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GMing on the Cheap

Let’s say upfront one thing we lifers tend to take for granted: TTRPGs can be an expensive hobby, especially if you prefer (or need) printed editions of materials. To be fair, a well-made book can last for years or even decades, and the costs can be spread across numerous purchases. But, as is often described via boots and toasters [find appropriate link or alternate metaphor], it doesn’t matter how much one saves over the long term if you can’t afford the initial investment… not to mention that beginners are often only aware of the most prominent (and, thus, expensive) RPGs on the market. While old-timers like us know well how to navigate and/or mitigate costs when it comes to our TTRPG purchases, it can seem like a wild, pricey world out there for newbies. So this week, we thought we’d talk about the different ways to battle fiduciary gatekeeping, whether it be for yourself, or any newcomers you know looking to break into the hobby. - B

B: If there's a standard baseline form for tabletop roleplaying games, it's that of the humble book - physical or electronic, paperback or hardcover, a simple pamphlet or a massive tome that makes a pretty good melee weapon in its own right, books are the way most RPGs are bought, sold, and shared. They're also, traditionally, the first pricing hurdle encounter by potential players and (particularly) perspective gamemasters. These books have been pricey throughout the history of the hobby, and have only commanded heftier and heftier costs over the years. Many of us, as young gamers, were in awe of anyone who had a library of TTRPG books - such splendor was so far beyond our meager adolescent means, they may as well have been actual grimoires and ancient tomes, hoarded wealth beyond measure.

Basic profit motive aside, there are reasons the books made for high-profile games are so expensive. One is durability: these are books that are intended to be carried around and consulted frequently. There's even a psychological element to a well-made reference book: you're going to be spending a lot of time with this, and it will make a loyal and trustworthy companion. Not every game gets this kind of treatment, of course, and rougher, less-durable craftsmanship can be one of the unforseen downsides of going with a less-established title. On the other hand, a well-made book is more likely to arrive on the secondhand market intact, which is a boon for anyone trying to build out their initial library. Which also means that, if you're looking for a used copy of something that wasn't particularly well-made to begin with, you'll find yourself sacrificing time, quality, or money, making a choice between scouring stores and online sales for an affordable copy that's held up, paying a premium for something in better condition, or having to settle for ripped covers, pages trying to make an escape, and a complicated relationship with the previous owner(s) who left disagreeable notes in the margins.

These factors aren't always readily apparent - one thing that inspired this post was my recent search to replace the copy of Ars Magica (Third Edition, originally published by White Wolf) that's disappeared into a bin somewhere in my parents' basement. Nearly every copy I saw on eBay, regardless of how much the seller wanted, had pages falling out - it seems White Wolf's binding glue wasn't standing up to the test of time (highly ironic for the company that published the definitive games for playing as immortal beings, come to think of it). I eventually settled for a cheap one and placed a bid... only to be sniped and outbid in the last few seconds by a mere 30 cents. eBay helpfully suggested another auction, though, and somehow, remarkably, all the pages were still attached, despite a similar asking price! I jumped on it, and it was only once I had the book in my hand that I realized the difference: this was the reprint by Wizards of the Coast, which is why I hadn't seen it in my original searches. The difference between this and a genuine White Wolf edition was only a couple years (if that), but the glue WotC used proved to be of higher quality... not that anyone knew at the time, I suspect. Had I known this going in, I would have started off looking for a WotC edition. Prepwork like that falls into the first part of the time/quality/cost continuum. (While luck was involved in my case, we shouldn't plan around that... we're tabletop gamers, not gamblers.)

When it comes to digital editions, pricing is its own can of worms that no one has ever been able to properly open, with any number of models out there from charging the same price as the physical edition to the sliding scale or a large webstore like DriveThruRPG to the "Pay What You Want" approach found in places like, or the big bundles found on Humble Bundle and Bundle of Holding (and, again, for that matter). As such, determining cost vs. value with digital books is a subject worthy of its own post (or graduate thesis), but I'll simply say here that it's not necessarily a panacea for the cost-conscious GM. Accessing an ebook at the table (or on the train, or anywhere else, really) requires a device that not everyone can procure, and some of simply find information easier to retain from the printed page than from the screen. These ease at getting an ebook on the market can be something of a mixed blessing as well: while there's a bunch of weird and wonderful stuff available online now that no traditional publisher would have touched, there can also be less quality control or editorial oversight. (As the "owner" of over a thousand indie RPGs on thanks to those bundles, I have to admit that many are closer to thought exercises or improv prompts than actual playable RPGs.) You also don't get the bet-hedging that physical publishers often added through quality layouts and art. To go back to Ars Magica, the reason I went looking for a physical copy (beyond the aforementioned preference for print when it comes to focus and retaining information) was that the digital copy I have of the newer fifth edition simply doesn't look as good as the old White Wolf book I had. It's fine as an indie RPG, but White Wolf (bearing in mind that this was the height of the 90s RPG bubble, something they greatly contributed to with its endless supply of splatbooks) put out something truly gorgeous, with excellent art in a variety of styles and excellent layout and this was a huge part of the "vibe" I associate with the game. Is it cynical to say that print books often looked good as a way to entice buyers to shell out for a more expensive product? Sure, but... they still looked good, and there was money behind it to compensate the large number of artists and editors involved.

But this itself is something that seems to be changing as books are put out by an ever-dwindling number of conglomerates, who have so many active revenue streams there's no incentive for any one of them to produce decent products. In an era of frequently-stolen art (whether through AI or by low-bidder artists), the tables may be completely turned, and one is more likely to get a product made by well-compensated artists, writer, and editors by going the indie (and thus, primarily, digital) route. Which brings me to my final point: when choosing a game to invest in, it might be helpful to look beyond (no pun intended) the most familiar, biggest names out there - particularly when those names belong to toy companies fully engaged in the money gouging of late-stage capitalism. The hobby was created and built by people who had an incentive to put out the best games the could... because that was the creator's livelihood. That's not a thing when it comes to multinational conglomerates, but it can be with smaller creators trying to make games they can be proud of. Sometimes, you really are just paying for a name... and if that's the game you want, acquiring it second-hand becomes not only a frugal approach, but a moral one as well.

A: Rule books, their supplements, and published adventures aren’t the only costs associated with tabletop gaming, either. There are plenty of other gaming accessories that can nickel and dime you into having an even more expensive hobby than you'd originally planned for. While they aren't an element in every TTRPG, maps are something that often enhance the game experience. They’ve also come a long way from some simple graph paper and pencils: maps, be they physical or digital, have become very fancy, beautiful, and expensive items. To top that off, you’ll likely find you aren't going to reuse a single map all that often unless it's for a generic battle in the woods or spaceship corridor. While one can find may digital resources for free, it feels wrong not to reward creators' efforts, and free physical maps are few and far between. You might also pay to download a copy of your own map creation tool, which is one way you could keep costs down overall. It can be hard to remember, though, that graph paper and pencil (or even a simple white board and marker) is still a relatively cheap and effective alternative. You can also rely on the "theater of the mind," but that brings its own challenges.

If you do go with full visual maps, though, that brings its own set of additional expenses. You’ll likely want representations for terrain and characters to go with it. While you can purchase your own miniatures and any related painting equipment, this is yet another expensive and time-consuming hobby. You could, of course, buy both terrain and miniatures pre-painted, but also this brings an added expense. Once again, though, you could resort to digital terrain/tokens or papercraft designs. You might also use miniatures you have from board games or other hobbies such as Lego (though those have become expensive as well) But don’t count out your own creativity! That bag of Doritos can easily become a hill or mountain on your game board. That bottle of Mountain Dew? A fine tower... if a bit green. Those herb and spice shakers from the rack or cabinet become your monsters. Any old penny, button, or pocket fluff can substitute in for characters.

One thing that's harder to substitute for are randomizers. Typically, these are going to be dice... oh how we love our dice. (It would be pretty shocking for Never Say Dice to not like dice.) While we’d absolutely encourage you to purchase from our dice affiliate with our link to Dice Envy, we fully understand how beautiful (but expensive) dice have become. Even digital skins for dice have become a market on various gaming platforms. While players can certainly be a superstitious lot, there's no reason a table can’t share one communal set of basic dice - even pulling them from other tabletop games. Be wary of different designs, though. You wouldn’t want to substitute a Magic the Gathering HP tracker for your D20. It's important to note that there are also plenty of free digital solutions to rolling, even going so far as to just use for your number generation needs.

If you do go with physical dice, be wary of their accoutrements as well: Dice towers and trays for keeping everyone honest and your dice from flying off the table. Fancy boxes, bags, sleeves or cases. While we’d absolutely recommend purchases from our friends at LittlEmpire (and I do still love the  dice tower I got from them), we understand this is yet another expense. These items have all become fancier and more expensive as the hobby has seen a golden age over the last several years. The DIY route is one cost-effective way to go. A few alterations, and that cereal box can become a fine dice tray. A bit of sewing can turn an old scrap t-shirt into a new dice bag. Or go the quick route and just throw them in a Ziploc bag. You don’t need anything fancy to keep your dice together if you’re trying to save a bit of coin.

Speaking of fancy, we haven’t even begun to delve into the different things you can sink some money on to enhance the in-person game experience. Themed potion drinks. Very fancy (and expensive) tables designed specifically for tabletop games. Candles for scent effects. Collections of music and sound effect apps. While you probably want the very best for yourself and your friends, plan your purchases out well in advance and have a good think on them. While all of these things could be fun, not even Never Say Dice has them all. It's likely your friends are going to be happy enough gathering together to see each other and tell a story. After all, that's what TTRPGs are about. 

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