Tabletop Games Piracy in 2018

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It felt for a few years like few people cared about piracy in tabletop games. Everyone had their feelings about it, and nothing was changing. But in the last few months, I’ve felt a rising tide of people caring about it again: new RPG publishers asking if piracy was a problem and how to stop it, and more notably, a rising number of card and board games being counterfeited and sold.

Counterfeited Board & Card Games

I stand against the counterfeiting and sale of creative projects: whether they be games, artwork turned into print on demand merchandise, etc. Counterfeiting not only defrauds the original creator of profit, but the buyer may get a substandard product and they feel that they have supported the creator by buying it—they too have been defrauded. This includes not only the end customer, but any distributor or store who may unintentionally buy a counterfeit and not be able to sell it, or who may sell it and then face a reputation hit if the counterfeit is then discovered.

Drop-shipping and Amazon’s byzantine store have made distribution of counterfeit board and card games more common, and unfortunately, it is largely up to the customer to be aware of counterfeits and stores that are known to traffic in them. ICv2 conducted an interview with Asmodee about this topic in early 2018:

Christian Petersen: There are, I think, four or five extremely difficult problems caused by counterfeiting.

One is the lost sales themselves. A customer is interested in buying one of our products, but buys a counterfeit copy instead, a lost sale. That sucks, that’s a problem, it deprives companies, designers and legit retailers of that money.

Number two is the effect that it has on the brands. These counterfeit products are being sold at impossible prices; the legit market simply can’t replicate the price of Chinese-made counterfeit goods selling directly from, for example, an FBA (Fulfilled by Amazon) store in the U.S. It just doesn’t work, and it devalues…

From an enlightened self interest perspective, a customer should buy originals not counterfeits because it encourages publishers to release expansions and sequels, and of course, money that publishers have to spend investigating counterfeits and developing techniques to fight them is money not spent making games.

Pirated Roleplaying Games

Over the years, I have spent a fair amount of time and effort talking about the piracy of RPGs. I’ve said before that piracy “doesn’t matter” and publishers should spend their time and attention on doing things to support their games and make new games instead of chasing after pirates.

I believe that creators and publishers should know and understand the varied reasons that people pirate—even if they don’t believe those reasons are valid—and work towards giving people less reason to pirate within their field. The goal isn’t to eliminate piracy completely (unobtainable, corporations with much greater budgets than any RPG publisher keep trying and failing), but to encourage people who aren’t habitual pirates to purchase instead of pirate.

Why do People Pirate?

The main motivations for piracy are: Price, Evaluation, Format Availability, Regional Availability. Some secondary reasons are Habit/Hobby and Grudges. I’ve followed explanations of each reason with how Posthuman Studios, the publisher I co-own and co-operate, deals with each issue.

Price: Roleplaying Games are Well-Priced

This argument is as old as the roleplaying game itself: people want everything to cost less, but the roleplaying game offers a lot of value as long as it is played.

It is difficult to generalize about the price of RPGs, especially in digital form, because there is such a breadth to the market: everything from labor-of-love titles produced entirely by an individual to those created by dozens of contributors and published by companies like Fantasy Flight Games and Games Workshop. Prices are also influenced by the age of the title: many released in the 80s or 90s have digital prices based on a percentage their original print price, so they can be extreme bargains. Fred Hicks of Evil Hat Productions wrote a few years ago that the market value of the content in a RPG product is roughly 1/3rd of the print MSRP, assuming the MSRP is of a print product sold through distribution and not Print on Demand. (Disclaimer: I’ve done work with Fred and Evil Hat, like the Designers & Dragons series and the Atomic Robo Roleplaying Game!)

Atomic Robo RPG

Prices for newly-released RPG PDFs have been on the rise in the last few years. After we released Eclipse Phase for only $15 in 2009, that helped prove that lower prices can help titles can sell enough units to make up for the reduced price, and other publishers followed, lowering their prices or releasing new titles at lower prices. A few years later the price for a new roleplaying game in PDF seemed to stabilize at $20, but from 2016 on $25 and $30 became more common price points for core rulebooks. A notable example of a $30 PDF is Exalted Third Edition, which after a Kickstarter that grossed almost $700,000, stayed in the DriveThruRPG Top 10 list for roughly a year after digital release, even though the Kickstarter campaign delivered over 3,500 copies of the PDF that are not counted as part of the Top 10 list!

In some ways, that pricing brings PDF publishing full circle to the era when DriveThruRPG opened, when publishers routinely priced their PDFs at 50% of the print cover price, as typical new RPG core books are hitting $60 in 2017 and I expect to see them priced up to $75 by 2019.

Looking at the percentages, though, PDF titles have risen in price more rapidly than print books in the last five years, and there is bound to be some price resistance. Expect to see more publishers release cut-down “Player’s Guide” books at lower price points (such as the Numenera Player’s Guide from Monte Cook Games) to entice price conscious customers.

Posthuman’s Take: We started out with extremely low prices in 2009 and re-adjusted our prices upwards in 2014. We continue to offer free introductory books and will offer a low cost Player’s Guide for Eclipse Phase Second Edition. All of our Eclipse Phase books are licensed under a Creative Commons license so people can freely share them if they wish. We have participated in the Bundle of Holding and do other sales and promotions.

Evaluation: What’s a Good Sample?

Some people say that they pirate things before buying them to determine if they want to buy them. I think this is one of the more compelling reasons for piracy, especially when dealing with expensive software: Does this software do what it says? Does it work well on my computer? Does it actually make my workflow better? Most software developers combat this with demo versions of their software, using various schemes (time-limited trials, watermarked output files, etc) to give people a full taste of the software without compromising their ability to get paid. Subscription software also fights piracy, partially by locking customers in, and partially by offering lower monthly payments instead of large lump sums to make it more palatable.

That reason falls apart when dealing with more consumable items, though: some of us will read a novel once (borrow from a friend, take it out from the library) and then buy a copy down the road for ourselves, or as a gift. The same can be true for music or movies. But in general, I don’t think that piracy of fiction/music/movies leads to short-term sales. In the long term: someone may pirate a TV show and then buy the Blu-ray version a few years down the road, or someone who pirates an album may then attend concerts and buy merchandise—paying for the items that they cannot easily pirate.

Again, this is a situation that roleplaying games can compete with introductory books, ranging from free Quick-Start Rules to cut-down Player’s Guides, and of course copious free previews of core titles. Publishers, don’t just include the first 5 pages of your book—include important skeleton pages (credits, table of contents) and then include sample pages that show the breadth of a book. Preview each section, each type of unique content in a book. If your book has Adventure Hooks, Maps, and Non-Player Characters as the core three elements, a preview should include all of them!

Posthuman’s Take: All of our Eclipse Phase books are licensed under a Creative Commons license so people can reading entire book if they wish, and we offer generous (typically 20 page) previews for other books. (Re-)building better previews for backstock is something we could improve on—we often release short previews on our blog that aren’t linked to from DriveThruRPG, and we could add custom previews on DriveThruRPG instead of the automagically generated ones.

Format Availability: Roleplaying Games are (mostly) Published in Open Formats

The majority of tabletop RPGs are published in portable document format (PDF), with ePub/Mobi comprising a slim portion of the market. Many games that have System Reference Documents or other open source components are widely disseminated via wikis, as well.

Few major publishers use onerous DRM. Many still watermark their digital files, which I personally consider unfriendly towards the customer and ineffective against fighting piracy. Fewer still lock down their files in any way—preventing printing or copying and pasting, for example.

I would encourage people not to buy digital files from sellers that lock them down in ways that lower the utility of the file: for example, not being able to copy text from it, or not being able to extract pages or images. Publishers that do this sort of things: why? Don’t stop your paying customers for doing things with their book that can make their game-playing easier and more fun!

A few publishers still don’t sell in open electronic formats, the most notable of those being Wizards of the Coast who has not released Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition in PDF, even though they have robust offerings of their back catalog in both PDF and print on demand. Their digital tools for Fifth Edition, D&D Beyond, tie your purchases to a specific account. Also notable is Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG series, none of which are published digitally as their license doesn’t allow it. Both D&D Fifth Edition and Star Wars are available via pirates with scanners—not releasing digital versions does not insulate popular titles from piracy.

Posthuman’s Take: All our PDF releases are fully-open—no watermarks, no restrictions, and taking proper advantage of PDFs features with cross-references, hyperlinks, and Acrobat layers. We’ve released some fiction and setting content in ePub/Kindle format (ePub obviously being more open than Kindle!) and will release Eclipse Phase Second Edition on a free wiki. We also release Hack Packs that contain CC-licensed artwork and other goodies for dedicated players, virtual tabletop players, etc.


Regional Availability: Roleplaying Games are (mostly) Published Without (intentional) Region Restrictions

More than any other type or format of entertainment, Roleplaying Games have few to any region restrictions: while fiction ebooks are sometimes still at the mercy of international publishers and thus locked out of purchase in some regions, the roleplaying biz simply doesn’t work that way.

While theoretically some foreign-language contracts don’t allow licensees to sell translated works outside of a particular geographic region, I have never seen or heard of them being enforced with regards to digital gaming books.

So that means that worldwide, you can buy gaming ebooks unrestricted by the publisher. However, a frequent critique is that ebook sites—and Kickstarter!—don’t make it easy for international buyers who don’t have access to a credit card. This stumbling block may promote international piracy.

Posthuman’s Take: We don’t restrict availability of any digital products based on region.

Secondary Reasons: Habits/Hobby

“He who dies with the most toys wins”—some just like to pirate to have a huge collection of books/movies/software/whatever. I don’t think these pirates are to be concerned about as in many cases they don’t actually consume many of the things they pirate—they just enjoy having large (and probably meticulously organized!) hard drives full of stuff.
These pirates may or may not also buy electronic things. They may buy them but like the convenience of downloading, for example, a torrent file that contains an entire game line.

Posthuman’s Take: Anyone archiving and distributing archives of all Eclipse Phase books is legally in the clear as long as they adhere to the Creative Commons license. During our Kickstarter campaigns we sell USB collections of all our electronic items, and we also offer bundle discounts for people acquiring or completing a whole collection on DriveThruRPG.

Secondary Reason: Grudges

Some people pirate because they like a product but they dislike the creator(s) or publisher. Some of these grudges may be well-founded and some may not, but it really doesn’t matter—these people probably won’t ever turn into a customer (or turn back into a customer) and it’s not productive to spend your time dealing with them.

Posthuman’s Take: You can’t do anything about this. We’d rather not take money from someone who doesn’t like us, but we can’t stop them from getting and playing our games.


Looking at the above, at this point in time, I feel there are few justifiable reasons to pirate roleplaying games in 2018. I would encourage players of roleplaying games to purchase them, and furthermore, if you think that a company publishes in a way that justifies piracy to you: don’t support them at all. Don’t pirate their game. Don’t play their game. Don’t grow their player network. Buy and play something else, so your money and time goes towards a publisher that you can fully support, those publishers can grow, and you can feel good about who you’re supporting!

1 comment

  1. I’m certainly of the ‘try before you buy’ pirateer.
    I’ve bought both D&D & Tales from the Loop because of it.
    And I’ll also be purchasing EP2 because of the hours of fun our group have had with Eclipse Phase.
    Thanks for all your hard work Adam.

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