Game Pile: Buck Rogers: Battle for the 25th Century Game

Script and directions as follows

  • Images of Buck Rogers from BoardgameGeek, images from the TV Show

In 1988, TSR – the first one, not that one, or that one – released a game called Buck Rogers: Battle For the 25th Century. It was a release to tie in with the media juggernaut that was the Buck Rogers license, fresh off the heels of its 1970s TV series being cancelled only seven years prior.

The game is an extravagent platter of pieces – an ad claims over 400 different planets to explore, which sounds like a procedurally generated lie to me. The components sheet is immense, with dozens of figurines and maps and cards. It was credited to Jeff Grubb, a prolific author of the time, who was connected to settings like Spelljammer and Dragonlance, not to mention the Brothers’ War period of Magic: The Gathering.

Magic: The Gathering? That’s not a TSR game, that’s strange.

  • mickey secret that we’ll need later

This section got cut, because it felt unrelated.


Now there’s a chance you don’t know what this channel is for; know about the blog that it’s attached to, or the literal years of daily blogging about games, game development, media and cultural studies. The majority of you (since I don’t get lots of attention) probably know that I’m a PhD student and games study academic. Part of my field of study is seeing games as a fundamentally creative act, and how the human drive to play with things is structural to a lot of how we work.

I use games to talk about things. I use things to talk about games. And pretty much always, I’m talking about people. One thing I love to do is to use games, and conversations about games, to talk about academic concepts, like definitional arguments, or the idea of paratext, or the way language you have gives you ways to wield ideas. That’s the trick; I’ll play a game, see what it makes me think about, then make a video or an article connecting those ideas to that game.


I haven’t played Buck Rogers: Battle For The 25th Century, by the way. I did entertain the idea of actually buying a copy of the game and playing it, but

  • ebay browsing

And then, then, if I did

I’d have this thing in my house.

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Okay, so I don’t own the game, haven’t played the game, and don’t want to, why then, am I bringing it up? What is it about this game that warrants this attention?

Well

This game is a gemstone of history about TSR games, the much-vaunted cradle of international success and Travis McElroy Delivery System Dungeons & Dragons. This launched in 1988, a year before the release of the D&D we now call 2nd Edition. And you might find yourself wondering why a tabletop RPG company might spend money and effort and talent on producing a game — a really big, elaborate, expensive game — for a media franchise from the 1920s that had just collapsed in the late 70s?

It makes sense – a bit more sense at least – when you know more about the people involved in TSR, the people making decisions and how they got to be in that position.

You might be the kind of person who’s used to the idea of ‘being sued on the internet’ as being a punchline for someone who doesn’t understand how the internet works. The past few years have definitely led to some extremely boomer people trying to Sue The Internet for things to varying degrees of success, free Ettin, but there was a real fear of it back in the early 00s, a lingering ghost that you might get sued for discussing D&D on the internet.

That sounds ridiculous, right? But it wasn’t. This is because there was credible reports from newsgroup and forum managers who had been contacted by TSR representatives back in the early 90s, demanding they take down conversations about THAC0 and other components of the then-recently released 2nd Edition rules. It wasn’t that we know anyone who was sued, and thanks to bitrot and general depreciation of the internet, it’s hard to find any specific examples, but people were getting angry emails about daring to promote D&D to their communities.

And this was the product of the actual company that sold D&D.

You might regard this behaviour as extremely weird, and it is if you think of TSR as, well, a typical company with goals and intentions and a project intending to maximise making money for itself through some specific product. But if you think of TSR as a collapsed-together mish-mash of company parts being mismanaged in a confusing heap because people were winging it most of the way for ten years, then it makes a lot of sense.

This was during the time when TSR was under the control of Lorraine Williams. Who, you ask? Well, Lorraine Williams was a well-off woman who also was an experienced business administrator. She had a history running a variety of businesses, and she had a fair degree of family money that had been why she’d come on board to TSR in the first place, at the behest of – well, we’ll get to that.

I’m a little cautious about going too hard on this, mind you; because this is ultimately a dude dumping complaints at the feet of a woman, which is never a place I feel good being. Still, the story of Lorraine Williams isn’t a matter of looking at her business history. Instead, here are the two important things about her for this position. First, she utterly disdained gamers; she saw the entire subculture that were buying her products very poorly, and it showed in the kind of products she was trying to sell to them (including a lot of follow-the-leader products including an attempt to cash in on the success of Magic: The Gathering). But the other big – and extremely weird – thing is that Williams was one of the heirs to the Buck Rogers intellectual property – yeah, the old 1920s sci-fi adventure comic. TSR had some Buck Rogers products – and she received direct benefits from their sale.

And now you remember how this started.

Simply put, sales of Buck Rogers properties or D&D properties were the same to TSR’s bottom line, but Williams got royalties for sales of spaceboys and not fangybeasts. If you treat games as products like beans and pizzas, and you see them as largely fungible, there’s no reason to see a problem with pushing Buck Rogers over your existing D&D line, and if there are ways you can drive your market from one property to the other, why wouldn’t you do that. And Lorraine Williams, again, was not thinking about TSR as a game making company, but instead as a product making company. During her control, rumours said, staff were banned from playing games at work, and while there’s no hard proof of that, there is a sign that a lot of games and books were being made and released with no playtesting.

Okay, so TSR was run into the ground in the last by someone with business acumen but no respect for the player culture, for personal reasons (and there are court records to prove it). How did someone like that get in charge of the company, though?

The political juking around this goes in some weird stages. The typical way to front this is that Kevin and Brian Blume sold their stock in TSR to Lorraine when they cashed out of the company and made Lorraine the head of the company, an act that enraged Gary Gygax because he believed he’d had a verbal agreement with the Blumes to get their stock. This was in response to a leadership vacuum that started when the Blumes were brought in after the shocking death of Don Kaye, one of the two founders of the company.

See, Don Kaye had a medical condition that he knew might kill him, but he didn’t tell anyone about it, especially Gary. That means that one day, he calls off work early and then a few days later people get word he died in surgery that they didn’t even know he was having.

The Blumes come in to bring in money to support the company, and then, as lead shareholders, they start trying to do things to make the company more successful. Their idea, and… I swear I’m not making this up, is an attempt to corner the market on D&D-themed latch-hook rugs — as they saw an overlap between the D&D player market, and the hands and arts and crafts market.

This didn’t go spectacularly well, and the result was driving the company deep into debt – like, millions of dollars of debt for a company that couldn’t handle those kind of numbers. And this is after the company had a cash infusion from when they hired Lorraine Williams (now Vice President of the company) in an administrative position … which was a decision made by Gary Gygax.

This story is bananas, it goes some extremely weird and wild places, and it’s mostly a matter of public record thanks to all the goddamn lawsuits.

And look.

Here’s the full timeline of D&D

And here, in that timeline, is the full lifespan of TSR

And here in that, is the time when Gary Gygax was involved.

That means all of this was after he was done. And the periods of the game’s greatest success – when there were the most players playing D&D – are pretty much all around now. Which means we have this illusionary image of this guy being incredibly important to… just an early period of this game. You can see it as him being the instigatory event, but even that’s not true.

See, we think of D&D as starting here in 1973. But it didn’t. It started further back, with the game Gary was playing, based on Chainmail. And Chainmail owes its origin to earlier wargames, and that tends to be permutations built out of traditions that reach back into things like the Prussian army and HG Wells and far enough back we’re talking about medieval players doing improv story games around a table.

Why am I doing this? Gary Gygax’s creative guidance and how TSR was essentially a sequence of staggered failures supported by an almost Gainax-like income stream of extremely devoted fans, and that the vision of D&D as this perfected thing formed by his hands and not just the latest, extremely sloppy iteration on a play form that’s as old as dust? Why would I be here to point out that 3rd edition, when D&D got good, was also when it ‘got woke’ and ‘wasn’t being made by TSR any more?’

Well, because the least Gygax has decided to pop his head above the trenches and try to score cheap heat by simultaneously trading off base-line right-wing antagonism and his own father’s name. That makes it’s worth remembering that Gary Gygax wasn’t? Good at this?

Gary Gygax failed to build trust with Don Kaye. He brought in people based on their available money, not based on their ability to understand or sell the product he wanted to make for the audience, and they proceeded to run TSR into collapse-level debts twice. When he recruited Lorraine Williams, he was bringing into the company someone who proactively tried to destroy his brand because she didn’t see any value to it.

And this is the guy we’re meant to see as a sort of grandfather, a progenitor to the game of D&D, a unique voice whose name deserves to be invoked as a special praise, a saint without which our hobby wouldn’t exist. The first Dungeon Master, as it were, who kept setting up his play groups with the worst people for the job.

Gary Gygax has a mythology. He doesn’t actually have a great history. If you look into the history of TSR it’s not this whimsical Willy-Wonka style narrative of these people who just loved making games quietly trundling away on their greatest success. It was a box full of nerds who failed to communicate with one another, didn’t understand their audiences, chased sunk costs, and made a bunch of really bad decisions. TSR inflated itself on preposterous good luck, and then spent most of its twenty-four year lifespan flailing around desperately striving to pull itself out of its sequential history of failure.

The vision of Gary Gygax is gamer great man history. It’s the idea that D&D is this thing, an entity unto itself, where it was all the result of everyone showing up to play a game and Gary Gygax was, in a way, the DM at the top of the table. It’s a narrative that ignores all the complexities of the way D&D got made, and how D&D, the thing we conceive as being ‘made’ by Gary Gygax, is fundamentally an unrecognisable permutation of a play tradition that predates his birth, and is also a modern movement that has done the majority of its growth and development with an audience that largely hadn’t even been born until after he wasn’t making it any more.

And when you know that, suddenly, seeing someone saying they want to inherit or carry forward that legacy, it looks… sad?

D&D is not the product of one great genius who wrought it out of nothing. It’s a colossally complicated mess of pieces that relies on creative people and logistically minded people and empathic people and every single DM who has ever run the game is part of why D&D is a success, is part of how it has moved forward.

No gods,

No masters,

No Buck Rogers in the 25th century.

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