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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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Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Speaking of minis, and at a serious risk of thread drift, I was rewatching Stranger Things today and was pleasantly surprised that I recognized and own a bunch of the figs on their game table. Anyway, back to Jon Peterson...
 

Orius

Hero
I've suspected for a while that Williams hasn't been treated as charitably as other TSR figures.
I would say this book only covers things up to 1985, and a good number of William's misteps occurred afterwards. TSR did go bankrupt under her control after all, and there was always those shady dealings with the Buck Rogers license. Nor does her contempt for gamers help her either.

I haven't read this book myself, but impression of events is that Williams didn't just take Gary's word for things but looked at the Blumes' side of things as well before acting. I can't say I blame her either.
 
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TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
I would say this book only covers things up to 1985, and a good number of William's misteps occurred afterwards. TSR did go bankrupt under her control after all, and there was always those shady dealings with the Buck Rogers license. Nor does her contempt for games helps her either.

I haven't read this book myself, but impression of events is that Williams didn't just take Gary's word for things but looked at the Blumes' side of things as well before acting. I can't say I blame her either.
I have a hard time imagining my opinion towards Williams will change. Especially, now that I am older and more jaded, and know of so many dick moves made in organizations that were justified as "necessary" or that there was "no alternative."

But I do look forward to reading the book.
 

GreyLord

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

Sort of...?

I haven't read the book, but others have said it.

MY opinion (which does not matter...really) is Arneson was a more chaotic neutral to Gygax's lawful neutral.

Arneson's idea was ALWAYS in flux and fluctuating. There were rules...but what was a rule yesterday may not be the rule tomorrow. It wasn't set in stone...as you would. With Gygax, he typed it up, but he also categorized and filled in. Where there wasn't something, he made it something.

It was still somewhat of a chaotic mess (if you've read the original 3 books you will realize it can actually be a little difficult to make out what the game was supposed to be doing if you didn't have any other exposure...so created more of a wild west atmosphere of house rules...which is why I LOVE the Greyhawk Supplement...won't play OD&D without it) but at least somewhat playable. I understand Arneson didn't even really have it that organized.

Gygax continued to sort and organize and write up even more organization and rules, taking things from others and integrating them into the rules.

The REAL break points though that I think truly started to define D&D was when Gygax decided to create a conglomeration of all the supplements, magazine articles, and rules into one big set called Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. That also probably was (if I had to take a guess) where the BIG arguments and fights really finally erupted, boiling tensions between him and Arneson over organization and rules, as well as business interests finally blew up (no idea, wasn't there, but that would be my guess).

Arneson wanted a looser, easier going route without such strict rules, and Gygax wanted more order and instructions.

The result was ALSO another defining element which meant out of this division of once two cooperating fellows was the Dungeons and Dragons game (Basic and Expert of Moldavay/Cook fame).

You can see this entire Chaotic Neutral handling of things by Arneson later as he really didn't have problems adapting his games and worlds to 3e and then 4e, while Gygax sort of stuck doing his games his own way all along...like you would expect a Lawful Neutral to do in regards to their rules and worlds regardless of what others would put in or create.

However, there are others who were much closer to the source (people) who could tell you a LOT more of what happened. Some of them have commented on it, a few in these very forums.

@rob-kuntz would be able to tell you more (don't know how to do the directive to his name, or I would put the @ correctly) and be a good source (my opinion is NOT a good source) and has posted several times on these forums directly I believe, as have others.

I would HOPE the book references Kuntz and the Gygax boys as I would consider the book GROSSLY incomplete on that portion of history without a LOT of their input on what happened and the events thereof.

Just my own two copper.
 
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estar

Adventurer
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.
That not accurate. If you read Playing at the World and read the anecdotes from folks back in the day, Gygax created D&D with some help from Dave Arneson. However Dave Arneson by all accounts invented tabletop roleplaying. Not just the general idea but the practical nuts and bolts of how to do in a the time one has for a hobby. However what he did for Blackmoor wasn't D&D. They shared some elements but Blackmoor was pretty much it own thing prior to Gygax writing up the D&D manuscript.

In fact nobody knows definitely what the rules for Blackmoor were prior to D&D. Dave by all account was an outstanding seat of his pants referee. His binder wasn't so much a rulebook but rather a collection of tables, memory aids, and various notes. Which is not something unique to Dave but characteristic of the time for miniature wargamers running campaign. There was almost not published set of rules for them to use. So if they wanted to play something they had to come up with the rules themselves.

This is further reinforced by how D&D turned out. D&D was primarily about dungeon exploration. Why? Because that what Dave showed Gary and his group when he came down to Lake Geneva to show them what he was doing with Blackmoor. Why he showed them the dungeon? Because it was the one thing he would easily transport. The rest of the campaign that focused on the players building baronies and fighting each other was based around miniatures and props and wasn't easily transportable.

As a result Greyhawk campaign that Gygax started running to playtest his rules started out as a dungeon.

Another major difference is that Blackmoor was mostly about two opposing sides of players fighting each other and recruiting allies among the neutral. There were little to no NPCs until the Blackmoor Dungeons became popular. This way different than Gygax's Greyhawk which was Gary running monsters and NPCs for the players to deal with from the get go. That in Greyhawk, players generally cooperated with each other against the challenges of the dungeon.

In Playing at the World, Hawk & Moor, and other sources there are several accounts of how Dave was never really comfortable playing the opposition all the time. He preferred to be a true referee adjudicating players as they cooperated or came into conflict with each other. Which incidentally is a direct evolution out of Wesely's Braunstein games.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I would HOPE the book references Kuntz and the Gygax boys as I would consider the book GROSSLY incomplete on that portion of history without a LOT of their input on what happened and the events thereof.

Just my own two copper.

Three things-

1. I don't have my copy handy where I'm at right now, but IIRC, the book references (and thanks) Terry K. and Ernie G.. I checked when I read it, but don't take that as gospel.

2. Some of Rob's correspondence is included- it might surprise you.

3. Finally, Peterson very much focuses on contemporaneous documents and accounts. I don't want to speak for him, but I believe that his approach is that people speaking today may not always be the best source of information- it's best to use people speaking today as a way to contextualize and find more information, but not as a definitive source. There's a lot of reasons for this- memories fade, memories are self-serving, and so on. You may or may not agree with this approach, but the book relies on contemporaneous primary sources (financial documents, court records, correspondence from the time, articles in contemporaneous magazines or fanzines, etc.).
 
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Willie the Duck

Adventurer
3. Finally, Peterson very much focuses on contemporaneous documents and accounts. I don't want to speak for him, but I believe that his approach is that people speaking today may not always be the best source of information- it's best to use people speaking today as a way to contextualize and find more information, but not as a definitive source. There's a lot of reasons for this- memories fade, memories are self-serving, and so on. You may or may not agree with this approach, but the book relies on contemporaneous primary sources (financial documents, court records, correspondence from the time, articles in contemporaneous magazines or fanzines, etc.).
Peterson seems wedded to the practice of primary source documentation for this project (PatW, this book and his blog).
 

Sort of...?

I haven't read the book, but others have said it.

MY opinion (which does not matter...really) is Arneson was a more chaotic neutral to Gygax's lawful neutral.

Arneson's idea was ALWAYS in flux and fluctuating. There were rules...but what was a rule yesterday may not be the rule tomorrow. It wasn't set in stone...as you would. With Gygax, he typed it up, but he also categorized and filled in. Where there wasn't something, he made it something.

It was still somewhat of a chaotic mess (if you've read the original 3 books you will realize it can actually be a little difficult to make out what the game was supposed to be doing if you didn't have any other exposure...so created more of a wild west atmosphere of house rules...which is why I LOVE the Greyhawk Supplement...won't play OD&D without it) but at least somewhat playable. I understand Arneson didn't even really have it that organized.

Gygax continued to sort and organize and write up even more organization and rules, taking things from others and integrating them into the rules.

The REAL break points though that I think truly started to define D&D was when Gygax decided to create a conglomeration of all the supplements, magazine articles, and rules into one big set called Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. That also probably was (if I had to take a guess) where the BIG arguments and fights really finally erupted, boiling tensions between him and Arneson over organization and rules, as well as business interests finally blew up (no idea, wasn't there, but that would be my guess).

Arneson wanted a looser, easier going route without such strict rules, and Gygax wanted more order and instructions.

The result was ALSO another defining element which meant out of this division of once two cooperating fellows was the Dungeons and Dragons game (Basic and Expert of Moldavay/Cook fame).
I kind of like your CN/LN framing, and I think you're quite right about Dave having ever-changing rules, but you've got the chronology a bit off.

By the time AD&D was under development Dave had left the company (in 1976). So there was no wrangling or arguing between Dave and Gary over the development of AD&D. Dave had pretty much no input into TSR's D&D after Supplement II: Blackmoor in 1975.

Gary also talked about DMs making D&D their own in most publications in the mid 70s as well, including that famous exchange in Alarums & Excursions where someone wrote that D&D was too important to entrust solely to Gary Gygax, and Gary wrote in to agree! But a few years later, nonetheless, we see him nailing down and defining rules in all sorts of details in AD&D.

To my understanding there were two main drivers for that:

1. TSR made a bunch of money in the mid 70s running tournaments at gaming conventions. Tables were PACKED. People paid cash, and most of that cash went straight to TSR, with maybe a little slice to the convention. Tim Kask has talked about this repeatedly. It was a substantial revenue driver before the AD&D hardcovers came out, and before the original Holmes-edited Basic set really took off (sales of that went through the roof after the James Dallas Egbert controversy). The tournaments also drove module sales once they started doing those. With tournaments such a key source of income, standardizing the rules to facilitate said tournaments was a big deal. This is also part of why the Monster Manual was the first "AD&D" book, and on reading with this in mind, it becomes apparent that it's basically completely compatible with OD&D +supplements, rather than "truly" an AD&D book. It was immediately useful to OD&D players, representing a much more comprehensive and organized set of monster rules for the existing game.

2. TSR and Arneson had already had a dispute (and I believe the first lawsuit) over royalties on the Homes Basic set, and that gave Gary a strong motivation to develop a NEW game based off D&D, to cut Arneson out of the profits. No doubt Gary felt justified since Arneson had only even been with the company for a year or two, and because the notes he gave Gary to turn into a game were so rough.

A recent article on the royalties on the Holmes Basic set, the dispute over them, and the remarkable importance of the modules bundled with the basic sets and those royalty deals.
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
So, in order to keep this thread spoiler-free (in case people wander in who haven't read the book), I set up a new DISCUSSION thread for people who have read the book where you can talk about any SPOILERS you want.


Please continue discussing anything here, but try and avoid specific things from the book! :)
 

estar

Adventurer
To my understanding there were two main drivers for that:
You missed one, that Gygax, and the TSR Staff were hit by the 70s equivalent of SPAM both US Mail and Telephone. So in addition to the problem of the volume of feedback, they had the additional issue that they were gamers. A lot of people were telling them things about how they used D&D that seem nonsense to them or even "badwrongfun" to use a modern phrase. Look at Kask's introduction to God, Demi-Gods, & Heroes. The sentiment in that introduction wasn't limited to Kask from various accounts.

And the above in my opinion was just as important in terms of creativity as the other elements you mentioned.
 

You missed one, that Gygax, and the TSR Staff were hit by the 70s equivalent of SPAM both US Mail and Telephone. So in addition to the problem of the volume of feedback, they had the additional issue that they were gamers. A lot of people were telling them things about how they used D&D that seem nonsense to them or even "badwrongfun" to use a modern phrase. Look at Kask's introduction to God, Demi-Gods, & Heroes. The sentiment in that introduction wasn't limited to Kask from various accounts.

And the above in my opinion was just as important in terms of creativity as the other elements you mentioned.
Great point! I've definitely seen Tim talk about this, and Gary reference it in his old editorial columns.

Both the "you're doing it wrong / Monty Haul" stuff they wanted to rein in, and that a lot of ordinary players simply wanted answers. More than they initially expected, coming from a more DIY gamer perspective. Of course, looking at the editorial job they did on AD&D, no doubt they thought they had been clearer in the original LBB than they actually had been.
 
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M.T. Black

Adventurer
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.
Jon's latest post provides some more insight into the process of how D&D came into being: Arneson's Hit Points for Characters
 

Blue Orange

Adventurer
I finished this book last night, Excellent Read. I was one of the sheltered masses showing up a Waldenbooks or B Dalton Booksellers, hoping for a new book or module. Completely ignorant of the drama behind the scenes.

I was thinking about that, and realized there's probably the same sort of thing going on at the furniture company or the local Walmart. It's interesting to us because we really like D&D. But I'm sure if you sent reporters to ask about management changes at the local Applebee's they'd have a similar story to tell...


(But it's true--people play the same games everywhere.)
 

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