There's a myth that Dungeons and Dragons has to be an expensive hobby, and it's easy to see why. Step into a game store that carries D&D products, and you'll see not only myriad books but also miniatures, spell cards and costly sets of dice. Take a look at the price tag on one of those books and, if you don't have much room in your budget for hobbies, you're likely to have a few palpitations. Upwards of £25 (or $25 if you're a Gith Yankee) for just one book probably seems completely crazy, even if these are much larger than your standard fiction paperbacks.
If you've seen people streaming D&D, watched a few character creation videos or read a few articles already, you're probably aware that quite a few payers take content from more than one of these books, too. Those figures add up really quickly, and soon you're in the territory of needing a birthday or saving up for multiple months to be able to afford everything you need.
The thing is, it's not immediately obvious that if you want to play, you can just play. If you're reading this article, you have access to the internet, and that's all you need. “Is he advocating piracy?” I hear you ask. Nuh-uh. You can get a campaign cooking right now without having to find some dodgy download or other, and there's plenty of information for a DM and a party of players that will allow all of you to enjoy a game without a big financial commitment. Or any financial commitment at all.
So how is it done? There are two documents that have been released by Wizards of the Coast that are available from their own website and that will allow you free and immediate access to the game.
The Basic Rules
This is it – everything you need to play. Once you have this in your hands, you have content that will allow you and some friends to run a campaign without ever touching another piece of D&D literature. This pdf guides you through creating characters (character sheets are included), interacting with NPCs, fighting monsters, levelling and gearing up and casting spells. It has monster stat blocks and information for DMs on how to build encounters. There's even a short section that includes magic items so a free-playing party can still get their hands on the phat loot that they would expect after an uphill battle with an adult red dragon. You can download the Basic Rules document here.
Wizards' rationale for just giving you a way to play their game without paying them so much as the dirt from under your fingernails? They believe D&D should be in the hands of as many people as possible. To them I say, “well played,” because effectively this is the best possible version of “try before you buy” that anyone could ever drop into a market. Why would someone who is completely new to this kind of thing want to fork out for books that they risk using just once? (We all know that they're more than likely to really enjoy themselves, but we've all been on that precipice, wondering if we should commit funds to something new!) Wizards' logic is they shouldn't have to worry about that – they should try it for free, really enjoy themselves and then buy into the hobby confident that they're not going to regret it!
Is this the full game?
Er, no. That would be a bit mad. In fact, the term “Basic” rules is quite fitting and appropriate, because it only gives you the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard to play with, and only one sub-class of each of those to boot. Your choice of races and subraces is also limited, as well as the selection of spells, monsters and magic items. With all of that said, this reduced selection does nothing whatsoever to limit your ability to play – even with less choice, you can still enjoy the game. However, if you want more choice then it's yours, and you still don't have to pay...
System Reference Document (SRD)
Also known as the SRD, the System Reference Document for D&D is also available to download for free, here, on the Wizards of the Coast website. This exists as a vehicle for creators to develop 3rd party content for D&D using the Open Game Licence, and so there is a wider variety of races and classes for you to choose from, a large percentage of the spells in the game, more information on magic items and an expanded monster list. Between this and the Basic Rules, you have a watered down version of the Player's Handbook – all of the rules you need to play the game as one of the 12 original classes. You're still limited to one subclass per class but, believe it or not, there is a way of adding much more variety to your character creation...
If you're OK with using play test material that isn't 100% finalised for use in the game yet and may be a little unbalanced, Wizards of the Coast have a wonderful tradition of releasing new content and new ideas in beta form. The community can then try this content and feed back before Wizards make a final decision on how to include them (tweaked or not) in their official merch. Mostly, this comes in the form of subclasses, but there are a couple of full classes in there, as well as some races and other rules. This is content that comes out multiple times over the course of a year, and archived material is still available, whether it was or was not published. Pretty much all of it is compatible with the Basic Rules, so it's always worth a look – just head here and have a browse!
Elemental Evil Player's Companion
There is one more free offering that was released alongside the Princes of the Apocalypse campaign book, and that's the Elemental Evil Player's Companion. In it, you'll find three full races (Goliath, Aarakocra and Genasi), a new subrace for the gnomes (Svirfneblin, for those brave enough to try pronouncing it), and some extra spells. For those of you who were hoping not to have to splash the cash to make a character whose mantra is “and also ale” (if you catch my drift)... you're welcome. Download it here.
This is all great, but what about dice?
Fortunately, it's easy to stumble over dice roller apps these days that you don't have to pay for. Alternatively, if you're in possession of a vaguely modern mobile phone, they often come with the capability to generate random numbers within a certain set of constraints (for example say... 1 and 20...)
And just for added convenience...
Rather than having to juggle between your free pdfs when you're creating a character, you can always hop on over to D&D Beyond and use their free character builder – you'll find that all of the free content mentioned above is available from the Basic Rules, SRD, Elemental Evil Player's Companion and Unearthed Arcana (although any of these play test options that have been published will not be available for free on the site).
So is it worth it to play for free?
Well... there's a reason why most people don't. If you've found your way into D&D by watching streams and you want to replicate a cool Rogue Assassin, or a Trickery Domain Cleric, or if you've heard stories of “taking a dip” (multiclassing) into Fighter to pick up Action Surge, then you're going to need to stump up for the Player's Handbook. Maybe you don't have time to sit and write an epic adventure, creating all of the encounters with monsters and NPCs along the way, in which case you might find you'd be best off forking out for one of the pre-printed campaign books, like Descent Into Avernus. Maybe you do have a little bit of spare cash that you're prepared to invest, and you like the idea of getting some handy reference books and cards with some dice thrown into the bargain? If so, it may be time to go shopping for an Essentials Kit.
There's no denying that the more you're willing to spend, the more options you can get from the game, but the point is that you don't have to buy everything all in one go. 5th Edition is wildly popular and seems set to continue for quite some time (if it ain't broke, don't fix it is hopefully the way the powers that be are looking a things) so you can always start with a Player's Handbook or Starter Kit and branch out from there. The game has been designed to let you do that at your own pace without having to miss out on playing at all just because you can't afford to get 3 or 4 hardback books all at the same time!
So, if you were thinking about jumping into the world of Dungeons and Dragons then why not just have at it? Starting with the free content is a great way to get your head around the basic rules before adding on any of the fancier stuff, and you never know which of your friends might be willing to join you on your journey once they know their coin purses can remain safely fastened and tied to their belts!