TSR vs. Wizards of the Coast: Who Owns DnD?

Dungeons & Dragons has had a storied history, going through roughly 5.5 editions and inspiring a host of character-driven tabletop games, or TTRPGs as they are known these days.

However, not many people know a lot about the people and companies behind D&D

The answer to the question, “Who Owns D&D?” is pretty simple. It’s Wizards of the Coast, but how we got to this point is more interesting.  

While a lot of this information is pretty easy to accumulate through the linked references on Wikipedia and Wizards of the Coast’s website, we’ve gathered that information all in one convenient place so that you can get a primer on how D&D got started and became the massive phenomenon it is today. 

D&D Origins

Dungeons & Dragons is probably the most famous tabletop roleplaying game out there. It got that way by being a pioneer in the field.

In the long-lost days of its invention (the early 1970s), many tabletop roleplaying games weren’t about roleplaying at all. 

Instead, they were primarily wargames, essentially simulations of battles where players would control and coordinate large arrays of troops.

A lot of the original D&D aesthetic and rules were ported over from a game called Chainmail that the famous Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren wrote together. 

That game had its battles take place in a medieval fantasy setting with wizards and dragons taking the stage in a play populated with shining knights with shining swords.

Since then, there have been several iterations of Dungeons & Dragons over the years.

OD&D, also known as the Original edition, was more like an individual character-focused version of wargaming with combat rules taken from that system. 

Later, the 2nd edition of D&D would come out as both a basic rulebook and a more advanced one (AD&D). 

3rd edition is when D&D started to look like what it does today, though there’s still a lot different about it compared to 5e.

It was majorly revised with 3.5, and these days either 3.5 or Pathfinder (an extension and alternate branch of the 3rd edition rules) are what most people are talking about when they reference classic D&D.

Finally, there’s 5e, the edition you’re probably already familiar with.

And… 4th edition… I guess. This one was weird and changed a lot of the standard rules common between 3.5 and 5e about how a round is structured and what a character can and can’t do.

No one talks about it much, but there are still a few dedicated players out there.

If you’re unfamiliar with the D&D editions and their names, you might find this brief summary helpful!

  • OD&D (The original)
  • AD&D (2nd edition)
  • 3rd edition/3.5 (When D&D really came into its own)
  • 4th edition (a weird iteration not many people play)
  • The oh-so-familiar 5th Edition

What Does TSR Stand For? 

TSR was the original company (and partnership) created by Gary Gygax, Don Kaye, and Brian Blume to create, print, and sell D&D rulebooks. 

D&D was originally developed by Gary Gygax, Don Kaye, Brian Blume, and Dave Arneson.

Whole articles could be written about the development of D&D, but for now, we’ll just say that these were the people instrumental in creating the early drafts of what would eventually become the D&D we’re familiar with today.

As for the name of their company, the letters stand for Tactical Studies Rules; that’s rules for tactical studies, not rules that are tactical.

The company started out on a shoestring budget and began putting together core rulebooks for the game, printing, and selling them.

Those books turned out to be incredibly popular. 

By 1980, the company had finished putting out its rulebooks for 2nd edition, and classic classes like the thief and the paladin had been added to the game.

There was a lot of demand for what had started out as a variation on a pretty niche hobby. 

You have to remember that the very first edition of D&D would have been pretty dense for anyone who wasn’t already familiar with the standard kind of rules for wargames.

Despite that, 1980 saw 12,000 copies of the basic rulebook sold each month. 

Things went well, really well, for more than a decade. TSR even opened a UK branch just to meet demand. But alas, every market changes. 

The 90s brought with them a new era of rpg and technological development, and TSR felt the pressure to provide innovations.

Moreover, there was a great deal of politicking in the company, which resulted in Gary Gygax being forced out, and further legal troubles as TSR sought to prevent Gygax from developing an RPG that might compete with D&D

These and other factors led to TSRs decline, and by the late 1990s, the company was in rough shape. 

What Happened to TSR? 

It was in 1997 that Wizards of the Coast decided to buy TSR and subsume it into their own brand. 

For those not familiar, WoTC was the company behind a little-known game called Magic the Gathering. If you’re unfamiliar with it, you might have missed the sarcasm in that last sentence. 

Magic the Gathering is a pretty massive collectible card game, and it was even bigger in the 90s, dominating the market.

With that kind of influence, Wizards was able to snatch up D&D and begin revitalizing it with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th editions

Plus, Wizards was then able to merge the universes together, and you’ll often find strong references to D&D in Magic cards, like Fireball and Invisible Stalker, and settings in D&D (like Ravnica) that show up in Magic the Gathering. 

Of course, building up D&D again in the face of the Satanic panic of the 90s, some truly awful D&D movies, and the strained relations with Gary Gygax was not a simple task.

Lots of work went into getting back on good terms with Gygax and his family and making D&D broadly appealing. 

These days, it’s easy to take for granted D&D’s widespread popularity with popular campaigns like Critical Role, but there was a time when D&D might have simply stopped being published and supported except for small communities on the internet dedicated to one of the original TTRPGs. 

TSR: A Short Epilogue

You might have heard of TSR cropping up relatively recently despite the tale of acquisition I just told. 

That’s because a new company with the same name was created to sell legacy D&D products with Wizards of the Coast’s approval. 

They’ve been in the news off and on over the last few years due to attempts to crowd-fund a lawsuit against Wizards of the Coast. 

Ostensibly, this legal action revolves around copyright issues and defamation since Wizards of the Coast has taken to issuing a warning on legacy content about some of the prejudices represented in them. 

That said, their claims are pretty shaky, and I recommend seriously looking into some of these details before considering giving them money.

While Wizards of the Coast can’t prevent TSR from using the TSR name, they do unequivocally own the intellectual property rights to D&D

The new TSR is a pretty weird follow-up to the original TSR’s storied history, but it’s important to remember it is just a different company with the same name. 

Hopefully, the rest of this article has given you a little insight into the 50-year development of the D&D we know today.