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.

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