(disclaimer: the following blog post is NOT an admission of guilt, nor an accusation against any individual).
When I got back into RPGs in late 2012, the industry had changed, a lot. Back when I left around 2005, online RPG sites like DriveThruRPG.com were a novelty. Today, in a world of smartphones, tablets, and affordable laptops, suddenly the idea of the RPG .pdf file was a viable option for the table. I discovered to my giddy delight that I could purchase a complete RPG online, read it on my work computer, and print it out (or copy the file onto my iPhone or tablet) to play at the table! I was drunk with power. I rapdily spent what little extra money I had on RPG .pdf's and went nuts. When my bank account (and my wife) caught up with me, I wasn't even close to ready to stop downloading and hoarding the years and years of role-playing greatness I had been previously missing out on.
So, I went to less savory methods of acquiring those RPGs. In a few short weeks, I had literally more RPGs than I knew what to do with. The spare bedroom in my house was rapidly-filling with binders full of printed-out RPGs, only a fraction of which I had paid any money for. I think, at one point, I might have even thrown all the ill-gotten RPGs on the floor and swam through them, like Scrooge McDuck. I can't remember, I was so drunk on my own entitlement.
Then I hit rock-bottom: indie RPGs. Not massive companies that may not miss a dollar here or there (not that there are too many of those in our industry, anyway), but actual gamers just like me who worked hard to put something new out there. And I just snatched it up, like it was nothing. The "intervention" came from Jason Morningstar. At the back of his modern RPG classic Fiasco, this is written:
Hello, and thanks for buying our game! Your purchase
ensures that we can continue to make great games, and
we really appreciate it. We hope you enjoy Fiasco!
If you’ve aquired this PDF file through a file-sharing
network or from a friend, we’d like to encourage you
to check out Bully Pulpit Games’ Website. There are
extras available to make your game that much more
rockin’, as well as links to places where you can
purchase the game in several formats.
Please consider throwing some money our way if you
haven’t, or maybe donate to the Electronic Frontier
Foundation or write up a juicy play report for us to
read by way of thanks. We know that file sharing is a
bit of a grey area, but we’ve worked very hard to bring
this game to you. We’re two real people, so if you like
what we’re doing, please let us know.
Thanks for your support, and again, thanks for playing
This was a punch to my entitlement-swollen gut. The guys at Bully Pulpit were fully aware of what I had done (at least, it felt like it). They didn't care, as long as I had fun and maybe showed a little appreciation. Had they given me threats and condescending arguments, I would have looked the other way. But they were cool. They said what I would have most-likely said to someone who pirated an RPG I made.
Shortly after that, I threw away all of my pirated RPGs and deleted all pdf's from my computer that I didn't pay for. Nowadays, the thought of reading a pdf I didn't pay for fills me with so much guilt I couldn't even open the file, let alone read it or play it. Even when my finances are bad off (as they frequently are), I cannot bring myself to bootleg an RPG. I just can't do it.
I don't expect everyone to share my morality. But here are three things I would implore any would-be bootleggers out there to consider before they click "download" on that site that's about to hook them up:
1. Price is a natural filter to content. There are, in my non-economic background opinion, few industries as fair to the consumer as role-playing games. You can chuck $5 at Evil Hat games for their pay-what-you-want version of Fate Core, and have years of tabletop adventure. If a game is too expensive, you don't buy it; instead, you play cheaper alternatives. That expensive game either gets its act together and becomes more affordable, or it risks going under. This isn't the videogame industry, where you have to pay top-dollar for something new or play something old. Likewise, there are no "freemium" tabletop RPGs. There are dozens...hundreds, really...of very high-quality, cutting-edge tabletop RPGs that are completely and totally free. Why steal one that isn't when you could just play one that is?
2. If the game is really worth reading/playing, why aren't you paying for it? RPGs aren't all that expensive for what you get. Even a "top-shelf" RPG, like the Warhammer 40k games or the all-mighty D&D, give you years of gameplay for well-under $100, a rate almost unrivaled across other "interactive entertainment" industries. So if you're not willing to pay money for it, then maybe it's not worth investing time in, either. "I'm not sure if I want to buy it, so I'd like to read through it to make up my mind," is not a valid reason, because a) there are demos/quickstart kits designed expressly for that purpose, not to mention an entire internet full of discussions and reviews to help you make up your mind, and b) If a game has piqued your curiosity enough to consider reading it, then it should be worth your money, even if you never end up playing the game. I mean, that's what reading a book and watching a movie is like, right? And "because I'm poor" is also not an excuse. First of all, see option 1, above, and secondly, we're talking role-playing games, here, not food or medicine. There is no welfare for RPGs (not until I become President, anyway)!
3. The RPG industry is a small place. I had a chance to run a convention game with some people in a pretty considerable place in the biz. I pulled out, because I didn't legitmately own the game I signed to run, and I didn't want to be seen as that guy who couldn't be bothered to even spend one cent on the hobby he loved. Even if you live in the middle of nowhere and/or have no intent of ever going to one of the big cons, the hobby is pretty small, and there's a very real chance that stuff like this could come back to bite you in the ass.
So, now that I've put those arguments out there AGAINST bootlegging an RPG, I'll end this blog post with what I believe are a few edge-cases where I can condone bootlegging an RPG. NOT encouraged, mind you, but not condemmed, either. As I said in the disclaimer above, I am merely making an argument, and not admitting to doing this myself or anyone I know doing this:
1. The RPG is out of print. If you seriously would give money to someone for an RPG and you simply can't because the game is no longer commercially available, then one could argue that downloading the RPG is a victimless crime. Still, though, I would encourage hitting up used bookstores before piracy. Also, out of physical print but still commercially available online via sites like DriveThru is NOT "out of print."
2. You have the hardcopy. This is definitely the most controversial edge-case. Some would not call it an edge-case at all; if both are for sale and you want to use both, you're expected to buy both. But I believe it's unfair to the customer that they have to choose one format over the other. Buying a pdf over a hardcopy is not the same as buying an Xbox version of a videogame over a Playstation version. In the case of videogames, different people need to be paid, and the game is coded to run specifically for each platform. In the case of RPGs, the only difference is reading it in a book or reading it on your computer/tablet screen. It's the same exact game, made by the same exact people. The only difference is in who distributes it, and I don't think it's too much to ask, as a consumer, to have the designers work that out with those distributors, rather than simply burning the customer with the full cost as if another option just doesn't exist. Many game companies, like Pelgrane Press (makers of the brilliant 13th Age) have caught on to this, and offer the pdf free with all hardcopies purchased through their website.
3. An official, commercially-available version of the pdf does not exist. There are some RPGs out there that, for whatever reason, do not have a pdf version. As far as I'm concerned, these companies are saying "We are not going to engage in the pdf market." As with number 1, above, downloading these could then be considered a victimless crime, since the publisher is not interested in making money through digital sales, anyway. I understand that there are legal/distribution issues to consider, as is the case with Fantasy Flight Games and their Star Wars RPGs...but why should the fans have to suffer because a bunch of lawyers who could not care less about them can't figure out a way to make it work? Now, if that should ever change and an official pdf becomes available, I think one should pay for that version. Besides; why stick with a crappy scan of someone's book when you could just pony up a few dollars for a nice, clean, digital version?
4. Your copy came from a friend who purchased the official .pdf file. The friend has to be someone you know in real life (preferably a regular member of your gaming group), not the nebulous, ephemeral people on the internet, and that friend has to officially and legally own the pdf (as in, the owner can produce a receipt and/or the file has a watermark with the owner's name on it. It has to be a purchase of the pdf, too, not a combo-case with #2, above). As far as I'm concerend, that's not bootlegging; that's borrowing. Just like if that friend gave you his or her hardcopy of the game. Sure, you never have to return it, and sure, there are now two when there once was only one, but that's just the same as if you photocopied your friend's borrowed hardcopy.