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Free RPG Day 2020 and Beyond - Interview with Paul Alexander Butler of Gaming Days, LLC

With Free RPG Day 2019 in the rearview, it’s time to talk about next year’s Free RPG Day. 2020 is the first full-year that this event will be under the guidance of its new owners, Gaming Days LLC. I spoke with co-owner, Paul Alexander Butler (Overlight), to discuss what they’re keeping the same, what they’re changing, if they’ll continue to go head-to-head with Origins Game Fair, and if they have plans to get D&D/WotC to participate in a future Free RPG Day.
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EGG EMBRY (EGG): Paul, thank you for talking to me about acquiring Free RPG Day and what you plan to accomplish. Let’s start out with what is Free RPG Day?
PAUL ALEXANDER BUTLER (PAB)
: Free RPG Day is a worldwide event where participating brick-and-mortar retailers provide exclusive new printed content for a variety of roleplaying games. With brand new adventures or supplements, quick-start rules or even some accessories, we have a wide variety of publishing partners, and all of these items are free to consumers. We hope to help facilitate exciting events in stores around the world, and in turn inspire gamers to try new games, resulting in increased sales at these stores.

EGG: You’re one of three partners in Gaming Days LLC, correct? Who else is behind Gaming Days LLC? Was the company formed solely for to purchase and run Free RPG Day?
PAB
: My two business partners are Steve Ellis (Rainy Day Games) and Travis Severance (Millennium Games). The three of us each own game stores and have some shared perspectives and philosophies about running our stores. We’ve worked closely together in formal and informal ways for many years. Honestly, the three of us have been wanting to work together in an increased capacity for some time. Free RPG Day was something we were all passionate about and taking over this event was an opportunity to come together to start creating and promoting exciting, engaging events for the gaming retail sector.

EGG: You own a gaming store; can you tell us about it and discuss what kind of tabletop RPGs are the most popular at your store?
PAB
: Sure! My store is called Games and Stuff, and we’re located just outside Baltimore, very close to BWI airport in Glen Burnie, Maryland. We’re what I call a full-range game store, stocking not only RPGs, but board games, collectible card games, miniatures games, hobby and paint supplies and some other “stuff” like puzzles, collectibles, and a small curated book section. With over 7,700 square feet of space, we’re bigger than many stores, and can seat more than 160 players in our Event Center. As for RPGs, to nobody’s surprise, we do very well with Dungeons and Dragons. Pathfinder, Star Wars, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, and The One Ring are also strong sellers. Beyond that we stock quite broadly, carrying most titles you can think of, plus a wide range of indie press RPGs as well as used and collectible titles. And having co-designed Overlight for Renegade Games last year, that does pretty well in my store, as you might imagine.

EGG: At your location, what is your Free RPG Day program like? For Free Comic Book Day, many comic book stores report that event as their highest (or one of the highest) sales days each year. In terms of gamer outreach, sales, and attendance, how is Free RPG Day for your store?
PAB
: I have found that the stores that treat Free RPG Day like a mini convention are the ones that get the most out of it. Well in advance of the event, we recruit gamemasters to run short sessions of RPGs throughout the day, preferably using the materials provided in the current year’s Free RPG Day kit. We typically have between 8 and 12 of these 2-4 hour sessions over the course of the Saturday, requiring participants to sign up ahead of time to secure their spots. While I can’t pretend that Free RPG Day is one of my strongest sales days of the year, it’s certainly a very strong Saturday with sales of RPG product and accessories seeing a nice spike. It’s not unusual for us to run some sort of sales promotion that day as well, whether it be on our used games or some other featured RPG titles.

I do think that hosting Free RPG Day has other benefits throughout the year that are hard to quantify. So often RPG players can feel like second-class citizens in some game stores, getting bumped to make room for a Magic tournament or Warhammer event. Free RPG Day at the very least, is the one opportunity to say to those customers that RPGs matter, and today, the other players will have to give ground to roleplaying events. So, the event can really serve as a holiday that can significantly bolster a store’s local RPG community, although of course you’ll have to highlight RPGs more frequently and stock more than a couple D&D titles to really benefit.

EGG: In 2020 and beyond, what do you want to continue from the existing strategy?
PAB
: I think the basics of the program are really strong. A box of exclusive content that retailers can use to support the RPG community in their store and hopefully drive interest in new systems which lead to them stocking more of that product and driving sales. We’ve also offered two varieties of kits to retailers, standard and “uber”, the latter of which provided an opportunity to stock up on the core product featured in the free standard content. We’ll be continuing this idea, but perhaps with some different formats, incentivizing retailers to stock the featured product in advance of the actual event.

EGG: What are some of the areas of opportunity that you plan to work on in 2020?
PAB
: We’ve got a lot of ideas. We’re aggressively pursuing publishers who may not have participated in recent years, or at all. We plan to provide some genuine data to these companies so that they can see the benefit the program can have for their game lines. Conversations with publishers have already begun for 2020. The overall quality of the box contents will go up.

To that end, we’re probably reducing the varieties of sponsorship levels from publishers. A single copy of a book for instance, doesn’t really do much for the retailer except as a sample. It’s not supporting what we feel is the main directive of the program, which again, is exposing as many people as possible to new RPG experiences. And we’re raising the minimum participation level in other ways too, as next year we’re increasing the overall number of kits that will be available. The event has sold out every year in recent memory, and we’d like to see the number of participating stores grow, including internationally.

Some may feel that increasing the publisher participation requirements reduces the exposure of weird little indie RPGs, but never fear, we’ve got a very fun idea that we’ve been working on for a few months that will support indie designers and publishers in a way like never before. Watch for announcements this summer.

EGG: Free Comic Book Day has an all-ages policy, so every free comic is a general audience G/PG offering. Is there a similar rule in place for Free RPG Day offerings and, if not, are there any proposals for instituting one?
PAB
: There’s nothing in place at the moment, as I’m sure you’re aware with so much pushback on some of the content from years past. Going forward, we’ll be actively curating the contents of the kits to maintain an all-ages experience as we explore options for more mature-themed participation.

EGG: Among the goals you’ve mentioned is making this an inclusive experience, are their specific ideas to bring that into being?
PAB
: While we don’t have any codified policies in place, we’re all very passionate believers that RPGs should be for everyone, and we’ll be deliberately pursuing publishers who have a track record of conscientiously promoting inclusiveness. For next year, we hope to put together a best practices guide for retailers, providing a bit more guidance for running the event than in years past, and I imagine we’ll speak to inclusiveness in that document as well. Finally, as the transition is completed, and we ramp up the marketing side of things for future years, we’ll be looking at some specific messaging.

EGG: Are the owners of Gaming Days, LLC members of GAMA? How do you view GAMA?
PAB
: As store owners, the three of us are all currently Retail members. In fact, the three of us served as officers together on the GAMA Retail Division board for many years, were members of various Origins Awards juries, and have consistently supported GAMA initiatives. My thoughts on GAMA could fill an entirely separate interview. I will say I think they put on two solid shows: the GAMA Trade Show and Origins Game Fair.

EGG: Let’s talk about Free RPG Day’s date. Origins Game Fair, the 2nd or 3rd biggest tabletop gaming con in North America, and Free RPG Day are on the same weekend many years. Two of the largest events promoting RPGs go head-to-head. Because of this, a number of fans, creators, and retailors have to pick where they will be. In my case, I am at Origins and unable to attend Free RPG Day or run games to help spread the love of gaming. When considering 2020 and beyond, is there any discussion around coordinating dates with GAMA/Origins?
PAB
: That will be changing. The event will always be in June I think, but we’ll be intentionally dodging Origins as often as possible, for just the reasons you cite. Traditionally, Free RPG Day has always been the third Saturday in June, but I’m not sure everyone even realizes that, only that it frequently conflicts with Origins (which changes dates regularly itself.) We’ll be announcing the date for each year well in advance so that everyone can plan, but again, we hope to avoid conflicts.

EGG: Free Comic Book Day spawned a second annual event, Halloween Comic Fest (basically Free Comic Book Day in October). Is there any hope to expand Free RPG Day to more than once a year?
PAB
: Astute observers will have already noticed that we named our new company Gaming Days, plural. That’s very intentional. We have a pretty aggressive growth plan for the next couple of years, including events outside of the RPG realm.

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Examples from Free RPG Day 2019​

EGG: As a fan, I thank Paizo, Goodman Games, Pelgrane Press, and so many more for participating in Free RPG Day year-after-year. Their output and efforts are amazing. That said, let’s discuss the notable absence each year: Dungeons & Dragons from Wizards of the Coast. Are there plans to reach out and bridge that gap?
PAB
: Well, that’s the holy grail, right? We would love nothing more than to have D&D as a participant. Yes, there are plans. Multi-faceted plans. That’s probably all I should say at the moment.

EGG: That’s extremely exciting! This is not your first dive into marketing as you worked for Cubicle 7, correct? While there, what initiatives did you accomplish? Piggybacking on my prior question, is there a possibility of bringing Adventures in Middle-earth to Free RPG Day?
PAB
: I worked for Cubicle 7 in a part-time capacity for a couple of years. I was mostly a US-based guy that allowed them to have a presence at some regional shows that otherwise would have been difficult for them. I also provided a retailer’s perspective on some of their internal decision making and acted as a liaison to the retail tier of the industry. I have nothing but love for Dominic and the crew over there.

Regarding Middle-earth, it’s my understanding that the complexities of licensing agreements may preclude participation in Free RPG Day, although I certainly don’t speak with any authority in that regard. None of which suggests Cubicle 7 won’t participate with some other title. I believe there’s also a few other high-profile RPG licenses from other publishers that have the same issue: giving away printed product for free just isn’t something they can pull off given their contracts.

EGG: Paul, thank you for talking with me about this. Is there anything else you’d like to share? Where can fans learn more about Free RPG Day?
PAB
: Thanks for the opportunity! We’re really looking forward to our 2020 events. Fans can check out www.freerpgday.com for more details where we hope to have a new website later this year! Thanks again.
 
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Egg Embry

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