Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Beyond First Edition RPGs

The release of subsequent editions of roleplaying games carries different significance for publishers and gamers. Professional publishers often develop subsequent editions to further refine the game system or setting, but usually with the core motivation of launching a new product or product line to stimulate sales. As consumers, gamers have the prerogative to invest their money in what they like; some love new editions of their favorite titles, others try one edition and either stick with it or move on to something else (just as some gamers find everything they need from a game’s core rulebook while others need every published supplement). Do gamers really need subsequent editions, or would publishers’ efforts be better spent on developing and releasing innovative new rules and settings?

Gamers have a notorious reputation for unpredictable buying habits; one might argue consumers in a capitalist system are just as capricious give the wealth of options in product, quality, and price. What’s interesting and affordable to one gamer at a particular time might seem mundane and extravagant to another...and those factors might change over time for an individual gamer. Some maintain unquestioning and vocal loyalty to particular game lines and publishers. Others bounce from one game to another, buying into one as they sell off materials from others that don’t interest them anymore (or storing them for future reference). Professional game publishing houses compromise between the material in development and their impressions of what the gamer market will bear (both in interest and purchases). Releasing a second edition of a mitigates much of this risk by catering to a loyal consumer base with a proven game line.

West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game serves as an example with which I have experience as both a consumer and publisher. As a consumer I was perfectly happy with the game as originally presented and as expanded upon by the numerous supplements. Sure, a few included inserts with updated rules, but as a gamer I didn’t feel the need for a complete overhaul. First edition released in 1987, with a second edition following only five years later in 1992. When I saw this edition in the game store, with its blue-border cover around an image of Darth Vader, I glanced through it and put it back on the shelf. Although it seemed to combine the old first edition rulebook and sourcebook, the interior layout and original artwork didn’t thrill me as much as first edition with its less-dense text and copious use of movie stills and concept art. The Revised & Expanded version – sometimes called edition 2.5 – released only four years later in 1996, though original plans called for an earlier release. Of course I was part of the team that worked to bring Revised & Expanded to publication, but I like to think had I not been with West End at the time that I would have bought this edition with its combination of original color artwork and movie stills combined with comprehensive resource materials. (I don’t consider the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game I designed in 1997 – with a campaign book written by a longtime friend and Star Wars fan – as an “edition” of the game since it pursued a particular design philosophy geared toward bringing newcomers into the game through a streamlined version of the regular game rules.)

I look over my roleplaying game shelves and notice a few other games for which I acquired core rulebook editions beyond the first. Some seem warranted: Cyberpunk 2020 really refined and consolidated a lot of material from the original game. Others don’t. I have two versions of Traveller beyond the first edition known for its “little black books” that never really engaged me (MegaTraveller and Traveller 4th edition). I used to have the core books for second edition Dungeons & Dragons but sold them long ago. I’ve kept the core set of three books for third edition D&D because I still consider them a significant refinement of the game, one that, with the Open Game License, vastly changed the roleplaying game publishing landscape. I never bought into fourth edition D&D, and, while I have the starter boxed set for fifth edition, I don’t have any urge buy even the core books for that version. (I’m not counting as “subsequent editions” games that share a theme but undergo massive changes in system and publisher, such as my numerous Doctor Who roleplaying games or the various games released for M.A.R. Barker’s groundbreaking world of Tekumel.)

Certainly aficionados of specific games have a vested interest in collecting different editions. When a game so fully engages someone it’s nice to track developments in mechanics and setting. I’ve considered re-acquiring the second edition D&D core books with an eye toward examining the evolution of various rules and trends within the game from first to third edition, but really, unless I’m doing so for profit or scholarly work, it’s not worth my while. Obviously I have all the editions of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game; while I was never a fan of the blue-cover second edition, I still keep it on the shelf for reference (and the wonderful Allan Nunis and Mike Vilardi art). I’m more apt to keep editions that saw lots of play. Although the original version of Cyberpunk introduced me to the genre, we played far more Cyberpunk 2020, so I keep that rulebook and many supplements we used. I never played MegaTraveller or fourth edition Traveller; most of my exploration of the game came through first edition...and I have a nostalgic fondness for those little black books.

“Hobby” publishing – endeavors not supported by the vast resources of a publishing company but more often a single person or small group – doesn’t always see a need to produce subsequent editions of games. Those creators seem too busy making original material to refine old editions and update old support product to the new format. Sure, I’ve seen a few OSR games release new editions, most notably Warriors of the Red Planet, which released an initial “beta” version to playtest rules and setting concepts before publishing a “final” edition. The nature of electronic publishing means authors can easily make revisions and upload new PDFs for customers to download; a more dynamic publishing model, though this remains irrelevant for those who purchase print-on-demand copies (unless they want to pay for a new revised copy). But these aren’t as much “second editions” of games as they are revised versions of the original. Besides, these “hobby” publishers seem more concerned with developing new ideas and bringing them to publication, and while some support their “game lines” with related adventures and supplements, they’re not worried about bringing in a huge revenue stream to finance a traditional professional publishing house.

Publishers have different reasons behind releasing second editions of their roleplaying games, including but by no means limited to consumer interest in the game, potential for meaningful revision, and the ability to support the revised game line. Gamers have a host of considerations when deciding whether to buy subsequent editions: will they like it, will they play it, can it enhance their existing game, is it worth the investment in the new rules and subsequent product? Publishers often face diminishing returns as they risk splitting their consumer base between those willing to back a new edition and those content to enjoy the old one. As with many aspects of the adventure gaming hobby, the issue centers on the flexible give-and-take between publishers and gamer-consumers.

How do you feel about editions of roleplaying games beyond the first? Want to start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.