The Price of Freedom

No, not the iconic RPG by the mighty Greg Costikyan. I’m talking about the price of core rules PDFs.

It started with a simple enough question from a friend. “I want to buy a role-playing game,” he said. “I want it as a PDF so I can print off as many copies as I want. I want a system that’s open-ended so I can create my own game worlds. What do you recommend and how much will it cost?”

This took me on a quick hunt around the ‘net picking out a few favourites to lay at his door. Ok, his inbox then.

Here’s what I found.

The D&D 4th Edition Bundle
PDF sales link @ RPGNow

Starting with the daddy, the pdf bundle of the PHB, MM and DMG together currently weighs in at $74.85. It might not be the most open system ever invented but it’s hard to ignore the pull of the market leader. While I like it (mostly), reviews are mixed. If you’re happy with how it works, it works. If not….. well, at least you’ll be able to print out the nice artwork.

You can create your own campaign worlds, even if they’ll all end up tasting like 4e D&D unless you’re willing to put in a lot of work. Platform neutral, it ain’t.

Price-wise this is the most expensive solution. In comparison, the print-version of the books from Amazon  costs just $66.12 – eight bucks cheaper and you get a nifty slipcase too. And, y’know, real actual physical books too! For all their digital bluster, Wizards don’t seem to get the pdf market at all.

GURPS 4th Edition
PDF sales link @ e23

I’ve got a soft spot for GURPS and the 4th Edition of the rules are the best to date. $54.90 gives you PDFs of both the Characters and Campaigns books and that’s more than enough to provide years of good, satisfying gaming goodness. It’s a true toolbox system that offers lots of fine-tuning potential – perfect for my world building buddy. GURPS has a reputation for excellent, thorough and well-written supplements. That’s true for all the ones for 4th Edition with supplements covering everything from D&D style dungeon fantasy to ultra-tech – and everything in between. GURPS is a simulationists dream.

The print editions of both books works out at $74.90 from e23 (probably cheaper elsewhere) meaning there’s a saving of $20 if you favour the pdfs. Nice.

Basic Roleplaying
PDF sales link @ Chaosium

BRP is Chaosium’s excellent role-playing engine from Call of Cthulhu, Runequest, Elric and others released as a consistentified (is that a word? It should be!) single generic rulebook. The pdf is $27.95 and the print edition $39.95, and it’s well worth the money.

One of my players describes it best; “feels like GURPS, plays like D&D”. The rules make sense in a way that has you nodding along as you’re reading them and it’s simple enough for a new gamer to be up and playing in minutes. For me, it scores highly on all counts – well written, simple, clean, fast and excellent value. Full review coming soon.

My only criticism isn’t of the system but of Chaosium’s website which sucks terribly in a late ’80s Compuserve kind of way. Ugh.

True20 Adventure Roleplaying
PDF sales link @ Green Ronin

Costing only $17.50 this is the cheapest pdf in my list. The Savage World Explorer’s Edition is even less at $9.99 (and a bargain, at that), but it’s omitted from the list as he’s played it, and didn’t like it. Fair enough.

True20 has received rave reviews and boasts a healthy fanbase but it just doesn’t sit well with me for some reason I can’t quite figure out. It’s an uncomfortable halfway house between D&D’s class-and-level design and Mutant & Masterminds open structure, and I guess I’d rather play one or the other. That said, this ain’t for me and it’s well worth the price of download – that’s an entire generic rules system for less than the price of a D&D supplement so what’s not to love?

The print edition is $29.95 meaning a saving of twelve and a half bucks. Green Ronin really know how to price their pdfs.

Mutants & Masterminds
PDF sales link @ Green Ronin

Couldn’t miss this baby out of the list and at $20 it’s an absolute steal; just $2.50 more than True20 and you get a heck of a lot more system for your moola. That’s half the price of the print edition ($39.95) and…. well, I’m a rabid fanboi so I guess you know what I think.

While this is a superhero system first and foremost the rules are flexible enough to handle any genre you throw at them from high- and low-fantasy to modern day, sci-fi and beyond. Green Ronin really needs to release a genre neutral version of the M&M rules, but I reckon they’ve painted themselves into a corner with True20 on that one. Even if you’re not a fan of superhero gaming (Any why the heck not?) it’s probably the best value $20 pdf on the market.

Any of these systems fit the criteria with prices ranging from $17.50 (or ten bucks if you count Savage Worlds) up to $75 with the lower-end options ironically offering more choices for your money. GURPS, BRP, True20 and M&M can all “do” D&D brilliantly and much more besides for a fraction of the cost.

Which rather begs the question. If you’re going the PDF route, why buy D&D at all?

6 Comments on “The Price of Freedom”

  1. He could also use one of the many free rpgs out there, like
    Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, or the Marvel RPG, and so on…
    There are tons of expansions for there for only a couple of bucks out there.

  2. There’s one thing missing in the list…

    If you really want an open ended game system to build own worlds with there’s just one:
    Hero System

    The (current) full version is 5th Revised (print currently out of print, pdf $26,25)
    It’s the only book you really need, all supplements are just thoughts of other people already put to paper and lots of work done for you already.

    Or if you aren’t sure if HERO is something for you, check out the Sidekick (print+pdf currently at below $13, just $1 more than just the print version) in their online store at:

    Granted, you’ll put lots of work into your campaign rules, but it will be worth it because you can get the system/setting just the way you want and not the way the rules “allow” you to.

  3. There’s no shortage of alternatives, not least HERO, HARP, FUDGE, FATE and the rest. If I listed them all though, this post would be about a mile long :D

    Keep the suggestions coming!

  4. I’ve got 2 and soon to be 3 systems I’ve written on my website, plus, one thousand monkeys one thousand typewriters( has a metric buttload of game PDFs. Plus, there are wiki-based projects that sound interesting at if you have access to a connection at the game table. I’d just browse.

    Ambroses last blog post..Tarrasque? Bitchplease.

  5. Give the Tri-Stat system a whirl … Free 96-page PDF.

    Blurb from RPGNOW:
    Widely regarded as one of the best rules-light role-playing game systems ever published (as presented in over a dozen RPGs), the Tri-Stat System is the ideal game engine for all your campaign needs. Featuring a scalable system, point-based character creation, and intuitive combat and task resolution, Tri-Stat dX: Core System is an inexpensive exploration into essential and advanced role-playing techniques and methods. It’s the only role-playing game you’ll ever need.

    Download from RPGNow, as well as some reviews, and a preview:

    PDF of Core Rules v2

    Excellent Wiki Source of campaign ideas, NPC and PC templates, rules add-ons, etc.:

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