Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The First Taste Is Free with “Basic D&D”

The imminent release of the latest edition of D&D has generated a lot of buzz, complete with cryptic social media comments from team members and contentious controversies fueled by fans. Wizards of the Coast’s strategies in revising and promoting the new edition have mobilized its followers and critics to argue about gameplay, book prices, release dates, the merits of various editions (or the Old School Renaissance movement), whether certain design and marketing choices are “right,” and the future survival of the adventure gaming hobby. Many speculate on both Wizards’ motives and the actual contents of what different products may contain. I’ve offered some commentary regarding the next edition of D&D on this blog – my impressions of the price for the three main books and how those prices are part of a “new normal” in how gamers acquire new core rules – and so I’ll weigh in on another related issue: Wizards releasing a free, 48-page PDF document online, a kind of “Basic D&D” rules cyclopedia purportedly containing the core rules for creating and running characters from four central classes and several traditional fantasy races. Here’s the announcement from Wizards of the Coast’s Mike Mearls on the Legends & Lore D&D blog:

Basic D&D is a PDF that covers the core of the game. It’s the equivalent of the old D&D Rules Cyclopedia, though it doesn’t have quite the same scope (for example, it won’t go into detail on a setting). It runs from levels 1 to 20 and covers the cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard, presenting what we view as the essential subclass for each. It also provides the dwarf, elf, halfling, and human as race options.

But the best part? Basic D&D is a free PDF. 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.

Various interviews and press snippets released since that statement have tried to shed light on what this Basic D&D PDF can do; without seeing the actual presentation and contents nobody can really say what it actually will or won’t accomplish. But it seems Wizards is trying to address several audiences with this marketing strategy:

New Gamers: With the release of the D&D Starter Set in mid-July, at the same time as the Basic D&D free PDF becomes available, the company is giving those Starter Set players who want to continue their adventures past fifth level the rules framework to do so, up to level twenty. Some claim the PDF serves as a “bridge” from the Starter Set to the full, three-tome game rules, for those who wish to invest in the hobby and believe the “options” in those books improve their game experience.

Old, Skeptical Gamers: The PDF also serves as a free, playable preview of the game, enabling those reluctant to buy into the new edition the chance to see and experience the revised D&D rules in their own campaign settings. (Yes, I’m making a generalization in labeling this segment of the population “old, skeptical gamers.” I’m one of them.) The bait works on several levels: a tempting view of the revised mechanics; a means to play the current edition without investing in a new set of hardcover manuals; a way to bring the older gamer generation into the community of younger gamers.

Impatient D&D Fans: While actively marketing to this most loyal segment of its potential consumer base might seem like “preaching to the choir,” Wizards is using the free PDF to sell subsequent game materials to those gamers already fully supporting the new edition. Given the five month-long release period between the Starter Set and all three core rulebooks, diehard fans have little to sustain their interest and actual play experiences without the Basic D&D PDF enabling them to make characters and run games...plus two full 96-page adventures published between core rulebook releases.

Wizards of the Coast seems to intend Basic D&D as a bare-bones rules set enabling gamers to create characters and run adventures using the various bits of rules the company is releasing piecemeal until everything reaches publication: the Starter Set in mid-July, the Player’s Handbook in mid-August, the Monster Manual in mid-September, and finally the Dungeon Master’s Guide in mid-November, as well as full 96-page adventures in mid-August and mid-October. The release of two actual scenarios before the full trilogy of traditional core rulebooks reach store shelves seems counter-intuitive unless some framework exists in which players can actually use all the rules. Can this Basic D&D cyclopedia deliver on its promises that it’s both a “bridge” to allow those playing the Starter Set to jump beyond fifth-level characters and that it’s a rulebook to create and run characters through the initial two adventures released? It seems ambitious yet possible. One might also think it might undercut sales of the core rulebook trilogy; but I think it touches on another issue beyond providing a free rules framework.

Basic D&D seems intended to enable players of whatever background – beginner, veteran, and enthusiastic – to play the game before all three rulebooks release. Statements seem to indicate the basic edition remains the bare-bones yet functional mechanics needed to play, with the core rulebook trilogy offering more expansive options to character creation and advancement, adventure and campaign creation, and, of course, monstrous adversaries. This represents an interesting strategy of marketing/good-will: release the basic rules for free, then let players decide how much to invest in the rest of the game line. A free, functional preview game remains integral when the initial buy-in to play normally consists of a trilogy of rules tomes with a combined price-tag of $150.

While I’d like to believe the release of this free “Basic D&D” PDF an act of genuine generosity, it’s a rather clever marketing strategy to hook gamers new and old with “the first one’s free” approach. In lieu of evaluating the game based on three expensive rulebooks released over the course of six months, the document allows gamers to review the rules and dive right into playing. Experienced gamers can run scenarios based on the bare-bones core rules – creating their own adventure and using campaign settings as they’ve done for years – and if they go on to buy the three main rulebooks, official adventures, source and setting books, Wizards knows it can garner some additional sales. The move also addresses those dismayed with past editions of the game or discouraged with what they’ve seen for revisions in the latest edition, a sensitive issue Wizards has focused on throughout the new edition’s long development and playtest history; “Here you go...have a look at what we’ve done and give it a test drive for free.” Sure, some die-hard critics won’t go on to purchase rulebooks, adventures, or source material for the new addition, but every former nay-sayer who buys just one new-edition book is a sale Wizards wouldn’t have otherwise made.

D&D remains perhaps one of the few roleplaying game brands that can release a free rules set – however streamlined – that gets hordes of fans playing the game before publication of the actual revised rules and can boost sales of core and secondary product throughout the initial releases under the new edition. Are they “showing their hand” by revealing some of the core revisions in the new edition? Certainly. Can imaginative veteran gamers extrapolate an entire lifetime of play out of the document with their own settings and adventures, without having to purchase any new-edition D&D product from Wizards of the Coast? Quite possibly.

Over the years core rules sets for various other games have seen free PDF release – heck, I just saw The Design Mechanism released the RuneQuest Essentials introductory rules PDF (“much reduced” at 203 pages...) – but many were for current editions popular with fans which did not incorporate significant, controversial revisions. Roleplaying game companies have frequently offered quick-start versions of existing games, or even bare-bones core rules to help drive sales of secondary products. Will a free copy always generate additional sales? I’m sure studies exist citing wide-ranging percentages of sales inspired by free product given away. The perception of a publisher’s goodwill certainly has some effect in attracting and keeping new customers.

Whatever the free Basic D&D document contains it’s a step in the right direction, especially for a company that relies on publishing massive support books (rules options, class “splatbooks,” sourcebooks, adventures) to fuel gameplay among fans. Is it goodwill to give away the core rules of a new game or just clever marketing? The adventure gaming hobby will no doubt contentiously debate the answers as the new edition of D&D release dates approach, free PDFs and paid rulebooks reach gamers’ tables, and the intense marketing and loyal fan hype fades in the face of a few months of actual play and sales.

Schweig’s Postscript

Over the course of three new edition D&D-themed blog entries I’ve waged an inner debate whether to remain involved in the online discussion (such that it is) and speculation on the various issues related to the new release. I think for now this is all I care to say until product starts hitting shelves and making its way to the gaming table. Before all the pre-release marketing hype and contentious online debate rose to a fevered pitch I’d already resolved to limit my personal gaming involvement in the new edition to the D&D Starter Set. I have a particular interest in product intended to introduce new players to roleplaying games, so I’d like to check it out, see if it accomplishes anything new or refines proven techniques, and hope it might rekindle some of the nostalgic wonder I once felt immersing myself in the old Moldvay-edition Basic D&D boxed set.

I’ve seen little to alter my planned investment in the new edition. I applaud Wizards of the Coast for making a Basic D&D PDF available for free, especially to give everyone a chance to preview and even test drive the new system before all the rules reach publication. I’ll certainly download it, maybe even pick up a print copy if that’s ever made available. But of all the new edition product, the Starter Set remains the only one I expect to purchase. That’s not to say people shouldn’t invest in the trilogy of new-edition rulebooks, or that the new edition is the worst. Everyone has different tastes in gaming (as in most other aspects of their lives), and I encourage folks to do what’s in their best interest and respect others enough to let them do the same.


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