Dungons & Dragons is going free-to-play.
Not Dungeons & Dragons Online. That’s been free-to-play for nearly five years. Actual Dungeons & Dragons. The physical version.
Yeah, that’s a little weird.
When the new Fifth Edition of D&D hits this summer, Wizards of the Coast will make available a “Basic D&D” pdf that will contain “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.”
Of course, if you want more than just these basics, such as other races, classes, a world setting, and, we’d presume, a larger variety of monsters, you’re encouraged to pick up the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set or the “big three” rulebooks: Player’s Handbook, Dungeons Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual.
The general feeling regarding D&D’s Fourth Edition was that it attempted to incorporate video game/MMO-style rules into D&D. To put it mildly, that didn’t go over well, though its release just a few years after the “Version 3.5” rules set might have had something to do with it. In any case, it was a vastly different game from prior editions, to the point that even long-time players such as yours truly (who first rolled up a magic-user in 1983) were perplexed by the strange and confusing new systems.
This might be the better approach. Rather than try to emulate the gameplay of MMOs, Wizards of the Coast is trying to emulate their financial model. Free demo packets of RPGs aren’t a totally new concept – Free RPG Day is a thing, meant to imitate Free Comic Book Day – but for the industry leader for 40 years to attempt such a thing as a significant part of a core release is an eye-opener.
(One might also cynically note that in offering the Starter Set on July 15, the PHB on Aug. 19, The MM on Sept. 30, and the DMG on Nov. 18, Wizards is also taking another cue from the video game market: that of staggered DLC releases shortly after launch. Technically, RPGs release new sourcebooks, DLC-style, for decades, but to do that with the core rulebooks seems wonky.)
Any D&D player knows that the rules tend a little to the verbose, so it’s a bit of a mystery as to how detailed and overall “fun” such a limited rules set could be. If we were to take the F2P comparison to its logical extreme, we’d assume that you could theoretically play a full campaign with just the Basic D&D pdf, assuming you were clever and inventive enough and didn’t mind the limit of having just a few races and monsters. It’s a little like playing with just the core three rulebooks and not investing in increasingly niche titles like “The Ultimate Guide to Level 16-17 Chaotic Neutral Female Dwarf Rogues” ($24.99, coming this winter). As with many F2P games, the reality of it is that you’ll probably eventually either quit or feel the urge to spend money.
In any case, just like with their attempts at Fourth Edition, Wizards of the Coast knows where the gaming industry is headed. The company knows it competes not just with other pen-and-paper RPGs, but with countless video games as well. And it realizes that getting people into their game, through any means possible, is key. Offering a basic version of the game for free, and charging for additional materials, is an ideal way to do that. In that way, Wizards understands what video game developers are still coming around on: Free-to-play is the future, and you’d best figure out how to make it work for you.
Now, can I spend $1.99 to get +4 on my saving throws? Or would that be pay-to-win?
By Jason Winter