Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Reflections on Game Shops and Nerd Space - Part 2

A profound change came over RPG shops in the early to mid 90's. White Wolf.

Certainly where I was (Lancaster and then Nottingham) the game shops were ever more dominated by the World of Darkness setting, because thats mostly what people were playing. I suppose there were plenty of reasons why this was so, but mostly because it was well written, well thought out, and quite interesting in an era when AD&D was in a catastrophic decline. TSR found they could sell a campaign setting quite well, so they kept producing more of them. Which meant each supplement or adventure for a specific setting was selling fewer and fewer copies. The incessant 'splat books' in the middle of the decade meant that even the die-hard fans were finding it hard keeping up. It seemed for a while that not only had playtesting gone out of the window, but basic proofreading seemed beyond TSR - as each product sold less they created more and more of them the quality declined and margins were squeezed. D&D as a product line had been canned and AD&D was dying.

White Wolf offered a breath of fresh air. Well, a breath of rancid decaying air. The original Vampire game was a superbly crafted thing, a game you were ultimately destined to lose as your neonate vampire character slowly lost a battle to keep their humanity against an inner beast. It was then joined by endless supplements providing character options, and ever more games adding to the mythos (Werewold, Mage, Wraith...). It was interesting, innovative and well crafted - with a system of play so easy even the most casual observer could get it. Gone was THAC0 - in was attribute + skill, and thats how many dice you roll. For everything. 

This became a sort of a juggernaut in game spaces, it became the default game for many groups and this was reflected in what was stocked in the game shops. Everyone suddenly wore black. They had long hair. They were pale. But they were way louder and if not more exuberant at least more talkative than other gamers had been. The nerd-rage one upmanship was still there, but it was a bit louder, brasher, gothier sort. You could buy any dice you wanted so long as you didn't mind that they were dappled black and you didn't want any d10's (all you need in WoD, so it was all they bought). One other thing that the domination of such spaces by WoD did achieve was it brought way more of a gender balance to gaming. Whether it was the mythos, the style, or the codification of a more narrative, social gaming style I'm not sure, but it certainly attacted more women into gaming and game spaces. But there were ways they were like the D&D crowd - they had one system, one setting, that was their thing and they stuck to it.

But they were still nerd spaces - so there were the appropriate tensions between different flavours of gamers, different mythos fans. The strain in game shops lacking a strong Dungeons and Dragons to support sales was apparent though - but with chains like Forbidden Planet and Travelling Man having a half decent array of games and comics they became sort of a successor to Games Workshop. That was still going strong of course (and still is, although I don't like the name 'Warhammer' above the shop door as much as I liked Games Workshop), but they were by now only selling their own products, and unless you were willing to make a substantial investment therein it was by now its own thing, with its own gamers in their own space. 

For the most part gamers went to the RPG section of such shops, comic readers went to the other end, and the two never met. Comics weren't in a healthy state at the time, sales were low (this was before even the X-Men films), and overlap of gamers and comic nerds was relatively low. But there was another new kid in town - the collectible card game. Magic: The Gathering and the like - these games were selling like wildfire. I remember that the guy running one of the game shops in Cambridge hated these games and didn't sell them - that shop didn't last long.

By the end of the decade though, nerd spaces were suffering. Even in Cambridge we were about to lose one of our game shops and the other one was struggling for life - D&D was a dead product line after TSR went tits up, and it had been bought out by Wizards (who had made their cash in collectible card games). The White Wolf thing had more or less run its course, and wasn't selling in the volume it had. There wasn't much that was really exciting coming to market, and it felt like everywhere that wasn't Games Workshop was going to fold. Nerd spaces were chugging on, but comic book shops were stocking ever fewer RPG's. And then came 3rd ed, and then came the superhero film craze. And again, everything changed.

Friday, 21 April 2017

The Game Shop and Reflections on Nerd Space, part 1...

So there was a brief discussion on Twitter among some old school pen and paper podcasters talking about game shop memories, and it got me thinking about the game shops and spaces I've frequented over the years.

Now the thing is, as a RPG gamer in the '80s and '90s I had no cash. Like, sometimes literally, I was skint. The '90s was my sixth form and degrees, the 80s was being a kid. But from as soon as I discovered D&D way back in, what, 1983 this was something I was out looking for in the shops even if I couldn't afford to buy anything.

There was a dedicated RPG shop down near the Worswick Street end of Clayton Street in Newcastle, and there were two hobby/model shops Beatties (also on Pilgrim Street) and Liesure World. Today of course there's the splendid little Nerd cluster with Travelling Man, Geek Retreat and Forbidden Planet - they're light, fun, and full of people. But I'd have said that the game shop  back then was sort of was seedy, but it wasn't any more so than many of the other shops around the outskirts of Newcastle. This wasn't a wealthy era, so you'd get a lot of niche shops able to spring up and sort of do ok in the cheaper parts of town (many like Kard Bar and Attica seemed to thrive on the run-down coolness). Run down would be wrong - cheap would be the word. A guy, a counter, and racks of books and miniatures, without a table to sit and play at, or any kind of in-store activities. Beatties and Leisure World were worse, they had smaller choice of games (being primarily model shops) and what they had never seemed to get updated. The D&D modules would sell and you were left with the Indiana Jones modules. For years. 

So there wasn't much of a buzz about these places. You didn't go to game shops to meet other people, you went to buy games and supplements but, mostly, not to. They weren't so much grumpy as un-engaging. Comic book shops (there was one in a double-decker portacabin up in the Haymarket) and second hand record shops had a different vibe - you could hang out, read, talk. Nerd space wasn't well defined - you went, you got something, you left. Or you sat behind the stacks of comics reading old issues of Green Lantern until you were caught.

Then along came Games Workshop - I believe at the same time as Games World closed in Newcastle? Whether that was a buy out of the other shop or whether it was just they guys who'd worked there getting a proper job I never knew - but you could play games. In the shop. And to begin with it wasn't just their own branded games, they sold games by many different companies (its often forgotten these days that GW re-printed a lot of American games to sell in the UK). You could suddenly get copies of Dragon magazine there. Finally there was something approaching a scene for gaming. By the late '80s games like Toon, Paranoia, Middle Earth Roleplaying and of course Call of Cthulhu were all around, and your options were vast. Forbidden planet came along, which in Newcastle meant you had a chance of running in to one or two of the guys who played in the band XLR8R or someone who drew for Viz (still got a signed Big Hard Number 2). Nerd space was evolving, it was changing into somewhere you might actually want to be.

Things went along as they were in nerd space shops with a typical cast of characters - nerdy guys, kids who couldn't afford anything, etc. And the shops were exactly what you'd expect - uncomfortable, a little malodorous at times, and full of competitive geekery. In short, nerd safe spaces. An important and pleasing asset.

I moved to Lancaster in 1992, and there was a little comic/scifi/game shop by the bus station that was just about what you'd imagine. Not a big range, but I did meet a far larger range of gamers at University. Including (shock, horror) girls. Like, in the RPG society and in the SciFi club. Which I thought was great but you could see it was a culture shock for some of the young chaps there. Its not that they didn't want women to interact with. Far from it. Mostly they really, really wanted to hang out with girls. They just had no idea how to - and that was fine because for the most part the women were every bit as clueless as the men. But this was the beginning of gaming slowly dragging itself out of its mothers basement - and pretty much all of the games I ran and played in at University were mixed sex. It wasn't particularly noteworthy, so not particularly comment worthy. And it didn't really change the dynamics of tabletop roleplaying in any particular sense. And, yes, these were kids at college, of course they got up to kids at college things.

Serious gamers played AD&D or Ars Magica. Or (shudder) Pendragon. But there was a change afoot. I think in 1993 I first encountered a new kid on the block that would change nerd space. And its name was World of Darnkess. Gaming, and nerd spaces, were about to change...