“Role-playing game historian Ben Riggs unveils the secret history of TSR— the company that unleashed imaginations with Dungeons & Dragons, was driven into ruin by disastrous management decisions, and then saved by their bitterest rival.”
Dungeons and Dragons and its parent company in the Eighties, TSR, had a fascinating story that has mostly been shared around by gamers at cons as well as word of mouth for decades. This isn’t the story of the Satanic Panic that both vilified gamers and drove sales through the roof. No, this is a story of the internal politicking that led to the rise of TSR as a corporate entity under Gary Gygax, his loss of the company to Lorraine Williams, and how it was ultimately acquired by Wizards of the Coast before becoming yet another corporate culture.
Generally, popular wisdom holds Gary Gygax as blameless and portrays Lorraine Williams as the villain who stole his company but Ben Riggs has a very different sort of take on things. Indeed, his portrayal of Lorraine Williams makes her every bit as endearingly quirky as the rest of TSR’s creatives. Gary Gygax was a creative genius but a poor businessman according this book, spending boatloads of money on bizarre projects like trying to take a shipwreck from the bottom of a lake as well as a hard-R Dungeons and Dragons movie when they were presently marketing it to kids.
Lorraine Williams was an excellent businesswoman, by contrast, but not as interested in the creative side of things and attempted to keep her distance in the company from employees. Which was bizarre given its tiny size and enthusiastic love of the material. She was also obsessed with the Buck Rogers IP and erroneously believed it would be a massive success. Later, she would attempt to move out of the tabletop roleplaying game business into paperback publishing because they were selling far more of those than they were of games. This, as you could imagine, didn’t go over well with all of the obsessive gamers within.
The book is full of fascinating details and, to be frank, dirt on the history of TSR as well as it’s parents. There’s some genuinely scandalous revelations about the people involved as well as the treatment of employees. Margaret Weis, mother of Dragonlance, made only $30,000 a year while being the best-selling author who was actually keeping the company afloat. Gary Gygax was cut out of a massive portion of his profits that he was entitled to. Random House, of all people, was cheated by TSR when the latter tried to give them a massive amount of product no one was buying (Dragonstrike) in order to get a huge check.
The depiction of TSR in the book is a company that was populated by rabid fans working primarily for their love of the product that didn’t really adjust too well to being an actual business. A lot of bizarre and insane mistakes were made but no one is a true villain. Many people were underpaid (Ed Greenwood was given about $2000 dollars for the Forgotten Realms’ rights and even then only a courtesy) but everyone seemed to love what they were doing until they suddenly weren’t doing it because of mismanagement.
Really, if anyone comes off as a hero of this, it is the most unexpected one in Peter Adkinson. He not only bought TSR despite the company was five million dollars in debt but paid off all of their individual artists, including Gygax. He also was willing to buy the company despite the fact Lorraine Williams had a personal detestation of him that seems to have originated in her belief that Wizards of the Coast was their biggest rival despite them not making tabletop RPGs.
The writing is crisp and humorous, often highlighting the absurdities of the situation without making much in the way of direct judgement. It is an unflattering but not condemnatory depiction of TSR and would make a great basis for a Mad Men or The Pirates of Silicon Valley-esque drama. I strongly recommend this as a easy-to-read introduction into the history of Dungeons and Dragons.