Having just finished reading Jon Peterson’s latest book, “Game Wizards” – a book about TSR as a company from foundation until the 1985 departure of Gary Gygax – I thought I’d jot down some thoughts.
This is Jon Peterson’s most readable offering so far – much more approachable for the non-academic. The downside is that it’s arguably the least interesting book for the casual hobbyist because it’s all about TSR as a company. The book is filled with financial details, talk of share holdings, and discussions around legalities such as royalty payments. To Peterson’s credit, however, he manages to weave a narrative focused upon Gary Gygax in a highly engaging manner.
The oepning sections of the book are about the business story behind the formation of TSR as a company. Marketing and selling Dungeons & Dragons, contracts for royalties, and the reality that (at best) Gygax thought he had a $300 idea all form an compelling narrative. The interaction between Arneson and Gygax is centre-stage and we learn about the Blume family interest along the way.
The second part of the book outlines the growth of TSR from a hobby-scale business to a medium-sized corporation. Here we enter the realm of initial run-away success and then the descent into what can only be described as ludicrous decisions. TSR is exposed for all its flaws and we gawp incredulous at such expensive shenanigans as raising a sunken ship from the waters of Lake Geneva.
The final sections of the book detail the downfall of Gygax’s leadership of TSR and the takeover by Lorraine Williams. This was painful to read, although wonderfully described, because we see the flaws of the principle characters leading to their demise and doom. It was enough to move me to tears on occasion – mostly from frustration at the inept leadership and management on display.
Arneson and Gygax do not come off well in this book. Our mythological image of the creators of D&D is stripped back and a much more credible narrative is evidenced. Neither of the creators comes off as particularly endearing, especially once they begin what Arneson termed, “the great War” over royalties. Both men are portrayed as petty tyrants with personal grudges lashing at all who stood in their way. Arneson appears unable to write anything down while Gygax wants to claim all the glory.
Interestingly, I found some sympathy for Lorraine Williams – the “outsider” who engineered the removal of Gygax from TSR’s board and who took over in late 1985. In popular myth, Williams was long demonised but I felt a deep respect for this woman in a very chauvinistic business world who saw an opportunity and took it. Perhaps it is because the decisions of the Blume brothers and Gygax were so bad (especially from 1983-1985) that I would have felt anyone could do a better job.
Of particular personal interest was the impact of the “Satanic Panic” on TSR – positive and negative – and the incredulous handling of the affair by the mass media. If you think the modern Twitter and Facebook filled world is bad, check out the stories in the printed media through from 1979 until 1986. Crazy that journalists can print such wildly inaccurate bunkum!
Overall, a compelling read for me… but I recognise not everyone cares about the history of the hobby to the same degree. I think this fuels my desire to interview Jon Peterson for the podcast because there are so many unanswered questions around the characters who created this beloved hobby. One can wish, right?
Highly recommended reading.
I lived thru that time in the 70’s and 80’s. The entire TSR tragedy and the Satanic Panic make for very interesting background info about this hobby.
Do not read it if you have any illusions that your gaming heros are some kind of flawless human beings.
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