D&D Does Digital Part III: PDFs

Today, Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) releases Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of much of its content, including both new products and older books from its back catalog, but it wasn't always that way. At one point, WOTC withdrew from the PDF market entirely. This article takes a look at the on-again, off-again relationship WOTC has with the PDF community.

Today, Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) releases Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of much of its content, including both new products and older books from its back catalog, but it wasn't always that way. At one point, WOTC withdrew from the PDF market entirely. This article takes a look at the on-again, off-again relationship WOTC has with the PDF community.

[h=3]The "Bad Old Days"[/h]
The company that owned the rights to Dungeons & Dragons was slow to embrace content delivered digitally. As often happens with the Internet, fans led the way with their own work. Frank Mentzer explained in an interview:

In the Bad Old Days, TSR filed a lot legal actions against fans who tried to publish things that, in the opinion of TSR's lawyers, infringed on their property. But in 2000, WotC created the "Open Game License" (OGL), which changed all that. If another company published an adventure for the D&D game and simply included that License (a one-page thing), they didn't get sued. Wizards didn't have to beat up their fans to appease the lawyers

For a comprehensive history of those legal actions, see Shannon Appelcline's excellent article, "Games & The Law, Part Seven: The D&D Dilemma." The OGL certainly made it easier for fan works to be distributed, and it may well have blurred the line for consumers as to what was owned by WOTC and what was open license. WOTC contributed quite a bit of content to the public beyond the core rule books, including the Epic Level Handbook, Deities and Demigods, parts of Unearthed Arcana, and the Expanded Psionics Handbook. Sites like D20SRD and later D20PFSRD made the game much more accessible by sharing these rules but reduced the need to purchase printed versions of the core rules. WOTC itself was slow to incorporate contributors to the OGL movement into its own work -- the razorboar and scorpionfolk in the Monster Manual II being a rare exception.

PDFs were on the rise too. According to Matthew Sprange of Mongoose Publishing, role-playing games reached a digital tipping point in 2012, wherein customers were buying more electronic copies than print copies of books.

The current RPG market is miserable. There really is no other word for it. I was talking to the owner of a certain well known RPG company just a little while ago, and he mentioned that he had sold a few hundred of his latest release. We agreed it was a good total in this day and age for the average RPG product (not saying his book was average but… oh, you get the point!). Then he dropped the bombshell; he had reliable information that his book had outsold the latest supplement of a very well known, not to mention market-leading, game. If the top tier games are selling at these levels, then something is seriously wonky in the market…On the other hand, RPG sales among PDFs, spearheaded by DrivethruRPG.com, are fairly booming. Which, of course, brings us to the inevitable question; is digital taking over?

Sprange also shared that wargamers had not made the same transition as their tabletop role-player counterparts:

What is really peculiar is that while a large number of roleplayers have embraced PDF books, wargamers have not – and the difference is staggering, especially when you consider the relative sizes of the two markets. And yet… to my addled mind at least, it makes more sense for miniatures games to be presented in PDF format. Instant updates, errata fully integrated into the core rules, every time; yet it seems miniatures gamers are just not keen on this new-fangled technology!

The rise of electronic publishing was perhaps to be expected in light of the decay of the book publisher distribution chain, epitomized by the closure of Borders. Printing Impressions reported:

According to the most recent wave of Affinity’s American Magazine Study surveys—which report the total magazine brand footprint across print, mobile and social platforms, as well as integrating magazine Website data from comScore’s Media Metrix—there are now 15 magazines generating larger digital audiences than print reader numbers.

ICv2 confirmed that PDFs were over 20 percent of all tabletop role-playing game sales. It was good news for small press publishers who didn't have access to traditional print and distribution channels, but it came with a downside. The winding path of Dragon Magazine epitomized the pitfalls of digital publishing.
[h=3]The Dragon Unleashed[/h]
The Dragon Magazine Archive was originally released in 1999 by TSR, detailing all the issues of Dragon Magazine from the first seven issues of The Strategic Review up through issue 250 in text-searchable PDF format. However, according to Wikipedia, a dispute over magazine publishing rights led to Kenzer & Co. acquiring the rights in a sort of swap to publish AD&D-compatible content through its HackMaster line:

K&C acquired the rights to produce HackMaster after the Dragon Magazine Archive software was published where Wizards of the Coast failed to get permission to reprint many of the original articles such as the Knights of the Dinner Table comic in the electronic media archive. A lawsuit was settled out of court, and K&C started producing HackMaster afterwards.

The bone of contention seemed to be over the rights that the authors of earlier issues signed with Dragon Magazine when they agreed to write for the publication. At the time, digital rights were not even considered and the contracts the authors signed were not inclusive of these rights. As a result, the legitimacy of publishing any print product in digital format was an open question – each author would have to renegotiate their contract with TSR, making the publication of any compilation precarious to say the least. The compilation is no longer for sale and currently retails for over $600 on Amazon.

Dragon Magazine and its sister publications Dungeon and Polyhedron were back in the spotlight in 2013 when they were all uploaded to the Internet Archive. They were taken down shortly thereafter, as per the Internet Archive's Copyright Policy:

The Internet Archive respects the intellectual property rights and other proprietary rights of others. The Internet Archive may, in appropriate circumstances and at its discretion, remove certain content or disable access to content that appears to infringe the copyright or other intellectual property rights of others.

It was not the first time
a magazine was put on Internet Archive without contributor or publisher permission:

In a story at his Web site headed "What the heck is going on at Internet Archive?", author Steven Saylor noted, “Sometime in 2012, the entire run of Omni magazine was uploaded (and made downloadable) at Internet Archive.... Since those old issues must contain hundreds of works still under copyright by numerous contributors, how is this legal?" At least one contributor to the magazine, author Steve Perry, has publicly complained that he never gave permission for his work to be uploaded ("they didn't say a word in my direction"), and it has been noted that all issues containing the work of Harlan Ellison have apparently been taken down.

It was clear that Internet consumers and publishing companies had very different views on sharing PDF content. The issue would eventually come to a head for WOTC in a legal battle that had far-reaching repercussions.
[h=3]WOTC Has Enough[/h]WOTC's tolerance for illegal PDFs was reached on April 6, 2009. RPGNow was instructed to stop the sale and downloads of all WOTC titles. That was just the beginning:

Wizards of the Coast has instructed us to suspend all sales and downloads of Wizards of the Coast titles. Unfortunately, this includes offering download access to previously purchased Wizards of the Coast titles.

On March 6, WOTC had previously announced its New Internet Sales Policy would be released on April 6, the same day as the mysterious removal of all WOTC PDFs. At 7:12 p.m. EST, Trevor Kidd, Community Team Member for WOTC, announced on the WOTC forums that:

...due to recent findings of illegal copying and online distribution (piracy) of our products, Wizards of the Coast has decided to cease the sales of online PDFs.

Soon after, Paizo removed all WOTC PDFs as well. At approximately 8 p.m. EST, Paizo sent out a note to its customers indicating that:

...after April 6 at 11:59 PM Pacific time, Wizards of the Coast PDFs will no longer be available for purchase on http://paizo.com.

After 12 p.m. PST on April 7, the note explained, customers would no longer be able to download Wizards of the Coast PDFs that were already purchased. Soon thereafter, WOTC issued a press release. In short, WOTC filed lawsuits against defendants in the U.S., Poland, and the Philippines for copyright infringement of its recently-released Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook 2. The press release stated that:

...one or more of the defendants purchased digital copies of Player’s Handbook 2 and then illegally posted the copies onto popular file-sharing sites for free access and download by the general public.

Greg Leeds, President of WOTC, explained in the press release that the company...

...brought these suits to stop the illegal activities of these defendants, and to deter future unauthorized and unlawful file-sharing.

Wizards of the Coast PR Manager Tolena Thorburn told Ars Technica:

In these lawsuits, which are public information, you would see that this specifically revolves around the players handbooks. They were released and, the same day, there were thousands of copies being downloaded illegally. It's very frustrating for us...It's a difficult problem to have, and it's one that plagues our industry. We didn't do this lightly, and we understand our fans enjoy that format. Most of the fans who have legally purchased PDFs are also customers who have the physical product. Until we have another digital solution, I think our fans at least are not being deprived of the product, and I think that's really important, that they have the product that they know and love.

CJ Ovalle shared the other side of the story:

WotC has sued 8 individuals- 5 named, 3 John Does- for copyright infringement. WotC put out a press release about their action (probably to show how serious they are about the problem). Like the *AA’s, WotC is suing its fanbase. One of the individuals has self-identified himself as a 16-year-old D&D player in the Philippines. Another, if his story is true, is a D&D player from Poland and is actually innocent of infringement (his friend uploaded the pdf to scribd without his knowledge). Being innocent of infringement is not particularly far-fetched, either, even if this person is lying- there are number of ways that this can occur. Lose your computer? Have your computer or a storage machine hacked? Edited the watermark? We’ve seen these types of things occur with other content industries already. WotC is suing these individuals for actual damages (the amount they’ve lost, which they also claim is unmeasurable in those same documents), and statutory damages (up to $150,000 per infringement).

Customers fumed on RPG.net, ENWorld, Paizo, and WOTC’s own (soon to be discontinued) message boards, postulating as to the reason for the sudden change in policy. Two competing theories were put forth: that WOTC had launched its own digital initiative and was thus removing the competition, or that it was in direct response to illegal file sharing of WOTC electronic products. A poll on ENWorld’s forum argued that the revocation of the existing PDFs punished legitimate consumers and may have even encouraged piracy. At least two of the cases were settled:

In one of three lawsuits brought by Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro Inc., U.S. District Judge Thomas S. Zilly on Friday accepted a settlement in which Thomas Patrick Nolan of Milton, Fla., agreed to a judgment against him of $125,000. In a settlement accepted by Zilly in July in a second Wizards lawsuit, Arthur Le of San Jose, Calif., agreed to pay $100,000 to the Hasbro Inc. subsidiary. Wizards has asked the judge to order that Le's co-defendant, Mike Becker of Bartlesville, Okla., pay $30,000 in damages and $14,616.75 in legal fees and costs. Becker has not responded to the lawsuit and was found in default in July, court filings show.
[h=3]D&D Insider Gives it a Try[/h]Dungeons & Dragons Insider (DDI) was WOTC's next attempt at managing PDFs. It was announced simultaneously with the cancellation of Paizo's license for Dungeon and Dragon magazine. Scott Rouse, Senior Brand Manager for D&D at the time, said of the move:

Today the internet is where people go to get this kind of information. By moving to an online model we are using a delivery system that broadens our reach to fans around the world. Paizo has been a great partner to us over the last several years. We wish them well on their future endeavors.

GameSpy explained
the details:

D&D Insider was announced at the 2007 GenCon as a five-part subscription-based electronic supplement to Dungeons & Dragons. Subscriptions will run $7.95 per month with discounts for three and 12-month commitments. Since that announcement, two of the five programs have started running in free trial mode. The company's two D&D magazines "Dragon" and "Dungeon" are available as 100% downloadable digital content. The "D&D Compendium" is a searchable online database covering every single rule and officially issued errata for feats, powers, magic items or any other technical issue that might need to be looked up in the course of a game. While currently far from complete, the Compendium's entries are growing every day.

Dragon and Dungeon were both released in PDF format through D&D Insider. D&D Insider would continue to support both publications through the release of Fourth Edition D&D until October 2014:

This month we want to share some upcoming changes to the DDI tool set and subscription. As we look to the future launch of D&D Next, we are shifting our focus to the development and support of the new rules set, which will impact the Dungeons & Dragons Insider subscription service. DDI will remain available to those who still wish to access all the great 4th Edition Magazines and Tools as part of the DDI subscription. Starting in March of 2014, the DDI tool set (Character Builder, Adventure Tools and Compendium), will no longer be updated with new 4th Edition game content. Existing issues of Dungeon magazine and Dragon magazine will continue to be offered for viewing.

Why shut down D&D Insider? WOTC was beginning to shift their digital strategy from owning the platforms to leveraging third parties.
[h=3]The Return of the PDF[/h]Fans couldn't legally purchased PDFs for four years. It wasn't until January 2013 that Steve Wieck, COO of OneBookShelf, Inc., shared some very good news.

Our goal with DriveThruRPG has always been to have every RPG ever made available 24/7 at a click. We can’t meet that goal without Wizards! We have been in constant dialogue with Wizards every year since we opened our virtual doors. Granted that from 2009 to 2011 there wasn’t a lot of dialogue to have, but as the next edition was announced and Wizards has geared up support for all prior editions, we started having constructive dialogue with the team at Wizards last year. It was a jaw-dropper for me when Wizards let us know that they had already collected hundreds upon hundreds of classic titles and had them all re-digitized at high resolution. Wizards had not been idle on the digital product front.

The new site was DnDClassics.com. Laura Tommervik, Brand Manager at Wizards of the Coast, shared the company's excitement:

We're very excited to once again offer our fans the option to purchase classic content as digital files. As technology continues to advance, our offerings continue to improve. All second edition and prior titles have been re-mastered with better quality scans and re-bookmarked. Scanning equipment has improved considerably over the last decade, and it was time to replace the scans created under the ESD program with all new scans. All third edition and forward titles are original digital files mastered from the original layout files. They include bookmarking and other PDF features.

Better yet, the fans who had purchased WOTC titles four years ago had them restored:

Customers who previously purchased Wizards titles at DriveThruRPG or RPGNow should know that as those titles are re-released, they can check their Library page on DriveThruRPG to get downloads of the new and improved files. Wizards has asked us to make sure that all previous DriveThruRPG and RPGNow purchasers get the updated files for free!

A quick perusal of the site shows a wide range of editions are present on DNDClassics with one glaring exception: the core rule books for Fifth Edition.
[h=3]Where Are the Fifth Edition Core Rule Books?[/h]With the release of the Fifth Edition of D&D there was a lot of discussion about how WOTC would treat the Open Game License (OGL). We've already seen that the OGL paved the way for a deluge of Old School Renaissance (OSR) games that mimic older editions, which in turn helped bolster PDF sales of out of print books. But the three core rule books for Fifth Edition are conspicuously absent from the PDF market. Why?

As we discussed in a previous article, going digital radically upends the support structures that stand between the creator and the consumer. These legacy institutions do not easily give up the revenue built into their existing models, which is why they fight tooth and nail to hold on to them. Chris Anderson at Wired explains why free is the future of business on the Web:

It's now clear that practically everything Web technology touches starts down the path to gratis, at least as far as we consumers are concerned. Storage now joins bandwidth (YouTube: free) and processing power (Google: free) in the race to the bottom. Basic economics tells us that in a competitive market, price falls to the marginal cost. There's never been a more competitive market than the Internet, and every day the marginal cost of digital information comes closer to nothing.

These changes most certainly apply to printed editions of tabletop role-playing games. WOTC has long known that D&D fans want PDFs of the core rule books. Mearls said as much in an Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Reddit:

I can't say any specific about digital tools, but we're 100% committed to making them happen. I think the easiest way to make D&D fade would be to mistake the core thing about D&D with the way it's delivered. D&D has survived and thrived over the years because it engages the imagination and brings people together in a really unique way. It would be foolish to lose that by equating those things with physical books. Of course, people do like physical products and there's no reason to stop those, but the reverse is also true - we aren't making book lovers happy by pissing off people who want the game delivered digitally, with a robust set of tools.

Mearls followed up with that interview with a surprising announcement:

we just announced at the ACD distributor conference that about 15% of the Player's Handbook will be available for free as a PDF

That was an oblique way of announcing the Basic version of Fifth Edition D&D would be released as a free PDF:

Basic D&D is a PDF that covers the core of the game. It’s the equivalent of the old D&D Rules Cyclopedia, though it doesn’t have quite the same scope (for example, it won’t go into detail on a setting). It runs from levels 1 to 20 and covers the cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard, presenting what we view as the essential subclass for each. It also provides the dwarf, elf, halfling, and human as race options. But the best part? Basic D&D is a free PDF. Anyone can download it from our website. We want to put D&D in as many hands as possible, and a free, digital file is the best way to do that.

Wizards chose a middle path that released PDFs for free under the company's control while at the same time preserving core rulebooks for traditional print channels. That's still not the full set of core rules however. As we discussed in the last installment, Dungeonscape was originally going to include the core rules in a fully indexed format, but that plan collapsed when the program was cancelled. Instead, WOTC went with Fantasy Grounds. Polygon shared that Fantasy Grounds now had both the Player's Handbook and the Monster Manual integrated into its system, including support for The Lost Mine of Phandelver:

Polygon has spent some time checking out the content in The Lost Mine module. Believe it or not, the entire experience, page-for-page, of the physical 5th edition D&D Starter Set is represented there. Beyond that, Fantasy Ground's modules even include annotated maps hotlinked to spawn enemies onto the grid, ready to roll initiative.

It doesn't come cheap. The Core Class Pack (listed as WOTC5EPHBDELUXE in the URL) and the Core Monster Pack (listed as WOTC5EMMDELUXE) retails for $50. Another Polygon article describes just how much it costs to play D&D digitally:

A single license of Fantasy Grounds is $40, while a four-pack is $120. For the traditional party of five players plus a Dungeon Master, that means spending $200 on the basic software. Then come the D&D modules themselves. You're looking at another $20 for your first campaign. Add on another $50 for the class pack and $50 for the monster pack, and now we're sitting at $320, or about $53 per person.

Smiteworks chimed in on the pricing on ENWorld:

The pricing for the FG Ultimate license is indeed $149. We added a subscription option for the same thing at $9.99 a month that we believe should be comparable with Mentor level access of Roll20. For a 1 month sub at $9.99 and the D&D Basic Rules and Theme pack at $2.99, you can try it out for a month with your group for a relatively cheap price. The 1-month sub comes with a bunch of monster tokens and some maps that should also help offset the cost, should you choose not to stay with FG beyond that time. We put a lot of attention and effort into making these modules as top notch as we could, though, so we hope you'll stick with it after you've gotten the hang of it. You can always enter in your own content and maps or copy from the books. If you decide you would rather have them pre-loaded, there is at least an option for that.

We're still not at fully-indexed PDFs of the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual -- at this point it seems WOTC has no plans in the near future to release core rule books in that format. For now, fans will have to make do with the basic rules and integrated rule sets for virtual table tops like Smiteworks.

In the last installment we'll look at the virtual communities that support WOTC. For more in the D&D Does Digital series, please see:

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.


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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


First Post
I have to wonder if WOTC's concern over piracy and their resulting pulling out of the PDF market made or lost them money? In other words, was the amount of lost profits from no sales of PDFs less then or greater then the additional profits made due to less piracy? Not to mention the loss of goodwill over the issue.

And any electronic version needs to be non-revokable and transferable from one device to a future device. Since WOTC has a track record of removing access of customers to paid for content, the trust is gone.

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Cody C. Lewis

First Post

Good question. I obviously do not have the answer, but as much as I would hope that they would make more money by offering PDFs (thus encouraging them to do so) I don't believe there is any doubt that 5e is a smashing success.

I just hope that because they have tasted success that they do not feel a need to produce their material in a digital format is a low priority at the moment.


I have to wonder if WOTC's concern over piracy and their resulting pulling out of the PDF market made or lost them money?

Best guess: it's a rounding error. The PDFs were always a small part of D&D overall, and D&D was a small part of WotC overall. So any change in either direction was probably barely worth mentioning. But corporations place a disproportionate value on any money they perceive that they've lost, so consider any piracy to be a big issue.

(Note that this was before the days when D&D was "on a tear". Things may be different now.)


And any electronic version needs to be non-revokable and transferable from one device to a future device. Since WOTC has a track record of removing access of customers to paid for content, the trust is gone.

We considered this when we drafted our agreement for carrying conversions on Fantasy Grounds. The products are transferable from one device to another device as long as they are linked to your account, but remain in Fantasy Grounds format. Our agreement means that any purchases made for Wotc licensed content in Fantasy Grounds are non-revokable and can be maintained on our server to allow for future re-installs for anyone who purchased the product. At most, we would be unable to sell new copies or advertise any partner relationship, but any copies already sold would remain available to customers. We obviously want to maintain our good standing with Wizards of the Coast and continue to sell existing and new products; however, everyone involved thought it was important to protect consumers. This was not a difficult "sell" when we discussed it with our contacts, so they all got it and made sure that the legal department provided for that.


Maybe Smiteworks needs to hire some app developers to make an app that does most of the things listed in the thread since they already have a license and would be on a good footing to make a presentation...


I liked Insider and even kept my subscription going for a while after I stopped playing 4e (just for reference). I'd probably subscribe to something similar for 5e.


I have stopped purchasing physical copies of RPG products for the simple reason that they take up too much space. I either get it as a PDF or don't get it at all. Unfortunately, in the case of D&D 5E, that means I don't get it at all. The game sounds wonderful, but I will never see it or play it until I can get a PDF. WoTC has lost the battle. There are too many RPGs out there that are D&D competitors which are easily obtainable in PDF format. The easiest solution to the D&D availability problem for me is to simply not purchase D&D products.

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