Pelor’s Peg-Leg Protection Protocol

It drives me insane that it’s 2012 and modern awesome digital roleplaying materials aren’t commonplace. I get nerd-rabies just thinking about it.

Please allow me a few moments to beat a long-dead horse: people pirate D&D books all the time, and WotC hates it. It’s very hard to keep it from happening because it’s easy to copy printed books. All it takes to make a pirated PDF of a D&D book is a computer, a scanner, a couple hours, and somebody patient enough to push a button about 200 times. That’ll just make an obscenely large PDF full of bitmapped images of each page. Real dedicated pirates might sit down and type in all the words on each page so the document is searchable. We’re still talking a couple hours’ time here.

I understand WotC’s apprehension about distributing digital copies of their stuff, and I understand them wanting to take steps to stop it, but they’re not really doing anything but making their paying customers crazy. DRM is a wonderful thought, but let’s face it: somebody is going to eventually figure out how to break any protection scheme, followed by copiously bittorrenting an unprotected version. All the DRM in the world isn’t going to stop it. Not offering legitimate digital copies of their books definitely isn’t going to stop it (right now there’s only one way to get a digital version of a D&D book, and it ain’t legal).

So what is going to stop the piracy of WotC’s intellectual property?

To be honest, I doubt anything will solve the problem completely, especially as long as there are print books. Ebook publishers have long used other methods to ensure books don’t get widely pirated, such as custom-generating an individual digitally watermarked copy of an ebook for a customer. I’m much less likely to distribute a copyrighted PDF I bought to random strangers with dubious intent if it has my name and email address on every page.

I’d be happy if we just got that, but I think everyone’s interests would be much better served if WotC came up with a business model where stopping piracy isn’t necessary.

Prepare To Repel Boarders

Piracy-resistant business models already exist in today’s market. What separates them is that they can offer something that you can’t get simply by copying files and data. World of Warcraft and other MMOs are an example of this. There have been cases where the WoW client and even the server software have been pirated. I hope those guys had fun questing all by themselves, because they definitely weren’t getting anywhere near all the game had to offer. Many software companies will check for a valid registration before they offer tech support, access to forums, and other online features.

See a trend there? The Internet gives us options we didn’t have 25 years ago, and WotC already has a lot of the infrastructure they’d need to leverage these options in the form of D&D Insider. The people pirating books probably aren’t going to be giving you any money anytime soon. Providing a subscription model that gives you things you can’t get anywhere else might be a way to turn these people into customers.

That, to me, is pretty powerful stuff.

The D&D Book Of The Future

Remember all that business with the server I was going on about last week where it could spit out lots of cool data? Here’s one idea where that sort of thing would really shine:

Imagine having a digital copy of a D&D book. It’s searchable. Woo hoo and all that. I know you guys are thrilled. We’re at a quality level pirates can provide to us. Now let’s make this thing epic.

All of this stuff would pull in the most recent data from DDI, effectively making each book a living document. We could start by having the book automatically update itself with the latest errata. Handy, but not earth-shattering. Now let’s throw in some tools that make the book’s content easier to use.

There are a lot of little tables in D&D books, and most of the time you’re looking in those either to figure out what you get at X level, or rolling up something random. We could not only take the work out of this, but always have the latest options to choose from in these tables courtesy the data from DDI. Imagine, instead of “Table 1.8: Random Treasure Rewards”, having something that could take in the party’s level and it tells you what they got. The DMG might come with tools that let you do simple things like rolling random encounter tables, or it could randomly generate a whole encounter for you (including a unique map), complete with options you could tweak.

I like the idea of little boxes and apps that perform useful functions, but the real magic in this is these materials could be available right there in the relevant section of the book. For instance, when you’re selecting feats, spells, and other abilities, the PHB could read your character sheet and filter its content or make suggestions based on what prerequisites your character meets. Sure, the Character Builder does some of these things already, but this would give you that kind of power while keeping things in a more human-friendly context. How awesome would it be to look through a spell list in the PHB and drag your choices to your spellbook in the Character Builder?

The magic is that you could do all these cool things, but still use your D&D books in a very similar way to what you’ve done since the late 70’s. And there’s certainly nothing that says these tools couldn’t be all indexed in one place for easy finding, or that hyperlinks couldn’t be made in various parts of the book to access relevant materials. I’d especially like to see these books able to print and export the things you create so your prep time is diminished.

I could go on for hours just coming up with random neat ideas. The possibilities are wide open.

In The Year 2000

This isn’t science fiction. The technology to make this happen already exists. The use of laptop computers and tablets these days is very widespread, even at gaming tables. PDFs can have custom code in them that allows them to access data remotely, as can proprietary ebook formats like those the Kindle, Nook, and iPad. (Though, when doing this, it will be necessary to keep cross-platform compatibility firmly in mind.)

One thing I’ve never quite understood about the D&D Compendium in its current form is that (with your subscription) you get access to information from every 4e book out there regardless of whether you own it.  Sure, I like having access to it, but in a situation where you’re trying to get a decent revenue stream, it seems to me like you could mark data on the server with what source it came from and restrict content to only what a given user has purchased (and registered). A strategy like this would incentivize new purchases since all your books (and 3rd party DDI-powered applications!) would update with new material every time you got something new. I understand there are some challenges that have already been discovered about linking physical purchases to unlocking online content, but this might be worth revisiting if the benefits outweigh the problems.

Will it take lots of development work? You bet. But if a lot of the magic happens server-side and requires a DDI account to utilize, you could pirate it all day and it would be largely unusable. Are there some tradeoffs? Sure. Some people won’t like needing an Internet connection to use the books, and there are doubtless other technical considerations and pitfalls. Past those, though, you’ve now got a version of your book that keeps itself current, links itself up to all the other legit D&D products you own, and will be a lot more desirable to have than a pirated 40mb unsearchable PDF file that takes forever to load each page and crashes most tablets.

Don’t try to stop piracy. Make it irrelevant.

Pixellated Hopes For A Digital Tomorrow

I realize I have just pipe-dreamt up an enormously tall order that probably won’t come into being anytime soon. Nobody has what I’ve talked about above, and I sincerely doubt I’m the first to think of this. Whether the piracy-resistant nature of a system like this will make a tabletop gaming company invest the money and manpower into developing and maintaining it remains to be seen.

I have hopes that we’ll see something like this eventually, but I’m not holding my breath. I think effective use of DDI will be the key to WotC’s digital success, digital books or not.

Ultimately, though, I hope I’ve nudged a few minds toward the notion that a company can keep its intellectual property safe in a way that encourages business and greatly increases the user experience of their customers. I hope that’s WotC ultimately shoots for, no matter what solutions they decide to go with.

Photo Credit


  1. These are ridiculously awesome ideas, but I wonder if WotC hasn’t thought of/implemented them because they simply don’t have the know-how? I’ve noticed that ‘nerdyness’ and ‘programming knowledge’ seem firmly lodged together in peoples’ minds, but it could just be that WotC just doesn’t have the code-chops. I personally don’t know much about them, so I could be wrong.

  2. Pekka Pekuri says:

    Dunno if the real problem is the sluggish corporate structure. They have enough fanbase that they could start an open source program to take the digital content to the next level if they just arranged infra for it.

    Nowadays I pirate all my rpg books but I also buy all the ones I use and want to run. There’s no way I would’ve ever run into and bought Burning Wheel, GURPS 4e, Savage Worlds, Poison’d, LotFP or others without first checking them out.

    I’d like to add to your suggestions that PDFs should be cheap, like 5 EUR/USD, to lower the threshold of buying it. Low price with dynamic content would also enable players buy a copy for themselves. The physical product should offer some extra value to the owner, like battle maps, tokens, props (e.g. deck of many things) or powerful/fun DMing tools you can use right out of the book at the table. The people who only buy the pdf and game with tablets will also likely subscribe to the digital tools, although I’d like to see group subscriptions/discounts.

    All in all it pretty much boils down to value. PDFs/Books could really be made into toolkits like you said, but that’s what I usually want from a rpg book anyway.

  3. After 20 years or so, I recently got back into D&D and am DMing a campaign for a few friends. I admit to torrenting most of my books. There was no way I was going to buy books (plus outrageous shipping to Korea) until I knew my friends were really into it. Now I torrent first and buy if it’s a book I find I use a lot. I also like the sets with the monster tokens and maps. I also have a subscription to DDI now.

    I think most people misunderstand piracy. I think a lot of people who pirate do so with items that they would never actually buy anyway, either because of the cost or the uncertainty that they’ll like the material. I think the torrents bring people into the game who later spend cashy money on materials who might never have done so otherwise.

    I do like the idea of searchable PDFs, though. I’m getting an iPad this year and I can see how useful it would be to have at the table. I’d pay 4.99 for that.

  4. I feel like you entered my brain and pulled everything I ever thought about Ihow I would make and sell digital D&D books…

    I would also love to be able to support 3pp so that they can use the same exact tools to make and publish their own books and it will seamlessly integrate into the existing books you already got.

    I really hope that WotC will embrace this digital age we live in.


  5. Finally an article about D&D Next worth reading!

    This is the kinda stuff people should be taking about (not which edition is best!)

    Yes, we need digital copies (I just don’t want to lug around all those physical books around anymore) and
    if WotC came out with something like the above I’d buy a tablet to access it.

    PDFs should be cheap and maintained. You would need to register and have an account to access your purchases. Searching docs would be quick ang google like easy.

    Living docs is such a great idea (look at the 4E Monster Manuals…1 & 2 and then a different (better) layout for monsters in 3…imagine all those improvements rolled back into 1&2. They could also keep the system fresh by doing tweaks to races, classes, monsters, rules, etc (like MMOs Guild Wars has regular class updates which make you want to play it again…just to see how the changes effect things).

    I guess it’d cut their costs too if they didn’t have to produce expensive hardback paper copies?

  6. A “book” that auto-updates and comes with lots of little apps might sound awesome at first, but from my point of view you’d actually be sacrificing a lot of convenience for that, to the point where the pirated PDF would actually go back to being the better alternative!

    If you include every feature you mention in your post would make this thing more like a full-featured software suite than a book, and given WoTC’s previous forays into software development, it’d be Windows-only. That does no good to me, since I run Linux.

    Requiring an internet connection to use this book at all would also be a major drawback, especially since one of the great advantages “plain old” ebooks have over their physical counterparts is that they’re more portable. If I can’t take my laptop full of ebooks to game in a place that happens to not have an available Internet connection, then they are less valuable to me.

    That goes double if I actually need to keep paying a subscription to use the book! At this point, that huge unsearchable PDF is looking more attractive than the self-updating wonder, because it presumably still has an index I can consult, and is still more portable than a print book.

    My “digital dream” is a lot less ambitious: cheap, searchable PDFs with no DRM, from a store that allows you to download their latest updated versions as many times as you want, like DrivethruRPG does. I can live with watermarking, but actual DRM is the very opposite of a wonderful thought :).

  7. Have you seen the Dungeon World iOS app? That comes close to a lot of what you’re looking for. It’s not quite there, but the rules presented also don’t have as many math functions that benefit from a Treasure By Level widget or something like that.

  8. Fallen Star says:

    The piracy issue is only half of the reason WotC doesn’t make PDF versions of their products. Keep in mind that they don’t do direct sales of ANYTHING. WotC views local game stores as thier lifeblood. Selling PDFs of books or allowing purchases directly from thier website would cut revenue for many already razor-thin game stores. Consider how much effort is put into in-store play programs. Stores can’t sell PDFs.

    I have posted repeatedly on WotC’s boards that made-to-order direct sales would solve the distribution problems that killed the minis line (and threatens to do again with Dungeon Command). Nonetheless, I save my money to spend at my FLGS, because that is the only place im able to play currently.

  9. Where pdfs are concerned, I long ago abandoned torrents. Not coincidentally this happened around the time I bought my first iPad. Huge bitmap files stuffed into a pdf wrapper aren’t ever as useful as I hoped. Here’s where it gets interesting though: I’m prepping to run a Ptolus campaign with the Pathfinder rules. I purchased the pdfs for all the rulebooks from Paizo, and was so impressed that I’ve begun buying the hardcover volumes simply so that my players have them available at the table for reference. I acknowledge that not everyone has the wherewithal to do that. But this is only a single example. I have a nice library of books that I first owned as pdfs. High quality (bookmarked, indexed, searchable) pdfs can therefore generate revenue more than once.

    I love the living document idea; I’ve long wished for that. But I can see why WotC as a corporation is too invested in selling dead trees and plastic. Interestingly, I can see this model benefitting some of the smaller publishing houses even more than WotC. (I would *love* to have an Eclipse Phase database available online.) Unfortunately, it seems that these are the type of publishers who typically lack the resources to make it happen.

  10. I think digital tools like you describe would be awesome – for prepping a game. Call me Luddite, but I really hate computers at the game table, I’m a pen and paper man and you’ll have to pull my hardcovers from my cold dead hands. I don’t want a product that I can’t use away from the computer unless it’s purely for research (I prefer writing on the computer, so go figure, I guess I’m a contradiction).
    Yes, I even made my 4e characters by hand.

  11. I personally think cancelling PDF sales was one of the worst moves they could possibly have made. You know that “digital dream” I talked about on my earlier comment? For a very brief window of time after the launch of 4e, it came true. Not only could you buy the recently published 4e corebooks as PDFs, you could buy practically every older edition of D&D ever, along with a lot of old adventures and supplements, for very friendly prices. I got the 4e corebooks, the Rules Cyclopedia, plus B1 and B2 right then. And I would probably eventually have bought almost all the rest if they hadn’t pulled them out.

    The files were also professionally produced, and had no DRM to speak of. There was, in short, no reason to ever resort to piracy with such perfect books available under such good prices and such a convenient model as DTRPG’s is. And then, of course, Hasbro gets “Big publishing company” paranoia and pulls them out. “Oh noes, piracy!” “Oh noes, this competes with brick and mortar stores!”. Then you look at White Wolf seeling their stuff under pretty much the same conditions, on the same store, and apparently making so much money off of it that they’re phasing out their paper books. I’m pretty sure Hasbro/WoTC would have been capable of keeping PDF sales up along with all its other distribution channels without significant drawbacks, but they chickened out.

  12. J Osborne says:

    You asked why WOTC should give access to all the rules via a DDI subscription when they could give rules to only books you have bought.

    The easy answer is $15/month is more money then WOTC would get from book sales from many people. Lots of folks don’t buy every 4e book that comes out, and if they buy less then a book every other month DDI gets more money per year then book sales. (when you factor in printing costs and discount prices and such I think it gets a bit stronger in DDI’s favor, even considering that DDI costs less then $15/month if you prepay for a year)

    Maybe the right way to look at it is to make the books optional (some people love them! don’t do away with them!), and morph DDI into including all the book “fluff” as well as the “crunch”.

    Unfortunately WOTC seems pretty inept at software, so this is pretty much a pipe dream, but a nice one.

  13. I think your point is very valid: WotC needs to invest in the digital market, because eventually, that’s all that will be left. And in the end, it can do a lot more. The little criticisms people have made over your suggestions are irrelevant. There’s no question — we’re all going digital soon. I want to play D&D using a giant screen as my map and miniatures, each player holding a tablet with characters sheets, books, and dice-rollers. It’s not too much to ask, and it’s been possible for years. The only reason it hasn’t happened is because WotC won’t invest the funding, time, or resources into tapping the full technological potential of “pen and paper” RPGs.

  14. I also agree with the above comments that piracy is more a way of avoiding entrapment. I never buy games unless I’ve played them first. You just never know. Piracy is definitely a gateway into the hobby. If I hadn’t checked out the player’s handbook (couldn’t afford to blindly spend $35 at the time), I’d still be playing 2nd edition.

    The stuff discussed in this article and the comments is similar to what DDI has tried to do, but it’s been a half-assed effort with no real vision. I want to see a dedicated team of talented and cutting-edge designers/programmers that can milk this avenue for all it’s worth. That would put D&D Next in the hall of fame.

  15. @Bira

    White Wolf isn’t “making so much money off of it that they’re phasing out their paper books”, they’re “making so little money that doing full publishing runs of paper books isn’t practical anymore”.

    The margins in the RPG industry have always been razor thin. When the economy takes a hit, things go from bad to worse. (WotC, the biggest name in RPGs, dropped the Star Wars license because it wasn’t profitable enough to justify.) The large outlay of cash, with multi-month lead times to do a full publishing run of a book which will take half a year (at least) to pay you back is a *huge* risk. PDFs don’t require that same large capital outlay, so they’re a better risk.

  16. The idea that PDFs ought to be very cheap is a common one, but one that does not reflect the actual costs of the market. Until books are published in very large quantities (numbers that the RPG industry never reaches), the initial costs of creating the just-before-printing book far and away dominate; the extra costs of paper, ink, shipping, and handling are relatively small. For mass-market fiction, this tends to be around 80-90% of the relative cost; RPG manuals are very likely to be worse.

    The problem then is the relative value to potential customers. For most people, a PDF RPG manual simply isn’t as valuable as a hardbound paper copy. If the value is lower but the costs aren’t, it’s going to be very hard to make customers happy. This is why the ebook market is so tiny, decades after it was supposed to have ‘taken off’. For WotC, there’s an additional wrinkle – selling ebooks to people directly doesn’t get people into stores, and stores are important for getting new people into the hobby. That’s why there are store-based play programs, promotions, and exclusive products.

    Eventually, the culture will shift to the point where the value of e-copies catches up with the costs, and the market will shift. WotC has had several ebook products over the years, and they didn’t shut them down because they were making too much money. Maybe D&D Next will coincide with that shift. Maybe WotC will decide to take a chance on it shifting ahead of the market. Certainly, I’d like to see it. But I’m neither surprised nor confused that it hasn’t already happened.