Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Behind the Publishing Curtain

 I hate and love. And why, perhaps you’ll ask. I don’t know: but I feel, and I’m tormented.”

Catullus

History of gaming scholar Jon Peterson’s latest book releases in October. Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, from The MIT Press, promises to turn Peterson’s meticulous research onto the early years of TSR, up to Gary Gygax’s forced departure from the company in 1985. I’ve read several books claiming to document the history of the game industry and the evolution of games, including Peterson’s groundbreaking Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games. I enjoy reading behind-the-scenes accounts of my favorite game companies – having worked professionally full-time and freelance in the hobby – but I also loathe them for their constant, often explosive struggles between creative personalities and ruthless business motives.

Peterson’s previous two volumes relied heavily on thorough research of sources well beyond casual internet searches; classic scholarly work that infuses his writing with authenticity. He’s latest book on an article he wrote in 2014 for Medium, The Ambush at Sheridan Springs: How Gary Gygax Lost Control of Dungeons & Dragons.” I expect it’s a good preview of what to expect in Game Wizards: a company history rife with feuding personalities, creative tension, and corporate maneuvering all set against the backdrop of D&D’s early publications. Having discovered D&D in 1982 and immersed myself in it and other roleplaying games during the mid-1980s in my “Golden Age of Roleplaying,” these behind-the-scenes stories of TSR rarely reached my notice. Sure, Dragon Magazine carried some game-related controversies in Gygax’s columns and letters; but overall I was oblivious to the inner workings of TSR beyond newly developed games (which I consumed greedily).

Coincidentally in 1985 – the year Gygax was ousted from TSR – I wrote a research paper about D&D, Gygax, and the contemporary “satanic panic” for my English class. I was a high school junior heavily immersed in various aspects of the adventure gaming hobby, primarily fueled by D&D and TSR games. I’m sure I have a copy of the term paper somewhere, but for now I’ll have to rely on my increasingly foggy memory. It was far from comprehensive, relying primarily on resources available in the school library (microfilm and microfiche of magazine and newspaper articles), clipping’s I’d acquired of interesting industry news, and my own familiarity with TSR at the time. Nothing like the modern Pandora’s box of online information accessible to almost anyone in the Internet Age. My scholarly work barely grazed the surface, but focused on three related sections: a general history and overview of D&D, TSR, and roleplaying games; an examination of outspoken criticism and controversy surrounding D&D; and interviews with the school psychologist and a middle-school principal (where the D&D club garnered a good deal of parental opposition) about the benefits and potential drawbacks of roleplaying games. I suppose I got a good enough grade on it given the amount of research I conducted and its length, as I recall. I eventually serialized it in the roleplaying game fanzine I published during those years and about which my much older self is infinitely embarrassed.

Beyond the high school term paper I didn’t really seriously consider the business side of roleplaying game publishing until after my college years, during which my gaming activity at first faltered in the face of academic responsibilities, but returned my last two years with my interest in West End Games’ Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. Shortly after graduating with a bachelors degree in creative writing I found work as a reporter at my weekly hometown newspaper; I also had aspirations to work in the game industry. I actually applied for an editorial assistant job at TSR I saw advertised in Dragon Magazine, but I suspect it was already promised to someone else; I don’t recall hearing anything back my about my resume or application. (I also sent a letter, resume, and writing samples to West End Games seeking some form of editorial employment, but the package was returned unread, mistakenly assumed to be an unsolicited submission rather than a job inquiry.)

Around this time I bought one of the earliest “histories” of the roleplaying game industry, Lawrence Schick’s Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games (which I’ve discussed before in 20 Year-Old Books on Gaming”) published in 1991. While more an exhaustive catalog of roleplaying game publications to date, it also included a very basic 15-page history of roleplaying games and some first-hand insights from industry notables like Greg Stafford. Steve Jackson, Tom Moldvay, Michael A. Stackpole, Ken St. Andre, Sandy Petersen, and, of course, D&D’s co-creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. In more recent years other books covered the history of roleplaying games and the companies that published them, some relying on dubious “research” other than what’s found on the internet, some not even consulting the still-living people creators. Peterson’s Playing at the World was a breath of fresh air for its comprehensive, academic approach (also expertly exhibited in his second study, The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity). I’m sure his latest book will include exhaustive research of sources given his past thorough scholarly work.

And yet I have reservations about plunging into the tumultuous backstage of roleplaying game publishing. Certainly I enjoy reading about all the work behind the scenes to bring us cherished game material from our nostalgic past; but when I look behind the curtain I’m just as often horrified as I am delighted. A good portion of this dread comes from my own experiences in roleplaying game publishing, working from 1993-1998 full-time at West End Games and during the subsequent “Desperate Freelancing Days” for various clients. Frequent readers know I’ve written about my time at West End (all too frequently, under the heading of “WEG Memoirs”); but those recollections remain carefully edited to focus more on the upbeat aspects of my time there (in an overall effort to maintain a positive online presence). When I first started those blog posts I briefly considered writing a more comprehensive, tell-all piece about my time at West End. I quickly abandoned the idea. It would not only prove hurtful to various people but would also stir up destructive feelings like anger, betrayal, and disappointment (to name just a few, from personal experience) by poking at the hornets’ nest of old controversies.

Looking behind the curtain reveals the good and the bad; far too often the onslaught of misery, frustration, betrayal, and explosively creative personalities overwhelms any positive, redeeming bits. It’s rarely a fun story. Having lived some of this, and having had a slew of other office jobs throughout my checkered, meager career, I’ve come to believe such demoralizing controversies are not confined to the roleplaying game industry; they all too often result from a confluence of ego-driven human nature and ruthless capitalism. Some jobs are less toxic than others, but capitalism’s inherent competition – with employees constantly struggling for survival and supremacy in a fierce hierarchy imposes a base layer of toxicity on any occupation. The competition to work harder and produce more (under the constant threat of unemployment) taps into a natural self-preservation instinct, one capable of harming others to ensure one’s survival in the workplace. The roleplaying game industry operates under similar pressures, with creative individuals and inflexible, uncaring bureaucracts clashing, as human egos naturally do.

Will I read Game Wizards? Inevitably I will. TSR dominated my halcyon days of adventure gaming more so than other publishers (of whom I also have fond memories and admiration). The company that played a major role establishing a new, imaginative field of entertainment certainly deserves a thoroughly researched, scholarly history. Despite the inevitable controversies, I expect the book will cater to my increasing reliance on nostalgia, my yearning for “the way things used to be” in a distant past filled with days of gaming, well before I entered the workforce to struggle with the ruthless competition capitalism demands. TSR’s story unfortunately remains a representative tale of the adversarial creative and business forces that have wracked roleplaying game publishers since.

He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself.”

Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring


2 comments:

  1. Interesting post. I don't generally think about the impact of capitalism on the individual employees of a capitalist venture. When I worked (and was old/mature enough to understand work) it was mostly for the public sector (my state government) and so the desperation of the capitalist enterprise was a non-factor. My gaming "biz" has all been completely secondary to my regular work (I've never relied on it to do more than fund my own hobby...and beer money) so in that arena also I have been untouched by the need to earn or die.

    Good insights.

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  2. Thanks, JB. Alas, pressures in game companies are similar to other industries, even, I'd argue, the public sector (to a lesser degree). And I haven't even mentioned the general toxicity of today's American society or the socio-economic pressures of the pandemic....

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