Gaming on the cheap?

Fairly often, people will complain that RPGs are getting more expensive. That it’s impossible to keep up. That we can no longer afford this hobby.

It’s certainly possible to spend a lot on RPGs. If you buy all the new hardcover books, it’s easy to spend thousands of dollars a month. Even if you only collect a few game lines, it’s easy to spend a bundle. If you consider it a prerequisite to own a sizeable portion of the published material for D&D, GURPS, HârnMaster or whatever else before you consider them useful, that’s going to be a huge expense. And it’s easy to spend huge sums on dice, miniatures, battlemats, laptops, projectors, etc.

But then, there are hobbies that are much more expensive. I’m also into astronomy, and while it’s possible to do a lot with just your naked eyes and free star charts, doing much serious observing quickly requires hundreds of dollars’ expense at a minimum. Want to do really nice astrophotos? Expect to spend probably at least US$10,000, if not US$100,000.

Costs in RPGs don’t ramp up that quickly, and it’s possible to do a lot without spending anything at all. There are some really terrific, completely free games out there, like Risus, Danger Patrol and Old School Hack. Even if you want to stick with D&D, there are lots of retroclones that are free, such as Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardy and Dark Dungeons. Many of these and other free games can easily be run with materials you already have lying around the house: the dice from that Yahtzee game you’ve never used, scratch paper, your computer that you’d already use, three-ring binders you get for free from work, free internet resources, etc. And of course it’s possible to create our own games for nothing, and to create our own adventures for nothing, just the time invested. It’s possible to spend almost nothing and have hundreds of hours of fun.

Most people know all this, right? So where does the complaining come from? I can see several sources:

  • Comparing costs now to costs decades ago, without adjusting for inflation. Yes, in 1980 a boxed set of D&D may have only cost around US$10, but in 1980, the median income in the US was also only around US$20,000. Now, that basic set costs around US$20, and median income is around US$50,000. These days, a can of pop in the FLGS costs at least US$1.00; I remember it costing only US$0.50 when I was a teenager. Though the absolute numbers have gone up significantly, the relative costs of RPG products have generally kept pace with incomes.
  • Print quality has gone up, generally speaking: lots of RPGs are published now with full-color printing, glorious art and glossy pages. As quality has gone up, though, gamers’ expectations have gone up considerably. I think we’re demanding more from our games, these days, and as a result publishers are having to set prices for deluxe versions higher. Some aspects of printing quality have gone down (cracked bindings seem a lot more common now than they did two decades ago, for example), which I think has led people to complain more than they used to about value for money. How many of us would really accept B&W-only games in exchange for never again having a book with a broken spine? I’m guessing the number is rather low.
  • The poor economy has reduced almost everyone’s discretionary spending. It also seems (from purely anecdotal experience) that gamers skew less wealthy than (say)people who are into astrophotography, so as income distribution has gotten worse, we’ve also felt the pinch more.
  • As we’re all getting busier and busier (or at least it seems we are), we have less time for developing our own gaming materials. As a result, I think, gamers are buying more and more pre-packaged setting and adventure materials, and that requires more money.
  • Another effect of people being busier is that, I think, more and more people have no time to actually game. I think a significant portion of the people who buy games do so without much hope or intent of actually playing them; a lot of us seem resigned to never getting a group together again, and we console ourselves with ‘merely’ reading RPG materials. (I’ll discuss why I think reading RPG materials is nothing to be ashamed of in a later post.) And if RPGs can only give you enjoyment when you can buy more of them, that’s going to be a net increase in the cost of RPGs for you.

What other reasons can you think of?

So I guess I’ve convinced myself (and perhaps you) that there are some really good reasons to complain about the price of RPGs. But it’s still equally possible to enjoy them with nearly no expense.


Gaming on the cheap? — 2 Comments

  1. It seems that since the recession hit there are also a lot fewer new RPG products making their way into FLGS. Things are coming out PDFs, POD, or in IPR distro first – especially from smaller publishers, which is just about everybody these days – and only later arriving in stores, if they arrive at all. And pricing is all over the place. Midguard is beautiful all color art for $50; Pavis is mostly B&W with a few color plates, and a much higher page count for almost $60. Either way, this is the luxury end of publishing.

    In contrast, the print versions of many retroclones often have have a much lower price point – they often cost less than the price of two Pathfinder or DCC gazette-style booklets.

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