Thursday, 4 December 2008

Dead Magazines

On balance the internet is undoubtedly a good thing, but it is responsible for a lot that's wrong with the world. One of its greatest sins is that it drove the final stake through the heart of the print RPG magazine. Not even monolithic house organs like Dragon and Dungeon could resist its energy-draining wight touch.

The saddest loss of the print-net war was a magazine called Arcane, which for about two years in the mid 90s constituted my regular fix of RPG reading. Not only was it eclectic and general (its articles covered everything from D&D to d6 Star Wars to Harn to WoD), it was also written with the wit and verve that Future Publishing was rightly famous for in the 1990s. (Some of Arcane's regular contributors were or had been staff writers for other great and now sadly defunct FP titles, such as the unrivalled Amiga Power.) Even though I haven't even clapped eyes on a copy in around ten years at least, I can still remember some of its classic articles, and I credit it with more influence on my gaming habits than just about anything else.

There's often talk about the 'death of the industry' and the declining cultural importance of RPGs. Young people prefer World of Warcraft, it seems, and nothing signifies this more than the disappearance of magazines like Arcane. But was this trend a cause or a symptom? Which came first: the death of the magazines or the zenith of the industry?


  1. I don't lament the loss of The Dragon or Dungeon. They died, IMO, because they weren't worth paying for. The magazines got by for a long time because they were the only games in town; the Internet exposed them to more competition, and they couldn't hack it in a world of free instant resources. When gamers have that much material at their fingertips, a magazine has to be something special to survive, and neither of those two was anything special by the end.

    I have the CD archive of The Dragon and am increasingly unimpressed with its signal-to-noise ratio even in the magazine's heyday. There was an awful lot of crap. I have 250 searchable issues at my disposal and never use them.

    YMMV, obviously.

  2. Scott: I only lament their loss inasmuch as they were the last ones and they were one of the only reliable blooding grounds for RPG writers. I don't set much stock in the glorified vanity pressing that constitutes the 'indie RPG industry' - certainly not as a way for good writers to cut their teeth. I'm still a believer in the adage that if your stuff is good people will pay you to publish it, not the other way round.

    That's why I write all the garbage I do for free. ;)

    But yeah, I'm with you on rarely using any of it. Actually White Dwarf was much better than Dragon, before it just became the Games Workshop scream sheet.

  3. I think the death of the magazines and the rise of things like WoW are related but not by causality.

    If you read PtGPtB you know a couple of times I've touched on the idea that movies/TV as the sole or primary inspiration for TTRPGs will always fail. Why? Becuase TTRPGs are a medium conveyed almost entirely by words. In fact, many games use no visual elements at all. A medium of words will be supported heavily by media using word: books and magazines.

    More and more we are living in a post literate culture. WoW is visual. More and more people are using movies, TV, and video games as inspiration for TTRPGs. Even if that is sustainable (and I doubt it is) the end result will be the use of more and more visual media as inspiration.

    In that world word media (magazines and book supplements) will only have utility in terms of things visual media can't convey. Generally that is rules and maybe some bits of background. The great articles of RPG magazines have not generally been rules articles. They have been random tables that served as inspiration, how to articles combining early Mongol culture with orcs, and so on.

    Now days people who want that kind of thing rent a box of old 80s sci-fi movies.

  4. Herb: How depressing. What makes it doubly so is that I think you're probably right.

  5. I greatly enjoyed (very sporadically) reading White Dwarf for the art, especially Russ Nicholson pieces that haven't shown up anywhere else.

  6. Arcane was great. I miss it a lot, even if it did have no idea what to do with its "adventure" section.

    And obviously pre-100 White Dwarf was brilliant and will be similarly missed.

    While its tight focus on D&D disappoints me a touch, Fight On! really does have some of the energy of the aforementioned magazines, and I hope it proves that such products are still viable.

  7. Herb said, "More and more we are living in a post literate culture."

    When I was in grad school, I used to think that too. Now I would substitute "post-literate" with "illiterate."

    Quite simply, print is dying because many [most?] American citizens do not [or cannot] read, write, or convey a coherent thought in text.

    In the past 20 years, newspaper readership has shrunk to near-insignificance. Magazines face constant threat of folding and must rely on the benevolence [read: control and domination] of advertisers to sustain costs. Niche publications have virtually disappeared in any for-profit sense.

    Yes, all this occurred alongside [and because of] the Internet, but this does not really explain why most college students can state in perfect honesty that they have never read a book from cover-to-cover. Findings in recent literacy studies suggest that people are NOT substituting the 'net for books, unless on thinks that commenting on a YouTube video is equivalent in complexity and depth to reading TIME, the The New York Times, or a Jane Austen novel.

    I think it might be more apt to contemplate that the Internet has actually been the salvation of the RPG industry *because* it has provided an inexpensive way to mass mediate within a community of like-minded fans.

  8. The Myth: I don't believe that print is dying, certainly not in the UK or Japan (I've never been to the US, but I don't think there's a huge difference between it and Britain); the book industry is booming, in fact. Certain areas of print media are having trouble, undoubtedly, but that is their own fault: print journalism has been a cesspool of incompetence and laziness for decades apart from a few bastions like The Economist. What's happening is that the newspaper industry in particular is being forced to get its act together.

    Where I agree with you is that niche publications are moribund and it's unlikely they'll ever come back, and that's what makes me sad. While on the one hand the internet will at least keep the participants in those niche interests happy, I think it is a double-edged sword because it means that there will never arise again a market for things like Arcane.

  9. Ive always preferred books and magazines to the net. Hardcopy always trumps virtual ones.

    Stuff like Arcane was amazing for its time.

    I've yet to see a single virtual gaming magazine come close to the glory of a classic issue of it, Dragon, Dungeon, old Pyramid, old White Dwarf (which for me was the 2nd ed 40K/early 3rd ed glory days), White Wolf, and Shadis.

    It just meant more in hardcopy.

    About the closest thing we get now are house organs and mooks ala The Unspeakable Oath.
    (This category currently having Worlds of Cthulhu and The Rifter in it.)

    Dragon mostly died because WotC wants to go the digital NOT REAL AND THUS INFINITELY DISPOSABLE route all media seems to be heading towards.

    For D&D D20 fans I am sure it was invaluable. For a multisystem gamer like me who generally thinks D20 sucks due to execution and not intent (I loves me some Castles & Crusades, which is what D&D maybe should have always been..) it was nigh useless, and Dungeon stopped being a buy for the same reason. (Bye D20 minigames! Bye Star Wars content! See ya Polyhedron! Its just D&D modules for you!)

    Permanence really does matter. Sadly those of us who believe this are a rapidly declining breed.

  10. The loss of Dragon, Shadis, and other such magazines continues to be a tragedy, in part because the generation that grew up without them has been damaged enough not to miss them.

    Modern discussion about gaming involves internet diving, which is a private and highly asocial activity. This leads to people who hew to isolation by playing only online games and praising them for their ability to help them avoid being around other people.

    In the days of Dragon and other gaming magazines, people would get together to read the same issue, making it a social activity. While a minority received Dragon in the mail, most people went to the local gaming shop to purchase a copy of Dragon, and while there they would stop to chat with the game store owner and fellow gamers for sometimes hours. Then, that weekend, they would sit with other human beings for a tabletop gaming session.

    The replacement of highly social gaming mag experiences such as Dragon with the highly isolated gaming experiences were one of the nails in the coffin causing the replacement of highly social tabletop gaming with isolated reliance entirely upon MMORPGs and other asocial online experiences.

    Meanwhile, people wonder are oddly surprised that the world is so much less friendly any more and are oddly surprised that the average modern teen has 1/4 the close friends that an average teen had 30 years ago, during the days when Dragon magazine had not yet been replaced by the internet.

    The internet can be shown to be one cause, and the fact that the internet generation fail to understand why the loss of Dragon magazine and its like is a loss is another cause.