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

Retreater

Legend
I finished reading this last night, which is a little late to the party because I waited to check it out from my local library.
The quick review: I liked the book, and it made me better appreciate what WotC did for D&D (and the entire hobby). It also made me nostalgic for those 2e settings I never owned myself (Planescape and Dark Sun especially) because I was one of those "setting fans" they described in the book. (FYI mine was Ravenloft.)
 

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Michael Linke

Adventurer
I still have issues with Riggs’ style in the book, but he picked a really good story. If he follows through with his next book, which he suggests in the afterword will be about the creation of 3e, d20 and the OGL, I’ll be excited to see if his own skill as a writer can rise to the level of his skill as a storyteller.

One thing that really confused me is when he talks about the Random House loan agreement. He keeps talking about it like it’s a secret he unearthed, that nobody knows about, but I’m certain it was described in Peteron’s Game Wizards.
 

Retreater

Legend
One thing that really confused me is when he talks about the Random House loan agreement. He keeps talking about it like it’s a secret he unearthed, that nobody knows about, but I’m certain it was described in Peteron’s Game Wizards.
I think Game Wizards was published in Oct 2021. If that's the case, Riggs' research was certainly completed before that time, and likely it had been sent to editing and publication by Oct 2021. So it could've been news to him as he was writing Slaying the Dragon.
 

darjr

I crit!
I think it was kinda known, but the first time I heard about it was a talk Ben actually gave a few years ago. I remember his claim and thinking “wait? We already knew this” but I was just remembering his talk and I had forgotten it was he who gave it.
 
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Parmandur

Book-Friend
I still have issues with Riggs’ style in the book, but he picked a really good story. If he follows through with his next book, which he suggests in the afterword will be about the creation of 3e, d20 and the OGL, I’ll be excited to see if his own skill as a writer can rise to the level of his skill as a storyteller.

One thing that really confused me is when he talks about the Random House loan agreement. He keeps talking about it like it’s a secret he unearthed, that nobody knows about, but I’m certain it was described in Peteron’s Game Wizards.
Riggs has been writing and speaking about this for years, but he brought it to light in some articles originally. Thisnis the premiere in published book form, though.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Yeah, major details of the Random House arrangement DID come out a few years back, so those of us who are D&D history junkies were definitely already aware of it and had been for years before this book. So that note rang a bit false, though I'm sure for many readers it's their first time hearing about it.
 

GreyLord

Legend
Wait, people are thinking that the Random House news is NEW?! Or just discovered?

It's been known for decades at this point (or so I thought).

Perhaps what is changing is that instead of listening to Dancey's singular statement (among several, but only one is what people normally focus on) people are actually realizing there were bona fide BAD financial and business decisions that caused serious problems for TSR other than the often repeated line that it was splitting the lines that caused problems (which somehow turned into people blaming it for ALL the problems with TSR's finances and end).

I've stated that it wasn't splitting the lines per se, but BAD business decisions that caused the financial troubles, though I focus primarily on those that spent more on the production and took less money in rather than JUST the Random House deal.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
Wait, people are thinking that the Random House news is NEW?! Or just discovered?

It's been known for decades at this point (or so I thought).

Perhaps what is changing is that instead of listening to Dancey's singular statement (among several, but only one is what people normally focus on) people are actually realizing there were bona fide BAD financial and business decisions that caused serious problems for TSR other than the often repeated line that it was splitting the lines that caused problems (which somehow turned into people blaming it for ALL the problems with TSR's finances and end).

I've stated that it wasn't splitting the lines per se, but BAD business decisions that caused the financial troubles, though I focus primarily on those that spent more on the production and took less money in rather than JUST the Random House deal.
For the record, I'm glad TSR was run so poorly. Most of what I love about D&D would never have existed if TSR was a better run company.
 


darjr

I crit!
Wait, people are thinking that the Random House news is NEW?! Or just discovered?

It's been known for decades at this point (or so I thought).

Perhaps what is changing is that instead of listening to Dancey's singular statement (among several, but only one is what people normally focus on) people are actually realizing there were bona fide BAD financial and business decisions that caused serious problems for TSR other than the often repeated line that it was splitting the lines that caused problems (which somehow turned into people blaming it for ALL the problems with TSR's finances and end).

I've stated that it wasn't splitting the lines per se, but BAD business decisions that caused the financial troubles, though I focus primarily on those that spent more on the production and took less money in rather than JUST the Random House deal.
Not in its entirety no, not I anyway.
 


Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Wait, people are thinking that the Random House news is NEW?! Or just discovered?

It's been known for decades at this point (or so I thought).
Can you maybe link to the furthest-back written source you can find talking about the Random House printing/payment deal?

My recollection is that it only started to become common knowledge (in our rarified D&D nerd circles, anyway) in relatively recent years. Maybe going back as far as 2012, when Playing at the World came out, perhaps?
 


darjr

I crit!
So here is an early reference to Random House and the financial issue in the following thread.

Note it hints at an earlier reference

 

darjr

I crit!
Some key things in that thread I think that people didn’t know are the details of the loans and amounts and the fact that D&D ip, divided up in awkward chunks, was set up as collateral to cover debts (thiught not to random house specifically, I think)
 

darjr

I crit!
And here is Ryan Dancy, most of the issue with Random House is spelled out except for details. I will note that he does mention IP as collateral but not what and to what extent. From 2000.

TSR - Ryan Dancey: Acquiring TSR

Digging out a quote, more than I remember is there.

And I read the details of the Random House distribution agreement; an agreement that TSR had used to support a failing business and hide the fact that TSR was rotten at the core. I read the entangling bank agreements that divided the copyright interests of the company as security against default, and realized that the desperate arrangements made to shore up the company's poor financial picture had so contaminated those rights that it might not be possible to extract Dungeons & Dragons from the clutches of lawyers and bankers and courts for years upon end. I read the severance agreements between the company and departed executives which paid them extraordinary sums for their silence.
 
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Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
And here is Rean Dancy, most of the issue with Random House is spelled out except for details. I will note that he does mention IP as collateral but not what and to what extent. From 2000.

TSR - Ryan Dancey: Acquiring TSR

Digging out a quote, more than I remember is there.
Right, but this only hints at it, it doesn't give any of the real details.

Like in Slaying the Dragon, Riggs talks explicitly about the contract's origins and WHY TSR entered into it in the first place, back in 1980 or whenever it was (blanking on the exact year). When they needed advance funding to keep printing new expensive fancy hardcovers while still printing the back catalogue of fancy expensive hardcovers (among cheaper supplements). At the time it made perfect sense to make that deal to get the cash flow they needed, and it made sense for Random House to give them that cash to make sure the products kept flowing, while sales numbers kept climbing through the roof. Both parties wanted those sales, for production to be able to keep up with demand.

It wasn't until around midway through the Williams years, it seems, that TSR started misusing the deal to pump a firehose of product out to cover their core operating expenses, not just to print books that WOULD sell. And while Ryan Dancy writes "the Random House distribution agreement; an agreement that TSR had used to support a failing business and hide the fact that TSR was rotten at the core" that doesn't really give any details of what the deal did, how it provided that operating cash, or the fact that the deal itself long predated the management regime that misused it. When I read that paragraph originally I inferred that it was some deal late-era TSR struck on bad terms to try to stay afloat.

But fair point to GreyLord that this is Dancy referencing the Random House Distribution Agreement decades ago. I'm now trying to remember when the actual details first become widely known. Maybe Alzrius is right that it was 30 Years of Adventure, though I'd be a little surprised if an official WotC publication of that period were really candid about the nature of that contract.
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I seem to recall that it was expressly discussed in 30 Years of Adventure, which WotC published back in 2004, but I'd need to go back and double-check just to be sure.
Okay, looking back through it, 30 Years of Adventure does indeed go into greater detail. Starting on page 214:

Nineteen-ninety six was a very strange year for TSR. From a financial point of view 1996 was the best sales year in the history of the company with over $40 million in sales. Unfortunately, in spite of these huge sales, TSR ended up losing money, and losing big.

To understand how this happened it's necessary to understand TSR's relationship with the book trade. TSR sold (and now, as part of WotC, continues to sell) a large percentage of their books through stores like B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. All of these sales were managed by a distributor and publisher, Random House. The contract between TSR and Random House required very careful management or it could backfire.

As provided for in the contract, at the end of each year, Random House could return to TSR any products they didn't sell, and TSR would have to return the money that Random House paid for those products, plus a handling fee.

During 1996 TSR bet big on two product lines: the collectible dice game Dragon Dice and hardcover novels. Dragon Dice started off strong and was critically acclaimed as a great product It sold well at first in the hobby market s TSR started pumping out the expansions and used special provisions of their Random House contract to place tons of dice into the book trade. In parallel with this TSR decided to aggressively expand the number of hardcover novels they released that year. Whereas in previous years two or three hard cover [sic] novels per year was the norm, in 1996 TSR released twelve, placing these books aggressively into the book trade.

Neither line of products did as well as TSR expected. Dragon Dice peaked quickly and died off in the hobby market and never caught on in the book trade. Twelve hardcover novels turned out to be about ten too many. In spite of having its best year ever in sales, TSR ended the year with a small cash reserve.

And then the roof caved in. Random House informed TSR that almost a third of their TSR products for the year had not sold at the store to a customer and that these products were being returned for a fee of several million dollars.

Meanwhile, TSR had fallen behind payments to the logistics company that handled all of TSR's pre-press, printing, warehousing, and shipping. When TSR got too far behind in these payments the logistics company refused to do any more work for TSR. Unfortunately, this meant that TSR could not ship products because their inventory was housed in the logistic company's warehouse, nor would the company print products that had run out of stock. Since the logistics company had all the production plates for key products like the core D&D books, TSR couldn't secure short term financing and print somewhere else.

TSR was broke, in debt, and had no way to generate revenue, with their exclusive printer and warehouse refusing to print or ship products and their largest distributor refusing to sell them.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
So here is an early reference to Random House and the financial issue in the following thread.

Note it hints at an earlier reference


Okay, looking back through it, 30 Years of Adventure does indeed go into greater detail. Starting on page 214:
Ok, that looks like a bingo.

Nice job, gents, and a hat tip to GreyLord, who was closer than I thought.

30 Years of Adventure released 2004 gives us more substantive details outlining the Random House deal and its consequences, and then we've got a 2005 thread including it as a known factor in a speculative "What If" discussion of what might have happened if WotC hadn't bought TSR.
 

Michael Linke

Adventurer
For the record, I'm glad TSR was run so poorly. Most of what I love about D&D would never have existed if TSR was a better run company.
TSR had to die so that D&D could live. If TSR was a better run company, particularly if it didn’t create all those unprofitable campaign settings, D&D would not be even remotely as loved and popular as it is today.

Someone had to go out of business showing the world that D&D was truly infinite. There’s no world in which TSR survives and operates profitably while D&D also comes even close to its present popularity.
 

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