Too Many Games, My Dear Mozart
There’s an old line about the Golden Age of Science Fiction, claiming that it’s not the 1950s as is usually stated but is in fact about twelve. It rings worryingly true, not least for me since when I was twelve I happened to be reading an awful lot of science fiction from the 1950s. My childhood was a period of odd resurrections and reprints, with the cinematic serial ancestors of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark being shown on the telly, anthologies collecting old horror and sci-fi stories being sold by places as unlikely as Marks & Spencer, and American comics appearing in the UK years after their original publication and often in a different form, which meant that I discovered Neal Adams’ Batman strips more than a decade after they had initially appeared. Maybe that’s why I’ve never seen a problem with the role-playing game Traveller, which is often mocked for its outdated future technologies: in my head, science fiction is “Buster” Crabbe, Cyril M. Kornbluth and Forbidden Planet. My dreams of the future have always raced recklessly forward into the past.
Every so often, on one Internet forum or another, someone will ask about the Golden Age of Role-playing Games, the assumption being that there must actually be such a thing, one wonderful moment when everything fell perfectly together before the talons of corporate greed tore the heart out of it all. Such a thing is impossible to consider without admitting to nostalgia, because the greatest game you ever played is almost certain to be a game you haven’t actually touched for years. Looking through some of my old favourites recently I was particularly struck by the thought that I must have had a phenomenal tolerance for densely typed, poorly written, overly complicated rules back then… or maybe I didn’t actually play them as “by the book” as I’d like to believe. The notion of corporate greed spoiling it for everyone is laughable, too, particularly if you take the time to look through old magazines and fanzines from the early days as the gaming hobby started to become a viable business opportunity. People were complaining about it back in the mid-seventies just as they complain about it now and will continue to complain about it.
My Golden Age is probably a broad swathe of the 1980s. For every game that turned out yet another Dungeons & Dragons clone, mistaking more character classes and more spells for innovation, there was something else that was genuinely inventive, not least because the hobby was still young enough that not everything had been done. If you wanted to play a game about swashbuckling Musketeers then you could find one, but you couldn’t find half a dozen; and on the whole playing a different genre meant buying a different game. The marketplace was busy but not as crowded as you might expect, in part because every game tended to appeal to its own niche audience and also because regional distribution meant that not every game was equally available in all areas. UK players had a strong early liking for RuneQuest, which vied much more closely with Dungeons & Dragons here for a time than it did in America; the fact that Games Workshop, rapidly becoming the main source of such games in the UK, printed copies of RuneQuest here and supported it strongly in their White Dwarf magazine definitely influenced that. Ah, White Dwarf… two words conjuring instant nostalgia for Gamers of a Certain Age, who will inevitably adopt a soft-focus gaze over your shoulder and wistfully announce that they remember back when it were a proper magazine, lad…
Games sold in (relatively) huge numbers in the 1980s. They began to appear in real shops, actual toy shops and department stores, not just the strange, often rather intimidating (but now fondly remembered and sadly missed) specialist hobby shops where the staff were as likely to insult your choice of purchase and mock your lack of gaming experience as they were to actually take your money. Practically any idiot with a typewriter and money for printing and a couple of magazine adverts could sell respectable numbers of supplements and original games in the early part of the decade, when gamers were desperately hungry for new products and were quite prepared to buy something because it sounded interesting even if it didn’t technically fit the rules they used. Perhaps the strongest reason to consider it a Golden Age, if we must pin that badge on any moment in history, is that more of us were playing the same games back then. Typically you’d have your “go to” game, then several others you enjoyed or at least vaguely understood. Finding other players in that pre-Internet world wasn’t necessarily easy, but when you did find them the common ground was broad and firm. Maybe it was just the sheer relief at encountering another gamer, forcing people to adapt. For all of the petty arguments about which was the better game (which have not gone away, nor even abated) it was easy to have a broad understanding of the field and find fellow fans of Bushido or Champions or whatever because everyone was choosing their games from a smaller pool, usually whatever the local shop happened to stock. Every now and then someone would produce a game they’d sent away for, something exotic and foreign, shipped from America; I remember struggling to make space in my luggage when I returned from the USA so that I could fit in a load of Tékumel books I’d bought.
Anyone can publish an RPG now. It’ll quite probably look more professional, have better art, be better printed and maybe even have better rules than most of the stuff we lusted after in the 80s. It may also not exist as a physical item until someone buys it, thanks to PDFs and print on demand, reducing the financial risk for the producer. For someone wanting to make their own game this is the golden age, with Kickstarter campaigns, electronic distribution, easy communication and advanced publishing tools available cheaply. Except they’ll be lucky to sell a few hundred copies. The market died, battered by video games and the Internet, lost in time.
So the field of play is very different than it was, endlessly fractured into smaller and smaller, more specific, more focussed games, drilling down on ever more obscure topics like a ludographic Mandelbrot Set. A great many games out there now aren’t intended to be played in the ongoing, expansive manner of the old RPGs. Many others are remarkably cheap, many are free. There’s a game for every topic you can think of, pretty much, and the days when my own Metaphysical Ninja Maniac Chainsaw Vitamin Junkies was considered wacky are long gone. My shelves creak and groan under too many games as it is, I don’t actually need more; owning another game won’t actually mean I play more often. The market as it stands isn’t trying to woo me, because I’ve long passed that point where I look at a new product and think yes, that looks like fun, but I can already do that with my old copy of Dream Park. The occasional nostalgia release – limited anniversary reprints, leatherette editions – sparks interest, but there’s usually a good reason why I got rid of the original twenty years ago.
I’m looking at those tired shelves, selecting something to run for some friends in a couple of months. Something new, fresh, exciting! Something we never get to play! Or… or how about something we love, something we come back to because it does the job and we enjoy it? Hand me down the Old Faithful, Mozart, and put aside the distracting shinies.
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