“You are in a darkened room, a shadow of its former glory. Around you huddle the remains of your party, their weapons dangling from tired hands. Danger besets you on all sides. The door slowly opens, revealing an unspeakable horror. What do you do?”
This could be setup from a Dungeon Master at any late-night D&D session. It could also easily describe the situations in Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons, although the “weapons” were creative minds, and the “unspeakable horror” was financial ruin, mismanaged products, and mistreated employees. I was fascinated and heartbroken in equal measure, reading the history of TSR, the company that once owned Dungeons and Dragons (as well as Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, among other things).
Every story has two (or more) sides. So many times, the narrative is “big, bad, Wizards of the Coast devoured the little guy”, but of course there’s more to it than that. This book delves into the state of TSR and explores why on earth it was in a position to be bought out anyway. It had so much going for it: a plethora of creative ideas, artists that are still seen as some of the best in the fantasy art genre, and a passion that many workplaces just don’t have. Sadly, it also had some of the worst financial management I’ve heard of and some higher ups that just didn’t understand what TSR was trying to do.
In many ways, it was a trainwreck of epic proportions, although it didn’t start out that way. The mess made for an incredible tale, though. As the saying about train wrecks goes, “it was impossible to look away”.
Slaying the Dragon is written in an easy-to-understand way. It’s well organized and doesn’t meander. There are a few parts that I would have loved to see expanded a little (the section on the Satanic Panic, for example, since there is a lot to unpack there), but it moved at a good pace. About halfway through, I wished it would slow down, just because what happened was so darn sad. It was hard to watch the book walk toward a disaster like that.
There were interviews throughout the book, which were fascinating and added a new level of clarity. It also broke up the author’s narration and kept it from ever becoming too dry. That personal angle was always there. I have to give Ben Riggs credit: he went above and beyond to get as many opinions of what happened as possible, and dug deep into his research as well.
Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons was a riveting look at the rise, fall, and reincarnation of TSR, the most honest one I’ve seen to date. I recommend this to anyone who remembers going into Walden books and seeing a treasure trove of creativity, and to D&D fans of all ages.