work out better.
 

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