How to get started with D&D without breaking your wallet
So you want to play Dungeons and Dragons — or any tabletop RPG, really — but you, like me, are broke and can’t afford all those books, and a ton of dice, and minis, and maps, and even more dice. How do you go about getting involved in the game without setting a pile of money ablaze? The easiest way is to use someone else’s books, but we’re going to assume you want to have the rules yourself for whatever reason — you like to have them to hand so you can muse about ideas, or to check yourself when you’re messing up on the rules.
Look, I’m not going to lie to you — as hobbies go, tabletop role playing games will eat money. My collection has been assembled over the course of years and frankly when I think about what I’ve spent over that time, I start to weep, and it becomes very hard to ever stop. But we can save you some money, which is helpful when you’re trying to decide if this is the hobby you want to get into. So here are some ways to budget your D&D experience.
SRD and other free-ish PDFs
We did a post on Systems Reference Documents a while back, and there are limitation to using an SRD instead of the rulebooks — they’re not formatted or written for readability or ease of use. Spending the money on the rulebooks will always end up with you having an easier time of it, but the SRD exists and it does contain all the rules you’d need to play the game, even if it is harder to make use of it. And the SRD isn’t the only free information out there for you — there’s a whole host of free PDF’s that are legally provided, including the D&D Basic Rules which is more user friendly than the SRD, but has less options in terms of classes and races than that does. Either way, it’s D&D sans any initial cash outlay.
Not all PDFs are free, of course, but in general if you can find a digital option they’re often a lot cheaper than hard copies. Now, Wizards of the Coast does not offer a PDF or other digital copy of its products and this isn’t a post about stealing things, because I’m not down with that. However, other game companies like Paizo do in fact sell their products as PDFs, and they’re often much cheaper. For example, the Pathfinder 2nd Edition rulebook goes for around $60, but the PDF is $15. As a visually impaired person, I love PDFs because I can resize them and read the text more easily than peering into a hard copy, but that’s in addition to the cost benefit of switching to electronic editions when possible.
Only buy the books you need
With Dungeons and Dragons in particular, but with any RPG, there’s a tendency to buy a ton of books. I own all three of the 5th Edition main rulebooks because I DM quite frequently. But here’s the thing — if you’re just interested in playing, in getting to learn if you want to get into this hobby, then there’s no reason to buy the Dungeon Master’s Guide. If you’re starting a Pathfinder game, sure, the main rulebook is huge and combines information for the Game Master and the Player, but it doesn’t have monster stats and it doesn’t need them, and neither do you. Likewise, if you’re not running the game? You don’t need to spend a cent on modules or adventures.
Now, I understand the motivation to own every single book. Like I said, my collection has been created over the course of years and it’s got all sorts of stuff in it — I own monster books for editions going back to 1979. But if you’re a new player on a budget? Just spend the money you need to get to the table.
Also sites like D&D Beyond and Roll20 can make setting up a character sheet a lot easier, so please make use of those resources when applicable.
There is no shame in using someone else’s stuff
My wife uses my books when she plays.
I have been in groups where we had one set of books for the whole group. We got together and bought a rulebook for the table, and that was the rulebook we used. No one complains that there’s only one box of Clue for a group, why should there be a stigma for D&D or any other RPG that you don’t have six copies of the game for every group playing it? There shouldn’t be. I absolutely support buying the books and otherwise supporting the developers, but if there’s only so much money to go around, or if you’re still trying to decide if you even want to do this? Then yeah, just borrow someone else’s book for your first few times.
Then if you’re hooked, sure, go buy everything you can afford. This is also true of dice — you can borrow some dice, you can just buy one of each dice used in the game for the group, and there’s even some conversion you can do. For our Blizzard Watch Dungeons and Dragons game we use a free Discord dice rolling bot called Sidekick, which would work for a real-life game though it might be a little clunky for everyone to have their phones out watching the channel. Another thing I’ve done at times is used just a few six sided dice and converted them. Roll 3d6 for a d20, roll 2d6 for a d12, using 2d6 and dividing by 3 to simulate a d4 and so on. This way, you don’t need to even buy any dice at all as long as you have a few regular old sixers you can swipe from those boxes of Clue. Believe me, dice can be an addiction.
Hopefully some or all of this is of use to you, if you’re trying to game on a budget. I feel for everyone who wants to play but who sees the cost as a barrier to entry, because while it can be, it absolutely shouldn’t be.
Originally posted 1/9/2020. Updated 1/10/2022.
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