In the mail today I received my long-awaited three-volume collector's edition of Jason Vey's awesome Chainmail-inspired old school game, Spellcraft & Swordplay. As you can see from the photograph to the right, the collector's edition came as a boxed set that mimics the appearance of the OD&D white box, although it includes a couple of extras, such as dice and pre-printed character sheets, that were never included with its illustrious predecessor. As I've said innumerable times on this blog, I'm actually rather negative about aping the look and feel of stuff from the 1970s. My feeling remains that, as nostalgic as I am about the old stuff I grew up with, I think it's a mistake to use those products of yore as esthetic models for contemporary old school products. I'm not talking about the art so much as the graphic design and layout, which I generally think has been improved with the passing of the years. Ultimately, I think it'll prove a costly mistake for the old school movement if it ties itself too closely to a narrow set of presentation choices that ossified around 1981.
So I was a bit perplexed as to why the S&S collector's edition didn't set off the same alarm bells in my head that other old school products do. Part of it is that I got a kick out of finally acquiring a brand new White Box, one I didn't get second-hand. It was almost as if my nearly-40 year-old self was magically transported back to 1974 and I got to be one of the early adopters of this crazy new game from the Midwest. I can't really call it nostalgia, since I was five years old when OD&D was released, but, whatever one terms it, I felt an emotional rush of opening the crisp new box and pulling out its three little brown books and reading them. I should add that, having had the chance to look over this edition (whose text is identical to the revised edition), nearly all the quibbles I had about the original release, which I reviewed last Fall, were swept away. If I weren't already playing Swords & Wizardry, I might well consider adopting S&S as my game of choice instead. Even so, there's a lot here I may adopt anyway, since one of the joys of old school gaming is the easy compatibility of all these variants.
The other part -- the bigger part, I think -- of why I so fell in love with this package is that it came in nice, compact, little box. Everything I need to play the game is right in there and, while there are some expansions to S&S available, I don't need them. More to the point, the game contained within the box is straightforward and to the point, just how I prefer my games to be. Boxed sets have more or less disappeared from the RPG scene, with a few notable exceptions, and with that disappearance so too has succinctness. A box sets a physical limit on just how much verbiage a designer can churn out for a game and I think the loss of boxed sets has had a generally negative impact on game design, creating an environment in which completeness is largely a myth or, at best, a temporary state of affairs until the next hardcover volume is released in a month.
You know why AD&D was released as a series of hardcover books? To accommodate the desires of Random House, who wanted to distribute Dungeons & Dragons in the US and Canada, but which balked at trying to sell tiny boxed games to retailers. Thus was born a format that made it easier to sit on a retailer's shelf and the door was opened, however slightly, to where we are today. I miss those boxed sets of old. I'd love to see them come back, but I know why they won't, both in practical and economic terms. I think it's a pity, as the joy I experienced this morning showed. Plus, I think a lot of good would come of putting RPGs back in boxes; it might help to remind people that these are games. Crazy, I know.