Dungeons & Dragons is going free to play.
Well, not all of it, obviously. Hasbro, which owns the D&D brand through its subsidiary Wizards of the Coast, is in the business of selling games — not giving them away. But the core of the new edition of the D&D game, including the creation and first 20 levels of dwarves, elves, halflings and human characters with occupations such as cleric, fighter, rogue and wizard, will be made available as a free “Basic D&D” PDF download when the Starter Set goes on sale late this summer.
So then, why even buy the Starter Set, or the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeons Master’s Guide? Senior designer Mike Mearls explains:
If Basic D&D is the equivalent of the classic Rules Cyclopedia, then the three core rulebooks are analogous to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Want more character options? Pick up a Player’s Handbook. Looking for more critters for your campaign? The Monster Manual has you covered. Want to sculpt a unique campaign? Pick up the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Still, Basic D&D is the true heart of the game and could easily provide a lifetime of gaming.
At the launch of the D&D Starter Set, Basic D&D will include the material needed to create characters and advance to 20th level. In August, with the release of the Player’s Handbook, Basic D&D will expand to include the essential monsters, magic items, and DM rules needed to run the game, along with the rules for wilderness, dungeon, and urban adventuring. (The Starter Set already covers the aspects of these rules that you need to run the included campaign.)
As we introduce new storylines like Tyranny of Dragons, we’ll also make available free PDFs that provide all the rules and stats missing from Basic D&D needed to run the adventures tied into the story. The adventures released as part of Tyranny of Dragons are playable without requiring any of the core rulebooks or the Starter Set. With just the Basic Dungeons & Dragons rules, you can play D&D for years.
This is potentially a huge game changer for Wizards of the Coast, which created a monster when it made their core rules open-source two editions ago. That decision led a former business partner, Paizo, to start the Pathfinder RPG, comprising the elements that made D&D’s 3rd Edition so popular, and this rival continues to give Wizards a run for their money today. Making the iconic races, classes and other elements of this new 5th Edition free, but not necessarily open-sourcing them to other businesses, could woo back many former fans who were turned off by the company’s business practices and entice them to explore the offerings that won’t be free to play. This also makes products like the two Tyranny of Dragons adventure modules, Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat, stand-alone products that don’t require players or Dungeon Masters to buy the three core rulebooks right away.
It’s a smart way to attract as many players as possible by not requiring everyone to buy everything, just the parts that are right for them and their gaming groups. It’s also an indication that Wizards cares about the hobby as much as their own brand — a sentimental aspect to the market its competitors have so far dominated for too long.
NOTE: Updated July 4, 2014, with link to PDF download.