when is a PDF worth $1?

Question for our three readers:

I’ve got a convention-ready B/X adventure that includes a Dungeon, a Dragon, an Evil Wizard, a Castle, some Wilderness Environs, and, I suppose, a spare monster lair or two as one-pagers, along with a party of pre-generated characters.  It runs to completion in about 3-5 hours depending on whether parties take certain shortcuts or get incinerated by dragon-fire.  If you want all the Dungeons & Dragons stuff that Frank Mentzer promised you as a child, condensed into a four hour time slot, I’ve play-tested this thing 6 times and it’s solid.

It’s written for a party around 5,000 XP (approx 3rd level), but yesterday I ran it for a single character with 300,000 XP (approx 9th level) and it proved about as challenging.

I would gladly offer this thing for free, because the OSR provides so many awesome things for free just as part of the culture.  Except that the effort to typing up an explanation, design notes, suggestions, and so on would require taking time away from other things I would rather do, such as playing games, reading comics, and doing my real job.  (For all I care, I’m fine donating the money to a colon cancer charity; I just want to feel that my effort is accomplishing more than just providing an afternoon’s distraction.)

So I would like to charge a nominal fee for this thing to explain to my girlfriend why I am working on this instead doing the dishes, but the question is: if you are going to spend $1 on something, what’s the minimum level of professional production you’d expect?  New monsters, spells, character classes?  Art by someone who cannot draw?  Art by someone who can draw?  Layout by someone who understands the difference between Tahoma and Calibri, or just a slab of text?

To avoid failure, I’m not setting a date or promising anything.  I’m just wondering what the OSR’s expectations are regarding a producer’s ethical obligations when charging a nominal fee for (to be honest) meat & potatoes content.

24 Responses to “when is a PDF worth $1?”

  1. January 20, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    Sounds fun!

    Personally I think layout/editting is the most important thing for a module.

    I can happily run an adventure that’s completely art-free, and as long as the elements in it are used creatively/evocatively, new spells, monsters etc aren’t essential. Ease of use at the table requires decent layout and editting though, in terms things like of room descriptions not being split across pages, and some thought being given to minimising page flipping.

  2. 2 fisherro
    January 20, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    The text should be proofread. There shouldn’t be any glaring omissions. No glaring mismatches between the text and the maps. The layout should be at least as good as what anyone can get for free with LaTeX. No unnecessary ink wasting when printing. I think that’s about it.

  3. 3 SAROE
    January 20, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    Do the dishes first.

  4. January 20, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Extraneous explanations and design notes aren’t that important. I’ll second the motion about printing and wasting ink with things like frilly borders and textured backgrounds. I love TeX and proper layout, but whitespace rivers (which MSWord’s full-justify produces ad nauseam) wouldn’t be a deal-breaker.

    The biggest tradeoff in the debate between $0 and $1, I think, is the change in possible audience size. Like it or not, the huge amount of free stuff out there has created a certain fraction of the population that just will not, not ever ever, pay for an RPG PDF. (I’m not quite in that camp, but I’m close to its fence. It’s gotta be really special for me to go through the trouble of pulling out the credit card info.) The bigger the audience you want, the fewer annoying barriers there need to be between the moment of discovery and the final right-click, save-as. :-)

    And, if you’re taking the long view, good word of mouth may eventually be leveraged into more $m00lah…

  5. January 20, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    I agree with Gavin. Except in something that really requires it, like a monster book, art is one of my least considerations, especially for adventures.

  6. January 20, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    If you create a convention-ready adventure, than your priority should be to advertise it to conventions. I don’t care about grammar or pre-generated characters if I just want to run it to my gamers. If I’d run a convention I’d might be tempted to use it so I’d save some time.
    On the other hand I wouldn’t spend that much money unless I know the specifics of it, because there are tons of generic adventures out there I can use for tweaking. If I know that next week my players will reach the lair of the spider cult that was built in the wreck of a crashed spaceship, and your adventure happens to be just about this, it would also save me time, but then I still have to trust that it will fit my needs to spend the money – but if I feel that you will satisfy my taste, I’d happily spend about 4-5 dollars for this.

  7. 7 Alexey
    January 20, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    If it’s pdf only, I actually prefer no art. I’m going to print it out so I don’t want to kill my ink cartridge. Layout, for me, doesn’t need to be amazing, just easy to scan and read, to find important information quickly, etc.

  8. 8 Damian
    January 20, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    Art – not interested, as Alexey said i don’t want to waste ink on it.

    Layout is important, enough white-space so its easy to read and a nice sized and pleasant to look at font please.

    Make the flipping on pages easy, so no descriptions that go over the page and annoy folks – an no (see page XX for a full description of this character/monster/whatever – keep it on the same page

    I’ll gladly pony up a $1 for something that can provide an evening entertainment with a enough scope to use hooks for later adventures



  9. January 20, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    For a dollar I don’t particularly care how flash the pdf is, nor do I have high expectations. If it turns out to be a good adventure I’m simply grateful to the author for selling it at such a good price.

    As a pdf that’ll I’ll print at home I’d prefer minimal art, maps that don’t have large sections of solid black, no fancy borders or background images on each page. A nice cover is good on a larger module but not necessary (I can make my own if I really want something fancy), but for a one-shot I’m happy with an art-free cover. A proofread adventure always makes the reading more enjoyable. :-)

  10. 10 glennzilla
    January 20, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    Well, all that content for a dollar, I’d be happy for a slab of text and the right to reform it to my own preferred form for use at my table.

    For $10, I’d expect it well laid out, with art and digital. For $20, as prior, but in print. But as with everything OSR, YMMV.

  11. January 21, 2013 at 1:56 am

    Hmm, $1 for Nostack flim-flammery is hard to beat.
    It’s funny how everyone is insisting that art and graphics be minimal to cut down on home printing but I think my ideal self-published pdf would be 90% garish art and 10% text. Idealy each page would have a little text block in the corner (taking UP 10% real estate) and the rest of the page would be depictions of purple exploding wyverns or abstract imagry passed off as “dungeon views”.

    But really, usability and cleanliness of organization beats out extensive flavor i guess for a good cheap PDF.

  12. January 21, 2013 at 2:17 am

    @Greengoat, I think the defining proof that the OSR has won is that Joseph Goodman – the guy who proves that being a sensible businessman in the RPG business is not an oxymoron – could have a smash success with a book whose layout often approaches your ideal! Michael Curtis told me that the Dungeon Alphabet was a test run for this lots-of-classic-art approach, and if you want to push that envelope further my dollar is yours to command.

  13. 13 Wheelock
    January 21, 2013 at 8:17 am

    There’s a difference between something being worth a dollar, and me being willing to pay $1 for it.

    $1 isn’t very much in today’s economy, so I wouldn’t expect to get very much for it, but HAVING to pay $1 adds an additional layer of complexity to the transaction. It means I have to type in my credit card info, or log into paypal, or whatever. This isn’t THAT much trouble, but the inconvenience is enough so I’ll often skip the product in favor of something I can download immediately. When I DO go through the bother, I definitely want something I can use. That means something that’s been edited, laid out to be legible, and properly bookmarked if it’s of any appreciable length. Of course, I’d have pretty much the same standards for a $5 or $10 product (for $10, I might even want some halfway decent art).

    Have you considered asking for a suggested donation instead? I don’t know if you’d make more or less overall, but it’d be less of a hassle for us :)

  14. 14 gmgerrymander
    January 21, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    I think that $1 is a great price for a pre-generated advanture. If nothing else, it provides a backdrop for instant adventures. (like many of you, I’ve picked up quite a few $1 adventures on things like DTRPG and I think that most are worth the 100 pennies.)

    But I support the lack of art, or at least minimal art and no fancy borders or scrollwork.

  15. January 21, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    So you may want to produce an adventure for $1? Well the minimum that would be helpful, at that price, is a hand-drawn map in 1/4″ grid with location details including monster stats, and a little background in the dungeon. For an evening of play, an adventure is easily worth $1. At the $1 price point, the art would be nice, but unfair to you I think. PDF is perfect for me at the table, I don’t print my PDFs anymore. I run straight from Evernote and reproduce the essential map parts onto a battle mat. Thanks!

  16. January 21, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    A suggested donation is interesting especially since it’s intended for conventions. I’ve been reading with fascination about the underground restaurant scene where a chef cooks for you, usually in their home, and then says “please pay what you think that meal was worth.” The analogy is inexact – being fed is something everyone agrees has value and there are lots of economic touchpoints for estimating the cook’s costs and the price you’d pay for a comparable meal – but I think it would be an interesting OSR experiment to say “Hey, if you bought this module to read, here’s how you can donate what you think it’s worth. When I run it at a convention, I bring a tip jar and ask people to pitch in what they think the experience was worth. I encourage you to do this too, and if you want you can then donate to me whatever percent you think was due to the scenario I provided.”

  17. 17 Nathaniel
    January 21, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    For a buck I’d expect at least what I would bring to the table if I had created it myself. That means a keyed map and a key, with some connective tissue notes. Maybe some monster stats. I wouldn’t expect art or a professional map. Also, I would PayPal you a buck for the draft copy now.

  18. 18 Alexey
    January 21, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    @greengoat and Tavis…on the art, don’t get me wrong: I’d love to see a deluge of face-melting art like you describe (in fact the whole 10% text 90% art idea sounds awesome!) but If that’s your product, I want it like the Dungeon Alphabet–printed beautifully and well bound since I’m going to keep taking it out over and over, flipping through it while I’m in the head, taking it to work to read “while I’m on break”, etc.

  19. January 21, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    I’m just wondering what the OSR’s expectations are regarding a producer’s ethical obligations when charging a nominal fee for (to be honest) meat & potatoes content.

    Personally? No ethical obligations. Charge what you want and let the market sort it out.

    That said, I would prefer no art to art from someone who can’t draw.

    The content described sounds pretty awesome, and (potentially) about the same functionality as B2. I would rather pay a few dollars extra and get nice layout, extra proofreading, etc. I would say the sweet spot for this sort of thing is $3 to $5.

    Also, I would prefer digest sized to letter sized because tablets.

  20. January 21, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    Start an OSR kickstarter with a stupid low goal. Give the pdf to all backers. Print one-off copies with something like Lulu for people who want physical stuff. Fill the rest with pictures and fluff. Offer stretch goals. Watch the OSR community fall over itself to give you money and heap praise upon you by actually meeting your kickstarter deadline. A few months after the backers get rewards, give your pdfs away for free.

  21. 21 Brian
    January 22, 2013 at 1:40 am

    1) Make sure all steps of editing process ARE done.
    2) Print Friendly.
    2) Concise, as any convention module should be.
    3) Maps yes, lots of art no. Maybe one or two small bits
    4) If the page count exceeds 10 pages, links.

    In the end a good “preview” option on DTRPG will tell me if there is something in it worth getting. Show me in one page if it is worth a $1.

  22. January 22, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    I think the main question is “Free or Not”. As stated above the big line to be crossed for many people is pay vs. free. Once you decide to charge for it I think most people who are interested would be willing to pony up 1 or 2 or 3$ almost interchangeably.

    For the superhero game ICONS there are a bunch of inexpensive adventures, typically $4.99 or less, and they all have full color art, full stats, 10-30 pages of content and are generally pretty nice-looking. For an old school D&D adventure it’s probably not as necessary. I do think that a nice cover helps make it memorable and helps it stand out. It also gives it an identity beyond the title when it’s reviewed or discussed online.

    So I would say if you’re going to sell it, at least try to get a nice cover together. If not then I wouldn’t worry about it so much.

  23. 23 Joshua Lyle
    January 23, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    I’d buy that for a dollar. What I would expect is a basic level of copy editing (i.e., you had someone else read it for grammar and at least one other person run it and give notes), layout that I can read (e.g. no White Wolf fancy grey text on a busy grey background), and a publishing format that treated me like a customer (i.e., selectable text).

  24. 24 James
    February 28, 2013 at 11:53 am

    I don’t expect much for a dollar. What is most likely to disappoint me in a cheap download is poorly expressed ideas. A clear adventure situation and maps are more useful than anything else. If you’re going to include artwork, I’d prefer one nice piece over five dodgy ones.

    But I agree with a couple of others that the process of paying is itself more painful than the price you suggest.

    I’d rather pay five bucks for something with a grain of originality, neatly presented than ten bland, shoddy ‘throw-aways’ at a dollar each. I’d rather have five tight, interesting, easy-to-read pages without a picture in sight than a hundred and fifty crummy, unoriginal ones pranked with semi-amateur drawings.

    To even get me to download a freebie, I need to suspect it contains something interesting. Honesty compels me to admit that a nice graphic does wonders in planting the seed of this suspicion.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2013

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