A bit of history: Free RPG Day was started in 2007 (and if the Dungeon Crawl Classics modules for this year's Free RPG Day are any indication, Goodman Games apparently had something to do with it). Inspired by Free Comic Book Day, Free RPG Day is the same bit: publishers release teasers, demos, and quickstarts of their products in the hope that you'll buy them. It's goodwill to help grow the industry.
Strangely enough, I participated in Free RPG Day back in 2008, not knowing it was only the second year. I was not thrilled with the experience, and I wonder if the relatively early stage of the process had something to do with it. That year, I found myself at The Compleat Strategist, and supplies were apparently limited because the guy did a random chart roll for you to get one thing. I got a D&D 4e module ("Treasure of Talon Pass") back before I played 4e; it was supposed to come with a miniature, but totally didn't. One of my associates got a quickstart/module for Hunter: the Vigil, which she was kind enough to give to me. E. M. Lamb got some fantasy setting (I believe it was Goodman Games' Punjar: The Tarnished Jewel), along with Murder at Miskatonic, a copy of a hastily-written Cthulhu LIVE script (and even though he tried to get rid of that Cthulhu script, I got him an autographed copy a couple of months later).
This year, Nicole and I went to Big Planet Comics and it was way more awesome than my previous experience. Big Planet Comics organizes a shelf, puts all the stuff on it, and has everything ready on a first-come, first-serve basis. We arrived about ten minutes after opening, so I'm not sure if the missing stuff is stuff they didn't order or if it was already gone by the time we got there.
Whatever the case, I was humored by the line-up this year. World of Darkness was totally absent; in fact, the only modern/horror/occult/conspiracy genre game represented this year was Conspiracy X. Everything else was science-fiction/fantasy.
Of the stuff available, we had:
- Battletech: A Time of War and Shadowrun: These are together because they're in the same booklet. One is about big robots fighting wars, the other is about magic and cyberpunk together. Battletech features "Swift Plans," about stopping a gang war, while Shadowrun features "A Night on the Town," wherein things go south when a Mr. Johnson tries to hire the PCs.
- Cosmic Patrol: A retro-futurist RPG about pulp adventures in spaaaaaaaaace! The included adventure is "The Kahn Protocol," wherein the characters crash on an asteroid with an old research station and have to signal for rescue before oxygen runs out.
- Conspiracy X: A government conspiracy game about UFOs and weird events in the same vein as Delta Green and The X-Files. The included adventure is "Convoy," wherein agents have to recover and transport a crashed alien vessel to Area 51.
- D&D 4e: The fourth edition of some "advanced" edition of some game from the 1970s. You've probably never heard of it. Rather than a quickstart guide, the offering is just a module called "Dead in the Eye," which features aberrations in Forgotten Realms.
- Dungeon Crawl Classics: This is Goodman Games' fantasy game, based on 3e and oD&D. One of the most discussed features of DCC is the 0-level "character funnel" — a player controls four 0-level characters, and with any luck, one of them will reach 1st level in a class. This book lacks quickstart rules, instead packing two adventures: "The Undulating Corruption" features the return of an ancient evil, once sealed away, while "The Jeweler That Dealt in Stardust" is an urban adventure that involves sneaking into the house of a noted crime lord. This booklet also details the Mystery Map Adventure Design Competition.
- Hârn: Hârnworld has been around a little while, and it's a fantasy world, albeit one without absolute morality and with low-magic. Columbia Games released a map with some setting information on the other side, designed to be used with any game system.
- NeoExodus: An anime-influenced setting for the 3e/OGL/Pathfinder set. The included adventure, "Undying Legacy of the First Ones," is an adventure in which the PCs try to stop a group of cannibal bandits and end up doing a little dungeon delving.
- Only War: Part of the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay series, Only War allows players to take the role of members of the Imperial Guard. The included adventure, "Eleventh Hour," gives PCs eleven hours to escape bombardment behind enemy lines.
- Pathfinder: The OGL-compatible fantasy offering from Paizo. The included adventure, "Dawn of the Scarlet Sun," is an urban adventure pitting the PCs against a serial killer.
All in all, it was a good experience (certainly better than '08, anyway). As noted, I felt it unfortunate that occult conspiracy games were underrepresented (that's what started me in the hobby, after all), although I was humored that retroclones and D&D-derivatives dominated. The company Catalyst Games also made a strong showing, with three of their game lines (Battletech, Cosmic Patrol, and Shadowrun) making an appearance.
For anyone hoping to go next year, getting there early is an absolute necessity. Of course, I know it varies from shop to shop — some shops require participation in any in-store events to get stuff — so what you might have to do in your locality may differ.
Three More Things: Big Planet Comics also apparently put out stock from last year, so I managed to snag a copy of the Dragon Age quickstart from 2011.
Also, Grognardia has a shorter piece about Free RPG Day. Raven Crowking's Nest also has a piece on Free RPG Day.