The History of Dungeons & Dragons Isn’t What You Think

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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 is based on a wealth of insider accounts and leaked documents, presents a startling new perspective on the fall of TSR.

“I thought the story would be ‘Wizards of the Coast done.’ 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 “This was the story I expected. It was not the story I was told at all. The story I was told was one of mismanagement and mistakes and mistakes, and a death by a thousand cuts, and a failure to expand and a failure to find new people to play D&D.”

TSR’s products were prodigiously illustrated, had great production values, and were affordably priced. Unfortunately, not all were profitable. An example was the visionary setting of the Planescape campaign. “The whole line never made any money,” says Riggs. “While it’s an artistic high point for the company, and perhaps never for the Dungeons & Dragons brand, it didn’t make any money.”

Strange business decisions abounded at TSR, including a practice called “factoring,” in which TSR pressured retailers to block their orders for the entire year in January. This led to heavy deadline pressures for TSR writers such as Jim Ward, who was only given 10 weeks to design the Spellfire trading card game. “It made TSR incredibly inflexible,” says Riggs. “You could not take longer to make the product, because if you did, you would be in breach of contract. This was a real problem, because it meant that TSR could no longer react with any degree of attitude or speed to changes in the market.”

Many of TSR’s problems stemmed from a fundamental problem with tabletop RPGs: How do you make money selling a product that encourages players to use their own imaginations? “I think what you would take away from this is that the RPG business is a tough business,” says Riggs. “If you’re going to make an RPG that’s good forever, and you can play for decades, how are the economics of that going to allow for RPG creators to exist? Because we can certainly agree that the RPGs are something worthy of being created, but how do we make sure that the people who create them make a decent living?

Listen to the full interview with Ben Riggs on episode 521 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (on top). And check out some of the highlights from the discussion below.

Ben Riggs in the Dungeons & Dragons novels:

At one point, TSR claimed to be the largest fantasy fiction publisher in North America. They claimed there were millions of Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance novels in print. There was a time in the 90s when TSR’s fiction line made as much as all of TSR’s RPG stuff combined, and the fiction line essentially helped keep the company afloat. The fic was perceived as such a success within the company that there were rumors that one day everyone would go to work and no longer make a game called Dungeons & Dragons, they would make novels set in Dungeons & Dragons worlds, and all game designers would now be writers, all game editors would now be fiction editors, and that would be TSR in the future.

Ben Riggs on Marketing:

Ravenloft sold 50,000 copies in its first year. 50,000 is quite a large number. Getting 50,000 new people to play Dungeons & Dragons by creating a gothic horror atmosphere sounds like a good plan. But it wasn’t 50,000 new people who bought this environment. It turns out that most people already played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. They weren’t actually finding new fans, they were just taking their existing fan base and cutting it off. And each scenario would be another cut. Suddenly, people would go from buying 200,000 copies of Forgotten Realms to the last release of Forgotten Realms selling 30,000 copies in the first year. And every stage seemed to take their sales and cut and cut and cut.

Ben Riggs in Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition:

I thought I was going to label the 3rd edition as a chapter in my book. I thought this chapter would be, “I talked to everyone who made 3rd edition, and they all said it was a huge success and everyone was a genius.” But it must have been the right time, because people were saying, “I’m going to tell you the truth. I’m going to tell you how there was backstabbing, betrayal, and lies in the making of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, and how controversial it was , and how the TSR people who moved to Seattle didn’t fit in very well with the Wizards People, and there was this house rivalry between the TSR people and the Wizards people.

Ben Riggs in Lake Geneva:

Lake Geneva hasn’t really lived up to its history as the birthplace of tabletop RPGs. They initially saw TSR as the “weird long hair”, 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 this stuff happened hasn’t fully realized on the elders of the city still. I definitely think that in 50 years you will see many of these old 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 get an ice cream and be like, “Yeah, it all happened here.” But man, I definitely think if you could get an RPG store on this site, that would be really, really cool.

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