Barry: How about the Jesus and Mary Chain?
Barry's Customer: They always seemed...
Barry: They always seemed what? They always seemed really great is what they always seemed. They picked up where your precious Echo left off, and you're sitting around complaining about no more Echo albums. I can't believe you don't own this fucking record. (tosses the record to the customer and walks away) That's insane. Jesus.
This is a scene from the film High Fidelity where Jack Black’s character Barry is arguing with a customer who just wants more from a long defunct band and will not consider the alternatives because they “Always seemed…” What does a movie (or the wonderful book) about the romantic entanglements of a record shop owner have to do with gaming? That scene, and actually most all of the Record Store scenes in High Fidelity perfectly nail the vibe of a niche obsessive community, and guess what that is exactly what tabletop gaming is, especially for anyone around for any length of time. And what this fictional film conversation reminds me of so specifically is folks who will spend all of their time and energy pining for a lost era, a time when gaming, or gaming culture was “better,” ignoring all of the vibrant spirit around them today. There are many examples of this, but the one I’ll highlight today is one of the early magazines of tabletop gaming, White Dwarf, that venerable brand that morphed into a glossy monthly advertisement purely for Games Workshop.
Now what someone considers the ‘Golden Age’ of White Dwarf magazine generally is linked to whatever years they were 11-16 years of age, but a very common refrain I’ve heard throughout my 25+ years of rolling dice and pushing around miniatures is that “White Dwarf was better when it covered more games.” We’re talking about the first few years before it became wholly Games Workshop focused. Back when it was covering Dungeons and Dragons and all sorts of other madness. There was an enthusiast sort of energy about the publications, wandering all over the gaming map with hardcore math based articles, comic strips, new rules and random musings. What I hear from folks around the scene is “Why can’t there be a magazine like that again?” The short and cynical answer is there can’t, but we aren’t here for short and cynical, we’re here for rambling and optimistic so time to forge on.
See I have no problem with nostalgia, especially since I swim often in its warm and gentle waters. There is nothing wrong with loving the product of a particular time and place and reveling in the specificity of emotions it brings back. The thing is, what you loved then was as much about who you were at that time as what the actual content is. It was when the hobby was new to you, exciting and full of the broad horizons of the obsessive novice. Your world was also smaller then, without internet, smart phones and social media, so your connection to this larger gaming community was only through the pages of a physical magazine. And finally time moves differently when you’re younger. Days, weeks, months and years move slower and there was time to languidly devour and chew every single printed word. Your specific circumstances so heavily influenced how you felt about objects then what you read, listened to and did, that it is difficult to separate those emotions from the objects. This isn’t always a problem. You can love a song not because it is actually that good, but that it instantly brings you to a time and place. My issue isn’t with nostalgia, but when you let that fog of comforting emotion obfuscate the actual quality of the thing, and hide all that has come since, then there is a problem. That is the poisonous side effect of the cozy blanket of reminiscence that wraps you up. What must be avoided is the rejection of what is good now, just because it isn’t what you had then.
If you look around the contemporary tabletop games scene, it is alive and bursting with creative energy and enthusiasm the likes I haven’t seen in years. And that crackling electricity of intensity is being channeled into zines, adventures, new games and incredible content. I’m not going to try and trace the factors that brought this absurd amount of vitality to the scene (maybe another article) but what I do know is that it needs to be enjoyed. The same elements present in those early White Dwarfs that so many in the scene yearn for are there in the scene now, just by different names. You want enthusiast content for your favorite RPG’s like you remember it? Check out the thriving community creating zines (both printed and digital) for even the most esoteric of games. These creators are out there right now, pushing their personal projects forward with blood, sweat and many a frustrated tear. The goal of these folks isn’t to make a bunch of money (they won’t), please shareholders (don’t have any), or grow into some publicly traded company (fat chance). Instead, they’re embodying that same early gaming ethos that spawned White Dwarf (and other magazines), pure enthusiasm for the world of tabletop gaming forcing them to fill pages and pages with the chaos of their mind. This modern group of zine creators picked up where your precious White Dwarf (or Dragon) left off, and are churning out great fucking content, so stop complaining about no more magazines like that, and look a little deeper. That same spirit is alive and kicking ass right now and they need your support.
Reject the excessive nostalgia that keeps you looking only back, and take some time to revel in the vigorous world around you. I guarantee, people will look back at some point on this time as a very special one in the history of RPG’s, so you might as well enjoy it while it’s happening.
Check these out ...
Dungeonpunx - A podcast, a community and some good folks with classic handmade adventure zines.
Under the Dice - Interviews, reviews, original artwork and ramblings on anything tabletop gaming related. Feels like an old music zine from my youth.
Full Metal RPG - A great podcast also has been churning out great focused zines embodying the hosts very specific taste and voice. Worth a look for sure.
Reliquary by Scourge Books - Short, well put together adventures for whatever system you're using featuring some sick twists and cool artwork. Strange in all the right ways.
Undercroft by Melsonian Arts Council - I don't know the folks making this stuff personally but it was one of the first zines I bought when I learned about this scene and inspired me to start creating my own gaming content. They have a great back catalog of Undercroft and also checkout Fever Swamp
Google Plus - RPG Zines Community
There are many others as well I haven't gone into detail on here. Comment with any other Tabletop Gaming zines to keep an eye on.