Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Evolving RPG Collection Habits

Right now I have this urge to tidy and organize everything. Maybe it’s that “spring cleaning” bug that bites people this time of year. Amid all the other household and parental organization projects tugging at my attention, I want want to re-organize my vast collection of roleplaying game materials acquired during more than 35 years of gaming. Recently I’ve seen many gamers I know trying to pare down their collections, especially given the great accessibility of new and classic materials through electronic publishing or print on demand. Yet I’m of an age where reading or referencing too much on a screen reduces my comprehension levels; I’d much rather page through a physical book and retain more information from the printed page. (Perhaps the physical act of turning a page slows me down, whereas scrolling through pages encourages me to mindlessly skim the material.) Sure, I’ve sold or traded many roleplaying game books that no longer interest me, won’t ever see actual play, or don’t cater to my latest role as a gaming parent; but I still have a large collection of materials I plan on keeping.

How did I acquire all these roleplaying games? All 23+ linear shelf feet of them? Kept through several arduous moves? Throughout my gaming life I passed through several stages as a player and consumer. Where I stood often influenced what and how much I bought.

Student: At this point in my life my game acquisitions came from an allowance, a few odd jobs, and gifts. Gaming became my primary hobby, so most of my cash went toward new games. Although I had lots of time for gaming in high school, college gaming was primarily relegated to breaks and summer vacation; this still represented the most free time available for actual play, so I put to good use the resources I bought. My purchases mostly consisted of TSR boxed sets (Star Frontiers, Gangbusters, Gamma World) but also expanded to explore other games that caught my interest as seen at the local hobby shop or in the pages of Dragon Magazine: classic Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, Tunnels & Trolls, Pendragon, and Paranoia. Many of these game still have great nostalgia value for me, some even more in light of the current Old School Renaissance movement.

Early Professional: After college I was living at home while working my first job (reporter and then editor at the hometown weekly newspaper); though I was paying rent and paying off college loans I still had a good amount of discretionary income. I was also within a 45-minute drive to several hobby shops which carried good selections of roleplaying games. While I continued supporting some of the games of my youth, I also pursued new material that caught my eye: Space 1889, Cyberpunk, various incarnations of Empire of the Petal Throne, Prince Valiant: The Story-Telling Game, and the first edition of West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game. One might think I didn’t have as much time for actual play. Since most of my friends were still at college, I managed to run several regular games over the summers and on holiday breaks. Some attended schools within a few hours’ drive from home, so I occasionally made weekend trips for gaming-intensive visits.

West End Games: When I started working as an editor at West End Games in 1993 I took a salary cut of about 50% from my previous editorial job, but my regular game-industry salary was supplemented by tons of freelance writing. I still found time to visit game stores near my home (2.5 hours away) and a few near my new base of operations. Yet I soon found I had new channels through which I could acquire games. Even before I left West End’s office after my successful job interview I had an armload of books, mostly TORG and Shatterzone, but also material to bring me up to speed on the company’s second edition of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. Over the years I’d receive author’s and reference copies of nearly every title the company released. Contacts with others in the game industry (usually at conventions) enabled me to buy, trade, or gain complimentary copies of games that caught my interest: Castle Falkenstein, Mekton Z, interesting TSR titles I’d overlooked, Middle-earth Roleplaying. I also picked up games that somewhat interested me, few of which saw play, many of which I’ve since sold. Unfortunately my actual play time remained limited to conventions and occasional visits with gaming friends, with an understandable focus on West End titles.

Post West End: My financial situation was difficult in the years after West End declared bankruptcy; aside from losing a regular job and freelance work, I – and many other freelancers – did not receive pay for work we’d done. My roleplaying game buying habits suffered accordingly. I continued freelancing to make ends meet and remain active in the adventure gaming hobby. Many resources I acquired at this time were reference or author’s copies of games and supplement on lines for which I freelanced, including the D20 Star Wars game and Decipher’s ill-fated Star Trek and Lord of the Rings games. Occasionally I purchased games with the prospect of writing for them, including the third edition of D&D Wizards of the Coast used to re-launch it’s newly acquired properties from a dying TSR. A few I bought into because my friends were playing them, primarily Legend of the Five Rings. Overall, however, I cut back on my buying habits, limiting them to those with potential for freelance work and a few for active, local gaming. At this time I was living in an area with old friends made through gaming conventions, so I had almost regular active play opportunities to make up for the lack of new product.

Mature Adulthood: My life eventually settled down, I got married, our financial situation stabilized (after several more years struggling), we bought a house, and had a child. My adventure gaming hobby focus began shifting away from roleplaying games and toward miniature wargames and increasingly popular board games. Yet roleplaying games remain a large part of my life as a publisher and player. The internet plays a key role in my game collecting, as it certainly has reshaped the entire landscape of game publishing and purchasing. Thanks to online gaming communities I’ve managed to buy or trade for games I want with other players throughout the United States. The establishment of reliable e-publishing sites enables small publishers like myself to maintain a presence while offering a host of materials to gamers across the world; it also exposes me to new materials to fuel my gaming habits. Print on demand helps satisfy my need to read a physical book rather than an electronic PDF. Kickstarter projects have brought a number of innovative roleplaying games to publication with high production values and physical product. All these factors aid the OSR movement, whether by bringing classic titles back in print or distributing the latest iterations in “retro-clone” games emulating early D&D or evolving early roleplaying game concepts. This access enables me to indulge in my exploration of the OSR, which stirs nostalgic feelings for my earliest days immersing myself in the gaming hobby. I still don’t get to play as much as I’d like (though the internet has helped that via online gaming), but I have a steady stream of classic titles and new game to enrich my roleplaying game hobby.

Organizing My Games

Looking over my shelves of roleplaying games and the few other places I stash them in my office I realize I might need to re-organize. Right now I have three principle places where I keep roleplaying games. The main shelves (22.5 linear feet of shelf space) contain my largest collection. I’ve arranged these in “chronological” order by genre, with a few exceptions, a system I’ve used since I first immersed myself in gaming. It starts with where I entered the hobby, Dungeons & Dragons and AD&D. This includes the material I originally bought as a teenager as well as resources I purchased at later stages and added to the collection (including various boxed sets and 3rd edition D&D). Then follows a host of medieval fantasy games, primarily in order of publication or acquisition. After that the genre chronology follows “historical” norms: ancient, Victorian, pulp adventure, modern, near future/cyberpunk, science fiction, and finally Star Wars. A few odd games occupy nether regions between genres: Legend of the Five Rings sits between ancient and Victorian games (since all the traditional medieval fantasy stands behind the traditional D&D materials); works set in Tekumel, the world of Empire of the Petal Throne, stand at the end of traditional medieval fantasy; generic D6 titles (excepting Indiana Jones and Star Wars) sit between pulp and “modern games.”

I have two other places where I store roleplaying games that aren’t near the main shelves. The first sits on another wall of shelves primarily dedicated to non-fiction reference books on World War II, ancient and Victorian Egypt, writing, and a host of other subjects. It’s adjacent to my comfy reading chair at a level where I can easily reach it. This is my “reading” shelf. I have a host of games (and other books) waiting for me to find time to read them. Right now some of those titles include a reprint of Jim Ward’s original Metamorphosis Alpha, The One Ring, Bethorm (the latest Tekumel-based game), and the fifth edition D&D Starter Set. Some I read cover-to-cover and set back on the same shelf; others I digest slowly, reading a chunk before moving on to something else for a while. The other shelf consists of OSR roleplaying game materials for handy reference; it’s slowly growing. (I actually have a third shelf adjacent to my desk for materials I’m currently using, either in writing, research, or more likely solitaire B/X D&D play.)

I like having that third OSR section of books. I’ve considered integrating it into my larger roleplaying game shelves, probably right after all the D&D materials. But I also have an urge to further separate different games based on their relevance to me. Certainly I’d want to put my classic D&D materials on an accessible shelf with my newly acquired OSR resources. In my euphoric fits of nostalgia I sometimes recall my game collection in high school and college, one that fit in a sturdy cardboard box or two on top of my bedroom dresser; it eventually expanded to a shelf in my closet, but was still a manageable size. I’d also like to separate games I’ve played a lot over the years. I wouldn’t mind a small section of games to which I’ve contributed. Yet all that still leaves lots of games that speak to my interests or which I’d like to keep for reference value. I only played Vampire: The Masquerade once, but I keep my rulebook because the game remains a milestone in the roleplaying game hobby. I feel the same way for All Flesh Must Be Eaten; I dislike the zombie genre, but that game was the first and possibly finest of numerous others. I’ve rarely played Savage Worlds games, but I admire the approach of its world books and the use of polyhedral dice mechanics.

Surely my collection could use a deeper level of pruning than I’ve given it previously. Do I really need all those Cyberpunk splat books? What games are worthy of continued reference and which am I just hanging on to wishfully thinking that they’ll serve some future use?

I expect many gamers face these dilemmas at various points in their lives, particularly as their situations and tastes change. Buying habits evolve over time and conditions, too. To paraphrase John Dewey, “education equals experience plus reflection.” In reflecting on how I acquire and organize roleplaying games – and perhaps hearing other people’s experiences and opinions in the comments over on Google+ – I hope to eventually gain a greater insight how to better organize my collection and expand it in a fulfilling way.

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