Gamers have a notorious, bi-polar reputation regarding money. On one hand, they can display an extreme thriftiness toward gaming purchases, yet on the other, they sometimes seem willing to shell out exorbitant sums for products other “mundanes” (and even other gamers) might consider frivolous. The vast range of prices for gaming products -- and the formats available, from electronic PDF files to full-color, hard-cover books or box sets packed with nifty components -- further muddles the perception of gamer spending as either cheap or extravagant. Rather than cramming them into one stereotype, people might view gamers as regular consumers, willing to spend their money on good-quality products or materials with great meaning for them while watching their wallets and taking advantage of good deals and free product when possible.
For those gamers who’ve been around a while, games today represent a significant investment. When I first experienced roleplaying games back in the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”), the core “starter set” for Dungeons & Dragons cost $12; it included the basic rulebook, an adventure module (the iconic B2 Keep on the Borderlands), and six plastic, polyhedral dice…everything needed to play. The roleplaying game market was dominated by several companies that produced a modest handful of games and supplements, a steady stream of product, but not a flood. Back then most adventure modules cost around $6, hardcover rulebooks $12 or $15; quite affordable in those days.
Today the introductory D&D set still comes at a bargain price of $19.95, and, packed with loads of goodies (tokens, character sheets, power cards, dungeon map, and, of course, dice), is the perfect vehicle to entice new players into the hobby, albeit a slightly more expensive one than in the past. Beyond these kinds of loss-leader introductory games, however, most roleplaying game core books or boxed sets represent significant financial investments. Back in the early eighties, the Dungeon Master’s Guide cost $15, with the Monster Manual and Player’s Handbook at $12; today their equivalents retail for $34.95 each. Yes, all three fourth edition books come as full-color hardcovers, but the basic buy-in for the game (all three books) comes to $104.85.
The Dungeons & Dragons books represent the norm for today’s roleplaying games. Most games’ core rulebook costs upwards of $40…and while boxed rules sets are prohibitively expensive to produce despite the seductive goodies packed inside, $40 for a book seems a bit much. Factor in the cost of adventures and supplements, and getting into a roleplaying game today can seem a major financial investment.
The few games I’ve purchased in the past few years confirm a higher price point, with mostly high quality on the return: the Battlestar Galactica Roleplaying Game ($44.99, 224 full-color pages, hardcover); Tekumel ($39.95, 240 black-and-white pages, hardcover, with full-color map); Savage Worlds’ Pirates of the Spanish Main ($39.99, 256 full-color pages, hardcover); Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space ($59.95, 144 full-color pages in several booklets, dice, box, counters).
Certainly people in other gaming-related hobbies pay just as much if not more to satisfy their gaming habits. A nice board game easily costs $30-$40, while materials for miniatures wargaming can add up given the cost of minis and slick-looking, hard-cover rules and army lists.
Like other games across the hobby, roleplaying game price tags pay for high production values and the creativity and innovation behind a game experience with one of the highest replay values for any gaming-related activity. Once a good gamemaster gets a copy of the core rules, that’s usually all he needs to send the players’ characters off on endless campaigns. This requires some degree of preparation on the gamemaster’s part, whether he meticulously plots out each scenario or simply improvises encounters, adversaries, and plots along the way. Many games have free online support, either “official” material from the publisher or unofficial fan-created publications. Gaming forums, fan sites, and “wikis” with information, guidance, and resources for the game can also inspire gamemasters and provide material for campaigns.
I’m not advocating never paying for roleplaying game material -- though that’s quite possible in today’s world of free online resources and personal creativity empowered by desktop publishing -- but I’d argue that gamers do what they’ve done all along: pay for the professionally produced products that engage their interests while supplementing their habits with free materials online and their own creations.
Free Roleplaying Games
The advent of the internet and a truly global community accessible from one’s home computer, laptop, or mobile device means gamers don’t need to rely solely on their local gaming store for gaming news, free promotional materials, and new product. It also enables average gamers to post their creative efforts without the requirement of a game publishing company to disseminate material. This led to a torrent of amateur material feeding the existing flood of professionally published roleplaying game resources, all with varying quality; I’ve seen some “professional” material that proved sub-par and some “amateur” publications with professional quality that explored innovative concepts in gaming.
Much of the “amateur” material remains free on the internet, including some very good (and in many cases concise) core rules for roleplaying games. I’ve listed a few that have impressed me below, in alphabetical order free from any personal biases I might harbor. They represent a smattering of styles and content, from basic rules sets to setting-specific storytelling-style games. This is by no means an ultimate or definitive “best of free RPGs” lineup, but a short list of those I’ve read, in some cases played, and all of which I’ve admired. Since I believe that even free core rules can and should lead to future purchases, I’ve included a “supplemental purchase” note at the end of each game description listing a suggested retail product to further enhance the free game -- support some professional game publishing houses and your local gaming store with your purchase:
Barbarians of Lemuria: This swords and sorcery game evokes the feeling of Robert E. Howard’s tales of Conan the Barbarian (and the subsequent films…). The rules offer the standard roleplaying game workings with a Hyborian-flavored setting. Author Simon Washbourne also created the alternate history game 1940 - England Invaded; both games are available from 1KM1KT (1,000 Moneys, 1,000 Typewriters), a solid online resource for free indie games. Supplemental Purchase: Any of Mongoose Publishing’s licensed Conan roleplaying game supplements can serve as resources for Barbarians of Lemuria, particularly the setting gazetteer Road of Kings; sadly, at this time Mongoose no longer publishes Conan material, though one can find the books circulating in local gaming stores, or download materials from Mongoose’s PDF magazine Signs & Portents.
GURPS Lite: This streamlined, free version of Steve Jackson Games’ venerable Generic Universal RolePlaying System (GURPS) provides an introduction to the game’s basics in a concise, 32-page format. While not an introductory roleplaying game, those familiar with gaming concepts can find a solid base for a generic game system. You can download it from Steve Jackson Games’ online store, e23. Supplemental Purchase: With GURPS Lite gamers can use most supplements from GURPS’ exhaustive catalog across numerous genres…my favorites include Egypt and Imperial Rome, though they produce many historical, science fiction, and fantasy resources.
Lady Blackbird: This indie game helped pioneer an entire genre of games with an emphasis on storytelling with an elegant, bare-bones rules system. The website blurb covers it all: “Lady Blackbird is a steampunk adventure module for 2-6 people. It contains a starting situation, setting, pregen characters, and quick-play rules perfect for a no-prep game of 1-6 sessions or more.” Creator John Harper offers a very basic game framework with a clean graphic design, intuitive character sheets, and simple but elegant game mechanics. Admirer Timothy Adamson compiled information about and elaborated on both the system and setting in the Lady Blackbird Companion. Supplemental Purchase: The innovative game system could work with other steampunk games, their settings, scenarios, and sourcebooks, including various iterations of Space 1889 and Castle Falkenstein.
Mini Six: The descendent of West End Games’ cinematic D6 System remains a free PDF download with a concise summary of the rules (and various options) and several short settings covering various genres. Hobby Games Recce already offered a comprehensive look at Mini Six in a past feature; it provides all the rules to play a cinematic-style game with an easy-to-learn system. Supplemental Purchase: Mini Six works with any sourcebooks and adventures from past West End publications, including material for Star Wars and Indiana Jones; or one can customize it to work with any published setting.
Old School Hack: Another admirable project Hobby Games Recce recently featured, Old School Hack simulates the classic Dungeons & Dragons action with an elegant system based on early D&D but nuanced with more intuitive rules and an interesting group “awesomeness” mechanic. The clear, concise layout and numerous player handout pages help make it newcomer friendly under the guidance of an experience gamemaster. Supplemental Purchase: Pick up any Dungeons & Dragons-type scenario, especially those designed for beginning or low-level characters, and run it using Old School Hack.
Risus, The Anything RPG: A brilliantly short, funny system for a quick pick-up game, Risus distills abilities into clichés instead of skills and other typical game stats, so it’s easy to whip up a few characters and pull together a last-minute improvised game in nearly any setting. An active fan community creates a wealth of Risus-related source material or setting conversions available free online. Supplemental Purchase: Since the Risus rules lend themselves to humorous mischief light-hearted games like Toon or Teenagers from Outer Space provide fun settings and supplemental game concepts. Given the genre source material from any other game, one could easily adapt it to humorous or serious Risus play.
Warrior, Rogue & Mage: Like Old School Hack, this game provides a rules platform for classic Dungeons & Dragons-type adventures, with more traditional mechanics, weapons list, spell descriptions, and bestiary. Some short fantasy world notes provide a campaign environment assuming players don’t port the system to their favorite established setting (or an original one). It’s major innovation, aside from its streamlining, comes from the attributes…rather than shoehorning characters into classes, their primary stats gauge how good they are at warrior, rogue, and mage skills. Supplemental Purchase: Any high fantasy scenario or setting can work with Warrior, Rogue & Mage, from classic Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings to campaign worlds like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, Middle Earth, and RuneQuest.