26 October 2013

"The Golden Age is over ..."

One frequent riff you see on RPG forums is that the "Golden Age" of roleplaying games is over.  The writers' favorite local gaming store has closed, there doesn't seem to be as many gaming groups as they remember, their favorite publisher has folded, the faces around the table are middle-aged now, there hasn't been any new releases for their favorite game in a couple months, and Those Damn Kids are playing weird card games or focused on World of Warcraft.

Much wailing and chestbeating ensues, along with helpful suggestions as to how to turn it all around.  If only everyone spent a certain amount of money a month at the local gaming store!  If only our favorite games became much simpler!  If only we found a media license to rally behind!  If only, if only, if only ...

"The Golden Age is over" is a riff pushed in every hobby, by every culture, every fashion, every sport, probably since Ug the Caveman was grousing to his mate Ugina about how the damn cavelets had no respect for tradition.

What it means to each one of us is that for a year or two when we first started a new hobby, everything was fun, snazzy and wonderful, we were full of zest and vigor ... and then things changed, and we got to be jaded oldbies.  Beyond that, the alleged "Golden Age of Gaming" people think existed never really did.  It wasn't that America played RPGs.  It's that, for a few years in the 1980s, a honking lot of people played AD&D.  It was never a "golden age."  It was a fad, ephemeral as fads always are.  Seriously, does anyone you know still plant Chia Pets or collect Beanie Babies?  How many young folks in your neighborhood are kung fu fighting or wearing Hogwarts robes for Halloween?  Do businessmen uniformly wear pearl grey jackets with either yellow or pink black-polka dotted ties?  How are things hopping at the local jazz nightclub ... wait, discotheque ... wait ... ?

But the RPG era being "over?"  Hah.  Hardly.  We have more choice than ever before:

* Adjusted for inflation and the size of the product, gaming books are hugely cheaper -- and the production values light-years better -- than they were a generation ago.

* There are far more alternate systems and alternative ways of doing things now, and with the leavening of LARPs, online freeform and MMORPGs to crack us out of the immobility of Doing Things The Way They've Always Been Done.

* There are dozens of systems on the market.

* While small-press publishing has (contrary to the recentist tunnel vision of many) always been a part of this hobby, the Internet and online retailing has made it far more possible for its products to be widely known and succeed.  The indie game of a generation ago -- crude mimeos at the local Copy Cop, illustrated by the writer's SO -- would be counted lucky if it merely gained traction among FOAFs and the apazine cognoscenti.  Now they're available for purchase worldwide and sell in the thousands.  Production values are the best ever, and even small-press publishers enjoy slick print runs, quality art and full color interiors.  Advances in computing turned the scrawled crude maps and laboriously typewritten rules of the 70s into DIY works just as good as professional publishers churn out.

* Online retailing has eliminated the necessity for nearby FLGSs -- and put gaming into the hands of people in areas that scarcely saw it -- as well as greatly reduced the price of product, as well as providing a selection no FLGS ever could match.  As to that, RPGs can be found in the big box retailers.

* The Internet: forums with instant dialog, company websites with instant rules clarification and errata, game finder sites that stretch beyond tattered sheets of notebook paper tacked to dusty FLGS corkboards, thousands of fan sites with variant material there for the download, research resources at a fingers' touch.  Videoconferencing and software support even free us from the need of having fellow players on the same continent, let alone in the same building. 

* PDFs: dozens of gaming books fitting into a space measuring 15" x 12" x 1.5", as well as bringing long out-of-print golden oldies back to life.

There are more ideas, more styles, more milieus, more choice than ever before. 

Now yes, gamers, your groups have aged ... because so have you.  Honestly, did you expect that your players would perpetually be 20 years old?  Or, perhaps, are the 20 year olds hanging around their peers instead of the geezers (just like you did back in the day, come to that)?

Now yes, gamers: your local gaming store may have folded.  Mine hasn't. (In point of fact, the three gaming stores I patronized in the Boston area in 1978 are still in business.)  There's another one twenty minutes south of me, run by a friend of mine.  But in any event, these never formed more than a small minority of the gaming spaces available to hobbyists, and many gamers never relied on them for more than product.  No local store?  You can get your goods over the Net at a large discount, and in mere days.

Now, yes, gamers: we're a niche hobby.  We're going to stay that way.  Which is alright.  People have been playing chess for centuries.  Model train clubs have existed for generations.  Classic car clubs have existed for generations.  Folks still gather around for board games, to listen to 50s folk music, to hike the Appalachian Trail, to do a lot things that are niche hobbies.  Honestly, my fun isn't validated by gamers in Wichita and Wiesbaden and Warsaw and West Cupcake, Saskatchewan.  I'm good as long as I can find players right here in my hometown.

Swear to God, if all this had been available to me thirty years ago ...

I have, right in front of me, one of the surviving copies of my 1970s homebrew.  It runs 91 pages, laboriously typed up over some months on the cheap Smith-Corona manual I'd picked up for college.  The magic list isn't included; that's a handwritten manuscript half again the size that I quailed at typing up.  Some of the ideas that went into it evolved over three years of back and forth in A&E, and it's a messy hodgepodge with much less by way of cohesive vision than "Ooo, that rule looks neat!" Revising anything meant retyping an entire page, if not an entire section.

It wouldn't take me months to type that now.  It'd take me about three days.  It wouldn't take half a year to vette ideas off of my transcontinental buddies; now I'd just put them up online and have people tear them apart in hours.  It isn't that I'd have to spend much of what little disposable income I had on other systems just to see how they did things; now people online can tell me.  It isn't that I'd have to wait for the latest issue of Different Worlds, Alarums & Excursions or The Space Gamer for interesting new variants and ideas; I can Google to get in touch with more websites than I can count, and I've bookmarked dozens of them.  It isn't that I'd have to spend days in a library to fact-check my basic assumptions; Wikipedia's right there.

What there is is less media buzz about tabletop gaming, but I'm down with that - a lot more of that was negative and disparaging than otherwise. What there are are fewer dilettantes, the boys who drift into a group in school and drift right out the moment they come to think the activity isn't cool and won't help them get them laid, and I won't lose much sleep over that either. Tabletop isn't the happenin' new fad any more, but no hobby gets to be, perpetually.

I've been around for almost the entire length of the RPG hobby, and honestly, I think the Golden Age of RPGs is right now.

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