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The Triumph and Tragedy of "Free"

It's never been a better time to be a tabletop role-player. The freedom of choice seems limitless, with over a hundred thousand RPG products on DriveThruRPG and DMs Guild combined. A significant percentage of those products can be downloaded at no cost. Does that matter?
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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
Surveying the Product Population

We can make some guesstimates about the total volume of products on both DriveThruRPG and the Dungeon Masters Guild by looking at the metal legend for each. The metals icons are awarded by sales for each product, from copper all the way up to adamantine. Here's how the sales stack up:
  • Copper: 51 units sold
  • Silver: 101
  • Electrum: 251
  • Gold: 501
  • Platinum: 1,001
  • Mithral: 2,501
  • Adamantine: 5,001
There’s a percentage associated with each tier, which gives us an estimate of just how many total products are on each platform. Judging by the Copper ranking on DriveThruRPG there are (as of the day this article was written) over 13,000 products or 14.34% of all products that sold over 50 units. Similarly, over 2,000 products on Dungeon Masters Guild have achieved the Copper ranking, or 12.29% of all products. Extrapolating from these numbers, DMs Guild has over 18,000 products, and DriveThruRPG has over 90,000 products. Add them together, and there are over 100,000 products on these two platforms alone.

This doesn’t take into account the many other places products are distributed, like Amazon or Noble Knight Games, or Free RPG Day, or the many pirated copies of games floating around the Internet. There’s a lot of variety to choose from. And a significant percentage is free.

Did You Say Free?

If the above numbers are accurate, a search for the “Free” on DMs Guild finds nearly 2,000 products available at no cost, or about 10% of the entire product base. It’s the same story on DriveThruRPG, with over 10,600 no cost products on DriveThruRPG, or a slightly higher 11.6% available for free. Or to put it another way, 1 in 10 products on both platforms is available at no cost to the consumer.

Not all products are created equal of course, and it bears noting that “free” encompasses two categories on DMs Guild/DriveThruRPG: products that are actually free, and products that are offered as Pay What You Want (PWYW).

PWYW products aren’t free; or rather, that is the very bare minimum the publisher expects a consumer to pay for it. If they planned to only offer it for free, they would list it as such. We can therefore assume that the publisher is hoping to make more than nothing on a PWYW product. We’ve discussed the psychology of PWYW previously, but there’s likely a psychological effect of bundling PWYW with other free products--it sets an expectation that any contribution will be $0. After all, a consumer searched for “FREE” and PWYW was listed along with it. You can search for PWYW separately, but given that free is a powerful form of advertising, the likelihood of someone finding a product when searching for “FREE” and paying nothing to download it seems high.

In short, PWYW might work in some cases, but the platform itself seems to be literally selling PWYW short. There’s also the question of what it means for the industry when 10% of all products on a major distribution platform are free.

When It’s All Free

A curious side effect of the Open Game License (OGL) movement in tabletop gaming was that it essentially unlocked the rules so that they were available digitally. In theory, the rise of OGLs was meant to help publishers produce their own content, but in practice, if an OGL was available on the web it was available to everyone, including potential consumers.

Releasing an OGL to the public means at least some of the core game is available for free. Some OGLs are more tightly controlled, but in the case of the OGL supporting the latest edition of D&D, much of the game is publicly available at no cost. Moreover, Wizards of the Coast recognized that purchasing the rules can be a barrier to entry and released a “Basic” version of the game to make it easier than ever to play.

This all seems to the good … unless you are trying to make a living off of tabletop gaming. Because many creatives enter the tabletop game industry as a hobby rather than a career, they set their prices below what the market should bear. PWYW is a perfect example of this, where a budding game designer hopes they make money but doesn’t expect to (or worse, doesn’t think their content is good enough to sell). The net result being that a lot of game designers offer their content for PWYW or free.

Why Buy?

With so much free content available, no one who has access to the Internet ever needs to buy another tabletop role-playing game accessory. There is a free variant of nearly every monster, class, race, and magic item for D&D alone. If it can’t be found on DriveThruRPG or DMs Guild, there’s the Unearthed Arcana Reddit. Or the D&D Wiki. Wizards of the Coast has its own listing of free stuff that scrolls for several pages. There are countless blogs and other web sites that offer their own content, EN World’s fabulous Resources section being one example. It may take some converting depending on the game, but chances are if it exists in popular culture, someone made a free version of it.

And yet, people are still buying. Why?

For one, free doesn’t mean good. A lot of content on wikis and blogs are published in raw form; some creators get bored and never return to their half-finished ideas, lingering zombie-like on the Internet long after the passion that spawned them has waned (but still showing up as part of a Google search). Quality, curated content with excellent writing, layout, and art goes a long way in convincing a customer to buy a product.

For another, some consumers are just curious. When a product idea is popular at the time, like zombies or ancient Greece, the product’s relevance might trigger someone to buy it just to see what it’s all about.

And then there are the customers who like to collect products. They may not even use the product in the game, but enjoy purchasing it all the same.

Add all this up and it’s clear there’s still a market for RPG products. But as content creators strive to reach enough sales to make a living in the game industry, the massive amount of free products will always be there, challenging them to do better than what's offered at no cost. As Dr. Richard Forest explained in the intro to The Complete Oracle:

We know what makes Dungeons & Dragons genius. That, at least, is a solved problem. The genius of Dungeons & Dragons is that it is a machine that makes more Dungeons & Dragons, and it does this right at your table. D&D is not in the books. It is at the game table. It is in our scribbled notes. It is in our maps, in our jokes, in our daydreams during dull classes or meetings, in our forum posts from work, in our blogs and tweets and zines. Dungeons & Dragons is the rules for jousting on dragon back that you wrote while you were sitting in church on a Sunday morning. It is the homebrewed minotaur race you made for your brother. It is those wound point rules you added to make combat more realistic. Dungeons & Dragons is the game we build together.

D&D and tabletop gaming in general has always been about creating our own content and sharing it. Whether or not we should pay for it is up to us.
 
Last edited:
Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Orcslayer78

Explorer
Personally when I look at content I take in consideration three categories: Quality, Usefulness and Art.

Quality is represented by the mechanical rules and the lore presented in the product, the higher is the price the higher I expect the quality to be good

Usefulness is represented by how I could use the product in my games, so if a product has a good quality but is not really useful to me I skip it while even if a product has low quality but still has something I could use in my games I take it

Art represents the graphic quality of the product, I tend to skip those products with classical paintings as covers or those who don't have a cover at all, I think that the absence of good art, especially with the free stocks that DMG gives to authors, represents sloppiness and laziness, if a product has sloppy art I immediately assume that the author(s) didn't take a lot of effort in creating it and thus the rules and lore inside the book or booklet are lazy and sloppy as well
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Nice article. Eric Flint's book "1632" has been free since I think since 2004 on the Baen Free Library Site. At 2019 Dragoncon he said his royalty check from 1632 was over 2k for the last quarter of 2018. I think I paid for 1632 3 times. Once in paperback, Twice in e-book.
He did have a long article covering the OP's topic.
 

While the downside is that it can make life rough on people who are striving to make a living by selling 3rd party D&D material, I think a bit of historic context is needed on what the OGL has done for the game.

Remember in the 1990's, TSR was extremely hostile to any 3rd party creator, even sending cease and desist letters to small-time web hosts because of small fan pages posting some new spells or new monsters, or a homebrew campaign setting. TSR made it very clear to D&D fans that they felt fans had no right to create and distribute new material for personal use for free, much less selling anything.

In addition to this, shortly before the WotC buyout of TSR, there was a very real danger of D&D going out of print. TSR was on the brink of complete financial collapse, they couldn't afford to print more books, and there was a very real chance that in their bankruptcy and collapse that D&D as we knew it would just plain cease to exist. The WotC buyout prevented that, but D&D itself was indeed on the brink of oblivion for a while.

The OGL addressed both of those problems. It put the rules of D&D out there in the open in an open license for perpetuity, and provided a strong, legally protected way for fans to create and share material. . .but on top of that it even allowed 3rd party products that were compatible with D&D (even if they couldn't use the name, although the now-defunct d20 System Trademark License did allow a way at the time to signal compatibility).

Even if somehow, some way, Hasbro discontinued D&D, then the fundamental system itself if out there (in both the 3e/3.5e and 5e variants, as well as the d20 Modern spin-off game) were put out there by WotC under the OGL. . .and as was noted, thanks to the abundant wealth of OGC out there already, there's a sea of options enough for many lifetimes of gaming. That kind of immortality would have been unthinkable, if not outright mythical, in the 1990's.

While 3rd party creators may struggle to make ends meet in this system, without it they wouldn't be allowed into the market at all, and would be dealing with a hostile legal department from Hasbro.
 

Orcslayer78

Explorer
While the downside is that it can make life rough on people who are striving to make a living by selling 3rd party D&D material, I think a bit of historic context is needed on what the OGL has done for the game.

Remember in the 1990's, TSR was extremely hostile to any 3rd party creator, even sending cease and desist letters to small-time web hosts because of small fan pages posting some new spells or new monsters, or a homebrew campaign setting. TSR made it very clear to D&D fans that they felt fans had no right to create and distribute new material for personal use for free, much less selling anything.

In addition to this, shortly before the WotC buyout of TSR, there was a very real danger of D&D going out of print. TSR was on the brink of complete financial collapse, they couldn't afford to print more books, and there was a very real chance that in their bankruptcy and collapse that D&D as we knew it would just plain cease to exist. The WotC buyout prevented that, but D&D itself was indeed on the brink of oblivion for a while.

The OGL addressed both of those problems. It put the rules of D&D out there in the open in an open license for perpetuity, and provided a strong, legally protected way for fans to create and share material. . .but on top of that it even allowed 3rd party products that were compatible with D&D (even if they couldn't use the name, although the now-defunct d20 System Trademark License did allow a way at the time to signal compatibility).

Even if somehow, some way, Hasbro discontinued D&D, then the fundamental system itself if out there (in both the 3e/3.5e and 5e variants, as well as the d20 Modern spin-off game) were put out there by WotC under the OGL. . .and as was noted, thanks to the abundant wealth of OGC out there already, there's a sea of options enough for many lifetimes of gaming. That kind of immortality would have been unthinkable, if not outright mythical, in the 1990's.

While 3rd party creators may struggle to make ends meet in this system, without it they wouldn't be allowed into the market at all, and would be dealing with a hostile legal department from Hasbro.

Still I will never get why WOTC released the OGL, they basically created their own competitors and made a lot of brains flee from the company to create their own, like Monte Cook did.
 

Still I will never get why WOTC released the OGL, they basically created their own competitors and made a lot of brains flee from the company to create their own, like Monte Cook did.
My understanding is that the OGL was Ryan Dancey's brainchild, and that it was created specifically as a counterpoint to TSR's ultra-hardline take on IP protection. . .as a way to signal to fans that this was a whole new era of D&D and that fan contributions would be welcome and encouraged, and to reassure everyone after the collapse of TSR that D&D wasn't going anywhere, and even that if WotC went out of business (this was before they were bought by Hasbro) that the core rules of D&D were released to the public in perpetuity.

The 3rd party publisher market was something of an afterthought, and the use of the d20 STL and it's changing revisions to somewhat control that market were the way that Dancey got the rest of WotC leadership to agree on the idea.

I really don't think that Dancey, or anyone else at WotC, expected people to do a lot of the things that were done with the OGL, like making completely from-scratch d20 games that didn't need the D&D Player's Handbook and were in completely other genres.
 

Orcslayer78

Explorer
My understanding is that the OGL was Ryan Dancey's brainchild, and that it was created specifically as a counterpoint to TSR's ultra-hardline take on IP protection. . .as a way to signal to fans that this was a whole new era of D&D and that fan contributions would be welcome and encouraged, and to reassure everyone after the collapse of TSR that D&D wasn't going anywhere, and even that if WotC went out of business (this was before they were bought by Hasbro) that the core rules of D&D were released to the public in perpetuity.

The 3rd party publisher market was something of an afterthought, and the use of the d20 STL and it's changing revisions to somewhat control that market were the way that Dancey got the rest of WotC leadership to agree on the idea.

I really don't think that Dancey, or anyone else at WotC, expected people to do a lot of the things that were done with the OGL, like making completely from-scratch d20 games that didn't need the D&D Player's Handbook and were in completely other genres.
And I think they adjusted it with the 5E, because I don't think I have seen an ogl book that can be used alone without at least the PHB and the DMG from Wizards.

Anyway, I'm very glad OGL exist, especially in this moment, where I love 5E but I completely disagree with WOTC's recent choices, with OGL I can still play 5E buying from other publishers.
 

Creators need to be confident in charging what their creations are worth. Some things should be free but much of even digital offerings are underpriced.
Consumers need to be willing to spend money to support this hobby. Resources like The Trove are useful in keeping dead games out there, but using them for new products is a fraught enterprise. If you love gaming, support it financially.
 

Personally when I look at content I take in consideration three categories: Quality, Usefulness and Art.

Quality is represented by the mechanical rules and the lore presented in the product, the higher is the price the higher I expect the quality to be good

Usefulness is represented by how I could use the product in my games, so if a product has a good quality but is not really useful to me I skip it while even if a product has low quality but still has something I could use in my games I take it

Art represents the graphic quality of the product, I tend to skip those products with classical paintings as covers or those who don't have a cover at all, I think that the absence of good art, especially with the free stocks that DMG gives to authors, represents sloppiness and laziness, if a product has sloppy art I immediately assume that the author(s) didn't take a lot of effort in creating it and thus the rules and lore inside the book or booklet are lazy and sloppy as well
See now, art really isn't very important to me. Maybe it's my birthing into gaming in the fires of 1st ed, but I care far more about the content provided than how it's presented. Maps are an exception, but I tend to think of maps as useful content for running the game.
 

ChaosOS

Legend
Supporter
I'm personally a fan of setting a price but including the full product in the full preview and/or including discount codes in the description, it's a way to give it away but using the fact that people are lazy and do whatever the default is.
 

Orcslayer78

Explorer
See now, art really isn't very important to me. Maybe it's my birthing into gaming in the fires of 1st ed, but I care far more about the content provided than how it's presented. Maps are an exception, but I tend to think of maps as useful content for running the game.
Yeah maybe it depends by which editions one started with, I started with BECMI containing the wondeful art of Larry Elmore and so I'm very demanding about external and internal art.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Still I will never get why WOTC released the OGL, they basically created their own competitors and made a lot of brains flee from the company to create their own, like Monte Cook did.

If I recall, and it's been a while so I may not be, in interviews Ryan Dancey said the best way to sell more core book was to expand the market getting everyone to write for D&D. Basically, D&D had been stagnant for years and there was lots of competators. Getting many of them all to write D&D instead was a major coup. And fueled core books sales forever.
 


My own opinion is today the strategy is to use the IPs for projects of multimedia franchises. Hasbro doesn't only want to sell D&D sourcebooks, but also toys, comics, videogames, novels, media productions.. but not even Hasbro itself know the future plans after the next D&D action-movie if the strategy has to be changed.

Who buys when it may be free? the collectors. Don't you remember the colecctor edition of famous videogames?

My doubts are about now we aren't in the best time for the economy, and even big fishes as Disney or Warner/DC have got their own troubles.
 

Stormonu

Legend
My understanding is that the OGL was Ryan Dancey's brainchild, and that it was created specifically as a counterpoint to TSR's ultra-hardline take on IP protection. . .as a way to signal to fans that this was a whole new era of D&D and that fan contributions would be welcome and encouraged, and to reassure everyone after the collapse of TSR that D&D wasn't going anywhere, and even that if WotC went out of business (this was before they were bought by Hasbro) that the core rules of D&D were released to the public in perpetuity.

The 3rd party publisher market was something of an afterthought, and the use of the d20 STL and it's changing revisions to somewhat control that market were the way that Dancey got the rest of WotC leadership to agree on the idea.

I really don't think that Dancey, or anyone else at WotC, expected people to do a lot of the things that were done with the OGL, like making completely from-scratch d20 games that didn't need the D&D Player's Handbook and were in completely other genres.

In addition, it also provided some protection to the fanbase, should the creators decide to make a radical change to the game. If a new version did not provide a perceived value in the edition change, fans could stick with and produce content for the preferred version (which ended up happening with PF/4E, of all things). Thus, the company couldn't just rely on churning editions to lead gamers by the nose to the next version - the change needed to provide actual value. This wasn't accidental either, Ryan outlines this as a feature of the OGL in his big letter about the whole thing.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Competition is good, it makes for better products, and better products sell better.

Free is sometimes, nothing of value is free, and I feel I have got more use out of things I have purchased. There are always price point breaks, proving to have something of value, and using free as a marketing tool.

At the end of the day, things that don't do well probably aren't that good, but any criticism of games always seems to start some firestorm of arguing, which makes the process pointless; just go play another game.
 

imagineGod

Adventurer
Creators need to be confident in charging what their creations are worth. Some things should be free but much of even digital offerings are underpriced.
Consumers need to be willing to spend money to support this hobby. Resources like The Trove are useful in keeping dead games out there, but using them for new products is a fraught enterprise. If you love gaming, support it financially.
Ryan Dancey was a visionary. Till today D&D remains strong despite the presence of a free D&D OGL. In fact, here are many cool new games powered by D&D 5th Edition from third parties, but none of them have affected the sales of core D&D 5th Edition. Even with 3rd Edition, the core books still sold well. These days, we are blessed to have Trudvang Chronicles converted to Trudvang Adventures because the D&D OGL exists. There is even the beautiful French RPG, Fate Forge that basically re-writes all the core D&D 5th Edition using the OGL, but its existence has had no real effect on the sales of books by Wizards of the Coast. So the free OGL is a good thing.
 

Ace

Adventurer
The tragedy and triumph of free in many ways was an inevitable reflection of changes in technology. As soon as it became possible to scan and upload game books and download them at a reasonable speed , the value of game books to casual users declined and less scrupulous people could just take download what they wished,

Why not find a way to try and get some money from the system for more serious users.

I'd argue its "better than nothing" to be sure but not as good as the salad days when a game like Talislanta could sell enough in hobby shops for its author to make a comfortable living.

Now this tech has effected everyone. The music industry has been hurt very badly by legal streaming services like Spotify and its become difficult to essentially impossible to make a living from CD sales. With health concerns these days, no touring its a disaster and all of us out there are going to see the hobby-fication of a lot of media. Less barrier to entry but a lot less money to be had too.

Because gaming s always been a niche hobby, the effect on us will be modest, we've already had our hit but the big boys will suffer as we can see with Disney and AMC among others.

No idea how this will end up but we'll be laying and reading D&D and other RPG books for a long time and people will be making and selling them. Not much money to be had but I suppose everyone is having that issue.

Another thing. R.D. also understood that if D&D went down again or anti D&D activist stockholders got their claws into Hasbro and killed D&D as was thought might happen it might essentially take out the hobby entirely. Not many have this degree of foresight and our hobby is lucky to have people like that
 


univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I don't buy a guitar without playing it first. I don't buy pants without trying them on. RPGs are the same. I sample someones material, if they offer anything free or PWYW, and then I throw them bones if I like it. I do a thing where I review Free and PWYW RPGs and Comics and while I am not always happy with the products, I try to encourage checking out the rest of the creators material. There is almost always a good idea in there somewhere and usually I find faults in the presentation. I try to stay conscious of the fact that I don't have the noggin for creating such material and I respect anyone for putting themselves out there.
 

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