by Mike Shea on 31 December 2018
Dungeons & Dragons is an amazing hobby in many regards; one of them being its extreme potential budget range. While many might focus their attention on expensive accessories that can fill out this game, today we're going to look at how to play D&D on a budget. Even for free.
The following is a list of official Dungeons & Dragons resources you can download and use legally for free. This list includes everything you need to play fantastic Dungeons & Dragons games for the rest of your life without spending a nickel.
Here are a few other free resources, including some from yours truely, that can get you running some great D&D games without any money spent.
One of the interesting things about Dungeons & Dragons is the incredibly wide range for its potential costs. The cost to play D&D can go anywhere from free to potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars (look at Joe Magenello's dungeon if you don't believe me).
Most people likely spend one to two hundred bucks for the three core books including the Player's Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master's Guide and maybe some secondary books like Xanathar's Guide to Everything, Volo's Guide to Monsters, and published adventures such as Curse of Strahd or Tomb of Annihilation. Some probably spend a few bucks on dice and a flip mat.
Then there are areas where the D&D hobby can get really pricey. The first is miniatures. We might drop $50 for a good set of player character miniatures at first but if we start to fill out our set of monsters, we're looking at hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars until we have a "full collection". Secret tip: there IS no full collection of miniatures. No one ever has enough of that one monster they need at the time.
Pathfinder Pawns, Arcknight's Flat Plastic Miniatures, Printable Heroes, and Trash Mob Minis can save us from this financial runaway train by giving us a lot of two dimensional miniatures for a lot less than it would cost us to get fully 3d plastic minis. The occasional Reaper Bones Kickstarters can get us a large pile of unpainted miniatures for less than we'd pay for them individually but even then we're going to be missing out on a few. They've been running these Kickstarters roughly once a year.
Another area where the sky is the limit when it comes to costs is in three dimensional terrain. My favorite is Dwarven Forge, the Ferrari of D&D terrain. Having quite an investment in it myself, I can attest to its incredible quality and "wow" factor. There are other terrain options as well such as card board 3d terrain, 3d printed terrain, and other options. As I mentioned, the price of this stuff knows no bounds. The average pledge for the latest Dwarven Forge Kickstarter was $1,000.
Luckily, the true joy of D&D is in sharing stories with our friends. Miniatures and terrain are really cool but they're not necessary for us to run some fantastic adventures. In fact, the more accessories we have, the more they can sometimes get in the way of that story. We'll talk about this more later.
How could someone go about playing D&D for free? There's actually an answer to that question. While Wizards of the Coast sells the core D&D books, they also give away D&D rules online. This includes a D&D Basic Rules and the Dungeons & Dragons System Reference Document. While these PDFs omit much of what you can find in the actual core books, they have enough to run a D&D game. The D&D Beyond website also offers these rules for free in the same interface used for the digital version of all of the other D&D books. One need not spend a dime to use these rules.
What about campaigns and adventures? According to our 2016 Dungeon Master Survey, most DMs run their own campaigns in their own worlds and with their own adventures. If we follow these folks, we too don't need to buy expensive adventures and campaign worlds. We can spend some time thinking about our world and writing down what works.
If we do want to play in a world like the Forgotten Realms, we can use the excellent Forgotten Realms Wiki as our own sourcebook complete with a search and hyperlinks to connect it all together better than a big book.
There are numerous free resources for DMs to run great games beyond campaign specific material. The suite of Donjon tools gives us a host of dynamically created material including names, treasure, monster encounters, dungeons, adventure seeds, and more. It's a great place to spark ideas in our minds as we build out our own adventures. A nearly infinite supply of dungeon maps and artwork are just a Google search away. They work well for both inspiration for DMs as well as visuals to show players.
Wizards of the Coast has released a couple of adventures for free as well. Death House is one of my personal favorites, though themed specifically for Ravenloft and the Curse of Strahd published adventure. Wizards also released the first part of Princes of the Apocalypse for free which contains enough material to get characters to level 5 including a fight against some cultists of the elemental prince of air. It's more universal than Death House and easier to plop into your own campaign world. A Great Upheaval, the first chapter of Storm King's Thunder is likewise available for free.
We're going to assume of the sake of this article that one can acquire something to write with and something to write on. Go raid a horsetrack for small pencils and a library for scrap paper if you need. For drawing out maps and descriptions of combat, we can use Theater of the Mind combat to save us a ton of money on miniatures and maps. According to the 2016 survey we mentioned earlier, about 40% of dungeon masters use either abstract maps or theater of the mind when running D&D combat so you won't be alone. Not only is it much cheaper than maps, minis, and terrain but it also gives us nearly infinite flexibility in our descriptions and in letting the game take turns we didn't expect when preparing for our game.
There are a number of online dice roller apps that can save us a few bucks buying dice but this probably isn't realistic. Instead, for the $12 of a D&D Starter Set we can get a set of dice, a set of pregens, a solid rulebook, and a wonderful D&D adventure. Sure, it isn't free, but its a low cost investment for the best entrypoint into D&D available. The maps and monsters contained in the starter set can keep a campaign going for months.
I'm a huge fan of the Pathfinder Flip Mat. It's cheap, lightweight, and super-usable in our gaming kit. That and a couple of dry-erase markers can build just about anything we can imagine for under $20. It's a great investment for our DM kit.
If you want to play D&D online, you can play for free at Roll20. They have the entire 5e D&D SRD rules in place there and access to lots of official D&D sourcebooks and adventures if you do eventually want to pay for it.
"My rule of thumb is that in a group of 6, 3-4 don't spend any money. But they enable a group to form & play. Free players enable spenders. Even if no one at a table is spending, there's huge benefits in simply making more D&D players and DMs."
- Mike Mearls, D&D Design and Development Lead
Being a game focused on a group of players, it makes more sense that the players might pool their resources together to get what they need. For example, a group can pool together to pick up a subscription to D&D Beyond and the core books through the D&D Beyond Marketplace. A single DM subscription can share all of its books with up to eighteen players in three campaigns. These digital books are often on sale and, when the cost is split up, they can be very cheap for each player.
There's another big advantage to keeping our D&D kits small: flexibility. The less stuff we have to run our games, the more we can focus on the game itself and the fun to be had with our players. Maps, terrain, miniatures, and all sorts of accessories look great but there's an overhead with them beyond money. They take up physical and mental space. They take up time. Instead, we can keep our materials down to the thinnest possible and focus on the fun of the game.