Winter Cleaning

A gripping tale of books, boxes, and binders.

I'm not normally one to take pictures of his RPG collection and talk about it. I mean, we all have RPG stuff, and we all have a few titles that hold special meaning, and apart from including some out-of-print material, there's really nothing remarkable about my RPG bookshelf.

But mysteriously, there is...

Last weekend, I remedied my Annual Pre-holiday Freak-Out by culling my RPG stuff. The books on the shelf, the bankers boxes in the attic, even the hand-written notes and maps spread across a dozen 3-ring binders just shy of 2 decades old. There's nothing like an OCD frenzy to clear my head, and this one imparted unforeseen clarity.

The Challenge

Just to put things into context, I have a small bookshelf in my office. There are essentially 4 shifting sections: Reference material, Computer books, History books, and RPG stuff. Space is limited, so I tend to swap out bookshelf titles with books I store in the Hadrian's wall-sized blockade of bankers boxes lodged in the attic.

bankers boxes

Hadrian's Boxes

I first adopted this practice when we moved into our new house. In the 3 years since, I've made a couple of realisations. First, it's a pain in the butt, because there's a 73% chance that the book I need at any given time is in the attic, where the temperature hovers just above absolute zero in the winter and soars to nuclear-furnace levels of hot in the summer.

Second, it's disorganized: three years of shuffling material from bookshelf to box to a different box and back to the shelf later has shattered the careful order in which I had packed the material when we moved. Third is the futility of hording: In the years of shuffling, it occurs to me that I own several titles that have never made it to the bookshelf. They're neither useful nor collectible.

The Effort

Long story short, I consolidated the shite out my books—RPG and otherwise. I cleaned the shelf of anything I didn't regularly use. I consolidated the 14 bankers boxes in the attic into 6: 1 of Classic D&D material, 1 of miscellaneous RPG stuff, 1 of medieval history books, 1 of general reference, and 2 of WWII history. I kept only the computer books I need to reference when my Internet connection is down. Programming references have a notoriously short shelf-life anyway.

Everything else is off to consignment or, in the case of the remaining RPG stuff, Noble Knight (or maybe I should dole out pieces as prizes for Welsh Piper contests that I have yet to invent?). Those 3-ring binders? Neatly organised into one 2.5" bad boy filled with only the choicest of my hand-written crap, old adventures, maps, and NPCs (dear, dear Snagglepod--how I have mithed thee).

It took me all day, but it was worth it. Well, actually, it took about 4 hours. With breaks. But it seemed like ages. Plus the cat was getting into the boxes and nibbling on the plastic sheet protecting Level 2 of Spindle Mountain and then my back got sore from hurling books all over the place, and at one point I had to dick with the thermostat because it was, like, 80 degrees in my office.

The Result

Now, my RPG stuff occupies just less than one-quarter of my office bookshelf. I share this not because you need to know what's on it (even though I'm gonna tell you that next week), but rather because of the transformative effect this exercise has had on my prioritisation of gaming material. In short, as Deimos sagely suggests, it's this: In every sense of the convention, less is more.

This maxim has been a variously subtle or prominently conscious motivation behind Chimera and other bits of my old-schoolery. It's a fun concept to bandy about in business meetings or when accessorising for a formal dinner, but I've come to believe it's especially true with respect to roleplaying games.

In the dim ages, one's favourite ruleset was pretty much all that was required. Then some supplements to make life easier, like geomorphs or a booklet of NPCs. Then perhaps a setting, maybe a module or two, some alternate rules, a better setting, a book of new monsters to go with that better setting, and then a boxed set of something nifty-sounding and while-not-really-part-of-your-campaign-possibly-worth-including-later. From experience, I admit you can ride this train for a long time before realising how far down the track you've come.

But it's part of the industry, and how RPG companies stay in business. The assumption is that you haven't the time to create your own settings, author your own modules, invent your own monsters, or draw your own maps. So they push out product beyond the rule system, taking the "more is better" approach. Now, let's clarify: RPG companies need to turn a profit—nothing wrong with that. And I'm all for acquiring good material (meaning "useful" or "well-written" or even "thought-provoking" and possibly "evocative of fond memories"). I'm not saying RPG companies should stop at rulesets or that they should fail to support their customers with "good," supplemental product.

But as I was cleaning out my horde, I realised that the vast majority of my collection was comprised of material that seemed "good" when I bought it, yet was really the "opposite of good" when I got it home. So in the bankers box it went. And when the box got full, I got another box.

Deck of Priest Spells

Really?

The funny part—and I mean funny as in, "Smale, you're an idiot"—is that I used to decry 2nd Ed. D&D for all the drek it spawned. I used to get very bothered over TSR's penchant to patronise its customers with appeals to convenience: "Buy this rulebook to make your game better," or "Buy this supplement to save time," or even (shamelessly), "Buy the Fighter's Player Pack because we're pretty sure you'll lose your character sheet without it."

Not only was the glut insulting, but it promoted the "too many rulebooks" problem 2nd Edition was supposed to fix. The real issue—the part that pissed me off—was that it became too commercial for the market, meaning that TSR had become more interested in gamer's dollars than gamer's satisfaction. In this case, "more" was definitely not "better." In the end, you didn't need imagination to play, just a wallet.

So while I joke about The Complete Drunken Peasants Handbook (and if TSR hadn't gone bankrupt, I swear it was coming), the irony is that I had accumulated all sorts of drek on my own. I drank the TSR Kool-Aid. I believed that not purchasing the "Castle Guide" would prevent me from having proper castles in my setting. I believed that my Forgotten Realms campaign would suffer deeply without access to the Maztica boxed set, despite the fact that I had no intention of running a game in that corner of the world. Yet all this material is taking up space on my bookshelf, in my attic, and, as it turns out, inside my head.

So I got rid of it. The fact is, when you have less material laid out for you, you end up creating more on your own. It sounds like more work for the busy GM, but it's not—you'll be surprised at how much more efficient your game prep becomes without a bevy of distracting RPG publications. And even if you do take a bit longer, it's worth it—the results are invariably more satisfying.

Final Words

Having pared down my RPG collection to a fraction of its former volume is amazingly liberating. While I literally have less material, I find that it's already encouraging me to rely more on my imagination. And this fits in better with my style of playing and running games: give me a seed—a kernel—and I'll cultivate it; give me a grown plant, and I'm likely to kill it, even if by accident. I said before that I'd rather have a rulebook and a set of random tables than a full bookshelf of complete supplements, and now I feel like I've actually arrived at a place where I can put my money where my mouth is.

So, tell on. Is your RPG collection big and useful, large and ponderous, or lean and mean?

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