Supplemental Model and Inherent Fragility

July 13, 2008

It struck me today that the supplemental business model is inherently a fragile design decision.

So if we take the traditional expectation that games are supposed to be long term campaigns, and then look at the fact that supplemental releases are usually at least twice a year (if not more often) AND that you have to test the new rules against the current (growing) body of rules AND that if we’re talking a large company like WOTC, we probably have 2 or 3 rulesets in development simultaneously and not enough time to compare -between them-…

It’s not hard to see why 3E gave us Pun Pun the Infinite Kobold or Magic the Gathering is on what, it’s 10th Edition?

Rpgs have had the saving grace of a GM as a buffer generally. For some things like monsters or magic items, a savvy GM could make sure the players never saw these things if they happened to be a broken set. Other things, like player options are harder, since they often are the most popular rules, players want to use them, and of course, if the designers and playtesters didn’t see the broken combo, what makes you think the average GM is going to see it until it hits the table and causes problems?

Games which were a standalone, static set of rules have more leeway for bad design. If it’s a well designed game, the rules are closed and it’s stable. If there’s broken pieces, the group can identify, change or excise them and then play for years without having to readjust to a constant influx of new rules which could render their changes unnecessary or worse for the balance overall.

(This might also tie in a bit with the retro movement right now- traditional games which were open rulesets are now effectively closed as no new rules are being published for them. Plus they’ve had years of playtesting in the field and most of their design issues are well known at this point.)

This also explains why the whole issue of “dead games” or “unsupported games” which is such a big thing in the tabletop community is a non-issue for say, LARPS, or boardgames. Instead of concerning with a new influx of rules as signs of a game that is alive and strong, you instead look to play and play networks.

It may also be a doorway tabletop games keep narrow- having to stay up on a changing ruleset is a hardcore feature that makes it less accessible and less friendly as an activity to pretty much everyone else.

In the long term, I don’t think the supplemental model for rpgs is going to last as the primary form of our hobby. It’s a lot of work and investment, inconsistent in terms of results for play, and raises the bar for entry and retention. If we do see a roleplaying renaissance, it’s probably going to be in the form of a simple, stable set of rules that hits the combination of fun play, accessible subject matter, and a large enough base to form lasting play networks (an actual license? Unlikely unless it’s an outgrowth of an ARG).

The majority of what makes up tabletop roleplaying right now is analogous to old school wargaming- scattered groups of folks playing, with their own sets of rules to learn, and a relatively high barrier to entry into the social network. Compare that, to say, playing Settlers of Catan at a boardgame night – simple, consistent rules and play experience, and easy low-commitment entry to play.



  1. It seems to me that the supplemental approach is based at least in part on player competitiveness — the urge to be better than others plays itself out in “buying new stuff so your characters can be AWESOME.”

    It’s an escalation curve.

  2. Yeah, I can see that.

    While I get this from the CCG or collectible mini’s standpoint, it’s probably a poor choice for rpgs as long as we’re expecting play to last longer than session to session.

    It also lacks the self-balancing mechanism of competitive play – if two players have access to the same (general) set of rules against each other, if one person ramps up, they’ll run into others who also have ramped up.

    In gamist rpg play, it’s a group vs. the DM, but instead of it being a cutthroat play to win kind of thing, the DM is playing to meet the -player’s- challenge. When it’s one mind against 4 or more minds, and more material is generally thrown to the players, it makes it harder and harder for the DM to up the challenge by the normal rules. In the end, you suffer power creep.

    And, of course, all of that favors the hardcore and narrows the entry for new market.

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