Why do supplements feel like an anchor, not support?
When I was a D&D player my cohorts and I had no access to much beyond the core books we had obtained from far-flung centers of population with amazing things like book and hobby stores. Core books had come to us from mail order, or older brothers who didn’t understand what the game was, or from trips to the city with friends. Eventually, access to the full range of core books and adventures became available to us before we left high school as our town slowly labored to grow, but in those early years we basically had nothing for adventure fodder beyond what we could invent or scrounge. Clearly, as we were young and enjoyed and abundance of free time, we opted for invention. For most of my time as a player of that game, I really saw little point in buying printed adventures. I had learned some things from certain modules, and wanted to read more, but I was really a minimalist when it came to purchasing material. I took a certain pride in my ability to create my own material, and enjoyed it immensely when I had to do so on the fly.
In college, I had more money, less time, and even greater access to games and their supporting lines, and I rapidly and at times painfully switched over the opposite end of the spectrum: that of being a completist. After college, this grew to an immense level of folly on my part with the acquisition of White Wolf products; the vast majority of which were mined for a sentence here and there. I kept building and refining my own take on the World of Darkness, but due to the broad number of players I was connected with, I felt I had to keep things in line with the ‘real WoD.’ In the end, I have to say my purchases were good for White Wolf, and have done little beyond take up a lot of storage space for me. Some lines had moments of greatness, but it is not hyperbole to state that there were long stretches of bad road between them. I say this not to slag White Wolf, but to illustrate a point about gamers like me: If I was generally unsatisfied with the product, why did I keep buying?
Why did I keep buying?
I kept buying for a few reasons, like most people, but it can be boiled down to wanting to support the company. I want to add the feeling it was necessary to maintain a certain degree of consistency in the setting for new players I might meet, or new chronicles I might join as a player, and the hope that next book might be one of the great ones, but really the crux of things was wanting to support the company.
For years I threw my support behind Palladium (whenever they were able to produce a supplement for Fantasy, that is), behind Chaosium, behind White Wolf, and others to lesser extents. Great games were had, but as I have said before, I was not using pre-printed adventures by this point, and I built my own campaigns from the ground up with some actual and some illusory consistency with printed settings. Deep in my heart I believed all I needed was the core book, and any errata or significant character option expansions which were produced but yet, despite everything, I kept buying.
Without the support of gamers buying supplements for game lines, those lines vanish. While this actually has little real effect on those people with the game rules, it does tend to narrow the field for finding gamers into your favorite slice of the hobby later in life.
Oddly, the idea of selling off my complete lines of games to reduce the storage space, pass on the legacy, and recoup some of my investment gives me difficulty. I bought them, and in some ways these game lines for all their faults and shortcomings in my eyes are a part of me, and a part of all the stories I may never get a chance to take part in. I should sell them. Still, I don’t.
What did I really want?
I recognize that some people really want story seeds and other setting information to build, expand, or enhance their games and are quite happy to buy supplements which provide those things. I am not that sort of gamer, and most of the guys I learned with are not either. We wanted the professionals at the game companies to do the things which we did not have the education or the experience or the system mastery or the time to do. I am talking about delving into templates for building useful relationship charts and political systems. I am talking about gear, manageable economies, transportation methods and rates, interesting legal systems, maps, and examples of play for systems and subsystems which provide illumination into intentions for the design, dispel myths, and provide options. I am talking about supporting the GM and player in bringing their own versions of game worlds to life, rather than trying to share their worlds with us a piece at a time.
Through the lens of memory, it seems like most companies tried to do both. Shadowrun is just one good example of this approach with supplements for fiction, supplements for mechanics, and supplements for adventures. Games were usually complex and got more so over time. The steady march of supplements, revisions, errata, and eventually the idea of metaplot and timeline advancement kept things moving, kept the supplements coming, and kept us all hooked. Some of us liked that. Some of us didn’t.
What do I want now?
These days we truly have a lot of game options and levels of complexity with which to play. The model I wanted in the early 90′s for game material makes good sense and allows a decent level of income for the company with a decent jolt of utility for gamers like me if a game is complex and works on principles of simulation, but it dries up and blows away along with the company if the game is simple and works on narrative principles. When a tool is a tool is a tool, a book of tools doesn’t hold much water. TV shows and the internet can fill in all the blanks you need with a lot less cost and effort.
What is a good model for today if we could move away from splats, metaplot, and adventures? Honestly, some companies are already doing it.
- Exile Games Studio’s Hollow Earth Expedition line is this in the extreme. One core book, 1 optional book for expanding options for games set on the surface, and 1 optional book for games focused more completely in the Hollow Earth. Adventures appear from time to time, true, but the focus of the line is new in-genre support for varying the location of play.
- Triple Ace Games’ Richelieu’s Guides for their All for One: Regime Diabolique setting managed to compile additional material relating to culture, cuisine, and the law; new directions for the setting such as the colonies, shipping and piracy; and the tried and true gradual expansion of the bestiary. All of it is useful, all of it is modular, all of it is inspiring rather than defining or limiting.
- Another example is Jeremy Keller with Technoir. The design of the game and its supplements is exactly what is required to let a group of creative people loose in a universe of their own. Each subsequent expansion of the game (Mechnoir, Hexnoir, and finally Morenoir) will broaden the scope of options for play, rather than saddling the group with more things to learn about someone else’s imagination and interests.
I still want to support the companies whose products and vision have given me and my groups such pleasure. I don’t see myself as becoming that crusty old gamer who buys a core book and nothing else and derides those who invest in more. I still see gaming purchases as investments in my future entertainment, and I hope that the companies I support can continue to create new ways for us to have fun.
I just don’t want to have to evaluate the possible utility of a supplement anymore, or feel the need to buy one for a page of errata or rules crammed into something else, or deal with any more newly-created metaplot-as-gospel players. I want support to actually be support.
Darken others' doors: