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This Gaming Life: On the Rack
When I grew up I never really had a friendly local game store. All those enticing ads in White Dwarf were for exotic locales like Newcastle and Leeds, not my sleepy little dormitory town in Essex. I could get up to London on occasion, and regularly made the trek to Orc’s Nest, Forbidden Planet or as was more likely back then, the Virgin Megastore. You see, back in the twentieth century you could go into a massive shop on a high street and buy these things called records. They came on big black plastic discs in cardboard folders. Those same shops sometimes sold books, and for a glorious short lived period, roleplaying books. That self-same Megastore on Oxford St was a Mecca for the gaming tourist. Everything was shrink-wrapped to within an inch of its life. I once picked up a Spacemaster module that was bound like a coiled spring. When I eventually pierced the cover the thing leapt out of my hands like a sprung mousetrap. And that was the single most interesting thing about that particular purchase.
The Megastore never lasted, and I had to go back to my usual method of finding out of the way gaming goods. I had become quite adept at spotting those little odds and sods shops that somehow always managed to have a tiny collection of RPG books in them. Charity shops weren’t as ubiquitous as they are nowadays. Instead we had what I guess you would call ‘hippy shops’. The sort of place you could get an Arthurian tarot deck, a crystal unicorn and a back issue of Imagine. They still exist in some less beaten streets in market towns, stinking up the borough with past it’s sell by date patchouli oil and the odd rock and roll woodbine. How these places have managed to stay in business all these years when hobby stores have almost all fizzled out I don’t know. Perhaps they pay their staff in dream-catchers.
So the notion of a FLGS that I could rely on was ephemeral at best. But what I did have, what we all had, was the newsagents. When all else failed I knew I could rely on the national chains to surprise and delight me with some unannounced gaming gold. In the 80s, gaming was prevalent enough to have caught the attention of the buyers in Menzies and Martins, and my town always had one of those. I assume the rip roaring success of the Fighting Fantasy franchise had plenty to do with that. Once you’d sorted your way through the D&D action figures and the Illustrated Guide to Lord of the Rings, you could usually find your way to the real treats like the Dragon Warriors books, or Advanced Fighting Fantasy. I still have my Corgi paperback RPGs, and treasure them. Out of the Pit and Titan were wonderful and esoteric little resources, and proper RPGs to boot.
The real draw of the newsagent for the isolated gamer was the magazines. Before the internet this was as close to a national gaming community as you could get. With White Dwarf slowly morphing into something unrecognisable from its origins, the void was filled with a succession of valiant publications. I bought every offering, and devoured each word. They were often a bit slapdash, not much more than what used to be called pro-zines, but they had vim, verve and some utility to them.
The roll call of titles included such mayflies as Adventurer, GM (International), Role Player Independent, Inter*action (latterly Interactive Fantasy), Arcane, The Last Province, and Valkyrie. Some of them lasted longer than others, with Arcane racking up 20 issues of glossy flim-flammery. Shorter lived at only 5 issues, but a fantastic read was The Last Province, which was as good as any full blown supplement in itself. The one that I really looked forward to each month (then quarterly, then blue moonerly) was Valkyrie. Yes, it was a bit shambolic at times, but that was all part of the charm for me. It was a proper old jumble sale of reviews, news, scenarios and articles. All done up in that odd white text on black page style that made it look all dark and edgy, much like the rest of the early nineties.
I had the dubious honour of doing quite a bit of writing for Valkyrie. I sent in an article, well, a rant really, about how the World of Darkness games could basically go do one. It was published as a full page comment piece to my utter delight. I turned in a few more pieces over the coming months and every single one got published. Clearly, standards were not high. I loved seeing my stuff all laid out professional like, with commissioned artwork too. One of my proudest moments was meeting Ralph Horsley at Dragonmeet in 2013 and showing him the article of mine that he had illustrated twenty years previously. He happily signed my yellowed copy as I marvelled at his glorious paintings that now bedeck the covers of D&D. Hey, I’m calling that a connection!
Dave at Valkyrie used to send me all kinds of review material, and eventually I became the go-to FASA guy. Which meant I had a bunch of Earthdawn and Shadowrun books to trawl through and pick apart. Great for building my collection, but lousy for making my hobby into a bit of a chore at times. To this day, I love reviewing stuff, but readily admit it’s a lot of heavy technical reading for something that might never actually hit the gaming table in anger. Still, it was paid work (if complementary product counts, and I think it does as it was where my disposable income would have gone anyway). It was also a handy introduction into the wider hobby community, one that would predate convention attendance and internet forum participation.
Eventually the magazines, along with the decline in the publishing industry generally, folded. The last glossy being Games Unplugged in the early 2000s, and that not much more than a jumped-up publisher’s brochure. Much as I miss the monthly shot of news, reviews and opinion, I do think that the online world is a more than adequate replacement, an improvement even. My collection of titles sits gathering dust in my garage. I can’t really bring myself to pull them back out at this stage (I’ve got too many things to do!) but, they’re certainly never going into the recycling either. That would be like a betrayal of something or other, though I’m not entirely sure what.
If only I could find some outlet for my fevered typings nowadays though eh? Still, I haven’t completely given up hope of seeing the next issue of Valkyrie winking forlornly at me from the shelves of WH Smith. It’s just a bit late, that’s all.