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D&D General Review: Jon Peterson's Game Wizards

Jon Peterson, author of Playing at the World, Art & Arcana, and Heroes' Feast, has a new book out ...

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Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons.

If you read my posts, you know that I giddily announced when I received my copy in the mail, and promised that I would post my review- and here it is. The one thing I know a lot of people hate about reviews for books they are thinking of reading is when the lede gets buried- you end up reading all the sopiler-y stuff before the recommendation. I'm not going to do that. This review is going to be pretty simple-

This review will start with my recommendation (the overall review). Then it's going to discuss, briefly, what the book is about. Then the third and final part will have my thoughts- general opinions about the book, etc. To the extent a book about events from decades ago can contain spoilers, this will be the part to avoid.

Disclaimer: I do not know Jon Peterson. I have read and enjoyed his prior books and love his work, and generally read his far-too-infrequent blog posts.


A. Should you buy this book?

Yes. 100%. I was looking forward to this book, and it exceeded all of my expectations. If you know my posts, you know that I am aware of a great deal of early D&D history. I may not be a D&D historian, but I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. On almost every page, this book had new revelations. I was absolutely stunned by the amount of fresh information that this book contained, that shed new light, and provided new insights, on significant moments in early D&D and early TSR history. Peterson has produced what can only be described as the definitive account of this time to date, and more importantly, he brought the receipts. Amazingly, also managed to make this saga of TSR's early history a pretty compelling and readable story. Once I started reading it, I couldn't put it down.

However, if you're not interested in the history of D&D and TSR from 1970 - 1985, or if you don't care about the whole Gygax/Arneson thing, this book probably isn't for you. I'd like to say that the petty feuds of the hobbyist community are universal, but .. probably not.

One final thing- if you aren't at least somewhat familiar with the names of the time - for example, if you see "Tom Moldvay" and draw a complete blank, then you might want to have a reference handy. I didn't have a problem with this, but Peterson doesn't spend a lot of time explaining the various people that might be flitting in and out of the periphery of the story, and a knowledge of these people would probably make the experience of reading it a little better.


B. What is this book really about?

Okay, this is a little more complicated. Let me start by saying what this book isn't about- if you are looking for a book that carefully examines the evolution of D&D's rules, or even D&D as a product specifically ... this isn't it. Instead, if I had to nutshell it, I'd say that this book is about the creation of TSR as a company, through the boom years of the late 70s and early 80s, and ending with the ouster of Gygax. Because this is so necessarily tied in to D&D as a product, the book also details a lot of the early history of D&D.

But while this remit appears narrow, it enables the book to address a lot of major issues that, before now, had never really been covered in depth. Some of the major themes addressed in the book include: the Arneson/Gygax relationship (and lawsuits), the TSR/everyone else feuds, the GenCon/Origins animosity, the Satanic Panic, and the curious decisions that led to Gygax's ouster in 1985 (that seemed inexplicable to everyone at the time, yet with the benefit of hindsight and this excellent research, seem practically foreordained).

Most importantly, the focus of the book on the business of TSR addresses a lot of interesting decisions, either in full or in passing- everything from the switch from "referee" to "Dungeon Master" in TSR's printed materials, to the curious delay of the Fiend Folio and Star Frontiers. Not to mention that it provides the first definitive idea of the actual health of the hobby, of TSR, and of D&D during these early years (with sales numbers).


C. Okay, what about some more Snarf-ian subjective observations? (Caution, may contain slight spoilers for the book)

Let me start by comparing this book to another Peterson masterpiece- Playing at the World. This is a more readable book. Peterson now manages to both "show the receipts" (allow his subjects to tell the story, usually in their own words or through contemporaneous correspondence) while also weaving together a compelling narrative. There was only a few times when I recall that this style just didn't work- I think it was when there was random correspondence from convention attendees describing Gygax that wasn't necessary, and I thought, "Eh, great to track that down ... but who cares?"

But this means two things- the great advantage is that you know you are getting, to the greatest extent possible, an even-handed account of what transpired. The disadvantage is that the author isn't going to spell things out for you. A great example of this is the various accounts from Arneson and Gygax- I think Peterson does an amazing job putting them into context in terms of the timing, in terms of the events that are occurring, in terms of what other people are saying, and in terms or what they've said previously. This context lets you know that maybe they aren't being honest at certain points- but Peterson never interjects and says, "THERE'S A LYING LIAR!" I appreciate that! However, if you're looking for a writer to spoon-feed you the conclusions, this might not the best book to read. Peterson will give you the evidence, but, for the most part, the internal workings of what people were thinking - that's for the reader to decide.

This can occasionally lead to some laugh-at-loud moments due to the author's understatement; one of my favorite parts is his description of Gygax's sojourns in Hollywood. Peterson has the receipts- as in the actual receipts of just how much these stupid ventures were costing TSR. Of course, he also references Gygax's divorce and his traveling companions, but doesn't go into the other possible details. Except ... when there is a just a wee reference to how people noticed that Gygax had lost weight, probably because of his Hollywood lifestyle. Ahem.

Anyway, I am shocked at just how much was covered in the 320 pages (there are notes and an index that follows). I am still contemplating a great deal of it- Peterson did an amazing amount of work, and there is a great deal of new information uncovered from correspondence and court files.

Now, I know what a lot of people are going to ask- so, who really invented D&D? And I think two answers are appropriate. The first is this, from the preface to the book:
-"...Gygax and Arneson were co-creators of D&D, in at least the crucial sense that Gygax would never have worked toward such a game without incorporation of Arneson's vision, and Arneson would never have realized the publication of such a game without the structure that Gygax provided it."
The second is that I think many people will be surprised, after reading this book, how their opinions might subtly shift regarding this issue, at least in part. I know mine did.

Finally, I should mention that if you are expecting a hagiography of any kind- this book is pretty much the opposite of it. Reality has a way of tearing down heroes. So, without further elaboration, here's Snarf's Post-Book Stock Watch:

Stock Down
Arneson. Always seen as the counterpoint to Gygax, this book, using his own words, does him no favors. After seeing his history repeat itself over and over again, you quickly realize that Arneson's greatest problem was Arneson.

Brothers Blume: Ugh. If there is an absence in this book, it is that I never understood Brian Blume at all (and I don't want to understand Kevin). Was their lack of business experience and acumen as well as terrible nepotism and driving away creative talent the death blow to the golden age of TSR? Maybe not, but it didn't help.

Stock Steady
Gygax. This book does Gygax no favors. If you still have him on any kind of pedestal, this is definitely a "stock down." But given the amount of Gygax revisionism that has gone on in the last decade or so, I'd say that he comes out okay. Petty, grandiose, and once TSR took off, never able to reconcile the fact that he didn't want to run the business with the fact he didn't want to give up control. But while the book ably documents his many failures as a person and as an executive, it also reminds us that he managed to accomplish a few things too.

Stock Up
Lorraine Williams. I'm as surprised as anyone- remember, the book ends with the ouster of Gygax. But after reading the full history of the ouster, you can completely understand not just how it happened, but why it was necessary.

The Many Employees of TSR. I'm not going to go through all of them, but reading through the number of early TSR employees that did amazing things that the Blume Brothers (more specifically, Kevin it seems) screwed is truly sad. I don't think that the Peterson ever truly and specifically answers the question of whether Kevin did it alone, with the knowing acquiescence of Brian and Gygax, and so on, but it seems very evident that Gygax off-loaded these types of "business things" to the Blumes with disastrous results.
 
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BookTenTiger

He / Him
When you join a business partner and there's a chance you might be remembered forever, I think it's important to do a quick name check. Do you or your partner have a more memorable name? History is probably going to remember only one of you...

Jobs and Wozniak? Jobs is permanently embedded in pop culture.

Arneson and Gygax? Of course the name Gygax is going to pop!

I'm sure Orville and Wilbur Wright were both happy they shared a last name...

Thanks for the review, Snarf!
 



el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
oh and given the behavior of gamer folks on these and other forums for the past 20 or so years, nothing about the behavior of the folks involved in early TSR is in the least bit surprising so far. . . Petty argumentative loop-hole looking wannabe rules lawyers who seem a little desperate and need more self-awareness? Checks out. ;):LOL::p
 


overgeeked

B/X Known World
"...Gygax and Arneson were co-creators of D&D, in at least the crucial sense that Gygax would never have worked toward such a game without incorporation of Arneson's vision, and Arneson would never have realized the publication of such a game without the structure that Gygax provided it."
I haven't read the book. And thanks for the review, I'll definitely put this on my list to pick up. But that doesn't seem to change the needle much. Arneson invented the thing; Gygax took Arneson's notes and typed them up and published. D&D, as we know it today, wouldn't be a thing without both of these people (very probably), but there's really no question of whether Gygax "invented" the game. He didn't, Arneson did. Gygax typed it up and published it. To me, it's an odd thing to confuse. There's the writer of a book and the publisher of a book. The writer wrote the book and the publisher published the book. No one would say that the publisher wrote the book, or that the writer published it. Excepting self-publishing, of course. No one confuses whether Bantam Spectra or Voyager Books wrote Game of Thrones. GRR Martin wrote it. Bantam and Voyager published it.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
I haven't read the book. And thanks for the review, I'll definitely put this on my list to pick up. But that doesn't seem to change the needle much. Arneson invented the thing; Gygax took Arneson's notes and typed them up and published. D&D, as we know it today, wouldn't be a thing without both of these people (very probably), but there's really no question of whether Gygax "invented" the game. He didn't, Arneson did. Gygax typed it up and published it. To me, it's an odd thing to confuse. There's the writer of a book and the publisher of a book. The writer wrote the book and the publisher published the book. No one would say that the publisher wrote the book, or that the writer published it. Excepting self-publishing, of course. No one confuses whether Bantam Spectra or Voyager Books wrote Game of Thrones. GRR Martin wrote it. Bantam and Voyager published it.
Arneson had the idea, but Gygax developed it. His contribution was not negligible.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Is this documented in this book (or others) from sources that aren't Gygax himself?

I don't want to speak for others, which is why I made sure to include the quote from the preface.

Arneson, Gygax, and others are well-represented in the book. I think it's important to draw your own conclusions. That said, I think you might get a more nuanced appreciation than you previously had regarding the origins of D&D after reading the book- I know I did.

But to answer your question- IMO, @Parmandur is correct, and the sources include Arneson. But you should read it, and tell us what you think.
 


niklinna

Looking for group
When you join a business partner and there's a chance you might be remembered forever, I think it's important to do a quick name check. Do you or your partner have a more memorable name? History is probably going to remember only one of you...

Jobs and Wozniak? Jobs is permanently embedded in pop culture.
Well, Steve Wozniak was commonly known as Woz, which is a cool nickname. Thing is, Jobs had a, shall we say, memorable personality/temperament, whereas Woz is generally known as a pretty mellow guy. Woz engineered some groundbreaking products, single-handedly. Jobs built on that to assemble teams of people and take it further, had a keen sense of user-facing design, and never stopped till he kicked it. Most importantly for recognition, Jobs was a consummate sales- and showman, the very public face of Apple.

Disclaimer: I worked at NeXT and latter-day Apple, so I may have some personal bias. 😉
 
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Parmandur

Book-Friend
Well, Steve Wozniak was commonly known as Woz, which is a pretty cool nickname. Thing is, Steve had a, shall we say, memorable personality/temperament, whereas Woz is generally known as a pretty mellow guy. Woz engineered some groundbreaking products, single-handedly. Steve built on that to assemble teams of people and take it further, had a keen sense of user-facing design, and never stopped till he kicked it. Most importantly for recognition, Steve was a consummate sales- and showman, the very public face of Apple.

Disclaimer: I worked at NeXT and latter-day Apple, so I may have some personal bias. 😉
To be honest, the Arneson-Gygax parallels are there.
 


schneeland

Adventurer
I'm currently about 1/3 in, and so far I share Mr. Zagyg's assessment that you should buy this book. The amount of personal baggage that both Arneson and Gygax brought into TSR was new to me and provides some context for the things I did know so far.

Small note: if you are not a native speaker (like me), this is a bit harder to read than "The Elusive Shift", but it's still very much possible to enjoy the book (having the Kindle version, where a dictionary is easily accessible, helps, though).
 



Parmandur

Book-Friend
I can only imagine the sheer horror she felt when she first tried to look through the TSR finances.
The Art & Arcana book, which is generally a fluffy happy book about the art had some quotes from Williams that suggested there was a whole other side to her story that may not have looked good for the people who had run her down in nerd circles for decades.

Not saying she was perfect herself, far from it, but I do not envy anyone in the position of trying to make sense of that situation.
 


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