Yes, not how much 'does your average rpg rulebook cost' or 'how much would you be willing to spend on an rpg rulebook' but what 'should it cost'...
This first appeared as a series of tweets on twitter from TrinityKnotStudio. I thought it was interesting and raises some good points so I asked them if I could reproduce it on here and they kindly said yes!
The author, Al @trinitykstudio, who co-runs the studio has a successful track record of Kickstarter launches and consultations. You will see in the tweets a level of frustration at the views some gamers have on the prices of RPGs. However, before I say more let's see what Al has to say:
Twitter thread 20 June 2020
1/ Been looking at my bookshelf and comparing prices at the "big" books in my collection. So, full colour, hardback, kinda A4'ish and it's interesting (to me) that the MRRP doesn't seem to have shifted THAT much since 2003...
2/ now this is a very limited cross-section and I'd love to have other people send me some information about pricing from their collection, however, something that did leap out at me is that the cost of living has increased in the last 15/16 years
3/ so using the wonders of google and a selection of inflation trackers (averaged out over the 3 sites I used) I've looked at what the prices should be now (adjusted for inflation)
4/ Now there's been a very definite shift in design philosophy - books like #Symbaroum are playable with a single book, as opposed to #DresdenFiles and #DnD which require a minimum of two books (3 if you want to include monsters)
5/ And it could be argued that #ArcanaEvolved was a bit of a premium product (that still needed a couple of books for the full effect)
6/ However it does raise a bit of a thorny issue, currently produced RPGs in the all-singing, all-dancing, full-colour glory that we all hold up as kinda the standard we think of when we see a professionally published game are actually way underpriced
7/ now there has been a lot of much cleverer folks than me discussing payment in the industry recently, where folks from the industry have shone a light on the frankly shocking pay per word amount that is considered "normal" or "standard"
8/ take a 1000'ish page behemoth that is #DnD and consider that when you incorporate art and "proper" layout your looking at an average of 400 - 500 words per page you're looking at a boatload of $'s to get it written even when we acknowledge that the amount being paid is crap
9/ (incase you haven't done the maths that works out at 500k words and $40k)
10/ Then there's editing, and guess what, the many excellent editors we are lucky to have to translate our barely legible scribbles into something magical and inspiring tend to have industry rates that are well below what they would charge "outside" the field.
11/ and don't get me started about the wizards who do Layout, who are also massively underpaid
12/ All for a 16-year-old + price ceiling that we seem to have imposed on ourselves...
I've lost track of the number of Kickstarter projects that have been slated for being too expensive and these are shipping direct.
13/ so there's no distributor in the middle taking a % for their services and no retailer in the FLGS struggling to compete with Amazon on price
14/ and we haven't even gotten started thinking about sourcing art, protecting your IP, licensing arrangements etc
15/ We need a massive shift in the gaming industry, that it needs to be way more inclusive shouldn't need saying - we should be open to anyone and everyone (except for the mouth breathing neckbeards and gatekeeping dickbags)
16/ but the gaming public needs to have realistic expectations about how much their new shiny thing costs to make and how much value they actually get from it
17/ Well - that got way more ranty than I planned
Please retweet so we can get some more numbers to make sure I'm not padding the figures and maybe shout out to some indie folks and games companies who are making a difference and doing it right.
The original thread can be found here https://twitter.com/trinitykstudio/status/1277545869236228096
So the above what what Al had to say. What do we make of all of it? Well, if I look to my book shelf then I can add a couple of titles
Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook 2019 443 pages, $49, full colour
John Carter of Mars, 2019 266 pages $49 full colour
I'd also add that there is another book for players that goes with the Keeper book in Cthulu although you can definitely play without it. John Carter is self contained although again there is an additional book for players. (Also whilst short on page count than the other rules I feel it comprehensively cover's its topic area. It didn't feel short and some of the other books listed feel a bit 'padded' in places - a topic for a different time.)
So, there seems to be a current list price for rulebooks that the big players are sticking too. however, and it's a real however, that is often not the price that we pay for the books. I'm pretty sure that I didn't pay full price for either of the two books above - both came with offers at the time of purchase.
John Carter in particular was part of a launch deal and whilst I hadn't backed the Kickstarter I succumbed to the martian pleasures as presented when they launched the general commercial game and I have several dice sets to prove it - because, you know I just didn't have any sets of dice that I could have proxied in... And that's the scheme behind the prices in my opinion. The publishers want you to buy their rules set... not because it makes them a ton of money but because then you might just play their new game system. And if you do that then you and your mates might have some fun. And if you have fun then you'll want to have more fun... and that's when the commercial magic happens.
What does commercial magic look like for a gaming company? New expansions, rulesets, player options, creatures, adventures, maps, gamer aids... and the list goes on.
Gaming like this is a commercial business. it has to be, because if you want people to dedicate entire days/weeks/months writing, designing, drawing, layingout something then the company has to earn enough to pay bills and in particular the talent who do the work.
But that, in my opinion, is why the price point for rules is minimal. If you sell enough copies then sure, you might break even/turn a modest profit. But the magic is what happens afterwards as W Clement Stone (author of The Success System that Never Fails) wrote
Fortune is made in the repeat business
These companies aren't dummies and they know that they need to have players come back to buy the follow on materials. But before they come back they have to buy-in initially.
I've owned four versions of rules for Dungeons and Dragons but on my shelves behind me sit over 45 additional hard-backed supplementary books for DnD4e alone. That collection cost me quite a bit of money... and it's just for one of the rule systems, of one of the games that I've played.
So, Al is correct. The price doesn't relate well to the production time or costs involved in writing the rule book. It couldn't because the market wouldn't accept the price of an initial book being £120 - a ball park price I've just made up for what would be closer to fair.
What gamers must realise is a) that the gaming industry works on a repeat business / volume model b) the prices they pay for a main stream published item is only sustainable for the publisher if it sells in bulk c) independents never sell in the same volume as mainstream sellers so have to charge higher prices
There is a whole other topic here I think about how independents very often are one person enterprises who must perform all the functions that maybe a dozen or more people would do in a main-stream publisher however in an effort to be focused let's skip that for now.
Enough to say that in this switched on modern age of ours where everyone with talent can sit down and produce a rulebook, adventure supplement or digital magazine (see below) there needs to be an equal understanding that producing something costs and if you want to see more products from a company then buy their existing products and be slow to judge their prices. There will be more costs in there than you can likely imagine.
What rpg creators must realise is a) a race to the bottom via Pay-What-You-Want or free issues is a dangerous race b) don't apologise for your prices c) if your product has a value to the customer then you have the equitable right to receive fair compensation for it
Just quickly on point C - assuming you have produced something usable that has taken some skill and time then it has value - end of story!
Gaming is an industry, but a small one, dwarfed by our video and console spiritual brethren. We who are in it need to engage, respect and purchase at a fair rate to ensure us gaming creatives, large and small, can keep creating.
Chief Wordsmith and a man eagerly waiting for the first subscriber to his Patreon...
Amendment: The Grinning Frog team