D&D Nostalgia

This post has nothing to do with anything I am working on. I am currently changing my career path from landscape architecture to writing code for a living, and so have been thinking about the sweep of my life that brought me to this point. This is a bit like untangling a large knot of yarn composed of an unknown number of threads.

Perhaps because I’ve been self-reflective, I recently fell down a rat-hole on the internet. You can find this rat-hole by searching out D&D, Gygax and TSR on Google. Today I read up on the history of TSR, how Gary Gygax was ousted from the company. I’ve got the impression that the first three rewrites of D&D had as much to do with greed as developing the hobby.

Here’s my paraphrasing of hearsay about D&D and TSR history:

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, aka 1st edition, was written by Gygax and published by TSR, the profits of which were denied Arneson, the original game’s co-creator. I believe this resulted in some bad blood and a lawsuit. After TSR passed through its successful “golden years” publishing 1st edition D&D, TSR ran into financial trouble. Gygax was working on the D&D cartoon in Hollywood. In response to the financial troubles, Gygax rushed back to sort things out. This included (1) generating more cash flow by publishing a couple game books, (2) bringing on Lorraine Williams to help manage the company, and (3) removing the Blumes from the board. The Blumes were of course angry about the whole thing despite being responsible for TSR’s woes, and retaliated by selling all their shares to Williams1. Gygax tried to fight this with a lawsuit, but ultimately lost the lawsuit, control of the company, and his job. Once Gygax was gone, work on another edition (2nd edition) of the rules was produced, generating a new revenue stream for the company. Following this TSR proceeds into its waning years producing substandard products. A decade later in result to the chain of bad decisions made by Lorraine Williams which incidentally included pushing TSR to pay her family trust for the rights to publish Buck Rogers games, the company finds itself without enough money to pay bills or publish more product. Wizards of the Coast stepped forward and bought TSR. Their plan in order to “save D&D” was to wisely reconnect with D&D’s fan base, redesign the game to respond to this feedback, and publish the new product, 3rd edition. Today D&D is still going strong. Recently a fifth edition of the game was produced, and there are numerous clones of rules systems which resemble 1st edition.

Although I was unaware of these events when they happened, looking back now I believe I see their influence on my own experiences. When 2nd edition came along clumsily replacing what came before, many players didn’t want to adapt, but still wanted to play and tried to bring the old rules in with them whenever they could to a game. This created a bit of resentment between gamers and generated arguments over the “one true way” of gaming. Beyond the minutia of rule differences, differences in play style also arose. The old school gamers preferred more open ended play rooted in the mechanics of the game while newer gamers wanted more narrative coherence and epic story arcs. These differences also arose among game designers at the same time, and became more pronounced in the 90's. In the groups I played with in college there was always a tension that would arise around this which I struggled to manage, and alienated gamers over. Looking back on much of that drama and how the differences split along the old guard and the new, our own conflicts seem to have paralleled the battles in the boardrooms of TSR. Its like their conflict caused ripples in a pond that we all share. Or its like our conflict was an echo of their own. I don’t have the perspective to see all of this of course, but its an interesting thought. It is also not all that far fetched when you consider the current feuds between Story Gamers and Old School Gamers.

Now I feel nostalgic for the old times gaming with friends, and for my childish day dreams and fantasies about imaginary places of my own creation. I’m tempted to crack open the old books again and play with some buddies.

EDIT 2017 march 20:

  1. I only recently read Jon Peterson's retelling of this story: The Ambush at Sheridan Springs How Gary Gygax Lost Control of Dungeons & Dragons. His telling is far better informed than my own.