Although it overlaps ages in James Maliszewski excellent D&D chronology the period from 1981 to 1985 is generally considered the golden age of D&D and of RPGs in general. People generally say the early 1980s but I’m putting in specific dates for a reason. They represent the beginning and the end of the worst thing to happen to our hobby. The opening year is the release year of the Moldvay Basic set which is generally seen as the classic version of Basic D&D. The closing year is the year 60 Minutes ran its now famous expose about the game. They also serve as rough bookends for D&D as a fad. The damage of that era is due to how TSR choose to mass market D&D. Unlike many OSR members I do not think that appealing to a mass or broad market in and of itself is destructive to the hobby. The sin against the broader hobby TSR committed was marketing to kids
The Moldavy boxed set reads “The Original Adult Fantasy Roleplaying Game For 3 or More Adults Ages 10 and up”. Contrast that cover information with the earlier Holmes boxed set’s test that read “The Original Adult Fantasy Roleplaying Game for 3 or more players”. The original boxed set had no age information on it.
For those who weren’t around in the era you need to understand a few things about games in that time frame. Games for adults, especially in the mass market, were generally party games. Hobby games were mostly hex and chit wargames sold in hobby shops and for some peculiar reason I’ve never learned Avalon Hill games were commonly found in Hallmark stores. Board games were mostly kid or family oriented games. Major game publishers indicated the target market for their games with lines like “suitable for ages 10-14”. In choosing ages 10 and up for their marketing TSR was making a conscious choice to market D&D to tweens. By 1983 and the Mentzer set TSR had dropped any pretense of marketing to adults by removing the word itself from their mass market oriented age range. The Mentzer Basic read “Ideal for 3 or more beginning to intermediate players, ages 10 and up”. Star Frontiers, Marvel Superheroes, and other TSR games would bear the same age range in that period.
This had a series of perverse effects. First, adults who even three years earlier might have been open to the game were lead to perceive it as a “kids” game. Second, by marketing to the fickle children’s market TSR was choosing a ton of revenue today in exchange for sacrificing a steady income stream in the long term. The worst damage, though, was to both the kinds of kids who were playing and the nature of the groups they played in.
I’ve written before about the value to teenage players of being accepted into an adult peer group as an adult. Testimony from people who started playing as a teenager in the era of 1975-1985 is quite interesting. Those who stayed in the hobby tend to have been their group’s kid while. Those who were in peer group games seem to have left during and after high school. A handful are now coming back in their late 30s and early 40s. I have no hard statistics to prove it, but I suspect most of the former stayed and most of the later left to never come back. Peer group players were taught the same thing adults were taught by the box ages, this is something for kids not adults.
That is the true damage TSR committed and it is both deep and far ranging. Listen to this story from NPR’s All Things Considered about the release of third edition. The story talks about designers trying to appeal to a new adult fan base. Anyone with a clue about the hobby knows most third edition books were sold to adults who had been playing for decades. This association of D&D with kids is a huge part of the negative geek image the hobby has. To the average adult choosing to be involved in a kids game puts you in the same category as comic book guy from the Simpsons. For example. just two years later the same show would run this story for the thirtieth anniversary. As you listen to the tone in parts of that story you are paying the interest on all that money TSR made. The surprise that adults still pay a kid’s game is palpable.
The sad thing is that TSR could have chosen another path to a broader audience. In that version of the past D&D never becomes the fad it was but remains an adult hobby. The mass marketing moved into Hallmark stories along the lines Avalon Hill games or into mass market bookstores aimed at adults. In that world TSR probably still exists and Avalon Hill probably does too. That marketing, after all, marked the hobby as whole and just roleplaying as a kid’s hobby. We’d still be different but in the way chess players and amateur painters are today and wargamers were in the 1970s. Do not underestimate the changes to our hobby, internally and externally, that acceptance as an adult hobby would have.
So, I don’t consider the mass market era a golden age. It was a gilded age that hurt the hobby for two decades. The silver lining is some of the players who played as a teen and left at adulthood are coming back. The indie movement of a few years ago, the OSR, and even WotC’s targeting of people in their 20s with both of their editions of D&D all are doing today what TSR could have done then. The hobby survived long enough for use to get a do-over. Having seen the error of appealing specifically to children we can now appeal to adults, even those 10 and above.