Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons by Ben Riggs
Slaying the Dragon is a business history of TSR, focusing on the Lorraine Williams period (1985-1997). During this period, TSR recovered from the excesses of the Gygax/Blume Brothers period, launched the 2nd edition rules, novels line, and attempted pivots and expansions of their IP. However, the sales declined continued until they were purchased by Wizards of the Coast. Ben Riggs chronicles the company’s history, key products, and their strategic mistakes.
The book is laid out in four parts: The Rise and Fall of Gary Gygax, The Williams Era, Slapping a Band-Aid on Failures, and The Preacher’s Son Performs a Resurrection. The second and third parts are the heart of the book and the most successful. The key challenge for TSR during the Williams era was to arrest the downward slide in sales. Williams had prevented the collapse of the company and made it more stable, but revenue continued to drop. Organizing his argument thematically, Riggs covers some missteps (such as TSR West and the attempt to enter comic publishing), his thesis is that these three factors were the cause of the decline:
- Lack of talent management
- Fish-bait Strategy fueling decline in sales
- Random House contract leading to untenable debt
Although TSR found and matured many creative geniuses, TSR had difficulty retaining talent. This was partly due to policies that could not scale rewards to a person’s impact (in the 70s, authors could gain royalties on sales, but this was not an option in the 80s or 90s) and partly due to personnel issues which led to acrimonious departures.
The Fish-bait Strategy hypothesized that new settings would attract new players, similar to how fish are only attracted to specific types of bait. This strategy led to the release of multiple D&D settings such as Al-Qadim, Dark Sun, Planescape, and Birthright. However, rather than attracting new players, these settings came to split the customer base, who would not purchase products for settings they didn’t play. Due to TSR’s policies that hid sales data, the fact that this strategy was not working was hid from middle-management and, year after year, they kept on dividing their market.
Random House was TSR’s key distributor and their channel for selling to the key bookstore market. (TSR had their own channels to the hobby store market, but internally they prized the bookstore market far more.) Riggs discovers a key financial element in TSR’s downfall in their odd contract with Random House. Unlike a traditional distribution contract, TSR was paid in loans from Random House at the beginning of the year based on their shipped product. Because it was based on shipped product and not sold product, TSR was insulated from poor sales, but paid for it in further debt. Across a number of chapters, Riggs covers the implications of this contract and how it warped TSR’s operations. Like many debtors, things could appear fine until the debt was called, at which point TSR had an existential crisis.
For TSR, that existential crisis was solved by being purchased by Wizards of the Coast, which was heavily capitalized by sales of Magic: The Gathering. The last part of the book covers the sale and the early steps Peter Adkinson, WoTC’s CEO, took to heal the business.
The first part of the book is the weakest. This part of the company’s history was covered in far greater depth and analysis in Jon Peterson’s Game Wizards. (Peterson is referenced as a source by Riggs, but not the Game Wizards book itself.) Further, Rigg’s text suffers from some clunky passages such as “What did the bankers think of this company that had an entire hall filled with windup toys, marching and buzzing and glowing, that seemed to serve no discernable purpose? Were company resources invested in this? Was there some wage slave whose only job was to wind the toys and then hide themselves?” (page 25). Since the company did acquire loans, it is unclear if TSR was leading the zeitgest towards more casual companies as typified by start-ups or made the loans in spite of the unprofessional atmosphere.
The book contains a color stills of select pieces of artwork, TSR offices, Gen Cons, and employees. Since the book is organized more thematically than chronologicaly, I think the book would have been better served by a unified timeline. For example, chapter 11’s “The Sage of TSR West”, which covers TSR’s attempt to become an independent comic (book/module) publisher, uses vague dates of “late ’80s and early ’90s” (1989 to 1991 are defendable dates). Given the recurrence of characters from earlier chapters such as “D&D and Living the Riot Life in LA” and how this parallels other attempts at expanding revenue such as the book line, a timeline would help clarify if the various efforts were part of a coherent strategy or a shotgun of tactics.
Methodologically, the book draws heavily on oral histories from many of the participants. (Although the author mentions other sources, like court cases and contracts, they are not “inserted” into the document like in Peterson’s book.) One strength is that differences in recall are noted and the author seems to treat every perception with skepticism. Unfortunately, Lorraine Williams herself refused to be interviewed. As the author notes, since TSR kept sales and operations data from their employees, we still have minimal insight into many of the decisions. The best data we have comes from the due diligence documents from the Wizards sale.