Picking up where Jon Peterson's Game Wizards left off Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons is the story of TSR's troubled decline and fall in the 1990s. We sent Luke Frostick to speak to the book's author Ben Riggs and see where it all went wrong for the original Dungeon Masters...
Ben Riggs’ new book Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons is an account of how the original role-playing game company, Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), was founded, ran into the ground, saved, then ran into the ground all over again.
Riggs’ account starts with the story of TSR’s fall as told by Jim Ward, the company’s then vice president of production. In Ward’s retelling the blame for the fall of TSR lies squarely at the feet of the company’s then rival Wizards of the Coast and their flagship game Magic the Gathering outcompeting Dungeons & Dragons. That well accepted, Darwinian, narrative is one that Riggs hadn’t thought to question until he began researching the history of D&D for a Geek and Sundry article.
At the time of the company’s demise Ward was the highest ranking creative at TSR. However as Riggs interviewed more people and began to discover more of the story he found himself “pointed not towards writers, designers or artists but towards the business class at TSR.” A group of people who Riggs points out generally hadn’t been asked about the company's demise before.
Rather than simply a case of being outcompeted by Wizards of the Coast the version of events that Riggs pieced together is more one of a company making bad business decision after bad business decision, ultimately building up until it was so riddled with structural problems that it just could not limp on anymore.
“Within two or three emails with people in marketing and sales, I started to get a radically different story than the one that Jim Ward told me,” explains Riggs.
“WITHIN TWO OR THREE EMAILS WITH PEOPLE IN MARKETING AND SALES, I STARTED TO GET A RADICALLY DIFFERENT STORY"
Throughout our conversation Riggs emphasises to me that although the perspective of creatives like Ward are important, in most cases they were just not aware of the full picture. Furthermore, in many cases, they were deliberately misinformed about many key business realities, including sales figures.
The meat of Slaying The Dragon is devoted to the second era of TSR after the company’s co-founder Gary Gygax was pushed out of the company in 1985 and the Lake Geneva operation was taken over by Lorraine Williams. It's an era that interested Riggs because it was, largely, an untold tale, one that has received little coverage in comparison to the Gygax era of D&D.
For those interested in those early days Riggs recommends the work of Jon Peterson, especially his recent book Game Wizards, as a more thorough examination of the company’s early days. But the Williams-era TSR that Riggs explores in Slaying The Dragon is a different beast altogether. Rather than an upstart company succeeding against the odds, this was a company that had conquered the tabletop industry but was now witnessing its sales stagnate.
TSR’s approach, as Riggs’ lays out, was to attempt to regain momentum with a slew of new products. But while these releases -including much loved settings as Planescape and Dark Sun- were mostly good, the truth was they were unsuccessful as products, neither matching the sales of their 80s predecessors or bringing in vital new blood.
Moreover this deluge of new settings for Dungeons & Dragons not only failed to sell in the numbers required but further chopped up its fanbase. In an effort to make up for these failed attempts at expansion, TSR started making even more poor management decisions that balloon and compound each other: acrimoniously firing some of its key creatives, falling out with DC comics, structuring its finances based on a loan system with Random House and not paying its printers.
The structural problems inherent at TSR are made incredibly clear in the book. However Riggs is keen to point out that “management is not making terrible decisions all the time. It is just that they are often making terrible short-term decisions that after a while, once you get into the long term, you can’t recover from.”
These internal problems were compounded by a general slump in the TTRPG market, a slump that remains somewhat of a mystery to Riggs. Whilst TSR employees blamed the rise of computer games and Magic the Gathering but Riggs isn’t satisfied with that answer.
“For the 1990s I don't have a good reason why TTRPG books were declining” he says, but as he points out the TTRPG slump started before Magic was first released and he finds it fascinating that there is an odd synchronicity with both the fall of TSR and Marvel comics happening within a short space of time.
With Gygax out of the picture, the person at the centre of this crash is Lorraine Williams and Riggs is careful to try and paint a nuanced picture of her. His one-sentence overview is that “Lorraine is better than the collective memory would have you believe because she saved ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ in 1985 but the failure of the company in 1997 must also be laid at her feet.”
Riggs is also keen to point out to me that, “If you talked to people at the company, they kind of preferred Lorraine over Gary.” At least with Williams at the helm, TSR employees were paid on time.
“IF YOU TALKED TO PEOPLE AT THE COMPANY, THEY KIND OF PREFERRED LORRAINE OVER GARY”
When pressed on how Williams -clearly no fool- allowed such a fatal buildup of problems at TSR to happen Riggs explains “I think that she was a person who was very private and very concerned with face” and that she liked yes-people and, under those conditions, it was hard for her to admit that problems were building up.
Riggs recognises that, because he was unable to get an interview with Williams for the book, the story of TSR phase two, “will never be complete without her words.” In particular he’s still keen to know “if she was accurately appraised of the situation with the debt with Random House.”
In other words, was she aware that loans from Random House were being added to gross profit? It is easy to understand why this is such an important question for Riggs; if Williams was making decisions based on inaccurate books, one can see why other mistakes might have sprung from that.
Still despite his disappointment Riggs understands why Williams wouldn’t want to be interviewed about her time running TSR. As depressing as it is unsurprising, the woman in charge of a large geek property has not been treated kindly by fans and colleagues.
“I think a lot of what was said about her was based in some misogyny.” Riggs says. “I heard an awful lot of physical descriptions of her,” he adds, something that never came up when people complained about Gygax.
Riggs doesn’t include any of those physical descriptions of people in the book, however he does acknowledge that perhaps he should have. “It might have been valid since it no doubt was part of her everyday life at the company.” Ultimately though he decided not to include them as “there comes a point at which repeating raw insults gives them strength.”
Riggs goes on to argue that the myth of the evil Lorraine Williams that has come to exist in TSR lore was built up by Gygax as part of his explanation for how he lost control of the company whilst shielding him, despite also nearly bankrupting TSR, from similar levels of criticism.
In addition to a broad, detailed, and entertaining, history of the latter days of TSR, Slaying the Dragon is then a much needed revision of Williams’ place in the story of role-playing games. She is not the wicked witch who stole and subsequently ruined D&D. She was a businesswoman.
Though she made poor choices that would ultimately sink the company, she was also able to save it from bankruptcy in the 1980s and managed to “keep the lights on for another 12 years” and without that second phase of TSR who knows what the TTRPG world would look like...
Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons is out now, published by St. Martin's Press
You can find Ben Riggs on Twitter where he's currently sharing some eye opening sales figures for this era of TSR
Luke Frostick is a British writer based in Istanbul. He is the editor of The Bosphorus Review of Books and regular contributor to the Three Crows Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction can be found in a bunch of other places.