RPG Rules Sell Better Than Adventure Modules

Role-playing games of the Dungeons & Dragons variety come in the form of books that are functionally analogous to computer software. You get your operating system (core rule book) and then you can buy update packages (rule expansions), programming libraries (campaign settings) and application programs (adventure modules) for it. In this analogy, the computer that runs the software is you and your gaming buddies.

A difference between RPGs and computer software is that once you have a secure installed base for your operating system -- that is, with RPGs, once you've sold enough core rule books -- you can actually make more money selling new versions of the operating system itself than by developing application programs for it. Not every owner of the core rules will buy every adventure module. But every one of them will, while invested in the game, buy a new version of the core rules. I'm not sure why this is so. I suspect that it has to do with a tendency for RPG fans to spend more time reading the rules than actually playing the game. And also perhaps with a sense among them that playing with an old rule set is sort of cheating: like acting in modern life as if 19th century law were still in force. A new rule book damns the previous one to history. Anyway, this means that no successful RPG will ever stay backward-compatible for very long.

My favourite RPG back in the day was Drakar och Demoner, which started out as a fairly straight translation of the 1980 American game Basic Role-Playing and its Magic World campaign setting. Its core rules went through the following swift sequence of version changes before I quit upgrading (at age 15, when I also lost my virginity -- hmmm).

  • 1982. 1st edition, “Blue Box”.
  • 1984. 2nd edition, “Black Box”, a rewrite that left the rules clearer but functionally largely unchanged.
  • 1985. DoD Expert, a rule expansion that could not stand alone but which replaced large chunks of the 2nd ed. rules and added much mechanics.
  • 1987. DoD Gigant, a further rule expansion useful only to those who owned 2nd ed. and Expert.

The game then went on without me through five further versions of the core rules until 2006.

Looking at DoD Gigant I find that it must have been based on a misunderstanding of the basic economics of the RPG business. It's not a sure-selling replacement for the core rules. It's not a collection of useful expansion systems in or near the core of the system, like Expert. It's a motley salad of rules and essays for abstruse situations that a gaming group hardly ever wanders into, or if they do, need not really be regulated by game mechanics. Much of the space is taken up by a simple strategic-scale war game. I never found a use for any of the contents.

My favourite example of how DoD Gigant scraped the barrel for things to regulate is on pp. 76-77 in the orange book, where we are given rules for how long it takes to force your way through walls of various building materials and using various tools. It has an immortal headline set in the same font as others in the book, with a half-page DoD trademark stripey table detailing some example maths, and it has stayed with me through the years. Indeed, the headline was what popped up into my head and caused me to write this blog entry. Here it is:

Drevgan hackar sig igenom en tegelvägg i Olofins borg.

“Drevgan hacks his way through a brick wall in Olofin's fortress.”

I don't much enjoy reading game rules, and as a game master I never used them all that much. But a few years ago I ran a short adventure for two friends and my son and his buddy. All I needed for that was my copy of the 1984 2nd ed. DoD rule book.

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Rules outsell modules because (a) you can sell one copy of rules per player, whereas only the GM buys modules, (b) the number of rule books you can use in a given campaign is actually larger than the number of modules, (c) modules are actually quite hard to make use of, meaning most GMs just write their own adventures, and (d) despite the above, people are willing to pay more for rules than for adventures.

(d) is not an argument for your thesis. And none of your four arguments explains why game publishers constantly issue new incompatible versions of the core rules instead of just re-printing the established ones.

(d) means that sales of rules (as measured in $ instead of units) are higher. As for new editions rather than reprints, a rulebook, depending on how well you preserve it, can easily last twenty years without replacement, so you release new editions to get people to buy a new set of rules.

I've been gaming for around two decades, most of which I've been as the GM running adventures from the seat of my pants. After house ruling many systems for most of that time to play more like how my groups and I want to, I started designing my own core rules to use. From this experience I've noticed a few things that might bring more light as to why core rules can bring in more money than adventure modules.

First, I'll start with adventures. While I've purchased a few premade adventures over the years, I've only ran a grand total of 4 of them; two of which were included in the core rule books of their systems, and one of which from a gaming magazine I was subscribed to for other reasons. One reason for this is that if -any- of the players have read an adventure module you cannot use it, as they know everything that's going to happen and will plan accordingly (even if they are excellent at keeping player and character knowledge separate it still influences how they act and react).

Another reason is that adventure modules often contain elements that simply don't mesh with the group's campaign world (whether it's a published or home-made one), made worse when it's with adventure critical material. Sure, you could use it, but even with any changes needed it will feel out of place and be isolated from any ongoing story they have going.

Really creative GMs also like the process of constructing adventures as part of building their campaign world, which by itself precludes using store-bought adventures. There's also many GMs that create a lot of their adventures on the fly (which I often do), reacting to the players' actions and screw-ups (which there's often no shortage of), which again by its very nature precludes using premade adventures (whether they were sold as a module or home-made).

Core rules are an entirely different beast. If you think of adventures as a paint-by-number set, then core rules would be over a hundred paint colours and dozens of empty canvases. As Anthony pointed out, reprints don't work very well, as they don't give anything new and most people's books stay in decent condition for many years.

Game systems also don't stop development just because they get published. Aside from fixing any errors that made it to print, there's so many additional rules for expanding options and ways to combine rules into simpler to use formats that make it so you would have an entire books worth of errata to sell. If it's separate book for the errata, anyone new to the game would have to buy two books, which is a major turn-off. If you include the original rules and the errata, now you just have optional rules that can get confusing. If you reprint the old rules updated with the errata, you have now just printed a new edition.

This, of course, also ignores GMs who buy multiple systems to read over before running one for their group, to get ideas from other game system core rules for their own house-rules, or even those who like reading different core rules simply to see how different systems approach things (I'm guilty of all of those).

This is not to say adventure modules don't sell, or don't sell well, simply that given the wide range of types of gamers and the proportions of GMs to players, core rules will always have a larger volume of sales.

My father stuffed a Christmas tree down our chimney, once.

By John Massey (not verified) on 17 May 2013 #permalink