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Book Details

Title:   Slaying the Dragon
Author:   Ben Riggs
Times Read:   1
Last Read:   03.23.24

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Notes History
Date Read Note
03.23.24 This is a book about the history of TSR, original publisher of Dungeons and Dragons. Bookwise, I thought it was pretty good. A few aspects of Riggs' prose style struck me as overly dramatic and informal, but he spent the majority of his book's pages talking about Lorraine Williams era, that is to say Second Edition era TSR which is what I was most interested in learning about so the entire last half of the book had me really turning those pages. I don't know if any of Jon Peterson's books cover the same era but this one did a decent job I thought.

I would say I wish it were twice as long and covered 3rd, 4th, and the birth of 5th edition along with WotC's sale to Hasbro as well but in the acknowledgements section he mentions a sequel so maybe that's his plan.

So why was I so interested in Second Edition era? Well I fell into DnD I guess around 1992 or 93 and from then until around 95 or 96 I was pretty into it. That waned as most of my friend group graduated high school a year before me so I was completely out of it by the fall of 96 when I went off to college. So I got into it right during the explosion of world settings and got out right before TSR died. I never played Magic: The Gathering (I was wary of the collectability aspect of the game) but saw it take over so I was only mildly surprised when that company, printing money at that time, was the one to buy TSR, but honestly from my naive teenager perspective I thought it was more like a hostile acquisition or something, just Wizards of the Coast showing how well they were doing by buying the king of the rpg industry. I didn't have any conscious thought about the health of TSR as a company but looking back I think i did feel an innate sense that they must've been doing well because they were putting out SO MUCH STUFF. And it was good stuff too! This was pre- and dawn-of desktop publishing to the interior of their books still looked a little plain with mostly black and white art, but they had so much product and relatively speaking it was high quality! It not only stuck with me as a high water mark of releases but since it was happening when I was most into the scene, I just thought that's what DnD was! Like, of course you'd get a brand new world setting with a lush box set with multiple books and massive fold-out maps and supporting adventures and supplements. Of course each class got it's own 128-page handbook with added sub-classes and all kinds of info. So much so that when I got back into the hobby with Fifth Edition I was like "why are the adventures hard-cover books? Where are the handouts? where are the maps? How do I bring this 300-page hardcover to the table?" When I saw they redid Ravenloft I was like "Do they have all the domains of dread in this one book" (answer: no, they re-did the original Ravenloft adventure, not the Ravenloft campagin setting... although they half-redid the campaign setting later still as one hard-cover book that was like a diet version of what you got in second edition). You look at a bookshelf with all the 5E products on it and it's a row if uniform books, no differentiation between rules, monsters, or adventures. I was definitely used to more goodies in the box. Even the 5E Starter Kit which was a box only came with 2 measly booklets and a set of dice.

Well, as the book goes into satisfying detail about, it turns out that those lavishly-produced box sets were not only unprofitable but also hinged on a poor strategy that became a major factor in the company's demise. It reminded me of my time hanging out at the Alamo Drafthouse when I was new to town. At that time, programmers like Lars and Kier-la literally made their own documentaries to fill programming slots of Music Mondays, Henri cut all the alamo ads and put together video packages for his sing-alongs and dance-alongs, they all published a - what was it, like 64 pages? - 64-page calendar every month. By all measures they were overworked and exploited, but it made for an unbelievable time to be a patron. Same with TSR. Inside the building it was a terrible place to work but still some massive talent put out some truly excellent product during those years. It's hard for me to compare to 1st edition or Original DnD because I didn't play during that time, and it's hard for me to compare to 3rd edition when WotC made a concerted effort to elevate the game because I'd stopped playing by then, but even if both those times were better, I'm here to say that us 2nd edition kids had a ton of fun as well.

So with that context, It was great to hear details about stuff like how Ravenloft came about, how Dark Sun came about, Planescape. Not every setting got its own chapter but this book still had more detail than I've read anywhere else about that time which I greatly appreciate.

The boil it down, TSR management thought they were attracting new customers with each new setting because the settings may appeal to different tastes, like horror people would like Ravenloft, more space-oriented nerds might like SpellJammer... some... sort of person, maybe a theater major who loved 1001 Nights would like Al-Quadim... but in reality each setting didn't bring in new customers but instead cannibalized the existing base. So the same DnD nerds kept playing DnD, but they'd have to choose which setting to invest in and then ignore all the other releases because they didn't apply to the one they chose.

In my experience it was kinda like that, except I do still think it got more money out of us. With my friends what happened was each person would find their niche and get into it. So our main DM Ron ran... not even Forgotten Realms, he ran generic fantasy DnD most weeks, but Bill loved Ravenloft so he'd buy a big fuck-off Ravenloft adventure boxset and spend months prepping it then a few weekends Ron would play instead of DM and Bill would DM Ravenloft for us. I did the same but with Dark Sun because I loved Dark Sun so much. I loved the cover art, I loved the post-apocalyptic dangerous vibe, I loved the psionics. So I'd run that every once in a while, and we'd kind of round-robin like that. Jim was into Cyberpunk, this weird older dude that played with us(?) was into this paramilitary game Twilight 2000, I had another circle that was more into Champions... another group of friends played Ravenloft and Call of Cthulhu exclusively before they discovered Vampire: The Masquerade and went full LARP goth... and when it came out there was another Cyberpunk-ish game called Underground that had an amazingly beautiful core rulebook so I ran that too (being an only child I was definitely spoiled and still have all this shit in storage). So It was both like we were cannibalizing (since Ravenloft was Bill's thing it was pointless for us to buy that material) but we were also still into multiple settings and besides... the amount of stuff TSR was releasing NONE of us - not even Ron who was in college - had enough money to keep up with all of it.

All of which are still treasured memories of youth... anyways, I'm glad this book covered that stuff.

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