The Gamesmaster (2020), by Flint Dille, promised to be the history book of the season. After all, Dille was Gary Gygax’s writing partner in the mid ’80s, coauthored the Sagard the Barbarian gamebooks, and then went on to run TSR West. Unfortunately, the book is a disappointment, because Dille seems to go out of his way to talk as little as he can about TSR.
The Gamesmaster has no table of contents. It also has no index. So, the best you can do to figure out the contents is to read the cover jacket. Unfortunately, much of the problem with The Gamesmaster is that it’s marketed dishonestly. The main blurb on the cover jacket has two parts: it says that Dille worked on animated features and that he designed “interactive novels” with Gary Gygax. So a reader might presume that those two topics get approximately equal coverage. Instead Dille somewhat off-handedly sticks in a few pages about Gygax every twenty or thirty pages that he spends talking about Megatron fighting GI Joe.
And good luck finding those couple of pages in this chaotic mess of an abbreviated autobiography — which also turns out to only cover a span of 6 or 7 years in any depth.
What We Learn About Flint Dille
Flint Dille says that the main thing that people know about him is that he’s a dumbass with a $7,000,000 trust fund — and he says neither of those things is true.
Nonetheless, his story seems a picture-perfect portrait of a dilettante: a young man idly bouncing between different creative endeavors, buoyed up by his family fortune and their control of the Buck Rogers IP. Perhaps he was a brilliant creator, perhaps a dabbler, it’s actually hard to tell from this autobiography; all we can definitively say is that he was involved in game design and animation in the ’80s.
What We Learn About Gary Gygax
Flint Dille’s portrayal of Gary Gygax during his Californian exile is perhaps the most interesting part of The Gamesmaster (at least for we RPG historians). It’s the story of the country mouse seduced by the city (and moreso, by the success of TSR at the time.) Dille paints the picture of a devoted Jehovah’s Witness suddenly overcome by his own success: now he’s living in an immense mansion in California, buying $1500 jeans, and hanging out with models. While describing the general atmosphere of the “D&D Mansion”, and without pointing the finger directly at Gygax, Dille says: “Did I see piles of cocaine, prostitutes, spank-movie actresses, bikers, and people who may or may not have been psychotic? Yes.”
Gygax has generally controlled a lot of the narrative about TSR’s first decade, and part of that narrative details how the Blume brothers were entirely responsible for TSR’s near failure in the ’80s. We know that just prior to Gygax’s time in California, people were getting fired in Wisconsin for complaining about an executive’s purchase of a company Porsche. But there seems to have been at least as much conspicuous consumption in California.
What We Learn About Creative Projects
The best info in the book is on creative projects by Gary Gygax and/or Flint Dille.
There are some nice details on “Sceptre of the Seven Souls”, which would have been the first D&D movie, if Gygax could have gotten it made. It was to be a genre-jumping movie that would have connected up all of TSR’s game worlds, offering up a preview of Gygax’s interest in the genre-generic Dangerous Journeys game (1992).
There’s also quite a bit on the Sagard game books. They started out as Conan Endless Quest books, which were to have more “advanced rules”, but over time they became Sagard instead — because Gygax decided that he needed to do a project separate from TSR as he increasingly fell out with the Blumes. The book suggests that Dille did the vast majority of the writing on the Sagard gamebooks (with a little story help from Ernie Gygax, Luke Gygax, and Tracy Mann).
Finally, Dille talks a bit about his own Agent 13. It derived from his pulp collection, and his co-author suggested that they pitch it as James Bonds meets Indiana Jones. Curiously, Dille doesn’t really talk about the TSR connection, even though they published all the novels (1986-1988), in connection with their Top Secret/SI game (1987), which even got an Agent 13 Sourcebook (1988).
What We Learn About the Battle for TSR
Dille goes out his way to say that he doesn’t want to talk about the battles for TSR, he doesn’t remember them, and he’s not willing to research them. Nonetheless, he offers a brief personal look from the point of view of his family, saying that when TSR’s line of credit got pulled, he suggested to Gary that his sister, Lorraine Williams, could help out.
So Gygax exercised options, allowing him to take over the company from the Blumes with Williams, and afterward he thought she was doing a great job of running the company. Again, Dille refuses to comment much on Williams’ subsequent takeover of the company herself, except to say that he believes that she saved TSR, and that it could have been done better.
What We Learn About TSR West
Actually, there’s some discussion of the Buck Rogers XXVc property, which began life at TSR West, but it’s totally stripped of context, so you wouldn’t even know that it was partially designed in California. Dille even refuses to talk about why the property was created, saying it was: “for a bunch of complicated reasons that are a subject all their own.”
This might have been a fine book if you were interested in Dille’s work on The Transformers, GI Joe, and a host of less noteworthy animated shows from the ’80s. As a history book for the roleplaying industry, it’s awful. Oh, there are interesting nuggets here and there, and it’s great to get Dille’s point-of-view on his sister and on Gygax’s time in California, but Dille generally seems to approach the roleplaying side of his work in the ’80s with great reluctance, often refusing to comment, refusing to research, and just eliding elements for no good reason. Not only does the book abruptly stop just before some of Dille’s most notable work for TSR at the end of the ’80s and start of the ’90s, but even what’s here is heavily glossed over.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #37 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.