What if Murlynd Survived?

In Greyhawk circles, Murlynd is known as the deity of magical technology, but his roots go back to the very beginning of Dungeons & Dragons' history. The gunslinging Murlynd was the creation of Donald R. Kaye, Gary Gygax's childhood friend and co-founder of Tactical Studies Rules. Kaye's untimely death created a gap in TSR's leadership that eventually widened into a rift that sunk the company. Given how history played out with Gygax's eventual ouster and TSR's fall, it begs the question: would things be any different if Kaye survived?
[h=3]The First Players Are Your Friends[/h]Gygax shared in an interview with Scott Lynch that Don Kaye was his childhood friend:

Don and I were childhood friends from about age 6 onwards. From that time on we played many a game, did all the things schoolmate friends to together too. We had a club that used to meet at my house in Lake Geneva, and on a large open space in the attic we would attempt miniatures games with a mix of military miniatures, 65 mm and 64 mm scales. We never did get it right until after high school, I blush to admit. We were firing ladyfinger firecrackers with the Britons artillery pieces I had, and the real casualties among the figures was too high...

Michael Witwer recalls in Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons:

Gary and Don's adolescence and early teen years in Lake Geneva would be full of similar adventures. Whether hunting rabbits in the forest, fishing off the shores of the lake, camping, hiking or returning for another round of exploring at the sanatorium, these formative and Rockwell-esque childhood experiences would fuel Gary's growing and unfettered imagination.

Gygax explains in the interview with Lynch how their partnership paved the way to the creation of TSR with the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Rules Association (LGTSRA):

Anyway, after I moved to Chicago (1956) I saw Don only on weekends I returned to Lake Geneva, but when I came back for a Christmas Holiday in 1958 I brought Avalon Hill's Gettysburg game with me, and introduced Don to board wargaming thus. After I moved back to Lake Geneva again in 1963, he was one of the regular members of the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Rules Association, mainly playing WW II miniatures.

Kaye was more than just a fellow gamer. He also helped Gary's growing business by helping make ends meet, as Jon Peterson explains in Playing at the World:

From August 1971 forward, Gygax made a steady income repairing shoes. The bulky cobbling apparatus required for this vocation, by occupying so much space in his basement, forced Gygax to relocate his beloved sand table to his childhood friend Don Kaye’s garage on Sage Street in Lake Geneva, which consequently became the primary meeting place of the LGTSA. Although Kaye very rarely contributed to, nor even received mention in, the wargaming trade journals, he enjoyed fantasy wargaming from its inception, and notably constructed one of the dragons featured in the LGTSA miniature games, a conversion from a toy brontosaurus.

In short, Kaye was as much a gamer as Gygax. Who better to start the company that would launch Dungeons & Dragons?
[h=3]The Legend of Murlynd[/h]Gygax explains in his interview with Lynch that Kaye was invested in D&D from the start:

...when I came up with fantasy medievals, Don knew I had something special going. In late November of 1972 I wrote the first draft of the D&D game, and Don was one of the small group of initial players: son Ernie, daughter Elsie, and two teenage boys, Rob and Terry Kuntz, forming that whole.

Kaye played in the second round of playtesting, creating the character Murlynd alongside Rob Kuntz's Robilar and Terry Kuntz's Terik. Gygax explained how character names tended to be variants of their own names, but Kaye took a different approach:

Don Kaye was a semi-exception with Murlynd. As I became a bit more engaged in the broader possibility spectrum of the game I did a more seriously considered PC, as already mentioned. That became common with most of the veterans in our group around that time.

Murlynd was not a simple character either. Kaye played a magic-user:

He was well known for using his boots of levitation to rise above an ongoing outdoors battle only to become a floating target (Gary and I used to say, "barrage balloon") for missile wielding monsters at ground level. He also wielded a staff of power and owned a small house in the City of Greyhawk.

Kaye's passion for Westerns spilled over into his gaming as well:

Don was a great fan of the Western and an avid supporter of the Boot Hill rules. He designed several scenarios for the LGTSA to play the rules in, including one which involved the 'Black Bart' gang. otherwise, this is another remembrance added to the super-characterization he became via EGG.

Murlynd visited a Wild West world and returned with a Stetson hat and six-shooters; the universe of Greyhawk specifically prohibited gunpowder from working, but Gygax made an exception for his friend by turning the six-shooters into magical weapons, as described by Gygax in "Greyhawk's World" in Dragon Magazine #71:

As noted, Murlynd is prone to carry technological weapons (variously called “45s”, “six shooters”, and “hog legs”) which he is able to employ in both his left and right hands. His special aura enables these devices to function even on Oerth, for instance.

Kaye's interest in Westerns went beyond Murlynd. His passion built the foundation for a Wild West role-playing game:

...Don began to look forward eagerly to doing a Wild West RPG. He planned to draft rules as soon as he could quit his job to work for TSR. We projected that would be possible in about a year or so. Don was very happy.

Gygax would publish the wild Boot Hill posthumously in honor of Kaye.
[h=3]Starting Tactical Studies Rules[/h]It was Kaye who got the funds to launch Tactical Studies Rules, as Gygax explained to Lynch:

We talked a lot about getting our own company going then, and Don borrowed against a life insurance policy in 1973, so that we could form the Tactical Studies Rules company as a partnership in October of that year. Cavaliers & Roundheads (Perren & Gygax) rules for English Civil War military miniatures wargames was published in October 1973. Next came Dungeons & Dragons in January of 1974. All of the warehousing and shipping was done at Don's house a few blocks away from where I lived then.

It wasn't enough. Brian Blume, a toolmaker in nearby Wauconda, Illinois, had tried to help market Cavaliers & Roundheads. More important, he had cash and was willing to invest in the nascent TSR. Witwer explains in Empire of Imagination that Kaye was not convinced:

With his obvious enthusiasm for fantasy wargaming and D&D, he seemed to have all of the prerequisites for immediate partnership in TSR. Don, however, was not so quick to acquiesce and spent a week considering the offer. Kaye requested a meeting between the three and, "after questioning Brian at length," finally agreed to Brian's proposal.

The difference between Kaye's and Gygax's approach to integrating Blume into TSR's structure is illustrative of their personalities. Kaye's thoughtful reticence was an important balance to Gygax's hard-driving vision. Blume, as one-third partner, was named vice president, Kaye was named president, and Gygax was editor. Peterson quotes Gygax in Playing at the World as an example of how much Kaye was involved in TSR's operations:

TSR is run from the home of Mr. Kaye at present, although we expect this to change within a year or two. (Remember that our firm is only two years old NEXT November). Orders come to that address at an average of perhaps ten per day— although that total includes orders from stores and distributors, so it gives no real picture of what volume we move. Mr. Kaye handles from 50-75 orders per week. Between one and two letters per day are sent to TSR inquiring about one thing or another. I handle about 60% of these inquiries, with the balance being handled by either Mr. Kaye or Mr. Blume.

But Kaye was harboring a secret he hadn't shared with his friend and business partner that would have devastating consequences for TSR's future.
[h=3]Tragedy Strikes[/h]Don Kaye had a heart condition he didn't share with his partners, perhaps because he was doing something about it:

The next January, Donald Kaye had a fatal heart attack: He had been scheduled for heart surgery, but had never told his partners. "The key to having a lot of success is enjoying what you do so you don't mind thinking about it all the time," says Gygax. "Donald never got a chance to participate like that in TSR."

That surgery was scheduled just weeks after Kaye passed away. The death of his friend deeply affected Gygax:

He was only 36 years old when that happened. How ironic, I thought, as I became the first paid employee of the company in June of 1976, Don's birthday month, he being exactly one month older than I. Don was then and still is sorely missed by me.

Kaye's death also had serious repercussions for the future of TSR:

As a result, Blume and Gygax entered into a new partnership agreement which named Kaye’s widow, Donna, as an equal partner. While the official TSR offices stayed at the Kaye residence on Sage Street in Lake Geneva, and Donna Kaye remained in charge of accounting and shipping through the spring, she had no interest in gaming and, especially as the business grew, little time for an enterprise that could not afford to employ her.

It didn't help matters that Gygax and Kaye's wife, Donna, did not get along:

To put it delicately, Don's wife was less than personable. That even Don would have said to anyone whom he knew well enough. After Don died she dumped all the Tactical Studies Rules materials off on my front porch. It would have been impossible to manage a business with her involved as a partner. We had to buy her out. There was no one interested in investing the money needed to effect a buy-out and closing of the partnership. Unfortunately the agreement did not cover death of a partner as it should have.

Donna wasn't being paid, which was part of her intolerance of the arrangement. Peterson explains on Medium in his article, "The Ambush at Sheridan Springs":

Gygax recognized that in the absence of salaries, only love of games could fuel the partnership. As a result, he committed TSR to a stark governing principle. He promised in a letter to David Megarry, designer of the Dungeon! board game, dated March 6, 1975: “We will never allow TSR to become a company which is run by any outside group. That is, we may take others in as partners eventually, but we will never seek any non-wargamer capitalization.”

From this point on, the Gygax-Kaye logo was replaced with the lizard man of TSR Hobbies. It was just one of the many changes that would rock TSR after Kaye's death.
[h=3]The End of the Beginning [/h]Kaye's passing altered the path of TSR. David Ewalt explains in Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It:

...instead of solidifying the company under Gygaxian rule and securing its future by gamers, for gamers, the shakeup did the opposite. Because he'd spent so much money buying Kaye out of the company, Gygax threw TSR off balance at a critical point in its growth. Within a few months, the company was out of cash. In order to raise the capital needed to print ship and develop new products, TSR issued more shares of stock. Brian Blume bought some, as did his father, Melvin (later, Melvin transferred his shares to his other son, Kevin). By the fall, the Blumes controlled the company, and Gygax owned just 35 percent of stock.

Gygax went all in with investor Brian Blume, as Peterson shares on Medium:

Protecting control required a new corporate structure. Gygax and Blume had planned the creation of a separate “TSR Hobbies” company to handle mail order sales and possibly a retail store in Lake Geneva. When they incorporated TSR Hobbies, they decided to repurpose it to purchase the assets of the partnership and thereby relieve Donna Kaye of her ties to gaming.

Gygax was now a minority shareholder:

The Blume capital infusion immediately rendered Gygax a minority shareholder, with his 150 shares now well below the total Blume family holdings of 440 shares—and he would remain a minority shareholder for the next decade. Thus, although Gygax enjoyed fleeting control over TSR Hobbies in 1975, it was only at a time that the company did not even own Dungeons & Dragons. But ownership did not translate into executive titles: Gygax retained the office of President of TSR Hobbies despite the reversal of control.

It was 10 years later in 1985 when Gygax's worst nightmare would come to pass: "non-wargamer capitalization" became a reality when the TSR board considered allowing the Forman Group to become a majority shareholder. Gygax exercised his options, in combination with his son Ernie's, to secure a controlling interest to stop the Forman deal. The end result saw Gygax becoming President and CEO of TSR, Inc. It was a short-lived victory.

That left the troubling issue of the Blumes' stock -- by then the Blume family had largely been ousted from TSR but still retained significant amounts of stock and would only sell them at a high price. When TSRs creditors refused to cover the cost, it required a third party to purchase the newly-issued shares. That third-party was Lorraine Williams, who had only been with TSR for six months. Williams' family owned the rights to Buck Rogers and could afford to purchase the shares from the Blumes. Williams, who wasn't a gamer, was promptly appointed President and CEO. No longer in control of Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax resigned from TSR in October 1986.

The full tale is told in Peterson's "The Ambush at Sheridan Springs" and Witwer's Empire of Imagination. Collectively the two accounts (both drawn upon primary sources) paint a different picture from how Gygax positioned the events in later interviews.

[h=3]An Alternate Future?[/h]What would have happened if Kaye had the surgery just a few weeks earlier? Putting aside the question of how Kaye's business acumen would influence a nascent company, his death triggered a series of events that led to Williams' ascension and Gygax's ouster. With Kaye still alive, there would be no need for Tactical Studies Rules to reform as TSR Hobbies, which would mean the Blumes would not have controlling shares of stock, and Williams' wouldn't later have enough leverage to take over TSR. Had Kaye survived, Gygax may well have kept control over the company he founded.

Would TSR, and its flagship product, Dungeons & Dragons, have been better off with Kaye at the helm? Gygax certainly thought so, and given how frequently Kaye's name comes up in interviews it's clear the loss of his friend -- and the future company they planned to create together -- weighed heavily on him:

There is no question in my mind that had Don Kaye lived, the whole course of later events at TSR would have been altered radically. Don was not only a very intelligent guy, a gamer, but he was also one who was not given to allowing the prospect of greater profits to cloud his judgment in regards the long-term viability of the enterprise he co-founded, was so proud of.

Kaye's influence, although fleeting, is far-reaching. Boot Hill's influence is felt in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' hand-to-hand combat rules. Murlynd's legacy lives on in the spells Murlynd's ogre, Murlynd's void, and the magic item Murlynd's spoon. And of course there's the immortal Murlynd himself, a quasi-deity, who wars a Stetson and wields magical six-shooters, a concession made by the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons for his dearly departed friend.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.

log in or register to remove this ad

Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Great background on Kaye, but the "alternative future" which is supposedly the topic of the article turns out to be little more than a footnote. Sure, Gygax likely would not have been forced out. Is that really all there is to say about it? You're positing a world in which Gygax and Kaye run the company instead of Lorraine Williams. What would that look like? What would they have done differently? Would they have been able to avert TSR's collapse, or would they have fallen into the same traps - inability to control costs, wasting money on ill-conceived projects like Dragon Dice, cranking out far more product than the market could support, fracturing the brand? Suppose they did keep TSR solvent, how would D&D have evolved with them in charge?

Obviously no one can answer these questions for sure, but the point of an "alternative future" article is for someone well versed in the real history to speculate on how things might have turned out differently.


5ever, or until 2024
It is one of the great "what ifs?"

Though, there could have still been a falling out there. There always seemed to be. But it seems less likely.


5ever, or until 2024
In terms of "alternate futures" the Blumes did do a pretty bad job of running things.

We don't know how they would have navigated things after the game started to come off its peak, but at least the would have made more money.
Last edited by a moderator:

I always enjoy some neat speculation/thought experiments. The history of TSR is pretty rife with twists and failures and drama. Less of that and more focus on the game might be been better.

Don Kaye's death certainly caused some of that drama. It weakened Gygax's hold on the game for sure. Would things have been better with Kaye and Gygax? Honestly, probably not.
What was needed to really help the game survive is someone with business skills and experience in the publishing business, specifically books and periodicals. And maybe some law experience. That it was under Don's oversight that the death of a partner could so cripple the industry and he left so much control to his wife who was so apathetic to the game was a pretty serious error in judgement; this doesn't fill me with confidence that had he survived his future decisions would have been better. Or that having Gygax have more power would have worked well, when his business sense also wasn't the greatest.

Gygax was never a fan of making lots of D&D products. He wanted to move on to other games, like board game companies. With a greater controlling interest and less time fighting, he might have been able to produce more side products and focus less on D&D.

If he had decided to keeping riding the D&D wave, we'd have still gotten a 2nd Edition, albeit one that was very different. I imagine skill kits rather than classes, as that sounded like Gygax's future plans.
From what we know of gamers, the 1e/2e edition war would have been more divisive. Since the change was greater than just codifying side rules, tweaking initiative, giving rangers TWF, etc. And 3e - if there was one - would have likely continued the revisionary trend rather than just codifying and unifying mechanics.
We likely wouldn't have had the influx of campaign settings like we saw in late 1e, since Gygax was reluctant to publish that content. At best we might have seem more Greyhawk books and the Realms would remain the property of Greenwood.

What wouldn't have happened was the acquisition of TSR by WotC. So no 3rd Edition. No OGL. No OSR or Paizo.

Honestly… the now kinda rocks. Things were hard in the '90s and the past 15 years have been ups and downs, but there's been a heck of a lot of good. I find it hard to think Earth-2 where Kaye survived would have been that much better.


I have read about this possible future had Don Kaye lived since the Gygax interview by Ciro Alessandro Sacco first came out around 2000-2001. Like many who have heard about Kaye, I have also speculated on 'what might have been', but every time I do, I basically come to a similar overall ending, which is that while Gygax might have had better relations with the other guy (Kaye) in charge, TSR would not have necessarily been a whole lot better off. Jester Canuck brings up a very good and inescapable point: "What was needed to really help the game survive is someone with business skills and experience in the publishing business, specifically books and periodicals. And maybe some law experience."

I completely agree. Being a good gamer does not de facto making a good businessman. Gygax was clearly a creative guy, and although he had some broad ideas on how to develop, market, and sell D&D, the devil is in the details. I have never once heard about Don Kaye's talent, background, or education for business or marketing, which is what you need if you are going run a profitable company. Every time I imagine Kaye and Gygax working shoulder-to-shoulder at G-K/TSR games, I foresee a company in probably a similar situation as to what ended up with Williams at the helm, except in that else-world scenario, the friendship of Gygax and Kaye collapses due to the business ending up in roughly the same position. So, which is better: to have what tragically happened to Don Kaye early in his life, or have him continue living and perhaps Gygax and he become former friends who don't speak to one another, as what pretty much happened after Dave Arneson came into the picture? Would Gygax have spoken so fondly of Donald Kaye 25 years later had they continued on together with TSR?

Considering how huge Magic The Gathering was at the time, it’s entirely possible that Wizards could’ve still pursued and bought up TSR…or even Hasbro, later on.

Heck, even with TSR in solid finances, there could’ve been a chance that Gygax still would’ve brought in Lorraine Williams to manage. And after reading Empire of Imagination and seeing that from the time she was hired to the time Gygax was ousted, it was only six months, I kinda suspect that she had that on her mind from the get-go.

All that being said, I think that Don Kaye’s survival would’ve definitely changed the shape of the company and what 2e would’ve looked like.

What wouldn't have happened was the acquisition of TSR by WotC. So no 3rd Edition. No OGL. No OSR or Paizo.


I'm not as well versed as other folks in the personalities involved, but I have watched the arcs of a couple of startup companies that struck it big (one I worked for personally, one that a close friend co-founded). I suspect that if Gygax and Kaye had remained in charge, the result would have been similar to what I saw in both cases: The founders' vision drives the company's success, and they attract a bunch of wild, weird, talented people. However, the founders struggle to manage the transition to scale and try to micromanage more than they can handle. All those talented folks are pulling in different directions and no one is able to rein them in. Eventually there is a reckoning; the company endures a painful shift to a more professional, less entrepreneurial mode. The burned-out, exhausted founders either sell their stakes and move on, or take on narrower roles within the company. Either way, they hand over day-to-day management to someone else... hopefully (but not necessarily) someone better suited.

Without the mismanagement of the Blumes and then Williams, however, the reckoning likely would not have been the near-death experience it was in the real world. You need a rare set of talents to take a startup company to the big time; I assume Gygax and Kaye had them, or the company would never have taken off in the first place. Chief among those talents are smarts, energy, and a readiness to improvise, and those are usually enough to keep the lights on... somehow or other.

As for D&D itself, my guess is that it would look today a lot more like AD&D. 3E, 4E, and 5E were all major overhauls in different ways; those overhauls would not have happened as long as the original creators were still present. Furthermore, the OGL would never have come into being - the OGL was a radical response to TSR's disastrous end, and without the disaster there would have been no need to be radical.

So... although I obviously would not wish on Don Kaye the untimely death that struck him, I do think things worked out for the best as far as D&D was concerned.


Community Supporter
I have never once heard about Don Kaye's talent, background, or education for business or marketing, which is what you need if you are going run a profitable company.

This is the reason I didn't further explore the implications of a Kaye/Gygax company, because there's not a whole lot of data I was able to find as to Kaye's business abilities. There's no guarantee anything would be different based on who he was, so I tried to stick to the actions that resulted due to his death: the stock dilution which led to Lorraine Williams' ascension. I think we should put the question to Jon Peterson, who is the most likely to have primary documents from Gygax and Kaye's early days. I'll ask him!

So, which is better: to have what tragically happened to Don Kaye early in his life, or have him continue living and perhaps Gygax and he become former friends who don't speak to one another, as what pretty much happened after Dave Arneson came into the picture? Would Gygax have spoken so fondly of Donald Kaye 25 years later had they continued on together with TSR?

I think this is a valid question, but I'll point out that Arneson's relationship with Gygax was very different from Kaye. Kaye was a childhood friend and neighbor -- Arneson came into the picture much later and their relationship, while positive at first, wasn't really what Witwer and Peterson describe in their respective publications as a friendship...at least not on the same level as Gygax/Kaye.


Might have been no mor D&D after 1985 or so. Lorraine in her own way did save/prolong the death of TSR by a decade.

I don't think Gygax would have been much better at running the company.


Community Supporter
Spoke to Jon. I don't want to speak for him so I won't quote his answer, but I will confirm that he agrees with me -- there's not enough primary sources to make any kind of reasonable projection of what a Kaye-run company would be like. I consider him to be the authority on the subject.

Of course it's always possible more documents will eventually come to light!



Question: Was there a way Gary Gygax could have set things up so that he could NOT be ousted from control of his own company? Is there a way to set up a business so that there ARE no "shares" that other people could buy up and use to take over the company? Or at least assure that you always have a majority?


Community Supporter
Question: Was there a way Gary Gygax could have set things up so that he could NOT be ousted from control of his own company? Is there a way to set up a business so that there ARE no "shares" that other people could buy up and use to take over the company? Or at least assure that you always have a majority?

Sure. It was really a matter of cash. Gygax didn't have enough to fund the company's operations, specifically printing. Kaye borrowed against his life insurance policy. That still wasn't enough, so the Blume family was brought in. If Gygax had more ready cash, he could have launched the business himself without any outside help.

Now there's lots of reasons as to why Gygax didn't have money. He had five children and lost his job as an insurance writer -- Witwer implies in Empire of Imagination that it was due to Gygax using the company typewriter to create games.

By all accounts Gary was crazy passionate about games. He practically willed D&D into existence through sheer force of personality. He's a bit like Stan Lee, a tireless promoter and networker. Any time Gary faced an obstacle he couldn't overcome himself, he enlised someone else. In that regard his approach to business was no different than his approach to games.


There's some additional information about Murlynd (Merlynd, Merlin) in Kuntz's El Raja Key Archive:

Merlynd's Castle

These are Rob's original Merlynd's Castle concept notes and maps from 200729. Don Kaye356 was a long time friend of Gary Gygax651 and eventually helped Gary found TSR1409 in order to publish Dungeons & Dragons. Sadly Don passed away in 19756 before TSR really took off.

Don was, notably, one of the earliest participants in the Original Greyhawk Campaign545, playing his character Merlin961 (later renamed Murlynd and Merlynd to avoid connection with the literary character). Rob1175 DMed1174 Don on a number of adventures, most notably, the Bottle City201 level, found in an out of the way place on an upper level of the Expanded Greyhawk Castle579. These notes were destined for a product that Rob was going to produce to memorialize Don's character and adventures as well as his real life. Amazing insight into the life and gaming of one of Gary Gygax's best friends.

I have scans of more-refined maps that were not included in the first volume of the archive; hopefully they can be included in a second volume.



Lord of the Hidden Layer
TSR's key problem was to bring in a manager to run the day-to-day operations, letting the creative talent concentrate on their favorite thing.
If Kaye could provide the cool level-headed analysis that concluded "we need a manager" and gotten that conclusion turned into action, things could have been much different.
They all would have to navigate the things the manager would find needful: bring in a lawyer to professionalize some rather amateur-sounding contracts; retain an accounting firm to track the money; build up business relationships with suppliers and with retail stores; &c.

From what I've heard about EGG, he would have been pushed out the control of his own company anyways, eventually.
But Kaye might have thought of a way to retain him as creative talent with a special spot in the Org Chart.

Related Articles

Visit Our Sponsor

Latest threads

An Advertisement