Why Small Presses Don’t Do Free RPG Day

The fantastic Manda Collis (of Charisma Bonus) sparked some interesting Twitter discussion this past Saturday, Free RPG Day, asking why indie people don’t do it. I’ve been asked that a few times over the last couple years, wondering why there aren’t any Evil Hat freebies. And while I won’t speak for Fred Hicks (as he’s mouthy himself), I thought I would share what it means to produce a free product.

What Sort of Product?

First of all, you have to ask: who is the audience for this product? Are you making a new adventure for your game, targeting people who have experience with your product? Are you making a quickstart thing, to get new people interested?

The former has a lot of benefit if you (a) have a large fan base in many markets across the country who will engage with Free RPG Day, and (b) you have a large catalog that your free product will effectively remind people to check out.

The latter has some benefit if you’re trying to give a tool for someone to introduce themselves and others to your core products. Which would be awesome, if this was the sort of thing that was effectively advertised outside of our community. But this event is largely an in-the-know thing.

In any case, you know what’s easier to make? The adventure. The quickstart involves more work distilling your experience down into, say 16 pages, involving telling people how to play the game, how to run it, characters, and a sample scenario.

Having worked on the Leverage Quickstart, I’ll say this: that’s a fucking harrowing task. The adventure in it honestly lasts, like, an hour.

The First Set of Costs

Now let’s talk costs of production:

  • Designing & writing: your writers and designers aren’t working for free (unless they’re chumps or they own the company and are effectively donating time). Some of this can get maneuvered around by re-using text, but you still have to make what you’re using fit into the small format.
    Granted, per the Free RPG Day agreement, the adventure material must be “100% never-before-seen material.”
  • Editing: see above. Even if you reuse a lot of material, you’ll want an editor to make sure what’s been cobbled together fits.
  • Art: this can be easy to avoid, if you’re reusing art that you have license to use on a free, separate product. Otherwise, you’re looking at more expense, from extending a license to making something new. Granted, if you make something new, hopefully you’ll also license it so that you can reuse it later.
  • Layout: ideally, you’ll already have a template to layout, so the time involved won’t be immense. But it’s not zero, either, so you’re paying for that time (unless it’s similar to writing for free, above). Worst-case, you have to do full-on design work.

And to be a Free RPG day thing, it must be a minimum of 16 pages.

Now, maybe you can make this financial cost near-zero if everyone involved is cool just donating the time, but you certainly can’t make the temporal cost zero. And time spent working on a thing is time not spent working on something that would possibly be more beneficial to your organization.

How to Make a Shitty Freebie

An aside: it’s easy to make a shitty freebie. Don’t playtest your adventure — a problem easily remedied. But when you’re making a quickstart, that’s harder. You need that in the hands of people who don’t know your game to play it with other people who don’t know your game.

Either way, you’re looking at more time & effort you’re investing into the freebie.

Second Set of Costs

Great! You’ve got a thing! Now, to make it a thing for stores, you need to print & ship it.

Looking at the Free RPG Day form, the minimum to print is 600, and that’s only if you want just one to be sent to a store as an in-store retailer copy. If you want actual giveaways? That starts at 1800, for 3 copies going to a store.

I can’t speak to the actual costs of printing a few thousand small, staple-bound books and having them shipped to the distributor, except to say that it’s the opposite of free.

That, and as an independent guy, I’d be ecstatic if I could justify a 1800-unit print run of a real product! Hopefully that gives some sense of scale as to “what they’re asking” and “what we do normally.”

Why do this?

So, with all the expense, why do this? Ideally, it’s a marketing expense, but what does that mean?

Well, marketing expenses are about spending money to make more money, but only if you treat the money spent as a gamble. So, if we low-ball the costs to, say, $3000 dollars, assuming you as a producer have three grand you can throw away — and in the small scales we’re talking about, there are no guarantees that an event that’s only effectively promoted to an inside crowd or various and radically different markets will promote sales — you could do this.

But marketing doesn’t just fail when you don’t make up the amount you spent. It also fails when you make just enough to be in the black or a little bit more. Sure, you’ve technically made money, but you’ve also devoted resources to making a product you cannot later monetize — resources that could have been spent making something you could. So, to be successful in marketing, you need to make quite a bit more than just the cost of production.

If you think you can, it’s totally for you. That isn’t the case for a good 90% of us.

Radically Different Markets

I keep hitting on this because it’s super important to understand. Games stores around the country have different staff &  clientele, and it’s those people who will be selling the experience of your game. Plenty of game stores have loud Pathfinder staff & fans, for instance. Some have loud Savage World communities. Some have large Fate ones. Some large White Wolf ones, etc. If you’re making a White Wolf product, it’s going to be sent to places where no one gives a shit about it because the people who visit that store are primarily Pathfinder fans, and vice versa (though, these days the vice versa is much less).

So you’re printing a bunch of free products that will have happen to them what many marketing materials do: be thrown away without much of a glance.

“But retailers pay for these”

That’s true, retailers do. And none of that money goes back to the publisher. That’s why Free RPG Day calls it “sponsoring.” And that’s why it needs to be justified as a marketing expense.

What about an adjacent PDF-focused event?

This is something people also bring up, but it won’t work. Free RPG Day is a trademark, a brand, and a business. There is licensing involved. This is something put together specifically for retailers, so there’s no way attaching something not involving retailers will fly.

Not only will it not work because of those logistics, it’s totally unnecessary. It’s not like we need it if we’re just offering downloads. Free download-stuff day is every day, you know? People are always putting stuff out there.

Also, understand that a PDF isn’t free. All those costs in “First Set of Costs” were separated from printing for a reason.

Plus, Timing

A final note: events like these that are simultaneously timed can play hell with local markets.

Take here in Denver, for instance; this is also the weekend of Denver Comic-Con. Horrible timing. Either you’re a gamer at the much cooler, bigger event, or you’re missing out on that in order to do Free RPG Day. If this were a local-scale event, like the EndGame minicons, it would be more successful because both the timing and the products offered could be tailored for that store.

Granted, that can’t really be helped when you do something on such a large geographic scale. But it’s worth understanding when you’re talking about sinking marketing costs into many markets: one that might normally totally be into your thing may have a localized conflict.

Don’t Get Me Wrong, Here

I dig the idea of Free RPG Day, I really do. In many stores, it’s executed for shit, but that’s to be expected, Sturgeon’s Law and all. But the idea of an event where people all over the place where gamers can share some love is cool. It’s just not feasible for most of us, and often people try to make small publishers feel like shit for not participating, ths this post to illustrate why.

– Ryan


5 Responses to Why Small Presses Don’t Do Free RPG Day

  1. I knew participating in the Free RPG Day model was ludicrous for us, but my local store was glad to have me on hand demoing my game all day.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Sweet! Its definitely the sort of event I would be happy to pitch my time in for, but that’s all I could do. (And that’s only one store.)

      Very much the EndGame-style model of store support.

      – Ryan

  2. Aldo Ghiozzi says:

    Yup, Ryan, everything you said. And I can tell you that when the indie folks do participate and do the 600 minimum, you’re right, they are not considering paying themselves and usually its them and maybe a friend doing the adventure or quickstart for free with free art.

    I especially love your last line:
    “It’s just not feasible for most of us, and often people try to make small publishers feel like shit for not participating, ths this post to illustrate why.”
    As much as gamers would love freebies for every RPG they play, its just not sensible/logical.

    I do welcome any thoughts on making the event more accessible to more publishers to participate, but retailers only want the unique freebies and do not advocate PDFs.

    Aldo Ghiozzi

  3. For what it’s worth, and I know this isn’t true of everyone, but we’d LOVE to get store-exclusive PDFs for Free RPG Day. There’s dozens of ways to pull this off, from having us D/L and hand off to customers via thumb drive, e-mailing it to them in exchange for playing a demo, etc.

    It’s not like half the book don’t show up on PDF hours after we hand them to people, anyway. A FREE RPG Day Fiasco Playset or SotC adventure or Apocalypse World Playbook would be a great perk, and be a way for us to raise awareness baout small press AND supporting programs like Bits n’ Mortar. It would requires trust, and some douchebags would abuse it, but that’s already the case with the hard-copy versions, and Fred’s take on it via Bits N Mortar works for me.

    -Jim Crocker

  4. Chris says:

    On the note of PDFs, our store in Asia I believe is the only store in the East running Free RPG day, getting the gear here on time is game of pure chance and there’s all the extra shipping costs to ship it by air to stand any chance at all, this year it arrived the Friday before and we had to push back two weeks (to today). The event was a great success, 6 demo sessions run through out the day. While the physical products are great, it would be cheaper for us to have a minis USB pre loaded with each of the products to hand out to everyone, meaning everyone gets a copy of everything and it becomes more accessible to both independent and overseas publishers to participate.

    On a side note, the chocolate dice some how made it all the way here to Thailand without melting and were delicious…