When not regaling my children with tales of airbrushed van murals, I sometimes tell them of these strange things known as "catalog stores." Growing up at the dawn of the 21st century, it's hard for them to imagine the idea of going into a store much of whose stock isn't on display and some of which has to be special ordered to purchase (and will arrive in your hands only days or even weeks later). The best analogy I've been able to offer them is that catalog stores were "like Amazon, except you had to go to a store to place your order and you often didn't get what you ordered immediately." You could also order by phone too, as I remember my mother sometimes doing in the months before Christmas.
When I got into the hobby in late 1979/early 1980, you could buy RPGs almost everywhere, including through catalog stores, like Sears. My first AD&D book, the Monster Manual was purchased this way (from Sears, I think). After reading this post over on Al's blog, I spent a short time poking around the web to find some scans of Christmas catalogs from around the time I started gaming. So far, I only found scans from a little later than the period I'm talking about, but it's nonetheless fascinating to see. Here's one from a 1981 Montgomery Ward catalog:
As you can see, D&D is only present in its late, unlamented electronic boardgame form. I never owned that game myself, but I knew someone who did and it was awful, especially considering it retailed for $44.88. More interesting are those three games -- Merlin, Knights of King Arthur, and Crypt of the Sorcerer -- which were, if I remember, produced by Heritage USA, a miniatures company. The games all include minis and paints, along with maps and simple rules. Again, I never owned them, but I do remember them. Wizard's Quest from Avalon Hill is there too, along with a Ouija board, because, you know, it all makes sense, right? Let's not forget Dark Tower, a much better electronic boardgame than the D&D one.
Here are two pages from a 1983 Sears catalog and are even more interesting:
Here we find not only D&D and AD&D -- with miniatures! -- but also Star Frontiers, Traveller, and Starfleet Battles. If ever anyone needed proof that, even in 1983, tabletop "gaming" broadly defined was way more popular and mainstream than it is today, simply consider the notion of Starfleet Battles being readily available through the Sears Wishbook.
But it gets better:
FASA's Star Trek Roleplaying Game and Space Opera, along with several Avalon Hill bookcase games, including Squad Leader -- all displayed on the same page as games like Risk and Trivial Pursuit. It's as if, back then, no one treated these games as if they were any different than any other kind of game.
That, to me anyway, is the biggest way that the hobby has changed from when I was a young person. In those days, sure, roleplaying was new and a little weird, but it hadn't yet been ghettoized. Kids (and adults) of all sorts played RPGs; it wasn't just a "nerd thing." I've noted before that playing D&D was one of the few activities I ever participated in where I got to hang out with guys who otherwise wouldn't have had much to do with a shy, bookish kid like me. I never forged any deep and abiding friendships with, say, the metalheads or jocks I played D&D with at library meet-ups and other such gatherings, but the fact that I interacted with them at all says a lot about how widespread a fad these games were back in the late 70s and early 80s -- so widespread, in fact, that you could buy them through Sears or Montgomery Ward.
(I'm going to keep looking for more catalog scans from the same time period. If anyone else finds some, please leave a note in the comments. I'd love to see them.)