Sunday, 9 September 2012

Scenes from a Merseyside Gaming Emporium

I was moseying around Liverpool city centre today on the way to my office, and decided to head into Forbidden Planet - a chain of shops which sells mostly stuff that I don't think self-respecting adults should be interested in (action figures, Dr. Who DVDs, comics), fantasy and SF books, and - increasingly rarely - RPGs.

Before I went to live in Yokohama, way back in 2002ish, I remember Forbidden Planet's RPG section as being pretty extensive. It had, in large quantities, GURPS, old WoD, Call of Cthulu, MERP, D&D, RuneQuest, Shadowrun, Rifts, and so on, as well as more obscure stuff like Continuum. (Some of the books they had may have been out of print by that stage.) The shelf space was probably about 3 yards wide and a yard and a half high with two or three racks.

Now, there is only about a yard of shelf space on one rack. It contains, to my recollection (I may have missed something):

  • Pathfinder stuff (Christ, that rulebook is thick: do people actually read that?)
  • D&D 4e stuff, including the Red Box rip-off/revamp which I forget the name of
  • Mongoose Traveller (one copy of the core rules, nothing else)
  • the AD&D 1st edition core rulebook reprints for the Gygax memorial fund
  • Mouse Guard 
I find a couple of things quite surprising about this. First - no World of Darkness. I'm surprised that line has tailed off. Since I don't really play those games I can only speculate, but did the new WoD alienate old fans and fail to replace them, a la Dungeons ampersand Dragons?

Second, almost everything is either D&D or a D&D spin-off. The great alternatives of old - Rolemaster, RuneQuest, etc. - might as well not exist, for all you'd guess. This is doubly true of the other heavyweights like Call of Cthulu, GURPS, Shadowrun, and the like. When people say that it wouldn't matter if D&D went away, I have my doubts. Other games may fill the void, but it seems just as likely that the hobby would simply die as a going concern.

Third, Mouse Guard?

And finally: if you assume that shelf space maps perfectly to the number of players (which it probably doesn't) you would have to conclude that the number of RPG players in Merseyside has declined in the last decade or so by what, 90% or something?


  1. When I was last in the Forbidden Planet in central London (a year or so ago), its RPG section was the same. A single shelf, maybe three foot long. The main oddity I remember from it was the GURPS Hellboy book. Otherwise I think it was mainly D&D 3rd Edition books, looking rather battered and thumbed.

  2. Since I don't really play those games I can only speculate, but did the new WoD alienate old fans and fail to replace them, a la Dungeons ampersand Dragons?

    A little, but their downfall was more business-oriented. White Wolf was purchased by a gaming company called CCP which made Eve Online (an MMO, not a pen-and-paper RPG). When they acquired the line, they basically started ignoring the RPG aspect in favor of developing an MMO based on Vampire: the Masquerade.

    Things have stabilized for White Wolf since then, but the company has shifted to a pdf/POD model for all their games, and now deals almost exclusively through DriveThruRPG/RPGNow. They probably also sell stuff through their website and at conventions, but one doesn't really find new releases at the FLGS anymore.

  3. I've never been to a Forbidden Planet, but I suspect that much of this business (just like for bookstores) has shifted to online retailers. Why pay $40 for a book in the store when you can get exactly the same piece of merchandise for $25 (with free shipping) if you don't mind waiting a few days?

    I think most of the Pathfinder book is essentially reference material and doesn't need to be read. I hear you though, it's a monster.

  4. Every time I go to London's Forbidden Planet - the last time was a month or two ago - I'm surprised by its size to be honest. It's extensively larger than a single shelf from what I recall. I can't speak to the variety though, I don't usually inspect it at length.

  5. Newcastle's FP used to have a great variety of rpgs near the entrance. Now there's a pokey little section in the basement that caters for the big names, most popular lines and licensed tie-in products.

    Aside from the usual 'decline of rpgs' reasons FP were burnt by the boom and bust of d20, ending up with loads of unsold stock when 4e appeared. Now they have 4e stuff to shift before D&DNext appears.

  6. To be fair to Pathfinder that book is the PHB, DMG and monsters all in one book if I remember correctly. Still, it's ridiculously huge.

    WoD/White Wolf presence in stores is lacking because they largely switched to PoD.

    Everything being a D&D knockoff is the fault of the OGL/SRD. As positive as it was for the hobby in many ways it also swallowed up most other games in the d20 craze, significantly narrowing the playing field.

    Also, WotC is one of the few companies that can afford to print large numbers of physical books and send them into stores. It's far more profitable for small press and independent publishers to sell online either pdf or PoD or small print runs, fulfilling the orders themselves.

    So gaming stores are shafted, but I think there's more gaming going on than there has been in decades perhaps. The local scenes are huge, there are being new games published almost monthly, there are dozens of conventions per year. The hobby is thriving, but the industry/economy of it has changed significantly.

    Oh, and Mouse Guard is attractive for book stores because it's a sturdy and ridiculously pretty hardcover book based on comics (which they likely also sell). It's also a game with a lot of critical acclaim.

  7. In the London one I remember one full panel of shelves with D&D 4th and quite a few other options. And not too far away is the Orc's Nest with its truly comprehensive selection.

  8. Up until recently FP in Liverpool had a much larger stock of RPG books and games. I think the Scythe now has the edge both in RPG materials and tabletop games (although it did look like their stock of RPG things was from remaindered stock).

    I'm in Manchester tomorrow so might take a look in Travelling Man and FP there to see what sort of levels they are selling.

    1. York Travelling Man had a fantastic array of RPG books - better than the dedicated games shop in Cardiff. I got a bunch of Dragon Warriors stuff from there. Thank Gandalf my wife was with me, else I would have bought and bought...

    2. The Manchester one had huge stock of RPGs and Tabletop games. Some indie stuff too. Found several LotFP products as well.

  9. Impossible. Where do they wheel these people in from?

    1. Yes, I did write that entry too. I'm a complex individual - it's part of what makes me so fascinating.

      In all seriousness I haven't made my mind up about the health of "the industry" and I'm not sure I ever will.

  10. What Brendan said. RPGs are very much a niche product. Aside from a handful of dedicated RPG-only stores, there's no reason for a bookseller to carry that stuff -- they can't possibly compete with online retail. This obviously wasn't the case in the 90s.

  11. I'm a regular visitor to Forbidden Planet in central London, and they have a reasonable selection of RP material. There's two full shelves - floor to ceiling - with the left dedicated to 4e and Pathfinder, and the right to many other systems - GURPS, Ars Magica, Traveller, and many other. There's a half-height shelf facing that with Cthulhu and new arrivals.

    Orcs Nest is not far away, and there's Leisuregames up in Finchley. I think the hobby has the same level of audience as before, but online retail has shrunk what you'll find at your FLGS.

  12. As Picador says I think that online retail (and getting stuff online for free, I love you Dungeon Dozen and so many other blogs!) is a big part of this. Obscure RPGs are a very thin and very long tail (which has gotten longer and thinner as DIY publishing has proliferated) and online booksellers can deal with that a lot more easily than brick and mortar ones. Also publishers make a lot more money per product by selling directly so they can keep all of the money.

    But on the other hand this death of the middle men might make it harder to bring in new people as online RPG sales are invisible unless you're specifically looking for them.