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

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
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.
Well, there's another comment that Marshall makes on that page which puts another spin on that as well (note in particular the second paragraph):

Fourth, another place I'm going to arm-wave is about the Hasbro purchase of Wizards, since as with the early lawsuit there are things we're not allowed to talk about (and I wish U.S. law didn't allow, let alone enforce, those kinds of perpetual gag clauses in legal agreements, but it does). But here are some things not covered by the purchase agreement, things that do add to this discussion.

During the negotiations for the purchase, Wizards came to believe that Hasbro valued the Wizards management team and strategy. Most or all of the Hasbro executive team were nearing retirement age, and Wizards came to understand that part of the reason for the purchase was so that the clearly successful Wizards management team could gradually expand their duties and begin to help to manage Hasbro as well, to take over responsibilities so that Hasbro executives could retire.

Central to this was the idea that Wizards's strategies had been successful, so they would be kept. This was not stated in writing in the purchase agreement, unfortunately, so Hasbro was not bound to follow through on this after the purchase, and they did not. To the surprise and disappointment of the Wizards executive team, after the purchase Hasbro began reorganizing Wizards to make it fit with the rest of Hasbro, rather than vice versa, and began replacing Wizards's successful strategies and policies with their own. Wizards executives began retiring in frustration. My wife was one of the first - she left on leap day in 2000 - but eventually Peter, Ryan, and others left as well. The core creative team was kept intact and protected as much as possible, but from an authority perspective they were returned to their old status as second-class citizens, allowed to retain authority only within a constrained range of choices.

When you're working under such conditions, there are tricks your mind plays on you depending on how close to leaving you are. When you're hoping the things that are happening are aberrations and things will be straightened out soon, you tell yourself and others things that you hope are true or are trying to believe are true, even if your intuition keeps nagging at you that this isn't right or won't last. During such periods, for example, you might convince yourself that the things you're being ordered to do that you usually disagree with maybe aren't as harmful as you in your gut know they are. So you have to be careful how you interpret quotations from Wizards's management during that period.

To make a long story short, Hasbro had lost a lot of money in their electronic ventures before the purchase, and chopped up and parted out whole swaths of Wizards to make their finances temporarily look better on the books. They threw out all the loss-leader strategies, dispensing with the game stores and eventually insisting that the TSR group - that D&D - become as profitable as Magic or as close to it as possible. That was simply not possible under Peter's good Samaritan strategy of minimizing the number of products D&D players had to purchase.
 

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Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
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.
This is really an oversimplification to the point of distortion, IMO.

Riggs is right (though as usual hyperbolic in his yelling "genius!" all the time) that Adkison made really good and smart business moves, and some exceptionally ethical and generous ones, like the bit about giving the TSR art back to the artists. That he got burnt out by personal issues and overwork (and screwed up in romantic relationships within the company) doesn't negate the genuinely great stuff he accomplished.

He's since kept his hand in gaming and management, buying and running Gen Con, for example. The guy didn't flame out and crash. He accomplished massive things with Magic and D&D (and a few other little things like Pokemon, I understand), got personally burnt out, cashed in and scaled back, after Hasbro's original expressed intention to use WotC executive leadership as successors to its own didn't pan out. And has demonstrated continued success and savvy leadership since, as it appears from Gen Con over the past twenty years.

Williams doesn't have the same track record of success, but she still grew the company (especially the fiction publishing arm) massively, and despite their poor profitability, was the top dog when TSR was producing some incredible stuff many of us love to this day, like Dark Sun and PlaneScape. I agree that she apparently started running the company into the ground about halfway through her tenure of leadership (1985 to 1997), but she still kept it going longer under her watch than TSR's prior management had done prior to her leadership. Gygax and the Blumes ran it from 1974 to 1984ish, and also nearly destroyed it with preposterous mismanagement in their last few years, having no idea how to solidify or responsibly consolidate their winnings from the fad period and transition once the fad finally stopped exploding. As James Lowder (who was there) wrote earlier in the thread, it seems that virtually everyone who worked at TSR under both management regimes preferred Williams, despite all the nasty stories we've heard about her. 🤷‍♂️
 

Michael Linke

Adventurer
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.
“ran it straight into the ground” isn’t really a fair characterization. She averted a potential financial disaster when she took over, and kept the lights on for longer than Gygax and the Blumes did. It’s fair to say Riggs is erring against Gygax in the book, attributing a big portion of the blame to the Random House deal which was implemented under Gygax.

Given al the crazy stuff Peterson writes about in Game Wizards, it’s hard for me to pretend Gygax would have kept the company alive until 1997 either.
 
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Davies

Legend
Given al the crazy stuff Peterson writes about in Game Wizards, it’s hard for me to pretend Gygax would have kept the company alive until 1997 either.
The most likely scenario, I think, is that a Gygax-run TSR would probably have released a 2nd edition AD&D* in 1986 or 87, which would have had much the same success as TTL's 2nd edition two years later -- but that it would not have purchased the Forgotten Realms or expanded Dragonlance as much as Williams-run TSR did, and that by 1990 or so, Gygax would have been wanting to try something different, something like Dangerous Dimensions/Journeys, which would probably have been only slightly less of a flop. So by the mid-90s, TSR would be bankrupt, well before Wizards of the Coast would be in any position to save it. There would be no 3rd edition, no OGL, and no OSR.

Something would have taken its place, but there is no rational way of determining what it would have been. (I imagine a version of Exalted more in line with its original conception as the pre-history of the World of Darkness, but that's probably a mirage.)

* Potentially much like Adventures Dark & Deep's reconstruction.
 
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Orius

Hero
I think that a TSR that released Gary's 2e isn't as easy to predict as that though. A lot of the late 1e material wasn't popular among parts of the 1e fanbase, and 2e took some hits from them too because elements of the game were cleaned up and sanitized. That led to a slow shrinking of the customer base. A Gary 2e possibly would have meant no Survival Guides and likely no Manual of the Planes, not only that there certainly wouldn't have been those poorly received Greyhawk modules from the period. That doesn't mean a Gary 2e would have been a resounding success either though, because UA doesn't always have a great reputation and a Gary 2e might have gone in the sort of direction that book went. Honestly, it's a big unknown as to whether Gary's 2e would have been successful or a flop.

Gary running things probably wouldn't have seen many different campaign worlds released like 2e did either, at least not with tons of supplements, adventures, and novels attached. Maybe there would have been occasional works like Oriental Adventures exploring more unusual campaign concepts.

There wouldn't have been any of the Buck Rogers shenanigans.

The big question here is Magic. When MtG hit the market, it knocked down a lot of the hobby game companies that weren't being run very well. There was WoD too, but I think MtG really hit a bigger segment of D&D's fanbase. We don't know how Gary would have responded to MtG's success.
 


Orius

Hero
Perhaps. One of the big unknowns with Gary is what kind of ideas he would have explored with roleplaying. Around the time he was forced out of TSR, story-driven elements in gaming were becoming all the rage. Gary though wasn't into that. If he'd stayed with TSR, he may have tried to push back against that and maybe he would have succeeded, or maybe he would have failed which could have ended TSR earlier. It's hard to judge by what he did after leaving TSR because he had to start over in the RPG industry and TSR harassed him with legal problems into the 90s. That harassment was another expense TSR really didn't need to engage in either.
 

darjr

I crit!
Perhaps. One of the big unknowns with Gary is what kind of ideas he would have explored with roleplaying. Around the time he was forced out of TSR, story-driven elements in gaming were becoming all the rage. Gary though wasn't into that. If he'd stayed with TSR, he may have tried to push back against that and maybe he would have succeeded, or maybe he would have failed which could have ended TSR earlier. It's hard to judge by what he did after leaving TSR because he had to start over in the RPG industry and TSR harassed him with legal problems into the 90s. That harassment was another expense TSR really didn't need to engage in either.
Yea, I really wish TSR had left him alone.
 

Orius

Hero
That legal harassment probably did TSR no financial favors, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was a factor in their money troubles.

Honestly, it also makes Williams look vindictive and/or insecure. Insecure in that it makes it look like she was afraid Gary would successfully create another fantasy RPG that could give D&D serious competition especially with Gary's name on it.
 

Michael Linke

Adventurer
I think she was worried about his name recognition still having value in the industry. A Gygax RPG would have attracted customers on his name alone. I don't think she cared about, or even that she believed in, his ability to create a good product. She just didn't want his name on a competing product.
 


darjr

I crit!
Reading the book now. As someone who attended many GenCons during the TSR era and marveled at the TSR castle displays, chapter 23 "The Tomb" cuts kind of deep.
Yea what a terrible thing.

I think there is an addendum. I remember someone at WotC finding that they were paying for storage from the TSR days that everyone kinda forgot about. In that storage they found treasures thought lost. It’s too bad the storage in Bens book wasn’t part of that.
 
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Michael Linke

Adventurer
Perhaps. One of the big unknowns with Gary is what kind of ideas he would have explored with roleplaying. Around the time he was forced out of TSR, story-driven elements in gaming were becoming all the rage. Gary though wasn't into that. If he'd stayed with TSR, he may have tried to push back against that and maybe he would have succeeded, or maybe he would have failed which could have ended TSR earlier. It's hard to judge by what he did after leaving TSR because he had to start over in the RPG industry and TSR harassed him with legal problems into the 90s. That harassment was another expense TSR really didn't need to engage in either.
Going over elusive shift, and having not really looked at any of his post-TSR work, i'm skeptical that his own products would have really competed with D&D for the same customers (or even that the gaming market in the late 80s to 90s even wanted what he would have sold). The market seemed to have been pushing D&D toward story telling from the beginning, despite his efforts to position the game as a first-person wargame.
 

GreyLord

Legend
I'm not sure.

I still get confused over the different RPGs he made right after (Dangerous Journeys and Legendary Adventures) and such.

If he hadn't been plagued by various lawsuits or other items which followed him in prestige, reputation, and other areas while he was trying to push his newer games and writings, who knows how successful he could have been.
 

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