The 1st Ed AD&D Player’s Handbook. But wait, there’s more to it.
I’ve noticed a trend in TableTop RolePlaying Games. The core books keep getting longer and longer while the price per page seems to be going up. It seems normal enough for game companies, but it’s kinda tough on consumers. I understand artists, writers, printers, and even Executive Producers need to make money. But could there be a better way?
This isn’t one of my The-Old-Days-Were-Better rants. I mean, sure $15 hardcover sourcebooks were great. Heck yeah! However, in 1987 that kind of money was a little harder for me (my parents) to come by. I mowed a lot of grass and washed a lot of dishes by hand for that money.
What am I talking about?
Back in the 1980s, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook was $15.00. The Monster Manual was $15.00. Last, the Dungeon Master’s Guide was $18.00 BUT it was almost double the number of pages and worth way more than that in terms of value to Dungeon Masters. Even world books were in the neighborhood of $15 for a hardcover. We didn’t have PDFs back in those days.
Now in 2023, The PHB is listed at $49.99 for just the print copy. The Monster Manual is $49.95 and the DMG is likewise $49.95. So, basically $150 just to get into the game now. (*Assuming one doesn’t go on Amazon or some other site and get the discount.) The PHB has 320 pages, MM has 352, and DMG only 238. Let’s not get into the fact that it’s kinda difficult to point at any one given campaign setting book for less than $49.95. (Yeesh…)
New core rulebooks are coming in 2024 which will undoubtedly distort these numbers further, but I’m expecting exactly what we have now. Lots of art, not much by way of significant stats, rules, spells, and magic items. Probably tons of unnecessarily fluffy flavor text. PDFs require one to go to D&D Beyond and purchase them separately plus a subscription if you want all the bells and whistles.
D&D 5E Spelljammer contained 3x 64 page art-filled hardcover books, a DM screen, and a map in a shiny slipcase for a list price of $79.99.
Pathfinder 2E Core Rulebook weighs in at 640 pages for the hardcover for $59.99, but you get most of the basic game mastering information, magic items, and world lore along with it. It’s like the D&D PHB and DMG rolled into one. The Pathfinder 2E Bestiary has 360 pages for $49.99. PDF costs extra. However, in terms of campaign setting guides, Pathfinder Kingmaker is huge but costs $99.99 normally. Yes, Kingmaker is packed, but that’s a lot of money. I’m hoping Xian Tia isn’t going to be as beefy on price.
Let’s add one more contender in this battle. Dungeon Crawl Classics from Goodman Games comes as an all-in-one core rulebook. The hardcover retails for $39.99 and has 504 pages. Oh, and it always comes with a free PDF! I’ll also mention a lot of the campaign world and lore are mentioned in this Core book along with a robust Judge’s section. I bought the softcover at my FLGS for $24.99. It works just as well.
If we go any cheaper or easier in terms of rules, I’d have to say Index Card RPG and EZ D6 from Runehammer Games would be the next closest comparisons in terms of price for page count and value to players. They’re not even 8.5” by 11” books. Castles & Crusades are full size books for around $39.99 BUT- you can get the PDFs for free if you watch Troll Lord Games’ website and/or social media.
What does this have to do with D&D, exactly?
D&D 5E’s pricing structure and book releases kinda make me cringe. For one thing, Spelljammer was blasted hard by the critics for being art heavy and rules incomplete. The monster manual for this thing was reported to be an absolute joke. By comparison, I have the 2E binder versions of the Spelljammer Monstrous Compendiums and they’re terrific, but way more than 64 pages.
Yes, the print quality, paper quality, art, layout, and design for D&D 5E is always gorgeous. There’s no fighting that when the company is running in the hundreds of millions of dollars every year. When you’re that big, you can afford to go big on production quality. My beef with WotC at this point is about the quality of the game itself.
Those earlier edition were jammed full of stats and things players wanted to know. As much as we look down upon Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures, those books were packed with useful player and DM information. They’re still worth their weight in gold for how much they inspired me in and out of game. I’d almost give my eye teeth for a D&D book that good in 2023. I mean Xanathar’s and Tasha’s were nice and all, but super pricey and full of power creep.
I mean, for crying out loud- WotC can’t even give us a straight Forgotten Realms book for 5E. It’s all over the place in several different books nowadays. Heck, 3E and 4E at least had one single lore book for FR. It really makes me yearn for the old AD&D 1E boxed sets or the 2E hardcover. (Which I still cherish, btw.) 4E Dark Sun and Eberron worldbooks were some of the best hardcovers from that edition in my opinion.
Look what’s happening now.
Oh, it gets worse. The new rendition of 5E WotC can’t even come up with a proper name for the damned thing now. I’m paraphrasing, but they say, ‘It’s still 5E, but it’s really kinda not.’ If it was the same edition, I wouldn’t need to buy new rulebooks.
Then there’s this whole “D&D multiverse” stuff they’re cramming down our throats. All of the various D&D worlds are connected. That’s nothing new. But the notion that they spent from 2014 until about 2022 not acknowledging it only to suddenly make a big deal out of it is news. My educated guess is that WotC is worried about some of their D&D trademarks lapsing from lack of use and/or renewal.
Plus, WotC is trying to turn D&D into the next Marvel Multiverse. Look at how successful Marvel has been under Disney. I don’t mean the comics. I mean the Marvel brand since the cinematic universe became a household name. That’s what WotC wants D&D to look like. Books and the actual D&D game are pretty much an afterthought.
What would I like to see?
As the title of this article suggests, I would love to see my fantasy game published in print and PDF coming in at about 130 pages each for the Player’s Guide, Guide’s book, and Monster Folio. (*My names. No squatting. LOL!) I tentatively plan to sell each for about $15 each with Print On Demand being slightly more expensive. My goal is to keep the PDF the base cost per item. Financially sound? I don’t know yet.
A publishing suggestion I saw on YouTube recently recommended no more than 32 pages for the starting rulebook. I don’t know if I can do that unless it’s done as part of a starter set. If that is the case, I’m shooting for 32 pages of player rules, 32 pages of Guide’s rules, and 32 pages of monsters. That’s a lot of ground to cover in a very small area. Maybe that’s going to be levels 1-5 and we’ll talk about more in the full blown core book. 96 pages is a pretty good core PDF, but probably not a ton of art if much of anything.
My first sourcebook goal is to create sort of my own Unearthed Arcana. I want to add classes, heritages, weapons, magic items, new spells, lore, and new monsters. It’s probably going to weigh in at about 195 pages and probably sell for $18.00 depending on what the Print on Demand costs look like.
Wizards of the Coast could benefit from older production models.
I understand that the world’s largest, most powerful TTRPG company doesn’t want to give away too much content for too little money. Yay profit, I suppose. I also know their new Virtual TableTop is going to make the big bucks through microtransactions. That means they want to part out that player info in a tiny trickle for $.99 and $1.99 at a time. It’s their goal of monetizing the players.
According to a recent WotC video, the new DMG is going to be more like older editions in that they’re going to help DMs get started, build adventures, campaigns, and gaming groups. If that’s the case, I’m thrilled. I am still willing to bet that page-per-page it will never stack up to the amount of useful info in the old AD&D 1E DMG. I seriously doubt anything will ever come close to being that great for $18.00.
Personally, I see WotC trying to modularize D&D and make it easy for AI to run on their new VTT. $14.99 is going to look a lot different in terms of value on the new VTT than it does in print and PDF. I realize we’re talking virtual real estate, minis, dice, etc. For what it’s worth, the new VTT may as well be World of Warcraft or Fortnite. I don’t think the printed material is even much of a consideration right now. Still, a character model with a few weapon, armor, and shiny spell graphics is a lot different than a full 127 page PHB.
Can you imagine what a streamlined PHB, MM, and DMG full of stats, advice, and very little art would look like in print for $14.99 each? WotC execs would probably do a massive spit take of whatever they were drinking if they heard that hit the market. It reminds me of a line from The Great White Hype when Samuel L. Jackson’s character exclaimed, “Don’t give away what we can sell!”
Even a 400 page core rulebook for $44.99 with PHB, MM, and DMG plus a short adventure would be such a bargain nowadays. I know print costs soared in the post-COVID world. I get that we have insane inflation here in the US. But if it didn’t put the parent company out of business, how cool would it be to pump out that much game value for such a low price?
Trying to keep the TableTop in TTRPG.
It is such a nice change of pace to sit down and play at a table with a group of live human beings. If we didn’t have to rely on PDFs for some of our information, I’d ban electronics at the table entirely. I still insist on physical dice. My goal for my TTRPG design is going to be to encourage as much physical play at the table as possible rather than have everyone noses down in their devices.
Starting TTRPG companies often don’t have much of an art budget to begin with. Mine looks like my layout and design budget- I’m doing all of the work here. LOL! It’s true, though. My credits are going to be very brief in that first book. I’m relying heavily on this one guy (me.) That does keep my initial costs down, though.
I wish other companies would follow a lower cost model such as the one I’m suggesting. The goal should be to get as many players around the table as we can reasonably engage with. Yes, VTT play in various other venues is great. Woohoo global telecommunications. But I want the primary focus to be in-person play at conventions, Friendly Local Game Stores, and even in someone’s basement. I think solo play should even be easily available. (*Yes, I frequently roll dice and talk to myself. Don’t judge.)
Thanks for being here. I appreciate you a great deal. Happy gaming and keep an eye peeled for my fantasy game development blog coming soon.