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.
 
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Beth Rimmels

Beth Rimmels

darjr

I crit!
@Michael Linke @Reynard
His post was a mush mash of things, comments seemed mostly directed at others comments, and he criticized that other sales numbers that Ben intended to release, weren’t there, then he closed it as violating the Marketing rule.

It’s a public group and post.
 

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Michael Linke

Adventurer
@Michael Linke @Reynard
His post was a mush mash of things, comments seemed mostly directed at others comments, and he criticized that other sales numbers that Ben intended to release, weren’t there, then he closed it as violating the Marketing rule.

It’s a public group and post.
Yes, the original post is public. It was shared to the BECMI group by a third person, not Benjamin Riggs, and that share violated group rules, so the comment thread on the share was locked aside from Bruce's rebuttal. As the group is currently Public and Visible, i think it's fair for me to quote his review here (admin correct me if i'm wrong).

@Benjamin Riggs
<<More actual D&D sales numbers!>>
Source?
<<Below you will find the sales numbers of Basic D&D, and then two charts comparing those to the sales of AD&D 1st edition. For those who don’t know, early in its life, the tree of D&D was split in half. On the one side there was D&D, an RPG designed to bring beginners into the game. It was simpler, and didn’t try to have rules for everything.>>
AD&D 2nd Edition should have been included as a third color to show the transition of AD&D sales from 1st to 2nd Edition, and exactly when/how the latter kicked in. The comparison of 1st Edition alone with Basic is misleading. It would have helped if “Basic D&D” sales figures were better defined: do they include just the Basic set or all of the other products related to the D&D Basic line in general? Both lines had a lot of titles lined up.
<<On the other side there was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax’s attempt to throw a net around the world and then shove it into rulebooks. The game was so detailed that it provided rules on how Armor Class changed depending on what hand your PC held their shield in. (It may also have been an attempt to cut D&D co-creator Dave Arneson out of royalties…) >>
D&D Companion and Masters sets weren’t exactly “simple.” Just saying.
<<I am frankly shocked at how well Basic D&D sold.>>
Most people are.
<<I figured that Basic D&D was just a series of intro products, but over its lifetime, it actually outsold AD&D 1st edition.>>
Basic D&D really only had one version, given that B/X, BECMI, RC are very close to each other and intended over time as essentially the same, vs. AD&D that had really two clearly marked Editions. There often is a point when ruleset sales bog down and get overtaken by the sales of accessories (most RPG publishers feel the need to update their editions). Given changes in the RPG market and the lack of clarity of 1st Edition verbiage (PHB and DMG in particular), a revamp was needed at the time. Some folks didn’t like the change from 1st to 2nd Edition (I’m not arguing this point), but from a sales/marketing POV, it’s the same product aimed at the same people at a time when better sales where badly needed from AD&D core rulebooks. The market was awash with 1st Edition core rulebooks, which explains why their sales were dropping. It’s rather unavoidable. The same could be said about Basic D&D sales.
<<I’ll start rolling out the 2nd ed numbers tomorrow FYI.)>>
No you won’t. Check posting guidelines.
<<Were these two lines of products in competition with each other?>>
Basic vs. AD&D, yes and no. The objective of the first was to bring in new gamers. The assumption was that they’d move to AD&D. What the proportion was of folks sticking with Basic, vs. those moving over entirely, vs. those playing both is unknown. I’m not sure if a survey actually tracked this back then. How many people transitioned from 1st to 2nd Edition isn’t entirely clear either. Part of them never did.
<<Was one “real” D&D?>>
An unfair and irrelevant question.
<<And why did TSR stop supporting Basic D&D in the 90s?>>
TSR did NOT stop supporting Basic D&D. This is a common misconception.
<<The only one of those questions I will hazard is the last one. A source told me that because TSR CEO Lorraine Williams did not want to generate royalties for Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson, Basic D&D was left to wither on the vine.>>
This had been resolved in court. The issue therefore became irrelevant as re. AD&D royalties. Basic D&D, however, was still genering revenue for Dave Arneson while AD&D2 was ongoing. I never had the feeling LW was trying to backpedal AD&D sales, let along Basic, far from it. It would have been self-defeating to do so.
<<I will also say this: TSR will die in 1997 of a thousand cuts, but the one underlying all of them was a failure of the company to grow its customer base.>>
That’s a myopic conclusion. Though TSR’s marketing process wasn’t ideal by any stretch of the imagination, there were many other issues involved with TSR’s “customer base,” such as huge competition and a shifting market. The latter was far more damaging than the former.
<<TSR wanted its D&D players to migrate over to AD&D, but what if they didn’t? What if they wanted to keep playing D&D, and TSR simply stopped making the product they wanted to buy?>>
That’s just plain baloney.
<<What if TSR walked away from what may have been hundreds of thousands of customers because of a sort of personal vendetta?>>
More of the same.
Tomorrow, I’ll post numbers for 2nd edition AD&D, and comparisons for it with Basic and 1st edition.
Nope. This lies outside the scope of this group. Please consult posting guidelines.
<<And if you don’t know, I have a book of D&D history coming out in a couple weeks.>>
If it’s a collection of the sorts of assumptions you just brought up, I’m afraid it contains a lot of errors or misleading material.
<<If you find me interesting, you can preorder in the first comment below!>>
Sorry. Against posting guidelines.


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Von Ether

Legend
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.

Sadly true. Every newspaper I worked for, the sale department had the latest Macs and the sales people had the nicer cars. the news rooms got their hand me downs. Usually because sales would always point to a revenue sheet to justify their costs. Meanwhile the content makers may be a "black hole" on a spreadsheet, but they are the reason why people are picking up the product.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Yes, the original post is public. It was shared to the BECMI group by a third person, not Benjamin Riggs, and that share violated group rules, so the comment thread on the share was locked aside from Bruce's rebuttal. As the group is currently Public and Visible, i think it's fair for me to quote his review here (admin correct me if i'm wrong).




View attachment 253783
Heard's rebuttal was irritating and cranky, didn't really further the conversation, and didn't really do a good job of rebutting anything. It would have been nice for a more respectful engagement of Rigg's statements with more clear clarifications from Heard's point of view without the unnecessary vitriol.

I have a lot of respect and love for Bruce Heard, as my main game back in the 80s and early 90s was "Basic" D&D and the Mystara campaign that went along with it. I'm impressed with his current work on the Calidar setting, a spiritual successor to Mystara. But Heard isn't doing much here other than throwing out cranky old designer energy.
 



darjr

I crit!
I might, though it will probably have a lot of the same content as his Gen Con seminars.

I remember him discussing something about an official audiobook but I don't know if that went anywhere.
They are going to record it after all!

There is an audio book offering on Amazon. Not sure what that is.
 


Reynard

Legend
@robowieland here is a screen cap of the audio book details in audible.
View attachment 253823

Listening Length10 hours and 28 minutes
Author Ben Riggs
Narrator Sean Patrick Hopkins
Whispersync for Voice Ready (Learn More)
Audible.com Release DateJuly 19, 2022
Publisher Macmillan Audio
Program Type Audiobook
Version Unabridged
Language English
ASIN B09GCWQ99J
Yeah, but is it a good fit for an audiobook. They make audiobooks of all sorts of things. I was hoping to get an answer from someone familiar with the book whether it is well suited to audio or if it has a lot of figures and tables.
 

Erdric Dragin

Adventurer
Ironically, we got the best and most material for D&D during those times. I prefer that over the measly scraps WotC puts out every few months. I miss seeing several new D&D material a month from the combination of published products to Dragon and Dungeon Magazine combined
 

darjr

I crit!
Ironically, we got the best and most material for D&D during those times. I prefer that over the measly scraps WotC puts out every few months. I miss seeing several new D&D material a month from the combination of published products to Dragon and Dungeon Magazine combined
we are drowning in 5e D&D riches. From MCDM, Kobold Press, ENWorld Press, Sly Flourish, 2C Gaming, Ghostfire Gaming, etc etc etc

What's more is it's supporting an industry outside of WotC which is fantastic.

And these companies are doing well. Much better than a single company slowly drowning and imploding in no small part by competing with itself.
 

darjr

I crit!
Here he is reading a prerelease section of his book from GenCon. Note I’m not 100% shure if it’s directly from the book or something that was later put into the book.

 

Riley

Hero
“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.

Off point, but if Southeast Wisconsin was actually cold, Lake Michigan would properly freeze like Lake Superior, instead of merely steaming.

- a former Milwaukeean, now Minnesotan.

p.s. Thanks for the review. It sounds like an interesting read!
 
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brimmels

Adventurer
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?
It works very well as an audiobook. The publisher actually provided me with both the audiobook and ebook versions (I can read an audiobook much faster but need a book/ebook to confirm the spellings of names and such). The audiobook reader is excellent.
As far as the charts go, the publisher decided not to include them, which is why Riggs is posting them on his social media accounts. The book talks about the sales numbers, and in a very engaging way, singling out the key details to make a point without bogging down the story.

So if you like audiobooks, you should like this one. Then if you're curious about more sales information, check out the link to Riggs' Twitter account that I included in the last paragraph of my review. It takes you directly to the first set of charts.
 

brimmels

Adventurer
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.
For my review I listened to the audiobook and then used the ebook to check the spellings of names and such. It works great as an audiobook. If you want charts, though, you have to check Riggs' social media because the publisher declined to include them. Instead he cites key points as part of the story.
 

brimmels

Adventurer
Yeah, but is it a good fit for an audiobook. They make audiobooks of all sorts of things. I was hoping to get an answer from someone familiar with the book whether it is well suited to audio or if it has a lot of figures and tables.
I just answered this for two other people in this thread.
 


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