Slaying the Dragon, by Ben Riggs book review


In 1970, Gary Gygax, a high school dropout, was fired from his job as an insurance underwriter. He took up shoe repair as his family — a wife and six kids — struggled. Devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, they went door to door peddling their faith in Lake Geneva, Wis. Gygax spent weekends with a group of friends in basements creating and playing strategic war games, a hobby that led to what we now know as Dungeons and Dragons.

The first commercial version of D&D — “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures” — sold for 10 bucks a piece in 1974, a small fortune for a wood-grain cardboard box containing three stapled pamphlets and a few reference sheets. The games, all 1,000 assembled in Gygax’s house, sold out in less than a year and quickly went into a second printing. At the time, Gygax was working with game creator Dave Arneson and another friend, who had teamed up to found the company Tactical Studies Rules, or TSR. Arneson left TSR in 1976 after a dispute over credit and royalties, and TSR moved from Gygax’s basement to the former Hotel Clair, a dump in downtown Lake Geneva, where its staff grew.

At its height, Ben Riggs writes in his new book, “Slaying the Dragon,” TSR had gross sales of more than $40 million. It was “the grand old dragon of role-playing game companies. It founded the industry and published the game that dominated the field.” The early days have the feel of a Silicon Valley start-up, with an even more nerdy, low-budget vibe. “At its offices in Lake Geneva, dozens and dozens of genius geeks gathered to create games, novels, and art that flooded game stores and malls across the world,” Riggs writes.

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In its first incarnations, D&D’s guides were published with apostrophes absent from their titles, because apostrophes were considered ugly and uncool. Employees would jump from beam to beam in the derelict hotel’s upper floors, crashing through into the offices below. Visiting bankers and potential investors found themselves caught in the crossfire of water pistol and Nerf gun battles between editors and game designers, or confronted by hallways full of windup toys run amok. The FBI paid a visit when notes for a spy role-playing game (RPG) were found in the trash and interpreted as part of an assassination plot.

Things got even weirder in 1979, when a 16-year-old D&D enthusiast and prodigy attending Michigan State disappeared. The PI hired by the boy’s uncle theorized that he’d fled into the campus steam tunnels in “some sort of game fugue.” When the teen killed himself, a year after he was found alive, news accounts depicted D&D as a satanic cult. The lurid media attention made D&D a household name. Gygax said the satanic panic “did things for sales you wouldn’t believe.”

“Playing RPGs made life better,” Riggs states, and certainly fattened Gygax’s bank account. Still, by 1985, D&D’s sales had collapsed, with a 79 percent drop in sales of boxed sets and rule books. Tie-in novels and expansion sets sold well, but the company’s central products had fallen victim to market saturation. D&D’s rules were complex and took time to master. The company focused on products geared toward existing players, rather than trying to bring new players into the fold. An attempt to reach a younger generation with a D&D children’s board game and accompanying video failed miserably.

Instead of tightening the Belt of Dwarvenkind, TSR went on a hiring spree. More confoundingly, the company invested in doomed-to-fail ventures that included a needlepoint company and an effort to raise a shipwreck from Geneva Lake. In 1983, the company employed more than 300 people, but rounds of layoffs eventually reduced the staff to fewer than 100. Profits from TSR’s D&D tie-in novels kept the company afloat, even as the RPG department was reduced to a skeleton crew.

Riggs’s book, a compelling adventure in itself, features interviews with many of the key players, narrated by a superfan. (Riggs is host of the podcast “Plotpoints,” an exhaustive look at role-playing games.) “TSR’s failure is a tale of misfortune and mistakes kept secret for decades, here given up to the light,” he writes. “It is the story of an unemployed insurance underwriter, an heiress, a preacher’s son, and a game like no other.”

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In October 1985, Gygax was ousted. Lorraine Williams became TSR’s CEO — one of the era’s few female CEOs and the only one to helm a company with a predominantly male staff and fan base. A “grown-up” who could “talk to banks,” Williams dragged TSR from the precipice. Staff owed back pay finally received it, with interest. During her tenure, the company produced gorgeously designed boxed sets and accompanying CDs, best-selling tie-in novels and a second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Williams was vilified by male D&D fans, many of then outraged by Gygax’s departure from the company he’d helped found. Riggs laments that Williams refused to speak with him when he was researching his book: “I could not help but wonder what role misogyny might play in her villainization.” TSR employed indispensable women, including Margaret Weis, Jean Black and Mary Kirchoff, and while Riggs acknowledges their contributions, one longs for a firsthand account of what it was like for these trailblazers, outliers in a man’s world. (In the book’s last few pages, Riggs mentions “credible claims of sexual harassment” at TSR.)

By the early 1990s, rival companies like White Wolf, FASA and Wizards of the Coast were wooing gamers with products more character-driven than classic D&D. Wizards of the Coast’s massively popular collectible card game Magic: The Gathering changed the field much as D&D had, shipping a hundred million cards a month. TSR’s attempts to compete grew increasingly desperate as the company flooded the market with new products — beautiful game settings so expensively produced and packaged that they lost money as they left the warehouse. Attempts to establish a West Coast office — to cash in on the booming comics market, TV and film — tanked. So did an attempt to license a Middle-earth RPG.

A distribution deal with Random House turned out to be the fatal blow. To keep afloat, TSR had taken out huge loans from the publishing powerhouse. Mass firings took place in the days before Christmas 1996. Bags of unshipped products filled the office. Worst of all, Riggs reports, TSR had used the copyrights of dozens of its works as collateral with the bank and Random House.

Late in 1997, two employees drove a pickup to a storage facility in Racine, Wis. TSR had defaulted on its rent. The pair had one hour to save what they could of the meticulously crafted dioramas, boxes of miniatures and other materials that were a result of thousands of hours of work by TSR’s artisans and artists. “Like as not,” Riggs says, the remaining works were “crushed in a landfill.”

Yet there was one more fateful roll of the many-sided die. In spring 1997, Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR, minus Lorraine Williams. Wired Magazine reported, “Disaffected Fans Cheer D&D Buyout.” With Wizards of the Coast’s president, Peter Adkison, now in charge, former TSR employees were rehired. Arneson, who’d created D&D with Gygax, finally received a sizable check for his intellectual property, as did Gygax’s widow. In 2020, Wizards of the Coast reported that over 50 million people played D&D worldwide.

Riggs undermines his fascinating story with fanboy gushing, often confusing chronology and portentous pronouncements that include a chapter epigraph from “Mrs. Dalloway.” Such grandiose flourishes are unnecessary. RPG culture has influenced our world to a degree that Gary Gygax might only have dreamed of in his Wisconsin basement all those years ago. D&D opened a portal for video and computer gaming, an industry now worth tens of billions of dollars, mass conventions such as Gen Con (founded by Gygax), numerous books, films and TV shows, and immersive experiences like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. For those who long to return to the source, The Griffin and Gargoyle, a D&D amusement center, is slated to open on the shores of Lake Geneva in 2024. Role-playing games may not make life better, but they sure make it a lot more fun.

Elizabeth Hand’s most recent novel is “Hokuloa Road.”

A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons

St. Martin’s Press. 304 pp. $29.99

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