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!
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.
Pure speculation. I mean if you’re going to go this far out on a limb what prevents a successful TSR and D&D?
 
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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.
There is zero basis for any of these claims. Wizards "saved" D&D by being a competent gaming company, who made decisions using data and analysis. The very same decisions could have been made by TSR if they were only more competent.
 

Iosue

Hero
I'll also point out that when TSR was at its most profligate with settings was also the time the World of Darkness books, particularly Vampire: The Masquerade, were vying with it for shelf space.

Also, I'm not entirely sure the majority of current 5e players even remember 90s TSR, if they were actually born at the time.
 

Hussar

Legend
And, given the sales data we have for these settings from the book and from stuff Ben has posted here and elsewhere, I'm not sure that most of those settings have even been more than glanced at by the overwhelming majority of gamers even from those days. How many people ACTUALLY read a Spelljammer book? I know I didn't. I heard about it. Saw a few bits and bobs in Dragon and maybe a Monster Manual entry or two, but, actually see anything from the setting? Nope.

For me, settings have never really defined D&D. I was a homebrewer until 3e. Dark Sun? Never picked up a book. Ravenloft? Played the old original module when it came out, never looked at it again. Mystara? Only knew about it from the Voyages of the Princess Ark stories in Dragon. So on and so forth.
 

Michael Linke

Adventurer
Pure speculation. I mean if you’re going to go this far out on a limb what prevents a successful TSR and D&D?
For TSR to have been successful, it must not have produced any of the campaign settings we loved them for beyond a single flagship line. For TSR to have been successful, it must not have supported D&D and AD&D in parallel, with vastly different tone and scope between the two variants. The cost/price balance of individual products was way out of whack. The products a successful TSR would have put out would have been far more expensive, or had far poorer production values than we remembered.

D&D's legacy was forged by suicidal adherence to an unsustainable business plan. I don't think any sustainable business plan would have created a D&D nearly as memorable and culturally significant as what we got leading up to the late 90s. D&D would not have been the brand that it is if those mistakes weren't made.
 
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Michael Linke

Adventurer
I'll also point out that when TSR was at its most profligate with settings was also the time the World of Darkness books, particularly Vampire: The Masquerade, were vying with it for shelf space.

Also, I'm not entirely sure the majority of current 5e players even remember 90s TSR, if they were actually born at the time.
They may not remember, but their understanding of 5e is definitely helped by the wealth of Greyhawk and FR material from that era, not to mention the recent and upcoming revivals of Spelljammer and Dragonlance.

All of this is just, like, my opinion, man.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
And, given the sales data we have for these settings from the book and from stuff Ben has posted here and elsewhere, I'm not sure that most of those settings have even been more than glanced at by the overwhelming majority of gamers even from those days. How many people ACTUALLY read a Spelljammer book? I know I didn't. I heard about it. Saw a few bits and bobs in Dragon and maybe a Monster Manual entry or two, but, actually see anything from the setting? Nope.

For me, settings have never really defined D&D. I was a homebrewer until 3e. Dark Sun? Never picked up a book. Ravenloft? Played the old original module when it came out, never looked at it again. Mystara? Only knew about it from the Voyages of the Princess Ark stories in Dragon. So on and so forth.
I continue to be fascinated by how opposite our gaming histories have been, despite starting in a similar time frame. Big tent indeed.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
For TSR to have been successful, it must not have produced any of the campaign settings we loved them for beyond a single flagship line. For TSR to have been successful, it must not have supported D&D and AD&D in parallel, with vastly different tone and scope between the two variants. The cost/price balance of individual products was way out of whack. The products a successful TSR would have put out would have been far more expensive, or had far poorer production values than we remembered.

D&D's legacy was forged by suicidal adherence to an unsustainable business plan. I don't think any sustainable business plan would have created a D&D nearly as memorable and culturally significant as what we got leading up to the late 90s. D&D would not have been the brand that it is if those mistakes weren't made.
And that's why I loved them.
 

Michael Linke

Adventurer
And, given the sales data we have for these settings from the book and from stuff Ben has posted here and elsewhere, I'm not sure that most of those settings have even been more than glanced at by the overwhelming majority of gamers even from those days. How many people ACTUALLY read a Spelljammer book? I know I didn't. I heard about it. Saw a few bits and bobs in Dragon and maybe a Monster Manual entry or two, but, actually see anything from the setting? Nope.

For me, settings have never really defined D&D. I was a homebrewer until 3e. Dark Sun? Never picked up a book. Ravenloft? Played the old original module when it came out, never looked at it again. Mystara? Only knew about it from the Voyages of the Princess Ark stories in Dragon. So on and so forth.
My first D&D product was the Troy Denning Black Box. A few years later, someone gave my the Yellow AD&D starter set, with the dragon art reused from the Denning box. From there, i purchased 3! campaign settings (Forgotten Realms, Planescape, Revised Dark Sun) before moving on to purchase a single AD&D rulebook. The rules were interesting, but they didn't capture the imagination. The assurance that you could do anything with them was interesting, but it took seeing Planescape, Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun and Ravenfloft side by side on a shelf to realize "Oh, wait, they don't mean 'from Tolkien to Greek Mythology', they mean like everything everything."

The post mortem on the campaign settings in Slaying the Dragon wasn't that nobody bought them, or that nobody cared about them, just that they weren't broadening the customer base. For me, at least, I wasn't a single genre person who would say "Wow. Ravenloft. I MUST play D&D so that I can use this Ravenloft stuff." The breadth of settings available was THE selling point for me.
 
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Okay, looking back through it, 30 Years of Adventure does indeed go into greater detail. Starting on page 214:
Yeah, this is pretty much how I remember it, VERY soon after TSR went under it was known that they had been doing SOME sort of deal with Random House. I'm not even sure it was really exactly a big secret back in the days when they were doing well. Companies like Random House do this stuff, they pay to have books produced all the time. It just isn't that weird at all.
 

Michael Linke

Adventurer
Yeah, this is pretty much how I remember it, VERY soon after TSR went under it was known that they had been doing SOME sort of deal with Random House. I'm not even sure it was really exactly a big secret back in the days when they were doing well. Companies like Random House do this stuff, they pay to have books produced all the time. It just isn't that weird at all.
It was a weird thing for a hobby/games company to do at the time Gygax-era TSR made the deal, but not weird for other types of companies that would have done business with Random House. Benn Riggs did a good enough job explaining the perfect storm of Factoring, the loan scheme and poor understanding of the market.
 

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.
it was news to me, as I generally didn't read some of the odd sources it was noted in before. I had long had the vague idea that TSR was sunk by a combo of generally poor sales, high production costs, and the final nail being the failure of Dragon Dice. StD makes it clear that it was actually the Random House contract....
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
it was news to me, as I generally didn't read some of the odd sources it was noted in before. I had long had the vague idea that TSR was sunk by a combo of generally poor sales, high production costs, and the final nail being the failure of Dragon Dice. StD makes it clear that it was actually the Random House contract....
Or rather the final consequences of misusing the Random House contract as a way to print money/take advances to cover expenses that money should never have been used for.

That agreement was great and useful when it was being used to fund printing stuff that actually sold. To meet demand.

When they abandoned tracking sales numbers and production costs (as it seems) they started throwing good money after bad and tanked their profitability. And using the "get paid up front for what we print & ship, regardless of whether it actually sells, but unsold stuff can eventually be returned to us with a demand for reimbursement" agreement was patching over a hull breach with a band-aid.

You were right that poor sales (of individual products) and high production costs were more fundamental issues. The RH agreement just gave TSR a source of cash to let them ignore those errors for a while, and then dealt the death blow when RH finally decided to call in the debt/return unsold stuff.
 

DarkCrisis

Legend
Im about halfway through and the author mocking keeps referring to Gary G as “Saint Gary” which seems pretty dickish. It was fine in the chapter about how Gary perceived himself and/or related past event from his POV, but for the author to keep hammering on it later just seems petty.

Other wise I’m loving it... aside from the weird 9/11 / Mazes and Monsters connection. Talk about a stretch.
 
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DarkCrisis

Legend
Reading about Adkison and how he was a big ol geek who lived his dream to own TSR/D&D.... and then he sold it all to Hasbro and quit within a year. Hilarious.

And while I can appreciate that Lorraine Williams "saved" TSR according to this book she ran it straight into the ground. While Gygax may have been a fantastic gamer but a lousy business owner, She was neither good with games or running a business.
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Reading about Adkison and how he was a big ol geek who lived his dream to own TSR/D&D.... and then he sold it all to Hasbro and quit. Hilarious.
Posts like this always remind me of what Rick Marshall, who (as I understand it) was close to many of the people working at WotC in the company's early days and stayed in touch with them later, had to say about why Adkison sold the company (in the comments below the article):

There are two main reasons.

First, the truth is that the company was thriving, but the principals weren't. Everyone went deeply into debt to launch Wizards, and further to try to survive through the lean times of the lawsuit. Magic: The Gathering almost didn't happen at all. Friends and family teamed up to help people make rent and car payments to they wouldn't go bankrupt before the game could be released. We thought Magic was a blast to play, and the art for it looked gorgeous, so we hoped everyone would like it, but we didn't really know. It was an enormous gamble, and everyone put everything on the line.

When Magic hit it big, it was an exhilarating roller coaster and hugely gratifying, but we were all still broke. We got into this weird state where the company was thriving but the principals weren't. The new employees were fine, because they were being paid and weren't trying to dig out of deep personal debt, but the principals were drowning.

Wizards tried to address this problem by doing a stock buy-back some time before the Hasbro deal, and it did help a great deal, but mainly it put most of us back on track with where we would have been if we had normal paying careers and hadn't bet everything on Wizards. Most of the principals were still carrying some debt.

In the end, the principals were tired of being broke.

Second, and this was a critique I discussed repeatedly with some of the principals at the time long before things reached the breaking point, Wizards began with a startup culture of working long, hard hours, sacrificing like crazy to try to get things moving and to do a good job on them. As anyone who's been through a startup knows, this is both exciting and exhausting. At some point a company needs to transition out of the startup mode to avoid burning out its employees.

Wizards never did.

Several of us saw this problem coming. Everyone worked so hard for so long that they were burning themselves out even while they were having a blast. Houses fell into disrepair, people put on lots of weight and got sick a lot, marriages fell apart, and more, all while Wizards itself was thriving and everyone was having a blast working on something they loved.

Workaholism was epidemic at Wizards. Wizards invested in an exercise room, classes, great offices, and everything they could to make it a blast to work there, but that only made people not want to go home to the lives they'd been neglecting. The problem with working for your favorite company in the world is that you never go home. At least one person stopped going home and had to be told he wasn't allowed to live at work. More than anyone else, the principals were happy but exhausted and needed to stop trying to go go go at 110% all the time unless they wanted to die young.

In the end, the broke and burned out principals pretty much all needed the sale in order to get their lives back into order and stop being broke.

After leaving Wizards, more than one of the principals lost a bunch of weight and got their health back. Some rescued marriages while others moved on to new relationships. Some sold off neglected houses at a loss and bought new ones they committed to taking care of properly. The money itself spread far and wide, used to start new, more sustainable game companies; for healthcare and college funds for family members; and into retirement funds for parents and grandparents whose early loans made the company's survival possible during the lean times. A couple spent everything they made just getting back to break even. There are a few small piles of money here and there, but over half of it has gone back into the community that made it all possible.

In short, they had to sell the company to survive as individuals.
 

DarkCrisis

Legend
Posts like this always remind me of what Rick Marshall, who (as I understand it) was close to many of the people working at WotC in the company's early days and stayed in touch with them later, had to say about why Adkison sold the company (in the comments below the article):
Cant fault him for health reasons. Just funny for the book to hype him up so much and then learning it lasted all of about a year or so.

D&D back in the hands of gamers that valued talent!...... HASBRO.
 



Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Posts like this always remind me of what Rick Marshall, who (as I understand it) was close to many of the people working at WotC in the company's early days and stayed in touch with them later, had to say about why Adkison sold the company (in the comments below the article):
Yeah, as I recall Rick posted a bunch more insights and nitty gritty history details on his blog as well. Some invaluable insights in there.
 

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