Monday, August 24, 2020

How to Play Dungeons and Dragons with Zero Cost

Note: This Article is a little bit of a departure from my usual fare: it starts off assuming you are coming back to the hobby after quite a few years, or are absolutely new. Most of my articles are aimed at people already playing these games. I am hoping that it will help open doors into Old School Renaissance gaming for more people.

Dungeons & Dragons is, to my mind, one of the most enjoyable hobbies in the world. And it is one that is better for everyone who comes to the table with an open mind and an active imagination. Right now it is more popular than it has ever been. The 5th edition of D&D is a wild success. The current Player's Handbook has outsold almost every other D&D book combined in the 40 years before.

Cover to the D&D5e Player's Handbook;
©2014, Wizards of the Coast
I like the 5th edition just fine, but there is a pretty steep price of entry. A set of Dice and the Player's Handbook  will run about $80. And if you are buying the Monster Manual and the Dungeon Master's Guide to get the full toolkit, getting the latest edition to play with the family will run you $200... or more if you are buying some pre-published adventures.

But it does nit have to be this expensive: If you want to dip your toes in, there is an excellent free demo and an affordable Starter Set.

The free Basic Rules are  a fairly self-contained game, although, I find that players will quickly outgrow them. They can also get more using the openly available 5th edition System Reference Document, which includes many more of the rules from expansions, although it is tedious to navigate. The books mostly provide you with a clear and easy-to-use way to access 5 the game.

5th edition is not the only version of Dungeons and Dragons available, either!

If you want to try your hand at D&D, or you are coming back into the hobby after years away, almost all of the older editions are available for free if you know where to look, thanks to something called the Open Game License and a movement that came out of it called the Old School Renaissance.

What is the Open Game License?

Cover to the D&D3e Player's Handbook;
©1999, Wizards of the Coast
The Open Game License or OGL was released when Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition was released in 2000. It opened the rules of D&D3e to the public to use for anyone wishing to create content.

The conditions of the OGL are extremely straightforward. You may write your own game, rules, and adventures that will work with D&D3e with only a few conditions. Mostly,  you are required to include a copy of the license in your document, and you are not to claim it is a "Dungeons & Dragons" product, nor are you to use the names of certain places, characters, and particular creatures that are considered signature IP to Dungeons & Dragons (called "product identity"). There are also rules about including excessive sexuality or describing the leveling up process in some versions of the license.

Wizards of the Coast believed that the OGL could usher in a renaissance for table top games by opening up a free, universal game system for anyone to use, and at the same time make Dungeons & Dragons the heart of the TTRPG hobby again. And they were not wrong; for awhile D&D3e was the center of the role-playing game world, with hundreds of small companies and indie publishers building on the D&D3e skeleton.

What is the Old-School Renaissance?

Cover to OSRIC 2nd Ed.,
by Hugh Vogt; ©2008, Hugh Vogt
From the time Open Game License was released until about 2007, the role-playing game  hobby had an explosion of creativity. Adventures and content for D&D3e, as well as new games built on its engine proliferated. But, the limitations of the system were becoming very apparent to many players. D&D3e's engine was slow and clunky in play. It rewarded players that mastered rules, and punished players who weren't interested in perfecting builds. There was less sense of risk and reward for facing danger in the game. There was a strong movement towards going back to earlier editions of the game either for inspiration, or as an alternative to playing "modern role playing games." This movement called itself the Old-School Renaissance.

In 2006 Matt Finch published OSRIC as a test of how far one could go with the OGL. OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation) was a complete collection of the rules for the 1978 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. While not a derivative of third edition, the language of the OGL suggested a reproduction of the rules for an older version of D&D was permitted. When Wizards of the Coast chose not to challenge it, it created a legal safe harbour for anyone who wanted to create and share a clone an older edition of D&D or a game based on it.

This created an explosion of other passionate developers who created either extremely faithful, or slightly modernized "retroclones" of older editions of D&D. And like OSRIC almost all of these retroclones are available online for free.

But, Isn't a New Edition Better?

One of the assumptions people tend to make about role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons is that newer editions are improvements on older editions. This is often not the case. In D&D there have actually been about 18 versions of the game (not all were numbered). Often, the new editions or versions are released as a marketing strategy. Every edition between the original 1974 D&D and AD&D2e which ran until 1999 were basically the same set of rules with some additions or subtractions. You could grab an adventure written for the Holmes version of Basic D&D and play it in AD&D2e without any difficulty. 3rd edition was the first to buck this trend by not being fully backwards compatible with earlier editions.

Whether you will enjoy a modern D&D game like 5th edition, or going back to the early rulesets is mostly a matter of what you want in a row Dungeons & Dragons experience. Because I have limited time as a father of small children , I have moved to retroclones: they play the faster and are easier to prepare for.

If you want to pick up Dungeons and Dragons, finding the right retroclone might be the perfect option for you. Especially as many of them have eliminated or streamlined the rules that give the older editions a reputation as hard to learn.

The Retroclone Round-Up

There are tons of freely available Dungeons and Dragons retrocolones, and games that have evolved from retroclones out there to explore. It would be impossible to cover them all. But I will cover some of the most popular free and nearly free options to help you find what is right for you.

OSRIC - OSRIC from Matt Finch and Stuart Marshall is the granddaddy of the D&D retroclones. It is a faithful recreation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D), the version of the game released in 1978. AD&D added a lot of optional rules to D&D, including characters up to 20th level, separate race and class choices for characters, and much more complex rules for initiative. It also included a range of optional rules to handle things common to D&D, like characters drinking too much or gambling. OSRIC takes the meat of AD&D, while leaving a handful of the optional rules by the wayside. It's not the best organized game ever, and has added none of the modern conveniences. On the other hand, you can take any D&D product made between 1974 and 1999 and run it instantly without any fuss. It is also a good go-to for OSR game designers for the same reason. Get OSRIC here.

Labyrinth Lord - Labyrinth Lord from Goblinoid Games came out almost at the same time as OSRIC. It is a clone of the Basic and Expert Dungeons and dragons (BD&D or B/X) BD&D was created in 1979 as a way to make a simpler, more accessible form of Dungeons and Dragons for younger players. It is simpler than AD&D, with fewer character options. Characters only advance 14 levels, and magic, monsters, and treasure are pared down to lower-powered play. Like OSRIC, it is a pretty faithful copy of the version it is copying... no modern conveniences here. The free version of Labyrinth Lord has no art in the manual. Labyrinth Lord is available here.They also have an Advanced Edition that adds back in many of the options from AD&D.

Basic Fantasy Role Playing Game - Was released just after Labyrinth Lord, and the two were developed in parallel. Unlike Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy is an attempt to make a hybrid of the D&D3e engine and the Basic, Expert, Companion, and Master rules sets that were all part of the Basic D&D line. (BD&D or BECMI). Basic Fantasy follows a lot of BD&D's conventions, but it uses modern conveniences like a 20-level limit (rather than the BECMI 36), simplified math for attacking and defending characters, and a pound-per-item weight scale... all of which make the game much easier to learn. Basic Fantasy has a huge community that produces a lot of free expansions and adventures. You can download Basic Fantasy here, or you can buy a hard-copy of the game from amazon sold at cost (around $5 USD).

Swords and Wizardry - Swords and Wizardry from Frog God Games reproduces the original Dungeons and Dragons game from 1974. This version of the game uses slightly different dice and mechanics than the later Basic and Advanced lines did. It is as simple as D&D gets, but lacks many of the options that later editions of the game had to offer. It does organize the rules in a much easier to read package. Get Swords and Wizardry here.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess - Lamentations of the Flame Princess from the company of the same name is a dark, gritty re-imagining of BD&D. It trades out some of the more obnoxious rules from BD&D for modern replacements that are easier to learn, such as replacing the Thief with a simpler and more customizable "Specialist." What really sets LotFP apart is its quality and its aesthetic. Books written for LotFP are usually premium books with top-notch art and design and innovative play ideas. They are also designed to make things strange and

exciting even for low-level characters. Adventures for Lamentations are also often bleak, full of death metal influences, body-horror, dark sexual themes, and Lovecraftian nightmares. It is also very well-organized and easy to read. A free version of LotFP, without art, is available here.

For Gold and Glory - For Gold and Glory by God Emperor Games is a faithful re-creation of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Second Edition (AD&D2e). There are not many clones of AD&D2e, despite it being the longest-running edition of Dungeons and Dragons; mostly because it offered very little new to the D&D franchise. AD&D2e was Bowlderized of controversial art and themes to make it family friendly, included a Bard Character, and a modified system for initiative and leveling up. For those who preferred those minor changes, however, For Gold and Glory is a faithful re-creation. Download it here.

Old School Essentials - Old School Essentials by Necrotic Gnome is another B/X clone like Labyrinth Lord and LotFP. What sets it aside is organization. OSE has applied information science and the best practices in book design to make a game that is easy to read, understand, and reference. OSE is currently the gold standard for retroclones. There is a free version of the rules that is pared down to include only human characters, the three lowest levels of spells, and no monsters.

This is far from an exhaustive list of freely available D&D clones. There are many others that are designed for particular kinds of play or genres of stories. I may do another roundup in the future of a few of those.

What About Dice?

So, you've grabbed a retroclone and have some scratch paper of an open file for taking notes, and it has cost you nothing. What about dice? They can be expensive!

True, but you hardly need them. Go type Roll 1d20 into a Google Search in your web browser. Google has a secret Dungeons and Dragons dice rolling app built into the search engine. 

If you want something more substantial, there are numerous free dice rolling apps for a smartphone. I personally recommend Purple Sorcerer's Crawler's Companion app. It is designed specifically for Dungeon Crawl Classics, (which is a very good retroclone that is, sadly, not free,) but the dice roller part itself is just that: a very stylish dice rolling program good for any game.

Special Thanks 

This article is much richer thanks to the information provided to me by Gregg Lauer. Thank you, Gregg!

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