Shannon Appelcline’s epic history of RPGs in the 90s, from Evil Hat Productions. Read it!

Being interviewed by Susan Strongman about Dungeons & Dragons in New Zealand got me thinking.

Strongman’s piece mentions the lean times roleplaying went through in NZ in the 90s. It was an interesting period, where the bottom fell out of tabletop in a big way as a bunch of things happened in quick succession.

Here’s how I remember it… Corrections etc. actively encouraged!

In the early 90s, tabletop games were rolling along quite happily in New Zealand. Mind Games, Pendragon Games, and Mark One Comics and Games each had multiple shops keeping NZ’s gamers supplied with punky, fresh games like Vampire alongside the traditional behemoth of D&D. The 80s fad was long gone of course, but people were still finding their way into RPGs, and the customers were there.

Then a bunch of things happened in a hurry:

  • The card-game crisis hit. This happened in retail stores all around the world – after the success of Magic: the Gathering, game stores invested in lots of other card games that did not sell, choking up their cashflow, saddling them with stock that would not shift, and dumping them into debt. However in NZ, this was followed by more trouble…
  • Distribution channels to NZ became unstable. Most NZ game stores brought their stock in through one supplier, who was primarily interested in Australia. As the 90s progressed this supplier became increasingly unreliable for NZ shops and by about ’96/’97 was creating huge problems for retailers trying to get games for their shelves. NZ is a small market a long way from anywhere, so alternatives were not readily available. It got tough out there. Then…
  • Games Workshop arrived in NZ. Those same stores that were already struggling increasingly relied on the popular war games from British company Games Workshop for reliable revenue – but GW had decided to introduce a new model where they ran their own retail shops. They brutally put the screws on competitors to clear the decks for their arrival, and all that GW money disappeared from NZs game retailers. And *then*…
  • The makers of D&D went bankrupt. TSR, the (chronically mismanaged) company that published D&D in 1974 and shepherded it through the 80s fad, finally collapsed in agonising fashion over 96 and 97. It was bought by Wizards of the Coast, who have done well with it since, but for all of 1997 the D&D line of books – top sellers for retailers – were almost completely unavailable with no indication they would ever come back again. This happened to all game shops of course, but it hit particularly hard in New Zealand.

All these events made it really hard for retailers. Mind Games and Pendragon folded, and Mark One moved almost entirely out of the games business to focus on comics and pop culture products. So suddenly, NZ’s whole retail infrastructure had disappeared. For games that rely on people meeting together, this had a huge impact – it was hard for people to find game books to buy, people to play with, or even to hear about RPGs in the first place. The community (such as it was) atomised completely.

And then, at exactly the same time this mess was happening, video games suddenly came into their own. To name just three markers: 1995 was the arrival of the Playstation, 1996 saw the release of influential game Quake, 1997 saw equally influential game Grand Theft Auto. So, NZ RPG people found their whole hobby disappear from view, and the hot new game was not pen and paper and dice, but on computers or consoles.

It was lean times for RPG people! The existing communities carried on, slowly reducing to a motivated hardcore of enthusiasts. There was a slow and steady rise into the 00s as D&D found its footing again, but even in the 2010s, as RPGs are back in the news, the damage of the 90s is still felt.

Most visibly, those game stores never came back, and they never will, at least not in the same way. Storefront retail is brutally hard in the age of Amazon, and even with the board game boom allowing some regular shelfspace to RPGs, the hobby’s High Street visibility is entirely lost.

Thankfully, this isn’t the end of the story. The new internet era provides plenty of other ways for the RPG curious to step into the room – and they have been doing so, with a vengeance. I’m excited to see what’s ahead!

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