The Rise and Fall of TSR (Slaying the Dragon)

I enjoyed Slaying the Dragon and learned a lot about the rise and fall of TSR, especially the latter. My biggest takeaways from the book:

(1) Re: Gary Gygax. Saint Gary was no saint, and he often lied about his supposed powerlessness and ignorance. Not only was he aware of TSR’s disastrous errors, he participated in them as they were happening. He threw his business partners (Brian and Kevin Blume) under the bus, martyring himself to the board of directors. Hate to say it, but he almost deserved to be dethroned. The Blume brothers offered him their stock shares which he spurned; so when they sold their shares to Lorraine Williams instead, he had largely himself to blame.

(2) Re: Lorraine Williams. She was even less admirable — notwithstanding the author’s attempts to “reconsider her legacy”. After Gary hired her to manage the company in 1985, she managed a hostile takeover of sorts, forcing Gary out of the company by the end of the year. (Though Gary has largely himself to blame for being victimized here; see above.) The biggest problem with Lorraine is that she wasn’t a gamer, disdained gamers (didn’t consider them “social equals”), didn’t treat her staff well, and as a result had a hard time holding onto talented writers. Genius designers kept leaving TSR for greener pastures. An “outsider” being in charge of a gaming company made it impossible for TSR to reclaim its glory years of ’74-’83. On the other hand, it’s true that Lorraine pulled TSR out of debt (from the mismanagement sins of Gary and the Blume Brothers) and thus saved D&D from extinction, and there were some admittedly top-quality products made during her reign between ’85-’97. Most notably, the 2nd edition D&D settings (though not so much the railroady adventure modules) of Ravenloft, Dark Sun, and especially Planescape. Speaking of which…

(3) Re: Zeb Crook. He designed the most brilliant post-’83 setting in D&D history: Planescape (’94). After ’91 I lost interest in D&D and wouldn’t become re-obsessed until the late aughts. I really missed out on Planescape. I’m immersing myself in it now, and have to say it’s worthy of golden-age products. And yet, despite the praises sung by critics and consumers alike, sales continued to drop in the “Reign of Lorraine”, irrespective of the product’s quality. Sometimes these new stunning products and boxed sets (like Planescape and some of the Dark Sun adventures) were so expensive that they actually lost the company money with every copy sold.

(4) Re: The Random House Ponzi Scheme. Shit like this sticks. By the middle of ’95, TSR owed its distributor Random House almost 12 million dollars, and Random House was demanding that most of this debt be paid off within two years. This was the culmination of a ponzi scheme that had been in place, going all the way back to ’79 (in Gary’s day), whereby Random House paid TSR for the products TSR gave it to distribute, whether those products sold or not. The money that flowed into TSR’s coffers wasn’t dependent on sales: “All the company had to do was create, print, and ship products, and cash would flow like the mighty Mississippi back to Lake Geneva. The printing of products was essentially the printing of money. TSR had broken free of supply and demand.” Until Random House had had enough. TSR was suddenly held accountable in ’95, and it was only a matter of time before…

(5) Re: The Takeover by Wizards of the Coast. Lorraine, for all her unconscionable sins, must be given credit for saving D&D a second time. The first time was in ’85 (see 2, above) when she saved TSR from bankruptcy. She kept TSR on its feet for 12 years, producing loads of content, a lot of it bad — though a significant amount surprisingly good — even if she didn’t have the vision to grow the business. The second time was at the end in ’97, when TSR was so drowning in debt that Lorraine sold the company to Wizards of the Coast — which saved D&D yet again, since WotC was packed full of D&D geeks and fanatics. I doubt there would have been the gilded age of 3rd edition D&D had this not happened. Notably, Lorraine almost refused to sell to WotC, for no other reason than she hated its CEO Peter Adkison. But for whatever reason she relented, and wounds began to heal almost immediately under the new management. Under Lorraine, brand had come first, and staff were replaceable, no matter how creative. Under Peter, staff weren’t expendable cogs: “they were holy orders, the massed brothers and sisters who had imagined strange new worlds, then heaved them out of the black depths and into the light”. Staff retention was one of the biggest reasons Peter Adkison bought TSR; to get the most out of peoples’ talents.

Readers know that I’m not a fan of what Wizards of the Coast has done with D&D in more recent years. 5th edition has been cheesified and wokeified. But at least the game lives on, and under company management unlike the TSR years, where nepotism, bad investments, overextension of business, ponzi scheming, and treating staff like shit had been the way of things. I always knew TSR had its problems, but I never knew how deep and subterranean they went.


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