Monday, June 28, 2010

Zines and the renaissance

I started playing roleplaying games in the late 1970s with the Holmes basic set, but I didn't completely dive into the gaming frenzy until the early 1980s. At that time, I started playing AD&D fairly regularly with one group of gamers and played quite a few different games with another group. We worked our way through all the TSR classics at some point or other. Metamorphosis Alpha, Boot Hill, Gamma World, Top Secret, Gangbusters, Star Frontiers – we played them all. Over time, we moved on to other companies' games, but we were always TSR faithful back in the day. And we stayed faithful throughout the 80s and into the early 90s, playing through most of the classic module catalog, a number of home-brewed campaigns, and lots of off-the-cuff stuff in between.

In the middle 80s, like so many gamers at the time, I also got into punk and metal music. The music of Dio, Ozzy, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, the Dead Kennedys, the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, and many more were the soundtrack for quite a few gaming sessions, if not the inspiration as well. My gaming friends and I grabbed these albums and tapes almost as fast as we did Unearthed Arcana, the latest Dragon magazine, or the latest modules. We devoured these bands' music right alongside our feast of gaming material.

One of the things that tied both together at the time was the zine. I remember going to the local gaming club or the FLGS at the time and seeing several home-made or semi-professional gaming zines right alongside Dragon and White Dwarf. In our local game stores it often seemed like the zines had better circulation than some of the professional magazines, given the spotty international distribution of Games Workshop at the time.

Over at the record stores, it was the same. If you went to the right stores, you could find some local zines talking about the newest metal bands or which punk shows were rolling through the dives in town next week. You could read a review of the Circle Jerks show and the latest Corrosion of Conformity album.

In both cases, the zines were often poorly written, had little substantive content, and had inconsistent release and distribution schedules. Sometimes, you could find a good zine for a month or two, then they would fade into obscurity. Sometimes, you would find one that was mediocre that would hang on for months at a time. Normally, it was something between the two. They were made on copy and mimeo machines at the local high schools, or they made their way out of the newspaper offices at IU, Purdue, and Ball State after hours.

Despite the poor production values, though, the zines served an important function for us. They made us feel like we were part of something big. They made us feel personally involved. And, if we were especially lucky to be the first to find a particularly good rag, they gave us some bragging rights in our personal cliques.

In the case of the gaming zines, we took everything printed in them with a grain of salt. Sometimes, though, we would find a real gem tucked inside those hastily typed, mimeographed pages. These treasures, often a new monster or spell of exceptional and spectacular lethality, would make the rounds of the local gamers and then fade into obscurity as their novelty wore off. Once all the groups at the Dragon's Lair had thrashed a bog beast (Dude, it's totally not hurt by edged weapons! Like who carries a mace besides the cleric anyway, man?!), he slouched back into the swamp and got lost in the mists of time.

In the early 90s, gaming and music zines seemed to fade away as more and more people started going online for information. Gamers tuned into the golden tubes of the interweb earlier than many, and most of the things that used to go into the zines got put onto personal gaming sites and newsgroups. Suddenly, what you used to be able to send out to a couple hundred gamers in your local area, you could send out to every gamer in the world. Awesome!

As we turned the next decade, we moved out of the newsgroups and onto forums and blogs. Now we were able to interact with each other more and develop the content together. If someone thought the bog beast was the coolest thing since a triple Espresso shot, they could give you some feedback. Maybe they'd suggest that edged weapons wouldn't damage it but had a chance to chop off a smaller bog beast. Maybe they'd say it was the worst thing they'd seen and you should give up your hapless attempts at designing altogether. Either way, we got an idea of what people thought about what we were throwing out there in a way the old zines never did.

Now as time marches off into another new decade, the zines are making a comeback. This is especially true for the old-school games, but also the case for newer games and gaming types. Computers and the Internet have made it possible for anyone to put their ideas and experiments, news and commentary out there for the world to see. Some of them are better than others. Some are more timely than others. Some flare up and fade away, and some have been going for years. A few have gone past the zine stage and become full-fledged magazines with professional artwork and design, paid writers, and solid, regular distribution. Regardless of the differences, zines are back.

I think this is a great sign for the gaming hobby. More gamers are going back to the idea that it doesn't matter if you have the backing of a big game company, that your ideas can be just as good as any of the big-name designers. Using the OGL or Creative Commons, a lot of gamers are putting out some solid old-style zines with great content. Computers have kicked up the production value, and the Internet has broadened the distribution. Thirty years of history has improved the quality and depth of the articles, too.

A few months ago, I heard Jim Pinto of AEG say in an interview on Fear the Boot, "The renaissance of gaming is over." I think he was talking about the explosion of content we saw following the start of the D20 revolution and the creation of the OGL. Sure, there were a lot of companies that released a ton of material, and that did reinvigorate gaming. But I tend to think the renaissance is still happening now.

Jim is right that a lot of companies have dropped off since the move by Wizards of the Coast away from 3rd edition to 4th and away from the OGL. Outside of Paizo's Pathfinder and its supporters, there aren't a lot of companies holding onto 3.5 nowadays. But that doesn't mean that the renaissance is over. On the contrary, it could just be beginning now.

The word renaissance means rebirth. Even though D&D, as officially named and produced by Wizards of the Coast, has moved away from its roots in many ways, people are playing it, and more people start playing all the time. At the same time, lots of people are still playing the older editions. And if you include the retro-clones, more new people are playing these older editions as well. Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, and all the other retro-clones are bringing new gamers into the hobby as much as 4th edition or other "mainstream" games are.

Part of the reason for that, I contend, is the resurgence of the zines alongside these games. I got excited about a lot of punk music back in the day by reading the zines tucked by the register at the independent record shops. I got excited about gaming again and the retro-clones by reading a lot of the player-created content that was posted online the last couple years. In both cases, I felt like I was onto something new, exciting, and visceral because someone had the passion and interest to put this stuff together, even though they weren't necessarily being paid for it. Old-school punks and old-school gamers poured part of themselves into those zines, and that gives them a kind of energy that none of the more polished magazines will ever have.

Good zines, then and now, have energy and a kind of life. They may not have much substance, but they've got passion. And more often than not, they're a reflection of real-life gaming, not something polished in a game writing think-tank in the offices of a big game company. That life may be chaotic, unruly, unpolished, and disorganized. It may be amateurish and unprofessional. But that's the way this hobby started! If Gary Gygax and friends hadn't put out those type-written booklets, stapled together and hand-labeled in that basement in Lake Geneva, we wouldn't be playing roleplaying games at all. Zines have the same kind of energy that those little brown books had. And the fact that zines are making a comeback in electronic form tells me that we've rediscovered our roots and that the hobby is being reborn as we speak. The real renaissance is happening now, and its happening in the form of all of those forums, blogs, and especially zines that are floating through the net right now. Gaming is dead, long live gaming. The zine is dead, long live the zine!


  1. Some really smart observations there on the evolution of zines. I think that magazines provide an useful historic reference point for gamers. I'd like to think that in 20 years time, somebody might stumble across a copy of one of my zines and get the same enjoyment that I get from looking through my old gaming magazines.

  2. I still go back to a lot of the old mags fairly regularly. I occasionally go to them for a particular article or rule, but more often than not it's just to get a reminder of some of the old stuff I associated with gaming long ago. The art, articles, fiction, and even the ads produce a kind of nostalgia along with a wellspring of ideas that has been very fruitful for me lately.

  3. Found your blog through your link to this article on Grognardia:

    I really wish someone somewhere would start collecting and making PDFs available of the old gaming zines. I LOVE reading old fanzines and BBS-type zines like Alarums and Excursions, but they are so incredibly hard to find.


  4. I collect old rpg zines and magazines and I have to agree.. some of the stuff is good.. its certainly gotten a bit harder for me to finish off various runs of magazines as time marches on.. I have I think over 4000 individual mags.. there is a huge number of UK ones and more keep on popping up all the time.. Would love to get in contact with others that have a similar interest..