You Don’t Have To Be Fancy To Play D&D

Someone on a Dungeons and Dragons Facebook group I follow was looking for someone to teach him how to play D&D. He wanted to play but didn’t know any groups and was looking for one. That’s not unusual. With Critical Role and other actual play streams, there are a lot of new people in the hobby who weren’t introduced by an established group. The thing that stuck out to me was that the person claimed to have spent $250 and had not yet played the game!

I grew up in a blue collar lower middle class family. My dad worked in factory jobs, my mom had jobs in restaurants and as a receiving clerk for a distribution center. The county I grew up in has been bleeding high paying jobs for decades. I was never hungry or cold but didn’t have a lot of disposable income for amusements. Most of our entertainment was “do it yourself” and low cost. I went to the library on a weekly basis. That’s how I got into fantasy and sci-fi. I read a lot of books from the library and rarely bought my own. I first started playing Dungeons and Dragons with friends when I was 12. We had one set of books among us and shared dice. Our character sheets were 4×6 index cards or a sheet of notebook paper. I got a player’s handbook spending some money I was gifted for my birthday. I would pick up Dragon magazine from time to time and I had a color mismatched set of dice that I bought from a discount bin at the counter of the B.Dalton book store. This was my whole D&D collection until I had a job and could drive.

The first two dice I ever owned.

D&D has started to become a “lifestyle brand.” There’s a cookbook, t-shirts (I own a few), a Hand of Vecna sculpture was just announced by Wizkids for $130, jewelry, gaming tables, and on and on. I don’t begrudge anyone the income. The gods know I’d love to make my living selling games and stories.

The current culture around 5E makes it seem like you can’t play or that you will have a sub-par play experience unless you drop a lot of cash on a D&D Beyond subscription, a Roll20 subscription, a bespoke dice set, handmade dice bag on Etsy, and a custom miniature for your character at HeroForge. I spend a fair amount of money a year on gaming material. I’m not saying you should not spend money on the hobby. As hobbies go, even if you do spend several hundred dollars a year, that’s not bad. You can spend hundreds on a single lens for a camera or one fishing rod.

Scene of Young Men Playing a Game. Attributed to Frederico Zuccaro (Italian, 1540/1-1609). Pen and brown ink and brush and brown wash over graphite; sheet: 13.7 x 20.1 cm (5 3/8 x 7 15/16 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Alfred in memory of Carey Croneis 2003.289

Here is what I want to tell someone like the 12 year old me who doesn’t have a lot of money and lives some place where earning money is tough for someone without a car or high speed internet access…

You can have the time of your life playing Dungeons and Dragons without spending a lot of money.

If you are a player and not the DM, a PHB and some dice is all you need. Maybe your friends will share their dice with you. A second hand copy is good enough. If you want to be the Dungeon Master, you need a copy of the DMG and the Monster Manual. The 5E DMG leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to teaching you how to build adventures, campaigns and setting. Fortunately, the internet has an incredible amount of resources for game mastering advice. Check out my recommendations page for some links. Do a search online and you will find more than enough videos, blog posts, message boards, and groups to educate yourself.

As a Dungeon Master, I think you learn the game much faster and become a better DM by creating your own material rather than buying things from WotC or DM’s Guild. Here’s a secret. Most of the published adventures and campaigns are not worth your money. Many of them are bad. Your hard earned gold pieces are much better spent on a box of pencils, some graph paper and a binder. Watch a few actual plays, read some blogs and do it yourself. Creating adventures and campaign settings is an enjoyable and inexpensive hobby all on its own. There’s plenty of material on this blog to get you started.

There is so much cheap and free stuff online that you don’t have to buy anything once you own the core books. You could run adventures for years and never have to spend a copper. If you want terrain, there are a several YouTube channels dedicated to teaching you how to make terrain out of cardboard painted up with inexpensive acrylics from a craft store. There are free character sheets, dungeon maps, campaign settings, paper miniatures, and monsters in such abundance that you will never have to buy anything from anyone to have a great time.

You can have an amazing experience playing Dungeons and Dragons and you don’t have to spend much money.

If you know a group of people who would like to play old school Basic, Original, or Advanced Dungeons and Dragons but you don’t have any of those books, you are in luck. There are free PDF’s of all the major clones of those games. PDFs of the published versions are inexpensive on DriveThruRPG. If you want a hard copy, you can get them for very reasonable prices and most of them are an entire game in one book. For less than dinner and a movie, you can have a complete game, dice and everything you need. The Old School Renaissance blogs are a treasure trove of gaming experience, advice, adventures, monsters, campaign settings, rule variants and entire games. Not only that, there is a whole community of people who love to help others learn this style of play. Many run games online or in your local area and are very welcoming to open minded people who want try something different.

Dungeon terrain, miniature, battle mats, sparkly dice, the newest expansion book…those are all cool. I have spent a fair amount of money on some of that stuff. You don’t have to do that to get started. You don’t have to do that, ever, if you don’t have the money or don’t want to.

9 thoughts on “You Don’t Have To Be Fancy To Play D&D

  1. Whilst I agree that there seems to be a bit of a culture around playing D&D, encouraging you to buy tons of stuff, I see the same question on a number of FB groups that I belong to. The overwhelming advice from them is that you don’t need to buy anything. The basic rules are available free on the WotC website, and there are even dice rolling apps or websites, so you don’t even need to buy dice (I can also buy a decent set online for less than $2).
    Whilst I am glad that you have written this, and perhaps some people may need to hear it, but I think there are a lot of people who are getting the word out.
    Also TBH, the best adventures I have had have usually been homebrew ones. Those need no materials. There are also a ton of good free materials out there too.


  2. Mal

    My crew is still starting up, we have a majority of newer and first time players. The DM is a vet, though, so we’ll be doing a lot of learning from him (very excited about it – I want to home brew my own game some day).

    Just wanted to get your opinion, though – is it best starting out with grids and maps or playing a “story of the mind?” For first timers, anyway.

    I was also thinking about cutting and painting cardboard squares from old amazon boxes I have around. Could be used to create all kinds of maps/terrains at least on a larger scale.

    I really enjoy the (cheap!) creative alternatives folks come up with, and would love to hear more! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mal! Thanks for reading.

      I personally prefer theater of the mind style, but having some sort of token or white board to represent a battle can be helpful when there’s a complicated situation. It would probably help to do something low cost and simple like you describe while you are learning the system. Tokens placed in a table will give you a sense of where everyone is relative to each other. That will give you one less thing to have to remember and make things like area of effect for a spell more clear. I own a battle mat and will sometimes use paper miniatures that I printed on card stock or just squares with a note on it.

      What is “best” depends on the preference of you and your group. Some players prefer mini’s. There’s no “best” on the subject as far as I am concerned. My approach is to test a concept with the minimum amount of cost I can manage and see how it goes. If I like the result or see some opportunities to make something better with further expenditure then I will go the next step. I try to avoid anything that has a big up front buy in but that’s me and you may be more comfortable jumping in the deep end.

      I’ve been using Rocketbook a lot for my online game. I use beacons on a whiteboard and snapcast on one the notebooks. It works out well for me without spending the time to learn how to use a virtual table top.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mal

        Today I learned about whiteboard beacons! What a very neat invention and I can definitely see how they would help online play.

        Thank you so much for sharing your creative solutions and giving me some great advice. I can’t wait to get some storyline under my belt!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m new to blogging and reading blogs and truly yours is the first one I have read from top to bottom and even some comments. all the fancy stuff I have bought to play dnd could all be gone tomorrow and I would still have a great time because DND is amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Why Do I Love Swords & Wizardry? – Grumpy Wizard

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