Ganderson wisely turns to Scott Connors, editor of Night Shade Books' The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, for some insightful quotes, but it's actually another Night Shade editor, Jeremy Lassen, whose comments struck a strongest chord with me. In discussing the short-lived Golden Age of the pulps, Lassen explains,
Weird Tales and the pulp magazines came along just as magazines––as the centerpiece for popular culture––were going away. Many of the general fiction magazines folded pretty early in the century, but because there wasn’t a lot of weird fiction in radio and movies, the niche magazines, whose circulation was smaller than the general magazines, actually lasted longer.I'm not yet prepared to defend the notion, because I'm still thinking it through and, truthfully, lack the evidence to support it, but I see a parallel with the Golden Age of roleplaying games. There are many differences, of course, not least being that gaming's Golden Age lasted barely a decade rather than two. Even so, I can't help but think that the early success and later mass market popularity of RPGs owes to the fact that it was one of the few outlets for people whose imaginations were fired primarily by fantasy and science fiction.
It was rare in the late 70s and early 80s to meet fans of genre fiction who weren't also gamers and certainly the earliest gamers consisted inordinately of people who were already involved in science fiction and fantasy fandom, as my recent interview with Lee Gold makes clear. Hard though it is to believe, in those days, fantasy and science fiction were not as pervasive as they are today. Indeed, the distinction between the two genres was esoteric and not reflected in popular conceptions of them, which tended to lump them into a single broad category.
I wonder then if gaming was in fact too successful for its long-term viability. Lassen says something similar about the weird fiction market in which Smith thrived:
Science fiction/fantasy is a declining literature in the broader sense of pop culture, I think, in part, because [science fiction has] conquered the world. Back in 1982 there were one or two big science fiction films a year if you were lucky. Pretty much every video game that comes out these days is a science fiction plot. Everywhere you look there are science fiction conceits and ideas that 25 years ago were not mainstream.The same holds for roleplaying games, I think, and this may well explain why it is that gaming represents an ever-smaller sub-set of the much larger pool of people who enjoy fantasy and science fiction than was once the case. I don't personally see this as a bad thing in and of itself, but then I'm not trying to find a way to recreate the gaming fad of the 80s. I pity anyone whose job it is, though.