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The 1999 Year In Review
wjw: On September 9th, the announcement was made that Hasbro would be
purchasing Wizards of the Coast for $325 million. Rumors took wing, as they inevitably
would, that the role-playing lines (and possibly even the collectible card games) of WotC
would be dumped to accommodate a more family-friendly corporation. Thankfully, those
rumors have proven to be untrue. So far, the only thing that appears to be fading is the
TSR name, which at the present time is nothing more than a logo. It's sad to see it go,
but it realistically has no significance anymore.
sml: As others have pointed out, before buying
WotC, Hasbro bought Avalon Hill (makers of Runequest) and fired everyone. A game that was
in the eyes of many the main competition to D&D is no more. We may never know if this
decision had anything to do with Hasbro's later acquisition of WotC, but it sure seems
(editor's note: It has been
pointed out by several parties that it was not Hasbro that did the firing; AH fired their
employees before the purchase was complete.)
wjw: On the other hand, Hasbro has recently (of this writing) announced
that they will be re-releasing the classic AH game Diplomacy with redesigned components.
It looks like they are interested in bringing the old Avalon Hill standards back... could
a new edition of Runequest be far off?
sml: Not likely, given
WotC's recent complaints about "too many different systems" on the market.
Frankly, Bill, the new Hasbro/WotC alliance frightens me. Essentially, Hasbro is a
Microsoft of the toy and hobby industry, matched only by Mattel...and now they've entered
the gaming community. It's like putting a shark into an aquarium filled with guppies. To
my knowledge, WotC's buying power cannot now be matched by any existing RPG/TCG company.
Maybe it's time other game companies started making deals with the devil too.
Changing the subject slightly, I can't say I'm sorry to see TSR go. The name is still
connected with a bad reputation, and while WotC may not be sparkly clean (especially in
the eyes of the anti-gamers), it's a little bit more respectable. As you said, Bill, TSR
was really nothing but a name and a logo.
And from mildly disturbing news we move straight on into sad news. September 25th saw the
death of Marion Zimmer Bradley, the renowned fantasy author and editor. It was she who
gave Phil Brucato of Mage fame his first professional break; she also edited the Sword
& Sorceress anthologies of stories with female protagonists, which had a profound
impact on authors and readers alike. Bradley was the author of such modern classics as the
Mists of Avalon, the Darkover series, Ghostlight and its three sequels, and countless
others. She was only 69 years old when she died, and she will be sorely missed.
We also lost Dave Webber, editor of PAPER MAYHEM, and Irish SF author James White, who
wrote the Sector General novels about a hospital in space. We said goodbye to Deforest
Kelley of Star Trek fame and to the famous movie critic Gene Siskel. And there were
countless others, many of whom probably also touched the lives of gamers everywhere.
Let's move on to an event that took place mere weeks before the release of White Wolf's
Hunter: the Reckoning. In late October, White Wolf's webmaster announced that the company
had been sold to a group called "Anonymous-Liberty.org," which appeared to be
devoted to personal freedom and the libertarian party. When gamers went to the group's
website, they found a questionnaire asking about supernatural
experiences; anyone who filled it out received a username and password allowing them to
log on to hunter-net.org.
It was, of course, a promotional
stunt - and one that initially fooled most of us, from what I gathered on various gaming
forums. When the truth came out, many gamers were quite upset - and for the benefit of
readers holding back snide remarks about gamers being "quite upset," I'd like to
say in my own defense that I wasn't one of them. White Wolf botched the hoax (mainly
because their dummy hunter-net site was
pretty boring), but it wasn't a bad idea, as promotional stunts go. Still, many
gamers were panicking when news of the buyout hit, and I don't think they were happy to
hear they'd been duped. The webmaster actually ended up apologizing for the stunt some
days later, and claimed at the time that it was his idea to begin with.
Then the game itself came out, and since it was in some ways inferior to other White Wolf
games, that didn't help matters any.
wjw: If I were to admit being duped, it would have to be because I
actually ended up buying the game... even though I hadn't heard about the stunt until
after it had enraged so many gamers. Personally, I chuckled over the whole thing... come
on, the Libertarian Party, buying an RPG company? They're a little too straight-laced for
that... (and, let it be noted that I voted Libertarian in the last two elections!)
sml: I only fell
for it until I saw the questionnaire. I'd been hearing quite a bit about Hunter, and I
actually had some promotional material at that point (courtesy of the Free Stuff shelf at
the lovely Pandemonium Books & Games in Harvard Square, plug, plug), so the survey was
a dead giveaway.
And as strange as the Libertarians may be in the eyes of their political rivals, I don't
think they're into hunting the vampires among us...not literally, anyway.
wjw: One announcement that was made not long after that had many gamers
waiting for a punchline. On November 30th, WotC announced that the long-running Gen Con
gaming convention will be moving to Indianapolis in 2003. This was another in a series of
disappointments for the old-school gamers who made the con their Mecca for the last thirty
years. Wizards cites growing pains as the reason for the move.
sml: And I say HAPPY DAY! Indianapolis is somewhat
closer to my home state of Massachusetts than Wisconsin is - though actually, I do have
relatives in Milwaukee, so maybe I shouldn't be cheering over the fact that as of 2003 I
may have to pay for a hotel room if I go to the con. (Hmmm...actually, I might have
relatives in Indianapolis too, come to think of it...) I'm hoping to save up enough extra
cash to go to Gen Con 2000, but while I'd have to check the prices to confirm this, I
think travel to Indiana would be cheaper.
wjw: That's pretty selfish, Spencer... think of all of those poor,
unfortunate gamers who are being left high and dry in Lake Geneva (the namesake of
"Gen Con"). (grin)
Something similar happened to me with Origins, which was supposed to stay in the
Philadelphia area indefinitely after 1995. The cost of operation in Philly suddenly went
up after a very successful Origins '95, so they pulled up the stakes and went back to
Ohio. I was crestfallen. At the time, I lived about an hour from Philly; I was gaming
until 4 p.m. on Sunday and still made it home in time for dinner. But, times change...
sml: Well, you have to see Wizards' side of it,
too. They'd outgrown Milwaukee. Not everyone has relatives there (or at least relatives
who are willing to let you stay with them, knowing full well that you may leave the house
in full Starfleet regalia and all the neighbors might see you), and the hotels were
overflowing. Well, Milwaukee has vowed to get the con back (that's interesting: they
actually WANT a bunch of gaming geeks invading their city come August?), and someday I'm
sure GenCon will return there. In the meantime, it'll be closer to me as of 2003. ;-)
wjw: And if we end up with TWO Gen Cons, more the better for everyone...
Wizards was the big newsmaker in 1999, it seems... On December 9th, they announced the
acquisition of the Star Wars license to produce the new SW role-playing game. This is good
news to those (like myself) who were upset over previous license-holder West End's loss of
the rights to the setting (and subsequent bankruptcy). New products in the SW line are
expected to hit the shelves in the fall of 2000.
WotC has made it clear that the new game will not use the d6 system used previously by
West End, nor will it use TSR's Alternity system; the current rumor is that it will use a
modified form of the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules that are also going to be
released later this year.
An interesting prospect, if I may slip in a quick
thought. Those new rules must be pretty flexible. I hope they translate well to the style
of Star Wars. That was something that I loved about the old game; the system bonded to the
cinematic style very well.
sml: Well, I never had a chance to see the Star
Wars RPG - by the time I found a game store in my area, it was out of print. (I later
found a copy on a used game shelf at a store in California, but I decided to stick to my
general rule: I only buy games that are in print, so I can be sure to find support for
them.) I think I'm at an advantage, in some ways, as I will be able to enjoy the WotC
SWRPG without comparing it on any level to the West End game.
wjw: Personally, I'm concerned about how the Force skills will be
handled, since I'm sure WotC will attempt to distance themselves from the old system as
much as possible. The Force skills were one of the best parts of the game. Without
going into too much detail, I'll summarize; the Jedi had three separate Force skills,
Control, Sense, and Alter, at differing skill levels, which they could combine to
accomplish different feats. Convincing a Stormtrooper that your droids are not the ones
he's looking for would be a combination of Sense and Alter, while making your lightsaber
leap to your hand from a distant location would be Control and Alter. I'm hoping that the
new system will find some way to stay close to this system... a simple series
of Force abilities (almost like a D&D spellbook) would ruin the game, in my
sml: Agreed. Spells are one thing, but in the Star
Wars books and movies, the Force is quite clearly a flexible, dynamic...well, force. On
the other hand, I'm sure the Wizards development team will be sure to do a good
job...after all, if they don't, thousands of Star Wars fans will be storming their
offices, and we all know how dangerous they can be. Those plastic lightsabers are a
choking hazard! :-)
wjw: Well, we've run down the events
of the last year, and we're already more than a month into the new one. Now it's time to
dust off your crystal ball and make a prediction about this upcoming year; what do you
think is going to be big news this year, Spencer?
sml: First of all, we will all be shocked when I
manipulate my puppet governments in the U.S., China, Russia, and the European Union into
launching nuclear attacks against the alien ship currently hidden in Earth orbit...whoops,
sorry, that's not until 2007.
Seriously, I think the Star Wars RPG is going to be very big, as is the Harry Potter RPG,
if WotC manages to squeeze that out by Christmas. The D&D movie is going to boost
sales of the game for a while (assuming it's not crap), and Lord of the Rings might
benefit the medieval fantasy gaming industry as a whole.
With Hasbro supporting a major gaming company, RPGs and TCGs may gain some measure of
mainstream acceptance, especially with Harry Potter and Star Wars under WotC's wing.
Unfortunately, unless Wizards is generous enough to start pointing out other games to the
"new blood" coming in through Potter and Star Wars, they are more likely to
benefit than the rest of the industry. Hasbro will probably start
selling RPG products in toy stores, which means game stores will likely be completely
ignored by the new gamers. Not altogether good tidings.
In other news, I suspect there will be a backlash against gaming and other
"occult" hobbies, religions, etc. as the year wears on and the truly fanatical
Christians realize that hey - Christ isn't coming this year! We may not see it
immediately, but we will probably see it at some point; remember, in the year 1000,
everyone was expecting
Christ and he didn't show then either. A couple centuries later, the Inquisition was
reaching the height of its power.
Then again, paganism, Judaism,
and other non-Christian religions are probably going to be worse off than the gaming
community if the Second Inquisition hits, as are "stranger" subcultures such as
the Goth movement. I have no doubt that we'll all survive - we managed to get through the
last one - but it may not be pretty for a while.
wjw: My prediction: After my Oscar-winning roles in the Changeling and
I think you nailed it well with the Harry Potter RPG (and inevitable CCG). Wizards now
has, as I saw one web site put it, a license to print money with the licenses to the two
biggest children's properties on the market. So far, they have made a fortune on Pokemon,
and I'm sure that they will take the opportunity with Potter. Wizards has also announced
the upcoming MLB Showdown 2000 CCG... could we see an influx of baseball fans in gaming
shops and conventions? I'll leave it up to the reader to decide if this is a good or bad
What I think looks bright about the future is the promise of new gamers from these
upcoming projects. Already, Hasbro/Wizards (shall we shorten that to "Hazards"?)
has released an excellent introductory RPG, "Pokemon Jr.". which encourages
parents to play along with their kids and create their own stories and adventures.
Hopefully, this will take off well enough for Hasbro to consider continuing the line, as
well as bringing out similar products under the Harry Potter name. As that hokey song
says, the children are our future...
Lest we come off as poster boys for Wizards of the Coast, I must add that the independent
game scene has grown by leaps on the internet, and small press games are getting better
than ever. I can only see this improving over the next year, as more talented writers
bring their works to the public through the global village. I must give a tip of the hat
to Hephaestus' Forge (www.indierpgs.com) which
features the best free games on the internet, and Event Horizon (www.rolepaper.com), who will print and distribute your
RPG for a nominal fee.
I agree that we will see a backlash against the resurgence of fantasy that is coming this
way... but not because of some sore losers who were expecting the Second Coming. I think
it will be the natural continuation of the anti-fantasy movement we see now. Those types
of people are already nervous about Pokemon and Harry Potter. When they see a D&D and
LotR movie looming ahead, as well as a possible Potter RPG (which will eventually lead to
playing D&D, the "harder stuff" as they call it in the old anti-drug films),
the speeches and protests will become more fervent. We'll probably see more incidents like
the Mark Juerva Poke-cide sermon.
As for a second Inquisition... well... if you need me, I'll be under my bed...
always look on the bright side of life...actually, for the first time in years, the gaming
industry is doing quite well. The crusade against role-playing games seems to be dying
down (though anti-gaming efforts now seem to be directed against TCGs and fantasy in
general, as you said), and I'm beginning to see more new faces at
the tables and the cons than I ever have before. Is it a brief summer heralding another
winter, or something more like the invention of Gutenburg's press, marking a Renaissance
for our hobby?
Gaming may never be mainstream entertainment, but things are getting better, and I'd like
to think that despite any setbacks we may encounter, our situation will continue to
But then, as the Monty Python boys say, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!
You can visit Spencer's
online 'zine, Beyond, at: