Review of Jon Peterson's *Game Wizards* (2021)

Here is my review of Jon Peterson’s new book on the early history of TSR.

Short version: This is unlikely ever to be surpassed as the history of the “Gygax years” of TSR. The book is a success as a work of history and informative about the origins of the hobby. If you venerate Gygax and Arneson, this book will sober you up.


I finally finished reading Game Wizards!

I think I agree with most of your points. I will admit that despite Gygax’s bad behaviors (across multiple domains), I remained fairly sympathetic to him throughout the narrative, especially in terms of his conflict with Arneson (I.e. I think Gygax’s possessiveness/protectiveness is understandable considering the differential in the amount of work done to make D&D a “thing”).

Peterson’s approach is perhaps the right one for a historian, though I found myself wishing that he’d give a bit more of his own take on things (not that he doesn’t make it easy for you to fill-in your own opinions: and that’s a big part of the fun of the book). For instance, the story of the Blumes reminds me of stories about people who win the lottery and then end up blowing their fortune, by giving too much away to family or spending it on inessentials rather than wisely shepherding it. (Although I admit I’m also somewhat sympathetic to the Blumes: of course they saw this as their big chance; is perhaps the “real bad guy” the capitalist myths they all bought into?)

I too would like to see more written that connects the decisions made at TSR to what the fans were doing with D&D during this time, though it’s also interesting to note that I was a regular reader of Dragon starting from around the end of the period the book covers up until WotC took over and I never had any inkling from that about any of the events related here.

Finally, I’m not sure if this book is doing anything to de-romanticize Arneson: but I think your characterization of him in the review is spot on. That isn’t to take away his genuine innovations and contributions to the activity, but to note that left to his own devices he wouldn’t have been able to transmit those ideas and innovations to a group behind his immediate circle. That’s not his fault, but I think creative type people often underestimate the value of some of the things Gygax brought to the partnership (mainly a willingness to do a lot of work).

Yeah, this is my big question here too. Peterson’s last book, the Elusive Shift, is all about RPG culture and how the game was received by different groups based primarily on zines that discussed these questions. It’s an amazing book, but given that he’s done this work too, I’d love to see him bridge the two stories. How did the commercial decisions made at TSR (and by Gary, Dave and their crew in the pre-TSR years) affect play and play culture?

1 Like