Sing along! 'I can't liiiiiiiiiiive... I can't liiive anymoooooooooore...'
Or can I?
The internet is a wonderful thing. I can send emails and messages to people in other countries in a matter of seconds, I can find out information on anything in minutes, I can play interactive computer games and I can talk crap on my own blog in the vain hope that someone is going to give a shit about what I think. In the interests of my hobby, though, I can download free RPGs.
I'm not talking about Word Document pages of text or PDFs of photocopies of original books - I'm talking about full on original and proffesionally produced roleplaying games created by fans of the genre. I've downloaded games such as Icar, Dungeonslayers, Basic Fantasy, Swords and Wizadry, Sufficiently Advanced... all of these games and many, many more are available by simply clicking on a link and saving it to your hard drive. My own SKETCH system was designed for this very purpose - I had an idea, I typed it up, I stuck it in a PDF and I gave it away. Job done.
So where does this leave the big game companies? These guys are not only selling their printed copies of books but they're also selling their PDF versions as well so that people can get hold of them faster. That's fine, but if I can get a similar game for free somewhere else then why don't I just do that? Some games are so simple that I can print them out on my own printer in less than an hour, and if I must take the PDF to a printer then why pay for the PDF download in the first place if it's going to cost me extra to get it physically printed? Each and every one of the free RPGs on offer are quite capable of doing the same job as a company-printed game. Some of the production values of these free games are, to be blunt, stunning, and easily contend with products that have the financial backing and talent of an RPG company. The old school movement of games such as Swords and Wizadry and Basic Fantasy not only have rules that hark back to the beginning of the RPG hobby but they also have plenty of support material and adventures to go with them - and it's all free!
So do we really need these big companies producing their big costly books? We're constantly told that the RPG industry isn't something you get into if you want make it rich - 'How do you make a million in the RPG industry? Start with two million' is an old joke - so the presence of free material will surely mean the death of the industry, or at least damage it as a whole?
I honestly don't know. I've recently bought some new RPG books - the Dragon Warriors game and supplements - after several years of not buying any product at all. This was mainly because I'm having a nostalgia kick and I wanted to catch up on and play a game from the 1980s that I missed, but also because it's a great product. It's like buying a new novel even though you're an amateur writer yourself - you want to see what they have come up with but at the same time be safe in the knowledge that it's been through a professional company so that what you get is a complete, finished and polished product. Is it that sense of quality we're looking for when we buy these things?
So, can we live without the big companies? Yes, I think we can. I'm not saying 'smash the printers, comrades!' because, and I admit it, I like the idea of a 'big-budget' game in my hands, but as a long-time player I'm content with knowing that my hobby will never die. The big game companies could vanish tomorrow but the hobby will live on, because even now there are devotees out there creating, fashioning and producing quality games for people to access quickly and easily. Even first-time gamers will have the resources on the internet to learn about the game, from the games themselves to gamers talking about the hobby to Wikipedia entries. There is nothing a single RPG book can teach a budding roleplayer that the internet RPG community can't.