My friends and I plan on playing D&D this summer, and I'm going to be the DM. I need advice on reducing the price as much as I can without reducing fun so we can have enough of it to bring my friends back again. This will be everyone's first time, and I have no idea about which edition to play. I don't want to play one that's not as much fun for beginners just because the rulebook is cheaper. Once we have an established thing going and it's regular, I will be more than willing to purchase the fancy books with art and everything.

Dice are no problem as I think they are cool and would consider them worth purchasing even if we didn't play with them. If I was going to buy at least one book for the group, because I'm assuming the tactile thing is more convenient than the PDFs, which one would you suggest and why?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: Free Basic-Rules-only adventure to showcase D&D 5e \$\endgroup\$ Apr 9, 2015 at 4:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ You are aware that there are other, similar games, right? I want to make sure you don't eliminate others accidentally. Like you could if you asked which Coke was best for you - you'd never hear about root beer. \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Apr 9, 2015 at 6:49

10 Answers 10


They are all fun, so you don't need to worry any on that count.

For cheap, you're in luck—Basic D&D 5th edition (the current edition) is free to download and play right now. Fifth edition is an edition designed to be easy to get into for new players, while still being the full D&D adventure experience. The free PDFs contain the complete rules, but not the full range of options and monsters that the full printed books contain. The options that the Basic rules contain are complete though: there is no point where you hit an artificial limit and need to "upgrade" to keep playing.

Grab the PDFs now and start reading and dreaming up a world—you'll be ready to play by the summer, if not long before. Grab some dice from a local hobby store (~$6) or order some online, or use one of the many free digital dice rollers for an even lower initial investment.

If you want to invest in one book, the Player's Handbook is the core rule book, and provides all the character options that were left out to simplify Basic. These options can be added to your game at any time, so it's a desirable but low-pressure buy. It's about $50, so a bit pricey but perhaps worthwhile split among a group. The Dungeon Master's Guide is excellent for new DMs, and the Monster Manual can't be beat for filling your world with interesting allies and enemies, but for immediate value to the whole group, the Player's Handbook is the the one to get if you get only one.

On the other hand, the Starter Set is a different way to go, and a very good value: it contains dice, an adventure, pre-made characters (optional: your group could choose to play them, or just use them as examples of what a character looks like), and some advice material for the DM that isn't in Basic. The contents are complementary with Basic, and there are few ways to learn DMing better than studying a good adventure. The Starter Set is laughably cheap at only $20—they have to be taking a loss on them, but it's a great way to learn the game. This is most useful if you get it early, since the adventure is for teaching you how to DM and giving the players a good adventure for starting characters.


There is a huge number of options to get D&D basically for free, since there are so many different versions of D&D.

My personal favorites are Basic Fantasy and Lamentations of the Flame Princess (which each loosely emulate early 1980s Basic/Expert D&D).

There is also OSRIC (closely matches Advanced D&D, 1st edition) and Swords & Wizardry (emulates the first ever D&D edition), which also have a lot of fans.

Pathfinder (akin to D&D v3.5) also got all the rules online, but it's a quite complex rules system that isn't easy to learn by looking up every rule online. This is mostly for people who already know how Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition work.


Good news - the Basic Rules of the latest edition of D&D is available free-of-charge from the publishers. I have recently started playing it with a group of beginner players (though I am an experienced DM), and they are loving it. I have also DMed AD&D 2e and D&D 3e with beginners, and I would say that the 5e rules are both easier and more fun.

I recommend D&D 5e Basic Rules for beginners as:

  • The rules are explained very clearly.
  • There are limited character-creation options, which means you won't get too confused by too many choices.
  • In general the rules are not as detailed and complex as previous editions.
  • The fifth edition rules underwent massive public playtesting, which is probably what makes it so enjoyable.

You can download the necessary pdfs from the Wizards of the Coast website.

You can get the Basic Rules printed (WoTC allow for this - there is a printer friendly version), and if you get it bound you have the tactile thing.

If you really want to buy a book, you have two options:

  • The 5e D&D Starter Set, which comes with printed booklets and dice, including an adventure from 1-5 levels, and can be bought on a budget. With the group of beginners I mentioned above I'm using the Starter Set adventure, though we created our own characters using the Basic Rules.
  • The core rulebooks (Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster manual) - though this is no longer a budget option.

It's easier to get in than it ever has in the past. A useful thing to consider is if you are set on playing "D&D" as it name-branded D&D or one of the many, many "clones" which have been put out there (most of which are, D&D, with minor modifications).

Actual D&D

The current 5th Edition of D&D has starter rules available for free download. 5E is cleanly written and fast, which makes it useful for new players. However, the free rules only give you a narrow set of character options - which may not be an issue for new players.

D&D 3.5 is the most complete set of rules you can get for free, as the core rules exist online from their attempt at open sourcing with the D20 system. Rules, monsters, spells, etc. D20 however is only so-so for new players - it's got a decent amount of moving parts to the system, relies heavily on knowing how to build a character, and either works best with having minis and a grid or throwing out a lot of rules about Attacks of Opportunity, etc. So this makes it less useful for new players.

Although 4th Edition is the most recent "last generation" of D&D, and you can probably find the books used everywhere, the game does work best with minis and a map, and has a lot of map specific strategies - which tends to either make things harder or easier for new gamers based on how much they play other strategy type games. Between cost and this issue, it might not be the one to go with.

Older D&D - some legally sold PDFs of older D&D and reprints (and of course, original used books) are out there. Older D&D usually suffers from difficult writing and high lethality which isn't the greatest combo for new players.

Close Enough Clones

Swords and Wizardry is a free PDF clone - they've got a Whitebox version which means even simpler rules, but much more clearly written than actual old whitebox D&D. The print copy is super affordable as well.

Outside of that, you can find lots of lists of free or cheap retroclone games. This question from before has a large list of example retroclones with people talking about the various qualities of each. Wikipedia has an entry on some of the more well known retroclones and descriptions of them. You can also find "master list" threads or wiki entries where people gather links and descriptions.

Benefits: Most are free PDFs, very affordable otherwise, lots of people have chimed in so you can review what you want to play or not, how supported it is, and get a look to see how cleanly written it is.

Drawbacks: Not labeled "D&D", if that's a big sticking point. Most are based on older versions of D&D which is usually high lethality for characters. Some are explicitly designed for dungeon crawls which either is exactly what you're looking for or exactly NOT what you're looking for.

  • \$\begingroup\$ If you're willing to go even further afield, there's also games that aren't based on D&D rules at all, but give you the fantasy rpg equivalent: Tunnels & Trolls, Torchbearer, Zenobia, Dungeon World, for example. The last two are available free online. \$\endgroup\$
    – user9935
    Apr 9, 2015 at 17:54

If you are looking to purchase something, I'd like to present 3 different options, all of them have their own pros and cons and none of them are the right choice for everyone. If you're just getting into D&D there's no reason not to head right for 5e, there is copious information published by the publisher free on the website and all of the currently published content is readily available. Without further ado, here are the best options for getting started with 5e:

  1. The Player's Handbook. This is the most expensive option, but it's also the most expansive and flexible. This contains all 12 published classes, the complete rules of the game and everything you need to get started playing, it's a really solid book and probably the most essential one published so far. However, it doesn't contain any adventure content, you're still going to be relying on the basic D&D pdfs for monsters and other things (this is not a particularly bad thing).

  2. The D&D Starter Set. This is the most complete option I'm going to present, and also the lowest cost, however it's also the most limited. The starter set includes 5 pregenerated characters, with instructions for leveling them up to L5, dice, and an adventure that runs from levels 1-5. It's a really solid adventure that is well written. This is a great, low cost entry into the system that does a lot of the work for you so you can get right to playing. If you want to go higher than L5 though you are either buying a new book or writing your own adventure, and you'll need the Basic PDFs to advance characters further.

  3. Princes of the Apocalypse or Horde of the Dragon Queen. Depending on how much work you want to do as a dungeon master, you may well want to run a prebuilt adventure your first time, there's no better way to do it than with either of the major published adventures for 5e (I'm currently running HOTDQ and have looked through PotA). HOTDQ can be run with no other books with material solely available in Basic D&D and supplements also available on the WOTC website. This is a great option if you are content with the player content in BD&D and just want to have an adventure to sit down and run, but don't want it to stop after just a few levels. HOTDQ runs through level 10 or so and has a sequel called Rise of Tiamat. Princes of the Apocalypse runs through level 17 or so. Princes of the Apocalypse does claim to require the monster manual, but I'm not 100% sure it really does (and that can be worked around), however it is the better written and reviewed of the two so it's included here.

Ultimately, I recommend any new player wanting to try out D&D go right for the 5e starter set. It's well written, it's friendly to both new players and new DMs and it's just a well put together product. However, I also know that not everyone is going to want to spend their money on a short term product, so I'd definitely recommend looking at the players handbook and current adventures to see if those are better products for your needs.

  • \$\begingroup\$ So, why do you recommend 5e over the other available editions? \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Apr 10, 2015 at 7:17

With a little resourcefulness, you can play 5th Edition D&D for free. It is possible to try 5th edition with just paper, pencils, and a computer.

You need:

  • Rules for players and DMs
  • Character sheets and pencils
  • Monsters
  • Mats and figurines (optional)

  1. As stated by other posters, the basic D&D 5th edition rules for both players and DMs can be found here: http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/basicrules

  2. You can download character sheets here: http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/character_sheets

  3. With the handbook and DM guide out of the way, you need some monsters. For this you have a couple options:

    • The published Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure has a corresponding free supplement in PDF form. It contains monsters from the Monster Manual which the developers didn't want to reprint in the hard copy of the adventure. Fortunately, there are a lot of monsters: http://media.wizards.com/2014/downloads/dnd/HoardDragonQueen_Supplement1.pdf

      For a level 1 adventure, I recommend Swarm of Rats, Swarm of Insects, and Troglodytes from this PDF.

    • You also have the option to use prebuilt PCs as hostile NPCs. You can download level 1 characters or make them yourself. Enemy DM-controlled PCs may be intense for low-level encounters, so use them sparingly.

  4. Lastly, you may need a mat. 5th Edition continues the D&D tradition of not assuming the players want to use a game board with figurines. Some players prefer using their imagination in combat; others prefer the tactical aspect of board-game-like play. You have the option of using an orthogonal-grid, a hex-grid, or no grid. If you choose no grid, you can keep track of general positioning with pieces of paper behind your screen: Getting it exactly right isn't important.

    Note: If you don't use a grid for your first adventure, you will have very little prep work required. Just come up with a simple story involving rats, insects, and/or troglodytes and tell your players to bring character sheets.

    If you play a game with a hex- or ortho- grid (5e or otherwise), you will probably want to invest in a vinyl mat or modular dungeon tiles. Figurines can be whatever you have lying around your home.

As for which book you would buy, I would recommend the handbook. It is well organized and probably the 5th edition book I open the most. If, however, you want the most material for the least money, I would recommend the monster manual; that way, you can make more adventures.


This is only meant as an added option, as the answers above are all very good suggestions and lots of useful information.

The cheapest paper-based RPG I have ever seen was one a friend had done using only charts and tables loosely based on AD&D, maps he had made on inexpensive graph paper, and the only real or significant expense were the dice. It's not difficult to come up with your own game, and can even tell your friends that they will be helping to develop and playtest it.

In another similar "made up as we went along" game we called "Chances", only two 10 sided dice were needed, anything was (potentially) possible and the game was simply making up a sort of story where each player had a character and took notes on things they could do and the gameplay was nothing more than for each character's action, we'd deliberate on what the percentile chance odds of different outcomes and then roll the dice to try to land on the desired outcome.

As for D&D or AD&D, the biggest cost are the books, but try looking around for the many, free, player and fan-made charts, tables, and creations to reduce the number of costly hardbound books you'll need. If it were me, I'd start by doing a google image search and skim the results for any usefull character sheets, charts and tables.


I suggest hopping on a certain auction site and searching for 'Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set'. Most likely you will spend < $15 (currently some at $12.94 + free shipping I see).

Everything you need to start to play.

Personally I would not play anything beyond 1st edition, but since you are looking at price the Starter Set would probably be ideal.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The starter set for 4th Ed or 5th Ed? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 13, 2015 at 19:39

If you need a setting, I wrote a small hexcrawl called Blackmarsh that works with pretty much any edition of D&D including 5e. It is free to download and it is free to use for your own projects if you want get into self-publishing or just sharing stuff. It $5 plus shipping if you want a physical copy. I made an editable setting reference document you can download.

I made a list of OSR resources that is a bit out of date but many of the links are still go. Most of it free to download and free to reuse. Regardless if you go with 5e or another edition would check out the stuff in the Useful Links section. Most of that list is helpful regardless what edition you use.


There's also the option of used books. Amazon, eBay, occasionally even your local book store. Not to mention hobby stores that cater to gamers.

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    \$\begingroup\$ But what game? Which book? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 9, 2015 at 8:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @dark since he specified D&D I assumed he meant D&D. Specific Edition selection might be a problem, but even my local little gamer store has 20 feet of just used D&D books. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 9, 2015 at 8:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Writing something about core rulebooks and editions would be appropriate. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tommi
    Apr 9, 2015 at 12:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ Depending on how you count them, there are at least 7 editions, and perhaps as many as 12 or more. Giving the asker some guidance before they dive into the ocean of used books online is somewhat necessary, since it's really not obvious what all the hundreds of books are for and which go together. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 9, 2015 at 16:51

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