The Joy of Discovery, or A Love-Letter to a Bygone Era of Gaming

Brant waxes nostalgic.  For no good reason, we might add.

16 April 2014

One of the great tragedies that the internet has brought about in the gaming world is the loss of a sense of wonder and discovery of a brand new game that no one else has heard of. One of my first tasks whenever I would get to a new town was to find a local game shop. Back then, things were all very different. There were no chain stores, unless you counted the book stores in the mall (though to be fair, there still aren’t any in the gaming world). Every game store in every town was different. They all had their own different unique games in stock that catered to the whims of the staff.

Since there was very little uniformity from store to store , and the gaming marketplace was much more fragmented, you never knew what you would find in those local game stores. Moreover, if you found something off the wall, it was almost guaranteed that no one back in your gaming group had heard of it, because there was no internet for everyone to hop on and find out about the same games all at the same time.

In my own explorations, I ran across all sorts of interesting nuggets and obscure games that would hardly be categorized as obscure today, because someone would’ve already read about them online. It’s not that they have any wider appeal than they did before, but they almost certainly have wider distribution and knowledge of that distribution thanks to the web.

Some examples of games that I stumbled across in my travels, include the Swordbearer that I found at a hole in the wall in Abilene, Texas. I stumbled across the Arduin Grimoires at a game store near Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Captain Nemo out in San Luis Obispo used to have all manner of vanity press projects you’d never heard of, and back when it was still The Sub I managed to find 3 of the original digest-sized AD&D expansions there.  I found Ysgarth at a store in Dallas, and the rebooted Space Gamer / Fantasy Gamer from Better Games at sadly-defunct Hobby Masters in Raleigh. I don’t have a clue where I picked up Stones of the Selt, but I’m pretty sure the Monster Manuscript came from Oklahoma City. The Role-aids series of modules I found at a couple of stores in the DC area. The Justifiers RPG I discovered in Monterey, California. Duel I picked up on a road trip to New Orleans, and TWERPS was discovered in Baton Rouge.  And it would be hard to overstate the number of obscure games (like the Echelons CCGs and Throwing Stones dice game) that I stumbled across in the San Francisco Bay Area. You don’t even want to know the varieties of weirdness I found on trips to London, or while traveling around Germany in the 1980s.  And yet, I never could find a copy of Titan!

Several things are working against this today. First of all, those smaller publishers still exist, but they’re now using Kickstarter and RPGnow and DriveThruRPG to get the word out about their games. Second, the existence of RPGGeek, and RPG.net, along with BoardGameGeek, ConSimWorld, and all those forum and discussion and blog sites out there talking about games, has made a metric crapload of information about a game instantly accessible with the click of a mouse.

The same kinds of designers are still working in their basements woodshedding on the perfect game, and they are still developing some pretty nifty mechanics to rival the wacky ideas people had 25 years ago. The biggest difference today is that distribution is not limited to the two or three local stores you know, and someone who happened to see an ad in Dragon magazine. Web-based distribution lets everyone find out about everything almost simultaneously. The joy of discovery, of holding something new in your hands that you had never seen before, has been replaced with a point-and-click collection of everything you can possibly download and get, because hey – storage is cheap! You might as well download everything that you can, because it doesn’t cost anything to download it, and you’re not out any paper or ink to read it on the screen.  What you can’t do is show up at your regular gaming group with something no one else has ever heard of and show off your latest finds and compare discoveries with your friends. You can still go treasure hunting for nesting weird and obscure games all over the place.You’re just doing it at used book stores instead of the local hole in the wall hobby shop.

Wotan Games’ King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table I found at a used store. Ditto the well-loved copies of the old JG City State books. There’s a great little shop in Fayetteville that carries all sorts of old and of obscure RPGs, all nicely bagged and tagged, though they do skew toward older TSR and FASA games.

Stores all over the DC area still carry games you have never heard of. I found a copy of Fringeworthythere one day, and talked myself out of buying it.  You can also stumble across all manner of out-of-print WHFRP hardcovers, old FGU games that were everywhere in the ‘80s and impossible to find today, and copies of Yaquinto stuff like Heroor Mythology that were probably bought at Toys’R’Us and now forgotten in a bargain bin.

Even the old TSR non-D&D products like Knights of Camelot and Revolt on Antares are rare enough that finding them brings back a bit of that archaeological nostalgia – until someone asks you on a message board why you didn’t just order them from Noble Knight Games or Troll & Toad.

This is not to disparage the interconnectedness that the web has brought us. It would be high irony indeed for me to take to the virtual pages of a community that can only exist thanks to the web and complain about what the web hath wrought.

But there is a slight lament for the loss of the “discovery” of the unearthed small-press treasure that was found languishing on the sale shelf of a store in a town you only ever passed through twice on vacation, and snatched up for the novelty factor before you gave it a whirl one time and found a nifty little game underneath. The interconnectedness of technological progress has been a boon to the entire gaming community, but let’s reflect on at least one of the prices paid to get here.


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This one was retroactively tagged as a Tracer Rounds column, as it probably would’ve been one when it was published 🙂

One Response to The Joy of Discovery, or A Love-Letter to a Bygone Era of Gaming

  1. […] to how many games are in print at any given time, and that ‘tail’ of low-production niche games might still be found at any number of brick-and-mortar game stores, depending on the whims of the local audience.  […]

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