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Game Wizards

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Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons is the newest book in the Game Histories series, this volume written by Jon Peterson. Due out 12th Oct 2021 from MIT Press, it's 400 pages and will be available in paperback and ebook formats. 

This is a very well written book assembled from extant notes, legal documents, eyewitness accounts, and recollections about the rise, fall, rise, and pitched battles involved in the emergence and control of TSR and Dungeons & Dragons. I was working in a gaming & hobby shop in the late 70s and early 80s and I well remember our regular gaming group geeking out over the newest editions and modules from TSR. Our regular members were mostly tabletop wargamers, but the balance soon shifted as more and more of our members became more interested in D&D and later on, Warhammer. 

There wasn't much behind-the-scenes information on display (this was pre-internet, and almost pre-BBS). Several members of my core group were very active in fandom at the time on a large scale (worldcon, etc), and even at that level, news was slow to be disseminated. This book answered quite a number of question from those days and I was fascinated to learn what went on outside the public purview. 

This is a semi-scholarly book and the author writes authoritatively. Readers who are not especially fascinated by the subject matter might well find the style academic and dry. I found the writing precise and engaging. I also liked reading the chapter notes and readers who are interested in the minutiae will find many hours of further reading and reference hunting contained in the notes and sources mentioned throughout the text.

Four stars. Fascinating deep dive in early geekdom and the fallout from the clash of the titans which fractured D&D. 

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.
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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher MIT Press for an advanced copy of this business profile book. 

Jon Peterson has written the most comprehensive book on the myriad beginnings of one of my favorite teenage pastimes, in Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons. At the time I knew nothing of the controversial origins of my favorite role playing game, nor the attitudes and feuds that ranged between some creators, players and others in the industry. What I knew of TSR was from Dragon Magazine and maybe some stories, that frankly I didn't really pay attention to at my hobby shop. I just knew I loved the game and spent a ton of my allowance buying books and modules, back in the early 80's. I even have the tiny electronic game which I received at Christmas, which at the time was awesome, but soon lost its luster. 

Mr. Peterson proves you should never meet your heroes. No one in this book, at least the major players comes out well. Egos got in the way, attitudes made it hard for people to get along, and money, money money changed everything. Mr. Peterson covers all this, the financials, the poor decisions, the sheer growth of Dungeons & Dragons that took everyone, including its creators by surprise.

The book is well written and extremely sourced for its information. Sometimes this can get a tad much, but the book never bogs down. Reading made me maudlin for those simple days of dice-slinging and making adventures up. Though in reading of the cast of creators and business types does leave a slight sour taste in the mouth. As I age it is amazing that things I loved and continue to enjoy, comics, movies role playing games all share the fact that creators and supporters all seem to be cheated and betrayed or worse the creators stop caring. 
An enjoyable book for gamers who like to know the history of role playing, and for those who enjoy business profiles of companies that fail. A fascinating, yet depressing read.
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I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in 1990, and for as long as I can remember, I was aware of the controversy over its dual authorship. I can't remember how I picked this up, but judging from the contemporary sources Jon Peterson cites in his new book, the conflict over who deserves credit for creating D&D has been in the gamer zeitgeist pretty much since its inception.

In Peterson's first history of D&D, the thorough, revelatory (and, yes, sometimes exhausting :P) Playing At The World, he elided this conflict. It seemed like a smart move. Untangling truth from that knot would have been impossible. Everyone involved was too old, too bitter, too steeped in their own self-importance, too dead, or too reluctant to speak up to be a reliable source. Who could parse out what likely happened from decades of hearsay?

Peterson seems to have done it.

Focusing again on primary source documents and aided by court and financial records, Peterson has done his best to present an unbiased investigation into who did what, who owned what, and how they fought over it. No one comes off a saint in this story, but few come off as overtly villainous. In taking sides over the years, fans have allied themselves with the purity of Gary Gygax's vision or Dave Arneson's underdog status, or against the evil corporate shenanigans of Lorraine Williams, then head of TSR. But as it turns out, we didn't really know what we were talking about. People are petty and business is hard.

It bears mentioning that if you've read Peterson's 2014 article "The Ambush At Sheridan Springs" or Playing At The World, the introductory chapters of this book may feel redundant. After that initial hurdle however, Game Wizards focuses on new material and analysis-- albeit material that is sometimes dry or extremely dense. I assume the stock option stuff all makes sense, but I found the familial relations involved in this saga nigh impenetrable.

.There are a few missteps when Peterson deviates from his main topic-- rehashing the Satanic Panic adds nothing to the conflicts at hand-- but otherwise he's authored another invaluable work of actual scholarship to the hobby. And since he's seemingly done the impossible here, I have only one other impossible request. Where is my 1,000 page history about the heyday of AD&D 2nd Edition campaign settings?!? (These books keep ending right before my favorite part of the hobby, lol.)

Eagerly awaiting Jon Peterson's response, kthx.
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Roll 3d12 to determine whether you prefer a business school case study on the dissolution of a partnership that left its most notable creator on the outside looking in or an exploration on what happens when creators squabble. 

A look into the partnership and very public and known breakdown of Gygax and Anderson, this is great for people who want to see how things fell apart, less so how they were created. Don't go into this for a history on how D&D was developed. And expect more than a little legalize along the way.
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Very much enjoyed this read, as it not only brought back fond memories, but provided a fun history lesson of the gaming franchise as well.
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"Weaponized rhetoric, which was originally forged during the battle for Dungeons & Dragons in the first decade of its existence, lays strewn throughout the historical record like unexploded ordinance."

I just checked my watch, dear reader, and ah! Yes, it is old fart o'clock. So let me tell you about teenage me falling in love with Dungeons & Dragons (the ol' red Basic set), eventually ending up as a chronic player of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. God, how I loved that game. Then we (as in: me and my friends) grew older, we all moved to different cities and that basically put a stop to my tabletop gaming.

Why am I telling you all of this? Just to say, this was in the early to mid 90s, and even then we all had heard/read the stories about Gary Gygax and Dave Anderson (the creators of Dungeons & Dragons) hating eachothers guts! Legendary tales of petty fighting and lawsuits! The stuff this book is made of.

Jon Peterson, who you might know from his rather large tome "Playing at the World", a comprehensive history of gaming, has written this almost forensic account of the legal battles between Gygax and Anderson.

And here is your first warning: although this book is in some ways fun, it is also a book about legal stuff, which you might find harder to swallow. Lots of numbers, lots of citing of rules. It never gets overwhelming, but it can be rather.. dry.

That said, there are plenty of delightful anecdotes about grumpy pettiness, to keep diligently reading - here's one regarding a gaming conference giving plaques to publishers, but not to designers, which basically made Dave Arnerson's head rotate Exorcist-style:

"Representatives of TSR happily collected plaques for these honors— but Dave Arneson beat TSR to the podium to claim the “All Time Best Role Playing Rules” plaque for himself. At the time, no one wanted to make a scene, but shortly after Origins, Arneson was asked to return the plaque to the Metro Detroit Gamers so that it could be given to TSR, who had lodged a complaint. As Arneson would explain, “I was informed that traditionally all awards were given to the company that published the winning game, orset of rules, and not the author, or designer.” Arneson flatly refused to return the award— instead, he demanded that he be given the plaques for the other two H. G. Wells Awards bestowed on D&D. He widely circulated a letter detailing his reasoning, comparing the situation to “Bantam Books receiving the awards for J. R. R. Tolkien’sworks or 20th Century Fox, Star Wars’s Oscars.”

What quickly becomes clear is that Gygax was a bit of a showboat, someone who liked the fame and the money, and liked being a Personality. Anderson on the other hand was permanently pissed off and feeling he never got the recognition he deserved, eventhough he actually produced precious little work.

For me the most interesting (and fun, dare I say) part of the book is how TSR (the company Gygax set up, that produced the game) grew so large and bloated in the mid 80s, that it basically imploded under its own mismanaged weight. This part is a story of mismanagement and nepotism, and it is quite thrilling to read.

Throughout the book plenty of illustrations are sprinkled, some are quite fun: see the portraits of Gygax and Arneson, or a map of TSR locations presented in the style as one of the maps from the games. There are photos of the people involved, and many a reproduction of legal documents.

Your second warning is finally here: this is not a history of the development and the many iterations of D&D. You'd better find a copy of Peterson's other book, or I direct you to Shannon Applecline's excellent series of books called Designers & Dragons.

BUT.. if you are interested in knowing a bit more about the gnarly personalities behind your favourite games, and you accept that a book about legal battles will contain some legal dryness, and you'd like a clear overview how TSR collapsed.. this is the book for you.

3.5 stars
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I first became aware of Jon Peterson* through references in Die interviews to his Playing At The World, a general history of RPGs and wargames which I've still yet to read. This, on the other hand, popped up on Netgalley so I thought I might as well. It zooms in on one strand of the previous book's big picture, the contested history of Dungeons & Dragons, and the rise and fall of its publisher TSR. As such, it's inevitably aimed at a niche within a niche; roleplaying, and even D&D specifically, may be more popular than ever before, but while an interest in that might be a necessary condition for reading this, I'm not sure it's a sufficient one. There's a certain amount of hand-holding to get the reader through some of the business with stock options and office politics on which the story turns, but again, that's going to winnow the audience further. Fundamentally, though, I suspect you need to be at least a bit of a grognard** to care about the history of a defunct games publisher, and in particular about the collaboration-turned-rivalry of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. Your classic Severed Alliance model, in other words, except imagine it as taking place in a world with the added stakes of the Smiths being the first ever indie band, set against the faint bathos of indie only tentatively becoming cool 30 years later.

As is usually the way in a dispute over rights, both Gygax and Arneson had their partisans, but what really comes across here is the degree to which a) D&D could never have happened without both of them and b) they were both absolute nightmares. Arneson could clearly run a table (and yes, it is entirely deliberate that I'm posting this exactly half a century since he first did just that), but every time he attempts to codify that as something other people could use, it sounds a lot like Homer Simpson's tax return. One of the most frustrating moments in the book comes when Peterson talks about the manuscript of Arneson's long-promised Blackmoor campaign finally being battered into shape by Tim Kask – "Decades later, he still seems traumatized by it", and as an editor myself I would love to know more of the gory details there. Equally, Gygax can codify, ramify, but that without the kernel is nothing. Yet once they fall out, each is happy to suggest the other deserves no credit whatsoever. Add in that both of them come across as very much the old-school, barely socialised flavour of nerd, the sort who'd say 'stout yeoman of the bar' while ordering a drink and think this absolutely brilliant, and as often as not I just wanted them both sent to their rooms to think about what they'd done.

Still, it is interesting to be reminded how much that very nerd stereotype was shaped by D&D. When its precursor Chainmail introduced fantasy elements to wargaming, this was regarded as an outlandish and suspect move by a hobby which at that point was all about historical re-enactment. And if it turned out there was a small audience, well, that still only made D&D, as per one early rights deal and a chapter title here, a $300 idea. Even that being a comparatively high number; at one point a licensing deal is made for miniatures based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars stories, but nobody even bothered to consider money from the attendant rules, seen as pretty much promotional items – "They were one step up from packaging."

Equally, other people may have known, but I certainly didn't, that despite the Satanic panic which would do so much in bringing the game to prominence, both Arneson and Gygax were devoutly religious, the latter being a Jehovah's Witness. Which, alongside family, and work, was one of the reasons he mentioned in his many early attempts to step back from his hobby interests, worried they were taking too much of his time. Imagine if he'd ever been able to stick to that! But even on this tiny local scale, he was that bit too addicted to being king of the scene, just as Arneson was a little too fond of playing the malcontent. It's a classic example of fame not sending people wrong as such, just allowing them a far bigger platform on which to demonstrate everything they already were. In these early days, there are definitely times when Game Wizards felt like it was giving a little more detail than I wanted on the editions and allocations of their earlier work together, but I can hardly complain about that given the topic, and it does lay groundwork for the ensuing rupture. Before long we're into a fascinating tangle of geek pettiness (they name villains after each other in their scenarios!) and intellectual property law, which at one stage involves two descriptions of an owlbear being presented as legal evidence, something that couldn't help reminding me of South Park's Chewbacca defence. All of this turning on the fact that technically you can't copyright an idea, so what counts as the "set of game rules or game" from the 1975 royalty agreement? Just the original book, or supplements and revisions? Is Advanced Dungeons & Dragons the same game as Dungeons & Dragons? These are vexed questions even if you've played the damn things, never mind if you're some poor bloody legal professional suddenly hip-deep in kobolds. Nor does it help that by all accounts the very first version of the game was fine if you'd seen it played, but lacked explanation of the how and why if you just picked up the book – explaining decades of RPGs feeling obliged to explain that somewhat awkwardly in the intro ever since.

It's not all geek-specific stuff, of course. I'm sure some of it would be interesting to people who just like reading business stories, or at least as sure as I can be given people who read business books scare and confuse me. Like the way the company expands too fast, in too many directions, suddenly getting involved in everything from needlework to marine salvage, and most ruinously Hollywood. At one point the Dragonlands West outpost is costing $120,000 just for rent, never mind the lavish parties, while the firm's core is cutting employees. All this in pursuit of a film for which Gygax has such grand ambitions – complaining about what let-downs the animated LotR and Milius' Conan were, insisting that a D&D film should instead be fit to sit alongside Raiders or Star Wars. Which is even funnier if you've ever seen Jeremy Irons hamming his way through the one that eventually limped out many years later***. Still, they did have James Goldman of the incomparable Lion In Winter on board for a while, so I would love to get a copy from a world where that panned out. 

Even what they did accomplish, though, however briefly, is quite something (one tragic sidenote in this is early partner Don Kaye, dead of a heart attack at 36, never living to see what TSR would become). Some of what goes wrong is absolutely elementary stuff, like Gygax' marriage breaking up over an affair with a secretary; the nepotism; or the employees cheated over stock options – just basic shabbiness which might tempt a fast-growing business in any sector. As also the way that Arneson, the ousted co-founder, is making more on his royalties than anyone else bar Gygax is making from the product, but still feels cheated; Gygax, meanwhile, is equally ungracious in victory, getting pissy about teenagers' fanzines and generally acting like the whole hobby only exists on his sufferance. The fall, though, is less down to the infamous lost teen in the steam tunnels (he wasn't), or any of the tendentious suicide cult scare stories, which served mainly to get TSR the Random House hook-up that really takes it overground, even if they did also oblige a couple of rewrites and redesigns around the edges. Nope: D&D's apparently unstoppable rise is halted less by god-botherers than the arrival of another revolutionary game, Trivial Pursuit - among whose many wrong answers was ascribing the creation of D&D to Gygax solo.

While all of this is going on, you'd think it would become easier to sympathise with Arneson when he does stuff like grab an industry award for D&D before TSR's representatives could get to the stage. Subsequent clarifications by the awarding body point out that a game is the work of many, so the award should go to the corporation which put it out - but equally, could you not say that of film awards? Which don't work that way. A certain creator rights muscle starts twitching on his behalf...but then a couple of years later, he's happy to accept a plaque for a board game his Adventure Games outfit had released, designed by a freelancer, without feeling a commensurate need to step aside and let any creator who isn't him have their due share of the glory. His post-D&D efforts in general sound like they were a right mess, especially the misbegotten Adventures In Fantasy, of which one early review said "The price is high, the graphics are terrible, the rules are worse, and many of the systems are overly complicated." And such small portions! At first I was put in mind of the career of another geek god whose own work I don't much rate, Jack Kirby, who would himself turn out some right nonsense after his similar break with company man Stan Lee. But say what you like about the Eternals or the New Gods, and I frequently do, at least Kirby kept plugging away, putting stuff out there, unlike Arneson's decades of blown deadlines and games that never quite cohered. Maybe a better comparison would be Siegel and Shuster's attempts to recapture the magic after they'd lost the rights to Superman, not least the abortive, appalling Funnyman.

I feel like I'm going in circles a little here, but part of that is trying to capture the very particular and peculiar thing this book is, something that a very small number of potential readers will absolutely lap up but most people probably shouldn't go anywhere near. What makes it stranger still is that D&D was never even really my game – and yet somehow, as the wellspring of the whole RPG field, I have a sort of osmotic connection to it nonetheless (and perhaps into the bargain feel some astrological significance to having been born the one year GenCon took place at the Playboy Club). There are other games that form part of this story of which I have literally never heard, like the long-delayed SF RPG Star Frontiers – and, though it missed its moment and came into a market already claimed by the likes of Traveller, this was a game which did well enough to be worth suing over in its own right. Despite all of which, there's a Venn of things that interest me in whose intersection this mess of flawed humans and ugly capitalism underpinning a whole new field of fantasy finds a definite place. And as someone who couldn't even currently lay hands on the fanzines and geek ephemera from my own past, I'm awed at the thoroughness with which Peterson has been able to excavate and reconstruct a decade plus of an entire scene.

Although, if I have successfully convinced you that this isn't the read for you, I can at least leave you with some comedy names. Several members of the Kuntz family play parts in TSR's early days, and there's also spokesman Dieter Sturm, whose splendidly improbable moniker may go some way to explaining the sort of 'European' names deemed acceptable for inhabitants of Ravenloft.

*If you were called that, wouldn't you be very wary of getting your RDA of vitamins &c, in case you suddenly started extruding weird screeds about lobsters and chaos?
**A term which Game Wizards does use once without glossing, something that probably says a fair amount about the likely audience. Equally – it is only used that once, in a quote, so you could probably get away without knowing it...
***Although I suppose there have been more Star Wars films since Gygax' promise, and the D&D film is ahead of 4/9 of the Skywalker Saga, so looked at that way...
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This is the story of how Dungeons & Dragons was born and became the game that we all know. It talks about all the problems it had in the first period of its existence, like the time it started being talked about as a satanic game and the whole great war between the two co-creators of the game: Arneson and Gygax.

More of a story about D&D, however, it seems a story about Gygax when was working for the game as the book focuses mostly on the period when he was directly involved in the status of the game. The parts of story about the first edition and the Advanced one are covered thoroughly and they are full of meticulous detail about the production story of these two versions, while the third and the fifth edition are barely hinted.
The fourth isn’t even mentioned despite the huge flop it was. 

There are a lot of pictures and drawings that, with the witty humorism of the author, will transform a simple report of the events into a enjoyable book.

It doesn’t talk at all about the technicality of the game or of the rules system, so, if you are looking for a book that talks about the evolution of the various mechanics between the various editions, this isn’t the book for you. This is the story of the economical and social journey that Dungeons & Dragons had to do over the years; so, if you are interested in knowing how D&D was able to have the huge impact it had and have in the world of fantasy roleplay and videogames this is what you need to read.
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As someone who is newer to Dungeons and Dragons as well as a lover on non fiction books, I was excited to receive a review copy of Game Wizards by Jon Peterson. 

While I enjoyed the photos throughout the book, I could not keep reading. I just found the writing so dry. 

I think some people might like this book, but it was just not entertaining enough to keep me reading. 

I received an eARC from MIT Press through NetGalley. All opinions are 100% my own.
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