He wasn’t a fighter, a thief, or even a wizard, but Gary Gygax was still a hero of nerd culture. As the creator of Dungeons & Dragons and the father of virtually all role-playing games, he had a defining influence on fantasy and entertainment, and his life has been chronicled in a new biography titled Empire of Imagination.
Written by Michael Witwer (the brother of actor Sam Witwer, just so you know), Empire of Imagination is a dramatic but factual retelling of Gygax’s life— from his days a young troublemaker, to the birth of D&D and his company TSR, his time as a Hollywood bigshot, and the dramatic fall from the top, which forced him to give up his most famous creation.
We’re thrilled to be able to present this excerpt from the book; here’s Chapter 27, where Gygax, TSR, and its flagship RPG Dungeons & Dragons are all on the rise... but their troubles are also just beginning.
Gary quickly rose from his leather swivel office chair and lumbered down the long hallway to Brian Blume’s office. This path represented a steep departure from their last office layout, where their offices had been separated only by thin bedroom walls in the converted residential office space on Williams Street, known as the Gray House.
“We’re being sued,” said Gary.
The bearded Blume looked up from a report he was reviewing. As usual, he was adorned in a Western-style shirt, boot-cut jeans with a large belt buckle, and of course cowboy boots. Although Blume was a Midwesterner, he had always fancied himself something of a cowboy.
“Sued by whom?” replied Blume casually.
“Arneson!” Gary exclaimed as he threw a court document on Brian’s desk.
It was February 1979, and Dungeons & Dragons had become a legitimate gaming phenomenon, roughly doubling its sales every year since its inception. Since 1977, however, TSR had invested much of its time and resources into a new system of Dungeons & Dragons, known as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D), which now accounted for the majority of its sales. This new version of D&D bore little resemblance to the original system in its depth of gaming components and the quality of its books and supplements. The first of these AD&D materials was the hardcover Monster Manual, released in January 1978 to great success. This was followed in June 1978 by another high-quality rule book known as the Player’s Handbook. A third product was already in development and slated for release in 1979, the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The new books had been authored by Gary and edited by Mike Carr, who also contributed forewords to each. Arneson had neither worked on nor contributed to any of these prior to his departure, and because the new AD&D system had departed so greatly from the original D&D products, TSR had decided not to pay him royalties on these new rule books.
The document that Gary had presented to Brian was a summons naming TSR and Gary personally as defendants in a civil suit filed by Arneson in the Minneapolis Second Circuit Court. Arneson’s legal claim alleged a breach of his 1975 royalty agreement as it applied to Dungeons & Dragons—in essence, it asserted that since he was entitled to his original royalty of 10 percent for D&D, it followed that he deserved the same for AD&D. Gary and Arneson had many disagreements in the past, to be sure, but Gary couldn’t believe their relationship had degraded to this point.
“That ungrateful bastard!” shouted Gary as he stormed back down the hallway.
Of course, this lawsuit was the culmination of professional issues that had been growing between Gary and Dave Arneson for years. Even in their early collaborations, the two failed to see eye to eye on many fundamental gaming elements. Time had done nothing but escalate the already tense relationship between the two, reaching a boiling point with Arneson’s brief employment at and subsequent departure from TSR.
On a personal level, however, Gary had once held Arneson in high esteem, and had even invited him along on a vacation to the family cabin a few years prior. In fact, if not for Dave’s crush on Elise—a crush seemingly shared by everyone in the gaming community at the time—he would have been considered more or less family.
“He won’t get a nickel,” muttered Gary as he plodded down the stairwell.
Gary was incensed. Here, his former friend, who continued to collect generous royalties on the original D&D system per his agreement, had not even been a part of the creative effort and long hours that had gone into the new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons system. Yet now, with success at hand, he wanted a piece of the action.
The new AD&D system was a vast departure from the original D&D system, but was it so diametrically different from its forerunner that Arneson’s legal rights to the underlying concept would be forfeit? Gary thought so, but court cases aren’t so easily dismissed with a wave of the hand.
Since parting with TSR, Arneson had been making a modest income working with small gaming companies, including Heritage Models and Judges Guild, on a variety of D&D-like supplements. But while TSR’s sales were booming, Arneson saw his royalties drying up, clearing just a little more than $5,000 per quarter from a company that was now grossing roughly $1 million. A judge or jury, especially in Arneson’s hometown, might be persuaded that Arneson deserved some relief.
Once Gary reached the lobby, he exited the building in a flurry. He badly needed a smoke, and perhaps a pastry from Bittner’s Bakery.
By this time, TSR had moved its headquarters and the Dungeon Hobby Shop into the once prestigious Hotel Clair, located in the heart of Lake Geneva’s historic business district, on the corner of Main and Broad Streets. The Clair, affectionately known to TSR employees as “the Blatz” because of the gaudy Blatz beer advertisement painted on the back of its brick exterior, was a relic from a different era, and though rundown, was still one of the most prominent buildings in town. The hotel’s former lobby restaurant served as the storefront of the Dungeon, while the two upstairs floors housed the executive offices and design department. Most interesting to many of TSR’s employees, however, was the building’s basement. This former bowling alley was now reserved for employee gaming and hosted a replica of Gary’s legendary sand-topped table, among other things. TSR employees and executives so frequently utilized this gaming haven that it was well accepted that at least 5 percent of the interoffice mail traffic was related to employees’ ongoing games. To be sure, this was a gaming company run for gamers by gamers.
As Gary walked through the quaint downtown, still fuming about the summons, he took notice of how rundown some parts of the town now looked. It reminded him of what seemed to be happening to the gaming community. Once an open forum for sharing new and innovative ideas, without the expectation of wealth or royalties, it had become an industry of closely guarded secrets, distrust, and back-biting. The rules had changed, and for Gary, you simply “couldn’t change the rules in the middle of a game.”
Unfortunately for Gary this afternoon, neither cigarettes nor baked goods could fix his new problem. He grudgingly recognized that Arneson’s case was at least moderately compelling, especially in a legal system that had little understanding of the nuances of role-playing game systems. This lack of understanding and disconnect with the legal arena would become especially apparent in years to come.
In truth, although AD&D products were superficially unrecognizable from their original D&D predecessors, the fundamental concept of the game was identical. Even though AD&D included more character classes, additional gaming mechanics, significantly upgraded artwork, richer campaign content, and higher-quality production, the game was still at its core a fantasy role-playing game, just like the original. Perhaps if TSR had not included the phrase “Dungeons & Dragons” in the title of AD&D, it would have been off the hook, but of course doing so would have denied the new system the name recognition of the Dungeons & Dragons brand the company had worked so hard to build. In this respect it had been a calculated decision and one that Gary, who had painstakingly written every word of the original and the majority of the content of AD&D—instead of just “providing various ideas and concepts,” as Arneson had—was having trouble seeing the other side of.
After many months of deliberation among Gary, TSR, and the company’s legal counsel, a decision was finally reached. Shortly thereafter Gary picked up the phone and dialed a number he knew by heart.
“Hello, Dave? It’s Gary. Let’s talk . . .”
Although Gary had decided that settling was the best course of action, it was not at all a simple matter, as reflected by the fact that Gary and Arneson didn’t reach their compromise until March 1981, two years after Arneson had originally filed suit. The final agreement allowed Arneson a 2.5 percent royalty on all Advanced Dungeons & Dragons products, a result that amounted to a comfortable six-figure sum annually.
This wouldn’t be the last legal skirmish between TSR and Arneson. Just three years after their AD&D settlement, TSR released a supplement called Monster Manual II and again refused to pay Arneson royalties on the new product. However, by this time, Gary was managing Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment Corp. on the West Coast and not directly involved with the operations of TSR, Inc. Unsurprisingly, Arneson sued and prevailed again, netting over $100,000 of royalties on the sale of that product in the first year alone.
Want more? Empire of Imagination goes on-sale on Tuesday, October 6th. You cre-order the hardcover of the ebook here at Amazon.
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