Five Ways of Getting Started in RPGs…FOR FREE!

As a Scotsman, I always have to contend with the stereotype of being tightfisted. Thankfully, this isn’t the case – in fact, if you take a look at my RPG bookshelves my wife would probably prefer if I was…

However, tight-fistedness or not aside, it doesn’t stop me from wanting to shop around for a bargain and, after another mammoth session looking through Drive Thru RPG at the various amazing products that can be had for – literally – nothing I was compelled to put this together.

RPGs have become massively popular in recent years. Indeed, if you had told teenage-me that people would tune in in their millions to watch other people playing D&D I would have laughed. And then probably asked something searingly stupid like “I’m assuming this was on Channel 4?”

Truth is, shows like Critical Role – regardless of what you think of them – have played a huge part in making the hobby of tabletop gaming slowly inch its way towards mainstream acceptance. As a result, players numbers are booming – at last count, D&D alone claimed around 40 million of them!

However, for every player out there having a great time…well…playing, there are also folks who would dearly love to get involved, but can’t – and sometimes that’s down to the perception that this wonderful hobby of ours is a bit too expensive. Take a look online for D&D books and you’ll see what I mean.

Likewise, people in the hobby seem to love flashy dice. No, I’m not sure why – I’ve got the same mismatched collection of little plastic polyhedrals that I’ve used for years – but some people really crave the truly beautiful ones crafted out of stone, wood and metal. These bad boys will cost you a pretty penny and no mistake!

Is it therefore possible to get involved in roleplaying without dropping a hefty chunky of gold (presumably stolen from a dragon’s lair)? The answer is, of course, “yes” – otherwise this would be a pretty disappointing article! Below, I’m going to list various different systems – some of which we’ve covered on our podcast – and how you can get cracking in them for nothing.

However, before we start there, I’m also going to recommend one other tool – with the caveat that “other options also exist” – and that’s the wonderful Roll20. For those of you not in the know, Roll20 is a virtual desktop that allows you to play RPGs online. If you just want to play – and I’d imagine most people starting out in the hobby want to do just that and aren’t foolish enough to want to run their own game with zero experience! – this application has everything you need…and it’s free. Actually, it doesn’t have everything. You still need someone to run the actual game, but that’s a whole topic in itself…

Once suitably armed with Roll20 (or one of its peers) here’s how you can get involved with various other systems for free.

I’ll start here, as this is probably the system that most newcomers to the hobby are first exposed to. As I mentioned above, D&D books carry a pretty heft price tag. Is it real possible to start playing D&D for free? Of course it is – after all, they want to hook you in so that you can start buying those gorgeous, expensive books… If all you want to do is play, head over to D&D Beyond – Wizards of the Coast’s site for everything D&D related – and you will be able to find a basic version of the rules and an online character creation tool. There’s also starter adventures if you want to look at how they’re structured or your GM needs something simple to take you through. Think of these as being like “tutorial levels” in a video game.

Mention “horror gaming” to any long time roleplayer, and the most famous one that will come to mind is Call of Cthulhu. First publish waaaaaay back at the dawn of the 80s (that sounds like an RPG in itself), Call of Cthulhu was a bit of a break from the usual sword and sorcery fare. Instead, it thrust the players into the shoes of investigators – normal people following clues to solve a mystery; only these mysteries were set amidst the Cthulhu mythos created by early 20th century horror writer HP Lovecraft. Despite this, the game makes it quite clear that even though the “default” setting is 1920s New England with the Cthulhu mythos festering and bubbling behind the scenes, Call of Cthulhu can be set in any time or place – Cthulhu and his chums are essentially ageless after all. In addition, if you fancy more traditional horror fare – with vampires, werewolves and ghosts, that’s possible too. With very high levels of lethality, and much more focus on investigation than combat, Call of Cthulhu is a refreshing change of pace for players who don’t want another romp down a dungeon. I’m sure the orcs would be glad of the break too – it’ll give them time to clear the place up. The most recent version – 7th – has a free quick start here. It’ll also tell you how to pronounce “Cthulhu” (and various other weird and wonderful names too).

Without going into a ton of RPG archaeology here, when Wizards of the Coast bought TSR (the original makers of Dungeons and Dragons) they released an Open Game license that essentially allowed for the creation of “retro clones” of previous versions. Yes, it’s more complicated than that of course, but the end result is that there are a lot of versions of earlier editions of “the worlds most famous roleplaying game” out there. A personal favourite of mine is Old School Essentials by Necrotic Gnome. I did a review in an earlier episode of the podcast, and am guilty of periodically raving about it. OSE (as it is known to its friends) allows players to take part in adventures that have the mood and feel of those around at the birth of the hobby back in the 70s. It’s slick, it’s simple and it’s a lot of fun. While I can’t recommend the books more highly – seriously, they’re some of the best laid out products I’ve ever seen – Necrotic Gnome have their basic rules available for free here. Everything you need to get started in minutes!

Speaking of games close to my heart, next up on our list is SLA Industries by Nightfall Games. If you want the full scoop on SLA, check out our episode on the subject. For those of you happy with the tl;DR version, SLA (pronounced “slay”) has a futuristic setting; a nightmare universe ruled over by one omnipotent mega-corporation that controls everything. As part of this control, they employ operatives to ensure that everything goes according to their plan. Players take on the role of SLA ops, and game sessions see them investigating the various horrors and monstrosities that inhabit this awful setting. This is a rich and dark universe, and therefore might not be for every newcomer, but the quick start available here is the ideal introduction to the World of Progress. Watch your step in the sewers, rookie…

Vampire was White Wolf Game Studio’s flagship product for all of the 90s and the first part of the 21st century…

…then they killed it, and released Vampire: the Requiem in its place…

…then they released Vampire: the Masquerade 20th anniversary edition in 2011 to bring the old setting back and it ran alongside Requiem as a separate game…

…then a new 5th edition was released in 2018 by Modiphius that updated the setting and the rules…

…but this new edition is currently available on Renegade Games Studio’s website…

If you want more about the game’s history, we have an episode about it (of course we do).

Vampire has a lot of lore – some would say an overabundance – but it is an extremely compelling premise. Rather than hunting or battling the monsters, you are the monster; a creature of the night, with alien hungers, trying to remain unseen by the humans whom you depend upon for sustenance.

With its unique, dark setting, Vampire lets you tell a ton of exciting and compelling types of stories, from the political machinations of vampires, to battles between undead monsters, to extremely introspective tales of personal horror.

There’s a reason Masquerade kept rising from the grave (pun very much intended) and it’s because of the setting.

If you’d like to get started with Vampire you can find the classic rules here or 5th edition here. I’m intentionally not including Requiem here as I, personally, don’t find the setting as compelling as the others and therefore won’t be recommending it.

So there you have it, five ways to get started for free in the wonderful world of tabletop RPGs. What are you waiting for? Also, if you’re a long time rolplayer, what quick starts would you recommend?

All images belong to the original copywrite holders. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.

1 Comment

    1. Yeah – that’s why I wanted to include other options. I’m conscious that EVERYONE has heard of D&D and, due to the success of certain streaming shows, new comers can sometimes have the perception that the game has to be played in a certain way. Therefore, alternatives are good!

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