It has been announced that there is going to be a “Free RPG Day” this June. It is a homage to the Free Comic Book Day the major publishers put together to encourage new readership. Free Comic Book Day worked in this household, because it got my son interested in comic books (they included early-reader options for guys like him). Free RPG Day, however, is being met with cynicism in certain places. The arguments are (in my own distillation) that the offerings are underwhelming, only RPG veterans will participate, and this isn’t really what’ll inject new life into the hobby.
While I’m not one to turn away free gear ever, and I’m loathe to agree with RPGnet smarks, I understand the cynicism. Most of the free stuff is supplements, rather than introductory rulebooks which would be a more natural gateway into the hobby. It is also not an apples-to-apples strategy with Free Comic Book Day. With FCBD, you have companies that publish dozens, if not hundreds of comic books giving out a free sample of their core product–what you got for free is an example of what you buy, at an essentially one-to-one level. With FRPGD, you are getting secondary products or limited versions of what you would bu, not a true example of a core product, namely a full rulebook.
Of course, most RPG companies can’t afford to just give away a core rulebook for free, because unlike say, the miniature wargaming community, the money’s in the main books as much as the secondary material. Also, a tremendous amount of free product in the form of introductory rulebooks are already available on the internet. You can get GURP’s Lite, etc. right now without having to wait for June. That’s not to mention the freebie bin at .pdf warehouses like DriveThruRPG.
But hey, it is a plan with the right intention, if not a perfect implementation, and a major company may yet step up to the plate and give out a major release loaded with advertisements for all the various modules, sourcebooks, etc available. If I was to pick a company that could really go a long way with this, I’d say Palladium Games could release the core rulebook to Palladium Fantasy–it isn’t necessarily a major mover, it’d get people buying the bazillion sourcebooks they publish, and it would stick it to all the Palladium critics out there.
But what could save the RPG industry? Well, I’m not a business analyst, but I do have some ideas.
Create multi-gamesystem publishing houses. In the book publishing world, large houses publish books of different genres, using their collective bargaining power to increase revenue, as well as have a editorial staff guarantee quality issues and publishing deadlines. One dilemma that I hear lamented by RPG store owners is the difficulty of discerning what will and will not sell, while small independent RPG writers languish in obscurity hoping to be picked up and discovered by the RPG clientele. If you had large publishing groups shopping RPG’s by marketability, advertising their products en masse, and maintaining a certain amout of oversight in terms of quality and timing, RPG retailers could work directly with them. By not having the publishing house be married to one single system, they can also be more sensitive to market trends without being beholden to continuing to support an RPG whose time is done. In some ways, the .pdf warehouses are already doing this by leveraging certain products to the front of their websites that they know will do well.
I don’t see this being a big hit with game designers themselves, especially mid-range developers who may not appreciate someone else’s editorial supervision and the inevitable lack of revenue in a paper-thin industry. But it isn’t my only idea.
Lower the prices on basic rulebooks
Right now, it’ll cost you about $100 to run Dungeons & Dragons, because the necessary material is spread out over three books: the Player’s Guide (which has most of it), the DM’s Handbook (which has experience points, etc.), and the Monster Manual. Many other major RPG’s following similar pricing structures: RuneQuest, GURPS, even the Hero System “I can stop a bullet” rulebook.
Games Workshop, and many other companies on the other side of the gaming store aisle have begun to realize that you need inexpesnive “gateway” options for new players. GW has Battle for Macragge, and Skull Pass. Privateer Press includes the basic rules in all their army box sets. Some RPG manufacturers are already doing this (see above) but I think more could be done. Now, I realize that, again, miniature companies make their money on miniatures, not rulebooks–but a $100 upfront investment on a game is going to make any new player blanche.
I’ll stop now, more later.