Back in the day, when the internet was young and Usenet roamed the Earth, fans of role playing games discovered that they had the unprecedented ability to share with each other fan-made rules supplements.
This isn’t exactly a new thing; amateur zines had been mimeographed and traded since the dawn of the hobby in the 70s, but in the late 80s and early 90s these offerings were made available to a global audience at the click of a link.
Anatomy of a Netbook
These netbooks were usually just simple text files with unsteady formatting – remember, PDFs weren’t really a common thing until Adobe released the open standard in 2008, and people didn’t necessarily trust more robust formats. Some had ASCII title cards or graphics, and almost all of them were authored by nigh-anonymous pseudonyms.
They’d be posted and reposted to newsgroups like rec.arts.rpgs, but you could also find them on websites like Blue Troll’s Netbooks – a site that is, amazingly, still live today, though, sadly, many of the links are broken.
A little dark? Sorry. The old net is a weird place.
A catalog of wonders
There were netbooks for every conceivable topic, from the AD&D guide to Star Trek to the Guide to Unlawful Carnal Knowledge to guides to dice rolling techniques. There were books that converted famous IPs to the system, and other books that just concerned some lonely GM’s home campaign.
I tended to look for books that patched the cracks in the aging second edition of Dungeons and Dragons, as well as those that fleshed it out. Some of the favorites I remember:
- Netbook of Riddles I was rubbish at coming up with them on the fly
- Plots Netbooks 1-5 Ruthlessly mined for ideas
- RPG Bible of Weapons for stuff beyond the medieval European
- Complete Book of Sanity for something more nuanced than Call of Cthulhu
- Guide to Drugs
- Guide to Herbs
- Guide to Hygiene because weeks on the road is probably unpleasant
- Netbook of Alcohol was surprisingly useful
- Great Net Race Book surprisingly useless
Dozens more I can’t remember, some useful, some not, some I should have left out but implemented out of some weird conviction that complexity equals quality, or something.
One side note that you may or may not recall, but there was quite the furor over TSR’s tendency to send C&D letters to many of the sites hosting these netbooks, or even just posting their campaign material. They really didn’t understand how to manage the internet’s access to their intellectual property.
Remember, this wasn’t about piracy. Nobody was posting photocopies of their books. It was just people creating fan-material during an era when D&D was suffering from serious setting bloat.
While I have no doubt that this internet material enhanced my game, I generally applied it in a thoughtless sort of manner. If it seemed cool, it was in, without regard for game balance or long term consequences.
And by and large, that worked. Maybe it was just harder to break 2e D&D further than it already was. Maybe it was just elastic enough to incorporate whatever you threw at it.
Whatever. We had fun.