Rolling for Initiative is a weekly column by Scott Thorne, PhD, owner of Castle Perilous Games & Books in Carbondale, Illinois and instructor in marketing at Southeast Missouri State University.  This week, Thorne draws a few conclusions from what happened at Free RPG Day in his store.

In last week's column, I looked at how Free RPG Day went off in our store.  This week, I wanted to take the opportunity to revisit/milk the event by discussing some of the observations we made during the course of the day:

1.  Brands Matter.  The two most popular items taken were the Dungeons & Dragons mini-sourcebook and the Pathfinder module.  While the fact that we hosted a couple of sessions of both Pathfinder and D&D 4th Edition during the course of the day certainly helped draw attention to those two, we estimated that 90% of the people who came in took one or the other, that is until we ran out of the Pathfinder module.  To our customers, D&D and Pathfinder were the two most recognizable names on the freebies offered (we had a number of questions as to what Aspect and Laser Squid Nemesis were), so when subjected to an artificial scarcity (we limited people to two different freebies unless they did something to earn additional ones), they generally went with the familiar and safe:"I'm not a big fan of D&D 4th Edition, but at least I know what it is.  These others, I have no idea what I’m getting."

2.  Brands Can Hurt.  Brands are shorthand for a customer's expectations.  When they see a brand name they don't like or has not met their expectations, they tend to avoid it.  Customers during our Free RPG Day event avoided both the White Wolf and Fantasy Flight game offerings.  We have little demand for either here; customers saw the and World of DarknessWarhammer 40,000  Role-Play logos on the covers, and left both on the rack, opting to go either for one of the more familiar brands mentioned above or something new.  They had developed preconceptions about both brand lines and their choice reflected those preconceptions.

3.  Consumers Prefer the Familiar to the New.  Even when offered free, our customers avoided titles with which they had no familiarity.  The offerings for Arcanis and Aspect remained fully stocked on the rack until later in the day after the more desirable and familiar brands (Pathfinder, D&D, Castles & Crusades, GURPS Prime Directive) had vanished.  Only then did our customers start sampling new items.  This mirrors what marketing research has shown for a number of years; customers say they want new and innovative items, but when push comes to shove, actions speak louder than words and they stick with the tried and true.

4.  Scarcity Drives Demand for the Less Desirable.  This one is pretty obvious but bears repeating anyhow.  Several publishers only provided a couple of their books (we brought in two kits so got two of some of the titles).  GURPS Prime Directive, Tunnels & Trolls, and Castles & Crusades spring to mind.  Though these are all second tier brands (their combined sales in our store account for less than 5% of total RPG sales), people recognized the names.  Since only a few were available, customers reacted to the perceived shortage by taking one, along with one of the more popular items, thinking "There's only one of these.  Yeah, I'd rather have the two more popular items, but I'm familiar with the name, there's only one of them and I'd hate to miss out."

5.  Brand Loyalty Can Weaken.  In past years, the D&D offering has proved the strongest of the books offered, with customers snapping them all up.  Last year, Pathfinder gained strength with the Pathfinder and D&D modules vanishing in about equal numbers.  This year Pathfinder surpassed D&D.  We ran out of the Pathfinder module three quarters of the way through the day but still had a few of the D&D sourcebook at the end.  While still strong, D&D is not selling nearly as well as Pathfinder and this reflected in our customers' choices in the free offering.  Of those customers not taking both, D&D was the book they chose to forgo.  Unlike what happened with the two previous edition changes of D&D, this time, customers are voting with their dollars (and Free RPG Day choices) for Pathfinder.

Overall, the message we got from Free RPG Day was that customers still make their choices based on brands, the familiar is preferable to the new, and that brand loyalty is not a given, the same conclusions you could draw about any other product in your house.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely  those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect th views of the editorial staff of