I am honestly very excited by today’s announcement that 5th Edition D&D will release a free Basic D&D document to the public. I think it’s a great step towards getting more players into the game (and some more back into the game).
Let’s all be honest; we’ve sat down to play games with someone who had that scanned PDF copy of the rulebook. There isn’t a rulebook out there that couldn’t be had in an illicit PDF form if one were to do a little searching. Legal or not, it’s something driven in part by people who want to try the game but who are put off by the buy-in cost. Some games are aware of this; Malifaux, for example, kept a stripped down version of their first edition rules online for players to try, and half the reason I bought into that game was because I was able to review the rules and play a bit with proxy minis before buying my first Crew. [Sadly, it seems that Wyrd hasn’t done this for the Second Edition, which I think is a step back for the game.]
This move by WotC undercuts that digital piracy, at least a little bit. Sure, there will still be people out there scanning rulebooks and distributing them; that sort of thing never ends. But putting out a legitimate document will at least steer away the casual pirates who just want to take a look at the rules. it also puts them in a WotC-controlled space where players can be encouraged to buy into the actual rulebooks and supplements.
Also, D&D has to be aware of the Pathfinder situation. The new D&D will have to compete against Pathfinder for players, and one of Pathfinder’s biggest strengths, IMO, is the PfSRD that only exists because of the 3E OGL. I’ve been playing Pathfinder recently, and I can’t tell you how utterly brilliant it is to have an iPad at the table with the PfSRD on tap. Honestly, my DM notes nowadays almost always consist of Google Docs with links in the text to monster stat blocks or important rules in the PfSRD. Pathfinder’s embracing of the PDF model helps, too, for those of us who are keen to take our game paperless. While the announced PDF doesn’t itself duplicate the Pathfinder situation, it’s a move in the right direction.
So, kudos to WotC for this forward-thinking move. I can only hope it’s just the tip of a robust digital distribution model that encourages people to play instead of pay. Let’s hope the announcement of Basic D&D is followed by the announcement of a new, better version of D&D Insider with functional DM tools and plenty of reasons to subscribe!