The Sprawl

A couple days ago I picked up Running Wild, the critter sourcebook for Shadowrun 4e. It’s a pretty cool looking book with some fun concepts. Overall, though, I’m left with the feeling that this would have been even cooler to have this book come out four or five years ago when the game was still relatively new and I was still playing it.

This is becoming a recurring pet peeve for me. I had a similar, and perhaps stronger, frustration when the Runners Companion and Unwired came out. They both represented core books that really would have been nice to have when they released all the other core books.

I’ve had a similar frustration with Exalted of late, in which they have been producing 2nd edition books for nearly four years now. I’ve started and ended four different campaigns over that course and gotten burnt out on the game. And they still aren’t done with their originally conceived set of books. They did a good job of getting most of the core stuff out early, but some of their release schedule choices kinda drive me nuts.

And, good god, just the sheer volume of books is staggering. Towards the end of the last game, we ended up playing at an apartment that had a bit more room and 100% less cats. Packing up the basic books I wanted to have on hand when running my last Exalted game was nightmarish. It was really more books than I could carry. That’s just dumb. The obvious answer is, “Well, you could just buy PDFs and open them on your laptop.” But that has it’s limitations: PDF adaptations of graphics-heavy sourcebooks are big and hard to navigate through. I tried it with Shadowrun. The main thing they did was periodically crash my laptop.

Overall this touches on a larger problem of roleplaying games. As businesses, they need to ensure that people are still buying their product. Which means putting out products on successful game lines in such a way that you will still want to buy stuff down the road. And it seems like a lot of that is taking one thing that’s popular and pouring a whole lot of books down into it.

In the end, I feel kinda suckered. There’s… what? 25-30 game books that have been put out for Exalted? I own every single damn one. At $25-30 a pop, that’s well over $600, possibly pushing $700. For a game that involves so many books I can’t even reasonably carry them if I run at someone else’s house. And I’ve pretty much played it to the point that I’m tired of it.

It’s like an abusive relationship. I’m saddened not only that game companies market their books in such a way that it becomes prohibitive to play, but also because we let it flourish. (Yes, I know, most of these games you aren’t required to buy their books. But there’s a perceived need to have these books. Because if only one type of character has a book of special rules for their character, then everyone else feels left out. And then you buy more books, and then there are more books that people think they need to play….) And yet it’s these shenanigans that companies pull to try and keep your money coming in. Comic book companies are just as bad. My comic book buying habits have changed significantly after the last few years of “major story lines.”

I’ve come to appreciate Scion a lot. Five books and there will be nothing more. And the five books provide plenty of tools to play the game. And, crap, I like the rules for Scion more than Exalted. It seems so pleasant in comparison to a meandering series of splat books that the game makes you think you need to play, or having to wait a few years for everyone in your group to have their special, sparklypoo splatbooks. (My favorite was really when I decided to run a Dragon-Blooded game, and Manual of Exalted Power: Dragon-Blooded was out of print.)

It seems like there has to be a better solution. I’m not to the point where I’m with the guy who wrote the article suggesting that game rules will be replaced with smartphone apps that cover all the game mechanics. But oh… I’m damn close. D&D seems to be the only game that seems to be working to do something new. While I’m getting a little annoyed with the sprawling mass of game books they are coming out with (Player’s Handbook 3? Really?), especially since that same volume of books scared me off of the game to begin with. But beyond that they have their whole D&D Insider, which has all of their rules available online with a searchable database for a monthly subscription fee. While I can’t say that I’m entirely jazzed about using Web apps for it, I think the subscription model at least shows more forward thinking than, “We put out PDFs of the books we have available in print and have a Web site we can’t be bothered to use to keep customers informed of upcoming releases.” Which in turn is light years beyond, “We don’t do PDFs because we don’t trust them. The technology just isn’t safe enough for our tastes.”

The other angle seems to be the games that stand well by themselves, with maybe just 1-3 books. There are a few put out by larger companies (and at least two of which I flat out refuse to play). Most of the rest seem to fall into the “indy game” camp, put out by people who do this for fun on the side. For all the challenges I had with it the first time I tried playing it, Spirit of the Century really impressed me with how you can have a fairly robust game with a simple and elegant ruleset. I’d like to see more games out there like SotC.

Now, after this huge rant, will this stop me from playing D&D? No, not really. Will I still buy Player’s Handbook 3 when it comes out? Probably. Will I be pissed off with they put out Player’s Handbook 4? (“Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”) Yeah…

Just no pleasing some people, I guess.

5 thoughts on “The Sprawl

  1. zdashamber

    What pisses me off about game books is the way that the data necessary to playing and GMing is scattered and buried, if it’s there at all. I mean what the hell, people. I guess there’s the idea that you’ll put all the useful tables on a GM screen and sell this thing that would help me actually use your game… separately? And then that never happens? So if you want a flowchart of how the system works in combat you can goddamn well buy flowcharting software and do it yourself? And make your own tables of dice averages and how they interact with the various powers/weapons in the game? And write out for yourself the decision points in chargen?

    What the fuck. Seriously. Yeah, it is soooo much more useful to me to know what the Bone Gnawers think of the Iron Lords than it is to know how to cook up a NPC antagonist that will provide a challenge to the PCs. You fuckers.

    It’s just fucking baffling.

    Thanks for giving me a place to rant.

  2. sixthsecret

    I think the difference with 4E maybe that the expansion material, while all labelled “core”, is still also a little more clearly optional. Yeah, Divine Power is nifty and all, but it’s not necessary to someone wanting to play a divine character as MoEP: Abyssals is for an Abyssal.

    The other major shift for 4E is towards making books at the table less necessary. Part of that is DDI for the DM. Players can make/get cards for their powers. Feats are passive or situational bonuses that are easily noted on the character sheet or internalized. Really, books can be reduced to the core mechanics (PHB1) and whatever monster books the DM is using without bothering to print out from DDI.

    WFRP3 with its card-based presentation takes that even further. For a player, everything is on your character sheet, career sheet, and cards. It takes up a little more table real estate, but as a player, you don’t need to touch a pencil for actually tracking any in-session mechanics or a book to look up any specific power/ability, just general mechanics.

  3. admin Post author

    Just because a book is optional doesn’t mean it’s not needed or helpful to have. “Wonders of the Lost Age” isn’t a required book, but often there is a need to reference it for one reason or another. The “Compass” books are all pretty optional, but they can be nice to have on hand. Especially when your group has a fast-moving airship and may hare off in an unexpected direction.

    Similarly, in our D&D game we have a few charactes with powers or whatever from other sourcebooks that we like to have on hand for reference.

    I do recognize the influence DDI can make, and I commented on a bit in my post, but it’s not something that we have really embraced. Our DM had fairly mixed results trying to use DDI after he signed up for a subscription. It left the rest of the group disinclined to try using it. But I’ve heard enough good things about it (mostly from the lead developer on the project) that I’m inclined to think it could be a good option. As yet, it hasn’t been valuable enough to me to get a subscription or buy any power cards. I’m a little underwhelmed by, “You’ve shelled out this money for the books, but if you want the game to run well then you have to shell out more money for these accessories.” If I end up running my own game, I may change my mind.

    We’ve been trying other options instead. One player tried using the “Warlord Power Cards,” but got bit in the ass when he realized that most of his powers were from Martial Power and they hadn’t put those out yet. Most of the group uses some sort of self-made reference (the Warlord now uses index cards, the girlfriend and I have color coded annotated Word documents that we use on our laptops), but our notes are not always reliable and it’s nice to reference the books.

    We’re fortunate that our game started before PH2 came out, so we don’t really need PH2 or Primal Power, but I’ve been toting them along “just in case.” You know, just in case one of the PCs eats it hard and someone has to make a new character.

    I haven’t check out WFRP3 yet. Any good recommendations for it?

  4. admin Post author

    I think D&D might be the only one that has really done well in that regard. Part of it, I think, boils down to the fact that D&D has focused so much on how the game functions related to combat. A game like, say, World of Darkness is theoretically supposed to be more than just combat. And so they short shrift the combat rules. nWoD has done better at presenting the rules, but it’s not necessarily great.

    But games like Shadowrun? It’s just absurd that they should skip over that. Granted, they’ve never done a good job at presenting viable threats for PCs. Their big bads in canned adventures always seem underpowered compared to starting PCs. They just never seem to think that players will optimize their characters.

  5. scarywhitegirl

    I totally agree with you on this one. White Wolf is notoriously bad about oh, indexing and logical ordering of their books. I have either sticky notes or vague memorized page ranges that get me through some of their game books. But when I pick up a new one (or stay away from a game for a while), I’m screwed.

    Between multiple moves, shelf space, and practicality, I have actually winnowed down my gaming books to bare minimums. Sure, I may not have all of the KEWL POWERZ books for every system, but I keep enough to have the rules, plus a little bit of flavor. I’ll provide the rest of the flavor.

    (Of course, I’ve also got access to all of Jeremy’s voluminous shelves of game books, which helps. :) )

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