Friday, October 22, 2021

REVIEW: Jon Peterson, Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons (2021)


Jon Peterson, Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, US$24.95.

Jon Peterson does it again with another monograph on early role-playing game history. This new contribution tells the story of TSR, the company that first produced Dungeons & Dragons, from the background of its formation and foundation through its early years of success, subsequent over-extension, and finally the ouster of its founding figure, E. Gary Gygax, from leadership in 1985. Unlike Peterson's earlier books Playing at the World (2012), which deals in great detail with the roots of the features and ideas of Dungeons & Dragons, and The Elusive Shift (2020, my review here) on the culture of playstyles and practical theory among the earliest role-playing game players, Game Wizards is a history of the business, the finances, the lawsuits, and the personal and professional relationships that shaped D&D. It's not about playing the game, but how the game was produced commercially.

Peterson avoids creating heroes or villains and approaches his subjects with admirable neutrality and a gentle narrator's voice. Yet by allowing the subjects of his history to speak for themselves through frequent, and necessary, yet not overwhelming, direct quotation, Peterson has no choice but to let them damn themselves. For damn themselves they do. The alternative would be to sweep uncomfortable matters out of sight. Dave Arneson, who, in popular accounts, has the role of the underdog creative genius, shows himself also as a fussy, insecure miniatures buff who wrote very poorly for a college graduate and struggled to finish any project at all, full of promises on which he couldn't follow through year after year. Gary Gygax, the revered, rags-to-riches founding figure in the most iterated legends about him, appears here as an egotistical bully, ready to “punch down” (as Peterson rightly characterizes it) and gloat smugly about his own success, claiming falsely that he alone "started it all," while making snide remarks about perceived competition (even when they came from amateurs half his age, even teenagers, who were inspired by his game). Gygax seems to have excelled at alienating the people who had initially wanted to be his allies through his cutting rivalry with anybody in the field who might make more money or take credit for anything good in fantasy gaming. He made himself unhappy in the process, too, something else documented in this book. Yet both Gygax and Arneson made quite a bit of money along the way, Gygax becoming truly rich, not only through their brilliant invention but also through the creativity of others that they immediately loathed to acknowledge. Arneson, whose own game materials could never be published without massive efforts by editorial helpers, made a fortune on royalties that he had to fight for over years of legal battles, a struggle that polarized the nascent field of role-playing game producers into two sides: the corrupt, nepotistic, imperial TSR, in one corner, and in the other, everybody else, companies small and large, rallying together in resentment against Gygax's self-congratulatory smack-talking and petty, self-defeating grudges.

Peterson's account is well supported by primary sources. It is based on careful study of documents financial and personal, internal corporate memos, plenty of correspondence, the journals in which the designers and companies communicated with the consumers, the zines in which consumers responded with their own creativity and views, and, importantly, extensive interviews with many of those who witnessed the events he narrates.

The book treats arcane matters of finance in detail but with a light touch, appealing to gaming metaphors throughout to make it tangible. Somehow, long narratives about stocks and loans and investment and complex terms of employment did not lose the interest of this reader (who is no investment banker). Peterson has made the history of a business interesting, no small feat. He does this by grounding the financial accounts in a narrative that explains why they matter and gives a sense of scale. The book demonstrates how the formation of the hobby was very much a matter of money, a factor forgotten all too often in our enthusiasm to admire creativity. Anybody might assume that the inexperience of Gygax and Arneson and their colleagues with business was one of the reasons for their ongoing troubles; Peterson proves it.

The comment emblazoned on the cover of Game Wizards is attributed to Joe Manganiello: "Jon sets straight the 'canon' of the tragic history of how Dungeons & Dragons and TSR were ripped from the very grasp of the man who dreamed them up." This awkwardly suggests that Manganiello didn't really read the book, at least not carefully, because the record set straight in Peterson's book shows how many dozens of creative workers made D&D into the phenomenon it was, and that Arneson's contribution was co-foundational, as recognized by fans and by the courts alike, and most of all by these two men themselves before they fought over it. Gygax was not "the man who dreamed ... up" D&D and TSR alone. That's just the kind of myth that Peterson is actually setting straight.

Furthermore, while TSR may have been "ripped from the very grasp" of Gygax, as Manganiello suggests, it was not bandits pulling off a robbery. Gygax had earned his ouster, as Peterson amply shows without saying so or taking sides. This part of the tale had never been told so comprehensively, as far as I can see.

Gamers will favor a story about a naive, creative genius cheated by corporate schemes. People relate to that, so that Gygax becomes a heroic underdog artist victimized by capitalists. But that's wrong. Game Wizards dispels that dreamy idealism. Not only did Gygax dive into his role as company boss from the start, but there are many newly clarified points regarding the events immediately prior to Lorraine Williams' buyout of the Bloom brothers' stock in 1985. This is what made Gygax a minority shareholder and cost him his leadership position in TSR.

For one thing, Gygax had the clear opportunity to purchase the stock held by his partners, the Bloom brothers, immediately after they had left positions at TSR. The Blooms (who nearly crashed the company with an astonishing degree of nepotism, violation of employee contracts, corruption, and bewildering lack of foresight immediately upon striking it rich) had, when they left the company, expected to receive an offer from Gygax. That would have kept control of the company in Gygax's hands. The Blooms and Gygax had actually discussed it directly. They wanted Gygax to buy them out. Gygax turned the opportunity down. Gygax's inaction and expectation that he could get a better deal from the Blooms later is what turned the Blooms to newcomer Lorraine Williams, who thereby acquired a majority of the stock and was able to take over the company.

For another thing, a few months earlier, Gygax had renewed his firm refusal to his management colleagues at the divisions of TSR to allow any work he had written, including anything to do with his setting Greyhawk, to be published under TSR copyright. He insisted that he alone possess the copyright and that TSR could not publish his work otherwise. This was not the standard he held for other writers in the company, who worked for him. His unwillingness to collaborate as a part of the company he co-founded and ran was obviously recognized as deleterious to them all. This prima donna behavior went over poorly. Were they working for the company that united their common interests, and that paid them, or for the egotistical designer, who had a court-recognized track record for screwing over collaborators?

Meanwhile, Gygax had finished exceedingly little game content in the years leading up to his ouster, struggling to find the creativity to write his own D&D books (something he is documented talking about), cultivating a few die-hard loyal followers like Frank Mentzer to do the writing for D&D instead, while taking credit for the game as a whole himself.

Add to this how Gygax had for years actively courted the disfavor of the entire hobby game industry, with a TSR-versus-the-world attitude, alienating potential collaborators among which TSR could have been the standout leader to TSR's advantage. Most famously, he had zealously fought with Dave Arneson over creative credits and royalties for D&D itself, culminating in a humiliating lawsuit that awarded Arneson a rich boon at the company’s expense and cementing for TSR a negative reputation far and wide.

Add yet further that over the preceding years Gygax had squandered huge amounts of TSR's money on a fruitless effort to realize a Hollywood movie based on D&D, including maintaining a costly California apartment at the company’s expense (where he maintained also, at least for a while, a secretary/girlfriend, also paid for by the company). Gygax was away from the core activities of the company for long periods while pursuing a gamble that paid zero in return.

In short, when Gygax was kicked out of the company's leadership through a clandestine exchange of stocks that put a non-gamer outsider in charge, it was because Gygax had become one of TSR’s biggest liabilities. Reading the whole account, I was surprised that it took so long.

(They did offer to Gygax the opportunity to continue to use his creative talent for TSR. He decided to leave instead.)

Gamers who are focused on play and design are not likely to care about corporate history, but I urge them to read Game Wizards anyway. No, you will not find insights into playstyles or ideas for your campaign (unless you really do want to make a game about business entrepreneurs, as one of the Blooms fantasized after the leaders of TSR enchanted themselves with the idea that playing role-playing games was training for the business world). But if you are focused on design with any kind of commercial goal, there are clear lessons to be learned from the failures and successes of the pioneers. And if you are one of those many players who hope to play the game "as it was intended," this book adds to the mountain of evidence that there is no such thing. Not only are Gygax and Arneson overrated to the neglect of many others, but there was no coherent pristine "old school" revealed by deities and demigods.

What's missing? A lot, of course. It's clear that Peterson had to cut material to make it feasible as a monograph. His blog, Playing at the World, has already been sharing materials that didn't make it into the book. I expect we will see some of that worked into other interesting narratives in the future. Game Wizards is a history of the formation of TSR and its first decade, its "Gygax years." I give credit to Peterson for staying on target while there was so much else to say, even if I wanted still more.

One matter that I think may have received skewed emphasis, from the point of view of corporate history, is the scandal of Dallas Egbert's disappearance. Peterson's account of it is the best, and best informed, that I've read. Certainly, this sad affair drew loads of attention, mostly negative, to the game, and that publicity boosted curiosity and sales enormously. But what Peterson brings out is that it was this publicity that brought TSR a deal with mega-sized publisher Random House to distribute D&D games and books, beginning from 1 Jan 1980. Peterson here makes a critical new point. Suddenly, D&D was available in every bookstore and even in general outlets like K-Mart. D&D immediately boomed massively. Yet I find this point about distribution to be understated, when it is surely the most important outcome of the Egbert scandal. I am certain that I would not have received my first role-playing game product, Moldvay's D&D Basic Set (available 1981) as a birthday gift if it were not sitting on the shelves of a pedestrian bookstore where my friend's mom bought it for me. That's the first D&D set aimed at kids ten years old and up, leading to lifelong fandom by a new and larger horde of munchkins.

What I myself miss in the book, although I can't blame Peterson for not tracking it, is the character of the enthusiastic response of players in the period he covers. We gather a sense of D&D's success almost entirely through accounts of the annual revenues earned by TSR. We know that TSR hit it big with this game, but we don't really hear in this book why that is so from the players' side. I don't consider this a serious oversight on Peterson's part. Hearing about the game's success strictly in dollar figures is a new way to view the history. It's not as if Peterson doesn't know the story of the reception. He has already written on it. Every author has to choose how to delimit the content. Yet after reading Game Wizards, I am more convinced than ever that the players and the fans and the hobbyists are the ones who made D&D into what it is. We did so despite Gygax and Arneson, despite the amateur shoddiness of the original game that was never intended to satisfy a gigantic new audience. They opened Pandora's box (as Steve Perrin put it in 1978), but it is players who made wonders out of its affecting contents. Along with this necessary limitation, I wish that the book discussed the other role-playing games of the 1970s that provided the alternatives do D&D that players sought. Again, though, that would have overwhelmed the main story, and if too much were added, nobody would read it because of its length.

Many details in the account were quite new to me. Here are just a few. I did not know in the years leading up to D&D, Gary Gygax and his family were not just not well off, but outright poverty-stricken. Gygax struggled badly to feed his family. We can assume that his financial battles were fed by that experience. He also struggled early on with gaming itself, as if it were an addiction, more than once announcing he was quitting all involvement in wargames to devote time to his wife and five children and, it seems, to his involvement in the Jehovah's Witnesses. Obviously, those divided feelings did not last, especially when publishing games fed his family and brought wealth. I did not know, either, that Dave Arneson participated in the Way International (a cult-like Christian church founded by V. P. Wierwille, encouraging worldly prosperity and self-empowerment through tradition-rejecting Jesus worship) and he evangelized for them.

The most charming part of the story for me was to see how very little impact the authors expected that the game would have at the outset. They were just publishing rules for miniatures hobbyists like themselves, a cool new twist on established ways. Sadly, when it became a sudden popular boom through the involvement of crowds of college-aged science-fiction fans who were not wargamers, the knives came out as a couple of nerdy toy-soldier enthusiasts claimed the prize of real money and genuine fame.

Game Wizards is an excellent piece of work, well written and the product of years of investigation. It does seem to set the record straight. Much credit goes to the crew of many at MIT Press who were involved in helping with the book and its production, for designing such an attractive volume, extremely well laid out, with an excellent system of end notes and heartwarming maps and images of the places and people involved.

This book cements Jon Peterson's place as the foremost historian of Dungeons & Dragons today. In the terms of Chainmail, or Original D&D, he has gone from "hero" to "superhero." The history of D&D may seem like a small kingdom in which establish a castle, but keep in mind that this one game involves billions of dollars and bears incalculable cultural influence, and Peterson knows that the influence will only grow over time. In the scholarly field of the study of role-playing games, there is a dearth of high-quality work that is based on new research, rather than stating the obvious through a cultural studies muddle. Without any pretension of academic jargon this book sets a high scholarly standard. Peterson's even hand, narrator's voice, neutrality, and thorough use of sources make Game Wizards unlikely to be surpassed as a history of TSR in its formative "Gygax years."

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