What is the Model Train Ghetto?

Today guest poster LogicalPhallacy joins us to explain exactly what is meant by the “Model Train Ghetto,” and share the most hilarious image of John Lithgow I have ever seen.

Toot Toot

So if you’ve been reading this site, you’ve most certainly seen the term “Model Train Ghetto” tossed around, or references to model trains. I think it’s high time that we discussed that. You see model trains are a definitive example of an insular hobby. To get into model trains requires an investment. A real model railway can easily total in the hundreds of dollars, and of course there are multiple competing standards of rail gauge, train size, props etc.. All this together means that model trains are a bitch to get into.

This is a shame because what was once a hobby that would bring joy to a child’s eyes on Christmas morning, is now an industry that caters to a rather select few.  Even the Wikipedia article is a mountain of technical terms and details about the different competing standards. Where the model train community might describe itself as refined, exclusive, and well known, most would describe it as expensive, lonely, and the butt of many jokes.

RPGs are running a risk of becoming model trains. How so?

Historically there was a time when model trains were a popular gift, the sort of thing that you give a child to occupy their time, or to play with with their friends. Then over time the trains got more complex, and the hobby got more and more focused. The kids grew up and kept their model trains, but not too many new kids came in.  Now we see an interesting situation: it is hard to find a model train set for a kid to just get into, and you don’t go looking in a toy store for one, you go to a hobby shop.

Likewise, there was a time when an RPG (“Red Box” Dungeons and Dragons) was a popular gift, the sort of thing that you give a child to occupy the time, or to play with friends. Then over time the games got more varied, and the hobby got more and more focused. The kids grew up and kept their games, but not as many new kids came in. I’ll stop there to avoid belaboring the point, but the parallels are pretty clear.

So what are RPGs to do? Well that is where this blog comes in. There are some people who actively want RPGs to be like model trains. They frequent forums to talk about the good old days, and how to relive them best and most accurately. They actively shun newcomers and argue for a more “exclusive” game. In this hobby we tend to call them grognards, but we might as well call them conductors.

20 thoughts on “What is the Model Train Ghetto?

  1. HardlyWalken says:

    I remember when you could buy Dungeons and Dragons supplements in the toy aisle at Montgomery Ward. It was a great legitimization of the hobby, to see those fantasy books right there next to the GI Joes and He-Men. And it was a great day when I saw the new “Red Box” game at Wal-Mart.

    You’re right – this industry desperately needs “new blood” from the customer standpoint. Otherwise it’s going to be junked.

    • bombasticus says:

      To be fair, I also remember when you could buy Dungeons & Dragons at any mall bookstore. Our mall bookstore closed a few months ago, so I’m not sure this is still the case.

      Montgomery Ward has also seen better days. Not sure brick-and-mortar retail exposure is the answer.

      • Every mall bookstore I’ve been in (aside from religious bookstores) have always had a gaming section. It may not have been very big, but they always have the most popular dozen or so game’s core books plus a few others and most of the main D&D/World of Darkness books.

        Also, the D&D Board Games (Legend of Drizzt, Castle Ravenloft, etc.) are being sold in “big box” stores like K-Mart and Target. I even saw the 4e Red Box in Target once. And even Wal-mart with their anti-RPG stance still carries Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, etc. card games, which are sort of a gateway for younger people to get into role playing games.

  2. This is a really good article and the big issue I have with some of these grogs. When new editions of RPGs come out attracting people new to the hobby (like 4e did) that’s a GOOD thing. It doesn’t invalidate any other RPG. It doesn’t cause all other editions of the RPG which came previously to disappear, or for alternate game systems to dry up. Wizards is making D and D mainstream? That’s a good thing.

    It doesn’t need to be looking laboriously through myriad piles of charts and other assorted ephemera (ok, now roll 4d10, take the top two numbers, subtract 3, and now look up on the race chart to see what race you are!) to just make a character.

    Starter sets aren’t a rip off, it’s a good way to get started without the super expensive barrier to entry (like Warhammer 40k, for example, where you need 100 bucks to start playing). If I had nieces and nephews old enough I’d be giving them a red box for christmas. I got the 3.0 starter set when it came out, the 4e one, and I’m even tempted to pick up the Pathfinder one even though I don’t have an active group that plays it.

  3. Beth says:

    Is the argument here that you need to bring in new blood, or you need to be non-exclusive? I ask because I think the first is necessarily true, but I’m not sure about the second — some things are better when they aren’t on every street corner/etc. People that are at a club/buying a book/buying a game because it’s popular/cool/whatever can, in their own way be toxic customers or toxic communities.

    • Beth says:

      sorry — toxic community members. I’ve seen this in two forums I frequent — certain newcomers can ruin things.

    • logicalphallacy says:

      Thanks for your input Beth. TBQH you need both new blood and a non exclusive community. While it may be pleasant to fancy your hobby as something like a nightclub, the difference between a nightclub and trains is when someone leaves the nightclub someone else is waiting at the door to get in. If you exclude people from model trains it isn’t going to make them all the more.

      While a sense of community is good for participants in a hobby, they will most certainly create that on their own, it is not something industry supporting the hobby needs to enforce through availability or deliberate non trendiness.

      • logicalphallacy says:

        *it isn’t going to make them want it all the more, it is going to make them move on to another hobby that will bring them in.

        I just cannot post well today.

      • Beth says:

        Okay, see I think we are conflating some issues here. A community that is SLIGHTLY exclusive and self-policies will be infinitely more appealing than a hellish, anything goes forum. If the community is what draws people in (which seems to be part of your argument here), then the companies would do well to create forums that are well policed, but that necessarily makes them somewhat exclusive.

        However, the community also has to be visible to attract anyone at all. So I really think gaming really gets back to the issue stated earlier on this blog — it’s so divided that it is making all games invisible for being buried, which makes the whole thing unappealing to a newcomer AND because it is so divided, the communities are both painfully exclusive and rabidly defending their own scrap of territory.

        Let me know if I’m just not getting something here.

  4. bombasticus says:

    Nice. I’d back off on the train guys though. They’re still happily chasing rare cars on eBay and playing in the basement just like stamp collectors, ham radio buffs, comic book fans and all the other economically wrecked hobbies.

    The difference between the train guys and what we do here is that very, very, very few of the train guys harbor any ambition of going pro.

    At best, they might dream of becoming part-time train dealers to burn off surplus stock, but in general the day they quit their day job to play trains 24/7 is the day they retire.

    The only reason the train guys need new blood or a less exclusive community is if they want to turn pro. Otherwise, screw the mass market — all the more trains for me!

    • logicalphallacy says:

      I really don’t mean disrespect to the model train hobby. One of the reasons they are the example is because of how amazingly non controversial their hobby is. There are plenty of people who find collecting stamps to be fantastically tedious, most people cannot afford HAM radio as a hobby, and comic books, well that’s a whole other can of worms.

      The thing about model trains that makes them my example is that almost everyone can see the appeal of a model train set, it may not hold much, but it is (on its most basic level) a fun toy, much like RPGs. Yet they are now a niche of a niche.

      I am not even sure where the blame lies for model trains becoming the way they are, I assume that (at some point) the hobby’s participants were quite different than they are today. I do however know RPGs, and there is a distinct parallel between the track that some people think RPGs should take, and model trains. (Pun intended).

      • bombasticus says:

        Thanks. I know we’re not here to drone about trains but I agree, as another crashed “industry” their history is pretty instructive. Much like tabletop gamers, there was once a lot more of them and they were all a lot younger.

        I had to look it up, never having played with the things myself: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Flyer

        Had to scratch my head to find ways that train guys could ever have turned “pro.” There were never all that many dedicated train stores in the same way that 10,000 game stores blossomed. And there weren’t that many openings for designers.

        Then it hit me. What the train guys did was either scratch out a niche peddling accessories or graduate to playing with real trains.

        Maybe a follow-up question would be what the “real trains” analogue is for games. Computer technology? The military? Writing “straight” fantasy paperbacks?

        In the absence of “real trains” to play with as an rpg, er, “endgame,” it’s not surprising that a lot of people fixate on the accessories as a pro activity.

  5. John Fiala says:

    You can get a bunch of trains at the toy store – you just have to pick up the LEGO train sets and enjoy those instead!

  6. John Fiala says:

    As a less-flippant answer on trains, it happens my Dad runs a small model railroading store online. He imports materials and building stuff (polystyrene sheets, pre-made letters, trees) to create scenery with from overseas, and sells it at his website. I see it as an excuse for him to go to various train shows, myself, but he enjoys it.

  7. I think this piece gets the cause wrong. Lots of kids (including myself) got model train sets in past decades. What we didn’t do was buy more track, or more cars, or whatever. We just weren’t *that* interested in model trains. The idea of competing scales and complexity means nothing when your ambitions are limited to a set you play with for a few years and then put away.

    What probably really happened is that trains vanished from the centre of industrial life throughout North America and kids for whom trains were a one year interest never even thought of buying that first set for their kids. It just wasn’t a “core toy” any more.

    This might still apply to RPGs in that besides The Lord of the Rings, sword and sorcery fantasy in elaborate secondary worlds isn’t exactly flying off the shelves like it used to. Vampire: The Masquerade exploded partly because it hit a powerful interest in vampire fiction and modern fantasy in the late 80s and early 90s. Nowadays genre YA fiction and paranormal romance are huge, and the freeform RP community actively embraces it. Superheroes might have a spot too, but comics already have a huge problem with aging fandom.

    This may lead us to the undesireable conclusion that RPGs have limited shelf lives based on whatever modern culture is up to, but I think it helps when games come with compelling original worlds, or at least blueprints for play that do more than reproduce their inspirations. (It also explains why pulp games never do better than okay, despite many of them being excellent and a bunch of pulp fans designing games). I suppose we could imagine a robust game system that gets applied to a new, original, relevant setting every few years.

    However, we may face a more fundamental problem where the assumed default of face to face social play just doesn’t resonate with people the way it used to. Hell, this blog is an SA spinoff project, so it’s likely that a large number — even the majority — of gamers reading it mostly play online. If this is true, then we have to ask ourselves what tabletop style games bring to the online medium because as I have said, the kids who are roleplaying outside of MMOs are doing fandom based freeform RPs. You’d need a game that competes with free, open-ended communities. I think this is a real problem that would-be pros have yet to sincerely tackle.

    • fugaros says:

      I really think that you’re hitting on a second issue, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the first. You can’t really deny that computer games have changed the RPG industry, and even if they hadn’t, I think similar things would have happened.

      Really, what we’re looking at is a refusal to develop and embrace technological progress. Tabletop gamers (and some designers, even) are very resistant to new technologies. One of the biggest complaints about nWod and D&D 4th Edition was the streamlining and improvement of the game system. This isn’t a direction or gameplay thing, this is a literal refusal to accept progress.

      To illustrate just how backward the RPG industry is, imagine if a knockoff of the original XBOX was not only being marketed by a competitor (due to a legal gaffe by Microsoft), but it was competing with, and in some markets beating out, the XBOX 360. Meanwhile, a highly vocal group of gamers wants to exclude anyone who doesn’t want to play NES games, and the idea of DLC packs is rejected as a revenue source, since no one can make money unless they are selling physical games!

      • The reason I didn’t talk about computer games is because digital entertainment is so pervasive and powerful that tabletop RPGs will inevitably be a second tier hobby by comparison. It’s like worrying that people will watch TV instead of playing RPGs. Sure they will! We all gotta deal with it!

        But the internet as a new, cheap communication medium where users can set their commitment and intimacy, communicate with varying degrees of synchronicity and pull in other media at will. (I was fascinated by the use of celeb images to portray characters in WoD chat games, for instance.) People play tabletop RPGs this way, and they RP without systems, too. Based on my informal perusal of both scenes, it looks like the systemless RP folks are pulling folks in. On the other side, we came out of a decade where multiple games and movements specifically targeted new gamers and failed. Indie games, 3e and 4e all failed to do this. New types of systems, models of play and marketing methods devised by smart, creative folks *all* blew it!

        Now I’m famous for telling fans how much they suck, but that can’t be 100% of it. We’re not necessarily producing material that competes with what reasonably web-literate kids can do for free.

        I know you SA guys like to treat tabletop RPGS as a technology that can objectively improve, but I think that assumes everyone is buying into to certain values that determine how they’ll have fun. This isn’t just you guys. Indie games and the “core story” conceit developed by Mike Mearls contain this rhetorical trick where you strictly limit the ambitions of the game, design to those objectives, and wash your hands of responsibility for anything else. But nobody has an obligation to the *game*. Their first obligation is to fellow players, and the game is a tool (or toy) to enable this. You can criticise bad-faith participation (you pretend to want what the game is designed for, or you attack the game for not doing something it never claimed to be able to do) but not a simple lack of interest in playing the game a certain way to begin with.

      • Beth says:

        Isn’t there a good subset, Gau, though, that relishes the moment that they can TURN OFF THE COMPUTER and just game for awhile. I know I do. I’m not saying that tabletop games need to be moribund in the 1980s (like they TEND to be now) but at the same time, there is a lot of joy in being “unplugged.”

      • Ewen says:

        Beth: I think it goes a bit beyond just wanting to unplug though. There’s a very vocal segment of tabletop RPG players (which means you can take it with a grain of salt of course) who get Really Angry about *any* change to the medium, technological or otherwise. I feel like the it’s the same impulse that opposes any integration of technology and opposes something as simple as using Fudge dice.

        Which isn’t to say that being purely analog can’t be one of an RPG’s strengths, but I am a fan of the medium’s diversity.

  8. Student says:

    I feel like this article was way too short to have anything of value to add and could have been summed up in about a sentence or two. This is a shame because I feel like there’s a lot more compelling comparisons and analogies that could be made on this topic, and the whole thing just feels like a rush job.

    C- See me after class


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