Sunday, August 9, 2009

Chaosium Boxed Sets

I know that boxed sets simply aren't economically viable in this day and age -- or so I'm regularly told anyway -- but I can't help but wish RPGs were still produced that way. Back in the day, most new games were released in a boxed format, while it was supplements that came in book form. In my more cynical moments, I think that the death of the boxed set was a symptom not of their expense to produce but of the fact that RPGs were no longer played but simply read. Likewise, boxed sets placed a physical limit on how big their integral components could be, which meant reasonably sized rulebooks, adventures, and source material. Is it any wonder I miss these things?

Chaosium produced a lot of truly excellent boxed sets. Having recently acquired two such sets in excellent shape (Stormbringer and Ringworld for those interested), I was reminded of that company's glorious past and the fun I had playing their games. Besides Stormbringer, Ringworld and of course Call of Cthulhu, there were quite a few stand-outs from the Era of the Boxed Set:

Thieves' World: Based on the series of books edited by Robert Asprin, the boxed set included many short books detailing the city of Sanctuary and its inhabitants as well as maps. This product was for use with multiple game systems, including D&D, RuneQuest, Chivalry & Sorcery, and, if you can believe it, Traveller. This was a really excellent resource and I wish I still had a copy.

RuneQuest: The second edition of RQ was available in a boxed format that included the rulebook, Basic Roleplaying pamphlet, Apple Lane adventure, a collection of pregenerated characters and monsters, character sheets, referee sheets, and dice. The blurb on the cover proudly declares, "Everything Needed to Play! A $26 value."

World of Wonder: WoW was Chaosium's attempt to show off the flexibility of its Basic Roleplaying system. This product presented three different, short games for use with those rules: Magic World (a non-Gloranthan fantasy), Super World (superheroes, which eventually became its own RPG), and Future World (a sci-fi game). This was a neat product.

Pendragon: One of the few RPGs I'd consider "perfect," I probably played the original boxed edition of the game more than any other. Much as I appreciate some of the improvements introduced in later editions, none can hold a candle to the original for its exquisite combination of brevity and creativity.

Ghostbusters: Speaking of perfect RPGs, I often think that that this "co-production" between Chaosium and West End Games was not only the best licensed RPG ever made but also the best iteration of the D6 system that eventually went on to great acclaim in the later Star Wars RPG. I know it seems implausible, but Ghostbusters really was awesome. Of course, what else would you expect from a collaboration between Greg Costikyian and Sandy Peterson?

39 comments:

  1. >>I know that boxed sets simply aren't economically viable in this day and age -- or so I'm regularly told anyway --

    Seems weird what with the proliferation of board games with tons of full-color cards and pieces and all sorts of stuff... in a box.

    Doesn't it?

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  2. All good memories there, James.
    -Thanks. :)

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  3. Jim,

    That's true, of course, but aren't most of those boxed board games fairly expensive? My ideal for a boxed RPG would be $30 or under. Are there board games at a similar price point?

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  4. Boxed set are not economically viable because most RPG sell in even lower numbers than board games, and the combination of the box + the books + whatever you add make usually the cost rise by a lot. Printing a book is just cheaper, and they try to do it with care.

    And to answer JimLotFP, the production of board game lately works better than before because they manage to consolidate it by printing the component for 2 or 3 markets (languages) at a time and even that by sharing all they can, including the box format, etc, without needing big books inside the box. Something much harder to do with RPGs.

    And yes, Ghostbusters, I have heard a lot of good things about it.

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  5. I have the Thieves' World boxed set; it truly is a great product. In fact, it seems most of my gaming dollars lately seem to go to collecting old Chaosium products.

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  6. Let me just make this campaign suggestion, Ghostbusters VS Beetlejuice.

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  7. The upcoming Dragon Age rpg (the tabletop adaptation of the Bioware computer game) is supposed to be released as a boxed set. I'm not sure of the reasoning behind it though.

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  8. @ Hub: What is the game book in the RPG box was published with less...um...production value than say a typical post-modern RPG? Something more like Stormbirnger 1E that had only a few beautiful pieces of black & white art and a soft cover. Wouldn't it be possible to publish the game in multiple languages/market as well?

    Just a thought, as I, too, like the idea of returning to the boxed RPG (with dice included, please!).

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  9. >>Wouldn't it be possible to publish the game in multiple languages/market as well?

    Taxes can actually make box sets more expensive than books.

    In Finland, sales tax on a book is 8%. 22% on a boxed game (and most other consumer items). Other country's exact percentages will differ but there usually is a large difference between "books" and "games."

    There is no tariff on books being imported into the US. I'm not positive what the tariff is on games (I'm not doing box sets so I didn't check), but it's probably more than 0%.

    These things wouldn't make box sets more expensive to manufacture (unless printed in China and shipped back to the US...), but certainly can make them more expensive for the consumer.

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  10. Nice to see Ghostbuster love. Thought the 'setting' didn't have much staying power for me, it was an amazing design. Ghostbusters, Paranoia and Chill all really opened my eyes at the time.

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  11. Thieves World was an excellent gaming supplement. One of the finest urban adventures/supplements ever produced. The multi-system nature of it was a joy covering AD&D, Traveller, D&D, Runequest, TFT, T&T, C&S and Adventures in Fantasy.

    WOW (World of Wonder) was great as well, a sci-fi game, a fantasy game and a super hero game (a darned good one too) all in one box is something few game systems could support but Chaosium's BRP did very well.

    I'd warrant more boxed RPG titles today and there would be wider distribution.

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  12. This was posted at 9:05 AM. When I saw the lead photo, I thought, “Oh, no.” At 12:52 PM I was outbid on a Thieves’ World box set that I’d been sole bidder on for a week.

    (^_^)

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  13. The Thieves' World boxed set was great. I think as an adult I call the power that drove me to it "buzz". At the time it was just loose conversations with friends about Thieves World. There was something mythic about talking to friends about fantasy stuff when I was around 12. And the less we really knew about it, the more evocative it was. And then you see a box like this in Pen Models, and think "There. In that box are all the secrets." I enjoyed having it and poring over maps of the Maze.

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  14. I don't actually have many of the boxes from boxed RPG sets any more. I think I just found them cumbersome back in the day -- but now I can appreciate how, with care, they can help keep books and so on organized and in good condition.

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  15. Years ago, a friend asked me to play Ghostbusters. I thought the idea was silly and said no.

    I wish I hadn't. That game looks great!

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  16. Seems weird what with the proliferation of board games with tons of full-color cards and pieces and all sorts of stuff... in a box.

    Doesn't it?


    As others have said, this isn't how it works in practice for a variety of reasons, not least of which that gamers have mostly made it clear they want their product in hardback where possible. (Look at D&D 3rd Edition moving from a split to all hardcover, and WFRP/Dark Heresy ditching it's softcovers when FFG bought them.) More importantly is the cost, and when I think of most of the board games in my FLGS (including popular ones like Descent) I'm thinking of quite pricey items.

    There are still boxed set products popping up now and then: someone else mentioned Dragon Age, and I believe the new Doctor Who RPG is to be a boxed set. Note these are arguably more "mainstream" products - Doctor Who in particular is aiming itself at regular toy shops rather than just a typical game store. And even D&D 3rd & 4th Ed had beginner kits in boxes, again found in slightly more "mundane" places than their normal books.

    Perhaps boxed sets still resonate for "normals" who only really understand games in the context of something you get in a box, but I don't think we'll see boxed sets again unless there's a huge need for a specific prop that can't be integrated into a book.

    George Q

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  17. James, I very rarely comment ony our blog becuase we're pretty much polar opposites in terms of gaming taste - I enjoy reading your thoughts from tiem to time, but I know if I actually said what I was thinking I'd be mostly pelted off the internet by you and your chums. :-)

    However, I did want to give a thumbs up to the mention of Ghostbusters, one of my favourite RPGs. Although I run D&D week to week, Ghostbusters is a game I run a session of every six months or so and it's probably the most fun I've ever had GMing. I own both editions of the game, and while the first edition (which you have pictured) tends to have the best rep in gaming circles I've never found the second edition to be all that bad. (But then, I've never felt compelled to use the hex map system it includes for combat)

    My group think it's best kept like that - an occasional treat which stays special because of it's rarity. While I can see their point (the whole setup might get a bit samey after a while) I'd really love to try at least a short campaign of it sometime. :-)

    Oh, and I might agree with you on it being the best version of the D6 system as well. That's another of those holy game systems one finds it hard to speak ill against.... but I know at least one chum who finds the skill list in D6 Star Wars too clunky for words, whereas Ghostbusters is a system I can completely sum up on a couple of sheets of A4 paper I hand to each player before I start a session.

    George Q

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  18. Let me just make this campaign suggestion, Ghostbusters VS Beetlejuice.


    Dude... that's amazing. I've even still got some old toys from both lines to use as props. :-)

    George Q

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  19. I still have the contents -though not the box- of my RQ Pavis/Big Rubble set. Oooo! Me heart Pavis/Big Rubble!

    Big fold out maps like those Chaosium sets were soooo purty.

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  20. I still have Ghostbusters and Thieves' World. Wonderful products!

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  21. Dangit..between you and S. John Ross, you guys are going to make me track down a copy of Ghostbusters someday..

    But at least I do have Ringworld. Yes, those boxed sets were cool.

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  22. I used to own the Thieves World boxset. My older brother and I bought it--he had read the anthologies; I had not (yet) done so.

    I distinctly remember the Traveller bit and even asked my brother about it. We discussed just how it could work and why a Traveller ship would wind up there...

    I still wish I had a copy. The Green Ronin version is a pale imitation of that old boxset.

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  23. I agree with the box set idea, actually I've been thinking about a way for the OGL games to do it.

    I still have my copy of Pendragon the box set, and I love it!

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  24. The Thieves' World box set is fantastic. I still use it as source material for my various campaigns.

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  25. You are sometimes too cynical...the decline of the boxset was parallel with the improvement of quality. Look at my own game passion - Traveller.

    Boxed CT was an adorable game but if you really wanted to sink your teeth into Traveller - you bought The Traveller Book.


    MT came out as a boxed set but they first released the individual books - so that CT players could be weened off gradually. For instance, most Refs bought the Imperial Encyclopedia but realized that to get dmg ratings you needed to buy the players book & Referee Book for cmbt tables.

    And, the box only had a map that was reproduced in a few CT supplements already...so no added value.

    TNE had a boxed set but they put in FF&S hence adding value.

    So the decline of the box set was more a symptom of a more discerning market where new gamers wanted to pick up a single game and run with it. It also has to due with the decline of wargaming's influence upon RPGs (although those who play 4e might say we have seen a resurgence). Lastly, I think that at a certain point, gamers do become collectors and the instinct of gamer-collectors is not to want to damage their books, boxes, etc. So the most vulnerable artifact is the boxed set, especially, as one piles on top of the Hardcovers that are today's RPGs.

    NB: I do use the term collector-gamer there is a subspecies that merely becomes collector and that is more to do with the overall decline in gaming as a pastime.

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  26. Boxed CT was an adorable game but if you really wanted to sink your teeth into Traveller - you bought The Traveller Book.

    I must disagree. The Traveller Book, while awesome, played a big role in the hard coding of the Third Imperium setting into CT. I see that as a bad thing and much prefer the original LBBs, since they retain the wide open, do-it-yourself feel that makes Traveller one of the classic RPGs.

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  27. I have never even heard of Worlds of Wonder before. When was it first published?

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  28. @Aaron W. Thorne

    According to Schick's "Heroic Worlds," WoW was published in 1982. I don't recall anyone in my local group playing it.

    Tangent: I often wish someone would do an updated edition of Heroic Worlds, which was printed in 1991. So much has come out since then.

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  29. Seconding Bighara...the Chaosium Runequest box sets were fabulous. Pavis, Big Rubble, Questworld and Borderlands get regular look throughs, and I'm always amazed at how much they packed in there.

    The original Masks of Nyarlathotep boxed set is really quite incredible also. Chaosium really had the best boxed sets of the 80s...

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  30. AN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ROLE-PLAYING GAMES serves a bit as an updated Heroic Worlds.

    I have to agree with James. My copy of The Traveller Book has become just a collecting purchase. I tried using it at the table, but it just wasn’t as practical. So, it sits on the shelf when I run Traveller, and the LBBs and Starter Traveller booklets are on the table.

    When I worked on retail products, the packaging was pretty much dictated by the channel. Distributors and retailers like conformity. It was generally not worth the fight to try to do something different. I suspect that’s why even the current D&D 4e starter kit is a box. Though I dealt with a different channel, and that was a few years ago now.

    I keep thinking that perhaps the business model that AD&D evolved—and that 3e and 4e are following—was really just an artifact of the times. An artifact of the “fad” times. That market just keeps getting smaller in the long run.

    I think more and more players are jumping off that ship for simpler choices without a constant stream of add-ons. I think more and more players are not getting into the hobby because they don’t want to get on that ship, but that’s all the flagship that is easy to find offers.

    Of course, more of a board-game business model would require structuring the company like a board-game company, but I don’t think that’d be a bad thing.

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  31. These are the games I grew up playing. My faint claim to grognardism, if I wished to make one. So it's awesome to see some Chaosium love here :)

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  32. In fact, it seems most of my gaming dollars lately seem to go to collecting old Chaosium products.

    You and me both.

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  33. I'm not a huge fan of boxed sets because of storage. I find that the boxes get crushed and look weird in the shelf. I was pretty jazzed when Cthulhu came out in a single book.

    Speaking of Ghostbusters, I just traded for GBI (the second edition) this weekend at a convention. I was surprised when I got it open that it contained... a big thick book (and a small booklet). Why not just release it as a book? :P

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  34. Worlds of Wonder was actually the basis for the first fantasy RPG in Sweden, which was basically Magic World translated according to the lucky bastards who own a copy.

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  35. "From a certain point of view..." perhaps we will agree to disagree. I have always brought the Traveller book and my well used MT books (always lamenting that they never came into a handy one book format - I guess now with the PDFs that is possible) and as far as hardwiring the 3i. Yes, they could have kept it open, as they did with Starter Traveller but I think they viewed the 3i as a big enough sandbox.

    However, I do not really find all the detail that they provided on the 3i (which was relegated to back of the book) really interfered with the essentials which codified the Books 1-3 and meant that you need never worry that what would happen if you lost Book 2 or that your box got crushed by the large drunk gamer.

    But, I guess maybe comments still reflect the Hicksmanian bias... It is funny those of us who started gaming in around circa 1982 have such radically different viewpoints than those who entered earlier (not talking about Game Designers or Founders). I appreciate the Old School and play in it but still there is something that limits from embracing the whole ethos - which is the absence of narrative as the unifying glue that bonded us to Hicksman and the game we both love.

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  36. I appreciate the Old School and play in it but still there is something that limits from embracing the whole ethos - which is the absence of narrative as the unifying glue that bonded us to Hicksman and the game we both love.

    Old school doesn't abandon "narrative" as such; what it abandons is pre-packaged narrative. Most old schoolers could tell you tons of stories about their campaigns, but those stories arose out of play through the interactions of the players rather than being established from the get-go by either the referee or by a game company.

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  37. It’s interesting. James and I prefer the LBB to The Traveller Book. But I agree with you, Referee, that the 3I was never the problem that James sees. I take it or leave it, as much or as little as I desire.

    In fact, I think that’s one of the real strengths of classic Traveller in all respects. Everything is very modular. (With the one complaint that the advanced chargen and basic chargen are perhaps too far out-of-sync.)

    This is maybe yet another reason why I shouldn’t ever try to make any money at this hobby. One size does not fit all, and I often have a hard time accepting that my way isn’t the “one true way”. (^_^)

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  38. To clarify: I don't think that, in and of itself, the Third Imperium is a problem. I have a great love for the setting, which, at least in its earliest forms, was a sandbox setting. My problem is that, once presented, the Third Imperium became what Traveller was all about, to the exclusion of all else, especially other takes on SF. That meant that, as the years dragged on, Traveller became less generic and generally useful unless you were already invested heavily in the Third Imperium.

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  39. The yarns of campaigns do certainly constitute narrative but coming in, as I said on the cusp of the Hickman we wanted a broad canvas that we could then detail in. Prior modules and supplements seemed to be as much fun rote tables. I think we wanted the game designer to improve upon our imagination whereas true old school would argue only the imagination & rules were constraints. People like me would certain agree but allow setting to be an additional contraint.

    Whether, one wants to call it prepackaged or just setting is largely semantic. It is just the further refinement of art of storytelling. Early adventures could have said to provided the outline of plot. Hicksman provided us with a mood. And, where we both object to is the strict adherence to a theme. However, as RPGs are fundamentally about cojoined Storytelling, it is only natural that they would develop story maps as complexity introduced into play.

    If Old School rejects complexity in play then its premise would be reduce RPGs to merely interactive play rather forms of narrative.

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