Thursday, May 21, 2009

Boxed Sets

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.

25 comments:

  1. That looks beautiful! Now I want one!

    I love those tiny little boxes, from the OCE to Castles & Crusades to Vs. Monsters to that nifty tin set edition of Tunnels & Trolls.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "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."

    Interesting. I didn't know that.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anything that gives us more square inches for art!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sadly, boxed sets are ridiculously uneconomical to produce, and were a contributing factor in TSR's slow downfall. Basically a print run would involve getting unequal amounts of each component and having to write off the extras of everything but whatever you got the least of; they were time-consuming to collate and fill, and not cost-effective to ship.

    It was still pure amazing to get the S&S boxed set in the mail.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I got mine a week ago and really geeked out about it. Even my young children were fascinated.

    I am curious, though James: as I recall, your biggest quibble with S&S was the design goal of standardization, such as standard monster abilities and how to use the unified resolution mechanics to do things like listening.

    Now, I fully support all the changes in the Revised Edition, having told Jason that percentile Thief abilities were a mistake for example, but those chnages seem to exacerbate the problems you had since the Rev. rules make things more standardized.

    Or am I forgetting something?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Matthew,

    I'll probably talk about this in an upcoming post, but my stance on standardized mechanics has softened somewhat since October, when I first reviewed S&S. Much like the Thief class, I think I was probably more doctrinaire than was called for on this topic.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Ah! Boxed sets. Like James I do have a soft spot for those. I remember when the first RPG in Sweden was published that was not in a box. Many of us were confused by it. Roleplaying games were supposed to be in a box!

    BTW, I noticed yesterday that my print outs of the OD&D books fit perfectly in the 7.5 edition Tunnels & Trolls boxed set!! :D

    ReplyDelete
  8. You know why AD&D was released as a series of hardcover books?<

    Of course didn't know that. Very insightful.

    I have nostalgia for those little brown buggers that were the first gaming material I owned (I think I got them at Chess and Games in Century City), but damn, I love the hardcovers. The first time I got that nice big Monster Manual I flipped. And when I got that DM's guide, nice and heavy in my hands, I had the distint impression that I had somehow finally grown up in gaming (of coures I never really did).

    ReplyDelete
  9. "I'll probably talk about this in an upcoming post, but my stance on standardized mechanics has softened somewhat since October, when I first reviewed S&S. Much like the Thief class, I think I was probably more doctrinaire than was called for on this topic."Perhaps you could address to what extent your view on Castles & Crusades has changed (if at all) in that post as well.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm going to guess the boxed collector's edition is not for general sale. Which would be a bummer, because it looks lovely, and I so crave the boxiness of boxes.

    ReplyDelete
  11. @Wayne, while I've read about/heard of the great many factors that led to TSR's eventual demise, I don't recall the cost of creating/assembling/shipping the box sets being one of them. Is there some source info somewhere? I've mainly understood the companies foibles to be poor management and poor allocation of resources. I suppose if they weren't making the most of their process in manufacturing the sets it could've eaten into their profits. But this is the first I've heard about the sets being a cause.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Tamburlain said:
    I'm going to guess the boxed collector's edition is not for general sale. Which would be a bummer, because it looks lovely, and I so crave the boxiness of boxes.That is true. Jason did a very limited run mostly as fan service. However, it turns out that his LGS was quite interested in them and bought a few IIRC. Which was pleasantly unexpected.

    I suspect that he might do another run if there was enough demand.

    ReplyDelete
  13. James Maliszewski said:
    I'll probably talk about this in an upcoming post, but my stance on standardized mechanics has softened somewhat since October, when I first reviewed S&S.It certainly has been a busy year of thinking. I began by being somewhat anti-Thief and ending up keeping the Thief and killing the Cleric, so I know what you mean.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I miss boxed sets. Trivia - in the UK in the 1980s boxed games were taxed at an extra 15%, books were not as it was felt that taxing books would be putting a tax on literacy.

    The difference between a boxed game and a box of books? According to the taxman, the presence of dice.

    So many US boxed RPGs ended up being imported to the UK with the dice taken out and then the store you bought it from would often just give you some free dice from their dice trays.

    On a £20 boxed RPG this would avoid an extra £3 being slapped ontop of the final price. Particularly handy if the game came with a couple of crappy d10s and you already had thousands of the things at home.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hopefully this won't derail the conversation completely -- but isn't this a sign that we (the old-school community) should get cracking on getting a complete ready-to-run boxed set, using one of our free rulesets, into stores?

    Perhaps a boardgame manufacturer could be of assistance here? When I see the swag that manufacturers like World of Wonder or FFG puts into one of their $40-50 boardgames, I can't help but think that it would be possible to sell a kick-ass set of 'Labyrinths & Wizardry' with rules, dice, accessories -- the works.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Jay, most of what I understand about TSR's demise came from very long discussions on RPGnet several years back. The worst offenders that I know of were Planescape, where apparently some of the boxed sets were selling to distributors for less than the cost of their (art-heavy and color) production. Others still had the aforementioned problems. I don't think it was "the" cause, but the general bad economics of TSR boxed sets was one of a number of contributing factors in the decline.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Thanks for the great comments, everyone! As Matthew pointed out, we did a (very) limited run on these mostly as fan service and to help finance a full print run of our book version of the game. That being said, yes, if demand was high enough I'd look into the economics of doing a bigger run of these. They wouldn't have all the swag that the limited versions do (likely no dice, or cheaper dice, and only one photocopy-able character sheet) and would probably be a one-piece "tuck" box as my supplier on the 2-piece boxes was notoriously unreliable. These were expensive and time-consuming to produce, so I'd have to see real numbers before we jumped into a bigger run. But we're not unwilling.

    ReplyDelete
  18. @Jason

    You just made me think of something. When I think of a box set, I instantly think of a two-piece box. I wonder if all of those intangible emotions of the box set can be preserved if a game was packaged in a tuck box?

    Do they even make a tuck box that's as sturdy as a two-piece?

    It's weird, I know, but feelings can be weird like that. I still get a warm and fuzzy feeling when I remember the smell of the instruction manual for the NES version of Final Fantasy.

    ReplyDelete
  19. James,

    I am so happy you are thrilled with the S&S Boxed set. I personally think it is the coolest item in my Old School / Retro game library now.

    As cool as S&W, BFRPG, LL and C&C are its S&S that gives me all the warm and fuzzies. I have a few second- and third- hand OD&D books and one I bought new from the RPGA years and years ago, but S&S comes the closest to me of capturing that 1974 feel. I am not saying that because I work with Jason, I felt that way and then stalked him till he let me write stuff. ;) More or less.
    What I think is cool with the box set are the dice. I see you got the red and blue, mine were blue and green. My kids keep trying to take them (their favorite colors) and my D&D 4 group keeps looking at the books and suggesting we play it sometime.

    It is nice because it is a complete game in a box. And it is a very attractive product.

    You can see mine at http://timbrannan.blogspot.com/2009/05/i-went-on-old-school-bender-this-last.html

    Can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts on it. I am also curious on how you will be adding it to your S&W game since I might try the opposite, add some S&W to my S&S.

    Tim

    ReplyDelete
  20. Really good post and review! You've got a great point about boxed sets; there always was a rush at opening them, and I loved the economy they imposed on the writing. As somebody who has earned daily bread from churning out big RPG books, I have to say, the days of a 64-page rulebook are something I miss. In RPGs, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

    ReplyDelete
  21. For me, the most appealing aspect of a boxed set is that it's finite. There's a clear border around the designers' fiction. That gives my group free reign to do whatever we want outside that border.

    With open-ended settings I always feel like any fiction we establish is tentative and subject to revision by future official canon sources. I prefer finite source material, where the designers set things up and then pass the torch to the players. It puts the designers and players closer to an equal level in terms of story authority.

    Boxed sets are inherently bounded, but a book-format game can be bounded too. A lot of Palladium's single-book games had this property; not Rifts, of course.

    ReplyDelete
  22. So are these no longer available?

    ReplyDelete
  23. Hm. I also didn't know about that factor in TSR's demise. Nifty.

    Anyway, box sets aren't completely gone, the new Doctor Who RPG launched in a box.

    I wasn't brought into the hobby until they were a thing of the past, sadly.

    ReplyDelete
  24. @Steve

    "I love those tiny little boxes, from the OCE to Castles & Crusades to Vs. Monsters to that nifty tin set edition of Tunnels & Trolls."

    That T&T set is one of the handiest gaming products I own. From the little box to the spiral manual to the undersized dice, it's terribly convenient.

    I like boxed sets. I'd love for my own little heartbreaker to come in one. But I've also been peripherally involved in putting one together... and that project was hell on earth.

    ReplyDelete
  25. The upcoming Dragon Age rpg (from Green Ronin, I think, and based on the computer game of the same name) will be released as a boxed set. I suspect it's being done so that there's a sense of uniformity between the computer and tabletop versions, but still, it's the first time I've seen a boxed rpg since... Dragonlance: Fifth Age?

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.