D&D5 For Free

And then there arose an interesting development regarding the D&D5E Starter Set and its suitability as a stand-alone game system for long-term play. There is, as always, good news and bad news.

It’s always my habit to drop the bad news first, so here goes. At this point the Starter Set appears to be what it says on the tin: levels 1-5 and a canned adventure or two (Mearls says “campaign.”) Very similar to the kind of introductory sets we’ve seen since the cancellation of the BECMI line. It doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that can keep people playing for all that long, although the components might well be useful later on.

The good news, though, is a biggie, spilled by Mike Mearls early this morning. Alongside the 5E rollout we’re going to see a product called Basic Dungeons & Dragons, which will be distributed as a free PDF. It will contain the four core classes of Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard, and will include the Halfling, Elf, Dwarf and Human races. And levels 1-20. Mike compared it to the Rules Cyclopedia, with the three D&D5 core books being the equivalent of AD&D.

As new “storylines” (which I read as “modules”) are released, there will be PDFs of any extra material not already in basic D&D but needed to run the adventure, also for free. So the guts of D&D will be available entirely for free in a presumably accessible and newbie-ready format, along with at least some de facto supplimentary material as time goes on.

Another implication is also that 5E adventures in general will be more or less fully BD&D compatible, eliminating any need for a separate line of support products (although it’s kind of getting that anyway.)

This is the kind of introductory version of the game that I was talking about the other day. We’ll see how lean it is when it releases, but it sounds very promising, and as a number of the retro-clones show, you can fit a lot of game into a relatively low page count. As Mearls says, it could provide “a lifetime of gaming.”

The fact that it’s free is important but the whole thing sings to me of a bravura marketing move. It should drive sales of both the supplementary products and the core books. If compatibility with pre-4E editions is high enough (and I think it will be, by and large) it will drive sales of legacy PDF material through D&DClassics.com. The price of zero dollars combined with D&D’s brand recognition will lower the entry barrier to the whole hobby. And it will be an attractive option for those of us who want to play D&D and prefer that it be the current, supported version, but who would rather use a rule set simpler than the whole 5E enchilada, or say 3.5 or Pathfinder. If it’s good enough and clean enough it might even win over some of the asthmatic old geezers of the OSR.

D&D is sort of free already, of course. The 3.x SRD is still out there, not to mention the Pathfinder version. That particular Efreet is out of its bottle and can’t be put back in. But 3.x is a pretty damned complex game, and the SRD is not at all a rookie-friendly delivery system for it.

Now, there are still questions. Will Basic D&D release at the same time as the Starter Set, as Mike’s post seems to me to imply? Will there be a print edition of any kind? How will the licensing conditions for BD&D differ from those of balls-out 5E, if at all? Will there even be licensing, or will WotC contract out design work like they’re doing with the initial range of adventures? Of such questions are future blog posts made.

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