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the time a much smaller company than Wizards of the Coast), and recreated Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, which had recently been replaced by Fourth Edition.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).]

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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.