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!

Ignite Slides from PepCon

I was at the InDesignSecretsLive Print and ePublishing 2011 conference last week, and did a five minute Ignite speech talking about my publishing philosophy, Posthuman Studios, and Eclipse Phase. Regular readers of my blog will be familiar with many of those principles, but I have a sexy slideshow available for download.

I wrote way too much text for a five minute speech, but I had fun and got a lot of nice reactions to it from a crowd of people largely unfamiliar with roleplaying games and their particular publishing niche.

If you were at PepCon and want to chat about the things I said or toss ideas around, there are a ton of ways to get in contact with me!

Piracy “Doesn’t Matter”

I've said that "piracy doesn't matter" several times, and people like to argue with me about that. Of course, it's a phrase said for effect. Piracy matters, but: publishers can do little to influence piracy. Giant conglomerates like the RIAA, MPAA, and BSA are incapable of stamping out commercial and non-commercial piracy. Does such an organization exist for publishers? I don't know, and I don't care.

(As usual, when I say piracy, I mean non-commercial duplication of content without paying for it. Commercial piracy is a whole different ball of wax that is harmful, but not something that I personally encounter in my industry.)

Piracy doesn't matter because we can't stop it, and we can't control it. If you can't control it, it's a waste of time to worry about—so I worry about the things I can control and influence:

  • Improving my books so people want to buy them.
  • Building titles in formats that people actually use.
  • Marketing and distributing my works to new venues.
  • Empowering existing fans so they want to and can more effectively share the love.
  • Continued business practices focused on respect for our markets, partners, and customers.
  • Not vilifying pirates; no use making enemies out of people that might become or are already customers. (You would be surprised how many people comment on torrent sites using handles that they use on other sites ... including the publisher's own site.)

And that's just off the top of my head, big-picture things. Plenty to work on, productively, with actual measurable results; and an ongoing learning process towards producing and selling Better Stuff. Stuff that matters.

Creative Commons: (Part of) Why We Give Our Games Away

On an industry mailing list I subscribe to, a few days ago, someone pointed out a site that contained pirated PDFs of thousands of gaming books. I sent off a flip comment:

Damnit. Eclipse Phase stuff, which can be legally shared, isn't there. I wonder if I can just upload it... 😉

Someone sent me an off-list message questioning whether EP could be legally shared. I said yes, absolutely, and they asked:

[Are you] shooting [yourselves] in the proverbial foot by basically giving away their materials. If it's free and legal to do so why would anybody buy the materials?

Here's my replies to that email, edited only slightly to combine a couple emails into one to tie together some subject a bit better:

Well, we sure haven't shot ourselves in the foot so far. First print run sold out in only a few months, second print run is roughly about half gone (haven't seen September numbers yet), and our first two print supplements were both 1/4 sold on pre-orders alone.

Our PDF sales have also been exceptionally strong; partially due to the low price point (1500+ sales of the core PDF at $15 -- exact numbers impossible to know due to our divorce from Catalyst) and partially because of the Creative Commons licensing. People can check out the game, whether that be from our free Quick-Start Rules, downloading from a torrent (we seeded it ourselves to some bittorrent trackers), or by being given it from a friend. If they know they like it, $15 a low price for a full PDF RPG, and while RPG print prices have crept up to where $50 is a very normal price for a 400-page full-color book, nobody needs to buy it "sight unseen" now.

Our ad-hoc research shows that almost every EP gaming group has multiple copies of the print rulebook and multiple copies of the PDF at the table.

People are good. They want to support the things they like and they want to be treated as individuals and be respected. Creative Commons licensing allows us to do that; we're giving them gaming material and allowing them to use in the way that gamers naturally want to use it. It allows fans to support us without worries of legal hassles, and it's given us alternate revenue streams -- like the Hack Packs, where we charge a few bucks extra for access to high-res artwork and InDesign files of our material.

Another great factor for Creative Commons and Eclipse Phase is the themes of EP and the spirit of CC collide rather nicely. Hackers and info-junkies and copyleftists also tend to be interested in sci-fi and transhumanism!

And, of course, no publishing company can successfully fight piracy. The RIAA hasn't, the MPAA hasn't. Piracy is going to happen unless we say "nope, you can't pirate our stuff, cuz we'll just let you give it out!" -- and that makes the file-sharers like us and buy from us. I don't think pirates are evil and immoral people. I know many people who pirate many things and these people also buy many things. They just tend to buy only things they already like. So, of course, giving away your material will only work if your material is good quality!

I'd much rather have someone read our game for free and not like it than buy our game and not like it. In the first case, they're only out their time. In the second case, they're out time and money and are more likely to resent us and/or not buy any other games we may release.

Furthermore, Creative Commons isn't just about "downloading for free;" it's about giving fans permission to hack our content and distribute those hacks. Permission to do the things that gamers naturally do, without fear of lawsuits or complex legalese or requiring our approval. Our fans have built and distributed complex character generation spreadsheets, customized GM Screens, converted our books into ePub/mobi format, and all sorts of neat things. When they do things like this, that gives us guidance as to what we should be doing: because fans aren't just saying they want something, they're putting their time where their mouth is ... a strong indication that they and other fans would be willing to pay for those things if we produced them.

And in the end, if licensing our material Creative Commons is not financially successful: it's the right thing to do, socially. We have to build the future we want to live in. Giant corporations locking up intellectual property is dangerous to society and culture.

Our next RPG will be Creative Commons-licensed as well.

Further Piracy Thoughts

Here's a few more bullet points from the Things I Think About Piracy department, as a followup to ICv2, Gaming Book Piracy, Quality of News. Most of this addresses "media" piracy; software piracy is a whole different kettle of fish, I think, as you can profit from using pirated software.

  • I don't think piracy is a compliment. You like my stuff enough to use it, but not enough to pay for it? Ugh, that's kind of crummy middle-of-the-road like, isn't it?
  • I don't think that anything you do with a file or physical media you've bought should be considered piracy or illegal unless you actually duplicate it for or make available copies to someone else. Make a half-dozen backups. Copy and paste the text into your own custom version of the file. Print out a copy that can be handed around the gaming table, and when that copy gets beaten up and ripped, shred it and print another copy. Rip that DVD to your hard drive and copy it to your iPod. Photocopy the book and paste all the pages onto your wall in some bizarre wallpaper homage to Shadowrun, Second Edition.
  • I try not to support DRM or other sort of restrictive publishing schemes, either as a publisher or a consumer. I'm afraid it's not completely unavoidable—after all, commercial DVDs have DRM on them, and I'm not about to stop buying DVDs. And within the last year, I've accidentally bought a DRMed ebook or two, but I try to avoid it. As a publisher, I do not believe that restrictions that can impair paying customers are the right thing to do. That said, sometimes publishing partners, licensors, etc, demand or impose DRM; you can't always blame the creator for it.
  • I think that piracy that is personal—giving some music or a copied DVD to a friend, for example—is far more acceptable than putting the exact same thing online to be downloaded by total strangers. When I share things, I want to share it with people who are going to help enrich my experience! (I still loan books that I enjoy to my friends, too. Fancy that!)
  • I think the library is an awesome place to get books, audiobooks, DVDs,and CDs that you don't own. Enjoyed it? Maybe you should buy a copy. Didn't like it? Hopefully the next person that takes it out does! Some libraries are even lending out ebooks and other modern formats, now!

ICv2, Gaming Book Piracy, Quality of News

ICv2 is one of the last sites that report on the hobby gaming industry in a general way. By general, I mean they don't have a specific focus—they don't cover just indie games, or just CCGs, etc.

This week, ICv2 published the following article:
Change Roiling Book Business
. The second part of this article talks about the Espresso Book Machine—an awesome print on demand [In the literal sense, not the "short run printing service" sense] machine that for only $100,000 + consumables can print softcover books in less than 4 minutes. This piece of machinery could have a positive impact on publishing, bringing backlist and rare titles back into print in bookstores and educational facilities.

The first part of the article is about ebook piracy, and it is entirely sourced from Randall Stross' October 3rd article on NYTimes.com: Will Books Be Napsterized?

I am not going to talk about piracy yet. I am going to say one simple thing: when discussing piracy as it relates to the game industry, taking all your source material from one article which is not related to the game industry, and not adding any additional material that directly relates to the game industry [Such as, for example, talking to some publishers as to how they feel about the article and piracy trends] is lazy reporting. It's even lazier when said article is the top article on ICv2 that day.

Briefly, to talk about Stross' article: Yes, ebook piracy is going to increase as more devices are capable of electronically reading ebooks—and that means one thing for me in my publisher hat: there are also more reasons for people to buy ebooks. In the end, I care about how many units I can sell and how many dollars I can make, not how many copies are pirated. 10,000 sales and 100,000 pirated units is still better than 9,000 sales and 50,000 pirated units. There are exceptions to this (especially in the software/service market), but in the book/ebook publishing market, I think it's pretty clear.

(Tangent: In Stross' article, he also claims that the RIAA has said inflation-adjusted sales of music have dropped by more than 50% in the last 10 years, even accounting for digital sales. He doesn't link to any proof of this RIAA claim—not even info directly from the RIAA. I googled a bit but couldn't find a direct quote that backs that up, although I did find this page on the RIAA site, which links to a PDF that shows numbers that do not indicate a 50% drop, although the article doesn't list the methodology or if it it's adjusted for inflation.)

So now we'll talk piracy a bit. When I say piracy, I mean "duplicating something you don't own the rights to copy for noncommercial use;" I'm not speaking about people duplicating and selling commercially available products. And let's remember that I am talking for myself—not anyone that employs me. I am not one of those creators that thinks piracy is some horrible awful thing. Rather, I think piracy is completely natural. We all want something for nothing, or for as little as possible, and we all like to share the things we like with people we like. I reckon there are very few people reading this who can say that they have never pirated anything. Before we had such easy digital copying solutions, we just had to work a bit harder to do it!

I also think there are situations where something may technically be piracy, but isn't going to harm anyone. I'll "'fess up" with a personal example: I'm a professional wrestling fan. There is a great deal of wrestling material from the 70s and 80s that is not available in any commercial manner, but exists because fans at the time taped it from television or some of the people "rescued" the master tapes from the TV studio. I'd buy some of this stuff in a heartbeat if it was made commercially available, but even though World Wrestling Entertainment owns some of this material, it's rarely available, especially as it was originally broadcast. So I don't think I'm doing them harm by buying or trading for wrestling bootlegs ... WWE, I assure you, if you ever release a Best of Stampede Wrestling box set, I am there.

There are books about wrestling, too. I buy those, too. I'm sure I could steal them, but when a book is $12 on Amazon, how much time do I want to spend looking for a pirated version, when I can have a nice version that I can read in my bathroom in the mail in only a week or so? (If that timeframe seems long, I'm in Canada and I mostly order from Amazon.com, not the Amazon.ca subsite. Better selection, and I prefer the American packaging on DVDs to the Canadian packaging, generally.) As a publisher, I have many conflicting opinions of Amazon. As a reader and a TV watcher and a player-of-games, I love Amazon; it does a notable good for me by providing a service that is easy enough to make it worth my money.

But I'm not going to sit here and deny that piracy does and can have an effect on the sales of new, modern media. That effect, however, isn't always negative. Piracy can serve as a vector to introduce new people to a game, TV show, band, etc. And contrary to some opinions, many people introduced to something via piracy don't just sit around and pirate it forever, as long as the product is worth buying. I know I sure don't. I've had TV shows recommended to me, and before I've finished watching the first downloaded episode I've already ordered it online. Without piracy, I wouldn't have even known these shows existed, or would have been otherwise ignorant about them. Is there a better way to learn if you like something than by actually seeing/reading/playing it?

Do you play a RPG regularly? And by that, I mean—do you play it more than once a month? Then you should be buying the stuff you use for it. If your character uses a bunch of the optional rules from Street Magic to kick magical butt, then you should own your own copy of Street Magic. I don't see a good excuse not to. Whip out the "I'm a poor college kid." line, and I'm just going to laugh: play the game without the cool stuff from Street Magic, then! Oh, is the game less fun without it? Then it's worth owning! The same is true if you played a video game all the way through or read a book and learned from it.

If you regularly use a game, watch a movie, watch a TV series, read a book; and that media is available for sale from a legit source, you should buy it. If you loan your copies or make copies for friends, you should encourage them to buy it, too. If you regularly consume only pirated versions of media you enjoy, you don't have the right to complain if that media takes a turn you don't like, if their production schedule changes for the negative (fewer books, fewer episodes per season, etc), or is cancelled outright.

And, if you're a pirate and haven't actually gone out and bought a DVD lately, or a game, or a piece of software, let me tell you something else—the feeling of buying something you like that you could have pirated is pretty goddamned good.