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Dungeons & Dragons Is a Case Study in How Capitalism Kills Art

The story of Dungeons & Dragons isn’t just about nerds creating a wildly popular game and then losing control of it. It’s also about how the dictates of the free market inevitably end up stripping even our leisure activities of joy.

Dungeons & Dragons is a perfect illustration of how capitalism bends and deforms any artistic endeavors to its own ends. (Esther Derksen via iStock / Getty Images)

Tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs, to insufferable nerds like myself) are suddenly a hot commodity. For those of us who have been fans of the hobby for many decades, it’s hard to believe that the thing that got us ridiculed in high school is suddenly a mainstream success. There are podcasts and web series about TTRPGs! There are blockbuster movies about TTRPGs! Celebrities play them! What was once a small, marginalized corner of an already obscure hobby is now . . . well, still pretty small, but growing. And you can’t talk about TTRPGs without talking about the granddaddy of them all, the first and the biggest role-playing game: Dungeons & Dragons (D&D).

D&D is the hobby’s 800-pound gorilla (or, in game terms, its seven-headed hydra). But it’s not just because it was the first role-playing game — most fans would argue that it isn’t the best. A big part of D&D’s fame is the history of the game as a business. The unexpected success of D&D, the financial struggles that deepened as it grew bigger, and the loss and alienation of its two cocreators make for a narrative as compelling as any crafted in the game itself — and show the perils of putting profit before purpose in any artistic medium.

Following the death of D&D’s creators, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, in 2008 and 2009 respectively, there has been a surge of interest in the origins of TTRPG, particularly as the game’s fanbase has expanded during COVID-19. Enter Jon Peterson’s Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons. Peterson focuses on the business end of D&D, examining a period of roughly a dozen years from the game’s creation in the mid-’70s to Gygax’s loss of control of TSR, Inc., its publisher and the company he founded. It’s a surprising, fascinating, and often depressing look at the legal wrangling, corporate warfare, and bitter personal recriminations that followed the game’s path from an amusement for a tiny group of like-minded enthusiasts to an international business.

The Rise and Fall of TSR, Inc.

Peterson is a good choice to write Game Wizards, the first in a proposed series about the history and culture of games from MIT Press. He’s enthusiastic about the hobby without being an uncritical fanboy, and his knowledge of TTRPGs (and D&D in particular) is broad and deep. His writing style is unflashy but compelling, and he constructs the story of TSR’s rise and fall soundly and cleverly. He keeps the bigger picture at the forefront but provides enough detail to keep readers engaged, and the book is as well-documented as any academic work — something of a miracle given the often contradictory and ever changing stories told about TSR by its principals over the years.

But why should anyone outside the realm of TTRPG hobbyists care about Game Wizards? In a general sense, the hobby has a lot of appeal to us socialists, who look at the state of the world and wish that we could construct an alternate one where life is more just and people are more willing to stand up to tyranny. Like any hobby, TTRPGs have gone through social and political revolutions. While D&D’s original players were largely Midwesterners with a libertarian bent, the hobby soon became influenced by a wave of ’70s psychedelia as it traveled west, and has been pulled in every other possible direction, from neofascist to old-school socialist.

A game of Dungeons & Dragons. (Ville Miettinen / Flickr)

But Dungeons & Dragons is also a perfect illustration of how capitalism bends and deforms any artistic endeavors to its own ends, and how, whatever the specific details of the situation or the intentions of the people involved, the demand for profit will always subsume the desire for aesthetic value or artistic integrity. Just as television puts the goals of its creators behind the demands of advertisers, and movies are more answerable to accountants and marketers than to audiences and filmmakers, role-playing games bend the knee to owners who care more about the bottom line than the needs of play and story.

Peterson notes early on that D&D was an unlikely success. Although Gygax left behind a comfortable living in insurance to pursue his gaming hobby, he likely never expected to make more than a modest income. A big reason why is that D&D was never actually meant to be a product. He wasn’t initially interested in selling the slick, glossy product line we see in bookstores today; he wanted to sell a set of rules, essentially guidelines for play that could easily be adopted and adapted to whatever scenario other hobbyists cared to cook up. He wanted this because that’s exactly what he had done as a game player and creator himself, folding J.R.R. Tolkien–style fantasy into his passion for wargaming.

It was only when the rules caught a unique moment in the cultural zeitgeist and became more successful than he and Arneson had anticipated that the TTRPG changed from a hobby to an industry, and TSR, Inc. shifted from, as Peterson puts it, “a club to a company.”

To grow, the company had to expand. To expand, it had to acquire capital and take on debt. And to pay off debt, it had to expand even further. As TSR’s stockholders began to think the company’s financial expansion was more important than paying its authors, artists, and designers a fair price for their work, the workers — not just the company’s employees, but the founders themselves — felt the familiar sting of alienation from their labor.

Arneson, who always found the creative end of things more enjoyable, wanted to pursue other TTRPG projects, but TSR denied him credit for his work, triggering years of lawsuits. Their conclusion guaranteed him a lifelong income but left him bitter at the feeling he was underappreciated for the creative work that made D&D a reality. Gygax, meanwhile, overestimated his own head for business and eventually found himself marginalized and ultimately forced out of his own company. He lost control of the phenomenon he created and worked on less prestigious projects; the company continued to grow but had a number of rocky years of declining reputation, poor leadership, and financial chaos until it was finally swallowed up by a bigger company with more money to spend.

Evil Wins in the End

Peterson recounts this story in Game Wizards, but while the book ends in 1985, the full story of D&D does not. TSR, Inc. would eventually undergo spells of mismanagement, creative lulls, and unprofitability even as it faced competition from younger, leaner companies who took the ideas Gygax and Arneson had created in new directions.

In 1997, TSR was acquired by a Seattle company called Wizards of the Coast, and a few years later, that company was snatched up by gaming giant Hasbro, becoming another revenue-generating machine in their huge corporate portfolio. The results have been predictable. D&D may be more popular than ever, but it’s just another profit-making entity in a company flush with them, and the company will surely abandon the title the moment it starts to make a downturn, to be bought by another company more interested in the value of the name than the worth of the game.

It’s already undergone reworkings designed more to sell products than to improve the game; its flagship website, D&D Beyond, has introduced a suite of high-tech innovations to the game to bring it into the internet era, but it’s also become notorious for extracting as much money from consumers as possible through usurious licensing and constant upselling. Users pay nearly as much for digital versions of the core game books as they do hard copies, and gimmicky items like thematic dice and spin-off products for kids and teens are cranked out while the main game itself remains largely moribund.

A Dungeons & Dragons–branded augmented reality pin. (Pinfinity)

What’s more, the behind-the-scenes corporate drama that powers the narrative of Game Wizards continues well past the sale of TSR, Inc. and its D&D-related properties to Hasbro. Gygax’s widow, Gail, has carried on an ugly and very public feud with investors, relatives, and other claimants to his legacy, while over the past year, no less than three groups have emerged to present themselves as the “new” TSR, Inc., including one fronted by Gygax’s son Ernie, who quickly distinguished his with absurd, overblown claims and racist and transphobic statements. (Like father, like son: Gygax himself didn’t think TTRPGs would or should appeal to women because of a “difference in brain function”). It’s a grim story about fallen heroes where evil wins in the end, and it’s not getting any better.

The hell of it is, it didn’t have to be this way.

The Open Game License

Gygax never anticipated making D&D into a corporate behemoth. He just wanted to make it easier for other people to join in his favorite hobby. It wasn’t until the profit-driven logic of capitalism began to dictate the direction of the game that everything started to fall apart.

It would have been easy enough to release the basic structure of D&D, freed from the litigious claws of copyright enforcement, to the general public to do with it whatever they wanted. “Home brews” — campaigns, settings, and even rule sets derived from D&D’s mechanics but tailored toward the creative desires of small groups and individuals — have always been a big part of the TTRPG hobby. Some of the biggest innovations and most creative expressions came from creators who took the original framework of the game and created their own worlds in which to play, including some (the wildly successful Eberron setting, for example, and the gothic-horror Ravenloft) that TSR made part of its official licensing.

This was codified during the Wizards of the Coast years when, recognizing the popularity of home brews, the endless knockoffs of their intellectual property, and the difficulty of enforcing their copyright, TSR released the Open Game License (OGL). This allowed other publishers and creators to release products, within defined limits, using the D&D framework but not bound by the company’s IP restrictions. While it eventually became just another revenue extraction stream for Hasbro, the OGL pointed out a direction that could have freed the entire TTRPG hobby from capital’s clutches.

Without the market’s demands and the accompanying dictates that stifle creativity in favor of profitability, TTRPGs could have been part of the public domain, with gamers free to build and expand on whatever ideas they wanted, either their own or ones drawn from other sources. The games could have been like baseball. While Major League Baseball (MLB), for example, enjoys a vastly profitable and government-supported monopoly on the professional game, no one owns baseball itself, and outside the confines of MLB’s multibillion-dollar marketing machine, millions of people watch and play baseball, compete in tournaments, and enjoy it as a rich and malleable hobby that belongs to the people. There’s no reason other than greed that TTRPGs can’t do the same thing.

Gary Gygax, who created D&D along with Dave Arneson, pictured in 1999. (Moroboshi / Wikimedia Commons)

Profit First, Art Second

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons since I was twelve. At that time, the TTRPG hobby had grown from a marginal one to a national phenomenon; over the years, I’ve been both alarmed and gratified to see it expand ever further and accommodate an ever widening range of visions, ideas, and styles of play, and to welcome in a more diverse body of players than I thought possible back then. D&D has never been a perfect game, but it’s one that a lot of people remember the same way they do their first love. It was a formative experience for us. Some of the most enjoyable moments of my life have been spent around a table, rolling funny-looking dice and pretending to be a wizard.

But Marvel’s and DC’s growth from small companies making comics for kids to corporate juggernauts churning out content for billions has made the love many of its fans once had for the characters turn to dust. Crafts were once an in-home leisure activity passed on from parents to children; now it’s a megabillion-dollar industry whose major players are both greedy and politically toxic. Disney’s gatekeeping of their products to maximize profit has made them vast amounts of money, but it’s torn out the heart and soul that once marked those products.

This is more than just hipster disdain for the sudden popularity of what once was enjoyed by a select few; it’s a recognition that capitalism will always put profit first and art second — or last. It’s naive to think the same thing won’t happen with TTRPGs. These are all specific problems of capitalism: comics, movies, hobbies, and games exist in formerly self-described socialist states, but were considered the property of the people, not just commodities controlled by already wealthy investors.

Game Wizards is not just a captivating story about how one man lost control of his dream. It’s also an object lesson in the way capitalism invariably strips even our leisure activities of their communal joy.