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Game Wizards: An In-Depth Review

Jon Peterson's thorough retelling of the origins of Dungeons & Dragons is less about the game and more about the two men who helped create it: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Their fraught relationship haunts every page as the two wage a “great war,” lining up friends and allies that would go on to influence Origins, GAMA, Gen Con, Avalon Hill, and so much more.

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PLEASE NOTE: Game Wizards relies heavily on primary sources of historical record, but because some of these revelations have never before been in the public eye, this review contains spoilers!

Who Are the Wizards?

Unlike Playing at the World and The Elusive Shift, Peterson’s focus in Game Wizards is squarely on the two men credited with launching the game. It’s supplemented by Peterson’s access to a massive list of primary resources, ranging from letters to confidants to internal newsletters, panel sessions at conventions to magazine editorials published in obscurity.

Game Wizards is as much about the evolution of D&D from a hobby to a multi-million-dollar industry as it is about Gary and Dave. It’s right there on the cover: the two miniatures of Gary (with staff and clipboard) and Dave (with sphere and book) are available for purchase at Mudpuppy Games’ webstore.

Peterson take pains to point out that there’s been a lot of spin and revisionism of how things went down, and his carefully researched and thoroughly quoted book does its best to dispel those myths. This is a clear-eyed look at both men that will likely not please fans of either.

In the early days of the game, Arneson’s work was frequently late, as was his payment for work rendered. Gygax was a relentless promoter of the game and not afraid to take over the reins when someone didn’t meet his expectations. As Peterson puts it:
Although they had known each other for five years, working on games together, and playing them in person when their travel schedules permitted, they remained more colleagues than friends … Arneson harbored a contrarian streak, an anti-authoritarianism, which negatively disposed him to the sort of editorial prerogatives Gygax exercised: Arneson did not have the extroverted temperament of a leader, but he hated being a follower.
This sums up the book nicely. The irony of course is that the differences between the two creators was likely part of what made D&D so successful. Once Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) is founded in the narrative, each chapter proceeds chronologically and concludes with “Turn Results” that include the company’s revenue and profit (along with its Barasch rating), employees, stock valuation, Gen Con attendance, and a data point that speaks volumes about the state of TSR’s affairs (e.g., “Duration of Arneson’s stay in Lake Geneva: around 11 months”).

Games in Miniature​

In the first chapter it's striking to see the boosters behind the game's success:
To stage a sprawling battle with miniatures could require dozens, or more likely hundreds of toy soldiers. Manufacturers of miniatures thus viewed rules promoting large-scale wars as something like a marketing expense: they would happily give rules away for free, or close to free, in the hopes that they would pull in bulk sales of cold metal.
In short, miniatures have always been inextricably linked to the marketing of D&D. This matters in the game's development, because the distributors who were interested in selling "miniature rules" were miniature manufacturers. The game was an afterthought, with the primary source of income being the miniatures themselves. This dream, of unifying miniatures and tabletop gaming in one company, would never be fully realized by TSR. Instead, Games Workshop—one of the many companies soured by their relationship with TSR—would do what TSR could not by unifying miniatures and role-playing games with the hugely successful Warhammer franchise.

It’s a revelation that Arneson had aspirations of becoming a figure caster. Before TSR became established, Arneson was interested in working with MiniFigs to carry his line of Napoleonic miniatures. At one point Gygax even offered to absorb Arneson’s figure casting business into TSR, an offer Arneson greeted with skepticism.

That skepticism has its roots in both men’s experience with Don Lowry of Guidon Games, the company that published D&D’s predecessor and fantasy miniature combat rules, Chainmail. Arneson, Gygax, and Mike Carr collaborated on anotehr Guidon Games product, Don’t Give Up the Ship. The royalties from that game, divided among the three of them, amounted to $450 for Gygax … and nothing for Arneson and Carr. Their checks bounced.

From that moment on, the “Lowry Incident” stalks Gygax and Arneson’s relationship. As Peterson puts it:
...Arneson’s first real interaction with Gygax in business was one where payment for work was not forthcoming, and it fell on Gygax, who had arranged for the publication of Don’t Give Up the Ship, to try to explain it away—a precedent that surely informed the way Arneson perceived Gygax going forward.
The backdrop of miniature gaming would also set the tone for Gygax’s relationship with the industry as a whole. D&D was not treated kindly by what was then the dominating force, historical wargaming. Fantasy was considered frivolous, embarrassing even, and the larger companies (Avalon Hill) and conventions (Origins) that did not embrace D&D would not be quickly forgiven or forgotten by Gygax.

One flashpoint in that rivalry was attendance at their respective conventions. Gygax embellished Gen Con’s attendance numbers on more than one occassion so they were higher than Origins:
Gygax’s appetite for indulging in this sort of propaganda to attack TSR’s rivals would become one of the defining characteristics of his tenure, and from the summer of 1975 forward, it would increasingly manifest in the company’s internal and external communications. This proxy war between Avalon Hill and TSR over conventions would only escalate as the years went on and the stakes grew higher.
This rivalry would expand to include TSR’s former staff.

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Scan of book cover, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58422575

The First Shot of the "Great War"​

Arneson was unhappy with Gygax’s plans for TSR from the start. He didn’t put down roots even when he begrudgingly moved to Lake Geneva. And Arneson was in good company with other transplants from the Twin Cities: Mike Carr, Dave Sutherland, and Dave Megarry. This split—between transplants and locals; between the more paternal Gygax who had a family to feed, and the younger employees—would come to a head in a shareholder meeting.

The “Twin Cities Coalition” voted to expand the board of directors from two (Gygax and Brian Blume) to four. It was easily voted down, but the vote sparked an argument between Gygax and Arneson. Gygax's retort to the Coalition's request for more influence over the direction of the company was essentially "employment is enough."

The aftershocks of that meeting would rattle the industry for years to come. Megarry resigned, citing the company's failure to honor the company's commitments to his Dungeon board game. The exchange also triggered a memo from Gygax about employees working in their spare time for other companies (an attack probably targeted at Arneson, who spent much of his time unsupervised and away from the office) and a new employee handbook that included rules on attendance. Soon after, a revised agreement was sent to Arneson to sign. Arneson refused to sign it and submitted a counter-proposal. When his job was reassigned to the shipping department and he was docked pay for “unsupervised travel,” Arneson resigned. The ties between the two game wizards were severed but their grievances were just beginning.

If D&D was not successful, these events would be a mere footnote. But because D&D went on to become a massive hit, Arneson's grievances would cast a long shadow over the company, ultimately culminating in a lawsuit (one of many), a royalty settlement, and a co-creator credit.

Arneson wasn't alone in his hostility to TSR. Several exhibitors who felt mistreated by TSR at Gen Con gathered together to create a new trade group, the Association of Game Manufacturers (GAMA), led by Rick Loomis of Flying Buffalo. It counted TSR rivals Avalon Hill and SPI among its members.

One of the few companies to cross TSR in the early days with an amicable resolution was M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne. Peterson reveals that Barker used Dungeons & Dragons to create his own variant without securing the rights. When Arneson forwarded the game on to Gygax as a possible acquisition, Gygax was outraged … at first. TSR eventually did pick up the game for distribution, but it was a stark reminder that more competitors were coming and they could not be so easily absorbed.

A recurring theme throughout Game Wizards is that TSR, through its no-holds-barred treatment of rivals and ex-employees, frequently was its own worst enemy.

Business Games​

For those of us who have storefronts on DriveThruRPG and DMs Guild, there’s something comforting about the early days of TSR. Gygax and co. initially ran a tight ship with no expectation of profit, and reinvested all their returns into the games themselves. Although they were dealing with print instead of digital products, there’s a lot in common with the thousands of tabletop gaming entrepreneurs who pepper the digital landscape today.

Arneson’s (sometimes frustrating) game development aspirations are also something that modern game designers will feel keenly. His D&D revision, Adventures in Fantasy, launched in fits and starts, and by the time it came to market, there were too many obstacles for it to be much of a threat to D&D. Arneson discovered that it’s not enough just to have a good idea; writing the product, putting it together, and marketing it are all critical to the game’s success. Modern game designers do all this today, but back then Arneson was learning through trial and error.

As TSR rose in prominence from a humble game company in Lake Geneva to a gaming business titan with aspirations of challenging Milton Bradley, Gygax’s legend grew with it. He was fond of telling the press that gaming was a lot like business, with the implication being that although few of the principals had business experience, they were still capable of navigating the challenging of running a successful startup. Peterson explains, in detail, how this was hubris.

TSR fell prey to what has since played out in media over-and-over with startups: nepotism, overreach, ill-fated acquisitions, employee mistreatment, financial mismanagement, and more. TSR tried to do everything and own everything at once, from miniatures to toy licensing, from novels to movies, from raising a shipwreck to needlework (yes, really). Looking back, it’s clear that TSR was ill-prepared to manage its success.

In fact, Gygax himself was ambivalent about his role. He even wrote an essay about it for Space Gamer #41, in which he grapples with the struggles to reconcile his responsibilities of being both a businessman and a gamer. By the end of the article, it's clear Gygax tried to reach a compromise by having the best of both worlds, but he wasn't nearly as invested in the business side of running a game company. The "Who Am I?" article would presage Gygax's lack of business engagement with TSR as the company grew.

Gygax's article touches on one of the many times that real-life demands intruded on his love of playing games. Throughout his career, Gygax stepped away from the hobby he loved. Early on, he simply couldn’t afford to devote all his time to it as he needed to feed his family with his day job; later, there were health-related issues. Gygax’s increasing disinterest in the business side would prove to be his downfall, as recounted in a chapter that shares the same name as Peterson’s article, “Ambush at Sheridan Springs.” By the end, Gygax had lost control of the company he helped create and, much like Arneson before him, found himself tangling with TSR over his later creative pursuits.

If anyone comes out looking better in this book, it’s Lorraine Williams. Demonized by Gygax after his ouster, much of her calculus involves saving the company from financial ruin that happened during Gygax’s tenure. With Gygax’s legacy over, the book concludes on a hopeful note that D&D is now doing better than ever.

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Quote from Inc. Magazine's "TSR Hobbies Mixes Fact and Fantasy"​

Should You Buy It?​

Peterson is careful to point out that many of the starring characters of TSR’s rise had good reason to embellish how things went down. His methodical accounting of primary sources demolishes the myths they created. If you believed them, you’re not going to like Game Wizards.

To be fair, most D&D fans had no idea about the details of this rift. That was certainly my experience when I met Gygax at a convention in 1990. I brought my latest D&D books (unbeknownst to me, produced under Williams) to sign, but Gygax castigated a fan in front of me in line for daring to bring him the same. He was only interested in signing books during his tenure at the company. Eighteen-year-old me stepped out of line, devastated. In that one moment, my veneration of the myth was shattered.

Gygax and Arneson would, if not reconcile, at least cool on the topic of TSR. Gygax was a regular on the EN World forums and graciously answered our questions. I had plans to interview them for The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games, but both men had passed by the time I was ready to speak to them. I regret it still.

Peterson’s detailed, methodically researched accounting of TSR’s rise and fall in Game Wizards is the most accessible of his works to fans of D&D. Through Peterson’s pen, we experience the nascent days of role-playing right along with the creators, in all their triumph and folly. It’s sometimes a tough read, but it gave me a sense of closure. I suspect I’m not alone. If you have any interest in the origins of D&D, TSR, Gary, or Dave, this book is a must buy.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I don't think that is "common knowledge." (The dead-internally-at-Hasbro part, that is.) Or maybe I am just uncommonly ignorant, but can you point me to a source for this?

(I don't disbelieve it, mind you; it's consistent with the timeline. D&D Next was announced in 2012, and such announcements almost always come after a couple years of internal planning and discussion. But I'm always eager to see firsthand information about the internal goings-on at Wizards, since they generally keep a lid on such stuff.)

I don't have the sourcing handy. I did the research a while back for this post-

But I don't recall which source that came from. I think it was an interview with one of the 4e lead designers?
 

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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Then we have to demand [citation needed] like some kind of petulant Wikipedia editors.

"I'm gonna need to see a source for that" only gets deployed to kick the dead horse that is 4e.

Mod Note:
I'm going to need a source supporting the assertion that it ONLY gets deployed about 4e....

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

More importantly, though, that "petulant wikipedia editors" thing is dismissive and insulting. One way or another, continuing in that mode will limit your participation in the discussion. Please turn to ways of making your points that show a modicum of respect for folks who disagree with you. Thanks.
 

darjr

I crit!
I take a very dim view at discouraging citing. Can it be used as a weapon? But that’s what the report button is for.

i think my post about 2e vs 3e was in response to someone asking about that citing that 2e may not have sold as well as 1e, neither are 4e.
 
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billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
Yeah, 4e was brought up as PROOF that WotC was not always great in handling DnD. But that claim doesn't make sense, because even if you believe 4e sold porlly... what was WotC's reaction to 4e's bad reception? launching the most sucessful edition of DnD ever, that outsold all other editions combined. That seems like good management IMHO
5e's success doesn't mean there aren't screw ups in the past. Claiming that the 4e era didn't involve significant missteps is like claiming that New Coke wasn't a mistake because Coke Classic surged after it's reintroduction of the older formula and taste. Whether you buy the argument that 4e consistently outsold previous editions throughout its life, you still have to look at the rest of the environment that they were responsible for - not having some kind of project recovery after their electronic initiative blew up, turning Paizo from ally into competitor capable of challenging its primacy in the market, late licenses that a large group of previous 3PP wouldn't sign on to, bad marketing, shortened project schedule. All of those would indicate poor handling of D&D regardless of 4e's sales.

What's important now is that they learned from those mistakes just as they learned from TSR's mistakes (including don't price boxed sets based on what they think people will pay rather than what they actually cost to produce - that one always makes me chuckle) when they bought the company. They'll make new mistakes to be sure. But they've avoided repeating those. The question might remain, relevant to TSR's history, would a company with D&D as its flagship product have survived from 3e through 4e to 5e? After all, WotC had too many assets to be sunk by any blunders in managing 4e - it wasn't facing an existential risk. My guess is they could have soldiered through - in no small part because they HAD learned not to make TSR's mistakes.
 

Bolares

Hero
What's important now is that they learned from those mistakes just as they learned from TSR's mistakes (including don't price boxed sets based on what they think people will pay rather than what they actually cost to produce - that one always makes me chuckle) when they bought the company. They'll make new mistakes to be sure. But they've avoided repeating those. The question might remain, relevant to TSR's history, would a company with D&D as its flagship product have survived from 3e through 4e to 5e? After all, WotC had too many assets to be sunk by any blunders in managing 4e - it wasn't facing an existential risk. My guess is they could have soldiered through - in no small part because they HAD learned not to make TSR's mistakes.
This was my whole point... :p

Maybe I wasn't clear enough. But making mistakes in one period of time doesn't make WotC a bad handler of DnD, even more so if right after that they made the game more successful than ever.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
This was my whole point... :p

Maybe I wasn't clear enough. But making mistakes in one period of time doesn't make WotC a bad handler of DnD, even more so if right after that they made the game more successful than ever.
Yup. I don't think anyone is claiming 4E was an unqualified success with no missteps!

Ultimately, WotC decided to retire 4E and go a different direction with 5E. There's good reasons for why they did that, of course. But sales wasn't one of the reasons, and 4E was more of a mixed success . . . and with your flagship product, you have to knock it out of the park! (or try to)

5E certainly did hit it out of the park! It's not perfect either, but it's been amazingly successful by multiple metrics.
 

Dausuul

Legend
The question might remain, relevant to TSR's history, would a company with D&D as its flagship product have survived from 3e through 4e to 5e? After all, WotC had too many assets to be sunk by any blunders in managing 4e - it wasn't facing an existential risk. My guess is they could have soldiered through - in no small part because they HAD learned not to make TSR's mistakes.
I'm not sure the comparison is even possible. So much of the history of D&D since 3E has been shaped, one way or another, by the fact that D&D was owned by a company which didn't depend on it for survival and had the resources of a giant conglomerate at its back... a conglomerate whose support came with demands well beyond "bring in enough money to make payroll."

For example, in his post about the genesis of 4E, Ryan Dancey described Hasbro's distinction between "core brands" and "non-core brands," where core brands got lots of funding and a big multimedia push, while non-core brands had to sink or swim on their own and might simply be mothballed if they looked like sinking. That distinction had a powerful influence on the design and rollout of 4E. On top of that, I'm almost positive that sometime in the last couple of years, 5E crossed the "core brand" threshold--which is why all of a sudden we're seeing movie deals and TV shows and an explosion of video games.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
For example, in his post about the genesis of 4E, Ryan Dancey described Hasbro's distinction between "core brands" and "non-core brands," where core brands got lots of funding and a big multimedia push, while non-core brands had to sink or swim on their own and might simply be mothballed if they looked like sinking. That distinction had a powerful influence on the design and rollout of 4E. On top of that, I'm almost positive that sometime in the last couple of years, 5E crossed the "core brand" threshold--which is why all of a sudden we're seeing movie deals and TV shows and an explosion of video games.
Yeah, one of 4e's problems was definitely the core brands issue. But I have to suspect that was already relaxed to green light 5e in the first place.
 

Does anyone have any info on anyone else making near this amount of money on RPGs as Dave Arneson? I imagine Gary did. But could there be anyone else?
I certainly haven't looked at numbers, but Matt Mercer and Critical Role? Would have to adjust for inflation, and a LOT of assumptions would have to be made, but there are some numbers out there.
 

darjr

I crit!
I certainly haven't looked at numbers, but Matt Mercer and Critical Role? Would have to adjust for inflation, and a LOT of assumptions would have to be made, but there are some numbers out there.
Probably best candidate. But just the fact that this might be it, is interesting
 
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AriochQ

Adventurer
Just finished the book last night, and here are my personal takeaways...

Both Gygax and Arneson lost some of my respect.

Williams may not have been pleasant to work for, but TSR was already a sinking ship by the time she took over. If Gary had seized control in 1985, TSR would have died far sooner IMO.
 


AriochQ

Adventurer
But Kevin Blume was in like Flynn!

um... maybe not?
Once TSR grew larger, the entire operation turned into a comedy of errors. None of them had enough experience to run a large company. The concept of "It is just like playing a game, but with real money! We can do that!" was incredibly naïve and they never seemed to realize that.

The constant reorganization of the company in the early 80s reminded me of a wargamer reorganizing their German WW2 units into Kampfgruppe. That may work on a sand table, but it doesn't do much to balance a budget.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Once TSR grew larger, the entire operation turned into a comedy of errors. None of them had enough experience to run a large company. The concept of "It is just like playing a game, but with real money! We can do that!" was incredibly naïve and they never seemed to realize that.

That's a generous reading. At times, it certainly seemed like, "What should we do? I mean, there has to be someone related to us that we can hire, right? Maybe they'll know!"

The constant reorganization of the company in the early 80s reminded me of a wargamer reorganizing their German WW2 units into Kampfgruppe. That may work on a sand table, but it doesn't do much to balance a budget.
 

Dausuul

Legend
Yeah, one of 4e's problems was definitely the core brands issue. But I have to suspect that was already relaxed to green light 5e in the first place.
I'd guess it wasn't so much a relaxing of the rules, more of an acceptance.

It's weird to think of it now, but back when 5E came out, everything was done super cheap. The team that built 5E was tiny--I believe less than ten people. They did not put any money into digital offerings, instead relying on licensing deals with partners who were willing to front the initial cash (first Trapdoor, who crashed and burned, and then Curse, who built D&D Beyond). And they went with a slow production schedule that could be sustained by a skeleton crew plus freelancers as needed.

I believe the creators of 5E simply accepted that they wouldn't be a "core brand," and designed their game to be sustainable on a non-core budget. By that point, D&D had been through multiple rounds of layoffs, so they no longer had to justify a large payroll to Hasbro. The irony is that it was this pared-back vision which led to hitting the core brand mark after all.
 

I certainly haven't looked at numbers, but Matt Mercer and Critical Role? Would have to adjust for inflation, and a LOT of assumptions would have to be made, but there are some numbers out there.
Probably not. A half million a year in today's dollars was what darjr wrote.

Critical Role's leaked income from subscriptions, advertisements and bits was 9.6 million between Aug 2019-Oct 2021. So more than two years.

That figure does not include donations, merchandising deals, or sponsorships, but there are 31 people on staff. Even if we can reasonably guess that Mercer gets a larger share than anyone else, half a million seems unlikely to me. The fact that Dave was getting that much just in royalties is pretty amazing.

 

darjr

I crit!
Ope!
How much was that?

from a google search
$11.5 million

Chris Pine was reportedly paid $11.5 million for the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons movie, making his salary the 16th highest in Hollywood in 2021. The amount being paid to Chris Pine to appear in the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons movie has been revealed, with the actor set to earn $11.5 million.Aug 18, 2021
 

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