Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Past is a Foreign Country (Take Two)

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.)


  1. In the scan from the 1983 Sears catalog: what AD&D hardback is that on the top of the pile? I don't recognize that cover image.

    1. As gleaned from the catalog text that's Monster Manual II.

  2. bt,

    I believe that's a pre-release mock-up of the Monster Manual II cover, but don't quote me on that.

  3. Over here, we have a shop called Argos that operates like this. There are no products on display, just a stack of catalogues and order forms. You find your item, copy its number on to a form, take that to the counter, and they nip upstairs or out back -- wherever the warehouse is in that branch -- to get the thing.

    No D&D though. The closest I could find on their site was a board game based on the BBC show Dragon's Den.

  4. I remember being able to walk into a Toys R Us as late as 1987 and being able to purchase AD&D hardcover books. I picked up Oriental Adventures in such a way.

  5. Oh, good old Crossbows and Catapults. My father and I had a great time with that until we started losing discs under furniture and never locating them again.

  6. The game store I worked in during the 80s was located in a giant shopping mall, and sold RPGs, war games, and "family" board games like Monopoly and Risk, along with fancy chess sets and custom cribbage boards and jigsaw puzzles and everything game-related. It was heaven to a young, fresh-out-of-high-school neophyte gamer like me. If the owner hadn't bankrupted the company, I would have worked there forever.

  7. it wasn't just a "nerd thing."

    This is so true. Of the first kids I saw playing it, most were athletes, popular, class presidents, football captains and the like. In fact, only a few I knew of who played the game, c. 1981-83, fell into a non-popular category (though there were some). Plus, remember it in early pop culture. In E.T., Elliot's so cool popular football playing older brother and his cool friends are playing it. In an episode of Magnum P.I., Mr. Sex Symbol himself is playing a crude, early computer game version of a D&D knock-off. How something that was no more nerdy than Trivial Pursuit or Monopoly or (our favorite) RISK or Space Invaders, suddenly became nothing but nerdy has always made me wonder.

    FWIW, the first exposure I had to the game was in an old Wishbook. Can't remember the store. I was in Junior High, so that marks it before 1981 Christmas season. It had the books titled Dungeons and Dragons, and also some miniatures. I remember thinking to myself, "I don't get it. Where's the box? Where's the board? And what's a bugbear?"

  8. Crossbows and Catapults is a childhood favorite. I still have a nearly complete set! I wish I still had the rules booklet... not that I ever used them.

    I asked my parents to get me the AD&D Clerics and Druids miniatures set and a generic fantasy miniatures set for Christmas one year, and although I never painted them -- I wanted them so much that I never considered that I have absolutely no talent -- I had loads of fun using them to man the two Crossbows and Catapults fortresses.

    A friend of mine had Dark Tower but we rarely played it. I recently discovered a flash version of the game ( and use it to divert myself from time to time.

  9. I totally remember seeing the games in the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs over the years, but my memory is that Sears had a bigger selection.

    I would have been looking at them right around 1982 - 1984 or so, right after looking at the pages with the Star Wars Action Figures, some of which were unique to the Sears Catalog.

    I still remember kind of "tracking" the presence of RPGs in the Christmas Wish Book catalogs year by year and feeling sad when they sort of disappeared.

  10. Holy crap! The Basic Red Box was $8.99, as was each of the 1e hardbacks except the DMG, which was selling for $10.99.

    So, to get started in the hobby back in 1983 would either cost you $8.99 or, assuming you bought all the hardbacks there, $37.96.

    Let's convert that into 2010 dollars:

    $8.99 in 1983 had the same buying power as $19.89 in 2010.
    $10.99 in 1983 had the same buying power as $24.32 in 2010.
    $37.96 in 1983 had the same buying power as $83.99 in 2010.


    The current 4e retro-ized Red Box intro set (with all its shortcomings) sells on for $13.59.

    $13.59 in 2010 had the same buying power as $6.14 in 1983.

    The two essential paperbacks for 4e play are being sold on for $13.47 each, or $26.94 total.

    $26.94 in 2010 had the same buying power as $12.18 in 1983.

    So what does all this mean?

    It's now CHEAPER to play the current version of D&D than it was to get started in the hobby back in 1983. Whoa. That kinda blows my mind.

  11. Keep in mind that you are using Amazon's prices, which are not quite agreed on by most retailers ;)

  12. Here's a link to a page from the sears catalog which helped get me into gaming (posted on my blog):

  13. Seeing these images totally makes me think of Christmas. I swear I can smell the pine tree. Apparently when I was a kid pouring through catalogs like these and circling what we wanted was a big Christmas tradition at my house, something I don't think I realized until seeing pictures of them again. Amazing how vividly those memories came back with these simple pictures.

    That said, I know none of my D&D stuff came from a catalog. I very much remember being able to walk right into Play World (our local town toy store) and buy the 1e hard covers right off the shelf for $8.99. I remember the price distinctly, as I think it took me about two months to save up enough allowance to buy one (partly because saving allowance was such a difficult endeavor at that age).

    Thanks for posting this! What a trip.

  14. I remember long, happy hours spent drooling over the Sears' catalog as a child. I seriously think the amount of time I spent dreaming about those toys did more for developing my imagination than any actual toy I ever had.

    We were lucky enough to have an awesome local game store, the late lamented GameTable in Campbell, Ca. So we never had to buy stuff from the catalogs. What my brother and I did have to do was draw up detailed lists and maps of the store identifying the exact games and titles we wanted and where they could be found.

    Now I want to play Squad Leader again.

  15. @Nick: True, but it's the modern equivalent of the catalog store. Buying product through the Sears catalog back in the day was often cheaper than buying the same product at a specialty store. Sears could discount based on volume, just like and Walmart do today.

  16. Awesome, I too starting hunting for catalog stuff after your post at BtBG ;) Found some very interesting stuff too, I'll have to post soon.

  17. It was a curious age. The local really cheap and shabby discount department store near me had a stocked Judges Guild modules in the hobby section packed between plastic car models and enamel paints.

  18. Notice how many of them are boxed sets.

  19. Awesome post! I got almost all of my initial AD&D/D&D stuff from the 1981 JC Penney’s Wishbook. If anyone finds links to these catalog pages. PLEASE post them! I have been searching for them for quite some time!

    In that initial run from Penney’s, I picked up the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, Moldvay Basic, Cook Expert, Crypt of the Sorcerer, both of Grenadier’s Action Art mini sets (one monsters, one PCs), and Dwarfstar’s Demonlord and Barbarian Prince. The Player’s Handbook was on back order until after Christmas, so my parents had to pick it up at a local upscale dept store (Younkers). Of course, this was when every department store had a good sized toy section. Oh yeah, I also got the Dark Tower game. It was a great game, but very susceptible to breakdown. I think I ended up having to take back three of them before I got one that worked until just a couple of years ago. There are actually a couple of places on the Internet where you can send in your broken Dark Tower and they will fix it and tune it up with more sturdy parts. One of these days…

    I also agree with your assertion that RPGs were not ghettoized at the time. All of my regular players (including myself), would have been considered “popular jocks”. I remember many trips to the The Gameshop with my friends after wrestling practice.

    It was indeed a Golden Age of RPGs.

  20. I temporarily drifted from the hobby @'82 or '83, and I have thought gamers were exaggerating a bit whenever they talk about it being anywhere near mainstream in the mid-80s.

    I am now convinced and a little blown away. And a little sad that we lost that.

  21. As a kid, I enjoyed the hell out of Crossbows & Catapults!

    In the 90s, they made an expanded set with more props (castle towers with built-in catapult, tens, more men, and such) and more wargame-like rules, but no mats. It would have been nice to have the old rules and game mats (the objective of the old game was to land a "battle crom" over the treasure pile printed on the mat, which the tower was placed over) to go with the game, as an option. The old game was fun, but the newer game is good by its own right, as you have a lot of freedom to place the game pieces in anyway you like, and you have a lot of playing options (like movement rules, special projectiles, spells, and so on). The only problem with the newer game, is that the number of wall pieces (12 per side) that was enough for the old game, is far too few to accommodate the larger setup.

  22. Catalogue stores were the should have grown up in Canada - where we had Consumer Distributing and the LCBO at the time - in which one never saw the product except in the catalogue, then one filled out an index card, and a clerk would check the availability - then either take an order or ask you to go the cash. Where after wards it would be delivered.

  23. Ah yes, catalog stores and department store catalogs (even the Wish book itself seems to have long disappeared).

    Consumer's Distributing - filling out those silly cards and waiting while the staff went and got your purchase from the stock room. Apparently Canadian Tire used to operate like that too, with orders sent via pneumatic tube to a basement warehouse where stockboys on roller-skates collected your items.

    I can't say I ever remember seeing RPGs or wargames in Dept. store catalogues though. I bought the Holmes box set at real games store (I hadn't known before that day that such a thing existed) and got my first set of AD&D hardcovers at a mall book store (Coles at Scarborough Town Centre).

    Most of my gaming purchases from 1980-2005 were from a dwindling number of true gaming stores: Mr. Gamesway's Arc, the Battered Dwarf, the World House, Sci-Fi World. Apart from magazine ads you only knew about the games and products your local stores carried. I remember Toys 'R Us briefly carrying RPGs in c. 1983 - I got my replacement AD&D1E core books there, and I know they carried some AH RPGs - Powers & Perils, Lords of Creation - too. Years later I remember seeing a forlorn pile of Powers & Perils boxes sitting high up on one of the storage shelves; I hoped that after all that time they might be reduced to clear but no such luck.

    The biggest change I've noticed since the '80s is the loss of gaming stores. Back in the day, every mall had one or two Toy/Games/Model stores, and chances were that the anchor stores carried D&D and model kits too.

    The games stores disappeared from a lot of the small/mid-size malls in the late '80s - '90s, and from the big malls in the last 10 years. In Toronto even the creature-that-is Games Workshop seems to be being pushed out of the malls (though they are relocating rather than evaporating).

    In mid-'80s Toronto I remember knowing of at least 25 hobby or gaming stores where I might be able to grab an RPG or wargame; today, I can think of maybe 5 locations (apart from a selection of 4E and Pathfinder books at the big box book chains).

  24. Hey, I LIKED that D&D Boardgame electronic thingy! I found one this past Christmas, in fact, for a very good price, WITH all the parts... and it still works! Although, as I recall, Dark Tower was a much more complex game (with a lot more moving parts...)

    I am astonished to think of this stuff selling through Sears, though. I never would have thought to find it there, of all places... although now that I think about it, I got my first Holmes basic set at a Spencer Gifts in a mall in Laredo... and later went back and bought the Player's, DMG, and MM at a Waldenbooks in that same mall.

    But, then, mall bookstores actually sell graphic novels, now. But it's hard to believe that Sears would sell something like Traveller, much less Judges' Guild stuff...

  25. I'm with Tom...I picked up a copy of the D&D Electronic game at a thrift store for $1 (and it even worked). While I don't play it often, and it does not hold a candle to Dark Tower, it was OK.

    It even had a good (for the 80s) commercial:

  26. Wow, it's like I have a fifth sense or something, like ESPN! I posted the same images almost a month ago (cue Twilight Zone music). Not only does the cover of the MM2 seem to be a pre-production version, the other books have spines with different colors while still retaining the yellow corner splash. While I couldn't find a catalog from 1984, I did find the 1985 version, and no D&D to speak of, but you could still get Crossbows and Catapults.

  27. You fiend, James.

    You are literally killing me with these scans.

    My brain is about to liquefy and run out of my ears from the sheer impact of nostalgia...

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  29. oops, misadressed the previous post! :-P
    @Matthew W Schmeer:
    Amazon REQUIRES vendors give them a steep discount to be listed on the site.(Which can cause markups to adjust for their desired ROI online, resulting in larger prices in other retail outlets. And faced with this, many people then decide to shop on Amazon! Win-Win for them.)

    The modern Red Box is $19.99 in stores, that'd be without tax, of course. The price of the Red Box in retro dollars in 1983 is cheaper. And, if using the Amazon price, you have to factor shipping in.

    And I recall seeing the Mentzer and earlier boxes in drugstores and supermarkets (alongside Atari cartridges), some locally owned convenience stores, and of course the larger retail stores like Toys R Us, Tons O' Toys, Lionel Playworld, Kaybee Toys, etc..... And for as low as 6 to 7 dollars at my local Family Mart, IIRC. A friend bought his at a yard sale, brand new, in 1984 for $5! ;-)

    Those who say (A)D&D was restricted to anything but 'nerds' back in the day is ill-informed at best and (possibly intentionally? 'nerd' as a pejorative, and all that) spreading misinformation, from what I saw in the media, heard/read about at the time and over the years, and experienced at the game tables! Our groups had precisely ONE dude that self-identified as a 'nerd', the rest were preps, stoners, metalheads, jocks, joe/jane average, whateva... I still see some of these guys and they've mentioned being absolutely perplexed when they discussed the game(and all the fun that was had) with someone who is puzzled and then brings up that shit about D&D being a 'nerd' only(or majority) game! Not that I'm implying nerds didn't play or are a lower form of social creature whose taint upon the game should be disavowed, only that they made up one small segment of the player base.(D&D's most common denominators[though there were others of course, even here in the South! :-)] back then from what I could tell was being white and male, but within that group various social circles were represented.) Don't forget D&D was played in schools, in local libraries, at church/synagogue, etc..., at vacation retreats, and there were even D&D summer camps!
    My roommate just found out his brother was in our High School's D&D club(which had been long gone when I hit the scene!), as a matter of fact. By the time I came through, our school was discouraging playing RPGs in the library, the traditional D&D club meeting spot. Where, of course, we could play easily was the question I doubt the school cared to answer, unfortunately. So we just played in the library anyway! :-)

    Great post, love the Wishbook glimpse into yesteryear!

  30. Yeah, I liked the D&D electronic game, too. I still have it, and the original box. The rulebook, alas, is long gone (darn thing doesn't fit in the parts container, which is why the game tends to have the parts, but not the rules).

    I liked it.

    I also have the handheld adventure game thing, that runs off a watch battery. It's fun, although I wonder how many had the cognitive powers to really see the 'dungeon'--I found mapping it out on paper to make for an even better game.

  31. OMG! Crossbows & Catapults! Tremendous fun. Dark Tower was the coolest. Wish I still had my copy.

    I do remember picking up my Fiend Folio and the adventure log at a Sears back in the day, right off the shelf.

    Most of the other stuff was from a FLGS.

  32. Toys R Us, or at least the overseas branches were still selling TSR products including RPGs as late as 1989 as I bought Gammarauders (and its Factoids supplement) from the Hong Kong store then.



  33. Anyone watch the last episode of 'Freaks and Geeks'? That show was set in 1980, and the "geeks" in that episode are shocked that one of the "cool" stoners was going to play D&D with them. And one of the main characters said it was for "nerds." Some rewriting of history perhaps??

  34. In 1977, I worked in a catalog store called Ardan's, selling cameras. The toy department of that store is where I first encountered Avalon Hill wargames. Ardan's was right in the middle of the shopping mall, selling luggage and cameras and pajamas and Panzerblitz. If the toy aisle hadn't been between the camera department and the employee lounge where I could stumble onto wargames, my life might have taken a very different turn.

  35. Okay I had Crypt of the did not miss too much, but we did continue to use the minis and I still have the troll and sorceror minis around here somewhere.

    I also still have the D&D digital game. It was good for a solo game actually and since I was DM all the time (still am), I used it for that mental break while writing adventures and drawing dungeon crawls. There was also a handheld LCD digital game later on as well that was had to find the arrow to show the dragon (some hero that was...bringing a bow but no arrows!!!) HAHAHAHA!