Tabletop Gaming and the Hypnic Jerk

“When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad. Because of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good. Because of all the things in the world, you’re sure to find some of them.” – Daryl Zero, The Zero Effect

It was hard to find unless you knew where to look. Tucked away in a cramped loft, Perfidium Books (names have been changed to protect the secret locations of Eternal Lore) was a dimly-lit, claustrophobic den of gaming iniquity, its shelves lined with books, dice, cards and puzzles – arcana from nearly a decade of tabletop gaming retail – and the wizened wizards manning the store would hardly acknowledge your existence unless they knew you. It was a place for insiders only, and as far as the insiders were concerned, everyone was an outsider.

It wasn’t always this way. In the early days of tabletop gaming, when game clubs born of college basements, long winter nights and too much enthusiasm had spawned conventions, tournaments and an overriding feeling of goodwill toward all who carried a bag of dice, stores like Perfidium threw wide their doors, and all comers were welcome.

Alternately called “hobby” or “game” stores, these shops sold the accoutrement of our second lives: the games that occupied our minds, the books from which we gained the knowledge to play them and the dice, miniatures, maps and miscellaneous money sinks which in some way or another made the entire experience more visceral, more real. The people minding the stores were gods. To converse with them and hear their tales (dark, lonely nights playing Dungeons & Dragons in the campus steam tunnels, navigating the Ethereal Plane with a half-dragon sidekick, meeting a girl at a convention) was ecstasy.


There was one such store in the town where I grew up, wedged between a supermarket and a discount barber. They promoted walk-in games of D&D. You carried your dice with you when you stopped by on the off chance you’d be pulled into a game just by saying hello. Inside were rows of dice, sorted by color, in candy bins, alongside the acrylic paints we used to color our pewter miniatures. It was library quiet, punctuated with the occasional burst of laughter. The smell was a heady mix of fresh plastic and not-so-fresh clothes, and the hours I lost there are countless.

Years ago, I couldn’t walk into this store without walking out with at least a pocketful of dice – an affliction that plagues me to this day – and I’d frequently spend what little money I had on nothing more than modules, books and dreams. But more often I’d venture to the hobby store just to share in the collective excitement of being a part of something, and marvel at the thought that there were others like me. But things changed, (as they are wont to do). As I got older, I found new things with which to occupy my time, and so, unfortunately, did the rest of the world.

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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.



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.

There was a small group of men playing a game, but their hunched shoulders and hushed voices made it clear they weren’t holding any seats for newcomers. I wasn’t even sure what game they were playing, nor if I knew the rules. I found some familiar books on the shelves, but most were a mystery to me.

I bought a pair of snow white dice with green numbers, pre-painted at the factory, but they didn’t feel right, didn’t impart a feeling of joy just by holding them. I shopped for about half an hour, the shopkeeper’s eyes on me the whole time. I thought about asking him a question, but his look made me think better of it. I paid my money and walked back out into the cold. I put the dice in my pocket. They felt like lead weights, and I suddenly realized going home again wouldn’t be as easy as I’d hoped.

It would be several years before I found what I had lost, the one thing for which I was really looking. I found it in one of the new stores that had risen from the ashes of the paper gaming wasteland.


Half-hidden on a back road between two universities, Forbidden Planet peddles all the usual assortment of table gaming paraphernalia, but what it really sells is a dream. Not the same dream kept alive all these many years in dusty closets like Perfidium, but a new, more potent one. One that even today risks being snuffed out by a new wind of commerce. The dream that games are games, and if you play, you belong; there are no outsiders – we’re all outsiders – and there’s a chair for everyone.

I walked inside Forbidden Planet just a few days ago, looking to fill my bottomless boardgame cabinet. It was a sunny day, not too hot – perfect, or so they say. I don’t get out much, so I couldn’t tell you. Inside there was a group of men huddled around a table. I didn’t recognize the game they were playing, but they were having fun. There was laughter and joking, and during the time I was there, I don’t recall hearing anything strictly game related. They were also holding open a few seats, just in case.

I smiled politely but declined the unspoken invitation. I bought a pair of dice – like I always do – and half a hundred dollars in boardgames. The wizened wizard behind the counter looked neither wizened, nor particularly wizardy, but he did offer to help me if I needed it and asked if I was looking for anything in particular. I told him I wasn’t, and it was true. I was looking for anything at all, and I found it well enough on my own.

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at

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