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Actual play in the stores

Started by Ron Edwards, November 15, 2002, 10:48:28 AM

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Ron Edwards


This thread can be considered a partner to my Mainstream: a revision. Unlike that thread, though, here, I'm really talking about the game stores and what goes on in them.

Big news flash: not all members of the "hobby game industry" get along all the time.

Publishers (like me), retailers, and the interesting animal called the distributor tussle over all sorts of issues. In the last few years, some retailers have presented the claim that they are uniquely the hub of the hobby, in that they introduce people, especially young people, to the activity, to the products themselves, to the center of the social scene of gaming, and to the primary information about the industry and products. In-store play and commerce is apparently the heart's blood of the so-called industry.

All right, whether any of the claim is actually true is a good question. But I'm willing to faith-leap a bit and say, "All right, so stores can conceivably do this." In that case, I want to invest in and promote this phenomenon, and I think the most constructive way to do that is to set the trappings of role-playing (the discussions, the preferences, the commerce) aside for a bit and concentrate on its core: real, enjoyable play.

Actual play at stores has some problems, based on my observations and reports from retailers. The culprits seem to include both economics and social organization. Economically, much in-store play suffers because discounts are offered as incentive to participate, both to customers from retailers and to retailers from publishers (including freebies). Both of these strike me as counter-productive, in that both the store owner and the company make less money through the sale of that particular unit. They also strike me as far too focused on the handful of people and sales represented by that isolated instance of play.

Socially, some role-players fear that wider social play will ruin or disrupt their carefully-maintained regular group play; also, regular in-store play tends to evolve into an insular group of its own. These perceptions, or the reality which reinforces them, need to be overcome for an in-store program to be successful.

As the faculty advisor for a campus role-playing club, I employed the following model that may work more consistently to promote successful gaming in stores.

1. Two modes of play are permitted: scheduled sessions with a designated GM or leader, as well as open-tables play. The scheduled sessions are advertised well in advance, including which game will be used, and the leaders are expected to show up as promised without fail. More than one scheduled session per meeting is acceptable.

2. Any game is permitted, regardless of whether it's in the store or even regardless of its publishing medium (e.g. free internet download). Card games, wargames, and any other hobby games are permitted in addition to role-playing games. The only restriction is on content, as the store owner sees fit.

3. Absolutely all play is restricted to a single session, strictly enforced. To repeat: no "campaign" play is permitted. If a given session evolves into an ongoing thing, it must be taken elsewhere.

4. Players do not have to sign up to attend a session. Every time this activity is held, whoever shows up can play. If insufficient people are interested in playing a given game, then it's canceled for that meeting.

5. (Optional): Group size, per game, is limited to a maximum set by the organizer, perhaps four players. This rule discourages competition for players among game-leaders.

6. The social atmosphere of the meetings is held to high standards, specifically the rules of comportment of the larger society around us. Do not permit the atmosphere that arises from the idea that "we're gamers together so we can act badly." This policy includes clear and consistent role-modeling from senior players, as well as plenty of patience. It also includes the point that no one should be excluded from play a priori, but given a chance to learn and improve their behavior if necessary.

7. Do not offer discounts regarding the game(s) being played at a given meeting. Whether the retail counter is kept open is a local judgment call.

8. Permit people to bring real food to the meeting and don't sell candy. Don't permit smoking in the store.

I can't guarantee anything, but here are the outcomes that I'd anticipate after a program like this has been in place for a minimum of three active months. They match what I've observed regarding our campus club and others like it.

1. Lots of games get sold over the long haul. Contrary to most hobbyists' perception, players who enjoy a particular game often buy their own copies - what drops this effect from the radar screen is the fact that such enjoyment requires weeks and months of play, not minutes or days.

2. Mentoring is ongoing, resulting in "ripples" of new games being proposed and played, and an increase in the overall proportion of people who can organize and run games.

3. People cycle into the club meetings continuously, and a certain percent cycle out and keep playing in long-term games of their own.

4. People internalize and reinforce courteous and fun play, breaking the stereotypes of "gamer" comportment. This social effect is itself reinforced by the short-term sessions, which place the priority on Fun Now rather than on "keep the group together even though we're miserable."

5. Overall, the game-store culture operates from a better widespread interest in and knowledge of the diversity of role-playing games.

My goal with this essay is a call to action for role-players to organize and sustain enjoyable role-playing in game stores. Be that person whose efforts make it happen. Some good means to this end include:

1. Discuss the proposal in detail with the game store guy, specifically the person who has yes-no authority over store policy as opposed to the opinionated fellow who doesn't.

2. Set up a website for scheduling, feedback, and advertisement.

3. Fire up actual role-players to be involved, especially people in different groups. Make it clear to them that this activity doesn't threaten their own existence as functional, ongoing groups.

4. Run games at each session and encourage players, especially those who "would never" run games, to do so themselves.

5. And finally, once it does get going, advertise it. Locally, plug it at the nearby campus, the music stores, the bookstores, and the local newspaper. Generally, brag it all over the internet gaming forums, and get the retailer to do the same on industry forums.

Can this work? Who knows? It made for a very successful campus club. I also see lots of goodness in the Games Day events, which share many features with what I'm talking about.  I'd like to see people try it in the store environment and therefore promote and sustain those aspects of the retail tier that are commonly cited as its strongest contribution to the hobby.


Christopher Kubasik

Hi Ron,

I'm here with an unusually grumpy reply:

When I tried to set up a gaming session at my nearst WotC I was told they had sessions for their CCG games.

I said I wanted to do RPGs.

I got this weird blinkering of the eyes from Muffy and Biff, and they then realized what I was talking about.  They said I could put up a notice about such game or set up a table if I already had my players.

Now, I'm sure there's some sort of mandate that came down from the Elders generations ago that got mangled and these poor kids where just following a law that would make Joeseph Heller proud.  But this has happened three seperate times over the period of the last year.  I just gave up, realizing the people who run WotC stores really have no clue how to promote that odd selection of books they've shoved in a back corner behind the giant statue of the babe they're trying to sell off.

I will however try one more time, printing out your guidelines and bringing them to the manager.

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield


The Sorcerer one-shot I'm setting up is for an in-store gaming demo.

The store is Pandemonium Books in Cambridge MA (right on Harvard Square).  It's mainly a bookstore specializing in Science Fiction, but it also has a rather well-stocked gaming bookstore as well.  Since they've recently remodeled, they've decided to hold regular gaming nights a couple times a week in the store.  

Their set-up is pretty interesting:  They've set up a series of rotating GMs called "Iron Gamers" who will be running one-shots and demos of their favorite games.  So there's an Iron Gamer D&D, an Iron Gamer D20, an Iron Gamer Nobilis, etc.  Each of them signs up for one game a month and they just run with whoever shows up.  It's not quite like the "Iron Chef" TV show in that there isn't a distinct challenge, theme component or something -- except when two people want to run the same thing.  In general, the concept encourages a wide range of stuff to come to the table.

I have been selected as Iron Gamer Obscure -- all the cool looking stuff that you've read but never played or just always wondered about.  I'm trying to see a return on my massive gaming investment by actually playing some of it.

So in that sense, I think they're trying to encourage people to sample a wide variety of games and gaming styles they might not otherwise get to try out.  My only real concern at the moment is that the play area may not be sizeable enough.  Their store space is pretty limited.

Still, I think it's a pretty cool idea and I'm curious to see how well it takes off for the store.

The Three Stooges ran better black ops.

Don't laugh, Larry would strike unseen from the shadows and Curly...well, Curly once toppled a dictatorship with the key from a Sardine tin.

Ron Edwards

Hi Tom,

Yes! I love Pandemonium Books; they're one of the finest game stores that I know of. Tell'em I said so.

One thing I probably needed to emphasize about my post is that any particular store will have to customize my basic suggestion in any number of ways. The Iron Gamers rotating GM idea sounds like a good example.




An equally grumpy reply...  Why does everyone keep bringing in WotC to these threads?  It happened in the original Publishing thread and it's happened here.  And both times, it's been along the lines of, "But it's already been DONE, and it failed" reasoning.  I don't think EITHER of these discussions even INCLUDES the WotC stores.  They're a whole other thing following the coporate clone model of management.

If you're serious about giving this a go then go talk to Gary over at Aero Hobbies.  See?  It's different already.  I KNOW the owner's name and I see him on a regular basis when I go into the store.  He could REALLY benefit from all this "Page45" talk.  That place is a CLOSET.  You don't know how much I've wanted to go up to Gary and say, "Hey, do mind if I come in this weekend and reorganize your shop?"

These ideas need to be taken to the smaller privately owned stores.  Not the huge coporate driven chain stores.



I'd put a slightly different spin to it.

I format the game play as "Game Days", one or two days a week.  Every week or 1 week a month or what ever works to get it off the ground.

I'd strive to eliminate the sense of insular play as you noted by framing it like a convention.  Most gamers are far more willing to try new games and try new games with new players in a convention setting and they're not likely to expect the games to be anything more than 1 shots.

This was used to a great deal of success at The Game Place (formerly the best game store in the Greater DC Metro area until the proprietors wife decided he needed a job with regular hours).  

Once or twice a week time from 4-close was set aside as as a Game Day.  Loitering regulars were informed to start playing a game that involved at least 1 non regular or clear off the table for someone else to play.  Joe used these days to pop open a copy of whatever new games had come into the store to demo them and buff sales that way, and also to pull out older titles whose sales had slowed but which were long time favorites.  There was almost always a game of chess and a family game of some kind going on in the front tables.  Geek games were pushed to the back.

Then once a month was a Late Night Gaming day from close to 4AM.  This was a little more formal.  No actual sign ups but people pretty much new what table was going to be featureing an epic game of Advanced Civ or 12 player Lot5R CCG.  These had the further advantage of being limited to the over 18 crowd.

There were also come in and learn to paint minis days.  Come in and play the latest AH game with the AH designer days (back when AH still existed...them being only 45 minutes away in Baltimore), come in and watch epic Napoleonic minis battles days, take command of a battalion and learn why regular historical mini gamers always kick the snot out of you in your WH40K games.

These were advertised mostly by word of mouth and flyers around the strip mall.  The chinese place especially loved to send people over the store because gamers probably accounted for 3/4 of their traffic.

Joe wasn't completely Draconian at enforceing the social niceties, but several regulars would get the boot during the events for loitering, language, or reasons of hygene.

The store was in a strip mall with a really good location, immaculate, organized, clean, brightly lit and of the standard strip mall deeper than wide format.  The emplyees were all highschool gamers, yet not of the social misfit variety (more of the early 90s skate culture).  They knew games, they enjoyed the people who came in the store, and their biggest faults was probably that they spent too much time actually gaming and not enough counting inventory.

Stock was all on side and back walls with tables in the middle throughout.  Towards the front were chess sets, puzzles, those little metal puzzle things, and other "of interest to gamer moms and non geeks" type things.  The middle left wall was front faced RPG books from mid hieght up.  Core rules and latest supplement only.  Older supplements were stocked spine out on the lower shelves.  The back left wall was board games, german style mid level up and AH wargames and the like bookshelfed on the lower shelfs.  Back wall was fantasy minis.  Back right wall was historical minis and mini modeling supplies and paints.  Mid right wall was the register and glass case of CCGs and other theivable properties.   The orgainization was clear.  The geekier your hobby the farther back in the store you were shoved.  Normal guys playing chess got to stay in the front.

All in all the single greatest game store environment I've ever seen.  Non gamer parents would actually come into the store and shop for Christmas presents.


Hey, supergreat thread!  I've been trying to develop a plan to increase actual play at a public forum here in Urbana, Illinois now that our long standing campus club seems to have fragmented.

Has anyone tried approach a mainstream chain bookstore about using their facility?  Locally Barnes & Noble and Borders stock some game stuff. I'm wondering if the pitch couldn't be along the lines of "It's like a book group, but with dice."
Jeff Rients

Christopher Kubasik

Hi Jesse,

Nice to hear from you again.

Hmm... Let's see.  I know Gary.  I like Gary.  And his place is a closet, on a busy L.A. blvd with almost no street traffic, drawing mostly people who buy AD&D, Gurps and Warhammer.

I'm not sure I see the advantage here.

I'm thinking of WotC at the Beverly center precisely because it's not a closet, because it has the ability to reach a lot of people who are new to gaming.  

Each of them has plusses and minuses, but I'm not sure how either is better than the other as an option.

But Aero certainly is an option and not one I meant to dismiss.

Please keep in mind, I happen to live near the WotC at the Beverly Center (as you live near Aero).

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield


Quote from: Ron EdwardsHello,

Big news flash: not all members of the “hobby game industry” get along all the time.

Actual play at stores has some problems, based on my observations and reports from retailers. The culprits seem to include both economics and social organization. Economically, much in-store play suffers because discounts are offered as incentive to participate, both to customers from retailers and to retailers from publishers (including freebies). Both of these strike me as counter-productive, in that both the store owner and the company make less money through the sale of that particular unit. They also strike me as far too focused on the handful of people and sales represented by that isolated instance of play.

Socially, some role-players fear that wider social play will ruin or disrupt their carefully-maintained regular group play; also, regular in-store play tends to evolve into an insular group of its own. These perceptions, or the reality which reinforces them, need to be overcome for an in-store program to be successful.


 That has been my experience with the local hobby shops.  I have tried off and on for YEARS to try to introduce the hobby shop crowd to something new, I have wasted many a weekend hanging about at them trying to see what would happen.

1. Finding ANYONE who is interested in anything other that hit-the-orc-over-the-head in the shops is like getting an autographed picture of the Loch Ness monster.  The D&D dominance is maintained by a very powerful selection pressure that has nothing to do with the games ability to evangalize to the outside world (in FACT that ability is virtually nil).

2. You see the same faces over and over and over again. There is not much point in trying to introduce something new if all you see is the same people who nixed it the last four weekends in a row.

3.  Trying to convert people by covertly entering their D&D games or trying to bait and switch (starting a D&D campaign and hoping you can switch them to something else) CAN work but usually doesn't and can waste an ENOURMOUS amount of time that frankly I don't have.  The shops select for people who are satisfied with the status quo.

4.  The shops are dependent on what is occuring in the shops for information about gaming which again is self selected.  For example the nearest shop to me stocked Little Fears and sold it!  They also stocked Sorcerer and sold that!  Anybody actuallly in the shop playing it? NO! Does the guy who runs the shop have any idea who bought it and what they are doing with it? NO! Do people in the local crowd answer contact sheets. Unless its D&D the answer is NO! and they really don't pay attention to those much either. Unless you are devoting your entire social life to the hobby shops they are useless for making and meeting gamers  

5. CCGS and miniatures are a minimal factor in introducing people to the hobby.  I have heard over and over for 10 years that just get them into the shops and they'll move over to rpgs.  After 10 years of watching I hve concluded that anyone who still believes this should simply be read out of the discussion.  These media are meerly cannibalizing the hobby shop base to the disadvantage of RPGs. That 10-20 feet from the card racks to the rpg racks is the longest 10-20 feet in the world. Part of the problem is that store owners push CCGs and mini's at the expense of RPG's because  THEY ARE SUCH A MONEY PIT!  I have come to believe that IT ISN'T IN THE INTEREST OF THE SHOPS TO PUSH RPG'S.

So again I come to the conclusion RPG GAMING NEEDS TO MOVE OUT OF THE HOBBY SHOPS !
Got Art? Need Art? Check out


6. The D&D style of bad fantasy has little appeal to the mainstream, but for the mainstreamer venturing into most shops it's the ONLY form of rpg experience they will ever be exposed to. If they aren't automatically fascinated by it they will likely give the whole field a miss, and never encounter anything else.  So by and large the shops are the LAST place to preach to the mainstream.  Anyway the rpg status quo has no idea how to do that anyway.
Got Art? Need Art? Check out


I've often considered trying such things at local gaming stores but we kept running into the same problem over and over again. Most of these stores suffer from "too much clutter" syndrome. There's just no space in them for a gaming table. Any empty tables are covered in either old minis, old comics or action figures, any and all crap that the store can't sell.

Most of the stores seem to suffer from "expansion of hobby" rather than "a business" model and aren't well-maintained. Some carry things other than role-playing games (either comics or anime) and shove role-playing into the back corner.

The first key to getting a good in-store game program going is a store with the space to host it.
Alex Hunter
Email | Web

Christopher Kubasik


Just wanted to clarify something:

I wasn't being grumpy about Ron's suggestion.  I was being grumpy about the WotC stores.  An easy target, perhaps, but one that's bugged me for a while and just wanted to get it off my chest.

To be honest, human beings do fucking amazing things every day.  If any one of us wanted to walk into an store and charm the owner/manager into letting us clean up / set up / promote / redesign his store, we really could.  Really.  It's a matter of need, because this one's not that high on the "Jezus, human beings can do that!" list of accomplishments.

Now I've got to decide for me where I stand on this matter of need.

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Ron Edwards


Alex, I think it's not difficult to see that certain baseline requirements are necessary before choosing a store to try these ideas in.

1) The store must be large enough and have the facilities to host play.

2) The store ownership and management must be willing to back your play. They might not understand it or be confident that this will be anything special, but they have to give you authority and stand by that.



In my (comparatively meager to others on this forum) experience, the biggest problem rpgs face is space. Rpg gaming takes up a lot of space - the closest comparison I can think of is having dinner at a table that lasts for several hours (at least).

You need room in front of you for writing / rolling, there's social convention about how close you can get to someone before it's offensive to them, you might use miniatures for fighting purposes, you might want rule books placed in an easily accessible location... in a store where space = rent and rpg gamers sitting at the table outside may only buy one or two books between them a month, it doesn't make a lot of economic sense. Admittedly the rpg industry isn't all about the economics, but it still becomes a factor. As such I don't think hobby shops are the best places for rpging.

Social issues also come into play. I've seen "public" games interrupted by the geek equivalent of the town drunk - That's not how you play that rule!; Here's what you should do...; Why don't you just...; etc. If a game is out in the open it can become a spectator sport, and sometimes the spectators can become rowdy. This isn't a problem if you are running a club and can get people thrown out, but if you are in a public place and only gaming by the grace of the owner, you lose a lot of control over "outside" factors. I'm not saying that all gamers should lock out the world when they play, but if the GM is trying to build a story and there are constant distractions from the game then quality / immersion suffers.

I think one of the best ideas mentioned for running an rpg club has to be the "no campaigns" rule. In the past I've had a look at joining a group or two, and (ignoring for the moment the horrors of full-time gamer hygiene) the biggest impediment to joining was trying to squeeze into the 300 scenario epic that every other player was part of - even if not much had happened, it still feels like a huge gap to overcome and has stopped me from joining clubs in the past.

Ron Edwards

Hi Uns,

You and Alex, as well as b_bankhead, are providing some points that I think are very serious - they boil down to this point (which I admit I'd hoped would arise from discussion):

Many gaming stores are profoundly unequipped to provide the service which gaming stores are commonly cited as providing, uniquely and essentially, to the hobby.

Which is to say, the claim that "We are important because we do A," is in many cases instantly refuted by observing that A is neither occurring nor likely to occur.

Now I must speak up in support of wonderful places like Pandemonium Books (see above) and others, in which the practices that it seems I'm giddily dreaming of are already happening. As Christopher rightly points out, these aren't utter fantasy; a game store club like I'm describing can actually occur.

But there are several presupposing factors (some of which I listed in my recent post, above) and those factors only rarely coincide, when we talk about real stores in real venues across the real United States - and based on reports, across the world.

That bolded statement is the money shot for this thread. I want to support stores like Pandemonium Books and to encourage stores that have dipped their toes in the water with events like the Games Day, or like Titan Games in Michigan with its recent awesome policies at the opening of their second store. But aside from those, the prospect is grim. I am perceiving, frankly, that many game stores are serving the hobby quite badly, specifically because the policies I'm suggesting (or ones like them) literally cannot occur there.

I'd like to see some action, some of which I and others (aforementioned Games Day) are contributing already, toward bringing more stores, the ones that are already 75% of the way there, say, into practices that really do facilitate actual play and commitment to the hobby.

As for the ones who seem incapable of doing anything of the sort ...? I shall emulate Thumper and say nothing at all.