Sunday, September 12, 2021

Game Wizards: My New Book

I have a new book coming out next month called Game Wizards. Unlike my previous books, which are histories of game design, this is an early history of Dungeons & Dragons as a product: of how it came to be a product at all, of the people who made it, of its unlikely success, and of the battles that its success caused. If you've read my "Ambush at Sheridan Springs" article from 2014, this is a book-length expansion of its story. It follows the business journey of D&D, as well its creators, from their hobbyist origins up to Gary Gygax's ouster from TSR in 1985.

I won't sketch much of an outline here of the period Game Wizards covers: most people reading this already know it well enough. The purpose of this work, as with other things I've written, is to furnish enough context to show why things happened the way they did. Game Wizards details:

  • How small the wargame rules "business" was, and the unlikelihood of making a living from it,
  • The impact of Gen Con and its rival conventions on the rise of TSR,
  • How the collaboration between Gygax and Arneson on D&D began,
  • The circumstances of Dave Arneson's departure from TSR, and his subsequent legal challenges,
  • The advantages and disadvantages of the Satanic Panic for TSR and D&D,
  • Just how lucrative D&D was, and how TSR Hobbies nonetheless managed to fatally overextend,
  • How mechanically Gygax lost control of TSR (in more detail than the "Ambush"), and
  • How the protagonists in this story shaped a narrative around these events, both in real time and in hindsight.

As usual, I've grounded this narrative in archival work with correspondence, internal TSR documents, fanzines, media reporting, court filings, and related ephemera. But where I'd usually be leveraging those to show the evolution of games systems, here I'm chasing pay stubs, audits, stock certificates, contracts, business propaganda, and so on. Looking at the story of D&D through this corporate lens reveals causes and effects that simply don't show up otherwise. The story isn't pretty--in fact, in many places it's a total train wreck. But you need to immerse yourself in that drama to see what it all obscures.

Although Game Wizards is kind of long (not like PatW long, mind you), the original manuscript was far longer, and I made a lot of hard decisions winnowing it down into its final form. In the coming weeks, I'll do a few more blog posts about the sources used by this narrative and some of the side quests that got cut, which I'll link to from here:

TSR financials, fiscal 1975-1986

TSR Staffing 1976-1985

Early D&D Development Timeline 1972-1974

Units of Value and the Tactical Studies Rules Partnership

"Game Wizards" the Game

The Evolution of TSR Contracts

Arneson v. Gygax: The Freeman Deposition

[More coming]

Three things Game Wizards does not try to do:

  • Trace a history of ideas and innovations. Really, this is not a history of who invented what. It is, however, a history of how people started arguing over who invented what.
  • Take anyone's side. This book approaches Gygax, Arneson, the Blumes, and Williams as rational actors who all were struggling to make their way in a basically unprecedented business. Missteps of various kinds were made by everyone -- but D&D is still with us, almost fifty years later, so everyone at least succeeded in getting the ball rolling.
  • Settle everything forever. In my opinion, the study of D&D and RPGs is still in its infancy (maybe it's beginning to toddle). This is the most plausible story I could patch together from the data points I've seen. More evidence will come to light, and more work will need to be done.

Three things Game Wizards does try to do:

  • Let people speak for themselves. This is basically a chronological history, with most chapters covering a single year, and I try to let Gygax, Arneson, and everyone else explain themselves in direct contemporary quotations wherever possible. There may be a certain tension between these statements at the time (especially before 1978) and things they said later.
  • Have at least a little bit of fun. This is a dense book, make no mistake. But, it's got this thing where we treat the years like Diplomacy turns, and there are turn results at chapter ends. There are some fun illustrations by my old friend Drew Meger, (who did the PatW illustrations). And check out the Jim Wampler minis on the cover! Okay, I know I'm not fooling anyone, this is a dense book. 
  • Correct some of my previous misapprehensions. The narrative here has a more solid evidentiary foundation for certain historical points than PatW did. It cites sources I would have loved to have seen back then (and includes a few pictures of them as well). 

If it sounds interesting, you can find Game Wizards at the usual places (including for pre-order on Amazon or Barnes & Noble).


  1. I look forward to it! Congratulations.

  2. I am very much looking forward to this Jon.

  3. Congratulations on the #1 best seller in sports journalism! Quite a feat given the paperback version is not even available to purchase yet.

  4. Thank you for making such fun, well-researched & lucid histories of the hobby we love so dearly. Congratulations on your new epic Jon!

  5. Book ordered! Looking forward to reading it

  6. You're too self effacing Jon! We go into these books knowing we're going to get a lot. Even I as a generally casual observer and reader of interviews with people who have been at TSR know that the personality conflicts in place are highly interesting and more than enough to sustain a book.

    Are you going to be adhering almost entirely to contemporaneous records for this again? Obviously there are some flaws with that approach, especially now that you have an expanded cast of characters, not all of whom were interviewed or deposed at the time.

  7. Is already on my wish list. Your last one was excellent; I expect likewise from this one.

    You publish it, I'll buy it.

  8. .....aaand I've got another book in my basket...
    Crossing my fingers for a bestseller in our tiny hobby :)

  9. This is a part of the story I've long wanted to better understand. So glad you did the hard work of putting it together! Can't wait to read it.

  10. Just finished reading it. Excellent book!

  11. Should finish up today! Fantastic and informative!

  12. I'm really enjoying Game Wizards. The focus on the business history as opposed to the evolution of the game itself (contra Playing at the World) is quite interesting, and it covers a lot of ground I've never seen discussed anywhere else. I'm amazed at the contemporary documents yo managed to get your hands on - the "$300 idea" document is a wonderful treat with the benefit of hindsight.

    Any plans for a sequel to cover the 90s meltdown and the WotC takeover?