Collecting Ins and Outs                           Home Up


So you’ve decided to start an RPG collection. How do you start – where do you go, and what should you look to avoid?

  • Establish a goal for your collection.  "I want everything ever printed for Dungeons & Dragons" might be a bit too ambitious for your average citizen… many people focus on items they’ve actually played with, or a complete collection of Dragon Magazine, etc.  You might also want to check out our State of the Hobby essay for an idea on current trends in the market.

  • Make a list of those items, and the estimated value of the item in collectible condition (generally, Fine or better), from the indexes here.  These are the prices you should expect to pay; if you’re able to obtain a lower price, you’ve gotten a good deal.  Very often resellers will sell items for lower than their average auction prices (and will save you the trouble of bidding yourself).  Don’t let the values listed here scare you off from paying more for an item… sometimes you may consider it necessary.  Several times, I’ve paid more than I knew an item was worth, on the bet that the value will rise in the future.

  • Get some storage materials.  Most RPG items (modules, magazines, etc) are 8.5" x 11" or smaller.  Many comic book stores sell "magazine size" cardboard boxes for a few dollars, each of which will hold roughly 50 softcover items.  You should also get a supply of Mylar plastic storage bags ("poly bags") and matching cardboard backing inserts… nothing will lower an item’s value quicker than a coffee stain or a mashed corner.  More info on proper storage – and what to do in case of disaster – can be found in our Mold & Mildew essays and Storage Materials essay.

  • Maintain an accurate inventory.  It may seem silly when you’ve just got a few items, but once your collection grows appreciably, you’ll be thankful you started an inventory early.  We recommend recording the condition of the item, a short description, and possibly even an estimated value.  Avery makes a great line of self-adhesive labels; the little round ones are perfect for recording a two-letter condition (VG, NM, etc) on those poly bags you bought.

  • Shop the Resellers, and monitor the Auctions.


Since many auctions follow the conventions established by eBay, we’ll only describe that auction house here.

Currently, there are roughly 1500 items (30 pages) of new items posted each day to the eBay RPG forum; at least two thirds are D&D items.  There are three common ways that people scan the auctions:

  • Looking at every page of items, every day (or every couple days).  This is obviously the most time consuming, but is generally the only way you will ensure that you’re getting the best deal, and ensuring that you spot every item you’re looking for, should it come up.

  • Using auction management software, or entering terms manually, to search for the items you want.  Be aware that most auctions last about a week, so you’ll need to search once a week at a minimum to stay current.  This is a good (and quick) method to use if you’re A) searching for a lot of items, and/or B) not particularly concerned with catching the occasional mis-labeled item.  Sometimes, people misspell an item’s title, or simply don’t describe an item with a keyword you have specified in your search.  I highly recommend checking out Neville Ridley-Smith's outstanding AuctionSieve software.  Setting up your searches can initially take some time to "tweak" to your liking, but the results are nothing short of amazing.  Best of all, it's completely free to use!

  • Doing a random search every once in a while.  Let’s face it – we’re often lazy, and staring at screen after screen of items can be quite tedious.  Simply ask yourself this question: if an item that you’ve really wanted should come up for auction, and you miss it, will you be upset?  If so, consider switching to one of the methods above, and sticking with it.  The rewards may be worthwhile.


Once you’ve found a item you’re interested in, you enter the fun world of bidding.  As stated above, most auctions last about a week.  A few will last longer, and a few will be cut short after only a few days – if no one is bidding on an item, a seller can end the auction at any time.

The seller sets the minimum bid, which is the price the bidding will start at.  Successive bids will be in a minimum of 50-cent increments, and will be listed as the current bid.  Your maximum bid – the bid price you actually entered – will be kept in proxy, meaning that eBay will automatically raise the current bid for you until someone exceeds your maximum.

Example: A module’s minimum bid is $2.00. Robert bids $5.00 on it, which places the current bid at $2.00.  Note that this current bid is the price you see – but only Robert knows how much he’s actually bid on the item.  Jimmy comes along, and bids $4.00 (he needs to bid a minimum of 50 cents over the current bid).  Since this is below Robert’s maximum, eBay raises the current bid to $4.00 – and the item is still Robert’s.  To be the high bidder, someone would have to bid at least $5.50.


Bid your maximum.  Often advised, it’s a smart strategy.  If you’re willing to pay $100 for an item, worst-case scenario, then bid that.  You won’t have to monitor the auction; you’ll get a notice if you’re outbid, or you’ll get a notice that you’ve won the item.  There’s three dangers.

  • Someone may jack up the price on you, if they suspect you’ve bid high.  This occurs primarily when you’ve bid on similar, multiple items, and there’s reason to suspect you’ve set equal bids on all of them.  Let’s say you place $30 bids on modules A1, A2, and A3, all from the same seller.  Steve comes along, bids $25 (the most he’s willing to pay) on module A-1, and sees that you’ve automatically overbid him.  Since it burns his heart that you may get a great deal on modules A-2 and A-3, he bids $25 on those, too, figuring (rightly, in this case) that your bid will be higher.  You end up paying $75 for the three, which is less than your maximum, but certainly not the deal you were hoping for.

  • Be prepared to lose by 50 cents, and be comfortable with that: you bid $100 on an item, and someone bids $100.50 and wins it.  An easy way to avoid this frustration is to bid higher than your "maximum".  If you think something’s worth $100 to you, bid $110.  Worst case, you win the item at $110.  But if someone wins it at $110.50, you won’t be so upset, because you were really only prepared to pay $100 for it.

  • You could be the victim of a "feeding frenzy" – compulsive bidding in excess of an item’s real worth.  More on this below.

Sniping. Minutes (or seconds!) before an auction ends, you bid high and win the auction.  Since time has run out, the person you overbid doesn’t have a chance to counterbid.  This strategy has two benefits:

  • Lets you win an auction from someone who hasn’t bid their maximum, and is hoping for a good deal.

  • Helps you avoid the "feeding frenzy".  The feeding frenzy is the phenomenon that causes people to keep bidding until they’re the high bidder – whatever the cost.  Some people don’t like to lose; related to the compulsion to keep tossing more quarters into a slot machine, even after you’ve spent more than you budgeted, because you can see victory just around the corner.  As a result, the bidding goes much higher than anybody had planned.  Sniping generally occurs on rare items, where no one wants to reveal how much they’re willing to pay until the last second – or is unsure of how much they’re willing to pay until push-comes-to-shove.


Auctions here are generally straightforward.  A seller posts a list of items for sale in a newsgroup message; bidders send in e-mail bids to the seller, who then posts an update every few days with the high bids.  Often, an arbitrary auction ending date/time is set.  Since proxy bidding is not a usual practice, what you bid is what you’ll pay if you’re the high bidder.

Note that bids are usually sent to the seller in private e-mail.  Posting a public newsgroup message with your bid is considered a breach of etiquette.

It should be noted that while not completely extinct, newsgroup auctions are becoming exceedingly rare.  The exposure to the collecting market is certainly many orders of magnitude less than on eBay.  A newsgroup-like auction can be conducted via our Classifieds forum, which also forces bidders to respond to you via e-mail or private message (since forum replies are prohibited).


Some things you should be aware of when examining items, either in person, through a scanned picture, or in a text description.

  • Unoriginal Shrinkwrap:  Professionally-done, modern (1985+) shrinkwrap will have straight edges, no real "ridge" along the seams, and no shrinkwrap overlap (as a rule).  Older, professionally-done shrinkwrap from TSR usually has an overlap of a few inches along the back.  Be alert for shrinkwrap that has a visible "ridge" along the seal melt, has crooked edges (edges of the shrinkwrap which do not run parallel to the edges of the item), is wrinkled, or has overlap in areas other than the back center.  While not necessarily indicative of a fake (sometimes the company is simply a bit sloppy), such indicators (combined with clues such as a less-than-mint item) may point to a post-publication shrinkwrap job.

  • Removed Inserts:  Some people will remove the inserts from magazines (or even modules) and attempt to sell them as stand-alone products.  In the case of Dragon Magazine, these are often the modules included with many issues (which usually came with their own cover art). Polyhedrons 16-19 included RPGA modules 5-8 respectively; while these issues are highly collectible in their entirety, the removed modules are not necessarily so.  Gaining a passing familiarity with these issues and module titles can help you avoid unscrupulous (or simply ignorant) sellers.

  • "Up"grading:  The practice of grading an item higher than it should be.  Since grading is so subjective (one man’s Very Fine is another’s Mint, etc), a scanned picture of the item can help alleviate this problem.  If in doubt, ask specific questions of the seller (are there any creases at all along the spine? is the cover a nice bright color, or is there some fading?).  As a rule (unfortunately), most sellers tend to inflate their grading; obviously, a "mint" copy is worth far more in auction than a "very good" one.  While few people will out-and-out lie about condition, truly strict graders are hard to come by (and invaluable once you do find one).

  • Fakes / Phantom Items:  The buyer’s nightmare – the seller is lying, and doesn’t have the item at all, or has a cheap photocopy or reproduction.  Since RPG collecting is not yet "mainstream", and the values of even the rarest items are not enough to attract the serious scam artists, this thankfully has not been a large problem.  Most fake auctions are easy to spot: if someone is offering "Lost Tamoachan, a first print of the D&D set, and all the original hardcovers, first-print and Mint", it’s probably a fake.  Duh.  On eBay, your best defense against this is a good seller Feedback Rating.  If someone is offering a high-priced item, and has a feedback rating of less than 10, be VERY cautious.  Everything could be legitimate, but it would be wise to obtain additional information, such as the seller’s mailing address, phone number, driver’s license number (don’t laugh; I’ve asked for it), and miscellaneous, hard-to-know-unless-you’ve-got- the-item info.  Remember that web sites like this one help the good guys as well as the bad; if a seller is exclusively using data and scans from this site, be wary.  Demand an original scan of the item being sold!  Everyone has access to a neighborhood Kinko’s to get this done.  On a positive note: I’ve participated in probably over a hundred purchases since late 1995, both on eBay and on the newsgroup, and have been burned exactly once – for $40, from someone with a good feedback rating on eBay, who simply stopped delivering items to a number of buyers.

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