Pens, Paper and Pretzels

Pens, Paper and Pretzels
Tabletop Gaming and the Hypnic Jerk

Russ Pitts | 10 Jul 2007 15:54
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Following the rise in popularity of computer roleplaying games in the late '80s and early '90s, these strange and wonderful shops, one by one, began to close. By the early '90s they were almost extinct, their purveyors shunned. Those who kept the flames alive withdrew into themselves, shuttered their doors and resigned themselves to waiting out the storm. This was a dark time for hobby stores, and some who lived through it wanted nothing more than to be left alone by the world that had mercilessly left them behind. And the world respected that wish. For a time, at least.

***

When you first fall asleep, your body slows. The human brain, although an incredible machine, is also sometimes dumb. When it senses the slowing of your heart rate and breathing, it has to ask itself "have I died?" to which, without any evidence to the contrary, it can find no answer. So it sends a signal down the nervous system to see if you're dead. If you aren't, your muscles jerk, and the brain receives a positive, reassuring stimulus. At which point it concludes it's time to sleep and begins easing itself into dreamland. (If you're actually dead, it doesn't matter.)

In the mid '90s, the CRPG snowball turned into an avalanche, which led some to wonder whatever happened to all those great game ideas they used to see in stores like Perfidium. After Blizzard struck it big, the name of the game became "Chase WoW," and so the videogame industry sent a hypnic jerk along the length of its ancestry, hoping something would twitch. And something did.

Fresh, new games rolled off the assembly line, and some of the old ones dusted off their books, rubbed some dirt on it and got back in the game. A new audience discovered D&D and started poking around in the old chests to see what else might be fun to play. Bolstered by sales of Magic cards, Warhammer miniatures and more D20 books than would fit in a Bag of Holding, game stores were springing back to life all over the country, like mushrooms after a hard rain. The dark times were over. But someone had forgotten to tell Perfidium.

***

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It was a cold spring afternoon, just after the turn of the century when I opened Perfidium's creaky, dingy door. I smelled the familiar smells, but they we just left of center, and the place sounded like a tomb. I walked with trepidation up the long flight of stairs into the inner lair. I was looking for anything, and sure enough, I found it. There were dice, miniatures, a peg board with game notices, pictures of cats and flyers advertising basement sales of used books. There were maps, modules and books - so many books - but it was all different from what I remembered. Something had changed. Perhaps it was me. The smell of plastic was still there, but was now tinged with the bitter odor of desperation.

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