Thursday, August 25, 2011

What Happened?

My post earlier today about the Elmore D&D poster available through Sears in 1984 reminded again of the fact that, once upon a time, you could buy RPGs through major department stores. And by "RPGs," I don't just mean D&D but even some obscure games like FGU's Space Opera. I often find myself wishing I had easy access to old Christmas catalogs from places like Sears, JC Penny, and Montgomery Ward, because it'd be a lot of fun going through them to plot just what was available in their pages and when. So, I'm left with looking at sites like this one, which includes scans of some catalogs from the past, including the late 70s and early 80s.

Anyway, what I noticed today is that the 1983 Sears catalog has a fairly extensive collection of RPG products in it, while the 1985 catalog seems to have none. The site has no scans of the 1984 catalog, which I presume must have at some RPG products, given the ad from Dragon for the poster. What happened? 1984 marked the return of Gary Gygax to Wisconsin after his "exile" in California, when he attempted to wrest control of the company away from the Blume brothers. Despite appearances to the contrary, with lots of high profile products, like Dragonlance and various licensed properties (Marvel Superheroes, Indiana Jones, etc.), TSR was in turmoil throughout 1984 and into 1985, as Gygax, the Blumes, and, eventually, Lorraine Williams fought to determine the fate of the company. By the end of 1985, Gary was gone.

The Gygax version of history would have it that TSR was in financial trouble solely because of mismanagement by the Blumes. I have no reason to doubt that the Blumes made a number of mistakes that cost company dearly, but I can't help but wonder now, in light of the admittedly circumstantial evidence provide by the Sears catalogs, if maybe it wasn't solely bad decisions by the Blumes that hobbled TSR. Perhaps it was more that those bad decisions came at a time when the bottom had begun to fall out of the RPG fad. Whereas a couple of years previously, licensing a D&D woodburning set might not have had dire consequences, similar kinds of bizarre decisions now would. So, while I don't wish to exonerate the Blumes on very flimsy evidence, I nevertheless wonder if the overall decline in the faddishness of RPGs played an unacknowledged role in the decline in TSR's fortunes.

Anyone out there have any insights into this, particularly ones that, unlike mine, might be based on something more than the merest of speculation?


  1. It's hard to say for sure, but I suspect a connection between the Sears catalog change and the anti-D&D movement / Satanism scare kicking into gear. 1984 saw the release of William Dear's *The Dungeon Master,* the "expose" of the Dallas Egbert and the steam tunnels. Pulling (of B.A.D.D. fame) also had a 60 minutes special in 1985.

  2. Yes, you're right. I'd forgotten about the 60 Minutes business. I'd thought it was later than '85 for some reason (which wouldn't make sense, since Gary was in it).

  3. What is most telling too, is the variety of items that the catalog offers in every department. The are multiple computer systems that are not necessarily compatible, and the same with video game consoles.

    I have always hated the homogenization of the computer industry into standard clones.

    Also check the prices of VCRs and the new-fangled CD player.

  4. My memory is hazy, but I first became interested in D&D around 1977 age 10, when the first Monster Manual came out. I loyally followed the release of every new module and book reading cover to cover, each one a bigger masterpiece than the next, culminating with the DM Guide, a tomb as thick as a bible. By 1984, the thesis date of this post, I had mostly moved on to other things - wargames mostly (Squad Leader being the gateway drug) but also computers (Vic-20), though I still bought the occasional module to read.

  5. Try looking at it from the point of view of Sears' management. You place this RPG thing in your catalog, send out twelve and a half million catalogs, and then you find out that all these publishing companies whose publications you are trying to sell don't have the printing capacity or capital to produce more then a couple of hundred copies a month. If that.

    Most of them are one-man-bands that think in sales rollovers of maybe fifty units a month, and the one company that you thought really could deliver the goods is so badly managed that they can't figure out how to get the ten thousand copies of their "AD&D" product that you ordered on spec from Lake Geneva to your main distribution center in Chicago.

    Of course you're going to drop them from your catalog; no product to sell, no product listing. Very straight forward, very simple; nothing really complicated to it, from the standpoint of a major corporation. No satanists, no Egbert kid, no nothing except failure of the concept of scale. (Anybody besides me remember the problems TSR had with getting their product into B. Daltons' ?) The 'game industry', back in Ye Olden Dayes, simply could not handle doing business on the scale that Sears did.

  6. I think you are over rationalizing the collapse. No one constructs complex reasons behind the collapse of the Beanie Baby market.

    At its height, D&D was a fad. Fads collapse. Particularly when people try them out and eventually become bored with them. I knew quite a few people that played D&D when "it was cool" and left by the mid 80s. And that is what they all would say. They just got bored with it.

  7. I think department stores were narrowing their focus, too. I remember that the G. Fox department store outside Hartford, and the Macy's store in New Haven, had computers on display in the mid 80s. Like, Apple IIs and IBM PCs. My parents bought an Apple IIc at Macy's in 1984 or 1985.

  8. 1984 was also the Great Videogame Collapse.

  9. Is it just me or is the cover art on the Monster Manual II different in the '83 catalog?
    Maybe a mock-up?

  10. I don't have anything to offer other than speculation either. What else was happening culturally 83-86? I think D&D went out of fashion, lost it's cool, like a band, or a movie, or a book.

  11. Chirine ba Kal said: "... you find out that all these publishing companies whose publications you are trying to sell don't have the printing capacity or capital to produce more then a couple of hundred copies a month..."

    Very skeptical. Do you have any source or citation in regards to publishers of the time?

    Ryan Dancey reported at the time of WOTC acquiring TSR in the late 90's that TSR had whole warehouses of unsold AD&D PHB's, and had to pulp vast amounts of unsold paperbacks from the novel-publishing arm. So if anything, the evidence is for TSR not under-, but rather over-producing product. Times were very different (which is James' whole point, of course).

  12. Philippine Gamers have would probably chalk part of it up to the Satanism scare. It got regular coverage on the 700 Club, which used to air on one of the 4 TV channels at the time) so that it became a concern for our parents at the time.

    RPGs were already difficult to find at the time.

    Flashing forward, the demand really seemed to have dropped precipitously at one point. A local toy and game store -- Nova Fontana -- was liquidating their stock of stuff and they had 50s and 100s of TSR RPG stuff. I got me two mint condition Star Frontiers box sets and several modules, plus one of the original Top Secret boxed sets. And this was after we'd caught wind of it, and others had already raided the AD&D rulebooks and modules... probably to sell on eBay.

    Point is: even the distributors here on the other side of the world seem to have been caught off guard by the drop in demand.

  13. Funny you should ask because I am researching this with intent to post about it eventually- In fact the name of the post was going to be "Here's What Happened" which was the catchphrase of Adrian Monk. My research over several years indicates that the "demise" of D&D as a phenomenon was not alone- Choose your own adventure books and the golden age of video games share the same arc. The satanic panic was not the cause of the demise as some might think, as TSR saw record profits during that time according to Gary. The answer is really multifaceted on about 4 counts and far too complicated to go into here.

  14. Wow dude that is some awesome retro! I think I killed an hour browsing through that.

    Interesting snapshot too. 1983 is when the great video game crash landed...

  15. @Delta:

    "Very skeptical. Do you have any source or citation in regards to publishers of the time?"

    Yes, I do. I was there at the time.

    I was working for Dave Arneson at Adventure Games 1980 to 1985, and I'm a founding member of GAMA. I was also Prof. M. A. R. Barker's general factotum and publisher from 1980 to 1987, and in effect was their 'go-to' guy for business matters that needed somebody on the ground to represent them. As such, I pretty well knew everybody in the RPG hobby at that time, and had very good information on things like sales numbers and size of companies.

    From my standpoint of having been in the industry thirty years ago, it's amazing to me that people these days assume that 'the companies' back then had high rollover rates and huge sales. They didn't, we didn't; TSR did, but was still organized as a mom-and-pop store.

    Dave would send me to Lake Geneva to represent him at TSR stockholder meetings where I'd get to sit in on the discussions between Gary and the Blume brothers. I'd express Dave's opinions, ask questions about the numbers that I was seeing, and get to see all the statements and paperwork that was being discussed between the three of them; I'd bring Dave's copies back to him afterwards, and he'd get a detailed report from me on both the meetings and the numbers being discussed. I'd also get tours of TSR's big new building, due to my proxy shareholder status, and it was astonishing to see just how much money was being wasted and how little actual work was being done by so many employees.

    "Ryan Dancey reported at the time of WOTC acquiring TSR in the late 90's that TSR had whole warehouses of unsold AD&D PHB's, and had to pulp vast amounts of unsold paperbacks from the novel-publishing arm. So if anything, the evidence is for TSR not under-, but rather over-producing product. Times were very different (which is James' whole point, of course)."

    I personally saw the inside of the TSR warehouse over a number of years, and the statement that they had a lot of inventory is quite true. TSR had "whole warehouses" of inventory because they had no inventory controls or management system in place to track what they had, what was being ordered, and what had been sold. It's why the company had such a huge debt load with their printer, who was the one moving for foreclosure and which prompted the WotC buyout. Much of the inventory that was pulped had been sitting in the pallet stacks had been there for years; the various Blume relatives who supposedly ran the warehouse literally could not find anything except by wandering around the place physically looking at the stacks and trying to find out where stuff might be. Their normal response to the problem was simply to order up more product, not to figure out what they had and how to move it out the door.

    They were, at best, organized to get a box of a dozen books at a time out to a particular B. Daltons' store location; they were completely baffled at the prospect of shipping ten thousand books to Sears, because they didn't know what inventory belonged to which customer or what had been sold and what hadn't. As I pointed out in my posting, if you're Sears and the product isn't shipped when you need it, you don't go back to that supplier; the supplier may have (literally, in TSR's case) tons of inventory, but if they can't figure out how to move it out the door then it gets really hard to sell it.

    As Dave's proxy, I'd ask the Blumes how much money TSR had tied up in inventory, and they would refuse to tell me; Gary would then ask them the same question, point-blank, and after a lot of hemming and hawing they'd admit that they really didn't know. It went on like that for years.

  16. "Whereas a couple of years previously, licensing a D&D woodburning set might not have had dire consequences, similar kinds of bizarre decisions now would."

    I don't see how this could have bad consequences for TSR. For the company buying the license, sure.

  17. I think RPGs are available in department stores in Japan. I certainly bought some of mine there. In fact, in the rural town where I used to live the selection was excellent, and although I haven't checked I presume it can only be even better in Tokyo.

    Of course, Japan hasn't, as far as I know, had any of these silly scares, and being a nerd is a completely acceptable thing here. Also the publishing industry in general is more diverse and vibrant here, I think.

  18. Probably onto something. Again, no expert here. But I remember first being introduced to the game by kids who were in no way outcasts - football players, class president, valedictorians, basketball players, track and baseball; why the list goes on and on. That was around 1981ish.

    By 1984, the vast majority of those kids wouldn't get near the game (I remember one denying he ever played it). Some kids, particularly brainy ones, still played. But it was off the radar by 84/85. At least in my neck of the woods. Just what happened I don't know. I do remember after the TV Movie 'Mazes and Monsters' came out, hearing a bunch of girls talking about that cute kid (Hanks), and saying 'eeeeewwwwww' when it came to the game. I also remember some folks talking about the psychological impact of it, and of course the links to the occult (all the rage in the late 70s/early 80s).

    So it's not just like a fad that passed, like pet rocks or cabbage patch kids. There was an active assault, as well as a deliberate distancing from it, in addition to the 'passing fad' phenomenon.

    So it may have been that mistakes are easier on you when all is right with the world, but when things are dropping that fast, and not just 'losing interest' but by active 'I'm not getting within 10 miles of that thing', mistakes are even more costly, if not deadly.

  19. Also check out Plaid Stallions, especially for pictures of toy stores back in the day, very nice for putting TSR stuff in context. I know I've seen their stuff in store display pictures on that site. They do have catalog and ad photos as well.

    Thanks for the wishbook link, hadn't seen that before.

  20. Gotta say, here in Japan at one military base I went to, the military equivalent of a Wall-Mart did actually have Pathfinder and 4e on the bookshelves. Military dudes keep the dream alive!

  21. I will vote for the Satanism scare. It was around that time that my junior high school D&D club was shut down for that reason. Religious hysterics. It's why i left the US a decade ago and why i don't miss it today.

  22. Returns, closeouts, firesales; unsold stock/fad/bad buzz. And videogames, fast boardgames, books and Girls!

    Back in the Day (tm) I started with an "old" Holmes set that was a cousin's (he intro'd me into the game). Got Cook Expert (X) for Christmas through Sears from an extended family gift exchange. Then got AD&D from a local bookstore(s) (Readmor?) and toy stores and played some locally with other schoolkids. Wasn't long before TSR etc. games were on closeout at Kids Palace, KayBee* and IIRC early (for Midwest at least) Toys'R'Us stores. I think Mentzer and the action/PVC figures were a bit of a last stab though I remember full lines of each at a then new Meiiers in the area and all the games at a then new Waldenbooks. After that it was pretty much hobby / gaming stores only but personally Unearthed Arcana was the nail in the coffin for TSR play at least for me.

    That cousin's mother made sure I watched the 60 Minutes piece on D&D when it came on (was over at her house). I was unaffected by it but the adults were, as it was 60 Minutes and all.

    The little plastic clamshell mini-wargames TSR put out were OK by parental units though and pretty much all the cousins my age or slightly older played them and got me into them. I did buy a copy of Chainmail cheap from a hobby store but the sale copy of Eldritch Wizardry beside it was NOT ALLOWED by the parental units. I somehow managed to buy one issue of White Dwarf on sale but it was censored with a black Sharpie by Dad. A few Dragons. Star Frontiers and MSH were more OK but by that point I was roleplaying less.

    Wow, rereading this almost all the stores mentioned are no longer around, the whole chain even, except stuff like Meiier's and Toys'R'Us of course.

    * KayBee had at one point a LOT of wargame and RPG stuff including early SJG, and IIRC SPI and rarer items, at first at retail price. This was probably when the early Japanese SF kits were popular too so just before Robotech TV show would be the likely end date.

  23. Scuse, Children's Palace (not Kid's). As a kid, I loved how it literally looked like you were going to a castle or palace. Much cooler than Toys'R'Us and that Geoffrey!

    Many were converted to MediaPlays later on, of course that's gone now as well. >_<

    Huh, the Wikipedia Article may have a clue here, "While the focus of Child World's management was primarily on growing the brand, a recession that began in 1990 and continued into 1991, combined with the lack of a 'must-have' toy (e.g., Cabbage Patch Kids), helped to send Child World into a steady decline."

    I don't think D&D was a must have toy by 1985, rarely does the industry support more than one per season (esp. in the new/expensive categories) and rarely does a must-have toy remain so for long.

  24. I think your belief that neither the success of D&D nor its subsequent failure to transition from "fad" to a model for sustained success has anything to do with the management and product decisions of TSR is fairly perverse.

    I get the desire to simply say "well, nothing that can be done about it; the universe is just a place of strange luck and odd chances".

    But video games were also a "fad" that collapsed in '83. Is it pure chance that video games managed to transition into a more sustainable and growing market while RPGs didn't?


    But I suspect the answer is more complex than that. And probably has a lot to do with the decision by TSR's management to climb into a ghetto and close the door behind them.

  25. Chirine ba Kal said: "Yes, I do. I was there at the time..."

    Excellent observations, appreciate you writing them up here. The fact that the Blume-run warehouse was totally unable to find or ship existing product is a new and important insight.

  26. Steamtunnel said: "Funny you should ask because I am researching this with intent to post about it eventually..."

    Sounds really interesting, I'll look forward to reading it when you post that.

  27. Justin Alexander said: "But video games were also a 'fad' that collapsed in '83. Is it pure chance that video games managed to transition into a more sustainable and growing market while RPGs didn't?"

    I'd say: Not pure chance, but something endemic to the art forms.

    My standard thesis is that "RPGs are to video games as theater is to movies". In each case, you've got a mass-media form in which the experience can be recorded, distributed, and profitably duplicated for millions (video games/movies). And on the other hand, you have a pre-existing live form which cannot be mass-produced, but is limited by individual DMs/players/actors (RPGs/theater).

    And I would hypothesize that the ratio of income/participants in each pair is about the same in each case nowadays, too. There's likely an inherent difference between a "live" form and a "broadcast" form of the same art.

  28. My standard thesis is that "RPGs are to video games as theater is to movies".

    One basic business problem of RPGs is their enormous startup cost: they take a midsized gaming group to play, they require experienced players to 'do it right,' and the marquee games aren't designed for one-off play. This is such an onerous set of requirements that it's a wonder anyone ever sells a single copy.

    That's a big difference between video games and RPGs of course. As social modes change, RPGs change; but video games can 'connect' people at a distance, asynchronously. Game set match.

  29. As Dave's proxy, I'd ask the Blumes how much money TSR had tied up in inventory, and they would refuse to tell me; Gary would then ask them the same question, point-blank, and after a lot of hemming and hawing they'd admit that they really didn't know. It went on like that for years.

    First, thanks, Jeff, for sharing this information, some of which I know you've shared with me before, but it remains fascinating nonetheless.

    Second, it's stories like this that confirm for me that, whatever success TSR had as a business, were in spite of, not because of the decisions they made. I grow ever more convinced they were simply in the right place at the right time.

  30. For fun I went through and put some rpg products in a list with inflation adjusted prices and listed non-rpg items like Tonka trucks, Star Wars figures, etc. and posted it to some sites. I like the price of a cd player ($589.99 in 1983 or $1,338.27 in 2011 adjusted money)!

  31. FWIW, I doubt the whole 'satanic' thing did much damage. From what I've read, it seemed to help if anything. After all, other things (like Rock music in general and heavy metal in particular) were given the 'Of The Devil' label, and they didn't fade.

    I think it was part fad, part business decision, and part overall collective assault that allowed the game to get the dreaded 'outcast' applied to it. With all that, I'm not so much surprised the sales dropped as much as I'm surprised the brand name survived. Which might say something about just how special this little invention actually was.

    BTW, just from a cultural POV, the 'Watch out, it's of the Devil' movement was not so much promoted by religious groups as much as they reacted to an already healthy (or unhealthy, depending on one's viewpoint) obsession with the occult in culture and society throughout the 70s and early 80s. It wasn't just preachers talking about cults and Satanism!

  32. 1983/1984 also marks the demise of 3 out of 4 of Toronto’s original Gaming stores (The Worldhouse was the only survivor of that meltdown).

    One of the stores, Mr. Gamesway’s Ark, was a huge, three-storey toy and game shop for which roleplaying can only have accounted for a small fraction of their business but they went under nonetheless. Hmmm … you might ask Alex Von Thorn his perspective on what was going on from the retailer’s perspective in those years.

  33. One reason is D&D became books. When was the last time you saw Sears or other such department stores selling books (83/84) ?

  34. As far as the satanism thing, well, yeah it did do a lot of damage. When someone who appears to be a reasonabale adult goes on 60 Minutes (a very popular show back then) and says not "this RPG thing might be bad" but specifically "dungeons and dragons is akin to satan worship and now let's look at some pictures of kids who played it and killed themselves" then yes, people who were only peripherally aware of it are now on alert. As someone above mentioned school clubs dried up and parents stopped buying it for kids. I knew of some church youth groups that played it in the early 80's and let me tell you, that disappeared in days after that report and was not mentioned again.

    There's a reason they took demons, devils, topless women, and pentagrams out of 2nd Edition AD&D, and it wasn't because they thought it would make the game better.

    Oh and D&D was already books before this - Sears mostly sold it in their catalogs, not in their stores. I don't remember seeing D&D anything in their toy section other than maybe at Christmas, but the Wish Book had more stuff than some hobby stores.

  35. Again, it would have to account for why D&D was hurt by the Satanism tag when other things, like Heavy Metal, thrived. Yes, some parents stopped buying it, and I heard some in my school say they wouldn't buy it or allow their kids to play it. But that's because of something else I notice about the game.

    It was a social game that put kids into a social environment - often not too far from adults: in bedrooms, dining rooms, living rooms. Suddenly here was a group of kids doing (and talking) the way they did on the sandlot or the playground (when no parents were around).

    I remember a coach of ours said he overheard his kids playing this and saying things he had never heard them say before. Now, we knew his kids and knew they said those things all the time. But that was the first time he had heard them. Perhaps because for all that D&D was, it was not an easy game to play outdoors, in sandlots, or playgrounds, or away from the ears of parents. I dunno. I just know hanging the Satan tag on it isn't enough.

    Plus, as someone above said, it was a tough game to maintain. Finding a bunch of kids all playing well with a DM who had a great game? Not easy. That's why I didn't play it. It always seemed like a game more fun to think about playing than to actually play. And my few times trying to play it with a group of kids solidified that image for me - at least until I met some college students who played.

    So it was likely many things. If the Satan issue was anything, it was that it linked to the pop culture obsession with the occult that was all the rage, as well as the fad of pop-psychology that was all the rage, and became a target to, well, everyone. After all, when was the last time Tipper Gore and James Dobson agreed on anything?

  36. "It always seemed like a game more fun to think about playing than to actually play. " --- Dave G.

    That's my life story, indeed.

    What happened in the USA? I can only extrapolate from my personal experience.

    D&D is not a product designed for mass market. Rulebooks just doesn't make sense when taken out of the context in which they were written. Too many loose ends, too many loopholes and too many broken pieces. The challenge is not "winning the game", is start playing! One of every ten wanna-be-players will happily make a point of patching the bug-infested ruleset. The other nine just will declare D&D a pain in the ass and hate it.

    Joe Average adquires his brand new copy of D&D. Joe Average gives D&D a try. Joe Average fails to play D&D. Joe Average gives up D&D in disgust. Word spreads that D&D is a game for nerds. Averages all around the country don't buy more D&D.

    Let's face it: playing D&D requires a rare combination of commitement and genius. It's too demanding for casual players. And for all the effort it takes it offers a meager reward. What's the D&D version of a warrior? A dummy which can be defeated by one hit from the weakest monster in the manual. What's its version of a wizard? A bookworm with a rusty knife who can cast a single spell every twenty-four hours. Plus he's so dimwitted that he has to relearn the same spell again and again! Not what you would expect from Merlin.

    D&D focus in roleplaying conan-esque swords-for-hire, lacking of any bounds with people around them (besides mercantile stuff such "I'll pay you ten gold pieces if you bring me the goblin king's head"). Which is perhaps the worst fantasy stereotype ever --- and when I say "worst" I mean "the least appealing for mainstream audiences". Joe Average dreams of playing the king. Or the duke, the conqueror, the archmage or the messiah. NOT THE UNDERDOG. He lusts for power, and wants it right now. Not tomorrow. Not after playing for three long years. He doesn't care a shit of how his guy rose to the throne; all he cares about is crying loud THIS-IS-SPARTA and start kicking Athenean asses, or Persian for a change.

    An epic heroe needs epic goals. The 'Lone Wolf' gamebook series was a commercial success because it delivered them in spades. If your character risks fighting bunny-eared orcs just for affording himself some wine & whores, this is not good. Embracing a crusade against the riders of doom, or the foul fire-breathing beast, that once slain your kinsmen and ruined your live forever, this is good. Prevent the slain of your kinsmen before it actually happens, this is even better. Building an empire of your own, this is GREAT. (Or, if you don't like imperialism, you can fight somebody else's empire instead.)

    BTW my name is Joe.

    I'm not an American --- unfortunately I was born in Spain, a country where RPGs were unheard of until 1985, when a translation of D&D Basic (Mentzer edition) was released by a local publisher. There was never a fad: D&D didn't caught up and the publisher, Dalmau Carles Pla, went bankrupt one or two years later.