Friday, March 18, 2011

Nostalgia for Gaming Magazines

The recent post about “dead” games inspired some reminiscing about some of the old print gaming magazines that used to broadly support the roleplaying game hobby.

In the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”), game magazines capitalized on two main strengths: they produced articles that explored the as-yet un-imagined potential of rules and settings, and they covered many of the different games emerging at the time, including those produced by companies other than the one publishing the magazine. They stood as buttresses supporting game lines between regular product releases. The monthly or bi-monthly supplements included additional material of a lesser degree than a complete sourcebook, but useful bits and pieces to incorporate into a game.

Dragon Magazine, in its early days, was the lighthouse of shared knowledge and enthusiasm for the roleplaying game hobby. Though it primarily served as a house organ for TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons game (and later other lines), its earliest issues offered coverage of games from other companies as well. As the game developed, Dragon served as a forum for a host of new ideas: new spells, classes, and game rules; questions and answers about specific game mechanics; debates about game issues from designers; original scenarios; and news about upcoming products and conventions (all elements now incorporated in good gaming websites). Over the years the magazine garnered six Origins Awards. After a short hiatus since the end of print production in 2007, Wizards of the Coast re-launched Dragon as a subscription website magazine supporting the current incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons.

GDW’s Challenge Magazine, successor to that company’s venerable Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society, primarily remained a house organ for its own roleplaying game lines, too, but was unafraid to publish submitted material for other companies’ games, especially at a time when those other companies didn’t always have periodicala to support their game lines. Material for GDW’s Traveller, Twilight 2000, Space 1889, and Dark Conspiracy packed the front of each issue; coverage of other companies’ game lines followed, but was no less varied. The magazine ran a host of pieces on West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game, TORG, and Paranoia, FASA’s Shadowrun and Star Trek Roleplaying Game, Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, and R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020, to name a few. (Full Disclosure: Challenge debuted my first professionally published gaming work, a Star Wars Roleplaying Game scenario called “The Limping Longshot.”) Challenge Magazine, more so than TSR’s Dragon, provided a platform for freelance writers to produce and publish material for their favorite game lines other than GDW’s, broadening the magazine’s content and making it more appealing to a wide range of gamers. Challenge ran from 1986, when it transitioned from the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society, to 1996, when GDW closed. Though Challenge has no active online presence, gamers can purchase PDF versions of issues from

Shadis: The Independent Games Magazine, emerged in the early 1990s to cover a broad variety of games without the constraints of a house organ (when established it was not produced by a game publisher). The three-time Origins Award winner pioneered some innovative, independent article formats, many system-neutral for use in a variety of games, including articles on adventure and setting creation, the popular gaming comic strip “Knights of the Dinner Table,” and the notable “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” featuring non-player character concepts for a variety of genres. Of course, Shadis also offered the usual features for gaming magazines, including news, reviews, and scenarios for a variety of games, from Castle Falkenstein and Call of Cthulhu to Pendragon and Exalted. Shadis ceased publication in 1997. Some of its earliest issues remain available in PDF at and the Kenzer and Company website.

I regret I cannot speak much about Steve Jackson Games’ Pyramid Magazine -- primarily a house organ for SJG’s game lines, with GURPS having enough subjects to appeal in some aspect to most gamers -- except to say I contributed a few articles to its online incarnation under the editorial auspices of the august S. John Ross. It remains perhaps the one gaming magazine that successfully transitioned itself from print to digital format first; initially it was a subscription-access website with content and forums, but today it comes in PDF from the SJG website. Like Shadis, Pyramid has won three Origins Awards.

Today print gaming magazines have reached the point of extinction. Those that persist maintain their life essence on the internet (much like many periodicals do, including newspapers, with sites providing new content amid blinking banner advertising); some, like the lavish Wargames Illustrated, manage to persist in print format augmented by a strong and useful website (like many newspapers survive). Publisher’s websites, online forums, news sites, PDF publications, and fan sites have assumed the role of disseminating industry news, fostering debates on game issues, releasing new scenarios, and generally filling the ether with the useful gaming tidbits previously found in good hobby magazines. Like other media, gaming magazines had to adjust to the overwhelming freedom the internet offered. Without limitations to monthly publication and print format, the concept of a “magazine” has given way to innumerable websites -- from publishers, fans, freelancers -- all of varying quality. Few stand above the rest as “pillars” of the roleplaying game industry.