Historian tackles D&D, documenting the battle between Gygax and Arneson

Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, historian Jon Peterson hopes to lay to rest the rumors and speculation that have plagued the early history of D&D. The feud between Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson is at the heart of the new book. His work relies on a treasure trove of firsthand interviews and primary documentation, as well as remnants from the lost archives of D&D’s original publisher, TSR.

Polygon interviewed the author about his work and pondered what the original role-playing games might have looked like today had things gone differently.

Peterson was also the coauthor of many books, including New York Times Bestsellers. Heroes Feast: The Official Dungeons & Dragons CookbookHugo-nominated Art & Arcana, a lavish visual history of D&D. But before those more mainstream successes, Peterson was best known for 2012’s You can play at the WorldThe seminal study on tabletop gaming, “The Gamer’s Handbook”, is a landmark work that reaches back to the late-18th century roots.

To Game Wizards, Peterson’s journey began in 2014 on Medium with a story titled The Ambush at Sheridan Springs. It tells of Gary Gygax’s last push to get rid of his leadership role in the company he co-founded.

“That was my initial look at mechanically how it was Gary lost access to the company,” Peterson said in an interview with Polygon. Game Wizards includes that story and many others, all drawn from the turbulent early history of D&D. “In the intervening seven years that I’ve been working on this, I get stuff from wherever I can. People sometimes sell items on eBay or Facebook from their private collections. Sometimes, I am able to get it myself. […] and a lot of the private correspondence that Gary had with people.”

A piece of paper in Gygax’s own hand showing the royalties due to Dave Arneson.

Gary Gygax provides a detailed accounting of royalties due. Dungeons & Dragons’ first quarter sales in 1974.
Jon Peterson

One of the most unusual documents that Peterson uncovered in his research is the original ledger for the first-quarter sales of D&D in 1974. Written in pencil on a plain white sheet of paper, it shows that the initial royalties from the game’s first printing was just $106.40. The total amount was $53.20 per creator.

“When this started, this was not going to make anybody any money,” Peterson said with a laugh. “It’s an interesting […] rags-to-riches to, if not rags, at least to budget attire.”

Arneson received only $52.90 due to the costs of his stamp and the money order required to mail it. It might only be 30 cents, but it’s early evidence of the kinds of petty slights and oversights that would eventually grow to bring the whole company down.

“In the past few decades there have been people who have volunteered that perhaps Gary Gygax did all the work on D&D,” Peterson said. “Or perhaps Dave Arneson did the work on D&D; or how Dave Arneson was being cheated on royalties; and what exactly the substance of his lawsuit was with TSR. Many of these statements were made long after they had occurred and were influenced by many factors. [including]Memory’s vagaries. They were [also] colored by long-standing animosity that had been festering for so many years, and this is my attempt to really penetrate that.”

This publication Game Wizards marks the 36th anniversary of the so-called Ambush at Sheridan Springs, where on Oct. 22, 1985, Gygax lost control of D&D forever. Polygon asked Peterson how the game would look if Gygax had retained control. His replacement, Gygax’s widow Lorraine Williams, was his point of reference.

Three books on a bed of fallen leaves. Titled Dragons of Autumn Twilight, of Winter Night, and of Spring Dawning.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Dragonlance was already active in 1985. This included novels, adventure stories and other products. Peterson considers it one of the most important examples of modern transmedia.

“That was the place that business was growing,” Peterson said. “So Lorraine leaned in very heavily on that. ‘Find me another one of those. Locate the design team, and shake their hands. Find more of those!’” It’s that quest for the next Dragonlance that ultimately led to the discovery of the Forgotten Realms, an expansive world created by Ed Greenwood where the majority of published D&D novels and adventure modules take place today.

This was also the birthplace of the first computer game known as Swimming Pool of RadianceIt is available here. Published in 1988, it was the first adaptation of D&D for the home computer.

“That really went on to change the way people thought about CRPGs, and really the strategy of what it was to be a tabletop company,” Peterson said. “Gary was always very disparaging towards the computer gaming dimension of this. It lacked real-time interaction, which made role-playing gaming so great. There’s the degree to which we’d all concede that there’s some some truth in that, but under him I don’t think we would have seen the same push.”

Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons On October 12, it will be available. You can pre-order the book online or at your local bookstore. Polygon will be publishing an exclusive excerpt from the book next Wednesday.

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