V.Hobbs asks about gaming on a budget in the suggestion pot.
Because I have little money to spend on all of the gaming materials that I wish that I could, and so I always end up looking at my friends’ impressive collections and wondering how they do it.
How do you accumulate a large collection? There are several ways to do it– I’ll list a few below. Let’s see if anyone else contributes more in comments.
How to Build a Collection
Over time. I have a lot of roleplaying books, and if you include the ones I purchased but have since sold or given away, I probably have 20 lineal feet of books. It sounds impressive… but it’s actually a relatively slow acquisition that began 25 years ago. A book or two a couple of times a year really adds up if you keep at the same hobby for a long time.
Help gift givers. Less than half of my books were purchased by me. One thing that works very well is giving your family and friends very specific “hints” or a list. I’ve found that a little reconnaissance helps– if you want a cool indie title, send your gift giver a note about how cool X is– and include a link directly to the purchase page. If you’re interested in something for a big system (White Wolf or 4e) and the gift giver lives in your town, see if it’s in a bookstore that they’ll already know. If it’s there, let them know what section it can be found in. If it’s not there, let them know it’s hard to find– “hey, this book is cool but hard to find– the only place in town that would carry it is Local Game Store”. Check to make sure that the game store has easily googled directions, or provide an address.
Buy on sale.: Some books I picked up on a whim because they were marked way down. At one time, I thought I was going to design a game system (I’ve since come to my senses), and figured that lots of research material would be a good thing. Yard sales are great for picking up used books cheap. Game stores with a used or consignment section can be another good source. Some stores deeply discount supplements for old editions; if you want lots of inexpensive material and are willing to do some work updating stats, you can get a lot of good ideas cheap.
Friends who quit gaming. An extreme version of the “sale” idea is being friends with someone who cuts back or gives up gaming. If parents or a smaller apartment are pushing the purge, they might just want you to store the books. Often you’ll get stuff for free, just so they can be reclaim the space.
Hidden Weaknesses of Impressive Collections
Obsolescence. Many of the books in my collection are for systems and supplements that I enjoyed once upon a time, but will probably never get back to. While occasionally good as idea mines, these books are mostly wasted space. Many of my books in this category are in cardboard boxes (or have been given away), but many gamers have space enough to display them all. How much of the collections you envy aren’t being used any longer?
Many are reading books, not gaming books. Many games, like Legend of the Five Rings and White Wolf, provide a lot of interesting detail in their worlds to read about. Still, if you’re only reading them as entertainment, you might as well classify them as strangely shaped novels and not count them as useful parts of the collection. The same goes for those games you like to read, but never run or play in.
What book is that in? Great ideas can really be annoying when you have no idea where the information is when you need to reference it. Are the rules for crafting masterwork items quickly in the PHB, DMG, Complete Adventurer, Complete Scoundrel, or the Rules Compendium? Searching through five books isn’t much fun, when a quick house rule works just as well for something that comes up so rarely.
Immediate Solutions for Gaming on the Cheap
Visit the library. When I was a kid, the local libraries didn’t carry any RPG books. Now they’re an extension of my book shelf. A lot of books are great for one read– enough to get the ideas in your head. If you’re looking for supplements, check it out from the library first and make sure it’s worth your limited funds.
My virtual bookshelf is huge! If you want to explore cool ideas for free, John Kim’s free RPG page  organizes over 500 free RPGs. How much shelf would that take up? This includes great systems, like FUDGE, FATE, Risus, Wushu Light, plus many more.
Non-game book references. Good history books, atlases, and how things work books can be great resources at normal book prices. If you want a history of South America, you could buy GURPS Aztlan… or you can buy a couple of novels and casual history paperbacks for the same price. Combine this with your library for free research on anything.
Build your own. If you have time but not money, you can build something custom for your group. Unlike gramma’s knitted scarves, players really do appreciate the home made touch. Few people would rather play in a prebuilt module– a GM’s ongoing campaign is a labor of love. Props  can add a lot to the experience very inexpensively.
Buy one book systems or PDFs. If everything you need is in one book, you don’t have to work about spending month after month on the same game. PDFs are usually much cheaper than the printed book, since there’s no printing cost in the price. If you’re just going to print it yourself, make sure that you won’t wind up paying more after kinkos gets its cut– I find PDFs useful mostly when I’m not going to use the book at the table. (If you use a laptop at the gaming table , PDFs are an even better option.)
What other advice do you have for stretching your gaming dollar? Do you have to leave breadcrumbs for the gift givers in your life, or do they already know the way to the your local game store?