Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

March 22, 2011

A Bookish Investment Opportunity – RPGs?!

Confession time!  I love role playing. No, not in the naughty way, I mean sitting around a table with a bunch of my collaborators and pretending we’re other people for hours at a time. Dice may be thrown. Accents may be donned.  We’ve generally moved beyond Dungeons & Dragons, but the love of collaborative storytelling remains.

What can I say? I’ve always been a nerd.

Table-top role players have always been closeted book collectors. It comes at them from two directions: first of all, they love props and visual representations of their imagined worlds, and the “leather-bound tome” is a favourite.  The cover of role playing’s flagship text, the Player’s Handbook for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition is mocked up with clasps and inlaid jewels, aping a decadent binding. Unsurprisingly, an actual leather-bound special edition followed the release of the game.

Secondly, role players have a tendency to be, shall we say, cautious about the condition of their books. We’re an obsessive lot.  My husband won’t let anyone use his books as a hard surface to write on, for fear of indentations from the stylus marking his book. I know many people who keep two copies of their favourite manuals – one to be handled by their hands alone, and another for sharing.  A friend of ours famously required interested parties to wash their hands before browsing his collection.  And these are people who do not consider themselves book collectors.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that there’s a very pricey market out there for used, out of print and rare role playing books.  Considering most potential buyers are actually buying these books for use, not investment or collection, this is a bit stunning. The market exists almost exclusively on eBay, as book dealers don’t seem to have caught on. It’s an independent rare book market.

I discovered the market the hard way – trying to buy a book. The 7th Sea Player’s Guide has only been out of print since let’s say about 2005, and you’d think everyone who wanted to play then would have a copy already. Alas, mine was lost due to my very liberal book-loaning policies, and I needed a replacement. I got a deal – I found a replacement copy for a mere $80.  The going rate is closer to $90-100. Not bad for a book that was $30 only six years ago.

This prompted me to look up the going rate for a book I already owned, the Game of Thrones Deluxe Limited Edition guide.  This was a Christmas present to my husband years ago, one which didn’t arrive until nearly a year after that Christmas. Production problems plagued the publication and the company went out of business shortly after – or was it shortly before? – the game was actually released. They honoured their pre-orders, but nothing beyond the original printing of either the limited edition or the standard edition was ever printed. Now, given the popularity of the novels the game is based on, and the upcoming HBO TV series, copies of this book are going for $250-$600.

Which brings me to my Once Upon a Time book.  Once Upon a Time, a company called Last Unicorn Games was set to publish a role playing game based on Frank Herbert’s Dune universe. As many as 3,000 copies were printed by Last Unicorn to be released at GenCon, the big North American gaming convention.  But shortly before the convention Last Unicorn was bought up by RPG giant Wizards of the Coast (who publish Dungeons and Dragons; and who are owned ultimately by toy-maker Hasbro). Rumours circulated that this meant a newer, even bigger version of the Dune game would be published under the WotC banner, but in reality nothing was ever heard from the game ever again.  Those GenCon copies were the only ones to ever see the light of day.  (There are also rumours that much of the original 3,000 copy print run was pulped.) Today’s price?  Ha!  That would assume you can actually buy it.  If one is lucky enough to find one on eBay or Amazon, you will probably be paying $500-$600  for it.  But don’t count on one.

It’s enough to make a girl hesitant to use her books in a game! Or to take up book scouting…

4 thoughts on “A Bookish Investment Opportunity – RPGs?!”

  1. Pookie says:

    Thankfully I have a copy of the Dune RPG. One of about 150 that were imported directly into the UK. Tried getting a copy direct from WotC, but it was impossible at the time.

    Anyway, nice piece. I have collected RPGs in the past, but money and space prevents me now. The other books that you mention are on my to buy list, but right now, I need to be looking for job more than I do more RPG books.

  2. Corone says:

    I’ve found the pdf market coupled with an iPad solves many of my out of print woes.
    Drivethrurpg has a vast selection of out of print books available in digital format.
    It they extend their print on demand service to some of these books we could see the bottom fall out of the rare rpg book market.

    Although, I say market, there are only a few books that command such sums.
    I think those are bought by people thinking it will go up in value rather than people who actually play it.
    I was lucky enough to get a copy of Dune, and I know many others who own a copy too, but I’ve only ever met one other person who actually played the game!

    1. Charlotte says:

      Honestly, the proliferation of pdfs makes the cost of some of these books all the more amazing to me. With 7th Sea in particular – I know you can get pdfs of everything, so why is the book still so pricey? Probably the same reason rare books are – some people just prefer the form!

      1. Axel says:

        That’s what office printers & binders were invented for. 😉

        This led to me looking up a few items sitting in my basement.
        $100 for FGU’s Bunnies & Burrows? Cults of Prax for $80? Holy crap.
        OTOH, Traveller 1st ed, 5 book set for $10.

        From a selling them for money POV, sadly I’m not a collector type – most of my RPG books bear witness to how extensively I used them 🙂

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