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


log in or register to remove this ad

Exactly. It’s possible his figures are accurate. But when people who were there and would have access to the numbers say no, it’s a red flag.
Who are these people with access to numbers who say it’s inaccurate? From what I see it’s creatives, and if we know anything from TSR history the company was run without any interaction between creative and sales.
 


darjr

I crit!
Ryan Dancy has posted on Ben Rigggs Facebook about this and without any disagreement, I’d think he’d say something if he thought the numbers were off.

Also Stan! In an interview stated Basic sales numbers that match Bens.
 


JLowder

Adventurer
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.

If design or editorial staff asked for sales numbers in the late 80s and early 90s, they were frequently stonewalled or flat-out told by upper management the numbers were not their concern. But then, most information at TSR was handled that way. Communication from upper management to staff was frequently condescending or openly hostile. If you raised business concerns that ran contrary to the company line in a meeting, you would often be dismissed by someone VP level and up saying the equivalent of "my sources tell me that's not a problem." This before you get to the pervasive atmosphere of paranoia, with the company afraid of too much information on sales or foreign language translations getting shared, because, for example, someone contractually owed payments for those works might question the official company accounting and threaten legal action.

There were exceptions. General sales figures were discussed and played a role in planning the fiction line. We had a better sense of sales in the Book Department because, in part, the writers received royalty reports, and that included several people in the building. We also had outside reports showing relative sales success in the fiction market, such as the data published in Locus magazine (which complained circa 1990 about TSR's fiction program having a "stranglehold" on the trade paperback market) and the various bestseller charts the TSR fiction releases regularly dominated in the 80s and early 90s.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
because, for example, someone contractually owed payments for those works might question the official company accounting and threaten legal action.
Thanks for the insight! This example has clarified a lot for me. While it still doesn't make sense to me that sales wouldn't be shared to set product direction, if they were engaged in broad scale cheating of folks on their payments the fewer people with the numbers who could figure that out the safer they'd be. And that extends to any financial shenanigans they might be engaged in.

The picture I've been putting together over the years makes it seem like the upper management was in seriously over their heads and they were more scared of anyone finding out how bad they were at their jobs or catching their malfeasance/misfeasance than they were of the company actually failing. Unsurprisingly it sounds like a lot of failed tech startups in that respect.
 

JLowder

Adventurer
Thanks for the insight! This example has clarified a lot for me. While it still doesn't make sense to me that sales wouldn't be shared to set product direction, if they were engaged in broad scale cheating of folks on their payments the fewer people with the numbers who could figure that out the safer they'd be. And that extends to any financial shenanigans they might be engaged in.

The picture I've been putting together over the years makes it seem like the upper management was in seriously over their heads and they were more scared of anyone finding out how bad they were at their jobs or catching their malfeasance/misfeasance than they were of the company actually failing. Unsurprisingly it sounds like a lot of failed tech startups in that respect.

It didn't have to be wholesale cheating or financial shenanigans. The company was paranoid about suits from Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, for example, and from other people who had been screwed over in various ways since the company launched. So they wanted to keep all information locked down, even if it was mundane. Some caution is always justified in business circles with trade secrets and sales data. TSR management took it to extremes. Not a shock. They were fast to threaten legal action against others and literally sent new staffers who might not be recognized to spy on Gary Gygax at Gen Con, so they expected the same in return.

Management also feared creators finding out how successful their products were, as that might lead to them considering themselves more important than the brands. Creators who recognize their value demand better treatment, better contracts, and more money. So some publishers try not to let them know how many books they're selling or translation deals they have going. (You also fight to keep their names smaller on the covers than the logos. Or you keep the fiction author names off the spines of their books so the novels get shelved by series and not author. Keep the focus away from the creators.)

My take is that TSR management did not know how to work with creative people and Lorraine frequently hired VPs who saw the games, books, and magazines as widgets. They understood neither the products nor the market. Both problems are quite common with management for business ventures in the arts, and the hobby market is weirder and more difficult to navigate than average, even for the arts.
 

BenRiggs

Explorer
@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.
Hey all! Ben Riggs, author of Slaying the Dragon here!

First off, Bruce Heard is an RPG legend. I'm flattered to even be in dialog with him.
Second, yep, my source for those sales numbers is anonymous. Which does bring up a fair question. How do I know those numbers are legit?
Well, because I not just interviewed dozens of TSR and WoTC alumni, but then sent my book to them for fact-checking before publication. People who were fine with the numbers included at least three TSR vice-presidents and the entire team that negotiated the sale of TSR except for Lorraine Williams, who wouldn't talk to me. I would highlight among that group Lisa Stevens, current publisher of Paizo, who was tasked with doing the financial autopsy of TSR after the fact. Everyone was on-board with those sales numbers.
In addition, because I became known as the guy writing a book on TSR, other people started sending me primary source material. No one sent me anything as comprehensive as my first source, but I was able to cross-check some numbers. For example, I have two primary sources that document the FR campaign set in 1994. So given the fact that eyewitnesses and multiple primary source documents are in agreement, I feel confident in releasing these numbers to the wild.
Lastly, one of the serious flaws with TSR was the fact that creatives were not regularly informed of how their work was selling. (Author royalty statements would have sales numbers, but on the game side, royalties were not paid during the Williams era.) Sometimes designers would be told sales numbers, but that's it.
Now if Bruce has some printed-out sales numbers from back in the day, I'd love to see them, but memories are tricky things. I really wish he'd enabled comments on that BECMI post!
Be well everyone, and if you find this stuff interesting, consider buying my book!
 

James and Ben thanks for dropping by and adding your comments to the thread. You've both reinforced the point that in TSR it seems the creative minds behind the RPG products were not informed what was selling and what wasn't!
 

Michael Linke

Adventurer
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.
To put myself in his shoes, someone is trying to release a tell-all expose about D&D in a world where we already have Game Wizards, claiming to have inside scoops from people who know stuff, and one of the few people kicking around who was there, and knows stuff, seems to have not been consulted. I'd be dismissive too if someone wrote a tell-all expose about the Deli Counter of the Brick, NJ A&P circa 2003 and didn't even bother to get me as a source.
 

BenRiggs

Explorer
To put myself in his shoes, someone is trying to release a tell-all expose about D&D in a world where we already have Game Wizards, claiming to have inside scoops from people who know stuff, and one of the few people kicking around who was there, and knows stuff, seems to have not been consulted. I'd be dismissive too if someone wrote a tell-all expose about the Deli Counter of the Brick, NJ A&P circa 2003 and didn't even bother to get me as a source.
Have you read Game Wizards? One of the fantastic things for an audience is that Game Wizards focuses on the Gygax era at TSR. Less than a year later, my book's out, and it focuses on the Williams era at TSR. For an audience, it's an amazing coincidence because you get a detailed and complete history of TSR from birth to death, and you don't even have to wait a year between the two volumes.
 

Reynard

Legend
Have you read Game Wizards? One of the fantastic things for an audience is that Game Wizards focuses on the Gygax era at TSR. Less than a year later, my book's out, and it focuses on the Williams era at TSR. For an audience, it's an amazing coincidence because you get a detailed and complete history of TSR from birth to death, and you don't even have to wait a year between the two volumes.
Aaaaaand purchased (audiobook). I wanted more after The Game Wizards.
 



Pretending I'm not a gamer for a second, it's interesting a defunct company from 20 years ago gathers so much ink. (Can you imagine this many books about Blockbuster in 10 years? Can you imagine people looking at sales figures for Radio Shack from the 80s, for all the importance it had to many tech people from that era?) Shows the emotional power and connection their products held over their fans, I think.
 

jacleg05

Explorer
I have read a few books and articles about the mismanagement of TSR. I look forward to reading this one. Probably the history of TSR should be taught in business school to aspiring entrepreneurs.
 

I have read a few books and articles about the mismanagement of TSR. I look forward to reading this one. Probably the history of TSR should be taught in business school to aspiring entrepreneurs.

Particularly in the arts. There was incredible love for the product but it wasn't enough to save the company.
 



Visit Our Sponsor

Latest threads

Dungeon Delver's Guide

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top