Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: Toys "R" Us

Issue #97 (May 1985) contained an advertisement that, as is often the case, nicely illustrates a difference between the hobby of a quarter-century ago and the present:
I've remarked many times before that, in my youth, RPGs could be found just about everywhere, including department stores. Toy stores, like Toys "R" Us, not only carried roleplaying games but also hex-and-chit wargames, as well as miniatures and paints. Even as late as 1985, by which point the hobby was probably already declining, it wasn't unusual to see ads like this one -- and not just in the pages of Dragon either. I distinctly recall seeing this ad (or one very like it) in a local newspaper. Also of interest are the prices listed. The Mentzer-edited Basic Set sold for $8.96, which is less than $20 in today's money. That's a pretty good deal; I can't think of the last time a non-crippleware RPG cost so little.

34 comments:

  1. You can get D&D and a few other RPG products in the big mainstream bookshop in the city where I live. So there is still some presence on the high street.

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  2. This has less to do with the nature of the hobby and more to do with the nature of large chains. Book stores cater to people buying books and so they carry gaming books from the larger companies. Department stores pretty only deal in clothing, makeup, and other type "fashion" related accessories. Toy Stores like Toys 'R Us are competing head to head with Wal-Mart and so they closely keep their inventory to what sells the best. Niche products like those you have to hunt down in hobby shops or online have no place in the larger market as far as big box stores are concerned.

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  3. I think the changes in retail have as much to do with this as the decline of the hobby. Toys“R”Us is very different today than it was then. Bookstores too. And it isn’t only the effect of the Internet. Those stores were changing even before e-commerce took off.

    In trade, though, we have non-crippleware RPGs for $0!

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  4. @Karate Badger:

    A crippleware RPG, if I get what James had in mind, is a game that doesn't have all the rules needed to play it, instead serializing them out over a series of supplements. AEG was infamous for this, with "Brave New World," their superhero game, probably being the most egregious example.

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  5. I remember these ads.

    But you can still go to Toy-R-Us and buy the D&D starter kit still (and the D&D starter set for 3.5 a few years back).

    I don't know if the new D&D Starter set counts as "cripple ware", it does have everything you need to get started and go on to 2nd level. So to me that is a "Basic set".

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  6. All the hardcovers used to be available in Toys-R-Us once upon a time as well and often cheaper than once could find at the FLGS or book store.

    There were shifts in distribution channels in the late 80's and 90's and in overall sales that saw game products disappear from the number of stores they were once available in along with the decline of the fad aspect of D&D.

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  7. Speaking of the former ubiquity of role-playing games, this reminds me of a full-color advertisement I saw in the Comics pages of a mainstream newspaper's Sunday edition in the early 1980s. It was a TSR ad promoting a contest the prize of which was a copy of every boxed role-playing game sold by TSR at the time, including, if memory serves, D&D Basic Set, D&D Expert Set, Top Secret, Gamma World, Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, and Dawn Patrol (marginally a role-playing game). I can't remember if Boot Hill was included. There might have been some others. At the time I was quite impressed by TSR's advertising reach, and I really wanted to win that contest (even though it would mean some duplications in my collection).

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  8. I get your point about rpg's no longer being as commercially mainstream as they used to, but I think the "good old days" implication is misleading.

    Rpg's are more ubiquitous than they've ever been before; they're available anywhere you can access a web browser. Rpg's are cheaper than they've ever been before; dozens of excellent complete games are available for no cost. The social support system for gaming is better than its ever been before; its ridiculously easy to find players, find cons and get good gaming advice.

    Do I have a twinge of nostalgia for being able to look up D&D Basic in the Sears catalog and get a monthly hardcopy Dragon magazine? Yes. But would I go back to that over what we have today? Never.

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  9. On a related topic -- whether D&D still infuses pop culture like it once did. I encountered a "pop culture" D&D easter egg about a week ago on the show "White Collar." Mozzie was talking about another character and said:

    "I sense much good in him..." (Star Wars reference) which was followed by, "okay, Chaotic Good." (D&D reference).

    The reference was made casually as if a part of the audience would just "get it."

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  10. It would be nice if most of the audience DID get it, but I don't think they did. I usually have to point it out to others when that sort of thing happens.

    Be it nostalgia, or something else, i too long for the "good old days" of gaming. About half the games that I know are going on right now are happening with pbp, or skype, etc. Only a few table top games are going on -- that I am familiar with.

    And for me, nothing compares to that. So, yes, I miss the "golden age" of D&D too.

    But, to each his own.

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  11. Crippleware games, eh? Brilliant marketing concept. I await the coming of Crippleware Chess™ - coming soon: the fantastic Knights and Bishops Expansion Pack, just £19.99!

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  12. I'm going to guess that only a few T's r U's in select areas sold rpg stuff. Never saw anything at the one in my area, and it is a fairly major one.

    Christian: D&D name dropping has been going on a long time. One of my faves is a cast member as Dan Quail (Dan always being the butt of jokes about being so young) on an early 90's SNL making the comment "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is better than regular Dungeons and Dragons!"

    These days if you watch a decent amount of TV (couple hours a day like me) you'll hear a D&D reference at least a couple times a week. More if you watch G4. D&D and Cthulhu dropping is very common nowadays.

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  13. Concerning pop culture, have you not seen the RPG episode of community!!

    It even has a man painted completely black, with white hair. Because he's playing a drow wizard.

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  14. "I'm going to guess that only a few T's r U's in select areas sold rpg stuff. Never saw anything at the one in my area, and it is a fairly major one."

    @Brunomac -

    Naw, Toys-R-Us carried TSR product pretty much everywhere. I moved around the country a lot during the time period of '79 - '84, and they had AD&D and D&D everywhere I went. Maybe you just didn't notice? or lived in the a "Footloose" type town where the religious fanatics lobbied to keep it off the shelves?

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  15. Dhowarth: No Footloose town. West Los Angeles, so pretty opposite. Then again I never looked for rpgs at TrU. Maybe I just missed it because I was checking out the action figs or video games.

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  16. @e.t. Smith

    while I understand what you are saying, I think the nostalgia for that era was that it wasn't as insular. It's true that anything you want is a click away and in some ways it's easier to connect (virtually) with players. But in alot of ways we've regressed to the grognard era that preceded D&D: an self contained community bound together virtually (then it was zines & newsletters, today it's the web; then it was mail order if you didn't have a FLGS, today its it's online ordering if you dont have a FLGS or are too cheap to support it) with periodic meetings in real life (game sessions, cons).

    We're doin' okay but I don't think we're flourishing like these ads indicate.

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  17. I disagree with you James is stating that the hobby was "already declining" by 1985. I think you missed the mark by about ten years. By 1995, with the advent of M:tG and advances in computer gaming did RPGs stop being a fad and faded into the niche market...

    Which is a good thing, IMO.

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  18. I got my official AD&D miniatures sets at the Toys-R-Us in Totowa, NJ.

    And the Expert Set in a Bradlees, I think.

    Ah, the good old days. :)

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  19. I remember as late as '95 or '96 still seeing D&D boxed sets at Toys 'R' Us. Mainly in the clearance aisle.

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  20. To attest to what James was saying, the bulk of my early wargames and RPG book purchases were in a Hobby Shop here in Phoenix. However, amongst the stranger places I picked up games were the following:

    Picked up my set of AD&D 1st Edition Core Books (PHB, DMG, MM) at a Sears.

    Picked up Avalon Hill's Panzer Leader at a Walgreens.

    While Kaybee Toys never carried much in the way of board wargames or RPGs, you could walk into just about any Toys R Us, or any of the other big toy retailers at the time and pick from a selection of Avalon Hill wargames and games in their Leisure and Sports lines as well as TSR, some Games Workshop, some GDW, and a few other RPGs. This was, as James states as true as late as the mid-1980's.

    I'd also suggest that availability online vs. shelf space in a broader department store or specialty retailer are two different thinks. There is still value to a manufacturer having a D&D Basic set in the toy section of Target (where I've seen them in recent months) vs. having it available for search on Amazon.

    If you aren't searching for a particular title of an RPG, you'll never even know Amazon has RPGs. The question isn't whether somebody who is familiar with the hobby can find a book they're looking for. Heck, I was ordering wargames and RPG books by mail order with lawnmowing money as a teenager.

    The question is how easy is it for a teenager who hasn't been introduced to the hobby by friends or family to pick it up. In my days growing up, it was easy as heck. You could walk into any number of retailers and find the LBB Traveller RPG, AD&D, D&D Basic & Expert sets, and a lot of other late 1970's-early 1980's RPGs.

    That's what has changed, and that (whether a symptom or a root cause) is why it has gone from a mass hobby to niche (and fading) hobby. I've always contended that the Jack Chick holy war vs. D&D dented the hobby in the early 1980's as much as anything. Not with adults, but with teenagers.

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  21. @Brunomac: I have to second what DHowarth333 said, as Toys R Us was my major source for RPG materials (that's where I got my Monster Manual II and Slavers series modules). They kept the RPGs kinda near the entrance, close to the boardgames aisle (but on the complete opposite side of the store from the extensive book section).

    Interestingly, craft stores (Michael's, Heidi's) were where I got everything else. Those chains used to have huge selections of boxed games, modules, paints, and lead minis.

    One place no one has mentioned yet were teacher supply stores. My mom wasn't a teacher herself, but did a lot of volunteering with the PTA, and I got dragged along. I remember those stores having the official TSR build-out racks, signage, and out-of-print materials right next to the newest releases.

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  22. The new Red Box qualifies mostly as crippleware because it only gives a partial view of the full game: only four races and four classes, an handful of powers, an handful of monsters, and only two or three (?!?!) magic items. Compare with the original D&D Red Box, which gave you all the classes, all the weapons, all the first and 2nd level spells of the full game. You still used the Red Box when you bought the other ones. The new Red Box you throw out the window when you buy the core books. If that's not crippleware...

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  23. @blackstone
    why on Earth being a niche market is "good"? So one can be elitist about his hobby? ?|

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  24. @Antonio
    Because everyone who does it is doing it because they want to, not because they feel compelled by the zeitgeist. More love, less money.

    @James et. al.
    Does brick and mortar shelf space really matter? I used to buy my D&D stuff at Waldenbooks and I don't think they exist anymore, displaced by stores such as Borders which are also going away. I do have some fond memories of browsing in the RPG aisle, but given the choice, I would have preferred to skip the trip to the mall and looked over new games on my computer, especially if I could download many of them FOR FREE.

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  25. Well we can have love AND money (look at AD&D, B/X, BECMI etc.)

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  26. @Brian
    Borders was actually the owner of Waldenbooks.

    Thats about all I can add here, I wasn't more than a year old in 1985! Although whenever this place gets going about things like this is makes me wish I had been much older then.

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  27. I don't know if the new D&D Starter set counts as "cripple ware", it does have everything you need to get started and go on to 2nd level. So to me that is a "Basic set".

    The 4e Starter Kit doesn't even include rules for character generation independent of its choose-your-own-adventure scenario, which limits its utility significantly compared to a true basic set. To be fair, WotC doesn't call this product a "basic set," because it isn't, so I give them props for that, even if I lament a missed opportunity.

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  28. I think the nostalgia for that era was that it wasn't as insular.

    Yes, definitely. I'm fairly happy with my gaming these days, but, back in my youth, I could tell people "I play RPGs" and not have to spend 15 minutes explaining what I meant.

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  29. The question is how easy is it for a teenager who hasn't been introduced to the hobby by friends or family to pick it up. In my days growing up, it was easy as heck. You could walk into any number of retailers and find the LBB Traveller RPG, AD&D, D&D Basic & Expert sets, and a lot of other late 1970's-early 1980's RPGs.

    That's what has changed, and that (whether a symptom or a root cause) is why it has gone from a mass hobby to niche (and fading) hobby.


    That's my feeling, too. Back in 1981, it was quite easy for the uninitiated to stumble across roleplaying games. Nowadays? I'd be amazed at how often that happens.

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  30. One place no one has mentioned yet were teacher supply stores. My mom wasn't a teacher herself, but did a lot of volunteering with the PTA, and I got dragged along. I remember those stores having the official TSR build-out racks, signage, and out-of-print materials right next to the newest releases.

    Yes! I remember that stuff too. There was a fairly large teacher supply store in my local mall as a kid and even they carried various TSR products. What a world!

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  31. Does brick and mortar shelf space really matter?

    I don't know. It's an interesting question and I have no answer. I can only say that, once RPGs ceased being stocked in large numbers in department and toy stores, they also faded from public consciousness. Does that imply a connection? I don't know.

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  32. Man that brings back memories. I got my first set of dice from a San Antonio Toys R Us back in '83.

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  33. Brick and mortar shelf space REALLY matters from a corporate point of view. It matters so much that Wal-Mart was able to force the entire PC gaming industry to size down their packaging so they could fit more on the shelves. Also, if anything sits on the shelfs for too long the automated computer inventory marks it down. That is how I was able to buy the boxed set of Heroscape for only ten bucks. Again, I'll say that the nature of the hobby has been changed by the way big box retail stores operate.

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