How to Play Tabletop Without Breaking the Bank


I was inspired to write this by Suze, who left an interesting comment about the cost of tabletop RPGs in my Genesys first impressions post. In many ways, I agree with her. Tabletop gaming is an expensive hobby, as the many times that I’ve come away from my Friendly Local Game Store, FLGS in gaming parlance, having spent over $50.

I’m a college student, I’m not swimming in money. In the FLGS I go to I can easily identify dozens, if not hundreds, of game systems. There’s no way I can afford to buy all of them, let alone sit down with my players and run them through a new system every time I pick them up. So what do you do with that dilemma?

I always believe that it’s smarter to know a handful of systems that you know really well as opposed to a lot of systems that you play on occasion. There are some settings that require a very specific system, such as how Fear Itself (Gumshoe) is tailor-made for a Silent Hill campaign.

However, for a majority of cases, you can find a generic system that will do what you want fairly well. You may miss some mechanical granularities, some interesting things that a specific system may bring to the table. However, you can usually translate them mechanically. This is how I handle things, I yank the settings out of something and run it in a system I know.

Picking a Game

When it comes to generic systems, there are quite a few out there, but since this is about affordable RPGing, I’m going to stick with low-cost systems at a price lower than $30 for a physical copy of the core rulebook at retail price. Cypher, Genesys and GURPS have their use, but their price point disqualifies them. I’m also going to assume that whoever is buying the game has none of the gaming implements like dice.

This will not include supplements or premade adventures either. This is meant to be the base upon which to build. Generic systems often do require or at least benefit from these supplements.

To this end, there’s Fate Accelerated. Accelerated is perhaps the cheapest commercial system I’ve seen, only $5 for a copy. You can also buy four Fate dice for $6. Basically, you can get into RPGs for less than $15.

But that’s the bare minimum. Spring for WizDice’s pack of Fudge Dice for $10 and you’ll have enough to GM a group without having to pass dice around.

Should you get comfortable enough with the system, it also facilitates an easy transition into Fate Core.

Another popular option is Savage Worlds. As of the time of this writing, some of the books have gone out of print as they’re producing the next edition of the game. The core rulebook is still affordable at $10 and is more conducive to those looking for a more traditional RPG experience. Personally, I’m waiting for the next edition to come out.

Regardless, the game also uses standard polyhedral dice. Make sure you get a six-sided dice of a different color for the Wild Dice. Shouldn’t cost more than $10.

In terms of mechanics, a game like Fate Core is great for more narrative-driven games and for newcomers to the hobby. It does require a different paradigm than more traditional RPGs, and it’s usually the case that people who’ve played traditional RPGs have a bit of a learning curve ahead of them.

If you want a more traditional feel, Savage Worlds is the way to go. I haven’t played much of it, so I can’t talk further about the system’s nuances.

There is one mechanic that is relevant, and that’s how the game handles miniatures. Fate presumes theater of the mind, though you can certainly run it with miniatures.  Savage Worlds does the opposite, presuming miniatures but allowing for play without. If you are hoping to get into Savage Worlds make sure you take the cost of miniatures into account. You’ll also need to buy cards for initiative, either a standard deck or one of the decks produced by Pinnacle.

Fate Core also has some recommendations such as tokens for representing Fate points. You could use pennies for them, I use poker chips. You’ll also benefit from index cards and markers. In fact, there are dry-erase index cards available for easy reuse on Amazon. Savage Worlds also requires bennies.

The True Cost and Some Practical Advice

Whenever I buy into a system, I budget extra for what I call “assumed cost”. I am keenly aware that the bare-bones system, even in a focused game, isn’t going to be as fun as it would be with the extra bells and whistles that the game can afford you.

The key is buying into a system that you feel comfortable with enough and that you understand well enough so that you can adapt whatever you need to it. If supplements are relatively inexpensive and have value in their mechanics or settings, that’s the most important part. Even if you don’t run premade adventures, they may have a mechanic that you can swipe for your own content.

Remember, you want to play the game enough so that you feel like you’ve got your money’s worth out of it. Buying into a cheap system that you can expand upon is a far better option than picking an expensive system because that’s a bigger cost to recoup. This can lead to the “sunk cost” fallacy, where you end up trying to get your money’s worth even if you don’t enjoy the product.

A Smaller Entry Fee

It’s not easy to get into RPGs, at least in terms of cost. But it’s easier now than it’s been before. One could even Macguyver solutions for cheaper such as getting the Fate Core rules PDF for free and using regular d6s with 1 and 2 representing a minus, 3 and 4 representing a blank, and 5 and 6 representing a plus. Savage Worlds also has test drive rules and a sample campaign. A little bit of ingenuity could save some money.

Out of all systems, I’ve gotten the most bang for my buck out of Fate Core. It’s given me a whole bunch of RPG ideas that will keep me going for years, and one that’s flexible enough for me to use again and again.