RPGs are such a longtime hobby of mine, that I made a blog about it. I’ve run games with a variety of investment levels over the years, and wanted to highlight a couple of price points you can hit to get the best bang for your buck.
Let’s start with free. It’s the most appealing price point, and one of the main reasons most folks pick up RPGs as a hobby. For your group to start for free it takes a little leg work.
Rules: I recommend sticking to a fantasy RPG. Probably one under an Open Game License, like 3.5, Pathfinder, or 5e. Minimal googling will get you the bulk of the rules for play legally. I like this site personally.
Maps and Tokens: Lots of groups use a concept called “Theater of the Mind” but RPGs from the dawn of the industry generally work better with some visual elements. ToTM is certainly free, but not your only option at the free tier. I’ve used pencil and lined paper to draw maps with a lot of erasing. In college we had a lounge with a whiteboard, and we would use that to show positioning. You can even go so far as to use some stones on the floor. “I’m the blackish stone, and you’re the one that’s not quite an arrow head. The bottle caps are the enemies”. Assuming you have access to a computer (to read this blog), you can also make use of digital whiteboards such as awwapp , or the big step people are wondering why I didn’t mention. Roll20. Roll20 has a free tier and allows you to import images for use as a battlemap and tokens. It also integrates with a lot of Open Game License games for rules. If you don’t mind having a computer at the table, this is real nice. Or at least, beats stacks of rocks on the floor.
Dice: Most roleplaying games use some form of dice. You can use digital die roller apps that are all over the internet, but if you don’t like the idea of computers at the table, all die really do in an RPG is serve as a random number generator. you can use anything to achieve the same effect. Random numbers in a pile on the floor face down, or a spinner made from a paperclip and scraps of paper.
Libraries: Libraries deserve special mention here, because they will often have RPG books for check out, allowing you to borrow the books for your game and return when done. I’ve even seen a few go so far as lending dice and other tools.
If you’ve played some games and found the hobby is for you, this is a good amount to dip your toes.
Rules: For rules, you are probably still looking at an Open Game System, since most RPG books go for about $50 a piece. If you like something out of the box though, you can dabble in more obscure, niche, or rules lite games, which will usually sell a complete RPG for around $20. Older editions of popular games are tempting, but RPGs have a collectors market, and while many core books drop in price to near free, others increase in value. WoTC sells essentials kits, but they aren’t really worth it if you don’t have at least one player who owns the full rules. So someone has to drop money, and if they do, grab one of these. PDFs are a cheap alternative if your group is ok with computers.
Maps and Tokens: For groups playing in person, this is the point where you should buy a battlemap. 1 inch grids, and wet erase. They go for about $20, and a pack of wet-erase markers are about $5. The battlemap, even if you don’t draw on it, settles innumerable disputes on just how far away something is, or where so and so was. For tokens, this is a good time to buy a couple of miniatures. Its tempting to buy a lot, cool ones, or specialty ones. Don’t do that. Go to Miniatures Market (or your local game shop). Buy about 10 medium sized humanoids, and get the cheapest most generic ones you can find. Get plastic pre-painted ones. You’re going to reuse them a lot. You are targeting a $10 spend on this. As you continue to play, you’ll accumulate more and cooler ones. For now, you just need to get some stuff on the map. Bottle caps are great for 1 inch square tokens as well. You’re local game shop probably has some as well. You should be spending $.50-$1 per mini at most.
Dice: You are able to buy some dice at this point. Its tempting to go buy a bunch of cool sets. Get something basic and easy to read. This set is $7. I’d also recommend a box of d6. if you’ve got some money left. Nothing’s worse than getting a fireball for 10d6, and having to roll the same die 10 times.
You are ready to declare this your hobby, and get serious about it.
Rules: If you are able to spend $200, you are finally in a place to really pay for rules. Get a bundle of your favorite RPG, or the main book and module. If you like big names (WoTC/Paizo) you can usually find a bundle when new editions come out for about $100 for all core books. I recommend getting the player’s handbook as the priority books. Then monster manuals, and lastly dungeon master’s guides. The dungeon masters books are great, but a lot of answers can be found by watching let’s play videos and or reading forums.
Maps and Tokens: At this point you have a battlemap, but can have a lot more fun with miniatures. I’d recommend buying one or two “really cool ones” and then a box or two of whatever the cheapest set by Paizo is at the time. That will get you ~12-15 with a variety of units. More here never hurts, and they should be between $10-$15
Dice: Buy a couple sets of dice. No fancy metal or gemstones yet, but get 3-4 sets. Sharing with the group is a pain, and you can divvy them out to folks who don’t have any. You may also consider buying the “pound of dice“. Its a pound of random dice, and generally is all the dice your group should need. You lose out on complete sets which can be a bummer.
Terrain Piece: At this level you might splurge for a terrain piece. Nothing major, but maybe a small fort from the wargame section, or bridge. They can spice up a game and make tactical combat a little more fun than your drawings.
Die Rollers: Many people love having a die roller. Something to make rolling a die more than just rolling. The two big ones are die rolling towers or dice trays. Towers are used to prove you didn’t sleight of hand a roll, and generally look cool. This one is relatively cheap, Alternatively, a dice rolling tray, is generally cheaper, and custom ones can be found for as little as $20. They are essentially just a nice place to roll, and protect softer wooden tables from dents.
DM Screen: Many DMs love to have a screen. Its a vertical divider on the table they can use to hide stat blocks, and die rolls from players as needed, and most have some important rules on the inside for the DM to reference.
Rules: You’ve got the core books for your game of choice. Now is the time to start looking at splat-books, supplements, and potentially branching out to other systems. A new system probably reuses a lot of your accessories, and so your 2nd is not nearly the cost investment as your first.
Maps: At this tier you may consider buying some dungeon tiles. Prepainted tiles that have various dungeon terrain on them. When slid together you can have a really nice looking dungeon with minimal work. If you can get a deal, consider looking for some 3d terrain. You won’t get much, but a couple can really help encounters stand out. Go for walls before floors (you have a battlemap)
Tokens: In addition to buying a stable base of generic or boring tokens, you should get cool miniatures for all your main PCs and villains. Maybe consider some metal or unpainted ones to really set them apart. I’d also recommend terrain tokens. It’s pretty quick to drop a bunch of trees and make a forest, and you don’t have to clean it up like a marker.
Dice: You hit the point where you should get a lot of dice. Grab a pound of dice from before, maybe 2. But you can also get some Cool Dice. I’d look to spend and get some metal ones. They really stand out, and provided you have something to roll on, are super satisfying.
Like all hobbies, RPGs can get silly.
Tables: You can consider custom gaming tables. Dedicated pieces of furnature to devote entire rooms of your home into RPG havens. Wyrmwood are the big names, and their flagship table starts at $5,000.
Digital Tables: Digital tables are the thing right now, with the increased capabilities of virtual table tops. A digital table is usually custom made, but built around a flat screen TV, laying face up. Pricing on these varries hugely based on your skill, and specifications, but they really set your set up apart.
Terrain: Dwarvenforge is the name of the game, but others exist. They did it pre-3d printing, and before it got huge, and they are still some of the best at it.
Miniatures: You could instead splurge for a miniature army. We all know a moderately sized warhammer army could buy a small house, but you can easily burn your kid’s college money on RPG miniatures as well. Like the Giant Red Dragon, or This Sailing Boat, both at 1 inch scale.