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?

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


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.
Competition is good for increasing quality, driving innovation, and reducing price. The first two benefit the industry as a whole the latter benefits consumers.

However, there is also something called ‘stimulating the market’ where low entry costs attract more individuals to the hobby. Some of those then become fans and will spend more on the multiple books, minis, special editions etc that WOC and their licensed partners want to sell.

The prevalence of relatively cheap RPG board games for £30-80 has definitely had an impact on increased the sales for more involved games like D&D.

Free access to Roll20 with a basic rule set also helps, and leads to more Roll20 sales and more D&D sales.

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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.
Paizo helped themselves by saying you had to have physical copies of books to use something in Pathfinder Society. Archives of Nephys is a really odd resource. My understanding is that it isn’t the same as the OGL or PFSRD, and Paizo could order it taken down at any point.


See now, art really isn't very important to me.

I've run a few different experiments when it comes to artwork and RPG supplements, and attractive, color artwork always makes one of my projects perform better than any B&W art. I know it's not much of a data point, but it is my experience.

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
I've run a few different experiments when it comes to artwork and RPG supplements, and attractive, color artwork always makes one of my projects perform better than any B&W art. I know it's not much of a data point, but it is my experience.
Oh, I know art is very important to a lot of people. Just not to me all that much. It's not that I don't appreciate it, it's just not a major factor in deciding whether or not I buy something.


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.
This response should be pinned as the first reply to any thread on OGL or any thread on the trials and tribulations of game content creators.

This is part of a larger phenomenon : the florescence of tabletop games across the board (e.g. board- & card games, roleplaying & wargaming); surprising as tabletop gaming continues to endure despite the fact that games can be expensive, superfluous luxuries requiring disposable income, in a period where we have undergone a series of global economic woes.

The pros here?

(1) There is now a plethora of choice of game / game-related products, (2) which have exploded in creativity / diversity, (3) from sources both mainstream AND indie. (I love supporting creative / diverse / indie creations - as a GM & player, out of enjoyment / interest / utility; as a creator, out of the desire to eventually myself sell gaming materials - materials substantially competitive with the most innovative / quality options Out There in the same niches.)

The cons here?

(1) As with e.g. online ecosystems selling apps / games for computers & smartphones (like Apple's, fairly long decried), there's just so many options Out There (many of them similar / subpar), it is difficult to know searching what is truly great & worth your dime / time. (2) And it is very difficult to sell your own products with so many competitors --- to get across what is truthfully creative / quality / unique about your offerings; to be heard where the voice of each individual can be drowned in the collective crowd's roar...(Though, sure, some would debatably write this off as an "embarassment of riches", & a "First World Problem." I'll just say that in my case, & for people in similar life circumstances, while conscious that tabletop game design's NOT a probable path to riches, it'd be "nice" to be able to make somewhat more in an area in which I'm gifted & find great enjoyment, as supplementary income alongside my disability benefits.)

aramis erak

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.
The ability for novices to find quality material is much reduced now.
The ability to find anything in particular has become more about branding now.
The average product now is lower rules writing quality.
The hobbyist has a lower chance of finding an audience due to the lower bar to entry - simply because they're no longer competing with the big publishers, but each and every creative throwing things into the DTRPG wall to see what sticks.

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