By way of light relief from hardcore strategy, here’s a mini-report from the year’s biggest RPG and War game convention: GAMES DAY ’86...
How many Games Days have there been now? An awful lot. The exact number of the latest one couldn’t be remembered by anyone at this year’s show but it must be into double figures. Running over the last Saturday and Sunday in September, it looked like another successful show with thousands of people packed into London’s Royal Horticultural Centre on a hot and humid day.
The show followed its usual format. Stands of games dealers, companies and clubs lined the outside of the hall, leaving the central area for a range of games — role playing, wargame and classical. Some of these were demonstration games organised and run by particular groups. Others were public participation games where you could book time for Orc bashing and so on.
These are always the main visual attractions of a role playing convention and some world-class displays were to be found in the hall. The Nottingham Players Guild, led by artist and game designer Gary Chalk had an immense fantasy war-game running on a table taking up a large portion of the display area. Thousands of hand painted 25mm lead figures, dragons, fantasy airships, dwarvish steam-powered battering rams and other weird and wonderful feasts for the eye were included. The terrain was lavishly detailed; castles rose several feet into the air at each end of the table: rickety wooden bridges spanning meandering rivers heaved under the weight of hundreds of heavily armed infantrymen rushing forward to meet the enemy’s giants and zombies.
I asked Gary Chalk how many man hours had been put into the display but it was all he could do to shrug and say, ‘Impossible to guess,’ before grieving to hear of the loss of one of his most powerful leaders in combat. Tears in his eyes, he continued, ‘but the thing is, we do this for fun. We play on boards like this all the time. They’re practical and not just for display.’
Apart from the dedicated behaviour of such gamers, there were more modest games on show based on everything from Blake’s 7 to Judge Dredd (another superb effort, complete with partially built city). In previous years, a variety of computers have been used to run wargames. This year there was only one computer running a game — a proud-looking Amstrad PCW 8256 demonstrating the kind of software Sloth Enterprises use to moderate Play By Mail games.
In a raised area at one end of the hall, a variety of costumed adventurers invited members of the public to a bit of swordplay. The weapons are convincing from a distance but are invariably made of foam rubber, allowing you to merrily bash your best friend on the head and only damage pride. In upstairs rooms around the hall perimeter, games designers and fanzine editors gave talks on hobby related items. Artists also had a chance to show their abilities at an exhibition.
Perhaps the roost visually attractive stand belonged to a company called Mythlore Studios and their wares were remarkable: apart from costumes and armour of a very high quality, the Mythlore also makes small treasure chests, monsters’ limbs in varying states of decay and even full size monster dummies. I know it sounds crazy (especially if you saw some of the price tags) but the quality of their work is incredible.
Fighting Fantasy authors and Games Workshop founders Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were to be seen from time to time (along with Rod Cousins from Activision) but this was largely an event for the public rather than personalities. Even the Games Day Awards (the only ones of their kind for the industry in this country) were typically informal.
The atmosphere at these events is traditionally more enjoyable than computer shows. There is little in the way of hard sell and more encouragement for people to just have fun. That they did. Some of the games were competitive by nature and offered prizes for those who survived but there was always the bar for those who didn’t...
It’s surprising how many of Games Workshop’s ex-employees have now become successful gamebook authors: Jon Sutherland and Simon Farrel, Gary Chalk and Joe Dever, Ian and Clive Bailey, Jamie Thompson and Ian Marsh... But as Simon Farrel, one of the co-authors of a historical series of solo-gamebooks said, ‘That part of the market is rapidly reaching saturation point.’
That brings me to the sad part of the story. In the last twelve years, role playing emerged as the most rapidly-growing, interesting and compelling new hobby in the western world. But it’s two years since I last paid a visit to Games Day and little has changed. Roughly the same numbers of people go to visit. It’s claimed as the largest convention of its kind, but it seems to have stabilised in terms of popularity. The gaming press has progressed little either. There are more British journals dedicated to what was once a solely American phenomenon, but the hobby seems to have become stagnant and that is unfortunate.
Perhaps that distant link between traditional role playing and computer gaming will create a new boon, and signal a fresh growth period in the hobby. The inherently complex nature of RPGs can only benefit from the availability of cheap and commonplace processing power. It would appear however, that the right circumstances have not yet arisen.