THE EXTRADIMENSIONAL INVASION THAT NEVER WAS
Last Saturday was Free RPG Day, though you may not have known about it. It's a big deal in some circles, but it's not as big of a deal in these circles, in the circles of Comics Book Resources or comicbookdom in general. Or in most circles, really.
You might have seen some kind of local press coverage of Free Comic Book Day -- I know we had at least one newspaper article about it in this area -- but it's unlikely you saw any widespread coverage of Free RPG Day unless you frequent the message boards of your local gaming shop. To put it into perspective, here's an event that was inspired by Free Comic Book Day, only with role-playing game adventures and quick-start rules as giveaways instead of single-issue comics, and Wizards of the Coast, current publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, didn't even participate this year. They ran their own promotion instead. That kind of makes Free RPG Day seem less than special. More of a curiosity than an event.
But here's the truth: Free RPG Day is better as a celebration of a medium than Free Comic Book Day is. Free RPG Day is just better in almost every way, actually, mostly because it embraces what it is, while Free Comic Book Day tries to do something that it isn't actually very good at. Free RPG Day is pretty great for everyone. Free Comic Book Day is…maybe okay for a few folks and really good for a few retailers who know how to use it to their advantage.
Listen, I realize that Free RPG Day will always have a more limited target audience than Free Comic Book Day, and I'm not trying to say that Free Comic Book Day is a bad thing in any way, but maybe there's something to be learned here. And I just want folks to realize how much fun Free RPG Day can be, when Free Comic Book Day is…less so, at least in my experience.
Free Comic Book Day gets people into comic book shops, and that's good. Some retailers think of it as their "Black Friday" and have the sales to prove it. I wonder how widespread that effect is. Of the three comic shops I have visited most often in the past five years -- for Free Comic Book Day or otherwise -- zero percent of them run any kind of sales on top of Free Comic Book Day. They just hope that the people who come in for free stuff will want to spend money to buy some non-free stuff while they're in the store. Maybe it works and maybe it doesn't, but I haven't seen big lines at the register.
(Right after college, I used to manage a retail store in a mall, and I know what Black Friday is really like. And it doesn't look anything like Free Comic Book Day.)
I know I'm talking about a super-small sample size, but I've been in plenty of comic book shops over the years, and very few seem poised to fully take advantage of the foot traffic and new reader enthusiasm offered by Free Comic Book Day. And mostly, that's because of the disconnect between Free Comic Book Day and the stores themselves.
Besides the excessive price of single issue comic books (if we're talking cost-per-minute-of-enjoyment-ratio for comics as a slice of entertainment) and the baffling-to-the-new-reader collected editions which are often in various sizes and formats and have no clear starting point in many cases, the reality is that the FCBD comics are not reflective of what the majority of comic shops actually stock. Of the twelve "Gold-level" Free Comics offered this year for the first-Saturday-in-May event, 75% of them were specifically aimed at young readers and only 17% of the twelve selections were superhero comics.
I have never seen a comic book shop with 75% of their inventory directed at children and 17% of their inventory directed at superhero readers. It's not even that those numbers are reversed, it's more that -- in the average comic shop -- 90% of its stock is superhero-related or genre comics that are basically superheroes without the costumes, and maybe 5% or less of the comics displayed are directed at young readers. Even if your local shop bucks the trend and stocks what feels like a ton of kids comics, I bet the superhero books far outweigh everything else. And the FCBD selections don't reflect that. So Free Comic Book Day is not particularly helpful to its own audience of readers, who will find it difficult to actually acquire any future issues of the young readers' comics they just walked away with. The shop they visited for Free Comic Book Day probably won't carry them. Maybe the Barnes & Noble down the street will. Barnes & Noble, you'll note, doesn't participate in Free Comic Book Day.
But even if the local comic shop does carry the comics the new readers attracted to the free stuff actually want to buy, and everyone leaves with some cool comics and maybe hooked into some new comic book titles and creative teams and properties they didn't know much about, Free Comic Book Day is still an ultra-passive "celebration" that's not really much of a celebration at all. Sure, your shop can host a costume contest, and the shop across town can invite a mid-tier penciler from 2005 to sign some comics behind a folding table, but the average FCBD experience is still just walking into a store (maybe waiting in line, maybe not, maybe dressed as Geo-Force, maybe not), picking up a couple of comics off a table, and then walking out. There's nothing inherently participatory or exciting or even interesting about it. You can buy comics in that same store all the time. So you save ten or twelve bucks off some comics you probably wouldn't have looked at otherwise? Is that the big appeal?
Free RPG Day is different. The publishers who participate actually provide game supplements that reflect the kinds of things actually for sale in the shops where you'd go to pick up your freebie. There's a lot of sword and sorcery stuff, in other words, and a few retro titles and a couple of sci-fi game supplements, and that thing for your group that's really into vampires. And the organizers provide simple guidelines: anyone who walks in that day can get one free tabletop role-playing game adventure (or quickstart rules or whatever the offerings are) for free. And store owners can use the rest as promotions in their own way, though providing additional free books for customers who participate in a game is suggested as a common practice.
That last thing is what makes Free RPG Day an event that's more robust, as a customer and attendee, than Free Comic Book Day. Let's say everything else were even. Let's say that I walked out of Free Comic Book Day with four fun and interesting comic books and let's say I walked out of Free RPG Day with four short fun and interesting adventure modules. Free RPG Day still wins. It still wins if I walk out with four great FCBD comics and only one short adventure module. And it wins because on Free RPG Day, participation is the default expectation. Creativity is encouraged, not just as decoration -- like having cosplayers waiting in line for the store to open -- but as part of the inherent nature of the event.
In my local shop, which participated in Free Comic Book Day and saw no significant increase in sales that day, a bunch of different role-playing games were running on Free RPG Day and new players were encouraged to join in. The act of role-playing and the nature of the games themselves were celebrated. Characters were created. Gamemasters brought their own favorite games -- new and old -- to run. Some of the games involved the Free RPG Daty giveways (I ran the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure from Goodman Games to some late-night participants and it was 100% fun) and some of the games were homebrewed systems or adventures. The day was filled with creativity and improvisation and interaction and engagement in a shared experience. Or a bunch of shared experiences, since there were several tables and plenty of participants. A lot of players enjoying themselves. A medium, celebrated through activity.
Maybe it's just an isolated case, but I don't think so. From what I have seen and heard, only a handful of shops work to make Free Comic Book Day an interactive experience, while making Free RPG Day an event full of games and activities as far more common. The former could be pushed in that direction by savvy shop owners, but the latter is constructed that way at its foundation. There's a difference.
If Free Comic Book Day celebrated participation in the creation of comics, instead of the consumption of comics, then it would be something like what Free RPG Day is. But FCBD isn't about the creation of comics, it's built -- like the entire comic book industry -- around the regular consumption of product.
But the role-playing game industry, as a clunky, basement-workshop, participatory whole isn't built that way, and neither is Free RPG Day. It's a day when role-playing games, and the creative act at the core of each, is celebrated and performed and reconfigured and enjoyed. It's not just about consumption. It's an event worth participating in. Even if you've never played a role-playing game in your life, it's something you'll want to check out -- and dive into -- next mid-June when the event returns. It offers a glimpse of what's missing from Free Comic Book Day, and it makes FCBD seem a bit like a hollow promotion by comparison.
I don't know. Maybe the two "events" are just completely different and there's no fair point of comparison. But I know that both days are hosted by the same kind of shops -- in my experience, the exact same shops -- and one seems weirdly misaligned with the actual realities of the direct market and the other seems like a whole lot of engaging entertainment for everyone.
I was planning to run a Mutants & Masterminds game on Free RPG Day this year. It featured an extradimensional invasion and a bunch of Kirby-inspired superhero pre-generated characters I created for the players to use. The invasion never materialized. We ran out of time, playing too many other games on Saturday. Having too much fun. Creating and improvising and playing games we didn't know how to play before we sat down to the table. I look forward to doing it again next year. Maybe I'll see you there.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.