On Being an RPG Collector

Like many commentators in the tabletop RPG world, we at Cannibal Halfling Gaming focus on the act of playing games. Making characters, running games, campaigns, one-shots, trad games, indie games, solo games, you name it. To the degree that the TTRPG hobby has a body of critique, it’s one that focuses on how games are played and we’re happy to be part of that. Playing games isn’t the only thing that drives the hobby, though, and in certain segments of the hobby it doesn’t have the largest financial impact. When it comes to the consumption of gaming materials, there are players, there are readers, and there are collectors.

Playing, reading, and collecting games are different activities which demand different things out of the games which are consumed. These activities aren’t mutually exclusive; in fact, I’d say the vast majority of gamers participate in all three to some degree. That said, the one which defines how many gamers buy RPGs is collecting, and as a result collecting RPGs is an activity that has an enormous impact on how the hobby evolves, how games are sold, and what games end up looking like.

Buying Like A Collector

When do you buy a new game? Is it because it’s a game you want to run or have a friend who’s going to run? Is it because you want to figure out if you could run it, use it, or adapt it? Or is it because it sounds cool and, whether you run it or not, it’d be a neat addition to your shelf? These are buying habits driven by a gamer, a reader, and a collector, respectively. The gamer is concerned with the upcoming game, the reader is concerned with reading the game and seeing what they learn, and the collector is concerned with having the game. Although we all like playing games, the reality is that very few of us buy like gamers, and we probably haven’t since we entered the hobby, when we bought that first player’s guide (probably D&D) in order to join a game for the first time. Buying like a reader is more likely what we say we do; within our own tastes and preferences we seek out new games to read, absorb, and possibly use or play when we have the opportunity. In reality, though, a lot of us, myself included, just buy whatever sounds cool, looks good, or completes something. These three desires shape a lot of RPG marketing, to the point that things like making games easier to play serve surprisingly little purpose in getting people willing to spend money on RPGs to spend money on any one specific RPG.

“Sounds cool” is the siren song of Kickstarter. The biggest Kickstarters are, by far, new editions of old games, new licensed games, and big old collections of 5e stuff made by third-party publishers with high production budgets. If we extend outside of actual gaming material, the largest campaigns behind the biggest (Magpie’s Avatar: the Last Airbender) are for Dwarven Forge modular terrain and Pixels, Bluetooth-controlled light-up dice. This does mean that over $8,000,000 have been spent on two items which, for most of the hobby, are considered either vanity items or even useless. “Sounds cool” is not only new games which look good and seem different, but also the swag tiers, the leather-bound special editions with four sewn-in bookmarks, and the Kickstarter-exclusive content. It’s the force that makes D&D a lifestyle brand but also gives us “dice goblins” and shelf porn. And, as cool as some of that stuff is, none of it has anything to do with gaming.

“Looks good” has more to do with the precarious role crowdfunding and marketing have with regards to the quality of the games we actually purchase. The baseline role-playing game has not historically been particularly good, and even top-selling games can be no better than mediocre, making their money through either their license or because they were crowdfunded. This causes two phenomena which encourage people to buy more games than perhaps they otherwise would: first, they forgive bad design or editing by weighing some other factor more, or simply by saying it’s ‘not that bad’ in comparison. Second, they tend to spend more money with ‘safe’ publishers, often making ‘safe’ games using the same ruleset over and over, and often hedging their design costs with licensing. And I’m not saying those games are bad, but they don’t move the needle. Star Trek Adventures is the source of one of my favorite campaigns of recent memory, but neither Seamus nor I can tell you what Modiphius actually contributed to that magic. Root is not a bad game at all, but neither is it interesting or polished enough to warrant that I recommend it. Modiphius and Magpie, though, are likely in the top 5 game design studios by size, and people know they didn’t get there just by churning out crap.

Speaking of churning out, completing something has been the easiest way to extract additional money out of gamers for the entire history of the hobby. We all know game line completionists, and a lot of us are one, in one way or another. One of the best examples of the pernicious psychological effects of completionism comes from Tim Hutchings, designer of the Thousand Year Old Vampire. During ZineQuest in 2021, Tim ran a campaign for a zine, A Fantastic Longing for Adventure. It’s a nifty thing, using different colored filters to show different images on each page of the zine. Anyway, as an add-on to the game he included the option to order a “surprise Thousand Year Old Vampire book”. He said, point blank, that it wasn’t necessary to play the game, probably wouldn’t add to the game, and realistically, you probably shouldn’t waste your money on it. He said those things outright, trying to make it clear that whatever this book was, gamers didn’t need or possibly even want it. And yet. It was a surprise Thousand Year Old Vampire book. Dozens, maybe even hundreds of people ordered one. Including myself. When the book arrived, it became clear why Tim didn’t think people should order it: The book looked exactly like Thousand Year Old Vampire but with all the text and images removed, left only with hollow backing graphics. An interesting artifact, and in some ways a commentary on the main game’s dealing with memory. Except for its value as an artifact, though, it is completely useless. And he told us this! And we bought it anyway. And so it will always be when it comes to supplements. The only thing I know about how many supplements a game should have is that it’s definitely fewer than any of them do. As long as people keep buying them, though, studios will keep making them.

How Collecting Shaped The RPG

Long supplement tails and Kickstarter special editions are the most obvious ways that game design morphs to accommodate the buyers willing to drop the most money. Everything from book size to PDFs to the mechanics themselves are affected by ways that publishers and studios attempt to attract collectors. Even the hobby itself evolved as a bet on what gamers would be willing to buy, and that bet basically helped create the role-playing game manual as we know it.

The business model of TSR was initially built on the idea that rulebooks would sell. Rulebooks for wargames were not typically sold standalone in the 1960s and 1970s, they were either part of a boxed game or a supplement to bagged miniatures. When Gary Gygax wanted to sell Chainmail, the predecessor to Dungeons and Dragons, as a standalone pamphlet, it wasn’t from any desire to change the industry, it was mostly to avoid having to go into a business agreement with a miniatures manufacturer, who weren’t seen as giving game designers they worked with a particularly good deal. The gamble ultimately worked and, when Dungeons and Dragons was released in 1974, it was in the form of the three original pamphlets that historically-minded gamers know so well. 

Though without as clear a genesis, the move to full-sized hardcover books as the de facto standard for D&D was something that likely evolved out of the continued complaints by gamers about the price of gaming books. The original D&D set, which had roughly 120 pages of material, sold for $10, which when adjusted for inflation is about $60 today. By the time AD&D was released in 1979 the price was now over $10 per book, which even considering the (fairly high) inflation of the time still more than doubled the list price required to get into the game. Some of the reasoning for the higher price, though, was the form factor, which was now three hardcover books that were each roughly as long as the entire original game, page-wise.

It’s less clear why the hobby at large drove to the full-size hardcover as a standard, though. Box sets with pamphlets remained popular for a fairly long time as far as the hobby’s age is concerned, but by the 1990s there was a significant collapse in form factor. Even softcover was a bit of a holdout, with some companies like Palladium and R. Talsorian being known for staying with softcovers after most of the industry had changed over. If there’s one big shift I could point to, it would likely be the towering success of White Wolf in the early 90s and their slick hardcover designs. Everyone recognized the green marble pattern of Vampire: the Masquerade, to name just one, and pretty much everyone in the hobby who could afford it followed suit. White Wolf also led the charge in popularizing ‘shelf porn’, with the consistent spine designs making it easy to show off one’s collection.

The big glossy hardcover is a bit anachronistic now, but it is still the de facto standard and also the aspirational form factor for large swathes of the hobby. From Numenera at the beginning to Coyote and Crow now, many games are Kickstarted not only to push them into wider distribution but also to get them the big full-color rulebook that, in many people’s eyes, implies ‘professional’. This aspiration also feeds back into consumer desires, making ownership of a physical copy of a game seem more legitimate than a ‘mere’ PDF. This is mixed with the expense of laying out two editions of a book; given the cost of layout it is incredibly rare to see a PDF with different page spreads than a print book, and this compromise gives the notion that a PDF is an inferior product a small degree of truth, as layout almost always favors the print version. Not that anyone’s trying too hard to dissuade that notion; a hardcover book may cost ~$30 more than a PDF but usually costs less than $10 more to print (significantly less if the print run is large enough), meaning that hardcopies are, if you can overcome the startup cost, a significant bump in per-unit profit. When a special edition costs double to print but nets double the MSRP, the effect is magnified; that’s why anyone who can get a special print run quoted will do so.

Collecting is the capitalist manifestation of many hobbies, not just RPGs. That said, as we live in a capitalist society, I consider the impact of collectors on the hobby to be fairly neutral. Collectors are one of the reasons there’s still an influx of cash into the RPG hobby despite how difficult it is to get a gaming group together and despite how long it takes to really play a game. If we all only bought games when we played them the hobby would essentially collapse, and that’s not even considering how many groups there are where only the GM is consistently buying books. On the other hand, there is nothing that makes this hobby one that requires investment, collection, or even much money beyond an initial outlay for a book and some dice. When the market is targeting you as a collector rather than you as a gamer, they are targeting your need to buy and own, not your desire to game and have fun. While that’s fine if you can afford it, it’s important to keep in mind.

I’m not saying don’t collect, I’d be a hypocrite. I have thousands of dollars of gaming manuals, including some I may very well never use. That said, it’s important to remember the weirdness in this hobby when it comes to money. Role-playing games are such that a single piece of paper can give you dozens of hours of entertainment. At the same time, you could just as easily spend literally hundreds of dollars on a beautiful book that will never, ever get used. Gamers and collectors value games differently, that’s just one of the places everything gets weird when money’s involved. But thinking critically about it is one of the best ways to get more enjoyment out of the hobby. You may end up gaming more, spending less money and diving more deeply into games you already have. You may end up collecting more, actually; if the fun for you is finding and owning the books, then maybe leaning into that and looking for old or rare games will be more fulfilling than playing them is. It doesn’t matter which one does it for you, as long as you make the effort to find out and to disentangle the two. You can be a gamer and a collector. But you’re never both at the same time.

Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can follow me @LevelOneWonk on Twitter for RPG commentary, relevant retweets, and maybe some rambling. You can also find our Discord channel and drop in to chat with our authors and get every new post as it comes out. You can travel to DriveThruRPG through one of our fine and elegantly-crafted links, which generates credit that lets us get more games to work with! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!

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