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Blowing Out the Nostalgia Candle


I get a lot of mail. I mean, a lot of mail.

Some are questions about games I've designed, some are compliments, others are complaints, insults and claims that I'm the embodiment of the downfall of the gaming industry.

I like those last ones a lot. Send more of those.

Out of the 300 or so messages I receive a day, the ones that always catch me run something like this:

"Games are too expensive. They're not as good as they used to be and they cost too much. I remember when games were inexpensive, had more material and were better designed. When are gaming companies going to stop cheating the public out of its money, and when is the public going to wise up about gaming companies?"
It looks like the gaming industry finally got old enough to have a sense of nostalgia. After all, according to many folks, we're in the third generation of the roleplaying game industry. A lot of people are looking back to their glory days and remembering them with fond memories. They remember when a roleplaying game came complete in one book, when games cost under ten bucks, they were playtested and worked. Remember that? Remember when roleplaying games just worked? The GM didn't have to do any homework and everything was spelled out for you?

Not today. Today, game companies expect you to do all the work. At least, that's what I keep hearing.

Well, friends and neighbors, maybe we should take a look at this little argument with some light. I mean, the candle of nostalgia is all well and good, but it tends to put things in a bit of a romantic light, and all of us husbands know that shadows do a very good job of hiding love handles.

The fact of the matter is, games cost less ten, fifteen and twenty years ago because everything cost less ten, fifteen and twenty years ago. But were they comparatively less? Let's find out. In fact, let's start with my own personal favorite: Call of Cthulhu.

For those of you who haven't heard the story, Cthulhu was my very first roleplaying game. Bought it in 1981 when I was living in Albany, Georgia. We didn't have a game store in Albany, but I saw it sitting on the shelf of Spencers Gifts for a big, whopping twelve bucks. It was Saturday, and I had my allowance money with me. I saw the words "Call of Cthulhu" on a big white box and decided it had to be more stories from that H.P. Lovecraft guy I had discovered in the library. So, I plopped down my money and picked it up. Best twelve bucks I ever spent.

Opening the box (the original box, mind you), here's what you find inside:

  1. A sheet of paper that reads, "What's in this box?" The paper explains that CoC is a roleplaying game and details the box's further contents.
  2. Three booklets: a) Basic Roleplaying (16 pages), the Call of Cthulhu rulebook (96 pages), and a Sourcebook for the 1920's (32 pages). A total of one hundred and forty-four pages of material.
  3. A booklet of character sheets
  4. Cardstock character silhouettes
  5. Six dice (d20, d8, 3d6, d4)
  6. A map of H.P. Lovecraft's Earth

All of that for twelve bucks.

Now, let's take a closer look.

First off, it would have made things a lot easier if they put all the information in one book. In fact, they would have saved on printing costs, too. Another game company trying to ooze as much money out of you as possible.

There are less than thirty pictures in all three books combined. And not one of them is a picture of a monster. I mean, what are gaming companies thinking? All those pictures wasted. If you're going to do a book on supernatural horror, you have to have illustrations of the monsters. If you don't, how do you show your players what the monsters look like?

There are no experience point rules. How am I supposed to give out experience points if they don't tell me how to do it?

There is no index. Oh, there's a blank page at the end of the book with a self-serving quote from Stephen King talking about how important Lovecraft was to him when he was a kid. I thought White Wolf trademarked and copyrighted hip name-dropping.

The Sanity Rules are so full of holes that I'll have to go on the net and download errata before I can even play the game. You look through the rules and you can just see the errors. Doesn't anyone edit these books?

All told, first edition Call of Cthulhu is not a very good roleplaying game.

I spent twelve dollars on it and I think I want my money back. After all (according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis), twelve bucks in 1981 is roughly equivalent to twenty-two bucks in 1999.

What kind of roleplaying game can you get for twenty-two bucks in 1999? Well, instead of three stapled books (mounting to one hundred and forty pages) with a lot of white space, twenty or so black and white line art pieces, and rules that don't work, you can get fifth edition Call of Cthulhu.

This puppy has a color cover and is two hundred and forty pages. It's reorganized so everything is easy to find. It has illustrations for every monster, revised Sanity rules, information for roleplaying in the 1920's, 1890's and 1990's, five times more monsters, tomes, spells and magic items, a revised Skill system that makes a whole lot more sense than the old one, a brilliant one-step, one page Investigator creation chart, expanded weapons tables and a whole lot of really funny Cthulhu-esque comics at the end.

All for the same low price as first edition.

And, instead of three books, it comes in one book.

For the same price.

Just in case you folks don't understand what I'm saying here, let me show it to you with one more example.

Let's look at Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

AD&D Players Handbook, (c) 1978. I'm looking at the 3rd printing (Jan 79). It's a hardbound book, 128 pages. It's probably appropriate to comment that after twenty years, the binding has not yet broken.

Included in the book is information on abilities, character classes, races, alignments, hit points, a money system, equipment list, information on hirelings and henchmen, weapons (including weight, damage codes and [gasp!] speed factors), a whole bunch of spells, encumbrance and movement, infravision and ultravision, surprise, traps, tricks and encounters, information on turning undead, spell combat, missile discharge, magical device attacks, breath weapons, saving throws, armor class, weapon factors, monster attack damage, damage, falling damage, healing morale, mapping experience, poison and a little section on how to be successful in adventures.

The appendices list information on psionics, a completely unworkable Bard character class, the "alignment graph" and information on the Outer and Inner Planes of Existence. In other words, the appendices are a waste of space.

With all that information, you'd think you'd have everything you need to play the game. Of course, you'd be wrong.

Despite the fact the book contains information on saving throws, it doesn't have the charts. It also doesn't have the To Hit charts. It also doesn't have any information on monsters, although it does talk about them. No hard numbers. Nor does it have any useful information on armor class, although it spends a whole paragraph talking about it. It also talks about turning undead and breath weapons.

Any hard numbers?


You gotta buy the Dungeon Masters Guide to get that stuff.

And guess what? In 1977, the DMG isn't going to be published for another year!

So, for ten bucks, you get part of a game.

If the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook were released today in the format it is in, reviewers would tear it to pieces.

The book has a total of thirty-one black and white illustrations. The type face is squashed together and difficult to read. The book itself is poorly organized. The book begins talking about "game time" on page 39, forgets about it for a while, then comes back to it on page 109. Then, it starts talking about Movement for a while, drops the subject to talk about Light, Infravision and Ultravision, then picks it up again. Then, on page 102, we start talking about Initiative. It's almost as if the book were written in a stream of consciousness. Much of the information contained in the book is nothing more than narrative versions of the real information you're going to get in the DMG.

A year from now.

It does, however, have completely different sections for "Combat", "Combat Procedures", "Damage", "Falling Damage", "Poison", "Initiative", "Encumbrance", and "Movement". To make what I'm trying to say clear here, let me suggest that "Combat Procedures", "Damage", and "Initiative" should all be sub-sections of "Combat", in one location, so you can have all the information exactly where you need it. Instead, this book lists them as their own individual sections, sometimes ten or more pages apart from each other.

And here's the big one folks. The. Book. Has. No. Index!

In 1977, this book cost you ten bucks ($9.95). In 1999, that translates to twenty-seven bucks. Now you tell me, what one hundred and twenty-four page hard bound book are you willing to shell out twenty-seven bucks for. And remember, the book isn't everything you need to play the game. You also need the Dungeon Master's Guide. And for those of you who are curious, the DMG costs twelve bucks. In modern terms, that's $29.64. So, if you want to play AD&D, you have to shell out fifty six dollars.

Wanna know how much the Monster Manual put you back? Add on another PG and you'll get the picture.

So, in order to have all three books (weren't we just complaining about having to buy two?), you have to shell out eighty-three dollars and change.

Yeah, I remember when roleplaying games were cheaper.

I just bought one yesterday.

Now, I know what most of you are saying: "We can't hold the PG up to today's standards. It isn't fair! The standards are different today!"

How quickly they change their tune.

We can't hold a book published twenty years ago up to the standards of today, but we can hold a book published today up to the standards we held twenty years ago.

When we were so discerning.

When we were willing to shell out ten bucks for part of a game.

Look, either games were better twenty years ago or they weren't. If we could play AD&D with what we got in those books, then you can play Deadlands or Fading Suns or 7th Sea or Obsidion or any other modern game with what you get between those covers.

It's just that easy.

Want some more examples?

Okay, how about Traveller?

Pick up first edition Traveller (printed in 1977) in that handsome black box. You get three forty-four page, saddle-stitched books mounting to a total of 132 pages. These books are the same size as the new Trinity stuff that White Wolf is printing (nostalgia, see; it's a nice touch), which means you get less words per page. There's one black and white line illustration. One. In one hundred and thirty-two pages, that's one black and white line illustration. Blue Planet got reamed for having less than twelve and this RPG has one.

By the way, there's no system for character advancement, no index and no World. Just rules. Rules for Science Fiction Roleplaying. And it costs ten bucks. That means it cost the 1999 equivalent of twenty-three bucks. For one hundred and thirty-two pages and one black and white illustration, no index, no World.

Compare that to the cost of GURPS Traveller and what comes in that dandy book, and you'll see what I'm talking about.

(And one more thing. "Traveller" is actually spelled "Traveler". The first version is the British spelling. That's like calling your RPG based on Starship Troopers "Armoured Troupers". Talk about the Greatest RPG Typo of All Time. And don't call it a "choice of style". I got hung when I tried to put "armour" in L5R, and if I can't do it, then neither can Mark Miller. Nyah!

(And just to cover all my bases, that last paragraph was a JOKE! It was IRONY! If reviewers can start a rant with the phrase "This is only just a nit-pick", then go off on a bloody tirade about how this little, insignificant and subjective spur ruined the game for them, then I can have a little fun, too. I hated the end of TNT's Animal Farm. Hated it. But, like my buddy Rob pointed out, "It was just five minutes. Does that ruin the entire film?" No, Rob, it doesn't. You were right.

(And if you don't like it, forget about it. It's just a nit-pick, after all.)

How about first edition Vampire: The Masquerade?

Wanna compare that to Vampire: Dark Ages?

Almost one hundred more pages. More illustrations. Better rules. Better World. Hardbound book.

Vampire cost twenty bucks. Dark Ages costs twenty-five.

First edition Deadlands. Great game.

Second edition. Even better game. Easier rules. Clearer writing. Twice the World. Granted, it's also twice the price, but you get more for your buck. A lot more.

Look at the differences between first and second edition games, and then compare the price. Look at Mage first edition, then look at Mage second edition. Look at Fading Suns.

Look at them all and really compare the prices. If you do, you'll see what's happening. You'll see why there really is no profit in the game industry. It's because publishers aren't charging what they should. They're charging what you'll pay for.

We've already talked about the AD&D Player's Handbook, but let's take another look at it.

The thirteenth printing of the PG cost fifteen bucks. That's in 1988. That's twenty-one dollars by 1999 standards. In 1989, Second Edition PG was released for twenty bucks. That's a two hundred and fifty-five page book. Every page has at least two colors with many full-color plates. That book cost twenty bucks, the equivalent of approximately twenty-eight bucks by today's standards.

Two-color, two hundred and fifty-five page book with full color plates for twenty-eight bucks. That's in 1989.

That's almost the same numbers for Alternity, folks. For a book that was published ten years ago.

So many people compare the games of today to the games of yesterday, telling me that they just don't match up, that the quality was so much better, that people cared what went into a product back then, and that kind of customer service just doesn't exist anymore.

In fact, the biggest complaint I hear is about supplements.

Folks can't stand the fact that game companies supplement their products.

"Why can't we buy a complete game anymore?" they shout. "Remember the day when you could buy a complete game?"

A complete game, eh?

It's funny, when I started in this industry back in 1981, I remember playing AD&D with four buddies round my mother's dining room table, and I remember index card boxes.

Yeah, index card boxes.

That's because each of us had our own AD&D world, and we kept the details on index cards. We had them sorted by NPC, Magic Items, Magic Places, all that kind of stuff. And we'd trade off running games. My world was the Moorcock/Howard world, my buddy Robert Boney's world was a bit more fantastic, Victor Zameki's world was rough and tumble and Danny Beech's world was in the middle of an ice age.

(And when the rules for the Berserker or the Duelist or the New Bard came out, we didn't bitch and moan "Why didn't they include these in the main rule book?" because we knew why.

(They just came up with those ideas ten minutes ago.

(All that stuff I wrote about Scorpions in Way of the Scorpion? I made it up as I wrote it. All that stuff I wrote for Knights of the Rose and Cross? I made it up as I wrote it. I had some idea where I wanted to go, but as you write, things that are in your head change as they make it to the paper. Then, you have to check and see if they fit what you've already written. If they don't, they get thrown out. If they do, then they stay.

(That's the Great Secret, folks.

(We're making this stuff up.)

If you read through AD&D, you'll see that there's no world. Only rules. Now, you and I both know that today, if you print a book of "only rules", you ain't sellin' squat because what sells RPGs today is The World. Why?

Because everybody uses their own rules. Nobody uses rules as written anymore (a dangerous generalization that will come back and bite me on the nose one day), they tweak them here and there, use GURPS instead, or throw in their own home-brew that they've been playtesting for twelve years.

It's The World that sells games.

How many of those games we bought back in the late seventies and early eighties were just different versions of AD&D? Variants on rules? We were paying for rules! Rules that we would just end up changing anyway!

Then, the second generation of games hit. Games like Cthulhu and Pendragon, Stormbringer, Fantasy Trip, and Chill.

Games that were Worlds.

Suddenly, the rules weren't all that important anymore. We didn't argue about who had the best rule system, we argued about who had the best World. So now, instead of filling up a two hundred and forty-eight page book with rules, game designers are filling it up with a World and skimming over the rules. In fact, they're producing so much World, that it can't fit in one book.

And then came the supplements.

The bane of roleplaying games. The seventh seal of the apocalypse. The end of Good Gaming for All Eternity. Supplements.

Well, folks. For what it's worth, let me give you one little piece of advice.

You didn't need the Rules.

You didn't need the World.

You don't need the Supplements.

In fact, you don't need anything.

When you buy a roleplaying game, you're getting a bargain. RPGs cost less than they did when we started this whole business and come with more.

The bottom line is this: game publishers aren't raising their prices. They're charging less today than they were when we started this whole thing. We're keeping prices down, but the price to make these books is going up.

The cost of living is going up. The price of movies is going up (I'd love to comment on how much a movie ticket cost in 1977, but I don't have the time or resources to find that kind of information; it'd be interesting to see, though). Rent is going up. The price of paper is going up. The price of a Whopper is going up. The price of Mountain Dew is going up.

But the price of roleplaying games is pretty much the same. In some cases, it's even gotten cheaper.

And people wonder why we can't afford editors. Sheesh.

John Wick

What do you think?