Box or book?

I don’t know who will wind up wanting to play Within My Clutches, but I am hoping that it won’t only be experienced roleplayers. I’m going to attempt to tap into that larger audience of people who love superhero comics and enjoy structured improv. I wonder, though, if non-roleplayers will easily get excited about a game that looks like a small book.

riftsTo be honest, the traditional form of roleplaying games is not my favorite. I fondly remember reading through large RPG books like RIFTS, packed with fiction and great art, imagining all the cool things I could play. Unfortunately, when it comes time to stop reading and play, figuring out what to do at any given moment is simply way too much work. What other game out there might make you flip through dozens or hundreds of pages to answer a rules question?

dogsBeyond that, what other game requires pens and paper and dice, and provides none of these things at purchase? What other game arrives as an instruction manual only, with no physical bits to play with? Will non-RPG folks get excited when they see the small paperback Dogs in the Vineyard book the way they do when they see the Mouse Guard boxed set?

I mean, look at Mouse Guard:


I would love to present Within My Clutches to people in a form half that exciting. A box containing a tear-off pad of character sheets, a comic book of advice and examples, and all the rules on a single fold-out — this is what I’d like the game to be. Easy to take in at a glance, easy to use in play. Including 10 or so six-sided dice would also be nice, as well as some glass beads and maybe even pencils.

Here’s the problem: price. I got some reality checks on that when I brought this up at  the Story Games forum. Take a look at the recent indie RPG release Serpent’s Tooth:


The book costs creator Ross Cowman about $3 per copy to produce. The boxed set costs him $19 per copy, and that’s without factoring in the shrink-wrapper he bought, the hours he puts in assembling sets from independently-ordered components, and the increased costs of shipping the box to wherever it’s sold. In the end, he has to charge players $55 for the box instead of $20 for the book.

Is that worth it?

Several indie RPG publishers described the PAX East video game convention as a sales gold mine in part because gamers used to spending $60+ on a game were willing to throw $20 at some curiosity like Dogs in the Vineyard on impulse. So perhaps, in trying to appeal to non-RPGers, I might actually price myself out of their novelty budget.

I am hoping to keep both options open — book and box — and let a kickstarter campaign reveal how much interest there is for each. However, I don’t want to kickstart before I’ve tested the materials and done much of the layout. Should I put in the time and the work and create two prototypes, book and box, in finished form, despite the fact that one may never be sold? Or is that a will-sapping and insane approach to my very first publishing endeavor?


2 thoughts on “Box or book?

  1. I published a bagged set for The Quiet Year (pix at, and have some thoughts on what makes for best practices in doing boxed/bagged sets for roleplaying games. They basically boil down to a couple bullet points:

    A boxed set is worth considering if it’s possible to sell in addition to the book, not instead of. For The Quiet Year, the book and the cards required large print runs (1000 and 500, respectively), but the remaining bag set components had good price points at 100 or fewer units. So it was easy to do a bigger print run of books/cards, and then allocate a smaller number of those to bag set production. When I sell a book/card set, I’m not despairing that it’s not a bag set.

    The box itself is the most expensive item. Seriously, the box is often the priciest component of a boxed set. They can range from $3-6 easily. If you’re looking to produce a set that doesn’t cost one bajillion dollars, brainstorm ways to offer it without depending on a printed box. My solution was a raw burlap bag with no printing on it. It felt appropriate for a contemplative game set after the apocalypse.

    I spent countless hours trying to solve the printed box conundrum. Some ideas I came up with included a clear-top stationary box ( with book cover showing through as the “label,” or a plastic box baseball card holder ( with stickers or interior wraps as the “label.”

    Of course, investing in a beautiful box is also an option. Serpent’s Tooth looks really good, and I’d say that box money was money well spent. It’s just a pricey thing to really think hard about.

    Consider whether brick-and-mortar retail is important to you. If it is, you probably want a sealed package with clear labeling that can shelve easily among peer products. That’s a lot of design requirements. If it isn’t important, you have a lot more leeway. See: The Quiet Year bag set.

    • Thanks, Joe! The cost of boxes for Serpent’s Tooth was about $7 per. I believe Ross went with Marion for quality and reliability.

      Those are some cool thoughts about alternative boxes! I worry, though, that burlap bags or labeled plastic sleeves might produce the same “Wait, this is a game?” response that I’m hoping to avoid. I mean, I thought Zombie Cinema in the VHS case was brilliant… after I knew what it was. At first, I was confused. So, there are concerns… but wow, those stationery boxes are $1 per?! Sweet! That definitely gives me some hope that a fit does exist out there somewhere.

      I did some looking into maker space production, and my best conclusion from that was that it’s totally possible to build a machine that will create boxes for nearly no cost… but that the machine itself will cost thousands of dollars.

      As for brick and mortar retail, my primary thought is that it’d be a shame to lose that option. That said, it is quite possible that that option will prove unfeasible for reasons other than form factor (e.g. will any stores want it, and how much will it cost to get it to them?). This is yet another “Dude, where’s my audience?” issue wherein a kickstarter might be informative, or it might be too late in the process.

      When it comes to the book, yeah, I guess it’s more practical to commit to that being at least one of the forms of the game, even if it isn’t the one I’d prefer.

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