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Monday, February 22, 2016

The Slow Boat from China

In mid-February, the Chinese New Year holiday results in a general factory shutdown, including most of the plastics production for the hobby game trade.  This happens barely a month after the Christmas holiday shopping season ends, so what happens is that production runs at breakneck pace late in the year, but product moves through the channel whole hog, and then after a series of January restocks, a gigantic festive foot steps on the garden hose and the water trickles to a stop.

Despite the Chinese factories sporting the most impressive manufacturing and delivery logistics in all of human history, the course of product flow from a game publisher's factory order to the "flooring" of that product in a domestic warehouse does take weeks and sometimes longer.

Some of this is economics-driven.  To keep costs down in our very non-lucrative industry, plastic TIE fighters with cute little movement dials are not going to be produced in the high-priority high-money factories that offer day-span turnaround production of iPhones and PlayStation 4 consoles.

Some of this is a simple matter of iteration.  Once the factory is finished squirting plastic and cutting cardboard and wrapping a game product in printed packaging, that product still has to be cased, cartoned, palleted, containered, and sent aboard a gigantic boat to trawl the Pacific Ocean to the Port of Long Beach or another likely landing spot along a coast largely given over to resort hotels and surfer haunts.

There is more to the process than just that, but it should be obvious why even the resumption of production after the Chinese New Year break does not place new product immediately on store shelves for consumers.  We really, really wish it did.  But it doesn't.

None of this should be the customer's problem, of course.  This is a demand market and whoever can supply the demand, rules the market.  It is not an accident that Wizards of the Coast moved much Magic: the Gathering production to domestic printing facilities.  Their fulfillment has reached a downright legendary level of dependability.  Millions upon millions of packs of new cards reach storefronts nearly simultaneously, worldwide, four or five times a year, and for the past few cycles, restocks at any depth we desire have been available the Monday following the release weekend.  Wizards has such market presence that it can spend what it takes to put that kind of production volume into motion on time.  Hasbro has pockets deep enough to withstand bad sales of a release.  That risk is diminished by printing in Texas instead of Wizards' decades-ago practice of printing with Cartamundi in Belgium.

Anybody dealing in prepainted plastic, however, is essentially dealing with China or southeast Asia, or not publishing at all.  Games Workshop squirts unpainted plastic in Memphis, but based on figures related to me by an industry insider, adding the prepainted element domestically would run the cost up into the triple-to-quadruple MSRP range at a minimum versus the pricing we see now.  The factories stateside just don't make that.  What you therefore see from the Made In China publishing category are established entities like Fantasy Flight and WizKids having solid quantities on delivery but subject to periodic outages, while lesser plastic pushers face chronic unavailability of product.  Funko, manufacturer of POP! and other licensed tchotchkes, splits production between China and Vietnam to hit its throughput requirements.

Waaaaaaay down here at the bottom of the food chain, at retail, we are often left at a loss to explain to our customers when a given product will be back in stock.  Distribution sometimes solicits the reprint so that they can get orders staged up ahead of time, but mostly it's just a crapshoot.  It will be back when it's back, and in this the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Sixteen with all the knowledge of civilization on the social media cat meme generators in our pockets, we retailers need to be able to deliver a better answer than "I dunno."  This, by the way, is one of those times when the Magic-dependent clubhouse stores are maybe playing in a safer pond than the diversified stores.  The grindhouses lack for nothing in procuring the wares by which they pay the bills.  The biggest variance they have to deal with is for singles walking in the door, and they shore up that uncertainty with margin.  Outages of Standard-legal boosters?  Forget about it.  Go have lunch, call your distributor back, they'll be there.

Rather than knowing nothing about when a product will arrive, though, customers sometimes have vague or misleading information from the publisher and become frustrated with retailers, who do not control this process, when the product fails to materialize.  I am going to use Fantasy Flight's website as an example, though they're not the only publisher that does this sort of thing.

On the boat, eh?  Boats move pretty fast, so it seems like in a few days, it should be in stores, right?  As it turns out, some products sit "on the boat" for months at a time.  X-Wing "Wave 8" (depicted in part above) is in this predicament.  In practice, what is probably happening is that this status flags up when the item is containerized and scheduled for loading at the Shenzhen dock.  However, any number of things could delay it from being placed on a waterborne vessel, and any number of things could slow (or stop!) that vessel from arriving in a timely fashion in SoCal.  The longshoremen's strike of early 2015 taught us that lesson with a beating.  And it's not that common in this day and age, but it is in fact possible for ships to, you know, sink.  Aaaaaaand sometimes your production schedule gets interrupted by Chinese New Year.

Fantasy Flight then doubles down on the frustration by flagging the status as "shipping to retailers."  Most customers know by now that our typical ship is zero to two days for games, depending on the source warehouse.  As soon as it flags as "shipping to retailers," I am immediately bombarded by requests from X-Wing players to be able to pick up their new ships.  Often I don't even have a distribution delivery date yet.  It's usually a few weeks away still.  Let me tell you, of all the things I hate to say to a customer, right up there at the top of the list is "Do not spend money in my store."  And yet there we are, because the publisher (FFG or otherwise) told the end customer just enough to make them think that the retailer is somehow the bottleneck in this process, and the product should be here by now.

Fortunately, the system usually works and the new products land in the hands of my players.  Once that container ship docks in Long Beach, it's a short truck ride to Orange and Visalia.  From there, the process is as impressive as it is efficient.  The distributors don't even have to call me.  I told them I'd buy the stuff months ago, back before the Cardinals had even clinched the NFC West.  They already have my numbers in their system.  Their computers flag the items for fulfillment, our reps bang out the sales orders, the warehouse staff plays some life-sized Tetris with some big brown trucks, and those Ghost Expansion Packs hurtle eastward on Interstate 10 at seventy miles an hour, eventually to land at 2531 South Gilbert Road, suites 106 and 107.

Communication throughout this process can be achieved with accuracy: WizKids provides exact delivery dates for its plastics, the ones that I strongly suspect are being manufactured at precisely the same Chinese factories as FFG's are.  It is possible to do this and when retailers are put on notice so reliably, it forces us to up our game and build processes to floor new product properly week in and week out.

This situation is improving.  More companies are implementing street dates, and since I called out Fantasy Flight above, it's only fair that I give them due credit for putting street dates into place just recently and saving retailers everywhere a weekly logistics headache.   Street dates are great because until that date is reached, it doesn't matter (to the end user) what's going on with product production or transportation.  It's not out yet.  It will be.  I'm sure it will arrive that week.  Once the customer knows the street date, they don't even ask anything else.  Now it becomes a matter of which publisher can provide that info soonest.  More than two weeks' notice is especially preferred.  Games Workshop, I'm looking at you.

Distributors are providing street dates or delivery dates more often lately and giving retailers meaningful release windows (where available) in solicitations.  Each distributor has at least one thing they're doing really well in this regard.  Alliance's website is the best in the hobby game trade for handling pre-orders, bar none.  GTS makes triple sure you get the memo, between their website, their email solicitation, and weekly rep "deadline" emails for preorders.  ACD excels at the single-product or small-line email solicitation, with great photos, solid descriptions, and key numbers right there for us to see.  Even Diamond, for all we complain, is the best at having every product card in their database contain the complete delivery and street date data, EAN/ISBN and/or UPC, rating, virtually always an image of some sort, and reprint references.  Distributors on the mass market side tend to offer similar levels of granular data and it's a delight to have access to such concrete information.

For any of my customers or just the general public reading this, now you know why stores never seem to know when the hottest games will be back on the shelves until the eleventh hour or later.  We're doing our best, though, and you should fully expect us to make good with the info once we have it.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The New Rules of Retail and Game Store Websites

After my solicitation last week, Steve M. of Chandler asked about my thoughts on the importance a customer-facing website for the store.  In answering that, I have a fairly ideal tie-in to a book review article I have been meaning to write about "The New Rules of Retail" by Robin Lewis and Michael Dart, which I recently finished reading.
In The New Rules of Retail, Lewis and Dart posit a division of the history of modern retail into four eras, or "Waves."  Wave 1 was the Sears-Roebuck Catalog and early mail-order.  Wave 2 came after World War II and tracked the boom of mall shopping centers in the suburbs: think Montgomery Ward, JCPenney, Dillard's, Mervyn's, Village Inn.  Wave 3 arrived with the 1990s and the big-box "category killer" stores' ascendance: Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, Borders, Circuit City, Applebee's.  Wave 4 is what we've just recently entered.  Lewis and Dart argue that Wave 4 dispenses with the traditional manufacturing-distribution-retail model and brings us to a world of brands, with each brand having near-total vertical control over its delivery chain and market aggregators like Amazon providing the mechanical vector.  Think Apple Store, Abercrombie & Fitch, LEGO Store, Disney Store, Panera Bread, Starbucks.

In Wave 4, Lewis and Dart explain, a retailer can no longer count on merely being the point of delivery for a product and profiting thereby.  Instead, shopping has to be a sensory and emotional experience.  (You can probably tell already that I'm rolling my autism-spectrum eyes at that proclamation, but read on.)  A customer has to make a neurological connection to the brand and what it represents, and then it's just follow-through on the retail end.  Lewis and Dart make a compelling argument that the perpetual connectivity that smartphones make possible has become the key to disintermediation from the product chain, for which a value chain of (largely) service arises.  And where there's no experience involved, a consumer simply orders up what they want on Prime and it's at their doorstep in a few hours, and retail is no longer involved.

So, do I think Lewis and Dart are right?  To a significant degree, I think they are, and that makes The New Rules of Retail a wise read for small retailers.  Their arguments ring true, even if I don't think they apply to every industry.  Try ordering a set of tires on eBay and see how that experience pans out for you.  But for most retail it's on point.  The comic and hobby game trade is still antiquated in many respects, so we're mostly not ready for Wave 4 even though the consumer is dragging us kicking and screaming in that direction.

I try to look at things in a fairly libertarian perspective where Amazon and disintermediation is concerned.  Many game retailers hate Amazon or see them as a necessary "frenemy," because Amazon routinely obliterates many stores' ability to earn sustainable margins on the sale of goods.  And remember, nobody is getting rich in this trade.  We're just trying to feed our families.  I look at Amazon and rather than wasting time being upset about it, I find a way that I can compete.  For some categories, such as board games, RPGs, and miniatures, I price-match Amazon.  The end.  I gambled that the volume increase would overwhelm the marginal loss.  While I am still in the process of assessing our data gathered from that, the verdict so far is that it was the correct move, but only incrementally so.  It may be that most of the value that DSG garners from price-matching Amazon comes in the form of customer retention and ancillary sales, rather than pure volume on the loss leaders.  And in some cases, publishers actively protect their brands and the price-match is not as painful, such as with Games Workshop.  In either case, when I have a new customer in the store, meaning some sort of advertising or other promotional expense generated an arrival, there is always some sales resistance, and it just melts away when they see the Amazon Prime price-matching signs or a staff member mentions it to them.  We convert the sale dependably.  It's no longer a question of whether the customer will make a purchase, but how much they will be purchasing.  As a business, this is not a bad place to be.

Store owners in some regions have been able to build and execute on the "sensory and emotional experience" plan.  Stores in liberal coastal enclaves seem able to collect MSRP routinely, on the promise of a tight-knit community and a Third Place and social leverage.  One store in the upper midwest blitzes the entire "sensory" aspect with events like bacon breakfasts for Magic prereleases and hands-on open play days for area schoolchildren.  Here in the Pacific Southwest, it's a little less feasible to do those things.  Half of everyone who lives here came from somewhere else, and our geography is the very definition of "sprawl."  There isn't much "community" and social leverage is meaningless, and Amazon has a dominant market presence here.  I'm left with leveraging the power of the Third Place by facilitating well-run events, especially for those games where the players feel like second-class citizens at the Magic-dependent stores.  At DSG, everybody's favorite game is worthy of our attention.  (Except Yu-Gi-Oh.)  And then I bolster that with a strong selection and reasonably competitive pricing and we have a winning formula.  A formula that will only get better as I expand into greater facility space in the year ahead.

Creating a Third Place like this means close integration on social media, where the web-connected public now dwells.  So far in 2016, 100% of our advertising dollars have been spent on Facebook.  That won't stay true, because we have some convention appearances ahead.  But I can't emphasize enough how the nexus of online connectivity has shifted to social media.  DSG uses Facebook, Twitter, and (obviously) Google Plus/Blogger/Calendar.  For the time being that's it, we've made no push into the reaches of Instagram or Pinterest, though the latter seems like it might be untapped territory if we can emphasize our miniatures modeling and crafting.  Every member of the staff except one is on Facebook, and that one is deeply involved in other channels.  Virtually all our customer contact comes from social media.  Our website records a tiny fraction of the daily hits that even one of our less popular Facebook posts earns.

So what about that website?  Here is what it looks like right now:

With our RMS migration very close to switching over, we're just running the GoDaddy template site. It is extremely rudimentary.  But it is really all it needs to be.  People can find the store's address, telephone number, or social media links from here.  They can even see the event calendar, though I really wish there was better Facebook integration on the Google Calendar (rather than the IP link that smartphones don't always render reliably).

Nobody is going to participate in a message board on our website.  They have social media.  People like to interact, to be active in consuming content, not to have it fed to them.  Social media again fits this usage pattern better than the conventional web.  Beyond basic information, the primary utility of a comic or game store's website, then, is e-commerce... and it comes up even more wanting in that analysis.

If you're a retailer, everyone says you need to focus on selling online, but I no longer take that as a given, and experience backs me up on this.  Primarily, of course, an in-person sale is virtually always preferred due to the lowest possible transactional costs.  But more than that, the online business low-hanging fruit is largely gone.  People shop Amazon and eBay first.  You are extremely unlikely to build an e-commerce monolith, because Amazon is already all that and more and they are extending their lead faster than you will ever catch up.  What's more, going back to Lewis and Dart's teachings: You don't create a sensory or emotional experience that builds a customer base when you focus on e-commerce.  You just become a pure delivery tool, and not even as good as the one they were already using.  Your business doesn't gain.

So, you might say, what about working with the e-commerce options already out there rather than building our own?  You can join an aggregator like TCGPlayer through Crystal Commerce.  There is certainly some cash flow to be achieved from that.  But problems abound.  You give them a cut of your juice, and you don't keep full control over the customer relationship.  Just ask anyone who has sold a card where a fussy buyer thinks it's lightly played rather than near mint.  Or a card spikes and you get oversold, and your escrow is held until you untangle the mess.  Plus, since you're on an aggregator, you're literally competing with your own customers right there on your website, all in a race to the bottom dollar.  Thanks, but no thanks.  Many stores depend on this vector for cash flow because revenue grosses can grow to considerable size.  They rarely recognize how inefficient it is at earning profit, and how dependent they become on walk-in collection buys to keep the engine fueled.  The day the average grinder realizes how much EV he loses living from deck to deck and actually has the discipline to keep the cards he buys, the gig is up for the TCGPlayer-dependent storefronts.

Right now 100% of DSG's online sales are through eBay, and are virtually all overstock or closeout merchandise.  The fee structure is tolerable and rewards us for going mono-channel with them.  We've become very proficient at the mechanics and how to reduce costs within them.  And there's a wide addressable audience, albeit not as huge as the audience Amazon boasts.  Volume is good and profit is healthy.  Even when we're just clearing something at cost, it's worth it because it clears fast and we can then reinvest that money into newer and more popular merch.  The tool works for us, rather than us working for it.

Once RMS is in place and I have time to work on an integration module, our website will indeed offer shopping.  However, I fully expect the primary usage to be event pre-registration, as it was during that brief period of time when Light Speed's web integration was actually working, and before they "upgraded" their system to where it threw Error 500 at us any time someone wanted to make a purchase.  Event pre-registration was a glorious use of web sales and one I look forward to having back.  Beyond that, I see no qualm with using the website as a repository for deep stock, anything that's more likely to find a niche buyer somewhere out of town than appeal at the shelf level to a walk-in customer.  Singles for non-Magic TCGs and CMGs (collectible miniatures) come to mind, as well as deep comics stock.  In each of these cases we have a chance to reach a customer cohort that either plays in our store or is looking for merchandise that's well off the beaten path.  In both cases, therefore, we have a chance to create an emotional connection.  In the former case, a sensory connection as well.  I bet I could bridge the sensory part to our remote singles buyers too -- Paradise Arcade Shop in Hawaii ships macadamia nut cookies, locally sourced, to anyone who buys hardware from their web site.  I'm sure there's an analogue in our trade, even if it's just a pack of DSG-branded sleeves or something.

So, Steve, I hope I reached your question about how important I think a customer-facing website is.  I believe it has been supplanted by social media for promotional purposes, but that it can still be part of a nutritious breakfast if a store has a cogent, relevant, and meaningful e-commerce offering that's more than just conventional mail-order.   And I hope when we have our new permanent website in place, that you'll find it useful and worthwhile.  Thanks for asking!

I don't have a specific topic in mind for next week, so any readers who would like me to riff on some other subject, go ahead and send me some feedback from our website (hah!) from the Contact page.  That link is www.desertskygames.com.  Have a great week!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Building For Tomorrow: Comics Merchandising

I'm going to try to hit this theme, Building For Tomorrow, once a month or so until our eventual expansion, when it will become a lot less planning and a lot more building it all up.

Desert Sky Games became "and Comics" in November 2013, but comics didn't really hit their stride until about a year ago.  The personnel and workflow sides of the equation have improved many times over since that clumsy beginning, and I'm starting to get really happy with those.  (Not coincidentally, in late 2015 comics became reliably profitable at healthy metrics.)

What I still have not mastered is comics merchandising.  I was surprised on my way into the category at just how unintuitive it is.  Books on racks, right?  How complicated can that be?  It turned out there was a lot more to the equation:

  • Books sell better when faced out, not when cascaded or browse-binned, but this takes up the most space and fixture.
  • Books keep better when bagged and boarded, but it's not practical to bag and board new releases for the rack.
  • Some fixtures damage books, introducing wear patterns, dents, and the like, which serious comic buyers take as a signal that this store doesn't care about their collecting needs.
  • It's actually okay to have previous issues behind the current issue in the "recent" racks.  Comics buyers will happily shop the stacks.  They actually enjoy doing so quite a bit, especially when working on closing out a recent run or miniseries they joined in progress or just missed.
  • Movement of merchandise from one fixture to another needs to cause as little physical distress to the books as possible.

There are no fixtures out there that address all these issues at the same time.

My first attempt at comic fixtures was to use what we had, which was slatwall, with what we could obtain inexpensively, which was angled wire racking.  It looked bad and was merchandised worse, if that's even possible.  I don't even remember any other rationale I used at the time in deciding to install this stuff, but I do remember I left it alone for a depressingly long time out of need to upgrade more central revenue lines first.  As recently as a year ago, here is how my new release wall looked:

And here is my new release wall now:
The difference is striking.  How did we get from there to here?  In stages.  And there is another stage still to go, when my new releases are in fixtures more resembling this:
Or even more likely, for need of maximum capacity, resembling this:
Those comic wedges are manufactured by Skyline Designs and, to my knowledge, nobody else ever.  If you know otherwise, please speak up, because Skyline doesn't let you off easy at the cash register.  It's one of those things that's important enough that I am willing to pony up the funds, but obviously I need to do my diligence and make sure I am not overlooking a competitive option.

You may observe that the old wall had the books bagged and boarded.  At the time I was receiving perhaps 250 books per week, maybe not even that.  As a comic store, DSG was a pretender.  These days it's a rare week when I'm under ten times that figure in new books.  And I am still not big by pure comic specialty store standards.  Jesse James Comics across town can probably fit one of my weekly Diamond invoices in the margins of one of theirs.

The new release wall wasn't the only place where I was fumbling the ball and watching haplessly as it bounced to and fro.  Behold the inadequacy of my recent release wall at the time:



Some of the defects in that design are apparent and some are not.  Having the back issues on tables was bad because of the weight of the boxes; the tables bowed inward.  I have them on steel racking now and it's not pretty but it holds them up extremely durably.  The wire racking with the four issue cascade was nice for capacity, but extremely poorly built and weighed just slightly less than an aircraft carrier.  Worse, the wire was powder-coated and actively damaged the books.  Bagging and boarding them for that display was not optional, it was mandatory, meaning labor and materials expense.  The rest of the racking clashed considerably because it was white, but at least was not harmful to the merchandise.  I saved all that white wire racking for a future new store location in case we should find a suite that's already slatwalled in white or some color compatible with white.  It might be three or four years down the road, but it's not costing me anything to hold on to it, versus the cost of new fixture, which always adds up even for the cheap stuff.

Here is my recent release area now:

Like my new release wall, I took a cue from some good stores in other states and used wire racking that stood the books up a little better and faced them solidly toward the shopper.  You can see more readily on the new release wall photo earlier that every book position has a thick plastic black divider board to hold the books without allowing wire frame marks to their back covers, since the books are not bagged and boarded anymore (except variants).  This also stabilizes and flattens the overall hold of the book, addressing the problem of spine dents to a great extent.  Spine dents are impossible to eliminate entirely, but right now the options that are slightly gentler to them, such as more angular diagonal racks, are poorer options in other respects, especially for the diminishing returns they present for that issue.  If and when I go to the comic wedges, I will continue the practice of backing each book position with a plastic divider.  The wedges have the hazard of impressing a crease onto the back cover if the book sits too long.  Divider backing eliminates that concern.

Speaking of issues: For back issues, I still just have white longboxes, which it appears is common in the industry.   They are on steel racking, as I noted above.  Skyline, again, offers an option for stores whose floors are paved with gold:

I like it, but I think it's probably possible to adapt a conventional fixture for this part of the deployment and not end up paying freight.  I am also not a fan of drawers as they conceal merchandise from the shopper's direct sight.  Anything that takes product away from shopper access has to have a pretty damned good security or logistics justification or I oppose it.  "Backstock" is a four-letter word to me; there's a reason Costco and Target build giant power displays when they have a lot of inventory of an item or product grouping.  Projecting abundance stimulates sales.  Putting a few copies (or, gasp, one copy) of a game or book on the shelf is much worse.  Not only could you miss sales in between cycling the next copy out, but a lot of people will look suspiciously at a singleton and wonder what's wrong with it that it's the last one and is still sitting there unbought.  (If the item becomes hot and difficult to find, this is less of a problem, as the customer can brag about "getting the last one.")

My back-issue racking is the same as what you see here in this photo from Coliseum of Comics in Florida:
I like their plastic boxes for the back issues, and I may go this route.  Like them, I use the undershelves for comic storage supplies and the like.  It needs some spiffing up but it's a very functional arrangement.

With expansion on my mind, what I'm really hoping to do is scale up while keeping the accessible, inviting, welcoming attributes of my comic rack and fixture.  Here is how comics scale up when they scale way up, in this photo from Mile High Comics in Colorado:

I don't see that happening for DSG for a few years yet, but it's not actually that impossible once you get the core merchandise movement and presentation done right.  After that it's just a matter of constructing additional pylons.  You can't tell me a comic collector wouldn't revel in a place like Mile High.  I bet you could get lost in there for hours.  I bet I would struggle to get out the door for less than fifty bucks on any given visit, if not more.  That's the moonshot, right there.

So the software infrastructure is well in progress -- I've just put up the funds for ComicSuite, which I discussed in the previous article in this series -- and with the technical backbone in place I should be able to achieve much greater fine-grained control over comic stock deployment and movement.  Our eBay comic sales have been on the increase and we have the physical mechanics for that pretty well realized.  It's just a matter of elbow grease now: building and processing and repeating.  On the front end, Patrick and Dustin and the staff get books into the hands of readers.  Achievement Unlocked: Comic Book Store.

I'll come back to this topic again in March.  Anyone have any suggestions for next week?  Questions, items you'd like me to riff on?  Email your thoughts to me using our web contact form.  Thanks and have a great week!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

I Attack the Gazebo

Role-playing games, or RPGs, have sure come a long way since their birth in 1974, which if you've been paying attention, makes the category as agéd and infirm as I am.  Originally an offshoot of miniature wargames, RPGs came into their own in the 1980s.  Thanks to the scorching market success of the flagship title in the genre, Dungeons & Dragons, RPGs dominated the hobby game trade so completely that the game stores of that day owed their existence to "D&D" just as stores opening in today's boom owe their existence to Magic: the Gathering.  Much of this history is exhaustively detailed in a series of books called Designers & Dragons by Shannon Appelcline, released about a year ago.  I've been reading them and I'm on book four (the 2000s) now.

It is hard to convey how big D&D actually was to an audience that wasn't there to see it firsthand.  As the first hit RPG, it was D&D that unlocked the imaginations of many a nerdish youth, so dominantly so that in the cultural zeitgeist the abbreviation D&D has become slang for nerd hobbies generally.  The game appeared in 1982's biggest movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and all at once everybody wanted to play.  Publisher Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) couldn't print Basic D&D Sets and Advanced D&D sourcebooks fast enough.

So how do you play D&D anyway?  Players use pen and paper to create a fictional character with physical and mental traits and skills, equip that character with weapons and gear, and then take part in imaginary adventures.  The entire game occurs in a tabletop setting, with most of the action taking place in the mind's eye.  A game master (for D&D, the "Dungeon Master," another term that has been Kleenexed into becoming generic through ubiquity) manages the adventure, revealing to the players new information as they discover it, performing the roles of non-player characters in the game, and playing the enemies/monsters/villains.  Resolution of tactical conflict is achieved using polyhedral dice.  A fighter might roll a die to score a hit against an attacking goblin, then roll a different die to determine weapon damage.  If the goblin's wounds exceed its health remaining, it dies.  The party's thief then sweeps in and takes the goblin's loot before the fighter can get to it.  After combat, the party's cleric heals any wounded, and the party's mage cracks wise and opens another can of Mountain Dew.  It's great fun.
That's fundamentally all RPG gameplay is.  It's something less structured than a strategy board game, but more substantial than a dinner party mystery game, and more concrete than a campfire tale.  Fundamentalist religious nutjobs caused some uproar decades ago by claiming that D&D consisted of real Satanic rituals and diabolical practices like chicken sacrifices and slave orgies.  The notion is so laughable now I can barely keep a straight face.  Orgies?  Don't we wish!  You're talking about a player base that consisted, in the early days, predominantly of teenaged male virgins.  Orgies indeed.  As a sidenote, I am delighted that the category has become tremendously inclusive of women and mainstream players since then, especially with systems like Paizo Publishing's massive Pathfinder line.  But no, in the 1980s, all that parental angst and blame-shifting had to go somewhere.  Pinball was passé, so D&D was the target du jour until a few years later when Mortal Kombat and Pokemon came along to take over as designated media punching bags scapegoated for the corruption of youth.  They even struck a nerve with my parents, who were religious but not of the bible-thumping ilk; my parents forbade me from playing D&D, which of course made it into a forbidden fruit for me.

It wasn't long before other RPGs arrived on the market, but few of them have had any staying power, much as things are in the trading-card-game category.  The winners typically did something in a new genre rather than swords and sorcery.  Such included: Traveller (science-fiction), Champions (superheroes), Battletech (fighting robots, with heavy crossover into miniatures), Vampire: the Masquerade (modern-day goth), and the Generic Universal Role Playing System, or "GURPS," an unfortunate-sounding acronym for a flexible framework for adventures of any flavor.  My parents' opposition to D&D on religious grounds did not extend to the lasers-and-starships realm, so I enjoyed plenty of Battletech without having to hide what I was doing.

The arrival of Magic: the Gathering forced the industry to shed much of the RPG history that came before it; few titles crossed the early 1990s chasm.  Only later did today's modern RPG category take shape.  Magic's publisher, Wizards of the Coast, bought out the husk shell of TSR, and now publishes D&D, which has reached its fifth edition.  Paizo fields the massive Pathfinder line, a branch from an earlier edition of D&D that offers a different in-game world for more fantasy-genre action.  Fantasy Flight Games has licensed RPG properties for Star Wars and Warhammer that are close behind in player and sales volume at this point.

For our store team-builder for January, we had our RPG guru Tanner run a module of Star Wars Force and Destiny so that the rest of the staff could become familiar with the RPG experience.  It was a lot of fun, which passes the first test, but what struck me was how much different it was from the roleplaying that started me off in the early days.  In fact, it even differed sharply from what came in the later era of Battletech and Vampire.  It's still roleplaying; in fact, if anything, it is more worthy of that label than what we did back in the day.  Permit me to explain.

Many players today don't know that D&D started off as a competitive game.  Early Gen Con and Origins tournaments ran competitive D&D adventures just like the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour Qualifiers are for players today.  Dungeon Masters had to know their modules inside and out and be well-versed in the rules to account for whatever random crap any player might try, and players were wise to learn the entire game system as much as they could, so that they might invent a solution out of whatever the worst puzzles and threats the DM might present.  Modules were designed for tournament play and premiered there, so that players did not have an advantage from early knowledge of the content.  Gameplay was as hardcore and rules-lawyery as any Magic Grand Prix, with players bringing their ingenuity to bear against a DM fully focused on killing the entire party and denying players the sweet taste of success.

The result of the competitive bent of RPGs at the time was that many modules were "dungeon crawls," or essentially extensive puzzles punctuated by cycles of combat and reward.  Within that framework, modules became obtusely difficult at times, such as with Gary Gygax's sadistic magnum opus The Tomb of Horrors.  While this format can be enjoyable and for some players even cathartic, it involves a lot of mechanical and mathematical "work" that in today's era is typically performed by a computer running a piece of software like the World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy.  In fact, video game RPGs have done far more to corner out tabletop RPGs than the entire history of trading card ascendancy in the trade.

White Wolf Publishing reduced the emphasis on dice and math with Vampire in 1991, switching to a unified skill system that uses only multiple ten-sided dice and is predicated on degrees of success and failure rather than D&D's threshold matching.  Fast-forward to today and entire systems by Fantasy Flight use a fudge dice system derived from that same concept.  They use proprietary dice, of course, because there's a profit to be had from squirting plastic in a Guangzhou factory.  But the system is well-designed and well-balanced, so I give them a partial pass on the egregiousness of their money grab.

Today, RPGs are narrative-focused, and dispense with hard resolutions except to stratify pivotal results, such as combats.  Even then, it's a step forward.  A roll in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire might bring up two successes, an advantage, and a blank, against a DM's failure and blank.  Using cancellation, the player had some success and some advantage, which might be expressed in game terms as "Your blaster bolt nailed the lead Stormtrooper, and he's down and not moving.  The three troopers behind him grab partial cover against the wall and bring up their blaster rifles.  Do you scramble for cover, fire away, or do something else?"  A roll of multiple critical successes against no failures, especially augmented by advantage, might be enough for a Snowspeeder pilot to fell a mighty AT-AT, or a Jedi-in-training to hold his own against a powerful Sith lord.

Even my description above doesn't truly do justice to how a present-day D&D, Pathfinder, Star Wars, or 40K Heresy session really works, though.  It's all narrative now.  It's all about the players visiting wondrous places and meeting exciting and interesting people (and yes, sometimes killing them).  There is die rolling and there is combat because conflict has to resolve some way that isn't arbitrary.  But the real thrill usually ends up being when the party talks its way out of a jam (with perhaps some nice success rolls) or invents a great solution to a seemingly insurmountable threat.  The scope can widen, Lord-of-the-Rings style, from character to party to village to region to city-state to nation to empire to world... and it all just depends on whether the Game Master is able to build a compelling narrative for the players to experience.

Tabletop RPGs are a remnant of the market now, and market realities probably prevent any meaningful resurgence from here on out.  The experiences of tabletop RPG gameplay are going to become fewer in number overall and less frequent over time.  It's attrition and nothing any of us do is going to change that.  But in the meanwhile, those of us who have stuck around at this shrinking banquet are discovering that the entrees being served up now are savory indeed.  Revel in it.

Oh, and the meaning of today's article title?  Read for yourself and enjoy.