Friday, August 15, 2014

How Gygax Lost TSR ("Ambush at Sheridan Springs")

So, today being the mid-point of GenCon, and with the release of the new D&D PLAYER'S HANDBOOK being just four days away, I found myself in a nostalgic mood -- curious if Fifth Edition can undo (some of) the damage from Fourth Edition, eager to find out what out of the many different elements that appeared and disappeared and reappeared in playtest variants over the past two years made it into the final mix, hopeful the end result will be closer to the game I loved to play than the versions available in recent years (say, the last decade and a half).

Next week will tell. In the meantime, I went back and read the recent piece, posted on July 28th, by Jon Peterson, author of the extraordinary history of the creation of roleplaying games, PLAYING AT THE WORLD (which I have but have still not yet read, it being a dense 800+pages). Having documented the stages by which the first rpg came about, and the various roles played by Arneson, Gygax, et al, now Peterson is turning his attention to later events -- in the present case, to the sequence which led to Gary Gygax's ouster at TSR, in an article he calls "Ambush at Sheridan Springs"* (201 Sheridan Springs Road being the familiar address of the TSR Building, where I worked for five years between 1991 and 1996, so these events were long past by the time I came on the scene, though I heard about them piecemeal from employees who'd been there at the time).

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Pederson's account is its straightforward, matter-of-fact approach. For example, nowhere in his piece is there a sentence containing the words  'Gygax, cocaine, Hollywood, hot tub business meetings, borrowed blondes'.**  Instead, he presents the facts as he can establish them from the paper trail of stock issues, board meeting notes, and the like. And it turns out that there's a lot of contemporary evidence to build a reconstruction of events upon. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the history of our hobby, and especially of TSR and D&D.

A few caveats, though. Peterson's decision to accept the evidence at face value enables him to write fairly and dispassionately about events that have for too long been presented in he said/they said mode. But there are perils to being too trusting. Thus, Peterson sets the scene in his opening paragraph as saying that at the time (fall 1985) "they" (presumably the r&d staff at TSR) "were putting the finishing touches on his Oriental Adventures." Except that the full extent of Gygax's contribution to O.A. was (a) saying they shd do such a book and (b) putting his name on the cover. Checking the credits inside show that the book was actually written by Zeb Cook, not Gygax. Somewhat more accurately, in the same sentence Peterson notes how Gygax "was the lead on Unearthed Arcana", yet Gygax put his name on both the cover and in the internal credits as if he were the sole author of all the material therein, which was not the case.  I'd also query the description of the D&D cartoon as a "success" -- I'd say that it was a bad product that damaged the reputation of the game for years to come.

The truly amazing thing that emerges from this essay, for which Peterson deserves great praise, is that Gygax had such tunnel vision. He could see the advantages of making a smart move that put him in an advantageous position (exercising his option to buy 700 shares of stock, giving him a controlling majority) but was completely blindsided when his opponent for control of the company made the same counter-move (exercising their option for a similarly large stock purchase), giving them control of the company. It's like two rivals each taking up a dueling pistol, one party firing his, and then him forgetting that the other person still has a loaded gun. Bizarre.

So, highly recommended. It makes me really look forward to more, and once again confirms that however weighty a tome I really do need to knuckle down and read his history of the hobby.  Here's hoping he turns this later material into a second volume tracing the fate of D&D after its early days.

--John R.

**He also deliberately avoids sensationalizing the story -- for example, when asked in the comments if it's true the first Mrs. Gygax contributed her shares to her ex-husband's ouster, his neither-confirm-nor-deny response is tactful and yet speaks volumes.


David Bratman said...

I read the article, but MEGO. Stories about stocks and board meetings are of no interest to outsiders unless the author puts in something to make them interesting, and this signally failed for me.

Paul W said...

I found it interesting, but I think the author is a touch too kind towards Gygax, who really turned me off with his Dragon magazine editorials. I wonder if his book has Lorraine Williams' side of the story, she's demonized by the community so thoroughly its hard to tell if she was as bad as folks claim. All I know, is that while many 2e procuts were subpar, they also produced many of the very best D&D products ever.

Paul W said...

I will say, as a professional historian, I fully approve of the methods used in PatW. I'm really looking forward to reading this book, I suspect it will be the definitive account of this history.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David
Sorry it didn't appeal. All I can say is that, knowing about the personalities involved but only having heard these events through later (often self-serving) interviews and secondhand sources (people who were there at the time but not directly involved in these events), it was a revelation to get some actual hard facts.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Paul
Glad you enjoyed the piece.
Re. Lorraine Williams, most accounts portray her as a ruthless corporate raider who threw Gygax out of his own company and then ran it into the ground. That's not entirely fair, as the Peterson piece shows. For one thing, when I was at TSR (1991-1996) I talked to plenty of people who'd been there long enough that they worked for both Gygax and Lorraine, and they universally considered it a better work environment under the latter.

The only previous account I know that presents Lorraine in anything approaching a positive light in David M. Ewalt's OF DICE AND MEN: THE STORY OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS AND THE PEOPLE WHO PLAY IT [2013], which you might want to check out.

As for 2nd edition, while as a rules set it wasn't as good as the 1st edition rules it replaced, there were an amazing number of good products that came out under 2e which have never gotten the respect they deserve.

--John R.

Jon Peterson said...

Thanks for the positive notice, John - and since we haven't really connected before, thanks for your own work, which I've found useful in my studies.

Regarding OA, I understand your concern there - I did talk to Zeb Cook while working on this piece, and moreover had the chance to look over the original contract between him and Gary for his work on OA as well as various documents relating to disputes that followed. The story is complicated enough that I felt going down this path would be too great a digression. Ultimately, only Gary's name appears on the spine and on the cover of OA, and thus I don't feel the use of the possessive "his" to describe his relationship to the book departs from convention.

To speak more to the tacit implications of this, however, it is important to be mindful that OA and UA alike, though they bore Gary's name, had many contributors - compare to the text of Gary's October memo (shown in my piece) insisting that any work "bearing [his] name as creator or co-creator" must have its copyright assigned to him as opposed to TSR, presumably even if staff designers were major contributors to the work. One can only wonder if awareness of the OA situation made the board less comfortable with that demand.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Jon
Thanks so much for the comment. Nice to hear from you, given that I'm a big admirer of your work for its reliance on primary documents (and your ability to locate such material, and write up the results with clarity).

Yes, it's a complicated story. I probably focus on that end of it because properly assigning author credit is something I've v. interested in (as when I recently established, to my own satisfaction at least, that JRRT's obituary was indeed written by C. S. Lewis, a point that had been in dispute). And for people to claim credit for other people's work is a deep dark mark by my standards.

I assume you know that Gygax did institute such a plan with his next company, New Infinities, so that all the copyrights for the work he did for them resided not in the company but in what's widely assumed to be a shell company, TriGee Enterprises?

I look forward to seeing more of your work online (and, of course, to reading the book). I'm particularly hoping that at some point you focus in on the time when Tolkien Enterprises (not the Tolkien Estate) frightened them with a cease-and-desist into giving up the use of words like hobbit for halfling, ent for treant, and (most comically), mithril for 'mithral'.

There's also an interesting pattern that suggests something happened to Gygax in or around 1982. His designs before this point are original and creative, not just groundbreaking but standing the test of time, while those after seem to be half-hearted recycling of old material (like the ALICE IN WONDERLAND parodies) or collaborative works in which his own part seems to have been relatively small (like the wonderful Mentzer-Gygax TEMPLE OF ELEMENTAL EVIL). It's an odd bit of his professional history, and relationship to the game, that I don't think has ever been fully explored.

In any case, I v. much enjoyed "Ambush at Sheridan Springs", and look forward to your next piece.

John R.