Friday, July 8, 2011

Wizards: To Rescue Dungeons & Dragons

It was a dream of Peter Adkison's (and many of the Walla Walla D&D players) to some day work for TSR and contribute to the game we loved. Wasn't that every young but serious gamer's dream? The Walla Walla gamers were young and serious, but we thought we were just dreaming.

When Peter's dreams shifted to starting his own game company, his motivation was, as he once told me, that he had a filing cabinet full of great gaming material, and he had a circle of friends with filing cabinets of their own, so together there simply had to be some way to make a living doing what we loved. Taking our hobby professional just seemed like the right next step in growing up.

In the early poor-but-not-desperate days (before the teetering-on-the-edge-of-bankruptcy days to follow), when we fantasized about where we wanted Wizards of the Coast to go, what we wanted it to become, we started out with the short-term goal of breaking even - maybe even becoming barely profitable! - but when we really stretched our imagination we imagined doing work that would make our heroes at TSR proud. We wanted to be like them - maybe even as good as them someday.

In those days, when the office was the basement of Cathy and Peter's house, we were tiny and spending more than we brought in (which for a long time until we got our first product to market was nothing). The idea of actually becoming bigger than TSR and buying them was sheer fantasy back then - but even then we dreamed of it. Most D&D fans who go into the gaming business must have at least imagined it from time to time, but when you're wondering if you're ever going to finish your first book and whether anyone will like it, it's hard to take your own dreams seriously.

And yet.

We would say "Maybe someday we'll even become big enough to buy TSR," and we would laugh it off to show we weren't serious. But we were. We did take our dreams seriously. We were embarrassed and ashamed and afraid to admit even to ourselves that we were seriously dreaming that big about something we couldn't do when we were having trouble doing even the little things, but it didn't matter. We worked like crazy and kept on dreaming.

Meanwhile, hardly anyone liked the direction TSR's business owners were going with the company. Peter certainly did not. When Gary Gygax left TSR it was unthinkably shocking to those of us who grew up with D&D, but then things got worse. We were afraid the management would run it into the ground, which they then did. When TSR got itself stuck - unable to pay bills to get products printed that would have earned the money to pay those bills - many of us were frustrated and outraged. Peter wanted to rescue D&D and ensure it could never be imprisoned again.

Another time I'll tell the story of how the TSR purchase actually came about, but for now let's cut to the chase about why it happened.

This is the part in today's post where I must switch pronouns. Although I remained close to Wizards until shortly after the Hasbro purchase, about the time they shifted from the basement to their first office building I became a bit more outsider than insider, so Wizards must become a them rather than an us in my little narrative. You'll see this shift a lot over the posts ahead, I'm sure.

When Magic: The Gathering became such an unexpected hit, it made Wizards of the Coast successful enough to save D&D. Of course Peter bought TSR and rescued D&D - any D&D fan in a position to do so would have done so. There were plenty of tactical and strategic details that made it a good move for this company at this time to buy that company, but those are merely the things that allowed Peter to do what he wanted to do anyway, what most role-players want to do - to be the hero and do the right thing, to save the object of his affections from clear and present danger.

So there was half of Peter's dream for D&D accomplished, to rescue it. The other half - to make it immune to future danger - required figuring out a way to keep it rescued, and that took more thought and work. The Open Gaming License (OGL) was the direct result of that search.

The OGL was not designed to screw the gaming industry nor to lead to the domination of Wizards of the Coast and the d20 system. Wizards hoped it would be good for the company and that edition of the rules, but that's not why they did those things - that's only why as a business they were allowed to do those things. The core motivation predated even the existence of Wizards of the Coast, let alone d20 - the love of a gamer for his game and the desire to protect it forever.

And that's one of the reasons why I'll always think of the first (pre-Hasbro) Wizards of the Coast as a success, because it let us fulfill one of our most cherished dreams for our industry. If you ever bought Magic cards, you too helped save Dungeons and Dragons forever.

10 comments:

  1. Thanks, Rick, I'm really enjoying going 'behind the scenes' and hearing about the early days at Wizard's of the Coast.

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  2. That was a great post and answered a lot of my questions about the whole history of D&D. Thanks and looking forward to more posts on the subject.

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  3. I'll agree that the OGL was a magnificent thing to do - thnks!

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  4. Of course, "some day" in my original post ought to have been "someday." It's surprising how many errors one makes even while trying to be careful - all the more reason to work out the basic history in the blog first before formally writing the book.

    I'm glad you're enjoying the posts, despite the occasional errors.

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  5. OK I need to ask you a question about WOFC and D&D. First I need to say the the beginnings of Magic were epic and the need the rescue D&D noble but why did you change the format to the game itself. You had practically changed the entire game to the point of being unrecognizable and for that made the same mistake TSR did in its latter years by expanding too quickly too soon. Gary knew how to operate TSR and he did it slowly, for example the time between Unearthed to the DM's Guide was years not months. In fact the first game ever published was a paperback simple called D&D with big red letters written by Moldav the second was written by Holmes which soon became the standard for Basic D&D and Expert. By the time Gary got around to creating AD&D he first published the Monster Manual then the Players Handbook. I seriously felt that you did a disservice to the fans of D&D by putting out the three-book set at once. Now you may disagree with me about this, and my opinions are my own and yes I am a dear fan of 1e D&D and I will be for the rest of my life. Now my second question is this do you still have the copyrights to TSR or D&D or have they been sold to another company?

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  6. Alex, second question first: today Hasbro owns Wizards of the Coast, which holds the copyrights to D&D. However, the rights of D&D hobbyists and consumers are also protected by the OGL, so the text of D&D can never be fully locked up again as it once was.

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  7. Alex, as for your first question, later I can get you a definitive answer from the people directly involved, but for now I'll speculate based from memory.

    During the late 1990s, there was a widespread perception that D&D was not a modern ruleset, that more recent rule systems had improved on D&D, that D&D was in need of an update to modern rules-technology, if you will.

    Skill-based systems, for example, were seen as more flexible and "advanced" than class-based systems, so many house rules had sought to introduce skills into D&D. You may recall that AD&D second edition had introduced non-weapon proficiencies as a step in this direction. There are many other examples of ruleset features like this perceived as modern and flexible.

    It was in the air and had been for some time, this feeling that D&D needed to be modernized. So when Wizards of the Coast bought TSR, I'm guessing that the TSR team and the Wizards team largely agreed about the need to create a new "modern" edition of D&D that put it "back at the leading edge" of rule systems while preserving as best they could what were seen as the distinctively D&Dish features of the game, like the focus on classes and races. I believe this is what Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, Skip Williams, Richard Baker, and Peter saw as their mandate in designing D&D third edition.

    I think most of us would agree that they did what they set out to do. The open question is whether that was the right set of goals to have, not whether they executed them well.

    It's difficult from hindsight to reconstruct the zeitgeist of the time, that feeling in the air that what D&D most needed was to be updated, but I can say that many people (myself included) who today are part of the old-school renaissance at the time were advocates of "updating" the D&D rules. Had the rules not been updated, we could never have been persuaded to change our goals for D&D; we could never have come to understand that they did not need updating so much as a reorientation back toward the hobbyist origins of the game. The creation of the third-edition ruleset was one of the two critical developments that led to the OSR - the other being Hasbro's purchase of Wizards and the resulting creation of versions 3.5 and 4.

    To put it another way, I'm glad third edition was created - I have spent many enjoyable hours playing it and doubtless will again, and it helped revitalize D&D and the RPG industry in a many ways - but I agree with you and James Maliszewski and others that it really is a different game from original D&D. Now we have both games to choose from.

    D&D 3 can't be said to replace original D&D in any meaningful way because they are different games with different goals that share a name. So I would not say that D&D 3 changed D&D; it's a new, additional, different game. They all are. No version of D&D "replaces" the previous versions the way software versions do. Each has its advantages and different styles of play, so at different times you might want to play different versions, depending on the quality of play you want to experience.

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  8. Although the sequence of history you describe is not accurate (for example, Moldvay did not precede Holmes, and the first published D&D was Gygax and Arneson's original boxed set, unless you count Chainmail, which came before), I understand the gist of what you're saying, which is that D&D 3 was the biggest change in the ruleset up until then. I agree with you.

    I don't have time now, but in the next few weeks I'll write a few posts exploring these ideas further.

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  9. Bonjour,

    Little correction: the non-weapon proficiencies first appeared in the survival guides for AD&D 1st edition.

    Regards from Canada,
    Fran├žois

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  10. Francois, thanks for the correction. Human memory is so fallible.

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