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How Gary Gygax Lost Control of Dungeons & Dragons
July 28, 2014 7:23 PM   Subscribe

The Ambush at Sheridan Springs. How Gary Gygax Lost Control of Dungeons & Dragons.
posted by chunking express (74 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
This ought to go in the museum next to the exhibit about how Will Vinton lost control of Will Vinton Studios.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:03 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


She sold TSR in 1997 after making strategic errors with "Dragon Dice" to compete during the Magic:Gathering craze. Had Gygax stayed on he probably would have found a path through the 1990s manual-gaming rain-shadow created by the PC/Internet mountain, because he was a gamer and understood the market.
posted by stbalbach at 8:07 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I dunno. For all of his admitted importance to the hobby, I don't think history will be kind to Gygax.

AD&D was a bloated, disorganised convolution of Basic, burdened with layer upon layer of pointless cruft (though the magic item list was boss). His 'Comic book guy' prose was great if you were, like me, a smart nerdy 12-year-old wanting affirmation of his basic superiority over the world, but terrible at cleanly conveying ideas. His post D&D rpgs, Cyborg Commando and Lejendary Journeys, were both total stinkers.

And while he was sweetly avuncular to his disciples, he could by all accounts be kind of an asshole in business.
posted by Sebmojo at 8:59 PM on July 28 [7 favorites]


I was going to make a quip about Mythus. What an unbelievable turkey of a game, and proof that Gygax needed a moderating influence when designing systems. (Never played it, but I've read it.)

Still, fascinating story.
posted by mordax at 9:06 PM on July 28


Obviously he should have cast "revealing light" before entering the boardroom.
posted by nickggully at 9:09 PM on July 28 [8 favorites]


That said, Tomb of Horrors is actually a blast to play with a few beers and some good friends who don't mind having the characters murdered in horrible, hilarious ways. It's almost rules free too - in the manner of the time, every room pretty much has its own compact rules set.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:10 PM on July 28 [4 favorites]


The author, Jon Peterson, has put himself in the role of D&D historian lately. I really appreciate all the work he's doing documenting this stuff. His book Playing at the World is better than any of us deserve.
posted by Nelson at 9:11 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


I started playing back in about '84 or so, and was totally unaware of these behind the scenes events at the time, but by '88 (probably around the time they had released any content that had Gygax's hand in it) I could clearly see a difference, even as young as I was. There was so much content coming out, but a great deal of it lacked, for want of a better term, 'soul.' Forgotten Realms, 2nd edition, and loads game mechanic guides of questionable value took a front seat, and Greyhawk became an abandoned child until enough people convinced them that as much as they wanted to simply leave Gygax's world in the past, the money might make the decision less painful for their egos.

Look at the modules that people still talk about 30 years later - Tomb of Horrors, The Temple of Elemental Evil, Castle Amber, Isle of Dread, Baltron's Beacon, White Plume Mountain ( here's a ranked review of 40 great titles)- all made on Gary's watch. That's not to say the post-Gygax era didn't have its moments, but they were few and far between - Ravenloft was pretty good, Greyhawk Wars was a mixed bag that had good parts but really had a tone of 'let's wreck Gary's world' feel to it sometimes, and Spelljammer was a promising concept but simply fizzled out because it was more about mechanics and less about the stories that give meaning to the mechanics.

Luckily there was enough stuff to keep us doing our own thing until the mid-90s when we all scattered across the country to college, and for those last years we would only occasionally buy a book here and there if it seemed promising, but that was rare. It was like they became a car accessory company rather than a company specializing in making cars that can go anywhere by making things look cool, complex, and 'must have', but had no real concern about where the car could go.
posted by chambers at 9:29 PM on July 28 [8 favorites]


His post D&D rpgs, Cyborg Commando and Lejendary Journeys...

Well, that explains the rest of a joke I never expected to have an explanation. I think the MLP comic may be experiencing a bit of demographic drift.
posted by darksasami at 10:01 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I guess the moral of the story is don't think you're saving any money by not having an attorney draw up your papers and instead copying passages out of the papers of a tool and die shop.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:10 PM on July 28 [8 favorites]


The bit about Williams banning the playing of games in a *game development company* was pretty boggling. You don't have to like games, but wouldn't any sort of intelligent businesswoman know you have to test your product?
posted by tavella at 10:17 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I'm torn between thinking Lorraine Williams can't possibly have been as bad as gamers make her out to be and the difficulty of finding contrary opinions due to the fact that virtually all sources of information about her are gamers.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:23 PM on July 28 [5 favorites]


The bit about Williams banning the playing of games in a *game development company* was pretty boggling.

I don't know, but I suspect that it was like at any video game company, where you can't just flake out and play your product for a bunch of company hours. Playtesting (and video game QA) is more serious, directed business than just "who wants to run Tomb of Horrors again?!"

I mean, you can make a good argument for allowing a lot of free play in a company like TSR, but it's not crazy to require that long sessions be at least minimally organized around actually, usefully playtesting it with people who's job it is to do that. And for the gamer geeks who got hired on, a bunch of undirected dungeon crawling probably didn't actually tell them a lot that they didn't already know just by reading the module.

And like PG suggests, I doubt you'll find an unhostile appreciation of Williams from the sources who still care about such things.
posted by fatbird at 10:50 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


My guess is Williams did about the best you'd expect from a chief executive who believed that TSR was in the business of developing intellectual properties not games. This was, after all, the source of her family fortune.
posted by um at 10:52 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


I think Williams has been cast as the villian largely because of how TSR tried to crack down on fan produced stuff on the Internet as the web exploded in the mid 1990s. I also think that the fact that she was a woman who managed to not only turn around but dominate a incredibly sexist and male dominated industry is pretty amazing. Second edition was a much better game than ADND v 1.0. It made the game more about cooperative adventure rather than compteting over who got gold and thus the xp for each encounter. Gygax was an asshole and was in over his head.
posted by humanfont at 10:53 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


An interesting interview with the man.

The highest and for many British gamers the most painful moment of TSR UK's activity was Imagine magazine. The magazine was launched as a competitor for Games Workshop's White Dwarf and, presumably, as a 'mouthpiece' for TSR products. It enjoyed a large following, seriously threatening White Dwarf's grip on the British market, but with issue #31 it was closed down. When some disgruntled staffers left TSR UK and started a new publication, "Game Master", to attempt to preserve the Imagine's experience (they kept various popular features as Pelinore, reviews, letters page, comic strips and so on), the magazine ran various articles with behind the scene details of Imagine's closure. Their pieces explicitly accused you of having never believed in the usefulness of an independent magazine for TSR UK, that you couldn't stand the freedom enjoyed by Imagine's writers to disapprove 'crappy' TSR products and to feature in approving terms competitors' titles and so having decreed, once back at the helm of TSR, Imagine's demise due to financial reasons. Perhaps these were only ex employees' poisoned arrows, but I'd like to know your opinion in thus subject (and many old British fans too!).

It was my plan for TSR UK to publish a UK version of "Dragon" magazine. This I meant to be named "Royal Dragon" and its content were to be about 50% that taken from "Dragon" the balance, and all ad space, coming from contributors and advertisers in the UK. Don Turnbull did not favour this plan and eventually he convinced the Board of Directors that his "Imagine" magazine was a superior idea. I was dubious, but I agreed. As a matter of fact, the magazine never showed any substantial profit, generally ran at a loss from a purely financial standpoint. Of course, the advertising and promotion of the TSR line and the goodwill the publication generated, justified its continuation for the time. Had the expense of half the content, general layout too, been absorbed by "Dragon" magazine, which was then generating a profit of something like a million dollars annually, and the name I urged been used so as to make it clear that it was tied to the D&D game, I believe the publication would have made a profit, been more effective and still satisfied the individual tastes of the British gaming audience. That is a moot question now, certainly.

As for lower echelon staffers believing that they were paid to be independent critics of TSR products, somehow being given free rein to exercise their budding critical talents, I can only shake my head in wonderment at such hubris. Biting the hand that feeds one has always been considered in bad taste. If such persons felt so overwhelming an urge to be independent, they should have sought employment elsewhere or struck out on their own. In short, I have absolutely no sympathy for such views. The very reason for their employment was to promote the TSR line and its success paid the wages for their livelihood.

posted by Sebmojo at 11:47 PM on July 28


Well this explains the shift in D&D in the mid 80s away from Descent and Fire Giants and Demonweb Pits to whatever it was by the end of the 80s. Though agreed, Ravenloft was good.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:47 AM on July 29


Yeah, the Lorraine Williams years gave us Planescape and Dark Sun, which is what got me back into the hobby in the late 80's.
posted by um at 12:55 AM on July 29


Gygax Magazine now being published, though I don't know much about it.
posted by newdaddy at 3:57 AM on July 29


Also The Gygax Memorial Fund is soliciting donations towards a memorial for Mr. Gygax to be erected at a public park at Lake Geneva.
posted by newdaddy at 4:00 AM on July 29


"I dunno. For all of his admitted importance to the hobby, I don't think history will be kind to Gygax. "

D&D is 40 years old now, and I don't see this happening. Quite a lot of people who grew up with the various versions of (A)D&D he published are now reverting to those ancient and incongruous systems, partly out of nostalgia, partly because they know them and don't have time for anything else (kids, work, raising money to get titanium hips).

"Younger" gamers just know him as the "inventor" of role-playing games.

Will future gamers dissect the old rules. Sure, but I believe even then a few will say that they are "charming", "organic", "inventive" or something like that. This isn't a engineering-like technological progression towards better and more advanced games, this is art, after all.

So he'll be the Tolkien of RPGs, even in decades to come.
posted by pseudocode at 4:14 AM on July 29 [2 favorites]


Maybe more the Stan Lee of RPGs - instrumental in the foundation of a genre whose influence became more promotional than actual as time went on. The parallels between Gary and Stan are pretty striking.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:54 AM on July 29 [10 favorites]


Lorraine Williams was exactly the villain she is made out to be. Read Ryan Dancey's account of what he found out when he took over TSR after she was forced to sell it to WotC to settle its massive outstanding debts. Basically, she used TSR's agreement with Random House, which allowed TSR to send them literally anything as long as they took returns, to extract short-term profits from TSR in what was basically a pyramid scheme: she would print more products in the next batch to pay the printer for the previous batch. Eventually Random House caught on and pulled the brakes on this nonsense. She drove the company into the ground, squeezed the money out of it, and sold it.

Planescape is a fascinating point from this perspective: from what Ryan Dancey has said, it cost more to manufacture the ultra-deluxe boxed sets than TSR got for selling them. WotC was positively boxed set-phobic once they realized the huge overhead the things introduced; that's why the WotC versions of each setting were hardbacks. Birthright was the most visible part of the terminal point in the death spiral: TSR was literally shoveling out short "Player's Secrets of ZZZ" booklets to get them in stores as quickly as they could, getting more product out at all costs, despite the fact that nobody bought them.

Jim Ward's attempt to defend himself in his late time with TSR is fascinating, because if you pay close attention, as a director, he only knew the top line. The people who worked at TSR in the '90s were really good people. I knew many of them (including Jim and Dave Gross, who was editing Dragon) via the AOL TSR Online site, I talked with them, and they were genuinely decent people who loved gaming and were doing everything they could in a company that was insane. The bottom line financials were a closely guarded secret that was kept from everybody. So everybody at TSR was basically blindsided when they couldn't pay the printers in 1996.

If you liked what came out in the Williams era, that's because there were people in the building who truly believed in what they were doing. They were sincere, well-meaning gamers and authors, but they were writing to deadline and frequently to page counts that had nothing to do with the needs of the product they were writing. This is why so much of what was written from 1989 to 1996 feels padded. It was a bad company but they made the best of it.

Williams also did to Gary something that Gary had done to Dave Arneson. Basically, first edition AD&D was written for two main reasons. One, Gary needed hardbacks to get into serious book distribution (the Random House deal). Two, Gary wanted books that had his, and only his, name on them for royalty purposes. (This is why books like Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures, which were less than 50% written by Gary, said "Gary Gygax" on the covers; also, at this point in the '80s, he was something of a brand.) It was technically a separate game from D&D, which TSR continued to support as a product line (the famous B/X, BECMI and Rules Cyclopedia) up until 1994. Lorraine had David "Zeb" Cook rewrite the AD&D rules just enough that they could take Gary's credit away and no longer have to pay him royalties. That's why AD&D had a second edition that was pretty much like the first.

You can say I'm a gamer, and that I like and respect most of the TSR people I knew in the day and of course I'm taking their side, but Dancey's facts make it clear that the company was criminally mismanaged. Gary did things I would disagree with over the long haul; particularly with managing the relationship with Dave Arneson. But Lorraine was that bad.
posted by graymouser at 6:17 AM on July 29 [22 favorites]


For all of his admitted importance to the hobby, I don't think history will be kind to Gygax.

I'll disagree here. Gary spent most of the last decade of his life mending bridges and rebuilding his reputation, and for the most part it worked. Gary is looked at much more favorably now than he was 10 or 20 years ago. The historians of the hobby come a little shy of actually worshipping him, but given that there is a magazine called Gygax sold by his sons and some of their business associates and it seems to be doing quite well, I think he's got a lot of love at this point.
posted by graymouser at 6:23 AM on July 29 [2 favorites]


Excellent comment, graymouser, and you're completely right. There were still good people doing good work in the post-Gygax era, and when searching for the good stuff and something caught my eye, finding out who the author was became much more important in my decision in those years. There were several that I knew that even if the work might feel a little 'padded,' that the creator was coming from a shared perspective about the game, and it was easier to find stuff inside that was interesting and useful to me. I could see back then a pretty clear separation between the goals of the writers and the goals of the company, and I leave the blame on the company and not with the writers. I hesitate to even single out any writers as simply 'bad.' Some of them simply had different preferences, some were just doing the job they were assigned, so I can't fault them for that.
posted by chambers at 6:48 AM on July 29


That's why AD&D had a second edition that was pretty much like the first.

Yes, this this this this this this this this. As a teenager, I picked up the Rules Cyclopedia instead of AD&D. After learning about the story behind the distinction, I quixotically stuck with the Rules Cyclopedia for longer than I probably should have.

BTW, the Rules Cyclopedia is pretty excellent. It might be one of the best examples ever of an "all-in-one" RPG book: very well-designed and well-presented, neither too short nor too long.

...

As for Williams' run, it's unsurprising that some great material was produced during her reign. It's just that TSR's business model was being mismanaged in other ways.

For me, I had always assumed that the excessive number of "blue books" was the real evidence of mismanagement. AD&D eventually became a messy patchwork of D&D "common law", where you could never be quite sure when, if ever, you would be done acquiring the rulesets.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:56 AM on July 29


TSR was literally shoveling out short "Player's Secrets of ZZZ" booklets to get them in stores as quickly as they could, getting more product out at all costs, despite the fact that nobody bought them.

How exactly RPG publishers can make money without diluting their product (splats, more rulebooks, new editions) or fracturing their fanbase (we have a fantasy game, a scifi game, an old west game, etc) is a riddle that hasn't exactly been solved yet. It seems like a publisher can only get so big - any attempts to grow beyond a given level inevitably result in collapse.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:58 AM on July 29 [4 favorites]


@mouser: I didn't know that about TSR's publishing approach. That explains some stuff about the Spelljammer setting I'd never really understood before (like the spells mentioned in flavor text that never appeared in the rules, etc). If it was made to fit a certain page count then kicked out the door early to keep up a pyramid scheme with Random House that makes a lot of sense.

I also agree with you about Gygax, regardless of mending bridges, the fact remains that he is **THE** name associated with the origins of RPG's. He didn't do it solo, but he was instrumental in developing the RPG as we know it.

He wasn't the best game designer from a modern perspective, but I think that's more than understandable. We've got the benefit of decades of experience with what works and how to make rules that function without being baroque. He came from a wargaming background and largely invented the whole field, of course AD&D is a kludge and a mess. It's basically the second draft of an experiment that no one really knew would work or not.

So yeah, we can snicker at THAC0 and negative AC being better but bonuses to AC being expressed as positives (a +5 Shield gives you -5 to your AC over and above what the shield's ac bonus is, which makes no sense at all), but again, it's the result of experimentation and a wargaming background.
posted by sotonohito at 7:02 AM on July 29


How exactly RPG publishers can make money without diluting their product (splats, more rulebooks, new editions) or fracturing their fanbase (we have a fantasy game, a scifi game, an old west game, etc) is a riddle that hasn't exactly been solved yet. It seems like a publisher can only get so big - any attempts to grow beyond a given level inevitably result in collapse.

It's a real problem. Other industries have similar problems. I remember some articles about falling camera sales - not only did cellphones eat much of the camera market, but people who are already satisfied with their cameras also eat much of the market, as do people who sell their used cameras. After a certain point, many consumers just plain don't need to return to you.

If they could figure out how to reliably monetize RPG-related community tools and events, that would be a thing. Imagine if WOTC (or whoever) could dominate the app market for campaign management, cartography, etc. My admittedly uninformed take is that they never really nailed that.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:03 AM on July 29


hen some disgruntled staffers left TSR UK and started a new publication, "Game Master", to attempt to preserve the Imagine's experience (they kept various popular features as Pelinore, reviews, letters page, comic strips and so on), the magazine ran various articles with behind the scene details of Imagine's closure.

If this is the Games Master (later Games Master International) magazine of my yoof, I loved it.

It was (as I recall, it is my Torrent Moby Dick) so amazing compared to Dragon or the like.

As I recall, they went around to Joe Dever's house for a few beers (probably a few cones) and an epic game of Lone Wolf. And made an article of it.
posted by Mezentian at 7:11 AM on July 29


BTW, the Rules Cyclopedia is pretty excellent. It might be one of the best examples ever of an "all-in-one" RPG book: very well-designed and well-presented, neither too short nor too long.

Yeah, I recently had to replace my well-read copy of the Rules Cyclopedia. Aaron Allston (who sadly passed away earlier this year) was a freelancer, but he was one of the good ones.

How exactly RPG publishers can make money without diluting their product (splats, more rulebooks, new editions) or fracturing their fanbase (we have a fantasy game, a scifi game, an old west game, etc) is a riddle that hasn't exactly been solved yet.

Having paid close attention to the industry for two decades, it's clear that an RPG line has a limited life cycle, somewhere around 3-6 years, after which bloat becomes unmanageable. It does not work well with a "brand" approach, which is why WotC is constantly re-launching D&D. They will eventually hit fatigue with this, to the extent they haven't done so already.
posted by graymouser at 7:13 AM on July 29 [2 favorites]


The business problems of the RPG world remind me a little of the business problems of the porn world. I wonder if the market will eventually move to an analogous place: greater emphasis on niche interests and boutique services, with an emphasis on interactivity. We're already sort of already there: think about how much of the new material in the RPG universe is based around Kickstarter-funded sets being sold on DriveThruRPG, or on relatively fine-grained concepts like "D&D Retro Clones" or "Cthulhu in WWII".
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:18 AM on July 29


(Not that niche interests are new to RPGs. Bunnies and Burrows, anyone?)
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:20 AM on July 29


It was thus unsurprising that TSR pegged its hopes elsewhere: in Hollywood. But the prospect of a silver screen debut for Dungeons & Dragons remained tantalizingly out of reach. In October 1984,

... And we are still waiting.
posted by Mezentian at 7:21 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


Ebert's review of Dungeons and Dragons is one of his finest hours.
The plot does not defy description, but it discourages it. Imagine a kingdom that looks half the time like a towering fantasy world of spires and turrets, castles and drawbridges--and the other half like everyone is standing around in the wooded area behind Sam's Club on the interstate. Imagine some characters who seem ripped from the pages of action comics, and other characters who look like their readers. Imagine arch, elevated Medievalese alternating with contemporary slang. The disconnects are so strange that with a little more effort, they could have become a style.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:26 AM on July 29 [6 favorites]


It would be neat to see WotC start up a few RPG Incubators. There are still a bunch of folks that take the small press route and have moderate success - why not invest in them?

In theory, WotC has the know-how and reach when it comes to printing, production, and distribution - all things the new small press RPG designer lacks. So set up a deal where WotC will do a run of your game and the rights to be its exclusive publisher for 5 years. The designers get paid a small advance and some portion of the profits from sales. At the end of the 5 years, the deal can be renegotiated or the designers can take off and try to do it all themselves now that they have a fanbase.

Of course, this breaks down if WotC acts evil and so on, so maybe not.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:28 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


It would be neat to see WotC start up a few RPG Incubators. There are still a bunch of folks that take the small press route and have moderate success - why not invest in them?

Because WotC's imperative from Hasbro is to have D&D, as a product line, deliver a certain top line dollar amount. They have to go for mass purchase in everything to do that. Fiddling around with the little niche markets that exist is below the level they need to be playing at.
posted by graymouser at 7:30 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


Wait, did Ebert not witness D&D2 or D&D3?

Did he miss the pit of his fears?
posted by Mezentian at 7:32 AM on July 29


... And we are still waiting.

Yes.. quite. It's unfortunate that the Dragonlance movie ended up having a visual and voicework style that looked like a mix of an episode of the old Rambo cartoon and a evangelical christian cartoon adventure story. In the right hands and taken seriously, even with a modest budget that tale could have been made into a pretty decent film trilogy, animated or not.
posted by chambers at 7:38 AM on July 29 [2 favorites]


Lorraine Williams was exactly the villain she is made out to be. Read Ryan Dancey's account of what he found out when he took over TSR after she was forced to sell it to WotC to settle its massive outstanding debts. Basically, she used TSR's agreement with Random House, which allowed TSR to send them literally anything as long as they took returns, to extract short-term profits from TSR in what was basically a pyramid scheme: she would print more products in the next batch to pay the printer for the previous batch. Eventually Random House caught on and pulled the brakes on this nonsense. She drove the company into the ground, squeezed the money out of it, and sold it.

If you told me she then went to work in private equity I wouldn't be shocked. Jesus.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:49 AM on July 29


And it explains so much about the number of TSR books. (Er... novels).
posted by Mezentian at 8:00 AM on July 29


@chambers: Jesus. Someone looked at that and said "yeah, that looks good enough to release". In 2008. Maybe, possibly, in the 1970's that'd be acceptable for an animated feature. But in 2008? I don't comprehend how anyone could think that was acceptable for release. Its a total embarrassment for everyone involved.
posted by sotonohito at 8:02 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


How exactly RPG publishers can make money without diluting their product (splats, more rulebooks, new editions) or fracturing their fanbase (we have a fantasy game, a scifi game, an old west game, etc) is a riddle that hasn't exactly been solved yet. It seems like a publisher can only get so big - any attempts to grow beyond a given level inevitably result in collapse.
Ooh, ooh! waves hand frantically

How about more products which simplify or automate the existing rules, thereby extending their fanbase?

The original Red Box (not so much the AD&D4 version IMHO, sadly) and the Pathfinder Beginner Box are the only really successful examples of this I've seen: by distilling the most important rules from 400 page tomes down to 40 page booklets, they make the game more accessible to younger and more casual players. There's probably a lot more in this vein that could be done. Eraseable-marker spell/feat/monster cards for use in play can be much more user-friendly than "what did that do again? let me skim pages 252-277 until I find it". AD&D4 had something along these lines, but Pathfinder cards all seem to be just do-it-yourself. I'd also be thrilled to find more adventures that were as 10-year-old-niece friendly as the one in the Pathfinder Beginner Box, but nearly everything I look at is either too thin of a story or too gruesome of a story.
Second edition was a much better game than ADND v 1.0.
Granting that, isn't it also much easier to improve something after years of experience than to invent something from scratch? "Gygax invented role playing games" isn't precisely true but it doesn't seem to be too far off the mark, which is all the more amazing since role playing games are one of the archetypal "inventions behind their time" - rule-based stochastic collaborative storytelling could have been done with millennia-old technology, and games incorporating each of those components have been around for centuries, but somehow nobody was clever enough to put them all together until the late 20th century?!
posted by roystgnr at 8:13 AM on July 29 [3 favorites]


And it explains so much about the number of TSR books. (Er... novels).

The large number of novels I don't mind as much, even if it was a terribly unwise business deal - TSR was essentially only a branding and distribution channel in that mode, and I never really saw the fact that it was licensed by TSR as any mark of quality when it came to the novels. Unlike the gaming materials TSR produced in the 90s, I saw it as kind of a Roger Corman style approach to novels that appears to have put almost all of the creative responsibility in the hands of the authors as long as they followed canon reasonably well.
posted by chambers at 8:17 AM on July 29


[Jon Peterson's] book Playing at the World is better than any of us deserve.


Agreed. Scholarly, but readable. His blog is a trove of related minutia too.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:51 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


somehow nobody was clever enough to put them all together until the late 20th century?!

It seems to coincide with the idea that the world could be mathematically simulated (dice, tables, systems). This notion first arose with Newton and the invention of calculus, the start of the science revolution which was a break from the Middle Ages and religious dogma. It ends with people pretending to be Medieval and playing at magic.
posted by stbalbach at 10:14 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


rule-based stochastic collaborative storytelling could have been done with millennia-old technology, and games incorporating each of those components have been around for centuries, but somehow nobody was clever enough to put them all together until the late 20th century?!

A century or two earlier, although in a very specialized context (battle simulations.) That in turn led to the Braunstein game, Rand simulations, Diplomacy, and Arneson's dungeon.

The availability of cheap polyhedral die from post-war Japan, which allowed easy simulation of various odds AND didn't evoke gambling, probably gets less credit than it should.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:44 AM on July 29 [5 favorites]


AD&D was a bloated, disorganised convolution of Basic, burdened with layer upon layer of pointless cruft (though the magic item list was boss). His 'Comic book guy' prose was great if you were, like me, a smart nerdy 12-year-old wanting affirmation of his basic superiority over the world, but terrible at cleanly conveying ideas. His post D&D rpgs, Cyborg Commando and Lejendary Journeys, were both total stinkers.

AD&D didn't arise from Basic. AD&D is basically a compilation and elaboration of OD&D, its supplements, and a number of articles in TSR's periodicals. Basic took those ideas in another direction, in some cases simplifying them, in others extending them. There are reasons that some people preferred some version of to standard AD&D. Even now, the retro RPG scene has games that cater specifically to those guys.

I think Williams has been cast as the villian largely because of how TSR tried to crack down on fan produced stuff on the Internet as the web exploded in the mid 1990s. I also think that the fact that she was a woman who managed to not only turn around but dominate a incredibly sexist and male dominated industry is pretty amazing.

Well, that's the thing. From where she took charge you can pretty much graph a declining plot of TSR's fortunes, until WOTC finally took over and 3E was released. It's impossible to overstate how much 3E matters to there being D&D today.

Maybe it would have been better if it had just died, and then fans now could have taken over? But the fact remains, there are solid reasons 3E revived the game, and why it continued live on through two substantial revisions, 3.5E, and now Pathfinder, which apparently is now more popular than D&D, which is the first time that's ever happened for a roleplaying game.

Everything greymouser said is true, to my recollection, generally. But I'd like to respond to:

Having paid close attention to the industry for two decades, it's clear that an RPG line has a limited life cycle, somewhere around 3-6 years, after which bloat becomes unmanageable.

IMO:
This all has to do with how the RPG is managed, in which splatbooks add on to the base game in complex ways not intended by the original authors, which are A. more powerful than the original (which helps push players into buying it), and B. interact with each other, multiplying that original power. At its worst it can produce abominations such as Pun-Pun the Kobold, looked at once a 5th level Divine Minion/Wizard/Master of Many Forms, looked at again a god of infinite power, with stats literally as high as he wants, using the carefully culled powers his classes and race make available to him, and the new powers those abilities provide, in a repeated cycle of brokenness, using abilities provided by the core books plus Savage Species, Serpent Kingdoms and the various Complete Series, cunningly used to supplement each other. All pretty much because one ill-considered skill, Manipulate Form, managed to make it to print.

It is possible to run a RPG in such a way that it doesn't bloat. Stronger editorial control can maintain that, but it might disappear the moment the editor's bosses press him to sell a few extra books or the editorship changes hands. Still, though, it is possible.

My go-to example for this is Call of Cthulhu, which existed for six editions and numerous reprintings while remaining 95% the same game. (The upcoming 7th edition doesn't appear to continue that, but considering the vast wealth of Chaosium Cthulhu material out there, I really can't see it sticking, unless Chaosium wants to update everything they've made.)

It's not that Call of Cthulhu supplements aren't vulnerable to bloat. Looking through Secrets of Japan makes it clear that the game is just as vulnerable to later-era splatbook powergaming as anything else. It's just that, for one reason or other, the additions made in later books don't seem to stick. So, Secret of Japan might introduce a new skill called Bushido that is functionally like Psychology but better in nearly every way. But players don't play CoC in order to "exhibit system mastery," it's a lot more obvious that the GM will restrict things that don't fit his vision.

Of course, no GM worth his salt would allow Pun-Pun either, but that's just an extreme example of something that the splatbook style encourages, that Call of Cthulhu doesn't seem as vulnerable to.
posted by JHarris at 11:20 AM on July 29 [5 favorites]


I really can't see it sticking, unless Chaosium wants to update everything they've made.)

You think Chaosium wouldn't like to sell everybody another copy of the books they already own? Hell, if I were in charge, it'd look like Hard 8 under Gary Jackson. "Bump up the font size a point, make the rule changes, add 20% new filler content, and have it shipped by the end of the week!"
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:32 AM on July 29


I believe they called that the 'Library Edition'.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:58 AM on July 29


I don't think Chaosium actually has the manpower to do that.
posted by JHarris at 12:09 PM on July 29


Having paid close attention to the industry for two decades, it's clear that an RPG line has a limited life cycle, somewhere around 3-6 years, after which bloat becomes unmanageable. It does not work well with a "brand" approach, which is why WotC is constantly re-launching D&D. They will eventually hit fatigue with this, to the extent they haven't done so already.

I don't think this is really true. AD&D 1 and 2 both lasted for a little over a decade. 3, 3.5, 4 and Essentials come as the result of different expectations about core book sales performance joined to the hip of typically shortsighted corporate management. The game probably isn't suited for the type of business Hasbro would like to do.

This is going to sound odd, but I think the industry as a whole, in companies capable of going after a broad audience, is far too focused on short-lived trends, and far too likely to mistake variety for some kind of technological improvement. 3e wallowed in the concept of D&D as a technology that was improved, and the retro-games popped up to serve people left in the cold by it. 4e represents the apex of design philosophy that puts technical game design in the front seat, ahead of design as representation of a story world, and gamers who didn't like that (I like 4e myself) refused to step up and became Pathfinder's audience. 5e is responding to the response, swallowing as much resurgent old school and 3e-style world representation as possible. With the possible exception of 3e, all of these were reactions. At this point I don't think WotC really knows what D&D is. Folks like Gygax, who right or wrong created a debate about what D&D is and what the tradition of D&D's design is, are really useful in this regard, and dudes who poll bloggers and crunch playtest data are less useful.
posted by mobunited at 12:51 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]


At this point I don't think WotC really knows what D&D is.

I'm not sure anyone ever did.

There's two competing ideas involved. Simulating the World, and Playing at the World (wink). Gygax arguably found a happy middle ground, but those tensions are still there. On one hand there's the wargamming tradition, and on the other there's the more freeform Braunstein/Rand concept.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 1:04 PM on July 29


TSR faced problems that were common to many publishers of the era. There the begging of the shift digital, consolidation at the distributor and retail level (remember Borders and Barnes and Noble) and a lot of volatility in raw paper pricing. The mess described Dancey was the result of underlying market chaos creating a cash flow squeeze. The situation wasn't created by Williams by mismanagement or malfeasance, it was the least bad option to keep the business going for another quarter in hopes of having a hit. Thats the publishing business. Wizards had the luxury of having a couple of big hits at the time Pokemon and Magic the Gathering. They had the cash flow from those operations to be able to buy the distressed assets of TSR and then stabilize that business.

Also Wizards leadership ultimately sold out to Hasbro. It isn't like they were some virtuous gamers doing it for the art. They were mercenary business people in it for the long green.
posted by humanfont at 1:56 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]


AD&D 1 and 2 both lasted for a little over a decade.

Both needed substantial infusions within 6 years. We refer to them "AD&D 1.5e" (Unearthed Arcana, Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, Wilderness Survival Guide) and "AD&D 2.5e" (Combat & Tactics, Skills & Powers, Spells & Magic) and both were accompanied by semi-relaunches. It's the only way that a D&D edition has extended past 6 years.
posted by graymouser at 1:58 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]


I think the way to succeed and avoid splat book bloat is to sell adventures and settings material rather than "Book of Awesome Powers Volume II". This seems to be how a lot of the indie D&D publishers operate. Lamentations of the Flame Princess sells a hodgepodge of stuff, but it all more or less works with their core rules. They have an eclectic mix of stuff that probably doesn't even make sense when all mixed together. Goodman Games makes DCC RPG, and again, they seem to have made an RPG just to sell their adventure modules. I suspect those sorts of books are high margin as well. (32 page softcover adventures for $10.)
posted by chunking express at 3:52 PM on July 29 [2 favorites]


The thing, graymouser, is that selling just the rules for a roleplaying game cannot support the kind of profit Hasbro expects out of it. The market rapidly reaches saturation, at which point you're just selling to late-comers and people aging into the hobby -- needs which can just as readily be met by people exiting the hobby selling their old material. The thing is that rules do not go obsolete. This is a good thing; they don't require players to upgrade their Monopoly sets every five years, do they? Once people know how to play a game with the complexity of D&D, they aren't going to want to be told to learn all that all over again after six short years.

Adventures and settings are nice supplements to that, but if the player has to buy something more just to continue to play, he's going to be understandably annoyed. This is why 4E tactic of selling the player's handbook pretending they were leaving out core classes, then selling another one with some of those included, then another book with the rest, pissed people off. People saw that for what it was, and refused to submit with disinterested mooing to being so milked.

Some splatbooks might work out well, if they can extend the game in interesting ways, but by their nature I think they'd have to be represented to the players, not just as optional things, but like separate games to themselves building off the original. Things like the Epic Level Handbook and D20 Modern. Settings seem like they might be making a comeback (like five are mentioned on the first couple of pages of the Basic Rules, so it's definitely in the air over there) so that might work too. Beyond that, some degree of ingenuity is required. Maybe, taking another cue from Monopoly, inventive licensing?

LEGO Dungeons & Dragons, anyone?
posted by JHarris at 4:09 PM on July 29


LEGO Dungeons & Dragons, anyone?

Funny you should mention that . . .
posted by KingEdRa at 6:23 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]


Lorraine Williams was exactly the villain she is made out to be. Read Ryan Dancey's account of what he found out when he took over TSR after she was forced to sell it to WotC to settle its massive outstanding debts.

Ryan Dancey is a grain of salt guy. He's a great self-promoter, but by the same token he's a great self-promoter. It takes a certain chutzpah to call yourself the Steve Jobs of MMO Marketing.

He's also the guy who, while running for the GAMA Board of Directors, thought it was copacetic to read the email archives of the current Board for political advantage. (Truly is it said that the smallest stakes generate the biggest drama.) He claims it was justified by circumstance.

So -- is he wrong about the state of TSR? I don't know, but it's certainly an account that makes him look like a hero, so I take that with a grain of salt. Great read either way. Probably good to remember that Gary Gygax is the person who decided to buy the needlepoint distributor, as per Jon Peterson's article, before we start deciding Lorraine Williams ruined TSR.
posted by Bryant at 6:35 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]


a branch of my family lived in Lake Geneva. My uncle taught Gygax's kids. He said they were pretty much crazy.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:29 PM on July 29


One of the things Williams got wrong was the totally over the top crack down on fan materials generated in net projects

Sebmojo: "AD&D was a bloated, disorganised convolution of Basic, burdened with layer upon layer of pointless cruft"

That was the great thing about Advanced; you only used 50% of the book rules mixed with 20% house rules.

mobunited: " The game probably isn't suited for the type of business Hasbro would like to do. "

DnD just doesn't make enough money.
posted by Mitheral at 10:50 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]


I think the real key to improving RPGs is the visionary design enhancement of integrating needlework into a fantasy campaign setting.
posted by Metro Gnome at 12:46 AM on July 30


A large part of the decline of AD&D and role-playing games sales in the late 80s and early-mid-late 90s comes down to one very simple thing: the fact the market-leading game was called 'Advanced Dungeons & Dragons'. Its title declared that it was the advanced version, the expert one, for those who already knew what they were doing.

TSR's decision to downplay Basic D&D to the extent that it was almost invisible in the market must have put off thousands of potential purchasers who didn't want to start in on a hobby with the pro version, particularly when the pro version required three large hardback books with over 500 pages of complex rules.

Combined with the fact that every single D&D/AD&D introductory set that TSR produced post-redbox was horrible, and there's your recipe for a declining market right there.

I had a couple of interactions with Lorraine Williams at Gen Con in the mid 90s. I couldn't work out why she was running the company, and I think by that stage she couldn't either.
posted by Hogshead at 2:34 AM on July 30 [2 favorites]


TSR's decision to downplay Basic D&D to the extent that it was almost invisible in the market must have put off thousands of potential purchasers

Anecdotal, to be sure, but Basic was got me into D&D, because it was (IIRC) cheap and done-in-one in the red box.

Tore through it, and by the time we were "Experts" our house system was a weird mish-mash of AD&D and UA.

I expect you have a better idea of the business side than I, but that just doesn't ring true too me.

(Of course I found out what D&D was from ET and spent years trying to find this awesome game during the Satan Years, so what do I know?).
posted by Mezentian at 4:18 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]


AD&D was generally promoted over Basic, but where I grew up, it was just as easy (if not easier) to get the Red Box or Rules Cyclopedia. Frustration would only sink in when you realized that almost all of the supplemental material was for AD&D.

That said, much of the latter-day Basic material was actually pretty excellent. Champions of Mystara and the Poor Wizard's Almanac series were both pretty dang awesome.

Basic D&D itself was a perfectly good system, too.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:39 AM on July 30 [3 favorites]


That was the great thing about Advanced; you only used 50% of the book rules mixed with 20% house rules.

Absolutely. AD&D was good at not only defining some reasonable mechanics for most situations and at the same time gave you a pattern and frame of reference you could use to follow the same logic when events become very complex and you had to create logical probabilities on the fly. It was like a salad bar - take what you need, leave the rest. However, as the expansion books exploded and they tried to define more and more subgroups, abilities, and professions, things could quickly turn that easy to manage salad bar into some sort of vast buffet the size of a warehouse and designed like an nightmarish Ikea labyrinth, with the potential for lengthy debate on exactly the best way to finally get to eat at every turn.

We kept with the salad bar mentality as much as we could, but it did make it hard to integrate just the good stuff we found without bringing in all the stuff we didn't care for as much.

Some have said that some of that was addressed in 3rd edition and the D20 system, but by then we had been playing 1st and 2nd editions so long and we had all left for different colleges, we never bothered with it.
posted by chambers at 9:36 AM on July 30


The D&D/AD&D divide existed, IIRC to screw Dave Arneson out of royalties for the market leading version of the game. He got royalties for the former, but not the latter, which is why box set/Cyclopedia D&D was never well supported except by accident (a la the GAZ series, which was amazing).

I don't buy the argument that AD&D1 and 2 lasted longer due to mid-line reboots, because for the most part, fans considered the key supplements referenced as non-essential, and even TSR provided little support for them. TSR did however maintain the line with core rules supplements after a hiatus on both occasions, because every few years somebody thinks they're really smart for avoiding diminishing returns from supplements, tries to sell the game without them, fails, and crawls back. 1e did this until Unearthed Arcana. 2e did this after releasing Tome of Magic and the hardcover Realms book.

3e was the most spectacular example, where mouthpieces for WotC talked about a "supplement treadmill" as if it was a revelation, made big noises about not bothering except with the little floppy brown books, and then quietly got back into the business a year later. By the end of 3.5, they were pumping out books like Dragon Magic because market research indicated the words "dragon" and "magic" were associated with good sales. 3e pioneered the tactic of core book sequels to try to increase product lifespan, and 4e carried it on.

I'm currently running 2e with the 4e action system and a chuck of house rules. This is a sequel to the 1e game I ran as an experiment, starting with using every rule as written (RAW). *That* was interesting. AD&D1 RAW is a totally different game--grittier, highly concerned with parley and surprisingly sophisticated social mechanics, gritty and tactical--and also time consuming. It comes from the mentality of the wargaming era, where looking up and discussing a rule was considered part of the fun play process, and not a barrier to getting things done. I discussed this with Ed Greenwood a ways back and he described how he was impatient by the standards of older wargamers, but now he was the slow old guy, as younger players want a quicker turnover. These are simply different ways of relating to the rules. My 2e experiment is starting with house rules right away and emphasizing plot arcs, big fantasy and the customization explicitly discussed in that era.

What I find especially interesting, however, is that 2e was pretty responsive to player preferences of the time. Most retro-reboots of AD&D1 are actually more like 2e, because they omit the rules that most players did. The fact that this leads to a radically different game is largely invisible to players who never tackled 1e RAW to see that, for example, weapon vs. AC makes weapon selection more interesting (even the polearms!) and that weapon priority for initiative and attacks make ranged weapons qualitatively different--and don't get me started on encounter reactions and NPC relations, where following the rules turns Charisma from the classic dump stat to the most powerful ability score in the game. Plus, taken together, these rules are remarkably coherent, delivering the experience the writing and art promise. Gygax was really no fool.

Now I do this stuff because I occasionally get paid to do RPG design. I run these experiments to increase my knowledge base while keeping my game table fresh. I'd suggest trying RAW play for a one shot at least to see for yourself.
posted by mobunited at 12:43 PM on July 30 [3 favorites]


There's a great Actual Play recap of a 1e RAW game that my friend Brad ran back in the day. As mobunited says, it's a good experience.
posted by Bryant at 2:23 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]


The D&D/AD&D divide existed, IIRC to screw Dave Arneson out of royalties for the market leading version of the game. He got royalties for the former, but not the latter, which is why box set/Cyclopedia D&D was never well supported except by accident (a la the GAZ series, which was amazing).

That's always been the working theory; the exact details were never made public and both Dave and Gary went to their graves without revealing all of the inside details of what happened between them in the late 1970s.

But it's worth noting that the "Basic Set" boxes (an illustrated guide is available here) were the best-selling RPG products of all time, and only the 3e Player's Handbook even gave it any competition at all. Millions of Basic Sets were sold over 1982-1983; the 2001 release of the 3e PHB was the only other time things came close. So ... if Dave was only getting a cut of one product, at least it was the one that was a megahit.
posted by graymouser at 3:41 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]


The fact that this leads to a radically different game is largely invisible to players who never tackled 1e RAW to see that, for example, weapon vs. AC makes weapon selection more interesting (even the polearms!) and that weapon priority for initiative and attacks make ranged weapons qualitatively different--and don't get me started on encounter reactions and NPC relations, where following the rules turns Charisma from the classic dump stat to the most powerful ability score in the game.

Weapons vs AC was 80% of a usable and interesting system, and it baffles me why Gygax didn't take it the last 20%, but it's of a piece with all his other design.

Rolemaster did it right; even today that's a sublimely simple, powerful and effective skills and combat engine, though the character creation doesn't stand up very well.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:55 PM on July 30


Rolemaster did it right; even today that's a sublimely simple, powerful and effective skills and combat engine, though the character creation doesn't stand up very well.

But so many tables.
So many.
posted by Mezentian at 6:08 AM on August 1


I played Rolemaster once, we spent two sessions building characters. The campaign only lasted three sessions total.
posted by tavella at 9:57 AM on August 1


As someone who could only infrequently round up a gaming group, I really appreciated the self-contained game that was Traveller's character creation. The fact that your character could die while you were rolling them up was a stroke of deranged genius.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:17 AM on August 1 [5 favorites]


The fact that your character could die while you were rolling them up was a stroke of deranged genius.

Or, as we called it, the 1970s.
posted by Mezentian at 8:43 AM on August 2 [1 favorite]


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