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Running Pay-To-Play (Collectible) RPGs

There’s a change on the horizon in an effort to monetize RPGs—in fact they’re already here, albeit in minor form: the collectible RPG. The RPG where players will need to pay-to-play for specific abilities. Collect ‘em all! This paradigm shift brings with it some new considerations when you sit down to run a game at your table.

Dollars for Powers

Many RPGs over the years have included diverse mechanics and packaged them with the game, typically to enhance or add a new wrinkle. The Torg Drama Deck or the legion of accessories that came packaged in your copy of Top Secret/S.I. are some examples. But what if your copy of the Player’s Handbook didn’t come with a copy of Flaming Sphere? Sure, you got Sleep, Magic Missile, and a few cornerstone spells included in the boxed set on cards, but if you want Flaming Sphere you have to buy the “Spell Codex Booster Pack, Level 1” which includes eight randomized spells, one of which might include the aforementioned Flaming Sphere?

Sounds far fetched? We’re already nearly there.

Currently in D&D 4E there exist booster Fortune Cards [1], sold in randomized packs of 8 cards. These cards provide minor bonuses during play. Players purchase the cards and build their own decks, shuffling and drawing during play. If you want the card, “Cautious Maneuver”—and its associated power—you need to trade for it or buy it. (Currently going for $9.99 individually on eBay.)

Gamma World [2] takes it even further with its booster packs. While technically optional, if you want any of the powers on the cards—which are not available through any other means—then you have to purchase said cards. Gamma World does this with equipment as well.

Similar is Fantasy Flight’s iteration of the Warhammer RPG [3]. An absolutely stunningly beautiful game [4], all the powers and effects within the game are on cards. If you don’t own the game—and the associated cards—you can’t play that with that power or ability. Imagine D&D with a core rulebook of the rules, but all the powers and feats on cards. That’s where we’re headed. (Caveat, Fantasy Flight did print just the Core Set powers in individual books, at the request of players, but all other supplements follow the aforementioned example.)


Dave is gainfully employed with modest disposable income. Tim, sadly, does not have any to spare. In most tabletop games both Dave and Tim would likely share—and benefit—from rulebooks at the table. In our new model Dave could genuinely have an advantage at the table by virtue of his ability to purchase booster packs that Tim does not have access to. And, unlike sharing of rulebooks, one does not share cards; they are binary in nature (you have them or you do not).

Conversely, as the GM, you may also be financially constrained (I know I feel like I am!) and not have the ability to vet every card that shows up at your gaming table. Do you not allow Flaming Sphere at the table? Why not? The spell has been around forever and isn’t inherently imbalanced and the player paid for the card to own it and, presumably, use it.

For years GM’s have had to wrestle with this issue of adding expansion rulebooks at their table. But consider the future model where the cards are part of the core game experience and players are expected—and encouraged—to purchase them.

Now expand it even further to equipment. What if the Holy Avenger was a rare equipment card as part of the “DM’s Equipment Pack?” That’s how the current Warhammer RPG does it. You either have the card or you don’t.

Monsters? Traps? Oh my! Think about it.

And would you allow photocopied or “proxy” cards at your table? Tim can’t afford the cards but he can download and print them himself through ill-gotten means. Do you allow it? What about Dave? He paid for his. Bet he wouldn’t be too happy about that!

Brave New World

These hypothetical examples aren’t quite upon us yet but we may have to deal with them sooner rather than later. Some ideas:

The great thing about our RPGs is that they have no expiration date, so those adverse to the next round of RPGs can always sit them out. Myself, I’m actually intrigued by the possibilities. Back in 2001 I outlined an OGL game based solely on cards, but it was a game predicated on mutating powers and “slotting” abilities in a sci-fi future. I’d still like to do it someday with a willing publisher. Perhaps soon?

Concerned or not about collectible cards in your RPGs? How do you intend to handle them? Tell us below!

52 Comments (Open | Close)

52 Comments To "Running Pay-To-Play (Collectible) RPGs"

#1 Comment By GiacomoArt On October 27, 2011 @ 11:40 am

I accept D&D 4E as an entertaining game, and even as an RPG of sorts. At it’s heart, it’s a miniatures game that you can role-play around, but okay. I even ran a 4E campaign long enough to subscribe to D&D insider for a few months, and didn’t feel cheated.

But the thought of CCG RPG scares me in the same way that the thought of Wednesday Addams smiling scares me. It’s unnatural.

No matter how codified they try to make a 4E rulebook, I’m always free as a GM to keep the parts I like, discard the parts I don’t, and add anything I can dream up into the mix. Accepting the CCG element inherently accepts the publisher’s absolute authority over what I’m allowed to include in my own game. It enslaves the imagination, and destroys everything I hold dear about the hobby.

I’m not much on the label “old school”, even though I’ve been playing since the 70s. I’m not much for sacred cows at all. Nor am I one for swearing. But if anyone were to try to convince me that I should game master a “CCG RPG”, I wouldn’t miss a beat telling them to go [expletive deleted].

#2 Comment By LesInk On November 11, 2011 @ 8:43 am

Coming a little late to the discussion … but I wanted to talk about one thing:

Just as @gerald disagreed with:
“Don’t allow proxy cards; it opens a dangerous door. Just like you wouldn’t encourage your players to bring illegal PDF printouts of books, the same standard should be set with card-like mechanics.”
so do I disagree (well, except for illegal copying — that I’m against).

In the past, a friend of mine and I realized we could end the Magic CCG trap by just using white out and pen to make proxy cards of anything we’ve desired to have. It allowed us to play out all the great ideas we wanted to play without issue with rarity and collecting thousands of cards. The interesting result — we got bored of it as we got to play out our dream decks. Sure, we didn’t have tournament playable decks, but it didn’t matter — we got to play the game and have fun with the game mechanics.

In my opinion, a card based RPG game would be fine if it used some type of randomizing effect and deck building. Imagine having a combat deck where you shuffle it and you can only do actions in the combat based on a hand of 5-7 cards. It could be very interesting. My real beef with CCG cards is the rarity game where you have to buy boxes of booster packs to get those 2 or 3 cards you need to finish it out. Sure, it makes money for the publisher, but it can be done another way.

In the same way you have splat books with add-on powers, you can have expansion packs with a known set of cards in them. Now the GM has a chance of moderating what is valid additions. If everyone agrees that the game system is up to expansion pack X, then even the guy who cannot afford much can limit his exposure to entry cost.

And back to the start of the idea — proxies — the cards now only become an aide to the game system. In other words, how many people would rather buy a deck of cards at $5.99 then create that deck from card stock? If they are truly limited on funds, they’ll do the card stock or use other interesting and creative means. Otherwise, they’ll pay the money and support the publisher.

It is when greed takes over, its forces the market between casual player and die-hard player. Keeping the entry to cost low, you can get more casual players to play and, then, convert them into die-hards.