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Gaming on the Cheap

Gaming can be one of the least expensive hobbies you have.

And these are some of the more expensive gaming options out there.

How Low Can You Go?

How about “Free”? There are free role playing games out there. Fellow Gnome Scott Martin covered a number of these in his excellent survey of open source RPGs [3]. Even more are noted in the comments.

Many gaming systems provide a free introductory set of rules, for example Wizards of the Coast’s Quick Start [4] intro to 4E (complete with adventures), or Pinnacle’s Savage Worlds Test Drive [5]. With a bit of groundwork, these can be used to do more than just the initial adventure, but check the legality before you create a full-blown system from the bare bones of a playtest.

And then there are some inexpensive alternatives. The core rulebook for my favorite game [6] costs only $10, which includes all the mechanics needed to run any number of genres. All you need are dice and an imagination.

We gamers are famous for extensive collections of gaming aids, but they are not necessary to the game. I don’t like to admit it, but I can still game without Tact-Tiles, minis, and props, and with far fewer dice than I own.

If you’re reading this, I bet you’ve got at least one complete RPG on the shelf. If it was fun when you played it back in the day, then nothing should make it “less fun” now. Unless you’re one of those shallow “gotta have the latest” types. (Just kidding! But I’d bet that a few modern tweaks does a lot for some of those old awkward systems.)

Tips And Tricks

OK, you say; I’ve already got a game. How can I cut my expenses, and game for cheap? And why do I speak in italics? I’m not Italish…

Let’s look at some expenses for gaming, and how to cut them.

Posting this article the week before Gen Con will probably get me uninvited this year, but those tax-free weekends are almost upon us. Do you have any advice for cheap gaming? Sound off in the comments and share the, uh, wealth!

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Gaming on the Cheap"

#1 Comment By Rob Lang On August 4, 2009 @ 4:10 am

How about writing your own? I bought my first RPG in 15 years last week, since then I’ve been running my own game weekly. Lots of people write their own games and once you have the idea for it, it’s really not that hard.

#2 Comment By Bercilac On August 4, 2009 @ 4:28 am

I second Rob’s suggestion. I didn’t get to use it, but I cooked up a zombie crocodile for an adventure. I could have SWORN there was a zombie template. Now, I’m sure someone will tell me “There is, in the sourcebook entitled ‘Critters That Ain’t Dead Yet,'” but ask yourselves whether I care, whether my players would care, or whether you should care? Use your judgement, and be consistent. As long as you don’t later switch to a new set of rules, it doesn’t matter who wrote them.

Befriend teachers. They get school supplies tax-free ALL YEAR LONG.

Cook a bulk meal (spaghetti is cheap as) and get everyone to bring a few bucks. You’d spend that on eating that day anyway, so you’re actually getting cheaper chow by making a lot. Plus the GM/Host/Cook might get some leftovers. D&D Doggie Bags? Maybe not. But my gaming group never does “snacks.” We go grab a curry around the corner late in a session. A good filling meal. Of course, if we learned to cook a decent meal instead we’d cut back on the cost…

Scavenge. Any office or academic environment will have a box of print-outs people chuck. Board games are full of counters for those who don’t feel the need for super-duper miniatures. Almost any bit of trash that isn’t actively decaying may have a use some day (the obsessive-compulsive’s mantra, I admit).

Shop second-hand. Even if you can’t find old gaming manuals, as Telas points out you can find basically anything else that someone used to own. If you’re using a DIY RPG like FUDGE, a book with lots of pictures is as good as any sourcebook.

Above all, remember that this hobby is about being social and creative. Work with your mates and come up with what suits your group. You’re not responsible to anyone if it’s not cannon. You don’t have to impress anyone. Just go for it and see what happens.

#3 Comment By pseudodragon On August 4, 2009 @ 5:56 am

Rules — To begin with, I have three letters for you — SRD. Many of the D&D core rules (3.x edition) are available for free online. The same can be said for the freely downloadable RPGs that have been previously mentioned (FUDGE anyone?). Also, pay attention to the DM and RPG week celebrations during the year. You can download a truckload of rules, supplements, and adventures for free or at very reduced rates. Try out a new system, pick up some campaign material, or get some free accessories for the cost of printing.

Food — My group does a pot luck sort of thing for gaming nights or we all chip in a few bucks for cheap pizza. My wife and I host the game and usually provide chips and soda, while the other gamers bring desserts, drinks, cookies, or sometimes pick up the tab for pizza or chinese delivery. Don’t forget coupons. If you don’t have any, ask what the specials are when you call. You can always get some sort of discount.

Maps — You find plenty of maps online or as magazine inserts. There are even freeware map generators if you want to create your own custom maps.

Figures — I’ve used figures from Heroscape and HeroQuest (even a Fisher Price dragon once) for my D&D games. You can download cardboard heroes (some cardboard counters have also been included in certain gaming magazines from time to time). Otherwise, take the plastic bases from a cheap kids’ game, the ones with a little slot for a cardboard character. Then, insert an illustration cut from one of those thousands of CCG cards you have gathering dust in your closet! Instant mini-fig, and well rendered, too. This also works well for monsters or vehicles. Some of the LOTR or other fantasy themed versions of Monopoly or Risk may have handsome figures suitable for PCs or NPCs and Age of Mythology is a gold mine for monster figures.

Furniture and other dungeon dressing — Consider looting your HeroQuest game for furniture parts, figures, and tiles. Electronic Mystery Mansion has literally more than a hundred tiny metal and plastic pieces of furniture. Many other games have useful bits.

Terrain — Heroscape and HeroQuest come in handy here. Tiles from Catan or Carcassonne games are another option. Dominoes make acceptable dungeon walls. Weapons and Warriors or Crossbows and Catapults can provide siege engines and castle walls.

Dice — It’s a little harder to come up with dice other than d6’s, but you can pick up a cheap set of polyhedral dice for $5 at the local game store.

The possibilities are endless for accessorizing your roleplaying game with parts from the internet or from boardgames that can be picked up relatively cheaply at thrift stores or yard sales. Take a tip from model builders have been kit bashing for years. Pimp your RPG game with pieces from boardgames, CCGs, and the internet and save a bundle in the process.

#4 Comment By Zig On August 4, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

On the cheap side of things, my group bought enough small hexagonal tiles at the local tile store to fill a coffee can. Once you break them apart (they come adhered to sheets) you have one side that takes pencil very well. Have twenty kobolds facing the party? Just take 20 tiles and write K1, K2…K20 on ’em and you’re good to go.

Also a somewhat cheap alternative to a wipeable map grid is to set up a grid on poster paper (Staples even has ones with a grid already set up. Just use a sharpie to make them stand out) and then place it on the table and overlay with an acrylic sheet. Then go mad with erasable markers.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On August 4, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

I own several battlemats, but one of my favorites is the one I made myself. I bought two yards of vinyl from a local fabric store. 1 sharpie marker, 1 yard stick, and about an hour of work and I had a 1″ grid on the surface perfect for D&D (I prefer hexes, but when in Rome).

Total cost of the fabric? $7

It still works great, and I use wet-erase markers with it. Despite spraying water on it to clean it the lines are still sharp and easily seen.

#6 Comment By Jharviss On August 4, 2009 @ 11:25 pm

I simply want to show my appreciation for the Dr. Pepper shout-out in Texas. It’s completely accurate – my old group in Ohio couldn’t get enough Mountain Dew before a game, and now in Texas my players show up with 24 packs of Dr. Pepper.

Culture change, anyone?

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 5, 2009 @ 7:09 am

Thanks for the comments. I didn’t cover cheap battlemats because that’s probably big enough to be its own article.

[11] – I bet in Ohio they called it “pop” or “soda”. Here in Texas, it’s all “Coke”.

A: “Anyone want a Coke?”
B: “Sure.”
A: “What kind?”
B: “A Dr Pepper. Thanks.”

(Also, there’s no period in Dr Pepper.)

KOS, Seeker of Trivial Knowledge…

#8 Comment By BryanB On August 5, 2009 @ 10:24 am

I’ve always liked Texans. Anyone with taste knows that Dr Pepper is far superior to Moutain Dew. 😀

#9 Comment By John Arcadian On August 5, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

[12] – Yup, POP and SODA are two of the words used for coke here in “the heart of it all” I haven’t heard either recently though. Usually it is coke, and then the waitress tells you they only have pepsi.

#10 Comment By newbiedm On August 5, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

Did someone say cheap?

Here’s a tip for those of you who have no money to spend on miniatures, make your own!

I wrote a tutorial teaching you to make your own counters using free software:


Hope that helps the financially challenged dm’s out there 🙂

#11 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On August 6, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

My fav for d20 games — don’t even need a d20. If all you’ve got are d6s, just roll 3d6 whenever a d20 is called for. Adjust your threat ranges on the fly.

Look, it’s not EXACTLY gonna replicate the d20 experience, but to play a game on the fly with little to guide you except your imagination — you can’t go wrong.

#12 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2009-08-07 On August 7, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

[…] Gaming on the Cheap This is a post my wife needs to read! It goes to show how inexpensive gaming can really be for the hours of entertainment a group can garner from role playing with a minimal outlay of cash. I’m sure we’ve all see the “ultimate gaming table” that costs thousands of dollars. While that’s a gamer’s wet dream, it’s not necessary. As a matter of fact, there are lots of things that I spend my gaming money on that are not necessary to make the game more fun. This blog post gives you some tips and tricks to save some green. […]

#13 Comment By Zaraphina On August 21, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

about 4th ed. OMG the Minis. So many minions… I decided that Buying enough minis to cover the minions alone would cost way too much money. My solution? Make your own. I went to the dollar store and found some foam sheets, copyied and pasted some pictures of monsters in a word document, printed cut and glued them onto the foam. I even made my own set of condition tokens. If you want to get fancy by a can of spray on clear-coat, for a nice finish.