The recent reboot of the Gamma World role-playing game flicked a switch in my brain, tuning me on to something I should have noticed sooner, and that we’re going to see a lot more of: mainstream role-playing game makers have turned the corner on what they do. Going forward, their core business will be less and less about producing gaming rules (with supplements ad nauseum) and will instead center on producing gaming artifacts. That is, games that, like board games, revolve around fiddly bits that are difficult for the average player to produce by himself.
For example, in addition to its 160-page rulebook, Gamma World, now comes with several decks of cards. None of the previous six editions of the game used cards, but now they are required for play. While it is possible for the end user to produce card-like artifacts themselves fairly easily, the end result is not particularly satisfying or sturdy. Producing actual cards is fairly difficult, requiring specialized paper, techniques and equipment. Why would you bother going through the expense, when you can just buy the professionally produced artifact for cheaper?
And that, really, is the point. It’s an end run around the electronic age. Rather than combat the bittorrenting horde, gaming companies will just build products that can’t be replicated in a satisfying way from an electronic copy, at least not without spending more than it would cost to just buy the original.
Cards are only one option (and we’ll see how long it takes before making quality cards at home becomes painless). Gamma World also comes with “two sheets of die-cut character and monster tokens”. These are, in effect, a cheaper version of miniatures but, even so, they are still artifacts the home user would have to do special work to replicate themselves. This would be easier than making cards, but still a hassle that many would be willing to pay to avoid. Plus, even more would rather use real miniatures anyway. If Gamma World is anything like Dungeons & Dragons 4E (and, being rules compatible with D&D4, it is) it relies heavily on tactically maneuvering pieces on a map, creating a market for the miniatures artifact. It is probably not a coincidence, for example, that the Gamma World setting can make use of many of the figures in Wizards’ Heroscape line of miniatures that would be out of place in D&D (such as the omnicron snipers).
In a similar vein, the $100 game Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is based entirely around custom made dice and comes with “more than 300 cards”. (No doubt it will find uses for the extensive line of Warhammer miniatures as well.)
None of this is particularly new. Games like BattleTech, which is more of a board game than an RPG, have long offered game artifacts, like the old Reinforcements boxes, with card stock versions of most mechs with little plastic stands, and recently their map packs have become a bit more interesting. But RPGs used to focus mostly on books. Those days, it seems, may be ending.