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.