Personally, I think RPGs are about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on. But I realize that to the uninitiated, they can seem a little intimidating. Especially with the more complex game systems, such as D&D, there just seem to be so many different things to keep track of—sheets with your characters' abilities, spells for magic-using characters, dice, pens, maps, and enough rules to fill three large books (with an ever-growing number of extra books full of additional, optional rules). And if you tune in one of the increasingly popular "liveplay" shows in which professional entertainers broadcast their RPG sessions online (such as Critical Role, a personal obsession of ours), the elaborate, gorgeous game maps, miniatures, and other paraphernalia could easily give you the impression that this must be a very expensive hobby.
But here's the thing: it doesn't have to be. Yes, you have to shell out money for the basic rulebooks (though, as I noted in my Money Crashers article on affordable tabletop games, there are quite a few systems for which you can pick up at least a starter set of the rules for little or nothing. Even for D&D, one of the more expensive systems out there, you can access a free set of basic rules online.) And many games require a set of special polyhedral dice, which you can pick up for around six bucks at sites such as NewEgg. Aside from that, virtually everything you need to play a tabletop RPG can be made from materials you probably have lying around your house.
In this post, I'll share several examples of inexpensive tools for your home RPG. All of these are tools Brian has been using in the D&D campaign he's been GM'ing at our house. A couple of them come from ideas he found online and borrowed or adapted for our game; others are entirely his own invention.
Tool #1: The Picture-Frame Battle Map
Many if not most RPGs involve some amount of combat. During a battle, it can get tricky to keep track of exactly where all the players and their enemies are, so it's useful to have a map on which you can place miniatures representing the PCs (player characters) and NPCs (non-player characters run by the GM). Maps are also useful to help the players visualize the terrain as they work their way through a fortress they're trying to take by stealth or the subterranean lair of a dragon (and to let the GM know exactly when the PCs are about to set off one of the many traps with which such settings are invariably dotted).
There are lots of ways to create a map for the players. On Critical Role, battles tend to take place on beautiful, three-dimensional maps crafted by Dwarven Forge, which look absolutely amazing and can cost hundreds of dollars. However, most home gamers have to content themselves with lower-tech solutions, such as hand-drawn paper maps, cardboard dungeon tiles that you can arrange to form various natural and unnatural settings, and dry-erase boards on which you can mark out the rough shape of the room and the positions of PCs and NPCs with a marker.
The battle map Brian uses is an elegant design of his own. He printed out a grid of large squares (using an image he found online by searching for "grid paper") and framed it in an inexpensive 24"x36" picture frame we had lying around. (You can get one like it for about 10 bucks at Target.) He uses a dry-erase marker to draw out his maps on the plastic surface of the frame. The gridlines provide a built-in scale—typically, one inch to five feet—so we can tell how big and how far apart everything our characters see is. And at the end of each encounter, it can simply be wiped clean with a rag.
Tool #2: Print-Your-Own Minis
Once you've got your battle map, you need something to put on it to represent your characters and the creatures you're fighting. (You could just mark your positions with a marker, but that means an awful lot of erasing and redrawing during each battle, and with a setup like ours, you'd risk erasing part of the wall by accident.) You can purchase specially designed figurines, commonly known as "minis," to portray just about any type of person or creature—but these can get expensive, and after you've been playing for a while, your ever-growing collection will start to take up quite a lot of room.
Brian, searching for a cheaper solution, decided to adapt an idea he'd seen online: minis printed on paper and held in little clip-on stands. To make the stands, he took several ordinary binder clips of varying sizes (the kind you can pick up for around $3.50 a box at Staples) and removed the wire part. He then asked me to comb the Internet for images we could pick up and use (without permission, but after all, it's only a home game) to represent each of our characters. For instance, I chose this adorable little cartoon to represent my gnomish wizard, Gnome Ann (named after this XKCD cartoon), and this willowy beauty for our elven druid. Brian also found some sample images he could use for monsters we might need to fight.
To print these out, he used a program called Inkscape (a free knockoff of Adobe Illustrator) to lay out sheets with the various images. To make two-sided minis, he used two copies of each image—one right-side-up, one upside-down—so that the printed piece can be cut out and folded. Here's a sample sheet showing some character minis (labeled with the characters' names) and some monsters of medium, large, and huge size. After printing the sheet, he cuts out each mini, folds it, glues it shut with a glue stick, and "laminates" it by covering it with clear packing tape. (This works better for the smaller minis than for the big ones.) These little pieces of stiffened paper can be slipped into and out of the clip bases as needed. With the clips to hold them, they'll stand up on their own and can be moved about the battle map easily.
Tool #3: The DIY GM Screen
One difficulty for the GM is keeping the secret details of an adventure, such as where a trap is hidden or which friendly NPC is planning to betray the party, hidden from the players. Many GMs get around this problem by using a GM screen, which conceals everything the GM wishes to keep secret. There are all kinds of GM screens available online, from this $25 model with vinyl pockets that can hold maps or rules sheets you refer to often to this handcrafted hardwood model that can store everything a GM could possibly need—rule books, dice, even a tablet—and costs about as much as a ticket to Hawaii. And online videos like this one show you how to build your own GM screen with reference sheets built in.
However, if all you need your screen to do is, well, screen, then you can easily make one out of corrugated cardboard for nothing. Brian constructed his by taking apart an Amazon shipping box, cutting the cardboard down to an appropriate size, and folding it in several places so that it can stand upright and wrap neatly around his spot at the end of the table, keeping all his stuff hidden. (Cat not included.)
He decorated it by cutting crenellations into the top and sketching in a grid to resemble the stonework of a castle wall, but you don't even have to do this much if you don't want to. An unadorned sheet of cardboard will serve just as well to keep all your GM business private.
Tool #4: Turn Order Cards
Now, you may notice in the above pictures that there are several small cards arranged along the top edges of the GM screen. These are to solve another problem that comes up in running battle scenes: keeping track of whose turn it is. In many systems, players determine their turn order by rolling a die, and the GM usually has to write down all the numbers with the associated names—along with separate numbers for the players' adversaries—to make sure everyone gets their turn. But in a large battle, it can be hard to keep track of all those numbers, and even the most experienced GMs sometimes skip over someone by accident.
Brian's solution is these handy turn order cards. He can't actually claim credit for this idea, since he picked it up from another gamer whose page he saw online—but unfortunately, he can't remember where. It's too bad, because this idea is absolutely beautiful in its simplicity. All you need is a folded index card with the name of each PC, plus cards for each foe the PCs are facing. Then, once you've determined the turn order for the battle, you arrange all the cards in that order in a row along the top edge of the GM screen. Brian marks his cards on both sides so that both the players and the GM can read them. Since the same set of cards reads from left to right for the players and right to left for the GM, he added little arrows on each side to show which direction the order of play is proceeding in.
These cards come in handy in several ways. First of all, the GM can see at a glance who's up next in the turn order, so no one gets skipped. Second, the players can easily see when their turn is coming up, so they can start planning ahead what they intend to do. That way, when the GM points to one and says, "Gnome Ann, you're up; what do you want to do?" they don't just sit there going, "Uh, wait, what?" And finally, the players can tell which other players' turns are coming up after theirs, so if they want to do something to help another character, such as casting a healing spell, they don't have to pepper the GM with questions like, "OK, wait, who goes after me?"
Tool #5: Player Ability CardsIt's not just the GM who has a lot to keep track of during a game session. Each player has an assortment of abilities that can be used only once in a while—some that only work once a day, others that return after a short rest. Normally, the players keep track of these by marking them off on their character sheets when used, then erasing the markings at the start of each new in-game day. But in the heat of battle, it's easy to forget to do this—and even when you remember, all that writing and erasing tends to make a mess of your character sheet.
Brian's innovation was to come up with little index cards for each player with these special abilities marked. For instance, our barbarian, Hafdan, gets to use his rage ability twice a day, giving him bonuses to his strength and agility. To keep track of these, he has two cards marked "Rage," and each time he uses the ability, his player hands the corresponding card over to the GM. When he's out of cards, he's out of rage.
These cards can also be used for wizards and other spell-casting characters to keep track of the spells they've used. Here you see cards for Gnome Ann, showing her Level 1 and Level 2 spell slots. As she casts these spells, I hand the card in to Brian, and I can see at a glance how many spells I have left to use. I also have a card for Ann's "bardic inspiration," which allows me to give any PC the ability to roll an extra die as a bonus. I hand in the card when she uses this ability, and Brian gives the corresponding player a card marked "inspiration," letting them know that extra die is there when they want it. (He has separate inspiration cards for each player, since it's possible for more than one person to have inspiration, but each person can only have one at a time.)
All these RPG tools are both inexpensive and easy to make. To make everything you see here, you would need only:
- 1 large picture frame ($10)
- 1 set of dry-erase markers (about $2.50 at Target)
- 1 box of binder clips (about $3.50)
- 1 pack of ordinary printer paper (about $4) and an indeterminate amount of colored ink
- 1 roll of clear packing tape (about $2)
- 1 package of 3-by-5 index cards (about $5.50) and a felt-tip marker (about $2)
- 1 cardboard box (free with your order of anything, from anywhere)
So, bottom line: you can decide not to play RPGs because they're too weird, or they just don't look like fun to you (though I'd say don't knock it until you've tried it). Or you can decide not to play because you don't know how, or because you don't have anyone to play with (which is the situation we were in for a while). But if you're not playing because you think it looks too expensive, you have no excuse anymore.
[2019 update: Since publishing this piece, we've switched from dry-erase markers for maps to wet-erase ones, because we found dry-erase maps tended to get smudged too easily when we moved our markers around (or when a cat came and sat on the map, which inevitably happens at some point). These create a map that stays put during your game and can be erased afterwards with a damp rag. Wet-erase markers are harder to find than dry-erase ones, but you can order a set for around $5 at Staples.com (currently on sale for $3). We looked for some in Staples stores, but the cheapest set there was about $12.]