Free Dungeons & Dragons!

It’s been quite some time since I’ve written about Dungeons & Dragons, but today’s news that the upcoming edition will release the core rules for the system through a free downloadable PDF has caught my attention. Mike Mearls’ announced that Basic Dungeons & Dragons will be available at no cost, “Anyone can download it from our website. We want to put D&D in as many hands as possible, and a free, digital file is the best way to do that.” Basic D&D will include rules to create characters (up to 20th level), essential monsters, magic items, and information needed to run adventures in wilderness, dungeon and urban environments. So after two-plus years of product development by a team of talented designers and playtesting by legions of fans, the core components of “the greatest gaming hobby ever invented” will be given away – for free.

The news strikes a chord for me because the future of roleplaying game distribution is something I have written about previously. In November 2012 – back when the game was being referred to as D&D Next – I explored how the concept of non-ownership would likely affect roleplaying games:

It seems safe to say that exploring viable digital distribution systems is essential to the future growth – and survival – of tabletop roleplaying games. The old way of buying books, movies and music are fading away and being replaced with new means of product delivery. Without innovation to meet the demands of those who prefer non-ownership, RPGs will suffer a nasty fate...

To summarize, non-ownership is the general trend for consumers to be perfectly content to not own a product. For example, many people no longer purchase physical copies of movies or music; instead, they purchase a subscription to a service like Netflix or Spotify. Even when people do purchase media such as books or music, many of the purchases are digital (e.g., Kindle, iTunes) and no physical product is passed along to the consumer.

Wizards of the Coast is speaking loudly to the non-owners out there, “Welcome to the party.”

Free Access + Ego Depletion = Profits

The decision to “give away” a portion of the core rules for Dungeons & Dragons mirrors the model video games have been using for years. Free-to-play games are often augmented by additional components that can be purchased by the player. Also known as Freemium (Free + Premium), the business model has been shown to be effective with earning a profit being the primary objective:

Freemium is a business model, employed with the main objective of making money. Adopting this new business model is a way of adapting to the changing market and the conditions of production . . . In a traditional economy, it would not make sense to distribute 100 free CDs in order to sell 2 concert tickets, 3 T-shirts or 4 paid CDs. The cost of producing and distributing the actual records will simply be too high compared to the revenue. Once you are able to produce and distribute the music with computers, this changes. The marginal cost of distributing each album is close to zero. This means that only a small percentage of users need to buy something, for this model to be profitable.

I recently discussed SolForge, which is a free-to-play collectible trading card game available on PC and iPad/iPhone. The game can be played infinitely for free, but players have the option of buying individual or packs of cards with money. The free-to-play model opens the door to the widest audience and hopes that a percentage of those who play the game will upgrade their experience with real dollars.

The approach works, and it works by slowing breaking down the players will to resist making a purchase in the game. I can attest to this process firsthand; I initially vowed I would not pay money to play SolForge. But then I got attached to the game, and I wanted to support the product to ensure it thrives. The decision to spend money on SolForge evolved over numerous months until finally one weekend, I bought some in-game gold and bought some packs of cards. It was equally a long, drawn-out thought process and an impulse buy. The same model could work for Dungeons & Dragons, and Wizards of the Coast is banking on that.

My decision to spend money on SolForge (and embarrassingly two years prior on The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth) can partially be explained by the psychological concept known as ego depletion, which describes our personal willpower or self-control to be a finite resource. In other words, our resolve to engage in or avoid a certain behavior has a limit. An article appearing in the Journal of Consumer Psychology summarized research on ego depletion:

Laboratory studies designed to investigate ego depletion soon found that, sure enough, brief acts of self-control were enough to produce changes in subsequent, seemingly unrelated behaviors—suggesting that the first acts had depleted some resource needed for optimal functioning.

This relates directly to consumer behavior because as consumers’ egos are depleted, their decisions become more impulsive. For example, consumers eat more junk food, watch trashier movies, and spend more impulsively – or spend money on a free-to-play game they initially swore they would never do. Even the choice to not spend money on a product takes a certain amount of energy. The more one plays a game that is free-to-play, the more energy he or she must exert to avoid spending money on the game.

If 1,000 people who would normally not play a tabletop RPG download Basic D&D because it is free, then it expands the consumer base. Perhaps only 1% of the people who download Basic D&D ever spend any money on additional books or game accessories; those 10 individual might spend an average of $30 on D&D supplies. That is $300 that would have never been gleaned from consumers for the product because those consumers would not be engaged in the product otherwise.


Enthusiasts of Dungeons & Dragons are going to download Basic D&D for free, and most likely buy extra books and accessories for a price. Wizards is hoping the money lost from hardcore fans downloading Basic – and choosing to stop there rather than buying more materials – will be made back by new (or returning) fans who engaged the product through the free PDF.  It is an interesting and innovative strategy, and something that seems essential in this era of non-ownership to engage the widest-possible audience.

What do others think of the decision?





About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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12 Responses to Free Dungeons & Dragons!

  1. alphastream says:

    This was so unexpected that very few people even raised the possibility of this happening. And of those that did, I can’t recall a single person hedging their bets that the core of the game could be free. That’s remarkable, because gamers have no shortage of opinions and wild theories. Wizards really has embraced what they are saying: That the brand is far larger than the sales of the RPG. It should help expand the base significantly and bring tons of new people into the hobby. Best yet, it probably will help RPG sales rather than hurt them – even if that isn’t the key objective.

    While I hear some naysayers, the vast majority of people I admire – even those that haven’t been playing much D&D – are incredibly excited by this news. I personally find the combo of organized play and a well-though-out launch energize me to buy and play a ton of D&D.

    • 3.5 did this before. They had a System Reference Document for the basic game, sans iconic monsters/copyrighted characters. I think they realized that having the material out there and played is more important than making money off of the main books. The bigger issue is whether or not the supplements will be a consistent high quality to make them worth it. (Complete Psionic Debacle. Hint Hint. “Complete” line of books inconsistency, rules snafus and large amounts of errata needed for splat books. HINT HINT.)

      AKA: WOTC, please make sure to properly proofread and balance your new books BEFORE they’re released. And don’t just shovel out garbage again.

    • The Id DM says:

      Yeah, I indicated they needed to try new ideas but I hadn’t considered the free release approach. I’m eager to play the game. I haven’t had a D&D campaign since moving.

  2. sakutian says:

    I applaud Wizards of the Coast for deciding to make the latest version of Dungeons and Dragons available as a free PDF, however I disagree with the idea that non-ownership is the future of tabletop games.

    • The Id DM says:

      I’ll be interesting to see how much digital-only content they release in the future. Would people pay $5 for an adventure/delve? Maybe they never print the module but have them online like DDI (although hopefully a better system than DDI).

      • sakutian says:

        Indeed it’ll be interesting, and I think releasing some things in a digital only format is an excellent idea. I’d like to see the option of print on demand, but I think offering PDF version of a $5 dungeon delve would be fine by me.

  3. Will Simpson says:

    I think it’s precisely the sort of bold decision which may help allow the continuation of tabletop rpgs generally. It means that fans, such as myself, who shell out for the full set can direct our potential players to something straightforward, high quality, and legal, which they can get for free. Perfect.

    Interestingly, my thought, in terms of psychology, was more to do with reciprocation: they’ve given you all you need for free, and so paying for extras comes more easily. Its as you’ve described, but ego depletion feels a little more exploitative (though definitely equally applicable!).

    • The Id DM says:

      I hope people feel inclined to support the product. That was a big part of my initial post (when I was talking about the band, Dead Sara). I enjoy the band and want to support them, so I bought their album in addition to listening often on Spotify.

  4. Great article. It seems like the freemium model games rely on small transactions to survive. This was talked about a while ago when the 4e digital tools were released, but never happened. what are the micro transactions going to be for D&D? What’s the smallest amount people will pay to get something for the game? I would say a few bucks for minis, but now Wizkids is doing D&D minis. D&D branded dice? Will we pay for individual Dungeon or Dragon magazine articles? How about $7-$10 print magazines? I’m not sure that $50 for a core book is an impulse buy, even the adventures are $30. That leaves only the $20 Starter Set, which has been stated is really for new DM’s, not players, so what’s going to fill that space for players?

  5. reasonfreely says:

    People who don’t play D&D but play other RPGs can now download D&D and try it out. In the 90s, many of us stopped playing D&D when the variety of games expanded. Now, there is no cost to getting the rules; so the barriers to returning to the fold have been reduced. All that needs to happen is for the GM to show up one night and say “I’m too tired from work to run the usual game. Wanna roll up some D&D characters and kill some goblins for S&Gs?”

  6. Grant says:

    I think a Basic D&D rules PDF is a fantastic idea — I applaud them for doing it. For me personally, I really do lean more toward the digital these days. I stopped buying physical comics and buy them thru Comixology now, because they look so much better on my ipad, plus then there’s no issue with storage and piles of comics taking up space. It feels easier and more organized. Given the choice between buying the new D&D stuff on my ipad or via hardcover book, I’d go the digital route.

    This has been my biggest annoyance with Star Wars Edge of the Empire — I enjoy the game, but I can’t stand reading/flipping thru the rule book, because it’s massive and weighs 850 pounds. It’s uncomfortable and bulky to carry around and use at the game table. I would love to get a digital version for my ipad, but Fantasy Flight won’t even give me the option. I would literally re-buy the EotE rule book just to have an official PDF version.

    All in all, this D&D PDF for free news makes me even more excited about the new D&D, because it assures me that I’ll be able to kick back right away on my ipad and enjoy it, and friends of mine who are hesitant to drop big money can check it out too, and many will likely go on to spend cash on further products… I think this whole thing will end up being a smart move and in think more RPGs will follow their example in the future. Great article, Mike!

  7. Categorizing the purchase of a digital product as “non-ownership” is to misrepresent reality and is a really dangerous mindset to encourage given the almost certain future of media distribution in the future.

    Do you believe that when you bought a DVD of a movie that the only thing you were purchasing was a plastic coaster? If so, you’re wrong. You were buying a copy of the movie encoded on that plastic coaster. And with that purchase you, as a consumer, gained a large variety of legal rights for the consumption, copying, and use of that movie. When you try to characterize your DVD movie purchase as nothing more than buying a plastic coaster — which is what you’re doing when you claim that the digital data encoded on that disc is beyond your ability to own — you are buying into corporate propaganda which is trying to strip you of your rights as a consumer.

    Don’t do that.

    When WotC gives you a free digital copy of Basic D&D you will own that copy, as surely as you would own it if WotC printed it out and gave you the print out for free. And that ownership comes with legal rights. Don’t just toss those away.

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