Thursday, 8 May 2014

When Fantasy Tries To Get Serious (and other musings on how it used to be better in the old days)

Back in the days of yore, there was certain 'feel' to fantasy and science fiction. Starships were sleek, floating cities glistened over the plains and there was a sense of awe and wonder; a suspension of disbelief created in which we all wanted to participate.

When somebody questioned why a city floated in the air, it was sufficient to be told 'It just does.' This was because it was unimportant and those of us who engaged in these kinds of collective storytelling were actively escaping from reality.

In the mid 90s when I managed and then owned a games store, those of us of a certain vintage started to see a change in the feel of the worlds offered by games companies.

There was an increasing dark feel to the worlds. Even classic games such as D&D started to feel 'dirty' and grim. What was worse; they set out to explain everything with pseudo-scientific description of how those flaying cities managed to do so. And by doing this they made the magical, mundane. I confess that at times I wondered what the whole point of trying to escape the real world was. In point of fact it was approaching the point where the old cartoon strip depicting assorted fantasy types engaging in a game in which they each play accountants and office workers, was becoming a reality.

And this has continued, with a few exceptions for around 20 years.

Even worse, company after company imitate each other rather than trying to come up with something that feels unique. For example, picking a couple of old school (I hate that term) titles at random; Runequest and Jorune were both fantasy games, but had very different backgrounds and you came away from both with a unique experience.

Sadly, this is not the case these days, but I suspect that retailers have to expend a lot of money just stocking many items 'for show' without really getting the return they might like.

Similarly, artwork in many cases is frankly awful, and whilst I accept that something like this is subjective, the skill of an artist is not.

Now, I hear some of you yelling that I should look at some of the old stuff, and I have, but I will counter that much of that art was done way before there were big budgets, dedicated design studios and the king of glossy page filling that seems to be essential these days. Much of that artwork was done with love, by talented amateurs. Again, I concede that there are exceptions, but if there is one thing that will turn me off, it's scrappy, ugly artwork. Moreover, if that artwork is just filling space to make an inferior game look more than it is, then my hand stays firmly away from my wallet.

Historical wargaming seems to be going through a phase where every game has to have 'official' products that you simply cannot do without - or at least which you are led to believe are essential - and without which you will seem somewhat unsophisticated by your fellow players. The idea of paying £30 for a rule book, and then being encouraged to pay another £15 each for several 15 page 'supplements', £10 for a set of dice, £10 for some counters etc, feels plain wrong to me. We are confusing elegant design with ostentatious presentation as a metaphorical over-egging of the pudding takes place to keep those profits high.

Remember what happened to companies like TSR when output began to become more important than the quality and practical usefulness of the product.

Is there any wonder that amongst the 'golden age of gaming' generation, there is an increasing move back to those to the games where they got their first hobby 'hit'?

I gave my son-in-law some old rules and magazines to read, he having been only exposed to Games Workshop post 1990s products, and I think that it amazed him that the hobby was so rich in material and so broad in subject matter back then. My daughter was raised playing a mix of older games and one or two newer ones and was possibly better informed. In fact to this day one of her favourite games is TSR's 'Fantasy Forest', but equally she has a love of SJG's 'Dino Hunt' and in recent years 'Carcassonne'. I think this is because for her games were not an image enhancer or a fashion statement, but rather simply 'games', to be played and enjoyed.

None of these games have excessive add-ons when compared to many. I concede that there are a few for Carcasonne, but from what I have seen they do actually add to the enjoyment of the game.

A couple of years ago, I delved back into that spawn of Satan 'Magic: The Gathering' but it had become so cumbersome that to this day, boxes of cards are sitting collecting dust, just like so many sets of 'Starfleet Battles'.

I will say however, that there are some companies who are turning out some really nice stuff. Rapier Miniatures always manage to tickle my fancy with their fantasy stuff, Crooked Dice are definitely surfing on the high wave with their miniatures which tap into retro T.V and film and the 'Labyrinth Lord' D&D retro-clone is great fun and a hell of a lot cheaper than having to scour auction sites for battered original stuff, so there is, I think, a light at the end of the tunnel...


PS: For a list of trader at Triples next week along with link buttons to the various manufacturers sites go here:

It's not the official SWS site but it's up to date and less clumsy if you want to see what each company has on offer.