This started as an offhand comment on Twitter, which ballooned into a discussion (even though Twitter isn’t a good medium for discussion), so I’m expanding it into a blog post to unpack some. In video games downloadable content (or DLC) has become at turns a buzzword, a thing fans demand, and a source of controversy. It’s getting to be a pretty common thing, though it’s obvious that some developers are better than others at figuring out what the heck to do with the possibilities it affords. I’m wondering if RPGs could benefit from something resembling video game DLC. Needless to say, this line of discussion presupposes that someone is actually going to do it right, providing useful, quality content at a reasonable price, without gimping the primary product. And we’re talking about something at a scale where it would in fact be different from merely offering sourcebooks and adventure modules, since the RPG industry is already well-acquainted with that (and in a sense was way ahead of video games).
So, the idea is to do “micro-supplements” for an RPG, preferably electronic. This probably makes more sense for a game that has relatively little supplemental material in the first place, since it can actually stand out more from the rest of the product line. If Wizards of the Coast releases a new race as a $3 PDF, it’s going to get lost in the shuffle of their dozens of hardback supplements and monthly truckload of D&D Insider content (which is more the niche something like a single race fills in their business), but if an indie publisher does one or two of these, they could be the one or two supplemental things that exist for the game in total. On the one hand, supplements inevitably sell less than core rulebooks, but on the other hand a PDF micro-supplement that costs $4 or less is squarely in impulse buy range, gives the customer nigh-instant gratification (rather than waiting for shipping or making a trip to a store), and doesn’t take a huge investment on the part of the publisher to create. Although Microsoft’s implementation hasn’t been perfect, part of the success of their “marketplace” stuff is simply that you can buy stuff using your Xbox 360 controller sitting on a couch, and use it right away. Now all three major game consoles have that going for them.
One Bad Egg‘s 4e micro-supplements range from about $2.49 to $8.99, with the right amount of heft for the price, and really distinctive content for a game with minimal third-party support. Ronin Arts literally has over 200 PDF products out there, and they have dozens of d20 OGL PDFs for sale, starting at $1.50. I don’t know all that much about Ronin Arts’ offerings, but OBE seems to be the #1 producer of 3rd-Party D&D4e content, and their stuff stands out both in terms of quality (with Green Ronin and others skipping 4e, a lot of the other GSL offerings are the kind of stuff that remind me of the lameness of the 3e OGL glut) and creativity (since they’ve tended towards a very gonzo pulp flavor of D&D).
It would also be a mistake to assume this only applies to things that cost money. 3:16 has two free supplements as part of free electronic magazines (the Collective Endeavor Journal and Page XX), and it’s not hard to see how this both gets 3:16 fans looking at the magazine and gets the people reading the magazine for other things looking at 3:16. Likewise (although I wish we could’ve gotten it out sooner) the free bonus scenarios for Maid RPG hopefully are not only letting people who have the game do a little more with it, but also letting people who don’t have it get a taste of what it’s like. (Which comes back to the whole thing about selling an experience we talked about in the last podcast.)
Now, the flipside to all that is that with both video game DLC and RPG micro-supplements people have generally had a hard time figuring out what the hell they were doing. Video game DLC has at times included unbridled attempts to squeeze more money out of gamers (such as charging to unlock content already on the disc), or just kind of lame and slow to come along (anyone remember the map packs for Unreal Championship?). Mongoose’s “Power Classes” pamphlets likewise seem to have gotten onto FLGS shelves only to be greeted with an emphatic (and probably well-deserved) “meh.” Content needs to be compelling to the user/customer, no matter what format you’re offering it in. If it’s crappy, or for a game they’ve already moved on from, no one’s going to be interested, but that’s just common sense.
White Wolf is in fact doing something in the way of mini-supplements with their “Storytelling Adventure System.” These are very much like adventure modules for their various games, but they’re sold as inexpensive PDFs (ranging from $1.49 to $8.99, but $6.99 seems to be the standard price). This isn’t quite what I’ve been blathering about here, but it’s interesting in its own right in that it’s something of a solution to the question of how publishers can continue to offer actual adventure scenarios. Good pre-written adventures are very useful to the people playing the games, but their profitability is not generally commensurate with that. WotC’s solution to this is elaborate modules with glossy color maps (which are useful in general for D&D) that list for $24.95. If the Amazon book sales rankings are any indication, these do indeed sell an order of magnitude less than core products, to say nothing of the Player’s Handbook, but they are apparently selling enough to justify their continued publication. Of course, especially for something like Exalted (which has fewer tangible components to pack in), it makes sense for the players to have an adventure be a PDF you can print out, run, and recycle afterward (or just keep on a laptop, with no need for a hardcopy).
The thing that probably best exemplifies what I’m getting at here is, unsurprisingly, from Ryo Kamiya. Tsugihagi Honbo occasionally does very short doujinshi things for 100 yen, and one of them had rules for creating mouse henge in Yuuyake Koyake. This involves a mere 4 pages of material in all (with one illustration) and while the game doesn’t need a seventh type of henge, adding in mice adds some really interesting new possibilities to the game. As a huge fan of Yuuyake Koyake and something of a completist, it bugs me a little that I don’t have a copy. ^_^; Although Tsugihagi does these on paper, particularly in the American market it’d make more sense to have something like that be a PDF.
Anyway, I’m not really going anywhere in particular with this, just throwing out an idea and places it might lead.
I do really like Alea Publishing Group’s Feudal Characters: Noble though.
There’s also something called ExXxalted: Scroll of Swallowed Darkness that costs 99 cents for the full version, but we won’t dwell on it.