Recommendation: Game Wizards

TSR rolls a 1…

Dungeons & Dragons has been in the news a lot lately.

I’ll spare you the details (in part because I’m not actually deep enough into the hobby to really understand), but the short version is that Wizards of the Coasts — the subsidiary of Hasbro that owns the Dungeons & Dragons brand — announced (and then promptly backed down from) a pretty substantial overhaul to the licence that allows third parties to use elements of the Dungeons & Dragons IP, barring those elements that Wizards contends are integral parts of their corporate IP( for example, those dudes with octopuses for faces — basically everything that isn’t already a Public Domain folkloric being) in derivative works.

And by “overhaul”, I mean “claim IP ownership and demand royalties from basically everything even remotely Dungeons & Dragons-related.”

Two kids dressed as Christmas Elves.
Even the Christmas Elves. Especially the Christmas Elves.
Photo by Marta Wave on

Naturally, fans got mad and for the first time in history, complaining on the Internet actually worked.

Now, that’s not really the important part here.

And, like I said, I’m not actually deep enough into the hobby to really understand what exactly Wizards was trying to do or what their plan is now. Mostly, though, it’s just helped me to have Dungeons & Dragons on my mind.

Also, there’s a movie coming out at the end of March.

Second time’s the charm, I guess.

All of this is to say, I’m planning to redo my Dungeons & Dragons recommendation.

Which gave me a good excuse to finish reading Game Wizards, a book about the early history of Dungeons & Dragons — more specifically, the corporate history of TSR, the original publisher of Dungeons & Dragons — so I can tie it into said redo of said recommendation.

An drawing after the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box.
My homage to the iconic Dungeons & Dragons Red Box.

I won’t get into recounting the full history — given that, you know, that’s the whole point of the book. But, in brief, circa the early 1970s, most tabletop games consisted of miniature wargaming (think Warhammer, but with real historical armies; part of Dungeons & Dragon’s influence was legitimising Fantasy games) and the hobby was actually shockingly well-developed and widespread, especially considering that this is pre-social media, pre-Internet in general, pre-cell phones, and even pre-widespread cable TV and before the 24-hour news cycle really took off.

In fact, the history of Gen Con (the tabletop gaming convention) goes back to 1968. And it’s Gen Con where E. Gary Gygax (best known as “Gary”, I just really saying “E. Gary”) and Dave Arneson first met and started collaborating, setting into motion the events related in Game Wizards.

To boil down that collaboration and the origin of feud to its most simple, Arneson thought up most of the concepts and mechanics and Gygax codified those into the rules as written in the manual, and ultimately went on to found and run TSR, short for “Tactical Studies Rules”, a reference to the fact that most tabletop games at the time were sold as rulebooks rather than with boards and pieces — again, this is explained in fuller detail in Game Wizards.

Fundamentally, it feels like Arneson and Gygax brought out the best in each other as game designers, but the worst in each other as people. More on that later.

I mentioned previously that the fact that the forerunner of Dungeons & Dragons was called Chainmail — and that this is why the Dungeons & Dragonsesque game they play in Realmgard is called Coat of Plates (it’s also a kind of armour).

Polyhedral dice.
Photo by Armando Are on

Again, to explain briefly so as to not render the book obsolete: Arneson and Gygax began playing around with modified versions of other tabletop games, adding new elements — the notable innovations being the Fantasy trappings, controlling individual characters instead of entire armies (again, c.f. Warhammer), and, of course, the dungeons.

It eventually got to the point where their modifications grew into an entirely new game, hence the establishment of TSR to publish and market said game. Notably, it’s because of TSR that the book is called Game Wizads — TSR’s tagline was “The Game Wizards.”

Incidentally, TSR’s longtime logo/mascot was a wizard.

From there, we get the creative differences between Arneson and Gygax that escalated (all things considered pretty quickly), to their falling out and Arneson’s departure from TSR and the subsequent basically endless feud between Arneson and Gygax, the meteoric rise of TSR as a business and Dungeons & Dragons as a Pop Culture phenomenon, TSR’s subsequent inevitable flying too close to the Sun and crashing down.

Notably (and rather fatally) nobody involved with running TSR ever really seemed to understand how to actually run a business.

A confused-looking man shrugging.
TSR Corporate Headquarters, circa 1984, colourised.
Photo by Robert Nagy on

Although TSR was successful for most of the 70s, Game Wizards relates a long history of unforced errors that eventually proved fatal.

Perhaps best summarised by the episode where TSR spent tens of thousands of dollars to help raise a shipwreck out of Geneva Lake (apparently the town is “Lake Geneva”, but the lake itself is “Geneva Lake”) as part of what I think was supposed to be a publicity stunt.

Not exactly a resounding success, since most of the things I can find online about the actual ship give TSR a passing reference, at best…

On the one hand, TSR was hugely successful, Dungeons & Dragons did come to dominate the hobby (which is still does — seriously, name a tabletop RPG other than Dungeons & Dragons), but TSR was also poorly-run for much of its history, plagued by nepotism, never really seemed to have a plan beyond “make more money”, manage acquisitions and expansions poorly.

And then died.

Though the Dungeons & Dragons brand itself has been consistently popular for 50 years.

The story basically ends with Gygax being booted off the board of TSR, though the book does at least go on to briefly relate that TSR was then sold to Wizards of the Coasts in the late 90s — itself sold to Hasbro in 1999.

Game Wizards focuses mostly on the history of TSR itself, though for the sake of contextualising that history, it does give us at least a sketch of the early lives and careers of Gygax and Arneson. And, of course, the years-long personal feud between them ends up being one of the largest aspects of TSR’s history — at its simplest, the feud can be boiled down to Arneson feeling he never got sufficient credit or acknowledgement from Gygax (also, in general) for his contributions to the development of early Dungeons & Dragons.

Now, Gygax is the more prominent and better-known of the two. His Wikipedia article is about 7,600 words to Arneson’s 3,300. Put another way, TV Tropes and even Britannica have articles about Gygax, but not Arneson. And, yeah, Gygax was also the more prolific of the two (especially where the history of TSR itself is concerned), but Arneson did gave legitimate gripes with Gygax and TSR.

On the most fundamental level, though, Gygax was just more outgoing. better-suited to being a public figure, and actually spent more as a public figure.

It reminds me of the Stan Lee vs. Jack Kirby/Steve Ditko feuds that Marvel went through. Yes, Kirby and Ditko didn’t get as much credit as they fairly should have, but Lee was not only the one in public-facing role, but also one of the best (self-)promoters of all time.

Ultimately, neither Gygax or Arneson come off particularly well — tactless in their business dealings and personal interactions at best and outright jerks at worst. Despite collaborating on Dungeons & Dragons from the very beginning, that Gygax and Arneson never really got along is a recurring trend in the story.

Gygax is presented as something of a credit hog — basically, “I made substantial edits to your rules, that’s the real work, so that means it’s my work, so we’re taking your name off the credits.” — a bit greedy, or at least money-driven (though, to be fair, part of his ongoing concern with making money is because he had five kids to feed), and sort of just expecting the work to get done because someone else will do it for him.

Similarly, Arneson is a bit of a curmudgeon, has a constant stream of new ideas but no follow-through to actually realise any of them, entitled and demanding, and more than willing to criticise the shortcomings of other people’s work or products (notably, even when he’s been hired to endorse them). Now, some of this is justified. Arneson was legitimately cheated out credit and royalty payments at times — in fact that it happened while working with Gygax is probably why he got so mad at Gygax.

I, uh, I’m not exactly shocked here that two Nerd Icons weren’t great at interpersonal skills. And I say that in my professional own capacity as a Nerd

Wow. I’m being insulted by my own blog. That’s a new one…
The Simpsons: Twentieth Television Animation and Grace Films.

Game Wizards isn’t really a book about either Gygax or Arneson, or even really about Dungeons & Dragons. Most fundamentally, it’s a book about the rise and fall and of TSR.

And, since Gygax was in charge of TSR, it’s not shocking that he gets more coverage.

That being side, the chapters after his departure from TSR do give plenty of focus on Arneson contra mundum.

The Earth, seen from space.
You know what you did. Or, well, Dave Arneson does, at least.
Photo by Jaymantri on

It’s almost frustrating to read, even though this all happened decades ago. All things considered, it’s probably easier to sympathise with Arneson more than Gygax, because, all things considered, Arneson probably isn’t as well-remembered as he rightly should be.

Basically, whenever it seems like Arneson is the clear underdog being taken advantage of by Gygax the corporate tyrant, he does something, takes grave personal offence to something, and writes up an angry manifesto to alienate pretty much everyone up to and including the reader and establishing that, yeah, nobody involved in this story is the real hero, after all.

It also doesn’t help that both of them had a really bad habit of being really, really petty and mean to anyone who’s offended them — each other most of all, but by no means exclusively.

It’s a great warning about making creative types mad, though. Because you’re going to end up immortalised as some kind of awful, drooling idiot cyclops that future generations of gamers are going to be murdering in perpetuity.

Incidentally, the bad guy in the next Realmgard story’s gonna be an awful, drooling idiot cyclops named Greg.

[That’s a joke, I don’t know anybody named Greg…]

Throughout the story of Games Wizards, Gygax and Arneson both have legitimate grievances (with each other, and in general), but they’re both act like jerks frequently enough that neither one comes across as the clear good guy in the feud.

A girl dressed as a wizard.
Now, I’m not sure if that’s Gygax or Arneson…
Photo by cottonbro studio on

It’s easy to spin the story as “Brilliant Visionary vs. Entitled Former Associate” (basically Gygax’s point of view) or “Brilliant Visionary vs. Grasping Corporate Overlord” (basically Arneson’s), and somehow, both of those things end up being true.

Ultimately, Game Wizards is a story of “Brilliant Visionaries Can’t Stay Out of Their Own Way.”

Yeah, both sides have a point on occasion, but both sides are being absolutely wretched trying to rebut the other side’s points.

As it happens the feud got less acrimonious, but, ultimately, was ever completely buried. Gygax died in 2008 and Arneson died in 2009 but they never reconciled.

Which is a bit of a downer…

Though, for what it’s worth, both Gygax and Arneson are now both acknowledge in Dungeons & Draogons sourcebooks as the co-creators of the original game.

If I have one major criticism with Game Wizards, it’s that it doesn’t commit to a bit.

A drill bit.
Unlike me, who is committing to this bit…
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on

Since the book is about the most famous tabletop game in Pop Culture, it tries to frame the history of TSR in terms of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign — maps of Lake Geneva and Minnesota are done in the style of tabletop world maps, each year is one of TSR’s turns, recapping what happened in that turn (most relevantly the “Players Eliminated”) and describing the yearly convention circuit (particularly the rivalry between Gen Con and Origins) as the combat phase.

It’s maybe a touch too clever for its own good, but ended up being less annoying as the book went on than I was afraid of. If anything, it’s most annoying specifically because it doesn’t go far enough. There aren’t enough of these RPG metaphors and they feel incongruous because the rest of the book is just a book. It’s never dryly academic, but it does feel like a bit of an identity crisis.

On the other hand, it’s accessible and pretty casual in tone. There are a lot of names to keep track of, both of people and companies, though some of them will be familiar to people who are at least tangentially familiar with the hobby — Avalon Hill (also, incidentally, currently owned by Hasbro), Games Workshop (originally TSR’s UK distributor, now best known for Warhammer, specifically Space Warhammer), Tracy Hickman (a TSR employee, best known for his role co-writing the Dragonlance novels), Ed Greenwood (a TSR associate, best known for creating Forgotten Realms, and CanCon, by the way).

Admittedly, I couldn’t retain most of the names that I didn’t already recognise. But that’s at least partly on me. I’m not great at names…

Of course, recognising those names will be a nice little bonus for tabletop enthusiasts, but since the focus in on TSR, recognising “Hey, Games Workshop! They do Warhammer!“, then giving your collection of Orks a knowing glance doesn’t really add anything fundamental to the book.

There’s enough personal and corporate drama in Game Wizards that it’s sufficiently compelling enough in its own right to be interesting even without a vested interested in Dungeons & Dragons. Though, again, the nature of said drama means that there’s no clear protagonist to cheer for.

I don’t necessarily think Game Wizards is necessarily required reading even for Dungeons & Dragons players, but the 70s — and honestly, even the 90s — are probably long ago enough that even people who’ve grown up playing Dungeons & Dragons weren’t around to experience that history for themselves, so there’s a clear historiographical value in the book and the story of Dungeons & Dragons going from basically two guys selling copies of their vans to dominating the industry to failing catastrophically is a fascinating read.

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