Corebooks and Supplements: The Cart Before the Horse

I have a knack for acquiring expansions and supplements to games before getting the core elements themselves. It started back in the days of voraciously devouring TSR’s Dragonlance novels without ever realizing they were tied to a game at all, let alone a roleplaying game or what that constituted. Despite the fact the local Waldenbooks — this was back in the days before Borders came to Burlington; Waldenbooks was the place to go for the widest selection of Dungeons & Dragons-related stuff, outside of Quarterstaff Games, which I wasn’t aware of at the time — had an entire tier of shelves devoted to the game books right next a tier full of fantasy novels, including the better part of the TSR fiction catalog at that time, it was some time before I made the connection.

Somehow, in the midst of my paper route-fueled mission to buy and read every Dragonlance novel I could find, I bought the AD&D Player’s Guide to Dragonlance Campaign Setting. I didn’t get the part about it being a player’s guide, nor understood why it was completely different in form and design. Reading it, I also remember a sense of puzzlement over why the information in this encyclopedic-like book was subtly different in places from what I knew to be correctly related by the novels — that the novels routinely contradicted each other was another, separate source of mystification to my eleven year old self.

In all the time I spent reading and re-reading that player’s guide, though, I never twigged to the fact it was connected to a larger body of work outside the tie-in novels. It wasn’t until years after the fact, when I pulled the book out of storage, after exploring roleplaying games in general,  I realized it was what the role-playing crowd would call a “crunchless bunch of fluff,” packed with plot hooks for GMs in search of inspiration — yet, curiously labeled for players’ use.

During that initial bout of exploration, which was driven in large part by the then-staggering archive of reviews at RPG.net — I’ve become jaded and blasé as time has passed and my own tastes took shape — I dove into a number of different game lines on the strength of reviews I read there. On the strength of one enthusiastic review for Palladium BooksTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness, I picked up a number of books from the line off eBay. The first to arrive was, naturally, a scenario supplement, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Adventures. It honestly didn’t do a whole lot for me, being a collection of independent adventures with no context. Easy to drop into one’s game as necessary, but not a good first book, either.

For a long time when I was first building my role-playing game library, I owned any number of GURPS books without including Basic Set in that collection. But that’s the nature of a GURPS supplement — at least, the ones that focus on setting or genre over rules material — it’s optimized for that system, but also written that people can easily use it as a resource for their system of choice.

More recently, well before getting my own copy of Dominion for Christmas, I decided to get the two promo cards sold through Boardgamegeek.com, the Envoy and Black Market. That was a speculative move on my part. Either I’d get my own copy of the game, bring them along to use with someone else’s or I could flog them on the secondary market after the cards went out of print and their demand rose. As it happened, the first option became reality.

In general, though, I take a “corebook before the add-ons” approach. If the primary item in a role-playing game line or series of board games can’t sell me on the concept, then there’s no point throwing more money after the hope of coming to love the game. That’s the reasoning that prevented me from buying any more Mage: The Awakening books after the corebook so spectacularly failed to enthrall me. This supplement or that expansion can fix the game all it wants. If the core game itself doesn’t grab me, then the designers flubbed and I’m not obliged to give them a second chance — excepting when I really, really want to, natch.

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