THE WARDEN’S TALE
Lately, I have been reading notes from Wizards of the Coast people about why TSR died away. I have to admit some of their notes are right on. I also want to say that not everything they claimed is true. Truth doesn’t matter if you are the winners in the end.
—JAMES M. WARD
JIM WARD QUIT TSR in 1996 after decades with the company.
At the time, he was vice president of production, and he resigned because he’d been ordered to fire over twenty employees, among them artists, writers, and game designers. In short, the women and men who made up the company’s sinews, muscles, and bones. Those firings would have taken an axe to the company he loved, and rather than do that, he quit.
That’s just the kind of guy he was.
TSR was the grand old dragon of role-playing game companies. It founded the industry and published the game that dominated the field, Dungeons & Dragons. At its height, it had gross sales of over $40 million. It ran the largest role-playing game convention in North America, Gen Con. At its offices in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, dozens and dozens of genius geeks gathered to create games, novels, and art that flooded game stores and malls across the world. To fans, the company was a fixed piece of geography, a mountain where the dawn rose every morning and where you could watch the stars come out every night. It had always been there, and it always would be.
Yet from such heights, it fell so low that Jim Ward was ordered to fire all of those employees. How had it come to this pitiful state? What cataclysms befell it?
Jim Ward had a story.
* * *
WARD WAS NOT looking to change his life or find a new career when he went to the Lake Geneva News Agency in 1974. He just wanted to buy some books.
While browsing the fantasy and science fiction section, he picked seven books off the shelves before he noticed a bearded and bespectacled gentleman beside him, likewise carrying seven books.
The exact same seven books.
The bespectacled man asked, “Do you really enjoy reading books like that?”
Ward replied, “Why, yes, I do!” and then turned to escape the strange fellow so closely eyeing his book selection.
But the bespectacled man was undeterred. He said, “We play games that are more enjoyable than sword-and-sorcery novels; why not stop by some time and try them out?” In this game, you could play Conan the Barbarian and fight abominable serpentine gods. It was a fantasy novel done one better. Instead of merely seeing these wondrous worlds through the eyes of Frodo or Fafhrd, you could live in them.
Had Ward come to the bookstore an hour later or chosen a few different novels that day in 1974, the next four decades of his life may have been totally different. Because the man whose book selection matched his was Gary Gygax, cocreator of Dungeons & Dragons and cofounder of TSR, the company he’d created to publish the game.
A few weeks later, Ward went over to Gygax’s house and played. Gygax believed Ward waited a few weeks because, “during the interim he was checking up to find out if we were merely eccentric or actually dangerous lunatics.”
What Ward played there was a revelation, unlike anything else at the time. In most war games, you controlled an army or a unit of soldiers. But in this game, you controlled just one person. Only one! And you could choose whether they were a fighter, a wizard, or a thief, or if they took on an even more outrageous role. Since it was a fantasy world, you could be an elf or a dwarf if you wanted. And you had total control over this one person, called a character. If a band of evil knights stood in your way, your character could try sneaking past, fighting them, or talking the knights into letting you go. It was up to you. If you wanted your character to sing “Love Potion No. 9” to distract a cyclops, you could do that too. Now you could fail, and your character could die. After all, if the cyclops didn’t like music, it might try to make toothpicks out of your femurs. But the existence of failure just made every choice more vitally important. This was a burst of total freedom bounded only by the imagination.
Gygax told Ward it was called Dungeons & Dragons.
As the years rolled on, Ward became a regular TSR freelancer, and Gygax’s trusted confidant. Ward read and commented on his work. He designed Metamorphosis Alpha, the first science fiction role-playing game. Modestly, he named the ship in the game after himself, calling it the Warden. In 1980, he was finally hired on at the company full-time.
Though fired in 1984, he was hired back again within eighteen months. The person hired to replace him quit within three months because the workload was so heavy, and Ward’s freelancing duties for the company were so extensive despite not being on the payroll that it was determined it would be cheaper to hire him back. He survived the ouster of Gary Gygax as CEO of the company in 1985 and rose to the position of vice president.
TSR was, for most of its existence, the indispensable gaming company. It had created the entire genre of role-playing and had sales in the millions of dollars supporting a staff of over a hundred people. By the early 1990s, it seemed as central and eternal as the sun.
Meanwhile, in Washington State, a small game company was created called Wizards of the Coast. Like TSR, its first offices were in its owner’s basement. After a few years producing role-playing games and their supplements, Wizards of the Coast published the game that would define their company and, like D&D, create an entire new genre of game: Magic: The Gathering. In Magic, players take on the role of dueling wizards. They gain power, or “mana,” from lands they control and use them to power spells against their opponent.
The game was a stunning success, a virtual license to print money for Wizards of the Coast. What made it one of the most profitable games of all time was its all-new collectible aspect. When you bought the game, you didn’t get all the cards for it. To get all the cards, you had to buy booster packs. And every time you bought a booster pack, you had no idea what cards you were going to get. Furthermore, some cards were rarer than others. Whole boxes might have to be purchased to find some of the rarest cards in the line. Better yet, having these incredibly rare cards did not just net bragging rights. You could actually use the cards in the game, making you a better player. The fusion of collectability and gameplay built Magic into a nigh-addictive phenomenon. Gamers spent and spent and spent on decks, packs, and cards, sending a river of money surging into the coffers of Wizards. The company burst out of its basement offices to become a titan of the gaming industry. It was even bigger than TSR!
According to Ward, TSR felt like oxygen was being pumped out of the room. Sales began to decline. Ward said this new game “was way easier to play than D&D, so people started going towards Magic: The Gathering.” Typically, two to four hours was needed to play a single session of D&D, whereas Magic could be played in under an hour. And all of that money spent on Magic cards was money that wasn’t being spent on D&D products. Every hour spent playing Magic was an hour that gamers weren’t playing D&D.
The winter of 1997 was a season of darkness for the company. It had fired dozens of staff and was missing publication dates. Wizards of the Coast CEO Peter Adkison heard the company was in trouble. Working through an intermediary, he purchased the company. TSR, and Dungeons & Dragons, was now the property of its fiercest competitor.
This tale, as told by Jim Ward, is one of competition, market forces, and capitalism at work.
In 1997, I was a high school senior in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and from the hobby shops and gaming tables I frequented, Ward’s story seemed about right. I heard game store owners talk about how they could buy RPG supplements that might sell over the course of a year, or they could take that money and buy cases of Magic: The Gathering that would fly out the door in a week.
My experience growing up as a nerd was that role-playing games were an outsider hobby played by dorks, dweebs, freak machines, poindexters, and every stripe of pencil-necked geeks. In other words, my tribe. Having been picked last for every game of dodgeball I’d ever been in, it came as no surprise to see the biggest and most important company in role-playing games fall and fail to a younger, sleeker, richer company from the West Coast. It was of a piece with everything else I’d seen of the place reserved for nerds in this world. Unwanted and unloved, it only made sense that even geek hobbies and the companies that supported them were being run down and left like roadkill on the motorway of capitalism.
So from where I stood in 1997, Jim Ward’s tale of TSR’s end seemed true. The company’s failure was a death in single combat. According to the rules of old, it had been felled fairly by the foe.
So when I was assigned to write an article titled “Did You Know that Wizards of the Coast DIDN’T Originally Make Dungeons & Dragons?” for Geek & Sundry, I felt like I knew the exact story I was going to tell about the company’s fall. I’d lived through it and read Shannon Appelcline’s excellent Designers & Dragons, which touched on the topic.
Then I started interviewing TSR alumni.
What they told me shocked me. Turned out, I didn’t know the story at all. One article became three, but even then, there were fascinating and important aspects of the story that had to be left out. Given how kind and generous all my interviewees were with their time, I felt I had to do right by them and get their stories under the bespectacled eye of the nerd public.
Maybe one day it would be a book?
I continued my interviews and research. I took a sabbatical from Geek & Sundry to write. I dropped my regular Sunday gaming group to write. My short book grew longer and larger, gobbling up time and word count, multiplying in size with age, until the damn thing seemed to have taken over my life. From the glint in its eye, it seemed to be gloating about it.
As I wrote and interviewed, I began to receive secrets. Scans of documents from various sources, one of whom insisted on remaining confidential. Court cases, contracts, notes, and prep binders. The story buried for decades in these hidden sources seized me and would not let me go until I had spoken their truths.
TSR’s failure is a tale of misfortune and mistakes kept secret for decades, here given up to the light. It is the story of an unemployed insurance underwriter, an heiress, a preacher’s son, and a game like no other.
Jim Ward’s story is not the whole truth of what happened. Not even half of it.
Copyright © 2022 by Ben Riggs