Friday, January 21, 2011

Thinking Inside the Box

The role-playing game has changed a lot in the past decades. It’s had its waxes and wanes in popularity, its trends in game design, and more than a few really funny looking dice along the way. But if you were to look at the industry from the outside — as someone who barely knew what an RPG was, much less concerned with the evolution of rules and design — one of the single most obvious changes is the abandonment of the boxed game.

That’s not to say there aren’t boxed games anymore. Wizards of the Coast’s new homage to the iconic Red Box can attest to that much. Nor am I saying that heavy hardbound tomes weren’t around ages ago, what with Gary Gygax’s approach for the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. But at the same time, game makers’ expectation of who their gamers are has drastically changed. A game's largest body of fans are the same grognards that have been buying RPGs for decades, a group that has little need for yet another set of dice.

It’s an expectation that makes sense. It doesn’t hurt that RPG fans host a disproportionately large gathering of bibliophiles that appreciate the beauty in a well-designed book. Abandoning the box allows a greater attention to creating such things and trims the fat out of a gaming collection.

Yet there just is something downright magical about a box. It’s more than a vessel for carrying contents; it’s a promise of the unknown. Beneath its cardboard exterior lay all the materials you need to embark on countless adventures — and probably a few things you don’t. But even if the back features a itemized list of every last punch-out token that hides inside, there’s still some glorious sense of surprise when you lift the lid off for the first time.

Boxes are inclusive. Modern rulebooks tend to be the domain of the Game Master, or a requisite purchase for all Players to invest in and make use of to create the awesomest hero. But when you whip out the box, there’s everything everyone needs. Hand over the introductory rulebook, pass out the character sheets! It makes trying a new RPG as easy as popping open Monopoly.

I think that feeling of open invitation is a grand factor in why board games are doing so well now. Even if there’s a high price sticker stuck to the front, there’s comfort in the idea you can just buy just that one thing and be ready to roll right out of the box. It doesn’t make the assumption you’ve played an RPG before, or that you have fellow geeks to explain it to you. It’s a gate all by itself, with a view of the world beyond and a set of keys hung neatly to its side, waiting for you and whoever else you want to bring along to unlock it.

And I think that’s a mistake much of the RPG industry is making. Despite being an entirely social activity, RPGs have become more and more a private place. The gate has been replaced with iron doors and the activities beyond like a clandestine secret society, their charter an endless collection of rules, addendum, and errata. There are players out there who don’t even know they love RPGs — the expansive realm of freeform message board role-plays are proof enough of that. I think our little niche of the world could be a slightly bigger one if we didn’t always wave around 10 pound books and instead proffered a little promise, sealed away in a box.


  1. I think aside from the considerable cost issues, there's a design dimension to the decline of RPG boxes. When I look at Fantasy Flight Games and Wizards of the Coast, I see two design houses that are mirror images of each other in that FFG makes games with top-notch materials but confusing rules, while WotC makes solid rules but tends to drop the ball on the materials.

    Despite all the griping from fans of prior editions, Warhammer FRP 3rd Edition is a really fun an interesting game with fascinating use of board game type components in an RPG (but rather confusing rulebooks). But even then there are a few elements that end up being clunky. There are Stress and Fatigue points, which come on little double-sided teardrop-shaped things. Not only is handing them around the table cumbersome, but because they're double-sided there's no good way to store them in your little character folio box between sessions.

    Then I look at the new D&D Gamma World, and while the game itself is rather simple and elegant, the boxed set is missing a ton of things that could've made it both more complete and easier to use. Setting aside the collectible card element (which is optional, actually works really well in play, and has already been whined about to no end on the internet), it would've benefited immensely from a set of character type cards (as is you have to either photocopy them or do a *lot* of page-flipping to play the game), not to mention stuff like dice and character sheets. And that's to say nothing of D&D4e; although I enjoy the game quite a bit, there's all kinds of mechanics where the designers basically expect you to make something up to keep track of things. The only thing they *really* got right in terms of materials was the map tiles, which are a godsend.

    (And then there's the new Doctor Who RPG, which comes in a box pretty much solely because of how the BBC licenses games vs. books.)

    I would indeed like to see more boxed set RPGs, but I also think that game designers need to do a better job of taking advantage of the ability to include materials that go beyond a book and some dice.

  2. Thanks for the insightful comment, Ewen! I thought about addressing the boxed games currently on the market, but I didn't want the post to become too long-winded for the first time out. But you cover the pitfalls many of them share quite well. It's why I'm really looking forward to the upcoming Mouse Guard boxed set. Sure, it has beautiful fluff like awesome (but ultimately useless) mouse pawns designed by the comic artist, but it also has everything else you could hope for to actually play the game. Character sheets, action cards, status condition cards, Game Master's screen and specialized sheets, and even custom dice for Burning Wheel's success mechanic. It keeps getting delayed though...with so much inside, I can understand why.

  3. Jade: Yes they are! Just like my sister! :)

  4. ooo, does this mean OVA Revised might be in a box~? =P

  5. Could be! I can't make any promises, but it's definitely something I'd like to pursue as a limited run at least. Cross your fingers!