What if 4e was Free?

So you are the Head of D&D at Wizards. Fourth edition has not been the massive success that was hoped for with many fans sticking to 3.5 or worse, going to 4e and switching back. D&D Insider was a year late and is still missing major features. Your business model is based on selling lots of $20 rule books but the economy has tanked and your core market has less money to spend.

What to do?

Let us assume that you want to ensure the long-term survival of the D&D brand and profits and you are not chasing short-term sales in return for a big fat bonus.

The best possible thing that you can do is give away ALL the 4e books as free, black & white only, PDFs. The core books and the supplementary rule books (but not the modules or similar). What would happen if you did this?

1. Lots of people who currently cannot afford 4e rules now have access to them and can play as equals along side their richer friends. This will be especially true amongst the sub-18 market who represent the long-term value of the D&D brand.

2. Sales of the books with quality content will increase. When players read a good rule book / supplement as a PDF they will buy the paper version just to have the connivence and feel of a full colour, bound copy. This encourages WotC to produce quality books.

The long term success of games like D&D is people playing the game. By making it freely available there will be more people playing it. More people playing means more people interested in buying the hardback, the modules, the miniatures, the fiction, the films, the t-shirt etcetera.

Making the rules, all the rules, of 4e free would give the game a massive shot in the arm in the short-term and greatly increase the number of people who will be interested in 5e when it inevitably comes out.


  1. I’d like to see some actual numbers suggesting 4e wasn’t a massive success. Right now all I see are people complaining in forum threads, which is something of a permanent fixture: http://forums.gleemax.com/showpost.php?p=18069532&postcount=109

    I think giving away books for free to build interest for a 5e (at least five years down the road) is just going to alienate the people who actually paid for their books.

    Nicholas´s last blog post..Player’s Handbook 2 Review: The Bardening

  2. Nicholas

    I’m not suggesting that 4e is not successful, just not as successful as Wizards wanted or expected. Its hard to tell if the people moaning is just the natural background level or whether it is something more serious.

    Now the first initial 4e rush is over, the what matters to the long term D&D brand is increasing the number players because the more players there are the bigger the market. Just selling add-on rule books does not increase your market share because only people who already play the game buy those books.

    I doubt that 5e (or more likely 4.5e) is 5 years away. I think 2012 but possibly as early as 2011 is possible.

    Why? Because of the speed they are churning out books. One year since launch and we already have the PHB II. Can we look forward to the PHB III, IV and V over the next three years?


  3. I’m sure we will see those new PHBs with new power sources in them, as well as a bunch of new setting books like the Forgotten Realms one. I don’t think those are signs of a new edition coming because so far they haven’t not been patches. Those books aren’t designed to fix anything, they are just adding new content.

    I believe the intention behind 4e was to make a solid framework that can expand later with a lot of optional materials. I think pretty soon we’ll start seeing stuff like martial arts, psionics and necromancy stuff. The things that some people love and other can’t stand. After that is done I expect the books flow to slow down dramatically, Insider to still make taking in subscriptions and WotC to start focuses on some non-D&D game systems.

    But that is just my speculation.

    Nicholas´s last blog post..Player’s Handbook 2 Review: The Bardening

  4. Interesting idea, and I agree with Vulcan it won’t happen. I think you’re correct though that 4.5e or 5e is close than we think and I find this distressing. WotC has developed a very interesting system with 4e. I’d like to see them support it with more adventures and supplements, rather than just churning out 8 new classes every year.

    I also want them to make good on the promise of the DDI and to start making unique, perhaps living content avaliable through that channel.

    Wimwick´s last blog post..Module: The Spy In Our Midst

  5. This is a very interesting take on the situation.

    I have no numbers to back up my own thoughts but I think your understanding of the context is pretty close to the mark.

    What doesn’t help WotC is their corporate image and the creation of their products in a money grubbing sort of way. That, on top of a game that doesn’t thrill me, keeps me out of 4e. I WANT to support a fun game, made by a responsible company, that meets the needs of its consumers. I just don’t feel that way about 4e or WotC.

    Great post.

  6. Well, the model for 4E class/book structure is basically built around releasing those PHBs… it’s not exactly a sign of them churning through options exactly. I do think a 5E is likely to come out in the next 5 years, but that is less to do with 4E itself than the overall life cycle of things in the current culture.

    And without hard figures it’s hard to tell anything, but anecdotal evidence via blog/board is really a sketchy thing to go by. Pretty much by definition the Bloggers need to have opinions, so you are more likely to get extreme ones. Posters on forums are somewhat similar.. Back in my psychology days there was a study that was done that conclude people as a whole are around 7 times more likely to go out of their way to complain than to praise something.

    Which doesn’t really address the main post of the OP. Which… I dunno. Would giving away books free at this point really help them? How many players are actually lost to “I can’t afford to buy the books”? I’m sure there are some, but would they ever be customers in that point? What I’d like is to get PDF versions of the books when you buy the hard copy… cause I love getting PDFs when I get my hard copy, makes my prep work so much easier. Makes it easier to share books too.

    justaguy´s last blog post..Rhogar returns

  7. I don’t think it would increase book sales at all. Personally if I get a pdf I’ll just use the pdf. Any sections I need I’ll print on black and white fast draft so I can write on it and in most cases it’s not many pages that I end up wanting to print out.

    Where wotc dropped the ball was with the digital initiative. If gleemax were focused on connecting gamers and allowing them more social functions I think 4e would have been a bigger success than it is. Hm, now that I think about it more if they had focused on the digital and using the dnd insider to actually get playtesting from the gamers rather than releasing a print product the game could have worked out more things and avoided certain problems. They could have continued with third edition products for another year or two while working on a digital network to connect gamers and built up a following first. After a year of having a digital network they could begin offering a first draft of the 4th edition rules pdfs for playtesting. This approach (similar to what paizo did with the pathfinder rules set) could have worked. This way they could have built non system specific online tools sets before 4e even came out.

    But the way their business model is right now releasing black and white pdfs of all their books would be just shooting themselves in the foot. Especially when there are online and offline printing services that could run off prints of pdfs for less than half the books price.

  8. Wizards’ have shown time and again that they don’t have a clue when it comes to digital distribution. The 4e PDFs themselves are vastly overpriced and folks object to being expected to pay for a digital copy when they’ve bought the print copy.

    What they should do is provide a free-to-download PDF of a Starter Kit (pre-generated characters, monsters, an adventure and printable battlemat & counters) with a follow-up adventure that you can download for minimal charge. From there, you’ll have ’em hooked.

    greywulf´s last blog post..Classy Characters Volume 1

  9. Seems to me that WotC looked at their business model for 3e (basic core plus supplements) and realized they were losing potential revenue to other publishers. The 4e model (modular core, released over time) ensures that they remain the rules source and limits competition to the fluff end of the content spectrum.

    It doesn’t make me happy, but like many gamers I bought anyway because I love to play. Giving away any of the core material makes little business sense. Giving away the stuff they create for DDI (more specifically the material in Dungeon and Dragon “magazines”) would be more likely. Still, I don’t expect that’ll happen unless the subscriber model tanks completely.

  10. Interesting idea – something that some miniature wargame companies have done with mixes success.

    Where this falls down is currently anyone who wants any D&D 4th editon book without paying can already get it very easily – (moral arguments aside) the books are already technically free – and that’s the full color PDFs.

  11. Like Anarkeith, I don’t think it would work. Also like him, I think one thing they could do is start progressively making old dragon magazines and dungeon magazines available for free after, say, a year and a half or so. After this time period, at the end of every month, you could download for free that month’s Dragon from a year or two ago. I think that would be pretty nice. Due to how Dragon and 4e work, aside from preview and playtest material, everything should be pretty relevant even a year from its release.

    Wyatt´s last blog post..Revised Spirit Oaths

  12. It’s interesting that you speculate this. After finding out about Pathfinder’s open Beta I posed this very same question to White Wolf about their World of Darkness line. I got back one reply that was pretty well informed from as student of economics and I’ll summarize what he said:

    a) Theres a chance that offering free can backfire and decrease the percieved value of the product. A similar debacle is happening in the newsprint industry right now.
    b) The core book is non-consumable and in and of it’s self mostly a complete product. (White Wolf’s is more complete than WotC’s kuz D&D has Players Guides and DM’s guides and the like but the point is once a player gets the book for free he needs buy nothing else to get the full value from it, and since the book it’s self is not consumed he has that value forever and the publisher never recoups the costs of creating it.

    Having said that there are a few things that can be done if the company thinks it’s self in trouble and one of them is offering short sales where if a player buys a setting book he gets the players guide as a PDF for free as long as he buys the setting book during a certain period of time. Sales like this used strategically can stimulate purchases and increases the overall feeling of satisfaction on the part of the customer rather than giving the customer that he’s doing the company a favor by taking something that wasn’t worth anything in the first place.

    Helmsman´s last blog post..Justification for Simulationist RPG Rules

  13. I think this pre-suppose the problem with switching from 3e to 4e is price.

    While I’m sure this is true for some people, it’s been my experience that people who are into 4E don’t seem to have much problem finding the cash to buy the game (especially online, as the PHB is $23 at Amazon).

    It might be a problem for kids in high school who have to pay the $34.95 retail price … but thinking back to HS, I had a hell of a lot more disposable income then than I do now. 🙂 From what I’ve read online, this is still the case (thus one of the reasons they’re such a prized demographic).

    My sense — and this is simply my gut speaking — is that most of the people who want to play 4E are playing it. I expect smaller secondary waves of adoption as the game fills in obvious holes (as PHB II does with the primal power source). But I also think there’s a contingent of people out there for whom 4E simply is not their cup of tea.

    They may not like the mechanics, it may not fit their play style, they may be unwilling to give up 8+ years of rule books, but regardless for these people it’s not an issue of price. Give 4E away for free, and you still won’t win them over.

    So as you alluded to, I think it comes down to the teenagers and 20-somethings. Will having a free PDF get them to play the game? [shrug]. I don’t know, but I think I’d want to try some other options first, such as the aforementioned discounts, changes to PDF pricing policies, free access to D&D Insider for X of months when you buy a book, etc.

    Hell, it works for Webkinz. Maybe it can work for D&D too…

    Kenneth Newquist´s last blog post..Game Day: Return of the Revenge of White Plume Mountain

  14. I’m sorry, but I honestly think that that’s a terrible idea.

    back in the days of 3.5, me and my buddies wanted to play, so we pooled our monies and got ourselves the core books. We had great fun, even though we had to share one set of books.

    With 4e, you practically only need the players handbook. We had an adventure (keep on the shadowfell) and one PH and we did fine. I eventually got the DMG and MM as well, but found that I have not really used them a whole lot, though when I continue the adventure, I will most likely use the MM heavily.

    Maybe it is convenient for everyone to have their own books, but i’ve always gotten along fine with sharing.

    cause sharing is caring.

    MacGuffin´s last blog post..Races of Avion 2: Avion’s visitors from Avire

  15. You know, it’s a hell of an idea. I’m going to blog about it after this.

    @macguffin – there’s a time & place where that would work; for other people it’s not as easy (in my case separated by geography) or reasonable so your mileage may vary. It’s nice to be able to share that way so enjoy it while it lasts.

    @Kenneth Newquist – The whole ‘old school’ backlash has shown there is a long tail – when I think of the shelfspace being taken up by my own collection but then I’m someone who thinks PDF is a wonderful idea for publishing.

    @greywulf – And I’m stunned a D&D4E quickstart can’t be downloaded…

    @Helmsman – Interesting answers from WW. The newsprint analogy shows a possible future due to the number of freely available news services online (imagine the same situation in games!) There are a number of systems who already follow this path – everyone from lumpley games’ Cheap & Cheesy FRPG to Labyrinth Lord to OSRIC through to quickstart sets available from White Wolf. It’s a shift in medium – the subscription cost for access to intangible goods may not be equal to the value gained by having a dead tree copy for example.

    As for WWs core product being complete as is – not so convinced… ‘ : – /

    A free PDF copy per paper copy would be interesting – how much did those CDs with the prototype character gen in the old 3E PHB set WoTC back I wonder?

    Marketing the game is the big thing – making it easy & quick to play is another; also make it visually engaging and appealing. Content, ease of use and appeal are all important in this industry.

    satyre´s last blog post..from the edge of twilight: dustman

  16. @chris: I think you misunderstand the purpose of the PHB II.. It’s a supplement, not a re-release. There will be more, and I’m surprised they took a year between releases. They’re drip-feeding the game to people.

    Also, I don’t think that releasing it free will help. Those (like me) who hate the system won’t play it for love nor money. Those who do like it will fork out. As you’ve said, a few people have already bought it. And not everyone in each group needs a copy of all the books. Between a group, I don’t think it’s hard to come up with a set of books.

    Of course it starts getting expensive if you’re the sort of non-creative type who needs all the published adventures, but nobody I know is in that position. We just buy the rulebooks and make our own adventures and campaigns. Very occasionally somebody will buy a campaign/setting book.

    If people can afford US$15 a month for an MMO, then they can certainly afford $60 every couple of years for a few books.

    spiro´s last blog post..help me pick a new distro

  17. I think you’re making some assumptions about Wizards desires and whether or not they were met. The PHB2 did well enough to make it onto a couple of best seller’s lists.

    Still, while I think giving away all that content isn’t likely, I think they could give away a stripped down version of the game – something like the material found in the Keep on the Shadowfell in a free PDF that gives people a good taste of what D&D is like.

    Still, it’s $16 for a starter set from Amazon that comes with a whole pile of useful gaming supplies, an adventure, and characters for level 1 to 3. It’s not free but I think, in the right hands, it could get that core market into the game.

    I’m all for a free rules system, but I don’t think giving away the bank is the answer.

    Mike Shea´s last blog post..Build a Twyla Tharp Style Campaign Box

  18. oh come on. Here’s another idea – Maybe Chrysler should give away all their base model cars to save themselves from bankruptcy. Then people will all go get a free car, they will find out they like the car, and when next years model comes out they will go buy the newer nicer car. Of course no one would suspect that people would come to “expect” free stripped down cars from Chrysler or that the widespread reputation of the brand would be based on the lowest end product available. Lets not forget D&D is a product, money is invested with the expectation that money will be made. Thats how our grand capitalistic society operates. Giving away the product for free will ultimately devalue it and set up an expectation by consumers that it isn’t something they should have to spend their hard eared dollars on. If you want D&D to survive the recession – put your money where your mouth is.

  19. @Kristi

    There is a big difference between Chrysler cars and D&D.

    For a start, Chrysler cars is on the verge of going bust so its business model of selling isn’t looking so good.

    However the real difference is that cars are a physical thing. They always will be physical so a business model based on selling them (assuming you make decent products) make sense.

    RPGs are different. They are information – bits – that might be stored on a physical page but could just as easy be on a laptop or a Kindle or whatever. These bits can be copied and spread with Wizards having no control over it.

    There are other critical differences.

    Cars tend to necessity items and buying a new car takes time and is a serious investment.

    RPGS are different. They are luxury items and I can swap from D&D easily. There are hundreds of alternative free or really cheap games out there. Or I could swap my spending to video games or any thing else.

    There is nothing to keep people playing D&D except the fact it is D&D.

    It is the brand that has value, not the rules or the IP, and that brand only has value because lots of people play it.

    Making sure that people keep playing D&D is the only way to protect that brand in the LONG-TERM.

    Of course they can keep producing new PHB’s and 5 other supplements each year but how many is the average gamer going to buy?

    Expanding the market for D&D products, by giving the rules away free is easier to do than trying to sell an existing player their 13th supplement.


  20. I’m not going to give my opinion, but here’s some food for thought: I don’t see how anyone could play 4e completely for free… but I think that someone could put together a coherent undead-slaying campaign using just the players handbook and the free stuff at the WotC D&D website (at least until players reach about level 17; there’s not enough monster variety past that point, so play would get really repetitive). There are even previews that explain skill challenges, treasure parcels, quest rewards… and if someone was REALLY observant, he would notice that one of the updates to the DMG made the challenge DCs for different levels public.

    How would I know? I read all the stuff WotC posts on their website (previews, exerpts, exc.) anyway, so a long time ago I started taking a note whenever they disclosed a monster stat (note: this is enormously time consuming, don’t do it) Even without D&D Insider there were enough monsters (lots of which were undead) to fuel a campaign till late paragon (15 monsters per level=about average).

    There were some traps and templates too; no idea how many, I didn’t write them down.

    Off topic, but it’s on my mind. R.I.P. Dave Arneson, and thanks for making individuals, not armies, be the forces that change the world. Much as I may like strategy, it’s the personality and unpredictability an individual supplies that makes this game so great.

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