Friday, 7 October 2022

Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons by Ben Riggs

In 1974, wargamers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created the world's first roleplaying game: Dungeons & Dragons. An immediate, enormous hit, the game fuelled the creation of the TSR company and a quarter of a century of classic gaming products, not to mention power struggles and dubious corporate decisions.

The story of TSR, its rise and fall, has been told before and the narrative is familiar, from Gygax and Arneson's early days in miniature gaming to coming up with the first dungeons and the first campaign settings (Blackmoor and Greyhawk). They then start TSR and Dragon Magazine, Arneson is maneuvered out of the picture and the game's immense success sees Gygax living the high life in Los Angeles trying to get a movie made whilst the company teeters on without him. Then Lorraine Williams takes over, forces Gygax out, and the company sees renewed success in the late 1980s from new campaign settings (such as Forgotten Realms), a second edition of the game and entries to the video game and novel markets, which keeps things going until everything blows up spectacularly in the late 1990s, resulting in the sale of the company to Magic: The Gathering creators Wizards of the Coast.

Whilst the story is familiar, there's a lot more detail in Ben Riggs' book, which calls upon interviews with a huge number of ex-TSR luminaries, although there are two notable absences. Gygax passed away in 2008, so is only represented through archive interviews. Williams declined to be interviewed for the book, so Riggs has to rely on second-hand accounts, interviews with some of her close co-workers and a few archive interviews (particularly drawing on David Ewalt's Of Dice and Men, the last book Williams was interviewed for). This leaves the book feeling oddly structured: a heroic saga where both the main protagonist and main antagonist (who is who depends on your point of view) are absent for large stretches of it.

To be honest, the main narrative of the book is well-known to the point of overfamiliarity to any long-standing roleplaying fans (newcomers who have come to the game in the last few years - and there's a lot of them - will find much more of interest here), so it's more in the details where it shines. The saga of TSR West, the California-based publishing initiative with its own products and an ill-advised idea to branch into comic books (costing TSR it's very lucrative licencing contract with DC in the process), is mostly new to me and fascinating. Additional details on how badly TSR could treat its superstar authors, and how some of the corporates who came in later on simply didn't understand the first thing about the product they were selling, are also intriguing. There some fascinating almost-ran stories, like when TSR nearly acquired the Middle-earth licence but foundered on Christopher Tolkien refusing to grant them permission to publish original fiction.

One of Riggs' biggest successes is getting his hands on hard sales data from TSR. In some cases, some of TSR's own big names were unaware of what the hell was going on with the company's products, and their reactions to learning how bad sales really were in the 1990s are startling. Learning that Forgotten Realms sold well, but not quite as well as some earlier, retired settings was a surprise.

The book is a goldmine of interesting trivia, but the writing tone is inconsistent. Sometimes the tone is serious and analytic, and sometimes jokey and anecdotal, and the tonal shifts sometimes feel random. There's also a marked difference in how Riggs talks about deceased people and folded companies and how he talks about still-living individuals and extant corporate entities. There's also a lack of deeper analysis on well-regarded stories. The suggestion that TSR collapsed due to an overload of campaign settings is taken as fact throughout, and the oft-mentioned idea that D&D faltered in the 1990s more because of an increasingly unwieldy rules set (contrasted to the streamlined rules of its biggest competitor, Vampire: The Masquerade) and the refusal to slay sacred cows with a more thorough revision - seemingly proven by the monstrous success of D&D 3rd Edition after the move to Wizards of the Coast and the even bigger success of the even more streamlined 5th Edition - is not really given any shrift.

There's also a distinct lack of coverage of the video game side of things, which mostly gets a few brief mentions and little more. The book may actually suffer from its conciseness: 278 pages to cover twenty-five years of history is not really enough, and several chapters halt just as they are starting to get interesting. There's also the fact that the revival of D&D's fortunes with 3rd Edition in 2000 and the subsequent appalling misjudgements that led to the ill-conceived 4th Edition in 2008 and the brand's subsequent eclipsing by former allies-turned-competitors Paizo with their Pathfinder game are just as fascinating a story, but the book decides not to pursue the story into that era. That's fair enough, but it seems to leave the book begging for a sequel (which, given Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro's legal firepower, might never happen).

Slaying the Dragon (***½) contains enough new revelations and interesting analysis to be worthwhile for seasoned D&D players, and newcomers to the game unfamiliar with all the old anecdotes will likely enjoy the book far more. But it does feel like the book could have gone into some areas in more detail and depth, and been a bit more consistent in tone.

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