Book Review: Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons

Previously I have read and reviewed Playing at the World, the book about how Dungeons & Dragons came to be. Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, is one of two follow up-books by Jon Peterson essentially about how Roleplaying Games went out of the hands of Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson. In the case of Game Wizards, it’s about how Gary & Dave lost their control over the game, through hubris and arrogance.

Book cover of Game Wizards

Playing at the World made the case that both Gary & Dave had equal or semi-equal contributions to D&D, with Dave Arneson coming up with a lot of the conceptual ideas, while Gary came up with Chainmail and edited and rewrote Dave’s notes into a game where someone could pick it up and (theoretically) just play it, without having to sit in on a session or two of Dave’s Blackmoor campaign and be trained in the system that way. Neither one is the villain. Well, Game Wizards also makes the case pretty clear that there aren’t exactly any good guys either.

On the one hand, Dave Arneson has tremendous difficulty writing the rules material that he’s committed to writing for TSR – not just for D&D either, but various miniatures wargaming rules, appendices, and expansions for rules he’s already written, all either take forever to come out, don’t come out at all, or require a collaborator to do a few passes on it to something that’s actually useful for people. Even when freed from TSR and the additional responsibilities that everyone else in the company had to share – working the mailroom, at the Dungeon Hobby Shop, and so on – promised material still seemed to take a glacial pace to reach publication, which aggravated issues regarding things like his own competitor to Dungeons & Dragons – which came out well after AD&D and Runequest had been published. I started reading Game Wizards around the time that the letter that Dave had written to Peter Atkinson of Wizards of the Coast asking to be made lead designer on D&D 3rd Edition came out – and going from the descriptions of Dave’s material in the 70s, the incomprehensibility of Dave’s letter in the late 90s cannot be laid at the feet of age.

On the other, while Gary was undoubtedly able to put out roleplaying material, he was less willing to get involved in the company’s operations, handing off much of the operations to the Blumes. Further, Gary was also perfectly willing to spend tremendous amounts of time and energy slagging on almost everyone else in the game industry that wasn’t TSR – Avalon Hill, Chaosium, Flying Buffalo, and GAMA as a whole. This, consequently, helped at the time to build up what would become the Arnesonian Myth that Dave Arneson did all the work for D&D and Gary Gygax did nothing because Editing is no work at all – because when Gary appears to be a self-aggrandizing blowhard, most of whose most recent work has also been done in collaboration with others (like co-authors on some of the adventures), or are outright re-writes like Mentzer & Holmes Basic Sets – it’s easy to fall into the “what have you done to me lately” trap. This in turn basically lead to Arneson buying into his own hype and leading to demands for royalties in lawsuits that are greater than what TSR is taking in.

Then we have the Blumes. They are oft blamed for setting in motion the chain of events that lead to Lorraine Williams taking control of TSR from Gary Gygax, and they certainly aren’t blameless. I do get a sense from the book of the faults of the Blumes are less due to malicious incompetence, and more due to just regular incompetence. They’re buying a needlepoint company because diversifying your holdings is what companies are supposed to do, right? Plus the game industry is a much smaller part of the “hobbyist” industry, right? Further, their infamous self-dealing is also made clear to be something that Gary was just as guilty of.

In all, if you want to know the full story of TSR, Dungeons & Dragons, and Gygax & Arneson, you absolutely need to read this book. Even if you thought Playing at the World was dreadfully dry, Game Wizards is quite the opposite.

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