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

darjr

I crit!
Ben has three seminars at GenCon. Very interesting. Looks like some bit of preview for his next book? OGL?

He said they’ll be made available later.

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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?
That's not how historians do their work. It's fine for journalism, I believe (I'm a historian, not a journalist) but historians are required show their work, where it came from. It needs to be work that can be replicated by other historians. It doesn't matter that you have anecdotal evidence that says "these numbers look right", they are not verified nor are they verifiable.
 
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Parmandur

Book-Friend
That's not how historians do their work. It's fine for journalism, I believe (I'm a historian, not a journalist) but historians are required show their work, where it came from. It needs to be work that can be replicated by other historians. It doesn't matter that you have anecdotal evidence that says "these numbers look right", there are not verified nor are they verifiable.
This book is a journalistic, and frankly fairly casual and conversational, piece of work. Protecting sources is an important part of journalistic ethics.
 



billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
That's not how historians do their work. It's fine for journalism, I believe (I'm a historian, not a journalist) but historians are required show their work, where it came from. It needs to be work that can be replicated by other historians. It doesn't matter that you have anecdotal evidence that says "these numbers look right", they are not verified nor are they verifiable.
This is one of the challenges of working with relatively contemporary events and situations combined with informants who may be subject to retaliation for giving the writer information. Ethics requires the need for transparency and verifiability to take a back seat to the security of the informant.
 

This story isn't "contemporary", I've written history on much more serious matters that have happened as recently, even more recently, then the tales in this work. I've had to deal with sources whose lives and the lives of their families would likely be in danger if handled poorly. You still don't use anonymous sources. Certainly not without a great deal of caveating and context. And you don't justify it by anecdotal comments form a few concerned witnesses.
 

darjr

I crit!
This story isn't "contemporary", I've written history on much more serious matters that have happened as recently, even more recently, then the tales in this work. I've had to deal with sources whose lives and the lives of their families would likely be in danger if handled poorly. You still don't use anonymous sources. Certainly not without a great deal of caveating and context. And you don't justify it by anecdotal comments form a few concerned witnesses.
Note that most of these numbers are not in the book. Ben and the publisher decided against putting them in.
 


finished this book yesterday. The contrast between the somber tone of William's tenure and Adkinson's rescue is extreme. It kinda goggles the mind that WOTC was so well placed with huge stacks of cash to rescue D&D from the creditors, as well as very eager to do so. And his complete turnaround on how the upper management was going to respect and work with the creative people was a treat to read. I particularly liked the story about how he unlocked the art deposit room and told all the artists to take their works, no questions. Riggs' point that Williams, no matter what she did during her tenure at TSR, ultimately saved the game by going forward with the sale to WOTC, who were well placed and enthusiastic about actually working on D&D. And the simple but effective payout to Gygax and Arneson to both heal the wounds and get them out of the process was something TSR could have done long before that.
 

finished this book yesterday. The contrast between the somber tone of William's tenure and Adkinson's rescue is extreme. It kinda goggles the mind that WOTC was so well placed with huge stacks of cash to rescue D&D from the creditors, as well as very eager to do so. And his complete turnaround on how the upper management was going to respect and work with the creative people was a treat to read. I particularly liked the story about how he unlocked the art deposit room and told all the artists to take their works, no questions. Riggs' point that Williams, no matter what she did during her tenure at TSR, ultimately saved the game by going forward with the sale to WOTC, who were well placed and enthusiastic about actually working on D&D. And the simple but effective payout to Gygax and Arneson to both heal the wounds and get them out of the process was something TSR could have done long before that.
Peter Adkinson always seemed like a pretty class act overall. I know little about the guy, but he certainly has seemed both business savvy and principled.
 


Michael Linke

Adventurer
Finished the book Saturday night. It was a good read, and either I got more used to Ben's prose idiosyncrasies, or they improved as the book went on (although his continual lauding of dozens of people as "geniuses" was a bit over the top throughout).

The latter half definitely had a lot of interesting stuff, and some significant new details I wasn't familiar with already, like the details of TSR West and its debacle, including the full story of how they screwed up the DC relationship.
Most of his prose is ok. From reading it, i get the sense it's a stack of essays he worked on one at a time. The seams between his writing sessions are obvious. Maybe we should blame his editor, and not the author, as there seems to be no work done to make this into a single cohesive narrative. By the end of a chapter i feel like I've reached the end of a story, and maybe don't need to bother starting up the next chapter.

There are even these little faux endings within chapters before transitioning to different subtopics. He really hammers stuff home, like the "comic modules are not comic books" joke, as if it's gonna be his only chance to talk about it, but repeats the gag in his next essay on the topic, in a way that to me reads as if he's not sure his prior reference is gonna make it into the final version of the book.

I really don't think this is a great execution. He picked a good topic, so I've put up with his writing, and even if this execution was bad, he's proven he can write, and I'm very sure his third book will be AMAZING.
 

Michael Linke

Adventurer
This book is a journalistic, and frankly fairly casual and conversational, piece of work. Protecting sources is an important part of journalistic ethics.
But the author has a clear voice. He refers to himself in the first person. I haven't seen much journalism that's so personal. I don't know what this. It's not terrible. it's not great. I'm gonna finish it. I care about the topic. But how it's executed is really making it hard on me.

Edit: It's an opinion piece, and at times it's almost an autobiography of his time spent researching the topic. There's too much of his own opinion for this to qualify as history or journalism.

Edit: Exposé may be the best description I've seen on this thread.
 
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Parmandur

Book-Friend
But the author has a clear voice. He refers to himself in the first person. I haven't seen much journalism that's so personal. I don't know what this. It's not terrible. it's not great. I'm gonna finish it. I care about the topic. But how it's executed is really making it hard on me.

Edit: It's an opinion piece, and at times it's almost an autobiography of his time spent researching the topic. There's too much of his own opinion for this to qualify as history or journalism.

Edit: Exposé may be the best description I've seen on this thread.
It's a certain style, kind of old school.
 



Alzrius

The EN World kitten
But the author has a clear voice. He refers to himself in the first person. I haven't seen much journalism that's so personal. I don't know what this. It's not terrible. it's not great. I'm gonna finish it. I care about the topic. But how it's executed is really making it hard on me.

Edit: It's an opinion piece, and at times it's almost an autobiography of his time spent researching the topic. There's too much of his own opinion for this to qualify as history or journalism.

Edit: Exposé may be the best description I've seen on this thread.
I think the use of the term "journalism" runs into the limits of our contemporary vernacular. There's "journalism" like what you find in the New York Times, and there's "journalism" like what you find on a site like Geek Native (which Riggs used to write for). It's not inaccurate to say that the former has elevated standards for how an article is written compared to the latter, even if they could both be called journalistic outfits.
 

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