13th Age: Sell me a PDF!

Edit: I’ve received a comment from someone associated with 13th Age (see the comment on this post) explaining that a big part of the reason they’re doing what they’re doing is to keep retailers happy. While I know some people have no sympathy for retailers and their desires, I’m not among them. I understand this decision in light of wanting 13th Age to have support from retailers, so I’m ultimately okay with it (even though it may well mean that I never get into the game).

The original post follows.

-End edit


I’ve posted about this on Twitter a few times now, but I thought it was finally time to put these thoughts into a short blog post.

I’m a relatively new RPG player and GM, compared to most. I had a little exposure to D&D 3.0 over 10 years ago, and then I got really into D&D 4th Edition about three years ago. Now with the winding down of support for 4e, I’m available to be wooed by a new game. Sure, I’m devoting most of my game time to board games now, but I still like RPGs.

This is where 13th Age is frustrating me with a business decision. I had heard vaguely about the game in the summer of 2012, but I was neck-deep in development of Chaos & Alchemy at the time so I didn’t get involved (I think there was a pre-order campaign rather than a Kickstarter, but I’m not sure). I do understand that the game has some things that are likely to appeal to a 4e fan like me, so I’m interested in learning about it and trying it out.

Unfortunately, I can’t. See, I’m not looking for more physical RPG books. I have enough of those. I have an iPad now, and I much prefer to read my RPG books on that. If I try a game and decide I’m passionate about it, then sure, I might buy a hardcover book to show my support and to have something collectible, but I want to start with the PDF.

Is the problem that 13th Age is only available in physical form? No, they have a PDF.

Is the PDF not ready yet? No, it’s out there.

Are they not willing to get it in the hands of fans? No, they give it to you for free… IF you pre-order the hard copy book.

And there’s the problem. I don’t want the physical book. I only want the PDF. And I’m willing to buy it! I’m just not willing to pay the hard copy book price just for the PDF.

The 13th Age folks (Pelgrane Press) have announced on their web site that they’ll start selling the standalone PDF in September, but not before. I get what they’re hoping for; they’re hoping that people who are only interested in the PDF might be willing to bite the bullet and spring for the full book. Which I’m not.

So what does this mean for me? Well, it means that I can’t check out 13th Age for a couple more months yet.

And yes, I’m aware that it probably wouldn’t be hard to get the PDF through shady means, but I have no interest in that approach. I want to give these people my money!

The reason I write this at all is to contrast it with Fate Core, another alternative RPG that could woo a guy like me. I got in on the Fate Core Kickstarter campaign for ten bucks, because that was the PDF level. But even if I had missed the Kickstarter campaign, I could go to the Fate Core web site right now and download the PDF on a pay-what-you-want basis.

Now, I’m not saying that 13th Age has to be as radically open as Fate Core is (but kudos to Fred Hicks for doing so with his company’s game). If I could go to the 13th Age web site, give them ten bucks and download a PDF, I would have already done so WEEKS ago.

But I can’t. They won’t let me.

This makes it extremely likely that 13th Age will just pass me by. I’m ripe for persuasion to try a new game right now, and 13th Age is quite possibly the best fit for my interests. But since Fate Core is available in the form I’m seeking and 13th Age isn’t, it’s likely that if I want a D&D alternative, I’m going with Fate Core. (Also, I’ve read the Fate Core PDF, and I think it looks like a lot of fun.)

It’s a shame, but so it goes.

Michael Iachini, the OnlineDM

ClayCrucible on Twitter

14 thoughts on “13th Age: Sell me a PDF!

  1. 13th age is doing exactly the same business practice we did when we ran the preorder for the Dresden Files RPG. It’s entirely sound; the idea is to create an incentive for folks to preorder the hardcover. Folks who are unwilling to support the product early on merely have to pay time instead of money to get just-the-PDF.

    I mean, yah, we did it different with Fate Core, but we did it that way for a host of specific reasons that don’t work for every business case.

    • Fred – I appreciate the comment! And yes, I understand the rationale as I mentioned in the post. I’m just pointing out that for one person at least (myself), it has the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of saying, “I guess I’ll take the plunge on the hard copy,” I am likely to end up saying, “I guess I won’t play this game.”

      Also, if I were publishing an RPG, I would personally prefer to sell a PDF than a physical copy if I could. The PDF is pure marginal profit, while the physical item has a marginal cost to it. Maybe my margin is good enough that I can still come out ahead on the physical item relative to the PDF, but I’m not so sure (especially if I’m selling via a retailer, as seems to be the case with Bits and Mortar).

      Either way, an interesting business discussion. Thanks for taking part!

      Michael the OnlineDM

  2. I think it’s also a benefit for those that backed the Kickstarters. There have been 2 Kickstarters and with each one it was a very clear “a benefit is getting this before everyone else, even in playtest form so you can be part of the process”. Otherwise you end up with the situation (as with a few Kickstarters) where you didn’t really get anything for being part of the Kickstarter.

    13th Age is a really fun game. I can understand the frustration of someone that missed getting in on the Kickstarters, but it was really well publicized. I’ve probably seen about 4 tweets a week, and there are weekly posts on the Pelgrane site. I think if you can put the initial frustration behind you it will be well worth the wait. (My DC friends recently looked at several options for their main campaign and 13th Age really won everyone over).

    • Alphastream – Thanks for the comments.

      I thought that the 13th Age Kickstarters were for add-ons rather than the core game; apparently I misunderstood. That’s on me.

      For what it’s worth, I’m extremely sympathetic to companies who want to take care of their Kickstarter backers before anyone else. That just makes sense, and I support them in doing so.

      However, that’s not what’s happening here. Pelgrane is willing to sell me the PDF right now if I’m willing to pay for a pre-order of the physical book. If they weren’t doing that, I would have no problem with anything they’re doing. They could say that they won’t put the game in the hands of anyone other than Kickstarter backers until those backers have their physical books. But that’s not what they’re doing.

      I’m sure 13th Age is a fun game, but I’m saying that I might not ever find out due to their business practices. I may have already moved on to Fate Core before I can ever check out 13th Age.

      Michael the OnlineDM

  3. I agree with Teos there. 13th Age pretty much is 4e without the things that are really annoying (to me) about 4e. Honestly, it’s what I would have liked 4e to have been in the beginning.

    It’ll be worth the wait.

    • Dean,

      I believe you. My concern is that I might not ever find out how awesome 13th Age is because the only way Pelgrane will sell me a PDF is if I pre-order a physical book with it. And by the time I can just buy the PDF, I may have moved on to another game.

      But maybe 13th Age will be awesome enough to overcome this. It just seems like there are so many good RPGs these days, putting barriers to your potential customers giving you money seems like a bad plan. If the game is good enough, though, it won’t matter in the end.

      Michael the OnlineDM

  4. Another major reason — maybe the biggest reason — we’re offering the PDF a month after the print copy hits retailer’s shelves is because we need retailer support for this game to succeed. And we don’t want them to feel screwed by offering a PDF option at the same time our book debuts in their stores.

    I do realize it’s frustrating to you, and sympathize. I hope that you’ll still be willing to give the game a chance when it’s available in the format you want.

    • Wade – I appreciate the reply very much.

      A Twitter commenter mentioned this possibility this afternoon, and this is one I have some sympathy for. I do understand the importance of Friendly Local Game Stores for the gaming community, and I can certainly understand making sure that retailers feel taken care of.

      So with that explanation, I’m satisfied. I’m not out to see retailers go out of business, even though I will probably never buy the physical 13th Age book (from a retailer or elsewhere).

      My one suggestion: Make this an FAQ somewhere on your web site. I personally had a bad taste in my mouth about this for weeks, even after getting the “check our web site for PDF availability information” message in response to a tweet. I’m sympathetic to “we need to take care of retailers.” I’m not sympathetic to “we’ll only sell you the PDF as part of a physical book bundle in the hopes that you’ll pay up for the physical book.”

      Again, thanks for chiming in!

      Michael the OnlineDM

      • Thanks, Michael! Wow, I’m very sorry we didn’t explain our reasoning when you first brought it up. And yes, a proper FAQ for the game is lonnnnng overdue. I’m working on one now.

        I’m the main community relations guy for 13th Age, so please feel free to get in touch with me if you need any info on the game: wade.rockett@fireopalmedia.com. And if you’re at an upcoming con, let me know and I’ll see if we can hook you up with a demo.

  5. With a few exceptions, we can’t release PDFs before we release physical products if we want to support retailers, which we do. So we release the PDF after the retailers have had a solid chance to sell a decent number of copies. From a direct business point of view we may well have made more money, directly, from making it available as a PDF, but we don’t think that’s in our long term interest.

    • Simon,

      Yes, this is very much in line with what Wade was saying, and I respect this reasoning. I understand the importance of the role retailers play in the life of an RPG and the need to not make them feel like you’re undercutting them.

      Michael the OnlineDM

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