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.

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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

Michael Linke

Adventurer
If the idea is to tell the STORY of late phase TSR, do we really need these numbers to understand that narrative? Game Wizards did a great job of telling us the story of early TSR and the entire book had less "data" presented then even one of these stat dumps on facebook. I'm hoping these numbers are just posted as supplementary info, and the book itself delivers on the story rather than the math.
 

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Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
If the idea is to tell the STORY of late phase TSR, do we really need these numbers to understand that narrative? Game Wizards did a great job of telling us the story of early TSR and the entire book had less "data" presented then even one of these stat dumps on facebook. I'm hoping these numbers are just posted as supplementary info, and the book itself delivers on the story rather than the math.
Yes, that's what everyone who's read and reviewed it has indicated.

The publisher didn't want to put a bunch of numbers and charts in, so Ben is sharing them on FB to stoke interest in us hardcore TSR history nerds.
 

Reynard

Legend
It came out on audio today and I started listening on my long drive. I really like the narrator. Excellent hire. I am not deep enough to get a real sense of the meat but I will say I am glad I am familiar with The Game Wizards since so far anyway a lot of the details and nuance of early TSR and the development of D&D is given pretty shallow attention.
 



darjr

I crit!
Him and Jon Peterson have an association, if not an actual friendship, so I dint think it’s an accident the new book doesn’t rehab the other books details too much.
 





Reynard

Legend
I am about halfway through the book and am a little put off by the prose. It's entirely too clever and purple in places, and the history is definitely more shallow that Peterson's work. I get that it is a different style of book (more of a pop history) so I am not faulting it for being what it is. Rather, I am just saying it isn't necessarily the follow up to The Game Wizards that I was hoping for. But I am also not not enjoying it for its own sake, and now that I have sort of settled in to what it is, I will enjoy it more, I think.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
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.
In some ways, I'm glad they didn't. So many products I loved would likely never had existed if TSR was a well-run company. I absolutely loved the Encyclopedia Magica, for example. The full set is still on my book shelf and regularly referenced.
 

Hussar

Legend
In some ways, I'm glad they didn't. So many products I loved would likely never had existed if TSR was a well-run company. I absolutely loved the Encyclopedia Magica, for example. The full set is still on my book shelf and regularly referenced.
Of all the books I either sold or gave away over the years that I move (far, far too many times to keep carting around all these books) I deeply, deeply regret giving these away. Those were just so many hours of reading.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
I am about halfway through the book and am a little put off by the prose. It's entirely too clever and purple in places, and the history is definitely more shallow that Peterson's work. I get that it is a different style of book (more of a pop history) so I am not faulting it for being what it is. Rather, I am just saying it isn't necessarily the follow up to The Game Wizards that I was hoping for. But I am also not not enjoying it for its own sake, and now that I have sort of settled in to what it is, I will enjoy it more, I think.
Yeah, I'm in a similar place. Got through part 1 yesterday and it's definitely lighter, breezier, and less rigorous and detailed than Peterson's work.

On the other hand, Riggs' willingness to express a point of view is sometimes a welcome change, as when he calls out the evident dishonesty in Gary's later stories of events from the early 80s up to his own ouster. And Riggs' willingness to relay stories which evidently come from personal interviews but aren't documented in contemporaneous documents means we get some more entertaining anecdotes about stuff like the Hollywood years.

Overall I agree that one needs to enjoy it for its differences from Peterson's approach, rather than wishing it were more like his work.
 

Reynard

Legend
Yeah, I'm in a similar place. Got through part 1 yesterday and it's definitely lighter, breezier, and less rigorous and detailed than Peterson's work.

On the other hand, Riggs' willingness to express a point of view is sometimes a welcome change, as when he calls out the evident dishonesty in Gary's later stories of events from the early 80s up to his own ouster. And Riggs' willingness to relay stories which evidently come from personal interviews but aren't documented in contemporaneous documents means we get some more entertaining anecdotes about stuff like the Hollywood years.

Overall I agree that one needs to enjoy it for its differences from Peterson's approach, rather than wishing it were more like his work.
I do fear that those looking to paint it as something of a Gygax hit piece and William apology will find evidence in the text. I'm not saying that's what it is, but there are certainly passages that could be construed that way taken out of their larger context.
 


Michael Linke

Adventurer
I do fear that those looking to paint it as something of a Gygax hit piece and William apology will find evidence in the text. I'm not saying that's what it is, but there are certainly passages that could be construed that way taken out of their larger context.
Even Game Wizards seemed to dispel the idea that Williams was the bad guy. Williams comes on board having heard only Gary's side of the story. After hearing everyone else's side of the story and seeing the company from the inside, she decides they're all blank-holes and figures she may as well save the company from all of them. That's how I read the ending of Game Wizards, anyway.

Edit: so far, i think (hope) that Gary Gygax's involvement is just to get you up to speed if you didn't know the early history already. The First Wizard/Last Dragon art makes it pretty clear this is a story about Lorraine and Peter, not a story about Gary and Lorraine.
 
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Michael Linke

Adventurer
I am about halfway through the book and am a little put off by the prose. It's entirely too clever and purple in places, and the history is definitely more shallow that Peterson's work. I get that it is a different style of book (more of a pop history) so I am not faulting it for being what it is. Rather, I am just saying it isn't necessarily the follow up to The Game Wizards that I was hoping for. But I am also not not enjoying it for its own sake, and now that I have sort of settled in to what it is, I will enjoy it more, I think.
I'm only on page 34. So far, I have to agree about the prose. There are a few spots where he's clearly trying to be clever, and other spots where it looks like he just took bullet points from his outline, converted them into sentences, and called it a paragraph. The paragraph beginning "Then there was the corkboard." at the top of page 30 was so dry I almost stopped reading. The take on Mazes and Monsters two pages later as a foreshadowing of 9/11 was so bad I laughed, and so out of place in this book that I'm sure anyone reading this post who hasn't read the book is gonna think I'm making it up.

I'm holding out hope that the pre-williams era was tacked on to fill out word count, and that the real good stuff comes later.

But even if the whole book is this bad, the dude has proved that he can do the hardest part: finish a book. Any issues with his writing style will iron themselves out as he writes more of them.
 


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