Not a Golden But a Gilded Age

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.

9 thoughts on “Not a Golden But a Gilded Age

  1. I didn't comment yesterday because I didn't have anything to add. Now I'm back to at least say I found the post really interesting.

    Has anyone ever written a Masters thesis on role-playing game history?

  2. Not that I know of, but I have read a sociological study and that was back in 1985. I wouldn't be surprised if there is something out there.

  3. I'm not entirely convinced that most adults encountering the game thought little of it simply because they weren't included on the box. No matter how you cut it, describing how the game is played will inevitably use the word 'pretend' … something which middle-class, suburban mothers and fathers cringe at when they hear it.

    There's more than TSR's marketing that cause adults to flee this game.

  4. There is much, much more, but I think it is too easy to discount the marketing campaign in the 1980s. There is a lot of evidence beyond the box including the TV and magazine ads plus where they choose to market.

    SPI ran ads in Playboy for their hex and chit wargames. I'm convinced that had a role in wargaming being seen, in its heyday, as an adult hobby. Had SPI run its ads in comic books instead the impression would have been different.

    Yet, Gygax and Arneson were members of the same basic community that played those SPI (and others) hex and chit games. The initial recruits to RPGs for the first five or six years were mostly from board and miniature wargaming.

    Something changed and I think a big part of that change was TSR's marketing. The huge influx of kids just learning social skills would do its damage later which I'll discuss in a future post.

  5. @Alexis

    Another point, which I wasn't clear on, was that kids who played with kids were likely, as adults, to see it as a kids game and not play. Kids who played with adults would see it not as part of their childhood but as part of becoming an adult and continue to play.

  6. I have mixed feelings about TSR's 80s marketing plan, if for no other reason than I was the target audience! Although I was probably aware of D&D from an early age, it was really the cartoon series and associated action figures that sort of planted a seed of interest in my brain. I was introduced to RPGs via the Mentzer Red Box, etc., etc.

    But you make excellent points. Another point I think you kind of hinted at was that by making D&D a “kids game,” TSR fed the fuel of the moral panic surrounding the allegations of Satanism and suicide. Had the game been marketed more to adults, moral crusaders couldn't have raised their “think of the children” argument. Of course, the notoriety also helped drive up sales, but that was again a short term gain in exchange for long term consequences (especially since TSR then made the additional mistake of trying to make 2e more “kid friendly” as a way to appease the BADD crowd, which only further reinforced the perception of RPGs as “kids' stuff.”)

  7. @sirlarkins: I was in the target audience as well but was already into gaming via my uncle and his copies of Starship Troopers and Kingmaker in the late 1970s. This Christmas is 31 years of D&D for me.

    That said, by the time TSR started it I was branching out to non-D&D games by this point in order to be more “adult”. I cannot claim this was consciously related to TSR's marketing, but I think it was a by-product of who their marketing was bringing in.

  8. @Alexis – I never use the word “pretend” to describe gaming. I describe gaming as “a technical mechanism designed around a chosen mythos to permit communal, collaborative story-telling with a randomized element introduced to help ensure sufficient dramatic tension”.

    Adults like stories.

    No less than three (possibly more) major fantasy franchises (in completely unrelated sub-genres) have become phenomenally successful multi-media empires over the past decade due largely to not only adult endorsement, but avid adult fandom.

    Video games clawed their way out of the “just for kids” ghetto. Comic books have nearly managed it more than once and then shot themselves in the foot. Gaming could manage it if it chose to. But all the work now necessary to completely reshape the hobby's image would not have been necessary if, as Herb points out, early marketers had not chased the golden ticket.

  9. “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.”

    You pegged me right there.

    My father and uncle actually got me into D&D after the release of the original red box (whatever version that is called these days), though Boot Hill (2nd edition) was our main game.
    But, as is always the case, those sessions faded and I began gaming with friends.

    30 years later (20 out of the hobby) and here I am a stranger in a strange land.

    Great article, but I do wonder … It seems to me that most of the original D&D gamers looked at supplements and revisionist editions as ridiculous notions. After all, most of those cats came from war-gaming backgrounds; house rules were the norm.

    As a matter of fact, rereading the Strategic Review run, I get the impression that even Gygax and Blume felt the same. It wasn't until Gygax made a deliberate attempt to brand his baby that 'rules' become some sort of fluid gospel.

    So if you even suspect that older gamers aren't going to continually pump money into your revisions (and modules), why not target little Johnny and his allowance money?

    Rather, I personally feel TSRs biggest blunder was in centering *all* attention on D&D and whatever flavour of the month.

    I go back and point to Boot Hill. In newsletters and their own magazines at the time, the first two editions got some mention. Not much, but enough to warrant a fan's interest.
    By the time the 3rd edition rolled around, you'd honestly be hard pressed to even know the game was still alive. I've all the Dragon magazines up to that point, and all that game (and the revised Gangbusters) got was a 'Coming Soon' blurb as means of publicity.

    This is your own company shill (Dragon), and you don't even bother to promote a product line update. For a fan of that line, it was an insult.

    Of course later you find out about all the behind-the-scenes garbage that destroyed that company. But at the time, TSRs blind devotion to the cash cow really turned me off.

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