Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Rhyme

All that is left to carry on the tradition are a few small companies like Fresno Game Associates, run as labors of love by hobbyists, who manage, in these days of desktop publishing, to produce games of remarkably high graphic quality which are, by and large, thoroughly derivative and quite mediocre. Where wargames once sold in the hundreds of thousands, a game that sells a few thousand units is accounted a success; an industry that once sold in department and chain stores across the country now has products only in a few scattered hobby outlets. Wargaming is not quite extinct, no; but all that remains are the reflex twitches of a still-warm corpse.

It is hard for those of us who grew up with wargames, who loved them, who spent so many years studying them and taking them seriously as works of scholarship and art, it is hard for us to acknowledge this. We keep on hoping for some last minute reprieve, some renaissance; how could so much effort, so much inspired work, go for nought? How can it be that all of our labors will be forgotten? Yet it is so: whole artforms, whole genres grow and disappear. Where now is vaudeville? Radio drama? The air story? Perhaps board wargaming will survive in some form, greatly diminished from its glory days, as have poetry and the western; but that is all that can be hoped for.

From a very interesting essay by Greg Costikyan on the decline and fall of RPGs' big brother. Thanks to Justin Alexander for pointing me toward it.

20 comments:

  1. Oh, how I wish that the old SPI catalog was still in print (another outfit has the rights, and has a paltry few for sale). I remember those games so well; they (and Avalon Hill, of course) brought me into role-playing. War in Europe, PRESTAGS, Next War, War of the Ring, Agincourt, World War 3, War in the East... ah, the Cold War wouldn't have been nearly so interesting without watching the Soviets pour through the Fulda Gap a dozen or more times during high school...

    That essay has been kicking around the web for several years, and always makes me lament how things have gone. James, if you email me your address, I will be happy to send you an "SPI Died For Your Sins" button; I had some done up online a while ago. I wear them at conventions, to let people know that some of us still remember. Sometimes, someone actually knows what it means.

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  2. What a great essay. I played more than my fair share of AH games (and Costikyan games). I'm GMing WFRP these days, but still play Panzer Leader (a home-made kit) and I'm looking forward to the release of Panzerblitz:HOD this or next month (after almost 20 months on pre-order).

    We are still around. The grognards.

    Thanks for the link!

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  3. Yes we are still here; and unfortunately, so too are the computer games, online games, and a declining number of kids who socialize to find their gaming fun outlet. So too is the GIANT Habore (oops, sorry: Hasbro), that HAS-gobbled-up-big-BRO, expanded like a gargantuan whale devouring the world of games.

    Even many once-dominant German board game companies have been cooperating amongst themselves in order to stem off the tide of Hasbro's Brands, which have knocked once mightily produced and stylishly crafted games of wood and for all appearances seemingly hand-crafted, off shelves across Europe, replacing them with discounted American breeds made of plastic.

    The battle fronts are everywhere, its seems.

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  4. Here's an interesting link:

    http://www.armchairgeneral.com/the-state-of-wargaming.htm?page=1&cat=59

    There's no doubt that what TSR did to SPI furthered the decline in a major way that wargaming was already heading towards. And I might add, what TSR then did to GDW when suing them over EGG's new game then titled, "Dangerous Dimensions" didn't help that wargaming giant, either. This article sheds some updated facts on that decline and where the industry stood a few years ago (standing grimly, so it seems).

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  5. Speaking of the RPG community, I have found it fragments very easily. Cliques seem to form even over the the smallest differences, and I don't think this serves us well.

    IMHO, we need to unite the hobbyist RPG community under very simple terms.

    As an experiment, a few months ago I started collecting URLs of table-top RPG forums. With little effort, I was able to gather 40 different URLs. I'd like to see this concept extended to a listing of RPG zines, blogs, game group finders, cons, etc. -A community roster, if you will. Focused on community, not material. I'm tempted to try this myself. Ideally, I'll likely host it under a non-company-affiliated domain and make the 'resource' available as a neutral add-on to anyone's online material. Like I said, this is just incubating but I thought I'd throw it out there.

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  6. BTW, I hope you'll excuse the linkout above James. Like I said, this really needs to be neutrally-hosted if it develops.

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  7. As late as 1991, a general games shop might have shelves of wargames - maybe even as much display space as that devoted to RPGs. In my experience, it was for historical miniatures that one needed to go to a specialty stockist.

    A few years later, I wandered into a "comics & games" store ... and it was as if the hobby had been hit by an "extinction event" meteorite. I was seriously shocked.

    What really sucked was that most of my collection had been casualty of disasters natural and otherwise.

    There are still wargames clubs, although miniatures play may dominate now. Advances in desktop publishing suggest to me the possibility of a "grass roots" revival some time.

    That's probably what it would take to get the hobby back even to its late-'80s prominence. Firms such as GMT are doing the historical thing, but I see an attempt to appeal more to the general gamer. I see more emphasis on "creative game design" involving cards and so on than on the "simulation" research that went into old-style hex/counters/dice games.

    Victory's games were excellent for the hard core, but we don't all always have that kind of time and energy. It's nice to have some less overwhelming offerings as well.

    S&T (when it was good) offered a lot of those, on a wide variety of topics. I always liked to read the proposals and see how they got rated. They surveys, IIRC, included questions about different approaches/mechanics and so on.

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  8. yes, this is a fairly old article, and true. I grew up being taught that TSR is evil (I got into wargaming through my dad); my early experiences with roleplaying were MERP and Rolemaster. In fact, I was never put off by Rolemaster's charts because I was used to CRTs from wargames.

    Nevertheless I still play wargames nearly every weekend, and many of them are new, published by companies like GMT and MMP. It's a great hobby!

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  9. JS Said: "Speaking of the RPG community, I have found it fragments very easily. Cliques seem to form even over the the smallest differences, and I don't think this serves us well."

    Divide and conquer, so they say. WotC knows that they cannot protect their mechanic from being reproduced,and thus their eventual limited foresight tells them to remake said mechanic and deconstruct time and time again. Noteworthy in their latest release is the titling of their monsters in such a way that protects such IP raids and in turn produces a conformist view regarding their eventual inclusion in other media (computer games anyone).

    The continued mass marketing of young blood through these various outlets and mediums coupled with the destabilization of the OGL as now permitted, and the support of deconstruction rise and falls, has kept their eventual competitors shuffling rather than walking their own directions.

    I for one would never support or condone a company that beds with the 4th edition set of rules, as this iteration by far leads us solidly on the path of disenchantment and mesmeric mummery.

    I too have had my thoughts upon the eventual solidification--cooperation--of fan and game concerns ever since my return to the industry in 2000. However, there are too many factions and all too fragmented with splitting hairs or straining at the gnat to swallow the camel.

    T$R foresaw this and indeed is what they were working towards: Divide and conquer. Mass produce, dominate and control, so they were able to dispense with vision (EGG and others) to be replaced by marketing. That WotC now carries the banner for them after 1997 is ironic, IMO, but not surprising.

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  10. LotGD:I too have had my thoughts upon the eventual solidification--cooperation--of fan and game concerns ever since my return to the industry in 2000. However, there are too many factions and all too fragmented with splitting hairs or straining at the gnat to swallow the camel.

    I fear you may be right. And that's where I hesitate. However, IMHO I think an effort could succeed if it were blind in its inclusiveness, setting only the most basic of definitions. Even going so far as to extend open arms to the giant and its friends. Let the giants push RPG hobbyism away if they like, we needn't do it for them. If we can co-exist with 4e home-brewing (or even embrace it), it might be very difficult for the giants to redefine this hobby. IMHO, if we unite to support hobbyism, there's going to come a point where the giants will say "I'm not so comfortable with this." That's when we know the old-school spirit is alive and well. -Maybe I'm crazy and wrong, but I don't see the current course of things leading to a good place.

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  11. All that is left to carry on the tradition are a few small companies like Fresno Game Associates, run as labors of love by hobbyists, who manage, in these days of desktop publishing, to produce games of remarkably high graphic quality which are, by and large, thoroughly derivative and quite mediocre.

    There, I think, is a huge difference between RPGs and wargames.

    The hobbyist stuff in RPGs is often poor graphically but it's where the real creativity is. First the Forgies and now the old school renn are turning out imaginative games and materials.

    When was the last time something from WW or WotC generated the kind of controversy and discussion that Carcosa did? Love it or hate it but it had the edginess, horror, and ability to "play a monster" WW brags about but never delivers (which is a big part of the controversy). When was the last time something as weird and experimental as "Lacuna Part I. The Creation of the Mystery and the Girl from Blue City" came out from any "professional" company. Evil Hat games snagged The Dresden Files license (although as a general rule I think licenses are bad for the hobby this is a clear sign of what "hobbyists" can do in RPGs). I just bought two new pdf games, one from Troll Lords and one from a one man UK shop, Silver Branch Games. The later is about the only company that can claim "we print, Herb buys".

    So, we have one advantage over wargames. Our creativity and our spirit is in the hobbyists and not the companies.

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  12. This article is pretty dated, as it misses the impact technology has had to revitalize the wargame industry. After all, companies like GMT and others are putting out really nice products, thanks in large part to better computer design and printing technology. The same is true for RPGs (witness the proliferation of blogs, print on demand products, and all the rest). I would say that reports of the death of wargaming are somewhat exaggerated! Ditto to RPGs. And, thanks to the internet, both oldtimers and new kids can make up for the lack of good hobby stores. I am very optimistic for the future of both types of gaming!

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  13. BTW, I hope you'll excuse the linkout above James.

    It's relevant to the discussion at hand, so no worries.

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  14. I am very optimistic for the future of both types of gaming!

    As hobbies, I am too. I think we might be on the verge of some really great things. As industries, though, I'm less sanguine. I'm not yet convinced that tabletop RPGs can be made profitable on a mass level ever again and I'm fine with that. Indeed, I actually prefer it that way.

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  15. I got your email, James. I'll try to get that out this weekend.

    I'm not yet convinced that tabletop RPGs can be made profitable on a mass level ever again and I'm fine with that.

    Isn't WotC making gobs of money with 4E? Or am I misunderstanding what you're saying?

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  16. Yes, and they launched the Axis and Allies line, too,but wither the rest of the fine AH game titles?

    Perhaps James meant outside of them, is what I'm guessing.

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  17. Isn't WotC making gobs of money with 4E? Or am I misunderstanding what you're saying?

    Whether it's making lots of money, I can't say with any certainty. What I do think is likely, though, is that it's making much less money than D&D did at the height of its faddishness and that no other company besides WotC is making gobs of money from RPGs. That's not to say there is no money in the hobby, only that it's much less than going into video or even board games.

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  18. Perhaps James meant outside of them, is what I'm guessing.

    That's correct.

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  19. Whenever someone uses “derivative” as a criticism, that’s a red flag for me that makes me skeptical of their point. Anyway...

    For me, computer wargames are almost always preferable to tabletop. (My son and I broke out the Heroscape just last week, so not completely but mostly.) Whereas computer RPGs and and tabletop RPGs are only superficially similar.

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