Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday 29 July 2022

Friday Faction: Slaying the Dragon

In Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, Jon Peterson told three stories—one about a rise, one about a feud, and one about a fall and all of them about Dungeons & Dragons. The story of the rise was not one, but four, hand in hand with each other. The first rise would be of Dungeons & Dragons, the first roleplaying game. The second rise would be of roleplaying itself. The third rise would be of E. Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons and the founder of the hobby. The fourth rise would be of TSR, Inc., the company he co-founded to publish Dungeons & Dragons. The feud would be between E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the other co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, which would colour so many of his decisions. The fall would be his ousting from the company he co-founded, at the infamous ‘The Ambush at Sheridan Springs’ in 1985, following a debt crisis which would result in the company’s takeover by Lorraine Williams. Game Wizards though, only explored the first twelve years of TSR, Inc. Another twelve years would follow with Lorraine Williams at the helm before history repeated itself and TSR, Inc. would be bought out by Wizards of the Coast following another debt crisis. How this history was repeated and how the reputation of Lorraine Williams was cemented as a villain are told in Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons by Ben Riggs.

Like any other history of Dungeons & Dragons, Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons begins with E. Gary Gygax. Its first fifth charts his rise and fall, mostly in familiar fashion before the Lorraine Williams era is ushered in with a sense of relief. This is important, because as Game Wizards highlighted, her intervention saved TSR, Inc. and with it Dungeons & Dragons. Yet again and again, her reputation is soured by poor management decisions combined with a dismissive attitude towards both the core product and the core market. This would see the company attempting to expand out of what management saw as the ghetto of the roleplaying hobby market into mass markets, whether that was the mass market for boardgames such as Monopoly or for books. This was despite being the biggest fish in the roleplaying hobby market and despite having number one bestsellers on the New York book list. Yet at the same time, the publisher put out introductory boxed set after introductory boxed throughout nineties, all in an attempt to widen the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons and attract new players. Then when the company did attempt to innovate, whether attempting to design a boardgame intended to introduce Dungeons & Dragons to a younger audience or developing a rival to Magic: The Gathering, it would always seem to be undone by management decisions.

Similarly, management’s treatment of its talent was poor. Time and again, the management would call upon the company’s creative talent to create brilliant product, and time and again it did. David ‘Zeb’ Cook created the Planescape setting, a combination of the earlier Manual of the Planes with factions inspired by Vampire: The Masquerade; Timothy B. Brown and Troy Denning designed Dark Sun, an anti-Dungeons & Dragons setting much of which was inspired by the artwork of then in-house artist, Brom; and Bruce Nesmith and Andria Hayday developed the Ravenloft: Realm of Terror boxed set, based on Tracy and Laura Hickman’s module, I6 Ravenloft. All of these were fantastic products with superb production values and gaming potential, but all at a cost that as the book reveals made the publisher nothing in the way of profit. Yet despite this, it never seemed as if TSR wanted to keep its creative talent, let alone keep them happy. Its management would change agreements that benefitted its employees and then ask them for more, driving the actual men and women who loved roleplaying and Dungeons & Dragons and what they did—being creative on a daily basis—away from the company, and often onto bigger and better things, whether finding further fame as an author or artist, or in the computer games industry.

Much like the earlier Game Wizards, there are fascinating asides and missed opportunities throughout Slaying the Dragon. Notably, in Game Wizards it was the opportunity for TSR, Inc. to purchase Games Workshop. In Slaying the Dragon, the major missed opportunity was a failure to capitalise fully on its innovations, most notably in the development of comic books based on Dungeons & Dragons and TSR’s other properties, which would see the establishment of TSR West and the souring of the company’s relationship with DC Comics, and also the creation of Dragonstrike, a board game designed to introduce roleplaying and Dungeons & Dragons to eight-year-olds using a VHS recording, the company overinvested in and was unable to sell in the long term. Yet perhaps the most intriguing opportunity that TSR lost was designing and publishing a roleplaying game based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. From being sued for the use of the term ‘Hobbit’ in Dungeons & Dragons in the seventies to being approached by the holder of the film rights to Tolkien’s works to being offered the chance to create a new Middle-earth roleplaying game in the early nineties is quite a turnaround. Unfortunately, when TSR was unable to obtain the rights to publish new fiction set in Middle-earth—because what the management of the company wanted to be was a legitimate publisher of fiction—Lorraine Williams passed on the opportunity. In hindsight it would have been fascinating to see a Middle-earth boxed set for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition and it would have been popular with the roleplaying game’s fans. It was not to be though, and it would not be until Cubicle Seven Entertainment published Adventures in Middle-earth in 2016 that the works of Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons would be brought together.

Slaying the Dragon ends in 1997 with Peter Adkison manoeuvring to bring in the money that he and Wizards of the Coast had made with the huge success of Magic: The Gathering—as detailed in Generation Decks: The Unofficial History of Gaming Phenomenon Magic: The Gathering—and buy out TSR, Inc. and save Dungeons & Dragons. Which although necessary, was much to Lorraine Williams’ chagrin. By then, the terms of the company’s sales agreement with Random House, the inability to be profitable or innovate, or truly understand its market, had placed it deep in debt. The twenty-five years since are their own history, not yet written and probably not as tumultuous, but Slaying the Dragon ends on positive note, with the number one roleplaying game in safe hands awaiting the new millennium and a new edition.

Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons is a not a comprehensive history of the second twelve years of TSR, Inc. and Dungeons & Dragons and nor can it be. The author was unable to secure interviews with two of the leading figures at the company. One was Brian Thomsen, managing fiction editor at TSR, Inc., whose decisions would drive bestselling R.A. Salvatore, the creator of Drizzt Do’Urden, to stop writing for the company. The other was the president of the company, Lorraine Williams. Sadly, Thomsen died in 2008, but Williams declined to give Riggs an interview. Consequently, their roles in the company’s downfall and the defence of their reputations are told via anecdote, and there are more anecdotes charting the former than defending the latter. Thus, Brian Thomsen comes across as hardnosed and unnecessarily aggressive, whilst Williams remains a cold and remote figure, dismissive of gamers and the hobby, unable to escape her reputation as the true villain of the piece and the supposed inspiration for Planescape’s Lady of Pain. Yet there are moments when Williams does come across as being human, notably her sadness at losing TSR, Inc., but they are far and few between. Ultimately, until Lorraine Williams tells the history of the company whilst she was at its helm from her perspective, even though she saved the company and thus Dungeons & Dragons in 1985 and under her tenure there were some great products published, her reputation is always going to be that of the woman who destroyed TSR, Inc.

Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons is the counterpart that Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons needed. The two complement each other, one telling the rise of TSR, Inc., the other its fall, and it is impossible to read one without wanting to read the other. Slaying the Dragon is the lighter of the two histories, more anecdotal and less drawn from documentation—though they play an important role in Riggs’ telling of the story. Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons lifts the lid on the failures of TSR, Inc. and the consequences of poor decision after poor decision. Yet it is also a tale of brilliant creativity in the face of mismanagement, writers and artists like David ‘Zeb’ Cook and Bruce Nesmith and Jeff Easley and Brom putting out acclaimed content despite the input of upper management. Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons is a compelling catalogue of catastrophes and a miasma of missteps, which tell the story of TSR’s failure and talented creativity in spite of itself.

No comments:

Post a Comment