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Before the days of the Internet (1993 and earlier), collecting D&D material was an unknown hobby.  Those few who did it were either the Early Smart (those who carefully stashed away items when they were published), or the Tragically Late (those of us who scoured endless hobby shops in search of the stuff, often at wildly varying prices and conditions).  It was also the Heyday, when tabletop D&D was still quite popular, and many incredible bargains could be had.  I fondly remember walking into an obscure gaming store in Jacksonville, FL, and finding a second-print Original D&D set (now valued at hundreds of dollars) for $20; or the time I bought a shrinkwrapped copy of the orange-cover module B3 at GenCon for $160 (now worth perhaps five times that).

As contributor Ken Wellens writes, "The only guide to collectible D&D items in that medieval era was Zocchi's, a national RPG dealer based in Mississippi.  Old-time readers of Dragon Magazine might remember their whole-page ads, which contained lists of prices for old D&D and 1st Ed. AD&D titles.  In a pre-Internet age, the existence of such a list in Dragon Magazine, the definitive source of news for all things TSR, made Zocchi's list the definitive price guide for TSR collecting.  Zocchi's also maintained a significant presence at GenCon each year, and the list was widely distributed there as well.  It was not uncommon for patrons of the GenCon used-games auction to visit Zocchi's booth each year and review the list prior to going to the auction.  Thusly, selling prices at the auction often reflected those on the list."

Those days, while only just a handful of years ago, are now gone for good.  The Internet started the stampede, in the form of the RPG Marketplace newsgroup.  Up until late 1998, the newsgroup would easily get 50 – 100 new auction messages per day.  For the first time, collectible items could be distributed to a national buying audience, and price standards (as well as relative rarity standards) could be established with some degree of certainty.  At about that time, David Papay began a D&D Price List, a comprehensive listing of every item produced by TSR and its average newsgroup auction price, as well as a D&D Trivia Page, with printing info and data on a variety of collectible D&D gear.  Although discontinued in 1997, Papay’s exhaustive and thorough research has formed a solid basis for The Acaeum.

The scene changed again with the rapid expansion of eBay, the online auction house, in January 1999 (coinciding with the media attention on eBay’s auction of the Mark McGuire baseballs).  Within a month, traffic on the newsgroup had slowed to a trickle, as buyers and sellers alike quickly realized the advantages of eBay.

Oct 1 1999:

Currently, RPG collecting is experiencing a rapid rise in popularity, in direct contrast with the actual gaming systems themselves (which have been declining in popularity since the glory days of the late 70’s and early 80’s… most likely due to computer games).  As with many such collectibles, the toys you played with as a kid are what you often seek to collect as an adult, whether comic books, baseball cards, coins, Star Wars figures, or D&D.  The average age of "old-school" D&D players is now roughly 30; just about the age when increased disposable income can (and has) fueled rapidly rising auction prices for these items.  For that reason, we at The Acaeum feel that the "ceiling" on this hobby is far from being reached.  A Superman #1 comic book in mint condition is worth probably $40,000 today; is it unreasonable to expect that a Lost Tamoachan, or a Dragon Magazine #1, could also someday reach that lofty price point?  Probably not (D&D was popular, but didn’t achieve the market penetration of comic books), but you never know.  We’ll have to wait and see.

As for the present: Is the RPG market over- or under-valued?  All things considered, The Acaeum feels the market, as a whole, is slightly overvalued.  This is based on a few reasons.  1) eBay (as stated before, the major outlet for the RPG market right now) is a new phenomenon, and some of its incredible success is probably due to that newness and faddishness – much like a run on Cabbage Patch Kids.  Eventually, the "impulse buyers" wake up and move onto something else.  On the flip side of the coin, those same impulse buyers increase the publicity of the hobby, bringing more people – many of whom will start a serious collection – into the fold.  2) The supply / demand curve hasn’t balanced.  While not an absolute in collecting (HOW many Mark McGuire rookie cards are out there, and they’re going for how much?), a skewed supply / demand curve creates an unstable market, prone to collapse.  Witness baseball cards a few years ago (before the McGuire craze started it all up again)… collections "worth" thousands of dollars suddenly became worthless, as the collective consciousness realized that just because a price guide says it’s worth $1000, doesn’t mean it’s so: the sheer number of available items creates competition between sellers, which drives down the price.  In the D&D world, this theory is exemplified by modules like WGA4 Vecna Lives! and the H-series modules. There’s plenty of them, and there’s nothing really special about them, but they’re currently in vogue.  The abundant supply may eventually cause values on these types of items to fall.  Thankfully, the strength of the RPG market is that there’s plenty of truly rare or uncommon items to keep trading lively.  3) Ignorant buying public.  Many "dabblers" in the RPG market today may not know quite what they’re bidding on; since there’s relatively little hard data available (pre-Acaeum, of course!), some items may skyrocket in price simply because a couple of people bid on it, and the bidding snowballs – hey, if Fred and Bob are bidding on it, this must be good!  This "feeding frenzy" is discussed in more detail in the Collecting Ins and Outs essay.

What does all this mean? Simply put, if our theory is correct, prices on "mainstream" RPG collectibles may fall a bit in the coming year or two.  For example, your copy of module A-1 in Very Good condition may no longer fetch $15, but rather $8.  eBay will no longer be a fad, the supply/demand curve will balance, and the collecting public will be more informed about what they’re bidding on.  But fear not: we also predict the prices for the rare items will continue to rise, if not meteorically.

Apr 1 2002:

Much has changed in the past two-and-a-half years, most of it for the better.  eBay has continued to dominate the market scene; competitor auction sites such as Yahoo! and have failed to attract a sizeable audience.  With the addition of a Role Playing Games category, as well as expanded search functions, eBay has firmly established itself as the place to purchase collectible D&D material.

How have our predictions panned out?  Surprisingly well.  The overvaluation we spoke of in the last essay has stabilized; while Keep on the Borderlands modules still occasionally sell for $50, these occurrences are thankfully much more infrequent.  Many of the impulse buyers have moved on to a different hobby, and those that remain are much more informed than they were three years ago.

On the flip side, rare items continue to sell for high prices -- but the values of many of them have not increased quite as much as expected.  We believe that The Acaeum is partially to blame for that.  We've received a number of e-mails from sellers who regale us with stories of prospective buyers who balk at paying higher prices than what we've listed in our indexes.  "$100??  How can you charge that much, when The Acaeum says it's only worth $50??"

We'd like to think that we set our item values based on the market's activity.  In reality, since the market has so little guidance one way or the other, the market tends to set its price based on what's on our site.  We end up in a catch-22, especially for items that have little to no auction history.  On such items, we've tended to set the values cautiously low, with the idea that the market will show us how much people are willing to pay for them.  That hasn't happened; the bidding tends to stop when it reaches the value we've set.

What's the solution?  Perhaps a bit more value-tweaking, on items that really do deserve to be worth more than what they're currently selling for.  We've done a slight bit of this already; a prime example is the 10th Anniversary Collector's Set.  Our original value for this was very low, as we had never seen one sold.  The rarity of this item, however, has never been in question.  When one finally sold in January of this year, we were horrified: $91!  Even if it was in only Very Good condition, this amount is far too low for an item of this scarcity.  A verified private sale a few weeks later garnered $680: a far more sensible amount.  We've since adjusted its value on the site.

So what gets altered?  Certainly, the vast majority of the values we list are dead-on accurate, for nearly everything on our indexes.  The exceptions here are the Rares, specifically the class-5 Rares.  Common items fetch cover price, generally, because the supply is far in excess of demand; the opposite is true for rare items.  So, you will be seeing a lot of green highlighting on the Rares Index this month.  If, after a few sales, the market fails to support these values, they'll head on back down.

One other thing we'd like to point out regarding our value estimations: condition of the item is important, if not paramount.  Many people only look at our "Mint"- or "Shrinkwrapped"-condition value, and assume that's the universal value of this item.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Why do we feel comfortable giving a mint-condition, 1st print Original D&D Set a value of $2,000?  Because we are absolutely confident that if that set, in mint condition, were to come up for auction, it would fetch at least $2,000.  The vast majority of these sets are in nowhere near mint condition, and are fetching a correspondingly lower amount. 

Of course, the real solution for all the problems mentioned above is for every buyer to pay more attention to the caveat we post several places on this site: use these values as a guide only.  As the old wisdom goes, "a painting is only worth what someone will pay for it".  We feel that the D&D collectibles hobby is in its infancy, and that collections will only continue to appreciate in value.  Following that logic, our opinion is that it's never a foolish decision to "pay too much" for an item you want, especially if that item is rare.  Time will tell if we're right, but if you agree with us, then let's take this hobby to where it wants to go.

Apr 1 2007:

It's been five years since the last installment of this essay, and I dare say it's long overdue!  There have been changes to the marketplace, but not to the extremes we saw in the first few years of the site's operation.  eBay has become the exclusive home of all collectible buying & selling; other competitors, such as Amazon, Yahoo, and the venerable RPG Marketplace newsgroup, have been completely marginalized.  With this centralization of the market has come relative stability and increased awareness of price trends, all of which are good things (unless you happen to have been a predatory seller, profiting from ignorance...).

Common item values (rarities 1, 2, and 3, for the most part) have generally fallen a bit further from their point in 2002.  I attribute this primarily to the market's (correct) perception that these items are in no short supply, and will come up for auction on a weekly or daily basis.  Most of these items are not in collectible condition -- they were played with, at least to some extent -- and so, too, the people buying them aren't looking for collectible copies anyway; they want to incorporate the items into their current gaming sessions.  Readily-available PDF files (legal or not) of many of these items also contributes to depressed values; a PDF file is just as suitable for playing as a physical copy.  However, copies that are in the upper bracket of collectibility, condition-wise (Near-Mint or higher, and usually with shrinkwrap intact) still tend to command a premium.  Believe it or not, a First print B2 Keep on the Borderlands, in the shrink, is a very rare specimen!

Rare items have fared better.  Values on all of these have generally risen.  The high end of rarity -- certain class 5's, such as woodgrain D&D Sets, ST1 Up the Garden Path, etc) have risen geometrically. Several record sales have been set in just this past year -- some for amounts that could have bought you a complete collection back when this website site was started!  Predictably, the availability of PDF's has not impacted values negatively -- collectors want the real deal, not a photocopy.  Have these items reached their maximums?  Probably not.  As stated before, there's a very limited supply.  One might argue that the demand is also limited, but I don't think that every potential interested buyer is aware of the D&D marketplace yet.  A good barometer of that is our forum membership, or more specifically, the number of different registered users that visit each day.  At this point last year, we were seeing about 80 different visitors a day; as I write this, the average is up to around 105.  Percentage-wise, a substantial increase.  And each new forum member, as I see it, represents another informed buyer or seller in our market.

For the near future, I see the market continuing to mature.  Values will further stabilize -- helping minimize the occurrences of wild price swings -- as well as continue to rise on the upper end of rarity.  More players from D&D's "Golden Age" will reach the point in their lives where they have the interest and financial capability to collect the games they played in their youth.  And hopefully word-of-mouth, random Google searches, and recommendations from current Acaeum members will continue to direct them into this hobby!

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