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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Can a "Free" RPG Product Be "Too Good"?

Can a free RPG product be too good? Can it's production values overshadow other free products to the point that it becomes the "standard-bearer" of the OSR, for good or ill?

This topic came up in the comments to my previous post, and it is a valid question.

Swords & Wizardry Complete is a full art product formerly offered at a $10 price point that is now offered for free. It became free because the cost of production was recouped (the final piece of the puzzle was 400+ backers on the Frog God's latest Kickstarter).

S&W Complete is not a new product. It's just newly free in PDF.

From my perspective, I always treated full art versions of OSR releases otherwise available as free without art as "donation-ware". If I paid for the full art PDF, I was kicking a few coins to the publisher because I enjoyed the "no-art" version, but not enough to buy a hardcopy. Which, to be honest, wasn't often.

PDF copies of OSR rulesets are, in many ways, a marketing tool to sell dead tree copies of the same product (this doesn't apply to all OSR rulesets - for example, dead tree copies of BFRPG are sold at cost).

There is a strange juxtaposition in our hobby, where some work is produced for free or at cost, and other work is produced with the idea of making a profit.

The publishers of probably the three biggest rulesets (in terms of users / players) are Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry Complete and LotFP Weird Fantasy.

LL and WF can be found in game store on occasion as they are in the distribution channels. I haven't seen S&W in a game store yet, but the Frog God Games market presence and web store has a major presence online, and many of their products are available at the Paizo online store.

So yes, they are all looking to get a piece of your "Old School" dollars. These rules are out there to drive sales and help someone make a living.

Would seeing / owning the full art version of Swords & Wizardry Complete make me more likely to search it out in dead tree format then if it were an "art free" version? Probably, but I'll be disappointed when I can't find it in the game store. Actually, there are good odds I wont find any of the OSR rulesets in a game store for purchase.

Does S&W Complete raise the bar and expectations of what one would expect in an OSR ruleset? Probably.

Could Labyrinth Lord or LotFP Weird Fantasy meet or beat (especially in the case of WF) that bar when it comes to art? Sure. They would just need to offer their full art PDF's for free. They've been available for years now anyway and I doubt they make much in actual sales at this point compared to their dead tree versions. They could be used as an advertisement of sorts to sell their matching print products.

Does any of this apply to the more "hobbyist" rulesets, such as Delving Deeper, Dark Dungeons. Adventures Dark & Deep, Arrows of Indria and the rest? I don't think so. There are different expectations built into these.

Will Swords & Wizardry Complete become the standard bearer of the OSR? I've heard it argued that Labyrinth Lord has held or currently holds that position, but I never put much weight on that. The OSR has many standard bearers, both large and small that appeal to different members of our hobby for different reason.

If Swords & Wizardry Complete DID become the defacto standard bearer of the OSR, it's because Goblinoid Games and LotFP and all the rest allow it to. Well, that and a lot of luck. The OSR may be a small pond in the hobby of RPGs, but it's a crowded pond of compatible products that stand on the shoulders of their predecessors. All rely on the others in some manner for support.


  1. Wow, yeah, I wonder if this will push it beyond Labyrinth Lord and LotFP. The 3 came out more or less tied in a recent survey:

  2. My FLGS routinely carries LL and S&W. So there is market penetration at least around here.

  3. Free PDFs as well as Pay What You Want both contributr to the notions that OSR material has no value. This can only be a bad thing.

    1. I seriously doubt that many people with even a hint of interest in OSR gaming are likely to view things that way. On the contrary, I think at least a fair number of those who do have a bit of interest in S&W but who haven't wanted to invest the money are now more likely to at least take a look.

      Either way, for those people actually playing the game, having the .pdf being freely available is certainly a positive, since players who can't make a monetary investment can now still have access to the material.

      All in all, I don't see how this isn't a net positive.

    2. Well, most of what I have seen is ridiculously overpriced, and I haven't the disposable income to buy items I might be interested in, so free and pay what you think it's worth make some of this stuff accessible to folks who otherwise would be totally shut out.

  4. Nothing free can be too good. To the extent that anything raises the bar in terms of production values found in a free product, that's a net gain for everyone. It doesn't lock out competition or compel users who might prefer another approach. It just makes life that much better for users of that product, while serving as inspiration for others.

  5. A free-with-art version is a good thing. Without some examples of the art you might find you like the game but are uncertain as to what the print version will actually look like (i.e. LotFP may be a good read but I have always felt its interior art drags the product down).

    As for who's top dog in the OSR crowds I've generally thought S&W held that title, or at least tied with LL...always thought LotFP was too niche to rank up next to those two. What I wonder is: to what extent are the reprints and PDFs of D&D classics cutting into the OSR crowd? Much as I like S&W and LL, if I want to run D&D I can go grab my B/X PDFs or my 2nd edition reprints and do it with the real deal now. Of course, the general cross-compatibility means I can buy and use supplements for any OSR game with D&D just fine, so it's still a win, overall.

  6. My opinion is there is no such thing as "too good". These various OSR rule sets are generally compatible with each other. It now comes down to personal preference of aesthetics and writing styles. And this has as much to do with my age and when I started gaming as it does with the actual production value of the product. I in no way agree that a "free" product translates into a product having no value. Marketing involves investment which leads to sales. A free pdf of S&W Complete with art is excellent marketing for selling the physical product and it's support material. And the support material (particularly settings) is what keeps gamers attatched to your system. Professionaly produced support material is what these OSR publishers need to focus on now to keep ahead of the curve and remain profitable.

  7. With Swords & Wizardry not in distribution and with US postal service crippling mail order to the UK, I don't see S&W played here in London. I advertised the free S&W complete on the London D&D Meetup forums. Currently the only OSR games that are played at the London D&D Meetup are Labyrinth Lord and (if it counts) Dungeon Crawl Classics. I've also run some B/X D&D recently, and some OSRIC a few years ago.

  8. As a player/buyer I expect that if the free products look better than the for cost products my perceived value of the items I paid for go down.

    As a designer, it means I need to up my game.

    Net results are better products. At least I hope.

  9. How many more sets of OSR rules do you think the community has in it?

    And I mean new sets that contribute something unique or very different from what we already have available. Another set of Jerry's Basement Game Mimeo does not count.

    I have reached the point where I have more rulesets sitting on my shelf (and adventures for that matter) that will never get much more than a cursory reading, and most definitely never get any play time, that I no longer bother checking out most of what is published. I have even stuck lots of newish materiel into storage boxes and packed it away.

    I though the original point of the OGL and then the OSR movement was to publish cool adventures and supplements to the old rules, not rewrite the rules every two weeks.
    More free pdfs just accelerate that tipping point, regardless of quality.

    About all I support in the OSR anymore are print versions of zines, as that seems to be the only place that really interesting things are happening.

  10. I'm not sure I understand the problem being proposed, but perhaps it's just because my purchasing habits are weird. I've never considered the art in the OSR rule sets to be the compelling reason to buy or use a product. Sure, it's a nice hook, but unless we're talking a bestiary with detailed art of the creatures, most of the time the art in these books (especially for ones trying to keep to the old rules look) is mostly incidental. When I buy a dead tree version, it isn't because I want the art, it's because either I feel like kicking some cash over to the developer, or because I find dead tree books to be much more handy table side than pdfs. That being the case, the availability of S&W Complete simply adds to the number of PDFs that are freely available, it doesn't detract from anything.

    Does it up the demanded production value of free rules sets? It might, but rules with art have been around for a while (like the original S&W rules) and that didn't seem to stop LL from becoming a big player. Now it very well might reduce the amount of money people are willing to spend on rule sets that don't come with art, but frankly, I think that value has been declining for a while now. Anyone in the OSR community who didn't see the writing on the wall that selling just the rules wasn't going to be a money maker is in my opinion wilfully blind. The rules are out there, and have been for a while. Paying for and making a living off of your particular implementation of the rules was never going to be in the cards for long. But producing a product with real value (art, quality pages in the physical version, new ideas etc) that's where the money will be.