Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Supplementitis

In addition to short rulebooks, the other thing that strikes me about those early games were the relative lack of supplements aside from adventures. Most RPGs back then never got a rules supplement of any kind. There was never an expansion of Gamma World, for example, and I can't say I ever felt the need for one. Even AD&D was essentially complete rules-wise after the publication of the Dungeon Masters Guide in August 1979 and there were no significant additions/alterations to its rules until the release of Unearthed Arcana in 1985.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that much of what would go into a supplement nowadays was instead presented either as a small add-on at the back of an adventure or in magazine articles. Back in the day, there were lots of new options offered up in the pages of Dragon, often under the byline of Gary Gygax, and we picked and chose which ones we wanted to use in our home games. My dislike of cavaliers, to cite one example, was solidified years before the class officially appeared in a D&D product, since I'd tested out the class in my campaigns after having read the original presentation of it in Dragon. Those articles served the purpose of keeping the game "fresh" through the introduction of new ideas and concepts, but, because none of them were formally introduced into the canon of the game, it was very easy to prevent their destabilizing its core.

Again, I'm not quite sure when things started to change. I know by the mid-80s it was much more commonplace to see regular rules supplements for many games. Indeed, it seemed to be that publishers felt that nothing short of a rules addition warranted publication and so supplements became the bread and butter of game lines rather than adventures as they once were. There are still a handful of games out there nowadays -- Call of Cthulhu springs immediately to mind -- for which rules supplements are largely anathema. I can't help but think the shift away from adventures and toward regular rules expansions is another bellwether of the end of the old school.

32 comments:

  1. The biggest reason supplements and rules additions became commonplace is that supplements can e purchased by everyone who plays a game, whereas only one person in a six-person gaming group needs to buy an adventure. (In fact, the non-DM players are actively discouraged from reading adventures, lest they spoil the fun and/or cheat.) There are few realms of marketing that allow for the immediate potential six-fold increase of one's audience, so I almost think it was an inevitable development.

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  2. Traveller was quite big on supplements. But they only cost a couple of bucks each. What kills me about the new supplements is the investment needed.

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  3. Good point about Traveller, actually. I can't believe I'd overlooked them, especially since I owned so many of them and used them religiously.

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  4. I'd say this is yet another parallel between the old school and the Forge-based indie movements, though the indie folk are more interested in publishing new games, as opposed to adventures or magazines.

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  5. That's not exactly true. Deities & Demigods was 1980, Fiend Folio 1981, and Monster Manual 2 1983. I don't know the OD&D or BD&D product release schedule, but I think it would be inaccurate to say that they didn't have their share of non-module supplements. Still, that's a far cry from half a dozen or more supplements per year, like we see now. And I'm not sure that I understand how it's different to release modules and other supplements?

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  6. That's the key economic problem/tragedy for the RPG industry. The 3E guys were very explicit about their business model: (i) supplements are purchasable by everyone in a playgroup (boost your PC!), while (ii) adventures are only purchasable by DMs (let 3rd-party publishers do that via SRD).

    It's when this was realized that the publishing conventions changed. I wouldn't be the first to argue, in addition, that it's just flat-out easier to write a supplement than a good adventure.

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  7. Some good analysis about the "options" available in UA appears in a thread on the Delver's Dungeon @ http://www.thedelversdungeon.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=613 in which we were discussing the original versions of the Dragon articles that eventually became a large chunk of UA.

    Allan.

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  8. The DDG didn't really introduce any new rules to AD&D. Neither did the FF or MM II. They were true supplements in that what they provided was an adjunct to the existing game rather than expansions of it. UA, on the other hand, expanded the scope of the existing rules and, in some cases, replaced them. That makes a big difference to me.

    The reasons why adventures aren't the same in my mind as supplements is manifold, but the biggest is that I could produce 100+ modules a year and their content won't change the nature of the game as it's played. If I do the same with rules expansions, it'll have a profound effect on the way the game is played and, ultimately, how the game develops from the perspective of the publisher.

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  9. "In addition to short rulebooks, the other thing that strikes me about those early games were the relative lack of supplements aside from adventures."

    Strikes me as a false dichotomy, if you look at Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, with spades of monster entries that would later reappear in hardbacks (or supplements more properly speaking). Ditto for the Drow write up in G1-3, and so on. Modules introduced the extra bits. WotC reversed that under 3E when, except in the very beginning and very end, publishing modules was the least of their priorities. 4E returned to that model, and you'll always get new monsters introduced in modules way before their (re)appearance in Monster Manual 2.

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  10. DDG did introduce some new rules to the game. Not a whole ton, but they're there: expanded abilities tables, more codification of rules on granting spells to clerics...

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  11. I hope I can be forgiven for thinking that there's a big difference between the introduction of a couple of new monsters, spells, or magic items in a module and the introduction of whole new character classes, mechanical sub-systems, and the like through supplements proper. For me, it's a difference not just of degree but of kind.

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  12. Ken,

    True enough about the DDG, although, because those rules (largely) affect beings with abilities outside the realm of PCs, they have comparatively little bearing on most referee's games.

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  13. The thing with supplements is that there is potentially a lot of economic incentive for the publisher to produce them, regardless of whether or not the game actually needs them. As a wannabe game designer I always think in terms of putting together a complete, self-contained game, and perhaps because of the indie influence, I'm not really interested in the kinds of games that need or strongly encourage lots and lots of supplements. D&D4e is kind of an exception, but (1) I'm being bribed with new toys for my character, and (2) I'm mostly borrowing my friends' copies of such books in the first place. But, 4e doesn't feel at all incomplete without, say, PHB2 and Martial Power.

    I can't remember where I saw it, but I recently read a blog post lamenting the fact that adventure writing has become something of a lost art. I tend to design games where adventure writing isn't a factor (I'm a lazy GM, and I make games for myself and other lazy GMs), but if I was running such a game, I'd really appreciate having those available to me, not only to save me the trouble, but to help me learn at the feet of the masters how to better put together scenarios for the game. One of the many things I like about Japanese tabletop RPGs is that there are still scenarios published. A lot of games have a couple in the core rulebook, and there are some magazines that publish more.

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  14. We now have the Retro Clones and Simulacra to act as our supplements, picking and choosing which rules to use from each; which version of a particular class or sub-class; variations on the very same spells released through the OGL with minor variations on casting time/range/duration, etc.

    The only 0-supplement Aulde Tyme RPG I can think of is 5th/5.5/6th and earlier editions of Tunnels & Trolls. That has changed to a degree with 7th/7.5 (which I don't run). T&T never needed any precisely because T&T 5 is inherently a game that automatically assumes GM/Player-determined complications and elaborations.

    Since Aulde Tyme RPGs tended not to be setting-centric there was no need to update them as the timeline progressed through the years and ages. But, that is also why Greyhawk is still a quasi-feudal place after centuries of stagnancy. What change that did come, in the War and Ashes era was generally poorly received precisely because it disrupted the artificial status quo, if I remember reading recently in an erudite blog post. :)

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  15. I think you've actually hit on a really interesting/useful idea for how games should work and could work in the future:

    A game can/should(?) start as a rules-light "basic" game that can be sold to twelve-year-olds and then, rather than being re-released with new editions or modified with big new supplements, can simply be infinitely extended and customized by small, independently-sold rulesets.

    This seems like largely how the old-school is already working---with PDFs and stuff, but it also seems like a good model for new games. Publish a simple SIMPLE game, then allow the rules to grow in small "hops".

    This is a terrible model for tournament-friendly games, but who cares? It's great now that we have the internet--people can produce new (peer-reviewed--should we have a Rulipedia?) rules without having to wrap them in artwork and binding.

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  16. @Zak: That is the way I remember the Olden Days(tm) to be. Every game that came out was cannibalised for its useful/interesting bit and even modified by the Ref/GM to fit within the chosen rules platform (most often a version of D&D), even if it meant breaking out the calculator to determine the ratio between a 4d6 Ability Score range (Excursions into the Bizarre) and a 2d6 range (Traveller), etc.
    That was part of the hobby, much like customising models and minis.

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  17. "For me, it's a difference not just of degree but of kind."

    By Jove, yes. A very helpful distinction. Add "AD&D Monster Manual II" to your campaign and you, as DM, have some new critters to use (or not use) as you see fit. Add "Complete Mage" to your 3.5E campaign and you have to retrofit the world (much like a Windows upgrade). It is a very expensive and time-consuming proposition, especially if you are running a published campaign. In that case, the DM has TWO sets of books to purchase and digest (much like paying on two balloon mortgages).

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  18. Forgive if I'm wrong but I gather that you're talking only about rule expansions/changes and not additional content like new settings & monsters.

    Part of the reason was youngness of the industry, it was rapidly expanding so you could sell to *new* customers. Another part was/is few games are big/successful enough to make supplements profitable (tons of games today never get a supplement or anything other than core rulebook). But still, I remember buying a lot of supplements.

    D&D I see the first supplements Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldridth. Then the whole mess re-edited and "supplemented" for the AD&D series of rules. Also at some point rewritten for Basic Set supplemented by E, then C, then M, then I. BECMI also had PC series "Top Balista", "Wee Folk, "Sea Peoples" which I believe introduced new rules. Both series had a couple attempts at Mass Combat / Miniature supplements. Oriental Adventures?

    Are things like JG's Ready Ref Sheets a supplement?

    Role Aides had some 80's stuff for AD&D that might qualify, rules for PC Giants? Perchance the first Splatbook? Bruce Humphrey's 1987 "Giants" by Mayfair Games.

    Traveler has been mentioned.

    Gamma World had Gamma Knights. Star Frontiers had Knight Hawks and Zebulon's. Both arguably different games.

    Not sure of time line or content but Palladium has been churning out books forever? Claims to have introduced Perfect Bound to the RPG industry and PB softcovers led to splatbooks.

    ICE Rolemaster(80's) made many supplements. First for D&D and then their own games.

    I believe the 80's Harn stuff "Encyclopedia Harnica" was more setting than rules and so probably doesn't fit under your supplement definition. But I only ogled the cool maps and covers, never bought any.


    To me that is a whole heap of supplements even discounting all the setting, monsters, maps, adventures, charsheets, screens, geomorphs, campaign logs and other products the industry has been pushing on us since very early days.

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  19. @Zak "A game can/should(?) start as a rules-light "basic" game ... that can simply be infinitely extended and customized by small, independently-sold rulesets."

    Fudge is exactly that. Basic fudge is free and open. Has led to Several indie games "Deryni Realms", "Now Playing", "Heart Quest" see here Also was expanded into FATE which led to "Spirit of the Century".

    Except for the lite part this is also what d20 is *all* about.

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  20. @Norman Harman

    Sorta:

    but what I'm talking about is a situations where the new add-on rules are released nearly one-rule-at-a-time a la something the length of a Dragon magazine article or single blog entry.

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  21. Hmmm...I say White Wolf is the one that really promoted "supplementitis" as a business strategy. Every game expected a certain amount of splat books for the various clans/orders/etc. plus the mandatory "Players Guide" and "Storytellers Guide" for every single game.

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  22. But one thing Traveller did was to create formal supplements (labeled "Supplement #") which were actually supplemental and not required to play.

    Books 4 to 7 (8 was an odd one and should have been a supplement) were reimagings and expansions of the core system. Essentially a second edition in many ways.

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  23. Here's the thing though. Supplements have one big advantage over magazine articles: accessibility. A magazine can't afford to reprint back issues forever. A book is more durable and easily shared, and a publisher is more likely to keep a book in print, even if in limited quantities.

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  24. Re:
    Rach's

    That was once true, but it's not anymore. Thanks to Pdf On Demand everything's potentially in "print" forever.

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  25. If I had to hazard a guess when it really started happening, it be 2nd edition. All those complete books(complete book of elves, dwarves, etc) seemed to be the birthplace.

    1st if I reacall, didnt have that issue. Sure there was MM1, MM2 and FF, but there was no drive for suppliments.

    Modules, on the other hand....thats what 1st was all about.

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  26. I'm not buying into this...rules published in Dragon are no less relevant than rules published in a book called "Guide to Wasting Money", they're simply presented differently. Sure, a supplement appears more official (I guess), but we're playing rpgs, not golf. "Official" doesn't really mean much and I can ignore them all I want.

    The real argument here seems to be the disconnect between DM-player contract and Publisher-player contract. Certainly in the old days the players relied on the DM for arbitration; now it seems that they appeal to the rules and the publisher. That has little to do with how supplemental rules are presented and more with the attitude that rpgs should model computer games as opposed to social activities.

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  27. OD&D had 4 supplements. 5 if you include Carcosa ;)

    I see nothing wrong in that. In fact, it was great.

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  28. Maybe we don't like supplements because many of them suck.

    But as long as they are good, I welcome them.

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  29. everything's potentially in "print" forever

    ...I was going to say "or 5 years" but .jpg and .pdf seem to be extending that. Will the internet back-catalogue slow down software churn?

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  30. It is worth mentioning that most market research by most big gaming companies indicates that since the late 80s/early 90s, adventures typically sell far more poorly than a supplement.

    This is in definite contrast to the previous or "old school" expectation, when everyone would compare notes about the modules they had played. Modules used to be a sort of unifying experience.

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  31. Really? How do you explain Piazo then? Or goodman games?

    Both seemed to do VERY well in the adventure department.

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  32. That has little to do with how supplemental rules are presented and more with the attitude that rpgs should model computer games as opposed to social activities.



    You might be on to something here.

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