The History of Dungeons & Dragons Isn’t What You Think
In his new book Slaying the Dragon, Ben Riggs takes a deep dive into the history of TSR, the company behind Dungeons & Dragons. The book, which draws on a wealth of insider accounts and leaked documents, presents a surprising new perspective on the downfall of TSR.
“I thought the story was going to be, ‘Wizards of the Coast made Magic: The Gathering … and it just sucked all the oxygen out of the room and killed TSR,’” Riggs says in Episode 521 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “That was the story I was expecting. It was not at all the story I was told. The story I was told was one of mismanagement and mistakes and errors, and a death by a thousand cuts, and a failure to expand, and a failure to find new people to play D&D.”
TSR products were lavishly illustrated, had great production values, and were affordably priced. Unfortunately, they weren’t all profitable. One example was the visionary Planescape campaign setting. “The whole line never made any money,” Riggs says. “Even though it’s an artistic high point for the company—and maybe ever for the brand of Dungeons & Dragons—it didn’t make any money.”
Bizarre business decisions abounded at TSR, including a practice called “factoring,” in which TSR pressured retailers to lock in their orders for the entire year in January. This led to severe deadline pressures for TSR writers like Jim Ward, who was given just 10 weeks to design the Spellfire collectible card game. “It made TSR incredibly inflexible,” Riggs says. “You couldn’t take more time to make the product, because if you did you’d be in contractual violation. This was a real problem, because it meant that TSR could no longer react with any degree of alacrity or fleetness to changes in the market.”
Many of TSR’s woes stemmed from a fundamental issue with tabletop role-playing games—how do you make money selling a product that encourages players to use their own imaginations? “I think the thing you would take away from this is that the role-playing business is a difficult business,” Riggs says. “If you’re going to make a role-playing game—which is good forever, and you can play for decades—how are the economics of that going to allow for the existence of role-playing game creators? Because we can certainly agree that role-playing games are something worthy of being created, but how are we going to make sure that the people who create them make a decent living?”
Listen to the complete interview with Ben Riggs in Episode 521 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Ben Riggs on Dungeons & Dragons novels:
At one point TSR claimed to be the largest publisher of fantasy fiction in North America. They claimed that there were millions of Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance novels in print. There was a point in the ’90s where the TSR fiction line was grossing about as much as all the TSR role-playing game stuff put together, and the fiction line was essentially helping to keep the company afloat. Fiction was perceived as so successful within the company that there were rumors that one day everyone would come in to work and they would no longer be making a game called Dungeons & Dragons, they would be making novels set in the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, and all the game designers would now be writers, all the game editors would now be fiction editors, and that would be TSR going forward.
Ben Riggs on marketing:
Ravenloft sold 50,000 copies its first year out. 50,000 is a pretty big number. Getting 50,000 new people to play Dungeons & Dragons by generating a gothic horror setting seems like a good plan. But it was not 50,000 new people buying that setting. It turns out it was mostly people that were already playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. They were not in fact finding new fans, they were just taking their existing fanbase and chopping it up. And every setting would be another chop. You would suddenly have people go from buying 200,000 copies of Forgotten Realms to the last Forgotten Realms release, which sold 30,000 copies its first year. And every setting seemed to take their sales and cut them and cut them and cut them.
Ben Riggs on Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition:
I thought that I was going to tag 3rd Edition on as a chapter of my book. I thought that this chapter was going to be, “I talked to everyone who made 3rd Edition, and they all said it was a huge hit and everybody was a genius.” But it must have been just the right amount of time, because people were like, “I’m going to tell you the truth. I’m going to tell you about how there was backstabbing and betrayal and lies in the creation of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, and how it was contentious, and how the TSR people that moved to Seattle didn’t really fit in well with the Wizards people, and there was this interhouse rivalry between the TSR people and the Wizards people.
Ben Riggs on Lake Geneva:
Lake Geneva has not really leaned into their history as the birthplace of tabletop role-playing games. Initially they viewed TSR as the “weird long-hairs,” and 23 years later it’s gone, and now the fact that people feel so strongly about it that they want to come to Lake Geneva and see where these things happened hasn’t quite dawned on the city elders yet. I certainly think within 50 years you’re going to see a lot of these former TSR properties bought up and restored to some degree. Right now the location of the original Dungeon Hobby Shop is a Kilwins Ice Cream shop, which is fine, you can go and get an ice cream and be like, “Yes, it all happened here.” But man, I certainly think if you were able to get a role-playing game store in that location, it would do very, very well.
More Great WIRED Stories