Thursday 14 May 2009

The Sourcebook Treadmill

Sourcebooks and supplements. There seem to be an endless supply of new material for the gamer to spend his/her hard earned cash on. Take D&D - my game of choice - for instance. Once upon a time the only thing you needed to play was the one rulebook, paper, a pencil, some dice, friends, a little imagination and some time. At its heart D&D is such a simple concept that anyone can play the game for very little investment and in return get years - even a whole lifetime - of entertainment. So why are my bookshelves bowing under the weight of obsolete rulebooks? And what happened to the hundreds of pounds I 'invested' in AD&D, 3rd Edition & 3.5E?Compared to other hobbies is D&D that expensive? If you stick to the core rulebooks and your imagination then that is a resounding no. But in a hobby with a constant stream of new ‘must have’ supplements and rulebooks, keeping up with the Joneses can be very expensive. The core rulebooks come in at about £54 depending on where you buy them. Since their release in June 2008 there have been over 20 supplement rulebooks. That’s over £400 worth of books and doesn’t include the adventures, miniatures and other accessories also published by WotC let alone the hundreds of other products by other publishers.
Of course it’s not necessary for players to buy the supplements or additional rulebooks. But the current incarnation of D&D as published by WotC does encourage (some might suggest, forces) players to use material outside the core rulebooks. A prime example is the exclusion of classes like the Barbarian from the PHB and its ‘revival’ in the PHB 2. Obviously this is all part of the sales strategy of the company, and isn’t anything new in this industry. But the key question for me is; does this make the game any better?

I canvassed the opinion of one of some of my friends and here’s a selection of their comments:

“The main advantage with having a variety of supplements is that it gives the consumers choice. If you want to base your game around a Samurai theme there will be a supplement to suit you. Want a game based around an evil diabolist and the hellish hoards he unleashes somewhere there will be a book with all the rules, rituals and monsters you need. If a player wants to roll up a hobgoblin PC, or specialist mage whose spells focus on the manipulation of time, then eventually you will find a supplement that makes this possible. And that's a good thing.”

“And… there is the power creep issue. All new PC classes and races should be balanced with those in the original core rulebooks. But of course we all know that often doesn't happen. New classes and races are often faster, sleeker, hit harder, bounce back quicker or just plain sexier than that already on offer… often new classes/races do just seem to be more powerful across the board, and I think you would have more success in teaching your player to grow wings and fly than in convincing him to reduce his PC's power [by not using the latest sourcebook].”
Web publishing and the growth in sales of PDF versions of books and supplements is changing the way gamers collect new material. Many will still buy a physical copy of the core rulebooks but there are also plenty of customers who save a lot of money by purchasing supplements in electronic form. However earlier this year WotC withdrew all PDF versions of their books from sale (allegedly due to copyright issues) making this option much more difficult. So where does this leave existing players on a limited budget? Or maybe it’s more important to ask; Do new young players have the disposable income required to buy all the rulebooks they ‘need’?

“On balance I'd say it [the proliferation of D20 material] is a good thing. It allows innovation and new ideas/concepts to come from the entire RPG community rather than one WotC department. It also allows companies to cater for a niche in the gaming market that is too small for a company the size of WotC to focus on. It increases the consumer’s choices. But I do think it relies on a strong DM prepared to police what is and isn't allowed in his game and ban supplements, classes, races, weapons etc that he feels are overpowered or that don't fit. And of course, players prepared to accept the DM's choices without arguments.”

But after all this discussion about choice, availability and cost I’m left with one more question. Does the proliferation of official and 3rd party sourcebooks enhance the game experience? I think many younger D&D players would say “yes”, but an equally large number of older players might say “no”, or at best “Maybe”. I know that I personally find myself hankering after those simpler days when all that was needed for an adventure was one rulebook, paper, a pencil, some dice, friends, a little imagination and some time.


  1. i think, "we" player stop tu buy this products, the best games are the little game, agone, nightprowler etc... no more books and a real pleasure game. all the company wo want addict the players are bad company and boycott this it's good.

  2. Its all a matter of what you want - I've returned to Original D&D Rules Cyclopedia for my D&D. Its the epitome of the one book and youve got the whole game.

    But on the other end I have about 75% of all the Mechwarrior RPG books, as it has so much interesting stuff.

    I guess it all boils down to what you are willing to pay for and how much variety you want without either working for it or paying for it.


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