My Latest Trip to the Local Game Stores
My Latest Trip to the Local Game Stores Playtest Review by J. Andrew Kitkowski on 11/03/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
A summary of the experience of going to my local game stores in Raleigh, NC. Drama! Excitement! Horror! ...and a Happy Ending (of sorts).
Product: My Latest Trip to the Local Game Stores
Author: J. Andrew Kitkowski
Category: Game Store
Page count: NA
Year published: NA
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by J. Andrew Kitkowski on 11/03/02
Genre tags: Modern day Horror Conspiracy Diceless Live-action
My Recent Trip to the Local Gaming Store
I've been inflicted with this curse ever since I've taken up The Hobby. I have a fanatical love for the Local Game Store (LGS), be it whatever incarnation it takes, and have been for years. Just being in the LGS, for me, is a near-orgasmic experience. I feel much like a child who goes into a Toys R Us in the Christmas season, my wife when a catalog featuring tea or tea accessories arrives at our house, or my cousins in Iowa when they step into the fairgrounds of the yearly Old Threshers Tractor and Farm Equipment Exhibition. The Japanese have a word for this feeling, this heart-fluttering spring-in-your-step sort of exhilaration: Waku-Waku.
I get that waku-waku feeling when I see row upon row of pen and paper games at the local LGS. Each one is the product of a game designers love and labor; not to mention imagination. The game store itself is a veritable temple to the praxis of the men and women who dedicate their time and physical/mental efforts to the gaming field. Every game and supplement deserves recognition, for it is human imagination, a trait that most of us hold very dear, that is the spark which leads to the development of these games.
I not only feel a sense of joy at seeing all of these works in front of me- and I need not mention the wonderful smell of freshly bound paper that most game store shelves emit- but a sense of falling. Were I to have all the time and money in the world, I would like to at least give a cursory read to every product in front of me, even ones for games and systems that I have never played, and never will.
I currently live in Raleigh, North Carolina, on the edge of the cultural center known as "The Triangle", and next to an area of development called "Research Triangle Park". There are, to my knowledge, four stores in the area which have large sections (meaning more than one small bookshelf) containing role-playing games. The store in the area that specializes in RPGs is called "Cerebral Hobbies" in Chapel Hill, roughly 50 minutes from my house and on the main commercial street of the University of North Carolina (AKA "The Berkley of the East Coast", or "That Place Where Michael Jordan's Mom Teaches"). This store specializes in RPGs, CCGs and miniature games. It is the Campbellian incarnation of the archetypical "Game Store" that Joey-baby left out of "Hero With a Thousand Faces"; in every way it is what you think of when you hear the words "Local Gaming Store" (which also unfortunately includes "The Faint but Quite Noticeable Smell of Human Sweat", "Annoying Gamer Nerdlings Who May Bother You", and "Competent Manager, but Everyone Else Employed There is as Helpful/Competent as Lichen"). While I support this store the most, it is the furthest away from me at this point and thus I can only go there some 3-4 times a year.
The stores local to Raleigh, the capital city of this state and my current locale, that carry RPGs are but two: Games Galore (this is a chain store; there is a similar second store in Cary, a town away) and Hobby Masters. Unfortunately, it's hard to consider them proper game stores for a few reasons:
You can see what I have to work with. I no longer live in the Chicagoland Area, where the Mecca of Gaming, Games Plus, resides in Mount Prospect (and not only was the first place I drove to when I got my driver's license, but it was also the first place I went when I came back from spending six months overseas in Japan <my folks loved me enough to drive me there before we came home without me having to ask them- The manager was so surprised he game me a free D&D supplement worth around $14>). Nor do I live in New Jersey anymore, where the nearest large game store is up to two hours away through treacherous NJ freeways (with their blasted unmarked exits)... but is well worth the trip when you come to the store and find it as large as you ever remember a game store being, crammed with gaming goodness.
What About Games Galore?
I only go to Games Galore when I want to buy dice or look at new board games- They not only have a huge collection of dice, they also run a lot of board game demos. Unfortunately, they engage in that accursed act, and thus I will never bring myself to buy anything from them. From what I've seen of their collection, no one else does either; all of their supplements, save some high-profile D&D items, seem to not have moved at all since I first went to the store some seven months ago. I almost worked myself up enough to ask the manager why they do what they shrink-wrap their games, but then I realized that one gamer isn't going to change the fact that someone "on high" at this chain store's home office decided that it was better this way. It is an unfortunate situation, as they have two rooms, with several tables each, dedicated to on-the-fly gaming, tournaments, and demonstrations (although mostly CCGs, Minis and board games).
On top of that, they don't order games. When I tried, I was given the run-around in a most interesting and aggravating way: I asked the twenty-something girl behind the counter if they could order the latest Blue Planet supplement for me (a game line which they carried anyway). I also inquired into ordering about 5 games or supplements altogether. Here's what happened: She went to the back of the store, to the doorway of one of the gaming rooms where the manager (or assistant manager) was busy painting miniatures). She yelled back to him, "Hey, can we order..." and promptly forgot my game. I told her "Natural Selection for Blue Planet". She asked him in full. He replied, yelling back, "No, I don't know when that one is coming out" (that supplement wasn't out at that time). She turned to me and shrugged. We did this same exchange for about 5-6 games or supplements, each time getting an answer like the above, or another favorite, "Never heard of it". Apparently, a well dressed customer inquiring on making an active purchase of around $200 worth of merchandise isn't sufficient enough to rise from one's ass and see if something can be done at Games Galore. This is the main reason I buy most of my games online or through Ebay. All of my being wants to "support the local store" by hosting RPG demos there at their ample table space, but the fact that they shrink-wrap their games, and don't care enough to help out with special orders for merchandise that makes up 1/3 or their store, says to me that they're unworthy of my efforts.
Hobby Masters is the logical choice for doing game browsing and shopping. They don't shrink-wrap anything. They carry about 5 large bookshelves of RPGs, and have RPG clearance items spread over three tremendously large tables. They also carry minis, and board and card games. They had recently moved two doors down in their strip-mall to a larger space, and have recently begun hosting mini tournaments. Again, though, this part of the store is secondary to their large RC Car and Plane collections, which take up 70% of the store (and is what pretty much keeps it generating lots of money). I really have to hand it to them; I mean, they know that RPGs and the like don't generate nearly as much revenue as the RC equipment, but they keep them around (and order them regularly) anyway. To an outsider looking at the situation, I'd make this sort of comparison:
The staff of Hobby Masters is very friendly, even the people who know nothing about RPGs. Even if they can't help you, they'll ask you to come in at another specific time to talk to the specialist in your field of inquiry (whether it's RC Car Frames or Warhammer Miniature Scales"). On top of that, they have a relatively eclectic collection of RPGs on display. Of course, the d20 stuff is their cash cow, so they always have sever copies of almost any new d20 product within a week or two of its release. However, they also carry every BESM supplement, Ironclaw and all of its supplements, and other not-so-famous games like Sorcerer, Fudge and Chivalry and Sorcery. Not that having these particular games are a sign of a good gaming store- It's just the simple variety that turns me on.
Unfortunately, since RPGs are not their primary concentration, they sometimes fumble on orders or special requests. For example, I once asked them if they could order four products for me: Natural Selection for Blue Planet, Little Fears, Talislanta 4th Edition, and Stormbringer 5th edition; with an addendum on this last item that "I was only interested in seeing it, and that if I liked it I would buy it". The RPG-guy said that this was fine, and that they order a lot of games this way, "Besides, with an item like that I'm positive that we can sell it if you're not interested, so it's no problem". The result? Natural Selection and Stormbringer were in within two weeks (I ended up not buying Stormbringer after looking through it, but sure enough someone else bought it within one month). They couldn't order Little Fears because "The distributor said that it hasn't come out yet" (it had been out for a month at that point). They inquired into it later on two different occasions, and I received the same reply twice. As for Talislanta, they said that they ordered two from the distributor already. Unfortunately, the distributor was having trouble sending them, "but it should be here any day now". That was months ago, and since then I bought it on Ebay, read it, and sold it again through the Auctions forum here at RPGNet. They're well-meaning, but sometimes incompetent. So I resigned myself to do most of my shopping online, but if something came out that I could find at Hobby Masters, I would go for it there. I'm even planning on running a demo game sometime there in the next few months.
My Latest Experience
Sorry about the long setup, but I wanted to put the background of my Local Gaming Store experience in Raleigh in place. On my days off from work, if I'm feeling bored, I head over to Hobby Masters and peruse their games. Today was no exception. Thursday, due to my peculiar work schedule, is my Saturday, and it was also a day I was going to drive past that general direction for some gaming, the first in about two months. Gaming was at 8:00, so I set some time aside for a 30 minute (but no later) run to Hobby Masters to see what was new.
When I pulled up to the strip mall that houses Hobby Masters and stepped out of the car, my nose was assaulted by the sweet smell of one of the few things more cherished than pressed wood pulp: Greasy Chinese Food, wafting from a store two doors down from HM. With an extra spring in my step, I bounded into the video-store-turned-hobby-store that is Hobby Masters. I opened the door and scanned the store to see who was working tonight. The Guy who is familiar with RPGs (but not his more-informed friend who resides in the store) was there, as well as the older man in the wheelchair who is an RC car genius. I waved hello to them (they don't know me personally but I shop there enough that they quickly recognize me) and bounded over to the games section.
In front of the shelves, as always, sat the Three Large Tables of Discount Items. This store has the largest amount of clearance items that I've ever seen in a store, hands down. They couldn't move their supplies of L5R, Deadlands/Hell on Earth, and 7th Sea products, so they were layed out in small stacks across the tables, with games from other lines like Heavy Gear, tons of gaming-related comic books (like the ones based off of Warhammer/Inquisitor and White Wolf games), and miniatures and CCGs that weren't selling either. Everything is marked down 40%, so I always root through the games, even though I see the same games every time I go through them. Again, I thought to myself, "Should I finally pick up Way of the Minor Clans, or maybe that Cyborgs supplement for Hell on Earth with the cool pictures". After flipping through those supplements for the 6th time since I had seen them on the Clearance Tables a few months back, I returned them. At my current income, there was no point in buying something that I know I'd never use.
I shuffled over to the magazine/comic shelf, and quickly scanned around for one of my favorite mags of late, "Game Trade Magazine". Game Trade does NOT beat around the bush. It has one sole purpose, and that is to serve a font for advertisement. It is filled with tons of RPG/game/anime advertisements, all in color, coupled with a detailed release schedule and a few small articles for substance. It is the Guide for What to Get, and it even includes small-time publisher's games as well. All for $2. Unfortunately, this month's issue wasn't in. I reminded myself (again) that I ought to subscribe to the damn thing, as disappointed as I get when Hobby Masters runs out of stock of this mag.
I turned to the one bookcase to the left, which has the honor of being the bookshelf filled with the most eclectic games. Here's where Sorcerer, Rules to Live By, Ironclaw, The Last Exodus, the BESM supplements, Junk and Feng Shui and the like reside amongst others. It's a crowded bookcase, but one that I never fail to leaf through. This is where the indie games reside. Unfortunately, nothing new had been added to this bookcase in the last few weeks. Again, I picked up the single copy of The Last Exodus and began my inner battle with it, the one that I have had every time I've been in this store since that game's release: do I buy it this time? At $15 bucks for such a large, visually impressive book (simpleton division of characters into yet more factions in the storyline aside), it's an absolute steal. But no matter how many times I carefully leaf through it I just can't bring myself to pick it up (maybe when I have more time and expendable income). After flipping through it again, reading more into the details of the rules, I tuck it back in shelf where I am sure to find it next time, making a mental note to see if they are planning a Revised Edition of this game...
Turning to the right, I see the comic shelf I was just at, and on the other side, three bookcases of other games. These three bookcases are more impressive, and are the first place reached if you trace a natural line from the entrance of the store to the game section. Of course, this is where the D&D games, d20 games, and other popular new games (Exalted, for example) are stacked. Unfortunately, I'm not to much of a fan of the "d20 Rush". I mean, it's a tricked-out system and the Open Gaming initiative allowed tons of budding game designers to actualize their dreams and all, but my gaming style is just so different that I don't find most of the books (especially those who sell on the basis of containing tons of prestige classes, races, weapons, spells, feats, etc) useful to my own games. But lately, I've been pleasantly surprised enough with some of the campaign-oriented products being released that I give most of them a once-through anyway (hell, I even ended up buying Mythic Races on the grounds of the writing and story ideas within). I proceed to flip through Creatures of Rokugan, Fading Suns d20 and some other books laying on the stacks. Some of the layout is really impressive, and there were a few bits of a few supplements that I grabbed that jumped out at me, so I do the typical game store stand-and-read.
Then I noticed that there were several chairs around the large Discount Tables. I make my way over to the table, push some of the mags and comics laying on it off to the side (stacking them in a neat pile), and make myself a seat. While I'm reading through the books, I can't help but to think how many "points" this store scores with me, for actually providing a few tables to sit and read at (and presumably clean off to run demo games). I keep my reading to a minimum, though; I don't see anything that really catches my fancy this time, and I don't want them to feel like they are some sort of RPG Library. I read enough to get a clear picture of a few of the d20 supplements, and also head through another Ironclaw "society book", before taking the stack back to the shelves. Total time spent reading: about 8-12 minutes.
I don't know what it is about this store, but I actually end up feeling a little guilty when I read through a bunch of games Every Single Time (and often the same games each time) without purchasing anything. I look around real hard to find something to appease the kami of Hobby Masters. Unfortunately, with no Game Trade Magazine, the decision becomes even harder to make (especially since I don't really like KOTD, the standard item to buy in this sort of situation). Eventually, I decide on picking up the latest issue of the PVP comic, and also score a half-handful of Runts from the coin-operated candy machine on the way out (for you foreign-folk, Runts are hard fruit-flavored, fruit-shaped candy in 5 flavors. My favorites are strawberry and lime, but of course half of them are banana).
Even though I didn't buy anything this time (Note: although I went back a week later to purchase a set of Exalted dice), I was again pleased with my Games Galore experience. Even though the store doesn't order tons of the Latest New Non-d20 games, they still purchase stuff eclectic enough to separate themselves from the regular bookstores and WotC-vendors in the area. The store smells nice, is quite open and well-lit, offers places to sit (and presumably one day play), and the staff isn't too knowledgeable but they are helpful and very friendly.
My Final Score for Hobby Masters is Style 4, Substance 4. Games Galore would be a Style 1, Substance 4.5.
FURTHER NOTE: After I wrote the main part of this article, some nearly two months ago, I ended up emailing the Games Galore staff to ask why they shrink wrap their products, as well as to ask why they don't order products. The anonymous staff member (perhaps the manager?) who wrote me back confirmed that they don't want the items damaged before they can sell them, as well as the conception that gamers mostly want to buy books that haven't been read or touched. They also confirmed that the sales they lose from people who don't buy shrink-wrapped games is less than the people who buy from them specifically because they seal the books out of the box. They also were surprised at my ordering experience, and confirmed that you can, in fact, make special orders. I guess my contention is that they ability to order games doesn't mean squat if the the staff doesn't help you order games.
Also, yet another note, I asked about 10 gamers in the area (including my roommate and folks I met at Hobby Masters and ) what they thought of the local game stores. They ALL said that they are impressed with Games Galore's collection of games, but they never buy there because of the shrink-wrapping thing. I even received an email from Scott Larson, author of Fudge: Terra Incognita and NC resident, recommending Hobby Masters to me after my disparaging comments on the RPGNet forums regarding Games Galore.