Dreams for Sale

Free as in beer and free as in speech games to fire your imagination gaming.

Dreams for Sale
Followers of Hieronymous Bosch, The Vision of Tundale, ca. 1520–30. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

If you were once or presently are a child, then you already know how to role-play and make believe.

My nigh-on-three-to-a-grasshopper daughter, like I gather all such little creatures, has taught herself how to role-play and make believe. She will say "I am a ballerina, and am dancing," as she spins before an audience of stuffed toys. "I am daddy, not me, and I sit in his chair now and do work," as she excitedly taps on the keyboard. Though these examples of play seem facile, is there really a bright-line distinction that separates them from: "I am a grumpy murderous dwarf, and I swing my axe at the orc."

Much has been written of difficulties getting new blood into the hobby, or promoting players to take a hand at the helm of facilitating/mastering the game. This can clearly only be due to artificial constraints we have placed on the process - gatekeeping and persnicketing that shuts down the innate spirit of play.

I've had some other planned posts left on the stove far too long, so while I scrub away the burnt grease, I wanted to make a community service announcement of sorts, in the lead up to the (overly?) anticipated release of the 5.2 edition of the world's most blathered about TTRPG. This was also spurred by a recent exchange on Discord with someone who said they really enjoyed a freely available game (Cairn), but their players had some gripes with the inventory mechanics, so they were asking for completely new (commercial) games to try instead.

I strongly support (conceptually and financially) the independent creators and small publishers in this hobby to tart up and spruik their wares at the local jumble sale (Itch.io, DriveThruRPG) or to panhandle before contracting illustrators and book printers (Kickstarter). And I begrudgingly partake of the mass-market, store-bought variety of big business gaming from time to time as well.

My present anti-consumerism sentiment is a hypocrisy over-rated and under-fed by my burgeoning gaming shelves, yet too we should not let our field of dreams lie fallow. We owe them nothing, their fancies are no more important than our own. So come to the game with big ideas, your ideas, and leave nothing on the table. Play for keeps, linger in moonlit realms, while the corpos want to squeeze every last eurodollar until your so much dry scop in an endless scroll of braindance doom.

We don't stop playing because we grow old;
we grow old because we stop playing.

― George Bernard Shaw

Let Them Play Games

Zedeck Siew has astutely drawn the parallel between tabletop gaming and hosting a dinner party, and pointedly stated "You cannot cook a dish so good it forces diners to have good table manners." This analogy is apt in a few ways: someone plays host to the guests and has the burden of preparation, but everyone contributes whether by their presence alone, or bringing supplementary dishes for the meal.

We must put in care and effort for the enjoyment of that shared moment, to show respect for each others' time and company, but also know come the end of the night we will have only sullied plates left. The experience of gaming, the actual play of it, is akin to the degustation itself, and is necessarily a fleeting fancy.

We can enjoy our indie or big publisher books of fanciful words and illustrations, brimming with possibilities and constraints, but we should not let ourselves go too far down the back of the garden that we can no longer hear the bell to return home for home-cooked dinner. Role-playing is nourishment for the child within all of us, who resists the hardening and fraying of adulthood.

I would posit that the truest expression of the roots of the hobby is do-it-yourself, homebrewing, and kitbashing. I think as much as neo-grognards lament the sense of community from the G+ era, that time was also an infidelitous potluck of revisionism and revolution for many, of dreamers yearning to be free from the imperial rule of companies solidifying the consumer relationship.

We must not lose sight that quality imagination gaming is one of the (potentially) cheapest and most accessible hobbies in the world: all you need is a re-introduction to a culture of play, and re-education on how to make-believe, things that our sallow world sadly beats out of many adolescents. Even pencils, paper and marked plastic lumps for impartial adjudication (dice) may be omitted, replicated freely online, or taken by petty theft at your discretion.

In this spirit, I wanted to highlight and celebrate just some of the fantastic libre (free as in speech) and gratis (free as in beer) roleplaying resources available to all of us. I consider these the glimmering creative street art that liven up an otherwise dreary commercial commons: the humanist spatter left as our minds are mulched up by corporate gaming.

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.
It is engender'd in the eyes,
With gazing fed; and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.
Let us all ring fancy's knell
I'll begin it,—Ding, dong, bell.

- Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare


Yochai Gal's Cairn (licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0) comes first on this list because it is arguably the most approachable, accessible, and supported option to get you started with hobby gaming. It's derived from Chris McDowall's Into the Odd, which is freely available in even more minimalist form as Mark of the Odd, but Yochai and the community have done an exceptional job of taking that statuesque game and fleshing it out with mounds of read-to-play spells, monsters, and adventures (both conversion guides for OSR material and bespoke modules). The Affinity Publisher files are also available, making it fairly easy (though sadly not free) to edit in your house rules and print your own hacked copy.

There is a second edition on the way, which mostly expands rather than revises the first edition. Despite offering a lovely-looking boxed product, the new edition will still be freely available online when released. Based on Yochai's track record, print copies will remain eminently affordable, so this remains one of the strongest offerings in the foreseeable future.

Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game

I'd be remiss to not give equal billing to the closest thing in tabletop gaming to resemble the free and open source software movement: Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game (BFRPG, licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0) by Chris Gonnerman and many, many contributors. If you are already familiar with Dungeons and Dragons and have particular nostalgia for, or are just interested to explore, the rose-tinted Basic/Expert era of the game, you can do no better. The LibreOffice ODT files are available, posing the lowest barrier to entry of anything on this list to hacking up the text yourself to make a customised version for your table.

The website offers an online reference to the core rules, download access to the game and several supplements and adventures, and links to at-cost print on demand for several titles as well. Recently revised to its fourth edition (moving from the OGL to Creative Commons), this and Cairn are to my mind the lodestars of free fantasy adventure gaming.

Old-School Essentials

Gavin Norman's Old-School Essentials (OSE) is interesting because although the main offering is their beautiful line of commercial hardback rule and adventure books, he has also generously provided a free and similarly attractive online reference (licensed OGL 1.0a).

Because OSE is derived from the same era of D&D as BFRPG, there is only subtle material difference between these sources, though BFRPG provides far better on-boarding than OSE if you don't already know how to play games like D&D. The licensing of the OSE reference permits derivative commercial works, though you need to be a bit careful using the OGL, so I'd give the nudge to BFRPG for being available under a battle-tested and easily understood license suitable for sharing alike your own derived homebrew online.

Knave & Maze Rats

Ben Milton's Knave and Maze Rats (both licensed CC-BY 4.0) have both been highly influential in the tabletop designer scene, but two niggles hold me back from fully endorsing them for "libre and gratis dreaming." Firstly, tracking down the (legitimately) free versions is non-obvious as they are only listed in the usual places as for sale, hence why I am directly hosting them here:

Secondly, while both are minimalist rules summaries packed with tables of ideas to spark your creativity, they each somewhat assume you already know how to play adventure games - though admittedly the terse advice that they do offer is good stuff.


Jason Tocci's 24xx (licensed CC-BY 4.0) is derived from his own commercial (though arguably criminally under-costed) 2400 game series, and is my final recommendation. I think this game system gets rather neglected for how easy it is to learn, play, and hack - I wonder if the default cyberpunk science fiction setting contributes to that.

Every line of text has been iterated on countless times, maxims of play triple-distilled to a flammable proof for spirited gaming. You not only get an attractive double-sided single page complete game summary translated into several languages, you also get access to Affinity Publisher and Adobe InDesign files to allow you to make a few quick edits and have an equally professional-looking home-brew to print out and play with at game night (though regrettably editing in these formats is not free).


In this 50th anniversary year of D&D, and arguably the hobby of formalised tabletop imagination gaming in general, I would call for a redoubling of our efforts to preserve the folk traditions of play by eschewing venal influences.

As a (dis)honourable mention, a somewhat stripped-down D&D 5.1 (licensed CC-BY 4.0) is freely available, and we are told the 2024 update of D&D will be similarly released as a 5.2 document - so even if you are truly wedded to the 'official' version of the game, you could wait to check it out for free, without giving Hasbro your dosh for hot new hardcovers chock-full of the same reheated leftover ideas.

I urge you to look at the games above, as I feel they best capture the grassroots do-it-yourself gaming culture we must preserve and protect to keep the hobby strong for the next 50 years. Our imaginations are a libre and gratis birthright, and it is all too easy to let hype and marketing trick us into thinking we need to buy permission from another to be the dreamers of dreams.

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams

- Ode, Arthur O'Shaughnessy

Did I miss your favourite libre and gratis roleplaying game or resource? Please comment below and share alike!


Following some Discord discussions, I will highlight a couple more libre and gratis games you may want to check out:

  • Ironsworn and Ironsworn: Starforged (licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) are a pair of extremely well presented and supported narrative games for iron age and star-faring fantasy, respectively. Notable features include proactive play, rules for solo and co-operative (duet) play, and lots of printable components giving it a more print and play board game feel.
  • Into the Dungeon: Revived (licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) is very similar to both Into the Odd and Cairn, but provides a 'half-way house' to D&D with class-like character features and more traditional spellcasting system. Well worth a look if you like the simple core of those games, but want something more plug-and-play for running old school modules.
  • John Harper has released several influential 'capsule' games that are well worth a look if you want a tight and easy to pickup one-shot morsel. I will highlight in particular Lasers & Feelings (licensed CC BY 4.0), and Lady Blackbird (licensed CC BY-NC-SA 3.0). Note the latter actually has two sibling games that are often neglected (Magister Lor and Lord Scurlock, available from the same page as Lady Blackbird); frankly the whole format of these games should be aped more often.