Free RPG Day 2012: The Price of Free-dom

I think any gamer would agree that “free” is good. After all, who turns down something for nothing? In the world of tabletop RPGs, customers are charged for the core rules, the adventures, accessories like the GM screen, and even the dice or character sheets necessary to play the game. Therefore, getting high-quality free content can really enhance the overall consumer experience.

Free RPG Day

Coming soon to a game store near you is Free RPG Day—on June 16th, you can find a wealth of RPG material free for the taking. Free RPG Day has been occurring annually since 2007, and has included material from some of the largest and most prestigious RPG companies in the industry today, including Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro, Fantasy Flight Games, White Wolf, and Paizo Publishing.

This year, 19 different free products are part of the Free RPG Day package, running the gamut from dice to adventures to full-fledged quick-start rules for highly anticipated new RPGs for 2012.

Why is Free RPG Day a good thing?

It’s good for retailers because it gets people into the store to pick up the free product, and people in the store are likely to end up buying something. It’s good for consumers since they get free product, but they also get to see a glimpse of a game system they may not have heard of before or get a sneak peek at something they’re really looking forward to.

What will you find at Free RPG Day?

The Free RPG Day products tend to be of varied production quality, from a few sheets of paper stapled together to glossy, full-color booklets. A product for Free RPG Day isn’t required to have high production values, but those are the ones usually most in demand from the crowds. The bigger companies like Paizo, WoTC, and Fantasy Flight generally have the best-looking books every year, but there’s quite a bit of value to be found, I believe, in the smaller press stuff as well—a good example being the XDM booklet Laser Squid Nemesis from Free RPG Day 2011.

This is not to say that there haven’t been missteps from time to time—shoddy products, half-finished books, and so forth—one debatable example being the Heroes Forever booklets from Free RPG Day 2010.

Benefits for the Retailer

I asked Dragon’s Lair, a chain of three game stores operating in Texas, for feedback about how Free RPG Day has affected their business. Robbie J. LaBanca, the Signing and Events Coordinator for Dragon’s Lair, had this to say:

“Free RPG Day is a great yearly event that allows new and veteran gamers alike a chance to check out new and exciting products from some of the biggest names in the industry all for free! We give away tons of new game modules, adventures and gaming accessories. It has a wonderfully positive effect on our business because there are lots of customers who discover new RPG’s which prompts them to purchase other products from the line in the future. It is a great doorway into the world of RPG’s for someone who has never played and an amazing opportunity to try something new if you are a veteran gamer all without any monetary obligation. As a way to drive business, it is one of the smartest events that takes place within the gaming industry each year.”

My experiences as a publisher with Free RPG Day

During the years I worked for Fantasy Flight Games, I made sure that we entered Free RPG Day every year with something fresh and new. The first Free RPG Day product I was involved in was the quick-start guide to Rogue Trader, a booklet entitled Forsaken Bounty. A free follow-up adventure, Dark Frontier, was posted on the FFG website after Free RPG Day, along with the ability to download Forsaken Bounty.

Forsaken Bounty and Dark Frontier established a tradition that would carry through the next few years with Final Sanction and the free follow-up Oblivion’s Edge for the Deathwatch RPG in 2011 and Broken Chains for the Black Crusade RPG in 2012. The key with these products is that each one had a free follow-up adventure (with the exception of Broken Chains) or bonus characters that drove traffic to the FFG web site after the event, effectively leveraging the event both at the store and on the web.

The Power of “Free”

I believe in the power of free product. It is a way of giving something back to your loyal fanbase and a way to grab new customers with a taste of what you’re offering for sale. Wizards of the Coast produced several free web enhancements for the Dungeons & Dragons line, particularly for the 3.0/3.5 edition, and they were almost universally well-received. A web enhancement can be as little as 3-5 pages worth of extra material, but it adds a significant amount of perceived value to a product.

At Fantasy Flight Games, I oversaw the creation of over 20 free PDFs for the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay lines. Many of these products included content that had been cut for various reasons (most often space—page limits meant that some manuscripts were just too long!) but there was also a significant amount that was created specifically to service these free samples, adventures, and web enhancements.

The Free RPG Day booklets mentioned previously and quick-start guides such as Edge of Darkness provide an easy entry point into an RPG. Add some pre-generated characters, and all you really need now is someone to run the game at a local store to draw interest for your game. I went so far as to turn the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay mundane product listing for the year into a flavorful booklet with a story and scope all its own… like a little extra glimpse into the world of 40K.

Participation in Free RPG Day certainly seemed to boost our sales. The numbers on the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay books were high throughout my career working with them, and I definitely believe Free RPG Day deserves some credit.

The Quest Continues

However, Free RPG Day is not something that can exist without customer and retailer support. I asked Aldo Ghiozzi, the head of Impressions Advertising and the mastermind behind Free RPG Day, about how the project has grown. Here’s what he told me:

“That is honestly a tough question.  After year one we ask the publishers what were good donation numbers and came up with our current system…it has worked out quite well, but unfortunately, the publishers just cannot commit to more total freebies, thus, the only way the event can grow is the total number of publishers participating.  This year is the largest total number of giveaways and publishers (but not by much), but we always (since year 2) only can make 600 kits based off of the giveaway totals to sell to the retailers, whereby those serve about 400 stores worldwide.

I personally think its grown in terms of recognition definitely.  The traffic on the site continues to grow and just this year our Facebook fans grew by 1000 (from 3,000 to over 4,000).  I continue to try to think of ways to grow it in the sense of more giveaways, more publishers and other outside the industry ideas (I called Jones Soda to try and get the D&D soda in the kits – I called IDW to try for a unique D&D comic – but alas, they said no).

There is a logistics limitation that is just too boring to get into, but in the end, the RPG market is small and I think we are nearly at the limit at which it will grow for total stores and total kits sent out.”

Aldo’s efforts to continue to promote the event are noteworthy—adding D&D soda or an IDW comic book seem like great ideas, and it’s a shame that neither one succeeded this year. In addition, Aldo’s observation that the event has nearly hit the limit of the kits it can produce is a telling one.

The Future of Free RPG Day

It seems clear that Free RPG Day is a good idea, but one that is threatening to hit a plateau—what needs to happen to grow the event is that more retailers and consumers need to get involved.

I offer this challenge to you: if Free RPG Day means something to you, I ask you to get out there and let your local game retailer know. Talk to game stores in your area about the benefits of participating in the program. Hopefully with more interest and exposure, Free RPG Day can build momentum and become something truly legendary. I’d certainly like to see it continue to achieve success—and hey, maybe add that D&D soda and comic books along the way.

In Conclusion

Ultimately, I think the success of Free RPG Day and other initiatives like web enhancements are showing the way. More publishers should try to set aside resources for a few free products a year, aimed at getting new fans and pleasing existing ones. If Free RPG Day continues to grow (as I sincerely hope that it will), what I would like to see is more and more small publishers get in on the act and submit material or come up with some extra incentive to visit their web sites.

There are certainly a lot of other ways to grow a business, but I believe that “something for nothing” has a power all its own that should not be ignored!

Comments

  1. Free RPG Day has really been great. I particularly like it when vendors create a great resource that keeps drawing gamers to their site over time. For example, both Wizards and Paizo have Free RPG Day adventures downloadable online from past years. (The Dark Sun adventure Bloodsand Arena is my favorite).

    At the same time, vendors can get it wrong. Gamers want to game, and they want to do so in a short game that can give them a taste for the game. Lots of people use Free RPG Day as a way to check out a game with no commitment or expense. Even the larger companies can get it wrong. For example, last year Wizards had what was basically a supplement to the Shadowfell product. While it was possible for a DM to create an adventure out of the content, it was not easily done and there were no pregens. This year, there is an adventure, and it looks really cool, but it is for levels 8-10, comes with no pregens, and runs far longer than 2 hours.

    I think this was a missed opportunity. The adventure could have been a 2-hour adventure for level 1-3 PCs with pregens. It could have provided additional content for those wanting a longer game. It could have been a better tie-in to the Spider Queen marketing push. It could have allowed Encounters players to bring their PCs and get something special, while also serving as an on-ramp for new players to take the PC from this adventure and start playing the current Encounters series. Instead, an 8-10 no-pregen adventure that runs long becomes something that stores will struggle with. If they don’t play that, what do they play? Each store handles that differently, and that’s a marketing problem. Some stores might just direct gamers to one of three Pathfinder adventures available for Free RPG Day. Ugh.

    Me? I would like a copy of the adventure. I’m sure it is excellent. But, I’ll probably run D&D Next for players that have been through the agreement process. I may also bring a short adventure, such as the one that ran at PAX (and was great at selling the upcoming Spider Queen/Encounters seasons) or the awesome 4-hour preview adventure for Gardmore Abbey that ran at PAX Prime. Both of those adventures are not available online, sadly (and they should have been).

  2. Free Comic Book Day is a major event in Toronto, where I live, and I would love to see Free Rpg Day have the same kind of success (especially since last year not a single Toronto store participated in Free Rpg Day). I know it’s a much smaller market and will never draw the same kind of numbers, but I think game stores can learn something from Free Comic Book Day. At Silver Snail (the biggest local comic shop) FCBD was a big deal because they made it a big deal. There was comic themed music to listen to while waiting in line, the staff all dressed up as their favorite characters, there were appearances and signings by local artists and a general party atmosphere that made it a lot of fun. This is what needs to happen for Free RPG Day to really galvanize the fanbase. I know for a fact Toronto has some RPG personalities that could participate (as I’m sure other major cities do as well), how come Ed Greenwood isn’t doing an autograph session, or the very least James M. of Grognardia running a demo of his game or Dungeon Crawl Classics?

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