On the idea of rarity, versus actual playability
I take a certain pride in my Library.
It has grown, over the years, to include a rather comprehensive breadth of gaming standards, with enough esoterica to keep things properly interesting. I focus my priority on the games that I have played extensively or the new products that seem destined to future sessions. There has to be a reason for my purchases, but once there is a hook, I tend to accumulate everything I can lay my hands upon before it starts to climb in price. There are certain systems and products that are destined for the dustbin of the larger market (for good or for ill), which allows me to pick them up later as I see fit (the Blood of Heroes game, salvaged from the ashes of Mayfair’s DC Heroes game is one that comes to mind), while others obtain instant value, never to fall back into a reasonable territory for a collector. (I could go on at length about the Supernatural RPG from Margaret Weis Productions. On the surface, it really isn’t much more than a properly drawn Hunters Hunted campaign, replete with the Urban Legends sourcebook from Hunter: The Reckoning on the edge, but having the actual, official books would be nice. It isn’t really in too many people’s budgets, however.)
Because I tend to watch the markets and buy what interests me when I can, I end up with some really weird things that most people assume would otherwise be unavailable. Some pieces of rare provenance include the Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium RPG I saw one year at Gen Con, and the Deadlands: Lost Colony Companion book, which enjoyed an extremely short run as a POD title before Pinnacle saw fit to pull it from production. There are others, most of which lay at the tail end of a given game’s production cycle, ensuring that copies would be limited in number and only available to the most dedicated members of the fanbase.
The problem is that it can be difficult to figure out which games are worth the purchase at a given point. I don’t have an infinite budget, nor am I possessed of illimited time or unrestrained shelf space for storage. There are numerous games in my collection that bear the weight of having never been played (though I’m sure that this year will be different) and even more that haven’t been played enough for my particular tastes. (I cast a glance in the direction of my Green Ronin ASoIaF RPG, doubting that I will get the campaign I have planned for it off the ground in the next epoch.) My usual strategy is to draw on my general likelihood of running a campaign under the ruleset or worldset and draw my determination from there.
By way of example, I have a decent cross-section of the various editions of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG, despite having never run the game. I played one abbreviated campaign that one of my friends ran, but it only lasted a couple of months and we actually touched on very little of what most people would normally associate with the game itself. We had next to no combat (in a game of samurai, we played a troupe of actors), and there wasn’t a whole lot of courtly intrigue overall. So, why do I have so damned many books for this game? Well, I did live for a while in Japan, I’ve spent more time than is considered socially responsible watching samurai movies and anime, and I have a lot of campaign ideas that I would love to try out with the right group. The reality hasn’t quite lived up to my aspirations, so I have collected a sizable number of the RPG books across the 18 years it’s been in print without actually using them in any solid fashion.
The dangerous point is when I start assessing the value of a book in terms of how rare it happens to be, rather than what my future use will end up being. Most of the time, I try to keep in mind the potential for a game, but it doesn’t always fall that way. The previously referenced Blood of Heroes game is one that I had, sold and will eventually re-acquire. Most of the logic on this one derives from the fact that it’s collecting and reprinting a fairly well-regarded system, and I could see either running or playing in a vintage superhero game at some point. This is becoming less and less of a likelihood as time goes on and fewer people have the same regard for a system that came out 30 years ago. (And went out of print around 20 years ago.) With Blood of Heroes, this isn’t much of a concern, given that the book in question hasn’t really increased in price. In comparison, the 3rd Edition rules of Big Eyes, Small Mouth would fall into a similar category of comprehensive rules and revisions, but the limited time it spent on the market means that acquiring a decent copy now is somewhere north of $150 for a copy. (It’s been reprinted as a POD through DriveThru, but it’s not cheap there, either. And well, DTR has a special place on my list for its role in killing the FLGS.)
This was something that I found myself considering over Christmas, when I was browsing through one of the big used and wholesale shops a few miles away from my in-laws’ house. There was a copy of a strikingly obscure RPG (to the point that no copies exist on Amazon or eBay) on one of the shelves that I found myself perusing. It had all the hallmarks of being a Heartbreaker RPG, just from the back cover copy, which advertised it as being an “Anime / Fantasy / Steampunk” game of limitless character possibilities and cinematic action. It tossed around terms like “shared narratives” and “collaborative space” without really settling on a single theme or direction, and it promised to be everything a game should be for me. I was beginning to wonder if it could starch my shirts and walk my dog, as breathless as it ended up being.
And predictably, it wasn’t very good. The system appeared to be a dull derivative of the Storyteller System, using D10’s with some various modifiers and picky rules. The art was lackluster, although interestingly sourced from a variety of places (including one fairly well-regarded internet cartoonist), and being the softcover edition (I have to believe it was POD, given the ink quality; I found an edition of it on DTR while searching), everything was in a smudgy black and white. There were some solid illustrations, but there were also some fairly half-assed sketches that tried to evoke some interesting creature designs. (And failed.) There was an element of Furry RPG’s (think IronClaw or Shard, for decent examples of the genre), but the game didn’t even try to embrace that fandom. It was scattershot in its attempt to be universal, and the end result was just sort of … dull. I feel vaguely bad for the fact that it was trying to be a lot of different things without managing any of them at all well. It probably could have used an editor of some sort, if only to give it focus.
As it happened, I put it back and walked away. This was a game that I was virtually guaranteed to never find again, something that would sit on a shelf and offer up interesting conversations on how game design and ambition could go tragically wrong. It was a Heartbreaker, to its very core. It was actually the price tag (fairly reasonable, considering, but not enough of a bargain to entice me to go further) that was the deciding factor. I could have bought it on a lark, or I could have bought myself a second copy of the MWP Battlestar Galactica RPG for future use. (I didn’t buy that, either. I’m not enough of an optimist to think that game will get off the ground any time soon.)
The sad thing is, I’m actually sort of regretting not buying the game.
It’s not because it would ever have any place in my Library, per se. I would never play the damned game, and if someone suggested running it, I’d laugh at them and suggest something a little more interesting or better designed. (In comparison, I would love to see a game of Synnibar run. It may be a game of questionable design and merit, but there’s enough concentrated lunacy to make it worth the experience.) There isn’t even anything in the book that could be mined for other games. (I think that even the old Fantasy Wargaming RPG by Bruce Galloway has some merit in that regard.) This game literally had no value, other than the sheer obscurity of it all. I want to own this game, just so I can pull it off the shelf and pass it around as an example of what not to do. It would be the dire example of how a great idea or concept can go decidedly wrong, even with the support of a community.