Slaying the Dragon: The Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons Review

Slaying the Dragon: The Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons by Ben Riggs focuses on the creation, rise, and downfall of TSR. It's a compelling, page-turner instead of the boring business book it could have been. It's also going to make some people angry.

Slaying the Dragon2.jpg

Gamers are drawn to clear good-versus-evil stories. The book starts with Jim Ward's version of TSR's success and eventual sale to Wizards of the Coast fits that narrative, but it's wrong. Ward wasn't lying. Instead, TSR's management, no matter the president, hid both the company's mistakes and valuable information the creative team could have used to be successful.

For example, the development team had no idea what the sales numbers were so they often continued making products for lines that weren't selling. Worse, some products, like the Encyclopedia Magica, had such high production costs that TSR made no money on them and the Dark Sun spiral bound flipbooks lost money.

Riggs' meticulous research, which includes sales material and business contracts unavailable to prior chroniclers of D&D's history, places the commonly known story in greater context , adding nuance. It shows the terrible decisions made by beloved figures that could have destroyed the company earlier, and the usual villain of TSR's story, while still vindictive, extended the company's lifespan and is revealed as having done the right thing a few times. It makes for a fascinating story filled with human foibles and avoidable mistakes that doomed TSR despite talent and hard work.

Other books have chronicled the creation of Dungeons & Dragons, the life of Gary Gygax, and the evolution of war games into role-playing games. Slaying the Dragon focuses on TSR itself, which is why Riggs' access to everything from sales figures to extensive interviews, makes such a difference. He even got a copy of the Random House contract that was TSR's golden goose for a time and then became an anchor pulling it toward bankruptcy.

But Riggs also has a great way of setting a scene and turning a phrase that makes the facts and interviews as compelling as any novel. Early on he tries to explain why winters in Wisconsin were a fertile ground for the creation of D&D. He writes:

“The winters are so frigid that Lake Michigan steams, sending great gouts of silver billowing skyward, girding the horizon from north to south....In winter, the world recedes to the circle of warmth around a fire, a heater, or the side of a loved one. Or the basement. It's always warm. The furnace is down there, after all. There might be games, too. Might as well play. What else are you going to do during the endless white-gloom nightmare that reigns between the fall of the last yellow leaf and the spring thaw?”

Riggs talked to everyone involved who is still alive, except Lorraine Williams, who declined. For those he couldn't interview, Riggs used a mix of existing interviews combined with comments from those who knew them best. This means that people such as Brian Thomsen, who could have been a cartoonish villain in another telling, is depicted as a complex person who made bad decisions for the company.

It's also amazing how many questions and challenges TSR wrestled with that are still plaguing the game industry today. The RPG consumption problem is a big one that troubles most game companies. When to create a new edition, when to announce it, and how to maintain sales in the meantime. How many settings are too many? Is the fish bait strategy worthwhile and if so, for how long?

But the biggest problem was that TSR, according to those involved and those who studied its finances, repeatedly made foolish mistakes over and over. Whether it was buying a needlepoint company (yes, that happened under the Blumes), Gygax partying in a Hollywood mansion, or driving away talent, TSR's management was the architect of its eventual demise.

It didn't have to be that way. TSR could have been a multimedia fantasy juggernaut long before there was an MCU. A potentially viable plan was even created for TSR West (which is different than Gygax's Hollywood escapades) before it became another expensive, failed venture. Mary Kirchoff and James Lowder built the book department into a greater commercial success than the games department. TSR discovered Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, R.A. Salvatore, Elaine Cunningham, Mary Herbert, etc.—and then Brian Thomsen's strategies threw it all away.

Because at TSR, why make a mistake once when you can repeat it over and over? That's TSR's ultimate tragedy, and Riggs has the evidence to document TSR's successes and failures in a scope and detail previously not seen. If you want to see the actual sales numbers, Riggs has been posting them on his Twitter account, but Slaying the Dragon makes the story of TSR as dramatic as any Drizzt novel. It's worth reading for fun, to learn the true history of D&D, and to learn what not to do when running a game company.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

log in or register to remove this ad

Beth Rimmels

Beth Rimmels



Alzrius

The EN World kitten
'and the Dark Sun spiral bound flipbooks lost money.'

Did anyone even like this format for an adventure? It just seemed unwieldy and gimmicky.
No matter how many times I used them, I kept getting confused about whether the next page was the reverse side of the page I was reading, or the same side of the subsequent page (in fact, it's the latter...I'm pretty sure).
 


Von Ether

Legend
Sounds like every every TSR leader either had some self esteem issues or thought they were the smartest person in the room -- or both. Regardless, it seems a lack of due diligence and foresight made TSR's strategies a broken record.
 



darjr

I crit!
The basic numbers were known before. See various interviews with TSR people, the latest with Stan! about it’s sales vs the Pokémon role playing game.

Other numbers were known as well.

Ope! Wrong thread.

Just suffice to say I bought the book! Twice!
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
Every time I read this kind of thing about TSR:
For example, the development team had no idea what the sales numbers were so they often continued making products for lines that weren't selling. Worse, some products, like the Encyclopedia Magica, had such high production costs that TSR made no money on them and the Dark Sun spiral bound flipbooks lost money.
it gobsmacks me every single time. Just - how? How could nobody in creative or sales think that maybe, just maybe, having a meeting to hash out the things that were selling and the things that weren't might be a good idea? I've never taken a business management class but it really seems like you wouldn't need to have one to think that seeing how product going out and money coming in might just be a good idea.
 


Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
I do most of my "reading" in the car while driving 100 miles a day. Does this book work as an audio book, do you think? Or are there too many charts and things?
I haven't seen it, but from the reviews and what Ben's been posting, it sounds like the book won't have as many charts precisely because they don't make as good reading. Jon did the same- sharing more numbers and charts on his blog to supplement the book for folks interested in more detail.
 

darjr

I crit!
I do most of my "reading" in the car while driving 100 miles a day. Does this book work as an audio book, do you think? Or are there too many charts and things?
I dunno. I listen to podcasts and not books. I will say that Ben has an awesome podcast where he reads sections of the pre edit and essays that I think became part of the book and they are really good. So if it’s anything like that it’d be great! But you could also listen to his cast and then use the book to fill I the gaps.
 

Reynard

Legend
I haven't seen it, but from the reviews and what Ben's been posting, it sounds like the book won't have as many charts precisely because they don't make as good reading. Jon did the same- sharing more numbers and charts on his blog to supplement the book for folks interested in more detail.
I really liked The Game Wizards as an audiobook, even if I am grumpy I did not buy a physical copy for reference.
 

darjr

I crit!
Every time I read this kind of thing about TSR:

it gobsmacks me every single time. Just - how? How could nobody in creative or sales think that maybe, just maybe, having a meeting to hash out the things that were selling and the things that weren't might be a good idea? I've never taken a business management class but it really seems like you wouldn't need to have one to think that seeing how product going out and money coming in might just be a good idea.
I’ve worked at places where the clash between sales and the “creators” was so bad that it was best to never have them meet. Thankfully most of those places figured out another way to tie the two together. I can see where some places may never do that or never get it right. But it does seem like it never even occurred to TSR.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
I’ve worked at places where the clash between sales and the “creators” was so bad that it was best to never have them meet. Thankfully most of those places figured out another way to tie the two together. I can see where some places may never do that or never get it right. But it does seem like it never even occurred to TSR.
Exactly! Usually the problem is the exact opposite - the sales team having too much power over the creative side and too much control over what is getting made.

But the idea of sales having no input at all and apparently not even trying? It's so weird. Even with the Random House contract stuff muddying up the financials you'd think that there'd at least be a bit of interaction.
 


Reynard

Legend
Can @BenRiggs speak to whether the book should work well as an audiobook? I mean, I know he is going to say "yes, buy it!" but I am not asking whether I should buy it, just if I can buy it in audio and get the same value out of it.
 

Michael Linke

Adventurer
Bruce Heard had a pretty harsh review of the numbers this guy was posting. Someone shared them out to the BECMI group on facebook in violation of the group's posting guidelines. The post was locked, but contained a pretty strong rebuttal from Bruce Heard as its only comment.
 

Reynard

Legend
Bruce Heard had a pretty harsh review of the numbers this guy was posting. Someone shared them out to the BECMI group on facebook in violation of the group's posting guidelines. The post was locked, but contained a pretty strong rebuttal from Bruce Heard as its only comment.
So long as the source remains anonymous, this will happen and no one has any way of knowing what's true.
 

Visit Our Sponsor

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top