I feel like every few days I’m seeing a new RPG blog post that’s some variation of “How to Play D&D on a Budget”. I think this is the wrong approach, so here goes.
Frankly, the sentiment seems silly at this point in D&D’s development: almost like “How to Build Your Own Large Hadron Collider on a Budget”. D&D has never had a reputation for being inexpensive, but Fifth Edition is something else entirely (the cost of the three core rule books alone totals $150).
Factor in accessories and peripherals (mapping tools, official adventures, the indispensable hand-cut solid wood dice tower, essential artisanal hand-crafted dice bag, crucially important custom character miniature, and of course the must-have set of wooden beer mugs for period authenticity) and you sure are spending a lot of money to take your imagination for a walk.
So, if for no other reason than the prevalence of the belief that $150+ “isn’t a lot of money”, I offer my own advice on how to play D&D (5e) on a budget:
Instead, play any of the dozens of great free-or-low-cost alternatives: B/X Essentials is a D&D retro-clone, and is available in both free and paid editions. I’ve run several games using this system, it’s good fun. Similarly, Swords & Wizardry, another OSR heavyweight, offers the White Box Omnibus as a pay-what-you-want PDF download. If those two don’t scratch your itch, there’s always this: a collection of open license RPG systems that are free to use and reuse. This includes well-known systems like the d20 SRD, OpenD6, Fate, FUDGE, and more (and yes, you’ll find yours truly’s modest contribution listed there as well). All of these games have the advantage of being widely-used, community-supported, and free. And with all the money you’ve saved, you can even toss the creators a few bucks.
Finally, if you’re feeling adventurous (and generous), check out some real off-the-beaten-path work like Shitlord: The Triggering, a highly banned, blacklisted, and blighted OSR retro-clone and What Happened at Wyvern Rock?, a zine-based RPG supplement introducing high strangeness to high fantasy that is actively being Kickstarter’d now.