You CAN run D&D for just one person

When you read internet forums on things you’re interested in, you’re gonna read stuff that pisses you off. I was recently on a local gaming forum and came upon this:

DnD isn’t 13th age, it needs class spread and doesn’t really work well with fewer than 4 players.

This is, indeed, a common misconception (not about D&D being better or worse than 13th Age; that’s a matter of taste and opinion). And to be sure, most published adventures suggest a group of four to six PCs, and the 5e monster Challenge Ratings, for those who pay attention to them, are balanced for four PCs (so a CR 1 monster should challenge a party of four level 1 characters).

But here’s the thing: finding a group of willing players who can all meet at the same time and place regularly is literally the hardest part about playing D&D. It’s easier to take down the tarrasque than to get a group of five adults in the same room often enough to play through a single adventure, let alone a campaign. Hence this meme:

organizingan-rpg-session-okay-greal-we-play-on-the-5th-16376717

There are ways around this, of course. You could look for an online group on Roll20 or another online service. You could try Adventurers League (though they have space issues too). But if all else fails, you may have to sit down and run D&D for just one or two people.

It’s like making tamales in foil instead of corn husks: foil tamales are better than no tamales.

The first time I played D&D, I ran a homebrew game for just one person: my (then six-year-old) daughter. Because she was the only one who wanted to play with me. And you know what? It was great, and she’s still my favourite player.

The Original D&D rules from 1974 recommend 1 “Referee” (which was what they called the Dungeon Master back then) and “from four to fifty players”. So it looks like the standard party of four PCs was hardwired into the game from the beginning. But think of the other extreme: 50 players? In one game? How in the hell did that work?

The answer is, they didn’t all play at the same time. Kent David Kelly’s book series, Hawk & Moor, goes into great detail about the early D&D games in Gary Gygax’s basement. In those days, there was no “adventure module”, no “quest”, no “adventure hook”. There was a big bad megadungeon nearby, full of monsters and treasure, and you were going down into it to get the treasure. The dungeon had many levels, each more dangerous than the last, and many entrances and exits. A single session of the game would involve you and any other available players entering the dungeon with a specific goal, say, to clear a certain number of rooms on certain level, or find a specific treasure or magic item you know or suspect was in a certain area. Or get revenge on those ogres who killed your last character. If you survived, you headed back to town to rest, heal up, and replenish your supplies. Then went back, to clear more rooms, kill more monsters, and get more treasure (if the other players hadn’t got there first).

All 50 players were never in the dungeon – and certainly never at the table – at the same time.

The other thing that becomes clear from Kelly’s book is that, while some groups often adventured together, a lot of players did go into the dungeon for solo crawls. In fact, Gary’s own son Ernie, playing the wizard Tenser (of Tenser’s Floating Disk fame), made an impromptu solo delve so that he could be the first to reach the fabled level 13 of the Greyhawk dungeon (totally screwing his frequent companions Robilar the Fighter and Terik the Cleric, in the process). So the first person to face the “Final Boss” of Castle Greyhawk did it as a solo player.

There were also some adventure modules designed specifically for solo play, such as this one for Basic D&D and this one for AD&D. Of course, these modules were designed as introductory or side quests, not for taking a PC from 1st to 20th level, but nevertheless they illustrate that running an adventure for just one player is far from unheard of.

Of course, many aspects of Old School D&D have fallen away, and certainly from 3rd Edition onward both the game mechanics and the published adventures have tended to assume a standard party size of four to six PCs, and one PC per player. This means that if you want to run for a single player, or even just a smaller-than-usual group, you will need to do some tweaking. This article from Geek & Sundry has some helpful advice, and I have some suggestions of my own (some of which are even based on personal experience).

Homebrew

No prizes for guessing that this would be my first suggestion, but homebrewing your own adventures is definitely a way to customize D&D for solo play. Whereas a standard published adventure has a spread of challenges intended to test a wide variety of skills, if you homebrew, you can focus on things that will challenge your player and their character, without being completely insurmountable. A solo wizard will never be a star of melee combat. A solo fighter with no ranged weapons will stand little chance against a tribe of goblins who stay at range and pepper him with arrows. And a cleric will probably not be able to pick a lock or disarm a trap.

For example, homebrewing puts you in control of how much combat is in your adventure, and how combat is handled. Combat can be scary for a lone PC, but if your bog standard published adventure has a series of fights, increasing in difficulty and ending with an epic boss fight, maybe your solo adventure has a series of puzzles, skill checks, and roleplaying encounters, with a bit of combat at the end (perhaps under favourable conditions if the player has succeeded in a lot of the preceding challenges).

And just as you can use homebrewing to avoid challenges that would be impossible for the lone PC, you can also avoid things that will be too difficult for the player. Don’t put in riddles if your player sucks at riddles. But if they love riddles, go for it. With only one player to please, there should be a lot of scope for creating the ideal game to suit them.

And homebrewing doesn’t have to mean starting from scratch. It can also mean taking a published adventure and adapting it for solo play.

Go Old School

There are a lot of things that used to happen in D&D that don’t really happen anymore, but reviving them can be a big help for the solo player.

Henchmen and Hirelings were a part of the core rules right through to AD&D. And if your solo player has some starting gold to spend, why not hire some help, so they don’t have to adventure alone. You can look up some old-school rules for what hirelings cost, but in general, a “commoner” who’s just along to carry stuff and hold a torch is as little as 2 gold pieces per week, while an NPC with actual class abilities will be much, much more expensive. Generally these hirelings expect a share of any treasure recovered (in addition to their fee), and earn a share of Experience Points (even if they don’t level up), which stops a solo PC getting too rich and powerful too fast.

Henchmen generally refers to NPCs who serve out of loyalty. Though they must be “maintained” (the player has to pay for their room, board, and equipment), they don’t necessarily charge fees. Like hirelings, they take a share of treasure (including magic items) and XP, but they can grow in power similar to a PC, and have much more “presence” than a simple red shirt. These are friends or sidekicks. They have names and backstories, and a personal connection to the player. If they die, it’s a big deal. Old School rules used to limit how many of these you could have, based on your Charisma score. For 5e, you might consider allowing a solo player to have a number of henchmen equal to their Charisma bonus. So bards and paladins will do well with this rule.

Another Old School thing no one does anymore is run more than one character. Hirelings and henchmen are both at least partially under the DMs control. They are, when all is said and done, NPCs. But in the olden days, it wasn’t unusual for players to run two characters in the same adventure. It was so common that there were rules forbidding PCs from sharing magic items if they were run by the same player. So allowing your solo player to run two or more PCs could restore some of the balance that modern D&D is built on. Note that this is not a good option for absolute beginners. Generally, it’s enough for first-time players to get to grips with running one PC; adding more is just confusing.

Give them a “friend”

I have more experience running D&D for one player than I have running for groups, and this is something I do pretty much all the time. I’ve tried a few variations on it, some with better results than others, though all of them worked.

The first time I ran D&D, my one player rolled up her character, and then we rolled up three other players to round out a classic “party”. My daughter ran her character, and I ran the others, but purely in the mechanical sense. They took their turns in combat. They made skill checks if they were proficient, and if my daughter suggested it. They didn’t roleplay, or look for clues or any of the fun stuff, firstly because I knew where all the secrets were, so that would be cheating, but mostly because it was my daughter’s game, I didn’t want to spoil her fun.

This is not something I recommend highly, as it too easily descends into one bored player watching the DM roll dice by themselves. And that’s not fun. Also, I feel that, as a DM, I have enough to run without having to be a player as well.

One of the things I’ve tried to improve upon this is running fewer characters. Instead of giving the solo player an entire NPC party, just give them one NPC friend. You’ll want this friend to be a easy to run as possible, and if you’re very comfortable with design, you might consider not making them a character class at all. Just decide what they should be able to do, based on what your player will need help with, and assign them the numbers. If they need a ranged attacker, give them a shortbow, some arrows, and +5 to hit (+3 to damage). If they need some healing, allow them 2 uses of Cure Wounds per day and the Spare the Dying cantrip. But if you’re not ready to play it that fast and loose, build them as a level 1 character class.

The way this differs from rolling up a full party is that it’s less work, and less time spent watching the DM play with themselves. I would also recommend that you gradually relinquish control to the player, asking them for more and more input into what the NPC should do until they’re making pretty much all the decisions. Eventually this could bleed into the player running two characters, but at a pace that allows a beginner to get to grips with it.

The way this differs from traditional henchman and hirelings is that there’s a “story reason” for NPC to come on the adventure, and no money is involved. Sometimes I’ve had these NPCs be someone the player rescues, and then they join forces to escape from the dungeon. Sometimes it has been an NPC with an adventure hook, but instead of sending the PC off on a quest, they come too. Once I even suggested the NPC and the PC were friends before the game began.

Logic would suggest that you give this “friend” abilities the PC doesn’t have, to help round them out, but actually three of the four times I’ve done this, I’ve accidentally given the PC a helper of the same class. And to be honest, I didn’t notice much of a difference in how successful the adventure was. Also, it proved a useful teaching method for beginners. You can have the NPC do something, and then point out that the player’s character can do that too.

As with the “dummy party”, you don’t want this NPC to be leading the adventure. They’re the sidekick at best. The player has to be the star of the show (if you want them to keep playing).

And my last observation is that, of all the times I’ve run D&D for solo players, the most successful PC, who accomplished the most and was consistently in the least danger of dying was a Rogue. Rogue is my favourite class, but they are seriously overpowered in 5e, even at first level. With high dex and finesse weapons, they have decent AC and good attack options in both melee and ranged weapons. With light weapons (and they get two daggers as part of their starting equipment), they can make two melee attacks per round. They have proficiency in more skills than any other class, and are just as good at avoiding danger as they are at facing it. If they continue to fly solo, they can take the Arcane Trickster archetype and access a little magic as well, including some damaging cantrips like Fire Bolt and Shocking Grasp, so they can even respond to threats with resistance to non-magical damage. I’ve never run a solo game for a Bard, but I can only assume that they would be just as, if not more, successful, especially considering their Jack of All Trades feature. So maybe push for the Rogue or Bard, if your potential solo player isn’t sure what to play.

Is running D&D for one player ideal? Absolutely not, nor is it typical of the D&D experience (there’s only so much banter you can have with just two people). But it is fun, it’s better than not playing at all, and is far more doable than you might think.

D&D has always been a “customizable” game, so if you want to run a game and can only find one willing player, don’t think twice. Just jump in and do it. If nothing else, it may inspire you both to put more effort into finding a full group.

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Play D&D for free, part 2: retroclones

On my first post on the subject of playing Dungeons & Dragons for free, I stuck implicitly to living systems; that is, the current editions of games in print and supported by their publishers. For D&D this means Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (5e), published by Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), and Pathfinder, published by Paizo.

My advice was to stick to the free materials, which for 5e the is Basic Rules, available as a free PDF, including DM guidelines, and the free content on D&D Beyond, which includes the whole of the Systems Reference Document (SRD). I neglected to discuss Pathfinder, which also has a lot of free content available to download. And as these two systems are the Big Beasts of fantasy role-playing, they are likely to be the first ports of call for new gamers.

The major drawback of sticking to this free content is that you won’t have access to the “complete” game. For example, the Basic Rules pdf limits players to the four “core” races (dwarf, elf, halfling, and human) and the four “core” classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard), with one customization path or “archetype” for each (meaning it isn’t really customization at all). D&D Beyond’s free content gives you access to all the races and classes in the Player’s Handbook, but sticks to one archetype for each class, and only a limited selection of backgrounds and feats. While feats are optional for 5e, backgrounds are actually an essential part of character creation, so this is a significant omission.

There is, however, a way in which you can play a “complete” version of D&D (that is, have access to all “core” game mechanics) for free: play a retroclone.

For those who have never heard the term, a “retroclone” is an independently-produced ruleset which recreates an earlier edition of a popular role-playing game, usually with some refinements or additions. Pathfinder itself could be considered the first retroclone, as it was produced by Paizo (at the time a much smaller company than Wizards of the Coast), and recreated Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, which had recently been replaced by Fourth Edition.

Because retroclones make use of the existing Open Gaming Licenses, any changes to the original rulesets are made less for copyright reasons and more for the preferences of the producers and their intended audiences. For example, many Zero Edition (or Original Dungeons & Dragons) retroclones have much clearer wording and organization of the rules than the original 1974 game (which was notoriously opaque). Another common innovation is to allow ascending armour class (in which a higher armour class is better) as the norm or at least as an option. There have been several ways things like stats, abilities (and “skills”, if they are used), combat, etc. have been handled in D&D over the years, and the author(s) of a particular retroclone tend to pick their favourite one or suggest a personal house rule as the standard option.

Some retroclones are as pricey as the current versions of the game. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, a 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons retroclone, retails for $70, although this is excessive, and mainly due to artwork and binding, still, many popular retroclones, such as Labyrinth Lord or Lamentations of the Flame Princess will cost you at least a little cash, even for just the pdf. [EDIT: Both LL and LotFP are available as free, text-only pdfs (no artwork).]

However, if you divide Old School D&D into the three categories of Original, Basic, and Advanced, there is at least one free retroclone for each.

There are several “Original D&D” retroclones. I discover new ones all the time. My personal favourite remains Matthew Finch’s Swords & Wizardry, which comes in four versions, all of which you can get for free. White Box, my absolute favourite RPG ever, is a clone of the original three booklets in the first ever printing of D&D. (Unlike that original printing, White Box makes perfect sense and is a pleasure to read.) This version is no longer available on the Frog God Games website, as it has basically been replaced by Swords & Wizardry Light, which is also free, and pretty much the same game except it allows the Thief class and only has rules for levels 1 to 3. The next step up is Swords & Wizardry Core Rules, a close second to White Box, in my opinion. This version clones the rules as they stood after the Greyhawk supplement was published in 1975. It is, on balance, probably the best version of the game. It has plenty of options and mechanics, but not so many that it becomes, well, Pathfinder. And finally, there is Swords & Wizardry Complete, which clones everything you would find in the original rules, all five supplements, plus anything you might have pulled out of issues of Dragon Magazine. Personally, I only own this one for the monsters. You can never have too many monsters. I would never give this many options to the players in an Old School game.

Swords & Wizardry is, in fact, so popular that it has its own “clone”, White Box, by Charlie Mason, published by Seattle Hill Games. The pdf of this is also free, and could be a good alternative if you want to play a White Box clone but don’t want to play Swords & Wizardry Light.

Then there is Chris Gonnerman’s Iron Falcon, also free as a pdf, still available and supported, and more complete than either S&W White Box or S&W Light. It does include things like the Thief and Paladin classes, and tons of spells and monsters, so it is probably more comparable to S&W Core or Complete, but unlike those games, it includes some free adventure modules, which can actually be played with any OD&D retroclone (or even the “real” OD&D), with little or no modification.

When we talk about “Basic D&D”, we usually mean either the early 80s boxed sets (called Moldvay Basic after the editor of the Basic Set – again, levels 1-3 – or B/X because I it contained only the Basic and Expert rules) or the later BECMI, which stands for Basic, Expert, Comnot panion, Master, Immortal: the six sets of rules that take you from levels 1 through 36, and eventually to a godlike status that transcends character levels.

I don’t know of a BECMI retroclone (which isn’t to say one doesn’t exist, just that I don’t know about it), but there’s a very popular free B/X clone, Basic Fantasy, Chris Gonnerman’s more well known game. If you’ve heard of one Old School retroclone, chances are this is it. Everything for this game, including lots of adventure modules, is available as a free pdf, and even the print versions are dirt cheap. [EDIT: As above, Labyrinth Lord is also free in an artwork-free pdf.]

And finally, there is OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation), a 1st Edition AD&D clone, also by Matthew Finch, and also free.

So if you’re willing to go Old School, it is definitely possible to play D&D for free, without sacrificing any of the core options or mechanics, and you don’t even have to homebrew your own adventures, thanks to Chris Gonnerman!

I fully expect that a lot of readers will not be pursuing these options, however. One reason is, none of these games are (or, legally, could be) branded Dungeons & Dragons, and I expect that makes a big difference to prospective new players. Make no mistake, all of these games are Dungeons & Dragons. There is nothing about them that does not ring true to the authentic D&D experience. But just as audiences rejected the “imposter” Uncle Fester in the first Addams Family movie, a lot of players might reject these games (even though, like Uncle Fester, they turn out not to be imposters after all). If you get your friends psyched up to play D&D and then whip out a pdf of Swords & Wizardry, they may feel they’re not getting “the real deal”.

Of course, Pathfinder solved this problem, mostly by tacitly allowing their customers to call their product “D&D” colloquially. The one time I played Pathfinder, it was because someone asked me if I wanted to play D&D. I only found out they meant Pathfinder after I had already said yes. And check out this video series in which they are clearly playing Pathfinder, but frequently call it “D&D”.

But the major stumbling block will be that all these retroclones are exclusively Old School, and therefore might not appeal to gamers whose expectations are informed by Modern D&D. If you were inspired to play by watching Critical Role, you might be disappointed that you can’t play a “goliath barbarian” or a “tiefling bloodhunter”. If you were intrigued by stories you heard from Pathfinder players, you may feel let down when you can’t be a “kitsune alchemagus death priest” or whatever OP bullshit they allow in that game.

And that’s perfectly understandable. There are a million ways to play D&D, and the game is broad enough to accommodate everyone’s fantasy. But if yours can fit the Old School mold, don’t overlook these retroclones as a way to get a memorable gaming experience for hardly any cash.

[EDIT: If you are interested in a more complete list of retroclones, visit Tenkar’s Tavern (you should visit it anyway, as it’s a great blog).]

Just do it: how I started homebrewing D&D (and how you can too)

The first time I ever played D&D was as a dungeon master, and I was running a completely homebrew adventure in a completely homebrew world. Yay me, right?

Wrong, because it’s actually not that hard. If you’re reading this, I’d say there’s a 99% chance you can start homebrewing too. So roll percentile dice!

In gaming terms, homebrew is anything you create yourself, either alone or with your group or other amateurs. It can be a setting (as large as a complete world or as small as a village where the party can rest before exploring the next adventure site), a new in new game mechanic such as a class, race, feat, weapon, or spell, an adventure, or even a whole campaign. Tal’Dorei is Matt Mercer’s homebrew setting (though if I bought it and used it, it wouldn’t be mine).

There are three DMs everyone goes to for advice on gaming: the aforementioned Matt Mercer, Chris Perkins, and Matt Colville. Mercer obvs homebrews both his adventures and game world, but the other two don’t.

Chris Perkins is probably my favourite adventure designer in the history of the game, and definitely my favourite of the current WOTC staff. But as far as I know, he has never run a homebrew setting. He once tweeted that it’s easier to play in someone else’s sandbox than to build your own. And he’s right.

By contrast, Matt Colville runs in a completely homebrew world but, regardless of how much he tweaks and alters them, exclusively runs pre-written adventures. He once said in a video that there are enough good pre-written adventures out there for you to play D&D for four hours a day, every day, for the rest of your life, and never run out of adventures to run. And he, too, is right.

So why homebrew at all?

Homebrew is cheap. Homebrewing something costs you time and effort, but tends not to cost money. This is a great advantage if you haven’t got a lot of money to spend, or you’re new to the hobby and aren’t sure you’re ready to commit a lot of financial resources to it.

Homebrew is your fantasy. If you think back to when you first heard about D&D and decided you waned to play it, you probably had a mental picture of how the fantasy world would “look”, what kind of things you’d find there, what kind of adventures would happen. If that metal picture matches up well enough with the official setting, (currently the Forgotten Realms), then that’s fine. But if it doesn’t, then homebrew is your chance to make a world that does.

This applies to any aspect of the game. For example, I love the idea behind the Tyranny of Dragons series: a dragon cult is attempting to bring Tiamat into the Material Plane? Awesome! Unfortunately, those adventures suck. They’re railroady, they fail to make good use of dragons and draconic monsters, and the final fight with Tiamat is underwhelming. Pretty much anyone could steal the idea and make a better adventure, which is precisely what I recommend you do.

Homebrew is easier to run. The art of gamemastering is the art of improvisation. No matter how thoroughly you plan and prepare, you will at least occasionally have to improvise when the players do something you didn’t expect. But it’s a lot easier to improvise when it’s your content to begin with. Even if you haven’t built the area the PCs are trying to explore, you probably have a rough idea of what you would have put there. If the players try a tactic against your Big Bad that you didn’t expect, you probably have a good idea of how they would react, because they’re your creation. You don’t have to re-read their description in the overlong tome that is most published adventures, at least in 5e.

Homebrew is easier to write than you think it is. I was really nervous, making up my first adventure, especially because I had never even played before. But having done it, and succeeded at it, I’m convinced this is something basically anyone can do.

In the first ever edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax wrote that “your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors” to building a campaign. Time is something we all must struggle with, but the fact that you are interested in playing a tabletop RPG at all indicates you have enough imagination. So with that in mind, I thought I’d talk about how I cooked up an adventure as a rank amateur, and give some advice on how you can do the same.

1) Steal!

Ever since the Romantic Period, we’ve had this idea that everything has to be “original”, but before the early 19th Century, originality was not a criterion of good art. Homer didn’t “make up” the Odyssey; it was a traditional tale, as was the Iliad. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur was derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. And every one of the dwarves in The Hobbit, not to mention Gandalf himself, comes from the Norse Eddas.

And these are great works of literature. But a D&D game is not meant to be a great work of literature. It’s meant to be a fun game to play with your friends.

If you want to be really clever, steal from sources you know or suspect your players won’t know. But don’t feel self-conscious about stealing something obvious if you have to. Sure, your players may realize your adventure is just The Hobbit, but think about it: here’s their chance to find out what would have happened if the party went North around Mirkwood instead of through it. And they’ll be ripping their characters off from Lord of the Rings no matter what you run.

When I created my first adventure hook, I ripped off Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven: a young peasant asks the party to help defend her village from brigands. Other encounters and areas were inspired by the Norse sagas, a book called The Satanic Mill that I read in middle school, and even an old D&D module called Temple of the Frog, which I hadn’t read at the time, but knew featured a swamp and giant frogs.

And you can steal more than just stories. I used the free visitors’ map of my city’s botanical gardens to run my Haunted Forest. It was a mini hex crawl, so the players never saw the map. Points of interest were already numbered, so I just populated them with encounters.

My whole campaign setting is an amalgam of Beowulf and the film Dragonslayer. NPCs can be based on characters from films, books, comics, whatever. Anything you need to run the game, you can probably borrow from somewhere. There’s no copyright at the gaming table (unless you plan to stream it).

My only caveat is to steal from sources you already know and love. It’s too much investment to check out a new film or novel on the off-chance it could prove useful. You might he hate it, in which case you’ll have wasted your time.

2) Don’t write a script. Another way homebrewing is not like writing a novel is that you are not in control of the protagonists. This is one of the most important lessons of DMing. Player choice and player agency are the main selling points of the game. As soon as players feel they have no choice, or that their choices don’t matter to the story, they still disengage and get bored.

So if you catch yourself thinking “and then the PCs will do this”, stop. You don’t know what the PCs will do.

Many great adventures have a beginning, middle, and end, but the trick is not to make the next segment of the adventure depend on one course of action or one outcome.

For example, in my first adventure, I took what I later realized was a big risk with my adventure hook. The PCs were supposed to stop the town drunk from beating up the locals on market day. This display of prowess would prompt the peasant girl to ask them to come defend her village. But what if the PCs chose not to fight the bully? What if they lost?

An issue like this can be fixed any number of ways. The easiest is probably to make sure more than one NPC can give the adventure hook. They might give it a different spin or flavour, but the essential information is the same: where the party needs to go, what they need to do, and how much money is involved.

Almost any element of your adventure should have more than one potential connection to the rest of the adventure. This sounds complicated, but there’s a “zen” shortcut: don’t plan a linear adventure. Your beginning (the adventure hook) and final boss fight will be special, pretty much necessary bookends, but instead of designing a logical series of steps to connect them, just think of a bunch of cool stuff that you might like to see happen (or better yet, that your players might like, if you know them well enough), and stick them in wherever they fit. As you’re fleshing them out, you can think about ways they might lead to other parts of the story, but the exact path the PCs take through your adventure is ultimately not up to you.

3) Don’t write a novel. If you’ve read a published adventure, but haven’t written one yet, you may well assume your homebrew adventure has to read just like the professional ones do. But unless you are planning to publish it, there’s absolutely no reason to be that wordy. Don’t write pages of , lore and backstory, unless you need it to run the game, and never write more than you absolutely need.

My first adventure took the party from 1st to 5th level (I knew that Lost Mines of Phandelver did that, so I assumed that was a normal thing). It started with unarmed combat, featured two sections of overland travel (one through a swamp and one through a forest), a home base and two small villages which were adventure sites, two additional wilderness adventure sites (ruins and a bog), an optional side-quest dungeon, and a final, 3-level dungeon featuring an adult red dragon.

And to run all this I used 22 pages of handwritten A5 in a notebook. Sounds like a lot, but Lost Mines of Phandelver is 64 pages of printed A4.

I didn’t write any lore. I just knew it, because I’m the one who made it up. I didn’t write down villain motivations for the same reason. I didn’t have any “boxed text” descriptions of rooms or areas. I just ad-libbed it. Because I could. I was my world. I already knew it all. I didn’t write down monster stats unless I changed them from the standard version, and even then I only wrote down what was different.

Not everyone will need the same kind of notes. If you aren’t good at ad-libbing descriptions or villain monologues, go ahead and write them out. Just don’t write anything you don’t need. You will save time, effort, and space. The beauty of a homebrew adventure is it’s lean. Trim all the fat!

4) Play to your strengths. We all have skills and aptitudes in real life. Find ways to use yours to enhance your game. If you’re naturally artistic or good at crafts, augment your game with custom maps, miniatures, sculpted terrain. If you’re a good artist, draw the locations, NPCs, and monsters, so the players can literally see them. These touches can transform what looks like a pretty standard dungeon-crawl into a memorable experience your players will be talking about for a long time.

I suck at art. Absolutely suck at it. So I focus on story, structure, character and motivation, etc. I have also read a lot of medieval heroic literature, and I have a good memory, so I have a big pool of obscure fantasy content to draw from. I would love to add some visual flair to my games, but until I can afford to get someone else to do it for me, that’s just not going to happen. So I focus on what I can do well.

5) Play to your tastes. Everyone at the table needs to enjoy the game, but you’re justified in prioritizing your own tastes a little higher than everyone else’s, because of the amount of work you are doing. I find it takes 2-3 times as long to prep a game as it takes to play. So if you’re planning a 4-hour session, you can probably expect to spend 8-12 hours prepping it. It’s hard to motivate yourself to do all that work, let alone to sell the game to your players at the table, if you yourself are not into it.

That’s why I run a homebrew world in the first place. I tried running in the Forgotten Realms once, but I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t work up the enthusiasm I needed to run the game if it was going to take place in that world.

Of course, you can homebrew an adventure in an existing world, but taste applies here too. The classic monster choice for low-level parties is goblins or kobolds. Personally, I prefer undead, so I use zombies and skeletons. And because I like my minions to match their boss, I tend to have necromancers or greater undead like liches as my Final Boss. But that’s my game. Use what you like. Your game has to excite your players, yes, but it has to excite you a little more, because you’re doing all the work. And if you’re excited, it will be easier to get them excited.

6) Let the rules inspire you. The reason I put two overland travel sections in my first adventure was because I loved the Movement and terrain rules, and wanted to try them out in my game. That was also why I made one of the travel sections a swamp: it’s difficult terrain, and movement is restricted. The forest, though “haunted”, was inhabited, and had some usable paths, so terrain was not as difficult, but it had a higher likelihood of random encounters.

When you’re reading the rules (especially the monsters), pick out the things you definitely want to use, and find a way to use them. Design encounters with opportunities for cover, or use monster that grapple, if you like tactical combat. Write an adventure that focuses on oozes, if you think those are super-cool (one independent game designer has actually done this). Do you like the rules on encumbrance? Put them in your game. Like skill checks? How about a whole section full of physical and mental obstacles. No monsters, just skill challenges. Using your favourite monsters and mechanics will make your adventure unique, and keep you engaged while writing it and running it.

And, finally,

7) Give your players what they want. This would seem to contradict some of my earlier advice on following your own preferences, but you do have to balance your taste with your players’ expectations. The game, after all, belongs to all of you.

I never would have made a dragon my final boss, at least not my first time out, but it was requested by a player (and the player was my daughter).

It’s easy to forget, but you should try to make time for a conversation about the kind of game everyone wants to play. What experiences they want to have, what monsters they want to fight, high or low fantasy, how deadly they want it to be. You won’t be able to please everybody all the time, but having these things on your radar will help steer you. And sometimes working that player-requested monster in leads you to a cool adventure you wouldn’t have written of your own accord.

This advice isn’t complete, and it focusses mainly on writing a homebrew adventure for personal use (not for publication), but when I think back to how, as a first-time player, I managed to run four PCs from 1st to 5th level without cracking a single punished module, this is what I got.

I may write about my experiences with other aspects of homebrewing (monsters, settings, entire campaigns) in the future.

Want to OSR your 5E game? Play with kids…

…or beginners. Basically anyone who doesn’t own their own copy of the Player’s Handbook.

Imagine this: it’s 1974. You have heard about this new game, Dungeons & Dragons – a whole new kind of game – and you want to try it. You’ve shelled out your $10 dollars (which is like $50 today, so you’d have to have wanted it pretty bad) and got your little fake wood box with the white label, containing three badly-written booklets which attempt to explain how to play this game, the likes of which the world has never seen.

Now imagine that you manage to drum up some people to play with (the rules suggest “from four to fifty players”, but let’s assume it’s closer to four). Unless they’re every bit as eager to play this as you are, and also have ten bucks to throw around, you are likely to be the only one with a copy of the rules. Which means two things: 1) congratulations, you are the Dungeon Master (called a “Referee” back then), and 2) you are probably the only one who really knows how the game works.

Now flash forward to 1978. You have just bought the first edition Player’s Handbook, which claims to “provide all of the truly essential information necessary for the game”, but doesn’t even tell you how to roll stats or make an attack. That material, and much more, is restricted to the Dungeon Master’s Guide, to be published the following year. Why? Because “considerable enjoyment and excitement in early play stems from not knowing exactly what is going on.”

Not knowing the rules of Dungeons & Dragons is a classic part of the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Now, I wouldn’t blame you if reading this has already given you pause. Am I actually suggesting that players knowing the rules of D&D is a bad thing? And the short answer is: yes. But here’s the long answer:

While it isn’t bad for the players to have a firm grasp of the most relevant game mechanics, knowing all the mechanics can have several effects on the game which some DMs may find undesirable (I certainly do).

One such effect is that it creates rules lawyers. All the players knowing all the rules doesn’t stop the DM being able to modify, eschew, or otherwise house-rule certain game mechanics. If they’re good players, they’ll remember Rule 0, and if changing the rules becomes a problem, or you think it’s going to be, you can always let your players know this is what you’re doing (choosing the level of detail you go into).

Although Rules Lawyers are my least favourite type of “problem player”, this is, admittedly, a small issue, because not every fully informed player will become a Rules Lawyer, and at the end of the day, Rules Lawyers don’t actually make the rules. Still, you are far less likely to get players like this when they haven’t memorized the entire PHB.

The bigger issue, for me, is that the rule books can be limiting. Going back to our hypothetical 1974 players: if you’ve rolled up a fighter, you know you have a weapon and that you can, presumably, use it. If you’ve rolled up a magic-user, you know you have that one spell you can cast, and more or less what that spell does. And regardless of your class, you know what equipment you’ve bought.

So now you’re creeping through the dungeon, looking for god knows what (treasure, probably). And when something – anything – happens, you all have to figure out how to respond to it. And not everything that happens in a dungeon – especially an old-school dungeon – is a cue for combat. Read up on old school dungeon crawls. Most of the tales involve the PCs running away.

So when you’re presented with an obstacle, encounter, or other situation, you have to generate a solution. It may well involve your weapons, if you have them, or your spells, if you have them, or any of your equipment, or terrain features, or things lying around. But whatever you do, the main component is probably your own ingenuity, and that of the other players.

And there’s no limit to that ingenuity, because there are no mechanics involved. There are no skill checks or ability checks, no rules for using various pieces of equipment in novel ways. Each situation is unique, and requires a unique solution from the players at the table.

This is a hard way to play, because the onus is on the players to propose their actions out of their own imagination, and then on the DM to figure out how to adjudicate their actions in a fair way. It’s far easier to play a game where the actions are spelled out for everyone. This is what you can do, and this is how you do it.

If we contrast the “rules-light”, 1974 approach to Fifth Edition, we find the ten Actions in Combat. These are prefaced by the following text:

When you take your action on your turn, you can take one of the actions presented here, an action you gained from your class or a special feature, or an action that you improvise... When you describe an action not detailed elsewhere in the rules, the DM tells you whether that action is possible and what kind of roll you need to make, if any, to determine success or failure” [emphasis mine].

There is also the the Improvising an Action sidebar, which specifically states “The only limits to the actions you can attempt are your imagination and your character’s ability scores“. But these brief reminders can easily get lost in the meatier descriptions of game mechanics, and the ten suggested actions in combat quickly become The Only Ten Things You Can Do in Combat, just as the 18 Skill Checks become the only 18 things you can do the rest of the time.

Of course, not every player will treat the rules this way, and it was certainly not the designer’s intention that they do. But there’s basically zero chance of this happening of the players don’t know the ten actions in combat in the first place. Most of the time, when combat starts, they will want to attack or cast a spell. But they might say they want to wait and see what happens. Tell them they can ready an action. They might want to try to disarm or restrain or otherwise subdue an opponent. Good opportunity to explain grappling.

I once had a new player decide to toss a rope to another PC, then run circles around an enemy guard, wrapping his legs up in the rope and restraining him. This was not something he had read in a rule book. He hadn’t even read the PHB. It was just something he came up with in his own mind.

Easy enough for him to suggest, but to adjudicate it, I had to call for a to hit roll to toss the rope, a strength check to hold the rope, the dash action to wind the rope, and a contested athletics check to resolve the grapple. And it took more than I’ve round to get it done. But that’s my job as DM: figuring out how to resolve player actions. I even awarded him inspiration for coming up with the idea.

And that, to me, is how you play D&D.

Kids on Bikes RPG Review

I love Dungeons and Dragons, especially running it, but jeez it’s a lot of work. And while there’s plenty of advice for taking shortcuts without sacrificing the game experience (such as this awesome article or the amazing and ever-popular Lazy Dungeon Master), sometimes I want to forget the maps, minis, and detailed NPCs and just sit down and play. Enter Kids on Bikes, the role-playing game by Jonathan Gilmour and Doug Levandowski.

I first heard about Kids on Bikes from this video by Matt Colville, one of my favourite YouTube channels. He wrote an adventure (if you can call it that) for the game and recommended we check it out. Right away the concept appealed to me: an RPG where you take the role of a small-town kid embroiled in a supernatural mystery? Count me in! E. T. was literally the first film I ever saw in the cinema, and I grew up watching The Goonies, Explorers, The Monster Squad, and Stand by Me, so the idea that plucky, unsupervised pre-teens can take on overwhelming challenges and even monsters is part of my DNA.

By the time I heard of the game, the Kickstarter was over, but I pre-ordered a PDF copy and downloaded it as soon as it was available.

I’ll discuss the mechanics in greater detail below, but the first thing that struck me is that this game assumes the players will be largely responsible for world-building.

This is certainly not unique to KoB. Fate Core, for example, also assumes players will have a hand in creating the game world. But Kids on Bikes has the players literally building the town from scratch. Everything from the name, location, size, era, industry and economy, landmarks, and rumours, are contributed by the players. Sure, the GM can decide which rumours are true or partly true, but they can’t discount the rumours entirely. The GM remains the boss in adjudicating mechanics, but world-building is collaborative and democratic.

As someone who prefers to run a sandbox game, with player choice as the main driving force of play, this aspect really appeals to me. I view my job as a GM primarily as entertaining the players, and that’s easier to do when they get to choose what they want.

The Mechanics

Kids on Bikes has a relatively simple dice mechanic. PCs have six stats: Fight, Flight, Brains, Brawn, Charm, and Grit. Instead of a number, you assign one of the six dice of a standard d20 set to each stat. The bigger the die, the better you are at that ability, from Terrible (d4) to Superb (d20). Whenever you need to make a roll to resolve an action, you roll the die for the relevant stat. You may get a +1 bonus to certain stats, based on you character’s age (children, for example, get a +1 to Flight and Charm).

(This system, by the way, is more or less identical to the system used in the Labyrinth board game and the My Little Pony role-playing game, both published by River Horse in the UK.)

Because the majority of your dice are going to be “low”, Difficulty levels (the target number for a stat check) are going to feel low as well, especially if you’re used to modern D&D. For example, you would only have a 50/50 chance of making a Difficulty 6 check, even if you had a d10 in that stat, (which the game describes as “above average” for that ability). So you can expect a lot of failed dice rolls.

Apart from creating drama, this expectation of failure is built into the design via “adversity tokens”, which you receive whenever you do fail a dice roll. You can spend them to buff later stat checks (each adversity token adds a +1 to your roll), possibly snatching victory from the jaws of defeat when it really counts (e.g. near the dramatic end of the story).

Another thing that makes it “fun to fail” is that failure is a matter of degree. The more you fail your roll by, the more catastrophic the consequences, ranging from a momentary setback to something that changes the “long-term arc) of the story, and in the case of combat, the degree of failure even determines who gets narrative control of the scene.

A real strong point of the design here is that failure is always described in terms of narrative drama. Rather than just declaring a roll a fail, the rules encourage you to craft the scene in a way that dramatizes the fail. Sure, you can do that in D&D too, but Kids on Bikes is clearly putting itself forward as a “storytelling game” rather than a “tactical combat game”.

Character creation

Mechanically, creating a character is a matter of assigning your dice (based on what you want to be good at and bad at), choosing two skills that give you a mechanical benefit (you get one for free based on you character’s age), two flaws, which are purely for role-playing, and some other background details. You can do this from scratch or select one of the many “tropes”, such as Brilliant Mathlete or Funny Sidekick.

But the real meat of creating your character is the list of questions which determine each PC’s relationship to the rest of the group. There are three versions of this section, depending on how much time you want to spend on it. Personally, I recommend going the whole hog and doing the Complete Questions. With so few numerical stats, backstory and relationships are the real bulk of a Kids on Bikes PC.

It’s entirely possible the characters won’t be friends, and this isn’t the kind of game that assumes you never spilt the party.

There is no levelling up, though as your character ages, you will get different bonuses and possibly learn new skills.

Running the game

And that’s basically it as far as mechanics, apart from Powered Characters, discussed below. As so much world-building is in the players’ side of the rulebook, the GM information is rather light. If fact, whereas the Player-friendly section of the core rules runs to over 40 pages, the Information for the GM section is only nine. And that includes the general advice that pretty much every RPG includes, like “these are only guidelines”, etc. (Combat is barely 3 pages, including a chart and an “example”).

Partly this is because the players have a nearly equal share in the narrative. Whereas in D&D and similar games, the DM describes what is happening and asks the players “what do you do?”, Kids on Bikes assumes the players will describe much more of the world around them, not just their own character’s actions and reactions. In fact, when I ran the game, I had the players open the narrative, picking where the action started, and I reacted to them.

But beyond that, this is certainly a game where the GM is meant to “wing it” and think on your feet.

So is this a good game?

I certainly think so. But it is a game that will appeal to certain kinds of gamers, and, I think, it has nothing to do with the genre. I’ve always felt you can reskin nearly any game system to nearly any other genre, within reason. So if the concept of playing a Stranger Things RPG is the only thing about this system you like, you may want to use a different system.

The real audience for this game will be groups where everyone at the table is creative (and confident in their creativity), no one is obsessed by mechanics (because there are hardly any), willing to fail, and to make failure a compelling narrative, and willing to compromise when it’s not their turn to take control of the story. This game will not appeal to power gamers and “optimal” players, or anyone who loves complex mechanics, and it might not be great for players who are too shy to pitch their own ideas to the table.

For GMs, you have to be willing to let go. It will especially appeal to GMs who want to let go, share the burden of running the world, and instead adjudicate and facilitate the world. I’ll post a “campaign diary” of my experience running the game next, but for now suffice it to say that this was the most relaxed I’ve ever been as a GM. The Players do all the work!

Appendix: Powered Characters and “Modules”

When I first became aware of Kids on Bikes, the idea of “powered characters” (an NPC with some kind of supernatural power) was pitched as an option, and that was my impression when I read an early version of the rules. The finalized version presents Powered Characters more as a “core” part of the game. However, I basically ignored this aspect of the game, as I wanted the mood to be more Goonies than Stranger Things. However, I have sketched out a powered character in case I want to introduce her in a later session, or (especially) if the players want to go down that route.

Powered characters are basically NPCs, but each aspect of that character, from their personality traits to their super power, is controlled by another player. You can “activate” and control the aspect of the character assigned to you, even if your own PC isn’t present in the scene.

It’s a clever way to add someone like Eleven (and let’s face it, that’s what inspired this part of the game) without making any one PC overpowered. However, I imagine this could cause a fair few arguments among certain groups. Imagine if the “optimal player” wasn’t in control of the super power, and constantly berated the player who was for “not using it right”. That’s some noise I wouldn’t want at my table.

The Deluxe edition of the rules also includes a series of “modules”, including the one Matt Colville contributed. Because of the collaborative nature of the game, these are “modules” like you’d get in D&D. There’s not really story, nor can there be, because it’s up tot he players to come up with that. Instead, they’re sketches of settings: small towns where a game of Kids on Bikes might take place. And they are pretty good, too, and surprisingly diverse, showing off the wide variety of tangents this game can take. However, I personally have no intention of running them, because that thing that really sold me on this was getting the players to come up with their own town.

However, it is good to read through them, both for inspiration and to make sure your own game has all the necessary pieces.

 

Grognard is not a compliment

Grognard was originally a war game term for “rules lawyer”.

If you play Dungeons and Dragons, you’ve probably heard of OSR, or the “Old School Revival”. I’m not sure how much of a “thing” within gaming culture this is yet: is it strong enough to challenge the “modern” styles of play that have prevailed since the launch of D&D 3rd Edition, or just a small but vocal group of old guys kicking up a fuss in the corner?

Whatever the case, I can probably get away with this post because, although I’m head-over-heels about the Old School Revival, I am not a “grognard”, for the simple fact that I never played old school D&D when it was current. I cut my teeth on Fifth Edition.

When I see the term “grognard” used today, it tends to be self-applied, like a badge of honour. “I’m an old grognard! Only 1st Edition AD&D is good enough for me!” “I’m a grognard, and I still think THACO is awesome!”

The thing is, “grognard”, as a gaming term, has a pretty negative origin, and is in fact linked to the perennial debate over “rules” vs “guidelines” that still stratifies gameplay today.

The word grognard comes from French (literally meaning “groaner” or “grumbler”), and was slang for an old soldier. Like D&D itself, its use as a gaming term originally comes from miniature war games. These games used (often complex) sets of rules to simulate historically accurate warfare. There were rule sets covering several different historical periods, with Napoleonic warfare being traditionally the most popular.

A “grognard”, in this gaming community, was a player who spent more time arguing over the interpretation of the rules than actually playing the game. (You can see how historically and linguistically apt the insult was.) Grognards were basically the “rules lawyers” of miniature war games.

Further, if it weren’t for Dave Arneson’s dislike of grognards, Dungeons and Dragons might not even exist. If you ever want to know literally everything about the creation of the D&D game, I recommend you read Kent David Kelly’s very thoroughly researched series Hawk & Moor. In it, he describes Arneson disbanding a Napoleonic war game campaign on account of the dreaded grognards. He then recruited a handful of fellow gamers whom he knew could be trusted to take to a rules-light, “wing it” approach, and started a new kind of game. In it, the players would play a single character, with randomly generated stats. And they would be able to do anything, go anywhere. They would fight fantastic monsters and explore dangerous subterranean ruins, and grow stronger as they gained experience. Though they didn’t call it that, they were basically playing Dungeons and Dragons. And all because Dave Arneson hated grognards. Later he demo’d the game to his friend Gary Gygax in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and the rest is history.

So I find it ironic that OSR champions are now choosing to call themselves a name that would have been so hateful to the co-creator of the very game they love so much. However, other pejorative words have been “reclaimed” by the communities the originally denigrated, so why not “grognard”? Indeed, my main beef with it is that it is often used by people casting scorn on other editions of D&D, and other playing styles. OSR links up with my own personal preferences and play style, which is why I like it. But it’s not the only way to play. And the existence of other play styles doesn’t invalidate yours, so there’s no need to try to invalidate the preferences of others.

We now live in a world where we are nearly always connected, nearly always “on”, and what would have been a few off-hand remarks to a close circle of friends decades ago now takes the form of comments and posts and tweets that literally travel the globe. Which means they have the power to hurt a lot of people’s feelings.

Remember: it’s okay to not like things, but don’t be a dick about it.

Can you play D&D for FREE?

One of my favourite YouTube channels is DravenSwiftbow, a Canadian DM who has been playing since the days of AD&D, and in a recent post he suggested something that I have long believed myself: you can play Dungeons and Dragons without spending any money at all!

So in this post, I want to address two questions that arise from this assertion: 1) Is it true? and 2) Why does it matter. And I’m going to go with the second question first (sorry).

D&D, or Roleplaying Games in general, is a hobby, and many (if not most) hobbies cost money. Let’s say you’re an amateur painter. You’re going to drop cash on paints, brushes, canvass, easels, etc. Let’s say you play golf: don’t even get me started on how much that costs! In addition to gaming, another hobby I indulge in (when I can) is music. I play guitar and bass guitar, and I can tell you that buying a quality instrument is not cheap. And then there are board games and video game consoles, all of which are hella expensive, considering it’s all just for play. So why should we care whether you can play D&D for free, or balk at having to cough up some cash for something we enjoy doing?

And this is a valid question. D&D first came out in 1974, and when TSR, the original publisher of the game, went bankrupt in the 1990s, there was a real possibility that there would never be a new edition or new material for the game ever again. So shouldn’t we be happy to pay for the current publisher (Wizards of the Coast) to continue to support and update this game? And the answer is yes, of course we should. So why I am even writing a post like this?

To be honest, a big reason I’m interested in cutting the cost of gaming is my age. I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, when D&D was under attack on two fronts: on the one hand, it was seen as super nerdy and uncool, and to play it openly made you a target for ridicule and bullying; on the other hand, there were the famous accusations of Satanism that led many parents (including my own mother) to conclude that the game was dangerous. So now, as an apparently responsible adult with a wife and two kids and a mortgage, I feel self-conscious about spending too much money on a hobby that I still remember being so stigmatized.

In reality, no one cares that this is my hobby, and as I said, if I had any other hobby, I would be spending as much or more on it, so this is probably just a personal hang-up of mine, and I should just get over it.

However, another reason for this post is that, like pretty much every fan of the game, I am always encouraging people to give it a try. But not everyone is willing or able to fork out $50 for a hardcover book and some dice on something they are just “trying out”. And that’s fair enough. What if you don’t like the game? What if you just can’t find a regular group to game with? And what if you just can’t afford it? It’s important to be able to cut the cost of playing D&D to avoid pricing people out of the game, and to enable more potential new players to try the game without a major financial commitment.

So now, is it really possible to play D&D for free? The answer is Yes with a But.

Wizards of the Coast isn’t exactly known for going easy on your wallet. Think of their flagship game, Magic: The Gathering, also known as “cardboard crack”, or the infuriating paywall behind DnD Beyond, which basically requires you to re-purchase content you already own in hardcover. But one thing I give WOTC full props on is that the Basic Rules of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition is still available online as a free PDF. So, assuming you already have at least one device capable of accessing the internet and/or a printer and some paper, you can literally start playing the current version of Dungeons and Dragons at absolutely no cost.

But (told you there was one) there’s a catch. These “Basic Rules” are pretty basic. All the general mechanics are there: levelling up, rules for combat, spellcasting, movement, etc. But it gives you very limited options for creating your character. The Basic Rules limit you to choosing from the four “core” races of Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human, and the four “core” classes of Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. Further, the descriptions of these classes are limited to only one “path” for further development. The Basic Rules for the Rogue, for example only includes the Thief archetype, so you can’t play an Assassin or an Arcane Trickster. And the number of Backgrounds is also limited.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re a beginner. For example, I recently started playing Pathfinder, which has so many options for creating a character that I nearly dropped out before the game even started, and in the end decided to play something basic like a Human Cleric until I got more familiar with the game. Not everyone will agree with this, and they don’t have to, but if you’ve literally never played an RPG before, it probably is best to stick with something “classic”, even “basic”: a fighter who’s good at fighting, a Cleric who’s good at healing. After you’ve played an entire adventure, you can play the multi-class tiefling monk/cleric who for some reason can pick locks like a thief and plays a mean lute.

There are more race and class options available through the free version of DnD Beyond, because it includes the complete SRD material, but each class is still limited to one progression path.

So if you’re an absolute beginner, the free Basic Rules is an excellent way to get into the game for free. And if you’re an experienced player who for whatever reason isn’t willing or able to buy the complete game, you will have to settle for a scaled back version of it. But that’s better than not playing at all. And the experimental material released as Unearthed Arcana is also free to download, assuming your DM allows you to use it.

However, we’ve left out one thing: dice! And dice ain’t free.

Now, there are any number of free online dice rollers and free dice rolling apps. I use them myself, especially when I’m running a dragon (I’m not going to run 22d6 for dragon breath at the table). But as a player, nothing beats rolling live dice. It’s actually one of the most enjoyable parts of the game. So, keeping in mind that you can roll virtual dice for free, I feel that, for most people, the minimum spend to get into D&D is at least one set of dice. However, that’s quite a bargain.

So that covers playing the game. But surely it isn’t possible to run the game for free, right?

Actually, you can, but again, there’s a but: an even bigger one than last time. See, in some ways it’s easier to run the game than play in it, because you can ignore the rules. Pretty much every edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide has pointed out that the entire set of rules are really more like “guidelines” and that the DM should feel free to change whatever they want/need to. The DM can do this, because the DM is the referee, the storyteller, the world-builder, and the final arbiter of every conflict and dispute. The individual players can’t just rock up and play by their own rules, because that would be chaos.

This means that the limitations of the Basic Rules are less of an issue to the DM. WOTC publishes a free download of Basic Rules for DMs, including a pretty decent selection of monsters, and magic items. None of this is anywhere near as thorough as what you’ll find in the Monster Manual or the DMG, of course. But if you’re up for homebrewing your own content, you could potentially run an entire campaign on nothing more this free PDF.

And therein lies the But. Whereas, from the players’ side, the issues with playing for free are fewer options for building or customizing your character, for the would-be DM, the less you spend in cash, the more you have to spend in time and imagination. Some of it isn’t that hard. For example, the basic rules include stats for an adult red dragon. Need an adult black dragon? change the “fire” to “acid” (it’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the point). You can use the “free” monsters as models to build your own monsters, and if they’re not exactly the same as the “official” versions, well, it’s your game. Where you’ll really feel the pressure is when you have to come up with your own adventures from scratch. Of course, many of us do that anyway. But that, I think, is the irony: the more likely you are to be into generating your own homebrew D&D content, the more likely you are to be willing to fork out the cash for the Core rulebooks. This is certainly true of me. I homebrew a lot. But I also own all three rulebooks and several official adventures. Also, most people comfortable with running a homebrew game like that are probably experienced DMs already, so even if they’re saving money on 5e, they almost certainly own the books for one or more previous editions of the game.

Still, I have always wanted to point out this possibility. On a planet of over 12 billion people, there must be some first-time DMs who are willing to build their own fantasy world from scratch using nothing but the Basic Rules and their own imaginations.

So in conclusion: is it really possible to play D&D for free? The answer is yes, if you are willing to use a limited version of the game and virtual dice. And if you got a lot of imagination and confidence, you can even run the game for free.

But the vast, vast majority of us are at least going to have to $50 for the Player’s Handbook. But if all you want to do is play, you can pretty much cap your spending there.

Unless you need minis.