Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Batteries Not Included

Surely you remember those dread words from your childhood—the thing you (or your child) asked for you/he/she/it finally get on Christmas, but because someone didn't look at the box carefully, a warning slipped by: this thing didn't come with everything it needed to run out of the box. You could expect things with lights and motors to need batteries, but occasionally a board game would escape scrutiny and be gifted unusable. (Batteries might be included in the stocking, but that's not so much "oversight" as "relief from an extra pair of underwear.")

And you might wonder what this has to do with RPGs, right?

Please note that since I started writing this, I received new information which mediated my concerns. They're not gone, and I still feel something's wrong here, but they're lessened.

The Two Who Are One

There are several games which have been released in multiple parts. The first two books of the GURPS 4th Ed. set were Basic Set: Characters and Basic Set: Campaigns. HERO 6th Ed. also comes in two volumes: Character Creation, and Combat and Adventuring. Evil Hat Productions' foray into big press with The Dresden Files RPG also comes in two big books: Your Story and Our World. The first edition of Pinnacle Entertainment Group's western horror game Deadlands was one book originally, but the second edition was split in two, the Player's Guide and the Marshall's Handbook. This technique was pioneered by Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (yes, the advanced first edition) when they separated their game information into Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide.

And there are indeed many benefits to splitting up a game that way. Not everybody needs all of the information, so not everyone has to buy both books. In most cases above, the players could get by owning just the first of the two books. In a few of them (GURPS, HERO), the details of the combat system were included in the second volume because otherwise, the first volume would become ungainly huge and outstrip the second. At its full size, the first book could even be difficult or impossible to bind.

Sometimes (Dresden Files, Deadlands), many of the crunchier world details are kept in the second volume so that the players don't see them until the GM is ready to reveal them. Sometimes it's good to surprise the players, even with bad things, and having all that information in the second volume is a good way to remove temptation.

And sometimes collecting everything in a single book is just too ungainly. In the case of HERO, it would produce a book about 1200 pages thick. When they start getting so big that you need to consider marketing a stand hefty enough to hold your books, it's time to break it up into more manageable chunks.

The two volume process is a tough call; sometimes it'd be cheaper to print one large book than two medium-sized ones. But by and large the two volume approach works better for the people who use the game, if it's a big, rules-intensive game.

The Two Who Are One-and-a-Half

Supplements aren't quite the same thing; they can be even better. After a game is published, new material may be created that has to be taken into account. Take Evil Hat's Don't Rest Your Head, for instance. It's actually a rather small book, which contains the basic rules of character creation, play, and enough concentrated weirdness to give the GM ideas to throw at the players. And it was good. But then they released a companion volume, Don't Lose Your Mind, which expands greatly on one of the main areas of the game: the rules of Madness. The game is fully playable by itself, but the supplement expands it, makes it better.

Shadowrun, currently published by Catalyst Games, is designed to run in a single world, but that hasn't kept a library of supplements and rules expansions detailing specific parts of the world (and the rules therein) from getting published. GURPS was designed to work in as many worlds as possible, and books have been published for 4th Ed. to cover categories of world. GURPS Fantasy would work well for a low-technology, low-magic setting. GURPS Magic would contain more details of a magic system for a high-magic setting, and that doesn't mean a fantasy setting; GURPS Magic could be used with GURPS Space with intriguing effect. And there are one or two specific worlds defined: Banestorm and Infinite Worlds. The latter, it should be noted, contains additional rules for moving between campaigns, so it could be considered one of the core books as well as a setting book.

The One Who Would Be Complete, But Doesn't Want To Repeat Itself

They're not strictly RPGs, but the many board games by James Ernst released under the Cheapass Games nameplate are incomplete by design. And this is not only intentional but sensible under the circumstances.

See, Cheapass Games are, typically, incredibly cheap. Each game will include only those parts specific to that one game. More general pieces, like tokens and money, the player is expect to gather himself from whatever source he chooses. Once you have the parts collected, you can keep them in a box by themselves and buy up all the Cheapass Games you could want. They're cheap.

The games are incomplete, but it's not a big problem to gather the pieces that you'd need for that game later. And any others of the collection you might want.

The One Who Is Less Than It Could Be

And then there's the case where the game is incomplete by design for the express purpose of making money off the players. The cases discussed above have their own justifications and can be forgiven; for the good of the hobby, I think this should not.

There also exists a grey area between the two, starting at "supplements make the game cooler" and "supplements make the game suck less." You see this a lot in video games these days; since consoles can be connected to the outside world through your home network, it's easy to write in hooks for "downloadable content." Some games have been honest about what's included, and create new, never-before seen content to expand the game. And some have been less than forthright, including the "extra" content on the disk and charging you for an unlock key. It's already on the disk which you paid for; the publishers just aren't going to give you that last extra little bit until you meet their second price demand, which was never printed on the box. And some people believe this is a terrible policy.

By the time you've gotten into "supplements make the game playable," you've crossed over into forbidden territory.

The One Who Could Be An Example

I dropped by the FNGS (Friendly Neighborhood Gaming Store) the other day and asked about the impending release of the new edition of Gamma World, whose system is now based on D&D 4th Ed. The guy behind the counter said that "he rolled his eyes at the concept at first," but that it used a novel trick: powers were collectible cards that you could buy in packs.

I thought about this for a second, looked back to him, and said, "Nope, sorry, still rolling my eyes." My concern was, obviously, that the game would be unplayable without buying a few sets of those boosters to begin with. A game that can't be played without buying supplements is broken by design.

What he forgot to mention was that the game is going to come with its own deck of powers, which means that the game can be played without buying a single booster pack. There's still a problem, though, and it goes back to that grey area above: it might suck. Not only powers, but the treasures you might find while navigating the wasteland are both decks. Rather than just create a d100 table which you can roll on to generate powers and loot, you draw cards. And while both are random and finite, the table of results doesn't incur extra special printing costs, so the cards may be more finite. You'll be able to reuse the cards as many times as you like (like the table), but will you want to?

A new book of tables, based on a d100 roll and selling for $15, would mean the game is expanded for 15¢ per entry. A booster pack of 10 cards, selling for $5, would mean the game is expanded for 50¢ per entry. I don't know that these are the rates they'll use, but I doubt it'll match the price per entry of the book I theorized.

Additionally, these are "collectible" cards, which means every booster pack you buy is essentially a pig in a poke. You don't know if you'll actually get anything worthwhile until you buy and open the pack. Consequently, the boosters may suck too. Or you'll have them already, which means you just wasted your money and either can't use those new cards or your wasteland will have a peculiar skew in the availability of unusual powers.

Novel as it sounds, I see a lot of possible trouble for people wanting to play this one.

I can even kind of understand why they did this; they have a lot of production costs tied up in Magic: The Gathering (not linked out of spite), they have abundant facilities for printing cards. Why not find a way to use it with as many of their games as they have? Their primary card game has proven to be a cash cow (despite their trend of manufacturing scarcity), why not apply those principles to other things?

Because those principles might not fit those other things, resulting in games that come out of the box crippled with limited playability and a lot of hidden costs that'll scare people off from this and possibly other games in the future.

Again, I don't have my copy of Gamma World yet, and I will pick it up to at least give it a fair shake. Watch for a more proper review later.

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