Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons

Jon Peterson’s earlier books aimed for readers with an unusual appetite for role-playing game history. Playing at the World sprawls past 425,000 words, rooting the design of Dungeons & Dragons in chess variants and Prussian wargames. The Elusive Shift tells how fans mainly writing in amateur zines shaped the often esoteric theory behind roleplaying games. Thanks to my taste for such arcana, I jumped to get a copy of Peterson’s most recent book, Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, but I didn’t expect this book to keep me up at night reading and telling myself I would only stay up for a few more pages. This book can captivate anyone interested in the business of roleplaying games or in the people who created D&D.

Game Wizards focuses on battles that go from the game table to the boardroom and courtroom. The book reveals the pride and ambitions of the men who created D&D, and of their feuds over credits, awards, and money. This tale even includes backstabbing, though thankfully not the sort with knives.

Jon Peterson pulls the story from letters and other documents written by Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and other players as the events occurred. “Many of the direct quotations in this piece are thus taken from their correspondence.” Much of this book’s magic stems from the breadth of sources Peterson uncovers, from the contract establishing the original game’s royalty agreement to an audio tape Arneson recorded of a Gygax television appearance. “When Gary enumerates the character classes available in the game, at the point when he mentions that there is a thief class, you can hear Arneson mutter, ‘That’s you.’” Arneson and Gygax were then battling over credit and royalties for their creation.

The story starts in 1969, when Arneson attended the second GenCon, which Gygax hosted in his hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The two gamers first partnered to create a set of rules for naval miniatures titled Don’t Give Up the Ship.

By the early 70s, Arneson and his group of Minneapolis gamers invented a style of campaign that broadly resembled D&D. When Gygax played Arneson’s Blackmoor game, its innovations inspired Gygax to turn the seed into a publication. “I’ll whip out a booklet for your approval, so groups can play their own games,” he wrote Arneson. Later Arneson described the role of Gary and his circle of gamers in creating D&D.  “At the time, they had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules. They sent theirs to us and we fooled around with them for a while.” When Gygax had reasons to exaggerate his role, he claimed, “D&D, I wrote every word of that. Even my co-author admits that.” Arneson admitted no such thing. Still, Gygax’s tireless work as a writer, publisher, and well of ideas proved essential too.

Gary Gygax started Tactical Studies Rules to publish D&D and other games. In September 1973 Gygax wrote to Arneson, “We’re getting ready to roll.” When the costs of printing the first D&D sets ballooned, Brian Blume invested $2,000 dollars to become a partner in the company. In 1975 the company was incorporated as TSR Hobbies with Gygax and the Blume family holding nearly equal shares.

The revolutionary D&D game spread from Lake Geneva by word of mouth, from tabletop to tabletop, and especially from the gamers attending conventions like GenCon. In 1974, one GenCon visitor reported, “This year’s convention was centered mainly around the new set of Gygax and Arneson rules Dungeons & Dragons.” It was “the hit of the convention with gamemasters having games going in all parts of the Hall.”

By 1976, sales had grown enough for TSR to hire Arneson as Director of Research—and to work shipping. “Everyone who worked in the building had a nominal job, but had to pitch in wherever the need arose. In a personal letter dated February 2, Arneson explained his situation at the beginning of his employment at TSR: ‘My work here in Lake Geneva is going quite well and keeps me very busy from 8:30 to 6:00 every day of the week. In addition to my job as Director of Research I am also in charge of the Shipping Department.’”

But by summer Arneson felt growing dissatisfaction. None of his work related to D&D. Instead he had spent four months doing shipping and editing other designers’ rules.” He felt “no prospect of any of my work being published by TSR.”  Arneson would accuse Gygax of taking the company’s choicest design assignments. When work started on a D&D set for beginners, drafts of the future basic rules listed the authors as Gary Gygax and Eric Holmes with no mention of Arneson. Also, Gygax excluded Arneson from work on the design that would become Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Still, naval miniatures ranked as Arneson’s first love. Before hiring on, he had promised two sets of naval rules to TSR in exchange for company stock, but his drafts languished unfinished. “Gygax repeatedly asked for urgent revisions to them both, and Arneson repeatedly avowed his faith in their imminent publication to his friends, even as late as October 1976, but they simply never materialized. As of the summer of 1975, TSR had announced both as forthcoming titles in the third Strategic Review.” Clearly TSR planned to publish the games, but Arneson’s projects stagnated, frustrating Gygax. By September, Arneson routinely left TSR offices at lunch to work afternoons at his apartment. Despite the time away from shipping, he produced virtually nothing for TSR. Before long, he and the company started squabbling over unexcused time away.

In November, Arneson resigned from TSR. He and Gygax drew battle lines over their creation. Arneson argued that D&D stemmed from his essential ideas. He planned a company and roleplaying game to rival TSR and D&D.

Copyright law sided with Gygax, the author who penned the game’s rules. He planned a new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which he presented as a completely different game, free of any royalty obligations to Arneson. Their war for hearts and minds extended to convention appearances and magazine interviews. The creators fought in shareholder meetings and in courtrooms. Reaching a settlement would take years.

While Arneson battled for credit and royalties on one front, Gygax fought with TSR on multiple fronts.

In 1979, a 16-year-old college student named Dallas Egbert disappeared from his dorm at Michigan State University. His parents hired a publicity-seeking private detective named William Dear to find the boy. The investigator blamed D&D for Ebert’s disappearance and his lurid speculation stormed to the national news. By the time Egbert turned up safe, few were paying attention. (See The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America.)

Even as Gygax and TSR staff fought to clear up negative myths about the game, the publicity drove a sales boom. “At the beginning of 1981, no ceiling for sales of Dungeons & Dragons was in sight: the game was like a magic item that relentlessly generated gold.”

The gold rush inspired a spending spree: The Blume’s added much of their extended family to the payroll. In 1982, TSR funded an effort to raise a shipwreck from Lake Geneva and announced sponsorship of the U.S. Bobsled Team. “It would be a year of lavish gestures like this, of a company spinning virtually out of control. Events piled on events so rapidly that its management structures simply had no way to manage them. It ensured the foundering of the company Gygax and Blume had created in 1975.”

By 1983 the bubble burst, leaving D&D sales stagnant. Weary of battling the Blumes over business decisions, Gygax left Wisconsin to live in a Los Angeles mansion that cost TSR $10,000 a month, $25,000 adjusted for inflation. To be fair, the D&D movie Gygax hoped to produce could renew TSR’s growth, but to the gaming industry, the move looked like a retreat to an opulent lifestyle in Hollywood.

Game Wizards wraps in 1985, with TSR on the brink of bankruptcy, but Gygax back from Hollywood and poised to take sole control of the company from the Blume family. By then a new player, Lorraine Williams, had entered the game. As granddaughter of the original publisher of Buck Rogers, Williams brought wealth plus experience licensing intellectual property. Gygax interested her in making the investment TSR needed to avoid bankruptcy.

Before Gygax could take full control over TSR, Williams made other plans. “‘Gygax and I were not talking very much during the time because we had very fundamental differences,’ she would remark. Furthermore, informing Gygax that she intended to purchase the Blume family shares would be, as she put it, ‘an invitation for him to get in and just try to screw it up, and to once again try to thwart the ability of the Blumes to sell their stock and to get out and to go about their lives.’” Williams purchased a controlling interest in TSR and forced its founder out.

In Game Wizards Peterson reveals the conflict with a turn-by-turn account played over years. It makes a story as riveting as any yarn played out at the D&D game table.

Related: The time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games

2 thoughts on “Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons

  1. Marty

    I had a conversation with Frank Mentzer about Gary and Dave before an interview about his Kickstarter. He was very much in the Gygax camp, but he did confirm what others have said: Arneson was terrible with notes and deadlines. Much of Dave’s rules surrounding the Blackmoor campaign were largely in his head and when he turned in rules to be edited, it was often contained in a disarray of loose leaf notes.

    Frank essentially agreed that Dave didn’t get good assignments because he was unable to put his thoughts into publishable form. TSR was moving at a pace that they needed designers to churn out content quickly with a minimal amount of editorial oversight.

    I really wish I had gotten more of the off the record side of the conversation into the interview but I didn’t want it to be a hit-piece on Dave and focused more on Frank’s upcoming work (which was eventually cancelled due to some self-inflicted PR wounds).

    Reply

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