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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.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
When you have a good-paying job you start to value your free time and start to see that free isn't always free.

I don't want to spend a lot of time sifting through digital flotsam. Looking at what other people have spent their money on is a good place to find the gems in the junk.

I really dislike wasting my time with poor quality content. Price and sales figures can help.

If you and your free-loading consumers don't value your work enough to put a price on it, it is less likely that I'll even find or look at it.

Now, I certainly will use some free software or game content, but this is generally only content that has become so popular that it finds me through people and distribution channels I trust. I don't waste my time looking for it.

I'm glad that there is a lot of free content out there for those who struggle financially. If misfortune strikes me, I'll appreciate having free options.

But, for now, for most situations, if I am not willing to pay for it, it isn't worth downloading it.
 

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When you have a good-paying job you start to value your free time and start to see that free isn't always free.

I don't want to spend a lot of time sifting through digital flotsam. Looking at what other people have spent their money on is a good place to find the gems in the junk.

I really dislike wasting my time with poor quality content. Price and sales figures can help.

If you and your free-loading consumers don't value your work enough to put a price on it, it is less likely that I'll even find or look at it.

Now, I certainly will use some free software or game content, but this is generally only content that has become so popular that it finds me through people and distribution channels I trust. I don't waste my time looking for it.

I'm glad that there is a lot of free content out there for those who struggle financially. If misfortune strikes me, I'll appreciate having free options.

But, for now, for most situations, if I am not willing to pay for it, it isn't worth downloading it.
See, now I completely disagree. Sometimes people just create something they think is cool, and want to share. Or they have little or no publishing cred and want to get their work out there. Not everyone is grubbing for a buck, and not everyone who throws a pdf out there should be disregarded because they decided not to charge for their creativity.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
See, now I completely disagree. Sometimes people just create something they think is cool, and want to share. Or they have little or no publishing cred and want to get their work out there. Not everyone is grubbing for a buck, and not everyone who throws a pdf out there should be disregarded because they decided not to charge for their creativity.

Fair enough. If you create something, you get to decide whether you give it away or sell it. I'm just speaking from how things look from where I sit.

Dollars are votes that cost more than "likes" or star-ratings. There is just so much content available for free, it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Even going to DTRPG or DM's Guild and filtering and sorting by ratings, etc. is just a chore for me. Likes and digital stars are cheap. I have not found the rating systems on these sites to be particularly helpful to me.

What I DO find helpful are best-seller lists, most-played game lists, the ENNIES awards, and discussions on this forum. Sometimes a free product is discussed and I'll check it out. I'm not against free. I just find it much more difficult to find the good free content.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
When you have a good-paying job you start to value your free time and start to see that free isn't always free.

I don't want to spend a lot of time sifting through digital flotsam. Looking at what other people have spent their money on is a good place to find the gems in the junk.

...snipped...

But, for now, for most situations, if I am not willing to pay for it, it isn't worth downloading it.

My time has always been valuable. And I've always had a good-paying job, right up to the point where I retired young and comfortably.

But a fool and his money are soon parted. I download all the maps for my campaigns off the Net for free, generally from places like DeviantArt and other art sites, where artists provide their work for private use. I haunt the free areas of DriveThru RPG, because I can look over a RPG product and extract the ideas worth using in no great amount of time, and then discard the rest.

Thinking that something is better because it cost more is a good attitude to cultivate in consumers, but it is ain't always so, as Samuel Clements liked to say.
 

I'm still trying to figure out what the "tragedy" of free is.

Has "free" made it more difficult to get your material published? I see more people publishing more content, D&D and otherwise, than ever before.

Has it reduced the number of people playing? Presumably because there is a flood of weaker material out there? Seems like more people are playing now than ever.

Has it reduced the overall quality of material out there? I'd say we're in a great period, maybe a second golden age, where you can find three sets of rules for almost any genre, setting, or wild idea in RPG form that you can think of.

So I am still missing the tragedy part of this.
 

SavageCole

Punk Rock Warlord
Where I value frree things is bonus content that publishers make available for proven games. A free adventure or supplement PDF can really help me build a game’s player base. Let’s be honest, there are a gazillion games out there, and I have more games that I love than time to run them. So, publishers who support games with robust free content excite me and make me more likely to run their game.

What’s important for me as a buyer is not price itself, but really the reputation of the game/producer. A good publisher, certainly a good designer, or recommendations from those I respect, these are what matter to me more than a Free or $100 price tag. I have Free material that has been invaluable and crap I’ve paid for that‘Lo sit in a folder until I bother to delete it.

The price tag itself is meaningless.
 
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talien

Community Supporter
I'm still trying to figure out what the "tragedy" of free is.

Has "free" made it more difficult to get your material published? I see more people publishing more content, D&D and otherwise, than ever before.

Has it reduced the number of people playing? Presumably because there is a flood of weaker material out there? Seems like more people are playing now than ever.

Has it reduced the overall quality of material out there? I'd say we're in a great period, maybe a second golden age, where you can find three sets of rules for almost any genre, setting, or wild idea in RPG form that you can think of.

So I am still missing the tragedy part of this.

There are a lot of novice game designers who don't know the value of their work, so they offer it as for free because they don't think it's worth any value. Some offer it as Pay What You Want in the hopes that it provides some value, but DriveThruRPG groups PWYW with free, so it potentially biases customers against paying for it. PWYW seems like a compromise between free and "at least I'll make something" but it's heavily biased towards paying nothing.

Add these two factors together and novice game designers who don't know the value of their work are producing some amazing products, not getting paid for it, and that depresses prices for pro game designers who want to charge more, because they will be forever compared to the excellent content available for free.

The triumph is more people are playing RPGs than ever before. The tragedy is it's still really hard to make a living at it.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Your Free stuff has to GOOD. At least good to me. As to the OGL. Yes lots of publishers entered the market. Anyone remember the .99 or was 1.99 One page adventures. It was heavy trifold encounter? But some of the publish works. Well They were so bad, I didn't mind tossing them into give away box when I did my gaming purge.
 

SavageCole

Punk Rock Warlord
Mike, it becomes a question of motivation, doesn't it? If the designer is publishing for free, it's because they're more motivated by sharing a work, establishing a brand and value for future works, etc. "Tragedy" is a bit poetic, but I agree that there is material being published as PWYW/Free that could fetch a market price . . . if buyers knew its quality.
 

aco175

Hero
I still offer all my adventures as PWYW on DMsGuild. My intent is not to put others out of work or destroy dreams of becoming a RPG writer. I always remembered my time in middle school when nobody could afford modules and think that some kid could get it for free and grow the game. Granted, we made up modules and used our imagination, but some of those games were rather gonzo.

Do I think my stuff is awesome and worthy of a publisher calling me wanting to make a campaign book out of it, no. I think it is good enough for a few nights of gaming and then you throw it away. All my items are from my home game where my players were the playtest group and then I make a few changes and hope that I catch most all of the typos and such before posting it.

Modules that I may download for free and then use, I go back and pay something for. I do not pay for it if I only looked at it once and never use it. I find some people do not offer a good enough look at the thing in the preview (especially with AL modules) and then it is not useful when I get to look at it more fully. An example may be the Princes of the Apocalypse book where I played the free supplement from Wizards and made a few side adventures for my group, but ended up buying the main book to finish the main adventure. Some of this was that this group was not meeting regularly until the Covid hit and now we are the only group that can.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Mike, it becomes a question of motivation, doesn't it? If the designer is publishing for free, it's because they're more motivated by sharing a work, establishing a brand and value for future works, etc. "Tragedy" is a bit poetic, but I agree that there is material being published as PWYW/Free that could fetch a market price . . . if buyers knew its quality.
Agreed.

Also, I think at this point it's well-established I'm overly dramatic. :cool:
 


Orcslayer78

Explorer
There are a lot of novice game designers who don't know the value of their work, so they offer it as for free because they don't think it's worth any value. Some offer it as Pay What You Want in the hopes that it provides some value, but DriveThruRPG groups PWYW with free, so it potentially biases customers against paying for it. PWYW seems like a compromise between free and "at least I'll make something" but it's heavily biased towards paying nothing.

Add these two factors together and novice game designers who don't know the value of their work are producing some amazing products, not getting paid for it, and that depresses prices for pro game designers who want to charge more, because they will be forever compared to the excellent content available for free.

The triumph is more people are playing RPGs than ever before. The tragedy is it's still really hard to make a living at it.
The problem is not about products being free or PWYW, passionates still spend good money on books and pdf versions, the factors that make difficult to be a content creator and make a living of it are:

1) D&D has never been so famous and played

2) The OGL allows everyone to create content using D&D rules

3) Kickstarter allows everyone to gather funds for their projects

4) DMGuild made incredibly easy and economic to create content for D&D with stock art and layouts

Basically: the market is simply inflated, even more than when there had been the OGL boom during the D20 era.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
I'll echo MNblockhead's thought a little bit here: Everything costs something; even if it doesn't cost money, it costs time. For a lot of people (especially right now!) they have more time than money, and so will be biased towards free products because it's worth the effort searching for the good stuff. Other people will actively enjoy searching for good stuff -- for example, I find it quite fun looking through online art to find exactly the image I want, and if I spend half an hour doing that, then that was a fun half-hour!

But the people who have plenty of time and little money are not the people you are going to make money off. You want people who have lots of money and little time. The ideal customer is the one who will not even look at your product's advertising, but will just buy it sight unseen. They might just do that, or you can provide a subscription model, but the basic idea is the same -- make people believe that your products will be consistently worthwhile and lock them into it.

"Free" and PWYW systems are not going to attract these people, so by targeting them you are deciding to try and make money off a segment of the community with little money. And that's going to be tricky.

Some case examples from my experience:

Pathfinder Adventure Paths: I play a regular PF2 game using the Ages of Ashes campaign. Our group enjoyed the first book, and so continued to be locked in to buy the rest; when the new circus-based AP comes out, we'll buy into that. I think that's about $250 they'll get from us. Paizo could try something different -- offer the first book (out of five) in an AP for free. That's a 20% loss of income for people who would have bought, and my guess is that it's not worth while, as Paizo has a reputation for quality anyway -- free books will not attract new people.

Fate Worlds: I supported this Patreon which was essentially a subscription to get Fate campaign frames. Overall it probably meant I paid $7 for each world, which is well above the PWYW average for them, but I knew the content was good. About half the worlds I bought I wasn't that interested in, so if I'd done PWYW, I'd probably have paid $5 for them and skipped the other half. So Evil Hat would have got an average of $2.50 for each world, instead of the $7 they actually got. However, this model didn't generate enough income for Evil Hat to keep going, so not sure on what side of the example this goes.

Savage Worlds Dungeon Crawl: I was looking for a one-shot to run for a session and had little time, so I went to drive-thru looking for product. I bought about 8 items from random people for a range of prices, probably totaling $25. They were pretty uniformly disappointing.

Overall, if something comes from a recognized publisher with editors, quality control and so on, I am guaranteed a certain standard and so when I buy from them, I know what I'm getting and I'm very likely to buy without thinking. My experience of self-published material is that it's generally low quality and takes forever to find anything worthwhile; and even when I do, there's not a lot of output from that source to make it worth following.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
So I was reflecting on @Jd Smith1's and @GrahamWills's posts and when I think back on my content-acquisition activities, I find that where I actually do download things for free and spend time finding free content it is art. Like GrahamWills, I enjoy browsing art, so I don't feel like I'm wasting my time. Also, the stuff you can get free on DeviantArt often blows away the stuff you get in many published or for-pay material.

I don't know what value the artists are getting out of this, besides perhaps the joy of sharing their art. They are not even getting recognition, at least with my use of their art. I'm using the art in my personal games and actually most art I gather never makes it into a game. I don't generally record the artist's name when I download the art, I just file it in a folder based on categories that make it easy to find and use for game purposes. I don't remember the names of the artists. I can't think of a single artist whose work I downloaded from DeviantArt. Maybe that speaks very poorly of my character, but my gut tells me I'm not alone in possessing this character flaw.

I'd be interested in hearing from artists who use DeviantArt. What do you get out of it or hope to get out of it. Is it that you know most people will not remember you or care who you are, but you hope that some influencer or professional buyer will notice you? Are you using it as an art portfolio for job applications and project bids? Is it mostly a way to share and learn from other artists? Do you do it just for the joy of sharing your work even if few people know you, the artist behind the work?

I find it interesting that maps are different for me. I know the names of the map artists I like. I've gotten a lot of free maps from web searches, but most are ho-hum and when I find a something I like, I make a point of finding out who the artist is and if they have a blog or other website, I'll typically follow it because I know that the quality is good and that the style works for my needs. While a lot of my battlemap collection is from free sources, I am much more likely to buy map packs. I subscribed to Blando's Patreon for a while, I've bought map packs from Mike Schley's website. I commissioned a map for my homebrew world from an artist I found on the campaign cartographer forums. I've bought a lot of 0one Game's Blueprint line of PDF map products. Don't even get me started on the money I've spent on Kickstarters for physical map products (battle-map flip books, dungeon tiles, infinite scroll maps, etc.)

In general, I'm far more likely to spend money on maps and rarely spend money on non-map art outside of art that is part of another product (like an adventure, rule book, etc.). Is this other people's experience? How many of you buy art for your games separate from the art that is incorporated in other products?
 

Fair enough. If you create something, you get to decide whether you give it away or sell it. I'm just speaking from how things look from where I sit.

Dollars are votes that cost more than "likes" or star-ratings. There is just so much content available for free, it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Even going to DTRPG or DM's Guild and filtering and sorting by ratings, etc. is just a chore for me. Likes and digital stars are cheap. I have not found the rating systems on these sites to be particularly helpful to me.

What I DO find helpful are best-seller lists, most-played game lists, the ENNIES awards, and discussions on this forum. Sometimes a free product is discussed and I'll check it out. I'm not against free. I just find it much more difficult to find the good free content.
I can see the value of best-seller lists, but I also know that there's plenty of chaff being charged for out there.
 

bloodtide

Explorer
Well, basic human nature and Western society both have created the standard that you should give (or "pay") someone for something they do or give to you. And in the modern world the only thing that is given, is Money.

So, a typicality person will feel the "need" to give something(and that is only "money") for something like a RPG book.

Though this is very Last Century type of thinking. In the past twenty years...even more so the last ten years just about the whole sub of human knowledge and creations is available for free online. In 2020, if you want to read a book, listen to a song or watch a movie or TV show...they are all just a click away.

Then you get three wrinkles though:

1.The first is the economy. Back in the days of 3E, I knew many people spending 50-100 dollars per week on RPGs. Then you have today.....plus the whole pandemic....and things are very diffrent.

2.While the idea of "paying someone for something" that they made and you want works just fine. Except, that is not exactly what happens. The creators often get very little of what you pay...and a greedy, monstrous company takes the rest.

3.Worst of the Worst, is all the lies, trickery and deceit. Creators and companies both do this: anything to get your money. The book tag line says "over two dozen new spells", and that means 26, so yep "over two dozen". Though nine of the spells are Summon Object I, Summon Object II, and so on. So the tag line is correct, but it's still stealing your money for very little in return.
So....maybe, the whole "buying things" won't last another generation or two....
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
There are a lot of novice game designers who don't know the value of their work, so they offer it as for free because they don't think it's worth any value. Some offer it as Pay What You Want in the hopes that it provides some value, but DriveThruRPG groups PWYW with free, so it potentially biases customers against paying for it. PWYW seems like a compromise between free and "at least I'll make something" but it's heavily biased towards paying nothing.

Add these two factors together and novice game designers who don't know the value of their work are producing some amazing products, not getting paid for it, and that depresses prices for pro game designers who want to charge more, because they will be forever compared to the excellent content available for free.

The triumph is more people are playing RPGs than ever before. The tragedy is it's still really hard to make a living at it.


It's still not a tragedy. It's tough to make a living as an actor, stand-up comic, or musician, too.

Certain career fields produce thousands of failures for every financial success.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
In general, I'm far more likely to spend money on maps and rarely spend money on non-map art outside of art that is part of another product (like an adventure, rule book, etc.). Is this other people's experience? How many of you buy art for your games separate from the art that is incorporated in other products?

I never pay for art. There's too much free stuff out there, and I mostly just need faces for pogs.

Ditto for maps, with the exception of Oones Maps and 0-hr starships.

Casual searching over the last decade has left me with literally thousands of unused maps.
 

Rhianni32

Adventurer
The free TTRPG content generally is of unrefined quality. Message forum, blog, and reddit homebrews usually need some work to them to get them to a usable state. My experience with the free products on DriveThruRPG has been that most of them deserved to be free and often I am frustrated at having wasted the time in reading them. If I have to fix and tweak your rules to make it work then I might as well create something on my own.
Now if its an intended preview or demo is different.

But the products that someone put their time into through multiple edits, balance, game test; you can often tell and those are worth buying.

Paizo is interesting with their game beings on Home - Archives of Nethys: Pathfinder 2nd Edition Database, All the crunch and rules are there for free. You don't have to buy the books. Yet they are still one of the most successful RPG companies we have. People will pay if its good.
 

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