The Games of Wrath: The Free Option

Powered-by-Fate-Final-Light-BGYou’re driving home from work late one evening. As you turn off the busy main streets into the welcome embrace of local suburbia, a handmade sign grabs your attention. Planted over top of a small table, there sits a single hardcover book: a roleplaying book. On the sign reads a single word: “Free.”

I can think of nothing sweeter than this fantasy. Were that to happen to me, it would make my day, my week, even breaking it into my all-time list of momentous occasions. A list that includes my wedding day, I should add. When I was a young teenage roleplayer, you wouldn’t believe the number of times I thought I saw a D&D book hiding behind every nook and cranny. You know how most teenagers dream of waking up and finding their very first car just parked in the driveway with your name on it? That’s how it was for roleplaying books.

A more realistic scenario involves finding a free game, whether it’s a scanned PDF or an old and worn hardcover copy. It’s become an esteemed section of the roleplaying industry, rather than a cute cousin, which makes my enjoyment of them all the better. Free games like Lady Blackbird and Old School Hack have become recognized leaders in RPGs as a whole for their original designs and inspiring presentations. My point is to say there’s a lot of great reasons to collect free games.

Is it possible to gain money from those free games? It’s something that’s dawned on me recently when I read a series of tweets from designer, Brian Engard, that started this ball rolling. He’s in the middle of putting together a properly assembled PDF (layout, CC artwork, the works) and put it up for sale as pay-what-you-want. Titled “Rough Cuts,” this book would feature “finished” versions (and by that, meaning editing would clean them up to some degree) of free downloads available on his blog, It got me thinking about the role of free games in a commercial market and how they have become embraced by many independents to become financially successful.

Aside from the possibilities offered by pay-what-you-want, digital publishing and distribution, print on demand, and mobile technology, the roleplaying industry has taken a completely opposite reaction to the majority of entertainment producers. For example, the rise in Creative Commons and Open Gaming licenses tagged to major releases is a clear demonstration of this shift. The latest major player to embrace such licenses is Evil Hat Productions with both Fate Core and Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) having both licenses available and allowing a fan to build a sweet looking OGL website with the entire books provided at no charge. Combined with both core products listed as pay-what-you-want, there are many options to trying out the game for free… or possibly never paying for it at all.

That’s putting a lot of trust into the community, the same people feared by record companies for their greedy compulsion to download everything illegally and never want to pay for anything again. I can understand a lot of the anxiety expressed in retail. If memory serves me correctly, I once freaked out about having half of my DVD secure lock boxes taken out of the Blockbuster location I was managing, ranting about how theft would jump x percentage points. It happens to the best of us. The point is the calm, collected answer of RPG publishers by providing potential customers with a free option.

What affect will this have on sales, especially when it comes to dollars versus units? In a way, providing this content using their own resources allows publishers direct access to the numbers involved, which is better than having to sue to get that data. By providing their own options for free access, Evil Hat can see exactly what trends develop. Does it pay off in the long run as new supplements and support products receive a boost by a wider exposure? Is it going to be possible to use these free options as an industry loss leader, similar to cutting the price tag on printed core rulebooks as encouragement with sales in future products offsetting those losses?

What matters is whether or not we, as a community, will make the choice to pay instead of taking the free route. Returning to my fantasy example, if there was a tip jar on the table next to the book, would you leave something behind? Would you leave as much as $20? Or the full value of the book if it were listed on eBay or at a con?

It reminds me of a fruit stand not too far from where I live. Located in someone’s driveway, all the fruit is displayed in decorative baskets on a table covered by a canopy. Next to it stands a sign that basically explains how they are being monitored by surveillance and to please leave exact change. That’s all. While it’s safe to assume someone is actually watching, that’s still a serious amount of trust by the vendor and I get that same feeling about designers and publishers who make their work available for free as an option. When our lives are filled with so much suspicion and observation, isn’t it nice to know you can still be considered a decent person?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to toss a few bucks onto a second copy of the Fate Core PDF and say thanks. Then I’m going to get some apples and take a drive to see if anyone’s looking to get rid of their pristine copy of the original Ravenloft adventure.

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