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Some RPGs have SRDs. Wikipedia tells me that they are System Reference Documents, but that it's largely a D&D thing, and doesn't explain why they exist. Only that they do.

This answer suggests there is content missing from the SRD that is found in the books, but the Fate SRD seems (at a glance) to have everything.

Even if that were not the case, from the ones I've read, you could largely figure out how to play from SRDs alone, so why do they exist? Is it actually more beneficial from the creator's point of view for them to exist over any losses from sales? (And, I guess, what goes in an SRD and what does not?)

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System Reference Documents are for what they say on the tin: they're built as a general reference document for the game system. What goes into them exactly depends on what the authors decided to put in there to build that reference — there's no set standard. Some SRDs are enormously comprehensive libraries of just about everything or even the full text of the game, some are far more limited in coverage.

Primarily, SRDs get targeted at two audiences:

  • The players themselves, to increase accessibility of the game rules. (Why they'd do that is covered further down.)
  • Authors who will develop additional works for the game. These authors will use SRDs to look things up, and copy and paste material where necessary. Having an SRD available makes their work much easier.

The D&D / d20 SRD is not the only one, so Wikipedia's out of date in talking like it is, though it's certainly the most well known. It existed so third party publishers could legally release a ton of d20 system material, and know what they could legally use. Wizards created the Open Gaming License specifically for releasing the d20 SRD under it.

However, you've come across other SRDs and you're curious about them.

Why do they exist if you could just play the whole game with them?

Even if that were not the case, from the ones I've read, you could largely figure out how to play from SRDs alone, so why do they exist?

In the d20 SRD's case, they left out the character creation rules and level progression table so as to hopefully force you to buy a book.

However, for other games, being able to figure out everything is sometimes the point! For these though, it's more a matter of: why would you release a whole game for free!? (I'll talk more about that later.)

The Fate SRD publishes the entirety of Fate Core & Accelerated (plus the System Toolkit, an accessory to them). Those games are both completely free, released under Creative Commons and the OGL and also available in full as PDFs. The SRD site itself was fan-made as a channel for accessing the game in full. If you want to play this game, get yourself the PDF or open the SRD, and go play it and have fun.

Pelgrane Press offers a Gumshoe SRD. Just like Fate Core, it's the full game, free under CC and OGL.

Other times, like in the case of Gregory Woolfe's Traveller SRD, the SRD is just an unofficial fan creation to help wrangle with the system. Probably these shouldn't render buying the book unnecessary when the game's not free — sites that do this tend to receive cease & desist orders if the publisher takes umbrage.

What are the SRD creators getting out of them?

(Some people are just happy releasing things for free and that's an end in itself. However, for this I'm going to talk about the cases assuming someone gets something out of it, and that monetary gain is a longterm goal.)

When made by the owners: the right free stuff means marketing.

So as I mentioned, often this is more about why you'd release a game for free at all. Fred Hicks, cofounder of Evil Hat and creator of Fate, talked about this in his blog. I'm trimming it heavily to the key points, but the whole thing's worth reading if you're interested in this:

As a marketing strategy, audience is the goal of Pay What You Want, not sales dollars. You do this because you want more folks. (...) Engagement drives to the heart of the marketing strategy, of course, so that’s a positive feedback loop in the mix.

To pursue the sales motive in a Pay What You Want context, the audience you build should get sold follow-on materials which are not PWYW, eventually, if not immediately.

If you’re not planning on creating and selling additional things based on or tying into your PWYW product, it’s not so hot as a strategy for sales. (...) For Fate Core, it’s a bit of a no-brainer for us: we’ve got the Fate System Toolkit, Fate Worlds, the Atomic Robo RPG and a bunch of other things in the pipeline for the next two years at least. Most (perhaps all) of those aren’t gonna go out there as PWYW products in digital. On top of that, there’s the physical products as well. PWYW — especially the free aspect of it — provides a low cost try before you buy option for the purchaser who eventually intends to buy the paper version of the game.

Evil Hat gets a large portion of income from Fate being implemented in other games. In a public Evil Hat quarterly sales report, Fred Hicks was surprised Fate Core actually made them money at all:

Probably the biggest stand-out stat we’ve got right now is the performance of our Pay What You Want trio: Fate Core, Fate Accelerated, and Fate System Toolkit (Ed: Since the blog post quoted above, the Toolkit turned from a sales item into pay-what-you-want including free). Since the Pay What You Want model debuted on DriveThruRPG as part of the launch of the Fate Core PDF there this summer, I’ve been opting to track straight up the amount of money contributed rather than the number of downloads paid or otherwise: it seems to be a solid measure of success where PWYW is concerned, since we’re essentially answering the question “How much was the Fate audience willing to pay for something they could get for free?” The answer’s pretty surprising: in just a few short months, across those three products, we’ve seen people pay over $9,000 for PDF content they could otherwise get free.

They released it to get people using the game and get it attention. Making any money directly from providing this material was a bonus — the point is the money that arrives later as a side effect of the free material.

Pelgrane Press is in a similar situation with Gumshoe, which has been extended into Trail of Cthulhu and other investigative games. They don't need to sell Gumshoe itself — if they can get people interested in Gumshoe (because they can actually try it out for free), those people may get interested in other Gumshoe products and buy those, and spread excited word of mouth. This is good!

Worth noting that in Gumshoe's case, the SRD was released as a result of the Hillfolk kickstarter in 2013, when Gumshoe had already been out for several years and sold plenty enough.

In the case of D&D, it was released because Wizard was happy to see other people building their brand and solidifying their status as owning the go-to RPG system (d20 or D&D). This surge in reputation handily translates to money if you can take advantage of it, and Wizards could.

When made by fans: better organisation, and helping other players.

We're social animals. Generally, people like helping people[citation needed]. And sometimes the books we're dealing with are a pain in the arse and we really wish they had a search function or we could link to their pages, and sometimes the people thinking this have the will and means of making it so.

That gives us sites like the Fate and Traveller SRDs, to help us navigate the games we love. (Heck, the Fate SRD is transforming into a fantastic portal for Fate Core, and the author even won a silver ENnie award for their efforts on the site.)

The d20 Pathfinder SRD fan site was also originally just a far more comprehensive version of Paizo's official Pathfinder Reference Document that included all the third party stuff. Nowadays to help pay for hosting, it also operates as a store and advertises that fact all over its pages, so you could say that offering that SRD is now marketing for the store as well.


So, in summary: they contain whatever the author decides you need to be able to reference for a system. They're created and released because someone wanted their brand built or a diehard fan decided their favourite game needed one.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Paizo in particular publishes a ton of adventure modules for Pathfinder. Even though the stats for the NPCs, spells, items, etc are in the fan SRD, the adventure module itself and how to run it are not. For most people, coming up with an entire setting and adventure by yourself is hard work that many DMs don't have time for. I don't know the revenue split for Paizo specifically, but I'm willing to bet that they make more money from their adventure modules than they do from their core rulebook. Thus, it's in their benefit to release the rules for free to boost their module sales. \$\endgroup\$ – Lucas Leblanc Aug 26 '15 at 21:03
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There's basically 3 streams of thought that went into modern SRDs in tabletop RPGs.

D20/Evergreen Core Product Push

WOTC's SRD and open sourcing push was a neat idea, poorly executed. Their research before launching D20/3rd edition D&D indicated that most of their game sales profits (as opposed to novels...) was coming from the core D&D books, while the supplemental material tended to drop off faster in sales and eventually gave less profit overall. (This matches what others have observed and would be dubbed "The Supplement Treadmill").

With this in mind, the goal was to open source material in order to have OTHER companies publish supplemental material - taking the cost and the risk, while WOTC could stick to minimal supplements and mostly cash in. Making the SRD freely available, in theory, would allow companies to refer to it, as well as copy/paste parts in their own products towards that end.

However, this was implemented poorly on several levels and that ideal never materialized. Notably, they didn't release information on the design foundations until very late, which meant most of the third party products were highly unbalanced or poorly designed. Second, although the license required that every product have some open source content, every publisher was incentivized to only open source the least innovative or interesting part of their product - instead of getting free development as you would in open source software, you had the same problem of everything being private - you had to pay to even see what other people were doing, and then it wasn't open source for you to use. (It seems the general consensus is that you can't copyright game mechanics, but no one at the time was really trying to test WOTC's legal department or other companies and take that risk.)

Legacy-wise, however, the interesting part is that D&Ds SRD and Open Game License have pretty much guaranteed that D20, and many other games ushered in under the OGL will stay in play indefinitely. (See the last point since it ties directly in...)

"Free Art" Push

While the internet has always had people putting stuff up for free, there was a notable push for "free art" in the early 2000s, with stuff like the Creative Commons License becoming popular. Part of this is the effect of open source software, and part of it is "remix culture" which gained a lot of popularity with sampling in hiphop and electronica. In terms of tabletop RPGs, The Shadow of Yesterday was released under the Creative Commons License.

A key point to this is the idea that the overall scene is enriched by development more than necessarily individual sales are. This ends up being closer to open source software in that regard, and a lot of great design innovations have come out of this thinking in the last 15 years.

"Try it before you buy it"/Free Advertising

The current largest use of SRDs at this point is putting up some, or all of the game for free so that people can play it and decide if they like it or not. What's helped this is that printing costs have been made low enough between PDF publishing and print on demand services that you don't have a massive investment you have to make back.

Some of this has also been informed by the understanding that a game lives or dies primarily on whether people play it - not how many people own a book. This particular understanding starts with the idea that your goal is to cultivate play networks and that will generate sales, rather than sales creating play networks.

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