Game Wizards Review

The story of role-playing games begins with the story of Dungeons and Dragons; the story of Dungeons and Dragons begins with Gary Gygax. And Dave Arneson. And, frankly, all of TSR. As our hobby evolves and our record keepers get older, we need to look back and make a good record of what got us to this point. With both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson passed away, the invention of D&D is becoming just a story, in some people’s minds a footnote to Mentzer and Moldvay and Allston and Tweet and Mearls and Crawford that have come since. Well, Jon Peterson to the rescue.

Off the success of Playing at the World, a history of the role-playing game as a concept, and The Elusive Shift, an investigation of the role-playing game as its own standalone ‘thing’, we now have Game Wizards, arguably now the definitive text on the luminaries who invented D&D and how rabidly they fought over credit for that specific thing. Peterson is showing his breadth here, moving from broad-based historical synthesis (Playing at the World) to deep, particular investigation (The Elusive Shift) and now into that popular but difficult historical realm, disputed narrative. In some ways, this is a bit of a departure from Peterson’s earlier work, which was very much grounded in the how and why that made RPGs what they are. That said, Game Wizards as a book has convinced me that, as someone interested in RPG history, the story of Gygax and Arneson is one I need to know.

The Story

At some level, the rise and fall of TSR has been recounted in many different outlets before. Tactical Studies Rules was formed in 1973 by Gary Gygax and Don Kaye to self-publish games they were working on. Brian Blume was soon brought in as a partner in order to provide financing, which left Gygax and Blume as essentially equal partners after Don Kaye died in 1975. The company labored slowly but successfully to publish and promote Dungeons and Dragons and other titles through the latter half of the 70s, but their fortunes changed dramatically and rapidly with the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert in 1979. Suddenly, the national news story and Egbert’s connection with the game ingrained D&D into the cultural consciousness, causing sales to skyrocket. From there, TSR spiraled upward and then very nearly immediately downward, hamstrung by too-rapid expansion and a number of failed ventures. TSR’s first chapter ends with Gygax’s ouster from the company in late 1985, engineered by company vice president and financier Lorraine Williams.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. Dave Arneson, co-creator of D&D, was ousted from the company much earlier than Gygax, and their acrimonious split cast a shadow over TSR, both in fan circles and financially in the form of several lawsuits over royalties. And of course, the ‘facts’ in this story change significantly depending on who you ask, be that Gygax, Arneson, other TSR employees, or even other gamers who were in the midwest orbit of the company. This clash of opinion, combined with a relative dearth of reliable primary sources, is exactly what makes Peterson’s research and presentation so valuable. As he says both in the foreword and the epilogue, the ‘truth’ may never be exactly known in terms of what happened during that heady first chapter at TSR. Game Wizards, then, is able to stand as both as much of a definitive record as there is, as well as a solid platform for later, deeper inquiry.

The Book

As in his previous titles, Peterson seeks to structure his research plainly, though unlike either The Elusive Shift or Playing At The World, Game Wizards is laid out purely chronologically. The book is a classic sandwich, with an introduction establishing what the book is and isn’t, and then an epilogue alluding to the events that occurred after the core narrative as well as a good helping of endnotes and a solid index. The middle, though, is the meat, and its organization is quite clever. With the exception of the ‘opening moves’ which lightly cover a good half dozen years leading up to the publication of D&D, each chapter covers one year of time and is presented somewhat like a turn in a wargame. The end of each chapter presents key quantitative indicators, like the attendance at GenCon, TSR revenue numbers, or sales rankings as presented by Howard Barasch of SPI. The core of the chapter, though, is the presentation of events. One of Peterson’s biggest strengths throughout all of his books has been restraint in offering color or commentary to the events being described. Game Wizards is no different, and the extensive use of primary sources is even more impressive here than in his previous works, given the tight focus and difficulty in stitching these sources together. This does mean in some places Peterson is left to speculate or fill in gaps to a larger extent than in previous books, but he still does an admirable job of providing clarity as to what events are from the record, what is speculation or interpretation per a primary source, and what is speculation or interpretation from the author. It does make the story significantly messier than others have made it out to be, but this messy version does ring true. Gygax and Arneson both were terrible businessmen; Gygax was a control freak and Arneson had a habit of never finishing projects. Neither of them knew what to do once their creation started making so much money, and it’s both tragic and fitting that pretty much every competitor which haunted TSR over their tenure, from Avalon Hill to Trivial Pursuit, are now owned by the same company as TSR itself, Hasbro.

Like Peterson’s earlier books, Game Wizards covers a limited and strict timeline, going roughly from the founding of TSR to the exact point both Gygax and Arneson were on the outs of TSR and pretty much no further. And, much like in his earlier books, I understand the need for such strict timeboxing in terms of keeping the book’s length (and Peterson’s workload, as he noted in the epilogue this was a seven year effort) manageable. That said, I do think the epilogue could have spared a few more words to the ultimate fate of TSR. The period from 1986 to 1997 is not nearly as drama-filled as 1975 to 1985, I doubt it would have doubled the book even if that’s what the audience wanted. But, as much as it does soften the focus on our two designers, the stumbling walk of TSR from Gygax’s ouster to the eventual acquisition by Wizards of the Coast is an equally critical part of the D&D story. As I noted it’s not as eventful or as fraught as the events covered primarily by this book, but I think there’s an argument to be made that the epilogue could have been supplemented by a ‘closing moves’ chapter, a parallel chapter to the first that offered some more color around the 90s and the real demise of TSR.

This particular nitpick aside, the book is excellent, and it’s easy to underestimate the sheer work that had to go into getting this narrative straight. Jon Peterson is a highly adept primary source researcher, and we are lucky that he’s aiming those skills toward role-playing games of all things. The limitations of the story are limitations of the material, not the author, and considering how personal, how relatively intimate the TSR story is, we really do get as good a window as we could hope into the goings-on of the first RPG company.

So I’ve praised the writing, I’ve praised the research, I’ve raised my one complaint about the limited time period. Why do gamers care? Just yesterday I again brought up some of the demographic data that Wizards of the Coast collects on D&D players and buyers, and at most 10% of the current D&D Fifth Edition audience could have possibly been players and buyers of a TSR edition of D&D, simply by virtue of their age. I know there are a lot of trite answers, but it is fair to ask why we should care about the history of a role-playing game, even the first one. My first response is also the answer to the associated question of why we should care so much about Gygax and Arneson in particular (even in the book it becomes clear that other figures such as Frank Mentzer have much more influence on actual gameplay by the mid-80s). D&D was first, and in the less than fifty years we’ve had of TTRPGs as a medium, first counts for a lot. Forget for a minute that Hasbro is rubbing our noses in Fifth Edition constantly. Without Gygax and Arneson, Warhammer and Warhammer 40k would cease to exist (because Games Workshop would have never gotten where it is now without being the UK distributor of D&D). D&D is the reason Cyberpunk 2020 has classes. D&D is the reason PbtA is the indie engine of choice, thanks to Dungeon World. On the other side of the coin, Gygax and Arneson were both devout Christians, which had significant ripple effects into the game, both fanning the flames of the Satanic Panic and creating deeply ingrained and toxic race and gender norms which Wizards is still trying to exhume from the game to this day. Nearly everything about D&D, the things which spread into pop culture, the deeply weird, the wonderful and the terrible, it all in one way or another goes back to these two midwestern nerds who dared to try and make a company selling rules without a board or pieces. Whether you want to venerate them or exorcize their ghosts from the hobby, fact is you can’t say they weren’t important.

I know I’m a broken record, but Peterson has done it again. Game Wizards is the best history of record of the first RPG, the first RPG company, and bitter fight between the fathers of the RPG which captures the imagination now almost as much as it did then. Through both meticulous research and an unerring commitment to see through the grandiosity, self-aggrandizement, and exaggeration of both sides of the tale, Peterson manages to take arguably the greatest feud in RPG history and, if not set the record straight, at least get it playing in the right groove again. There are no answers here about who deserved the credit for D&D, or how much, but the story is as truthful as any of us who weren’t there could possibly know. And even within the bounds of the truth, there’s still some wild 80s excess and shocking lack of business sense on display. The real unanswered question at the end of Game Wizards isn’t who is the father of D&D, it‘s how D&D managed to get made at all.

Game Wizards is available from MIT Press.

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