(update 2/23/23 - 2 new rpgs added at bottom of list)
It's 2023 and more people have played Table Top Role-Playing Games (TTRPGs) now than at any other time in human history. And yet, the vast majority of those who have played an RPG have experienced just one game: Dungeons and Dragons, 5th Edition (D&D 5E). To be fair, D&D 5E is an excellent game, and its popularity is well-deserved. But it isn't the only game out there, and there's lots of fun to be had by trying out other TTRPG systems. Hence this blog post. My goal here is to create a list of links to free PDFs of various tabletop role-playing games. There are a ton of them out there, and I plan to update this list on an ongoing basis, adding new ones as I come across them. So keep checking back!
Before I get started with the actual list, a few notes. First of all, I can't vouch for the content of all of these games. I plan on personally downloading each of them before adding them to this list, just to verify that an actual working PDF file is obtainable, but in all honesty I don't have the time to thoroughly read every page of every PDF. Therefore, inclusion on this list is not intended to serve as my endorsement of any particular RPG (unless I specifically say I like it).
Second, the PDFs I've found will be coming from various sources. Some of them are available on online RPG megastores like drivethruRPG. Some of them are available directly from the publisher's website. Sometimes you'll need to create an account to access a download; other times just clicking a button on the webpage will get you the game. In any case, if I'm linking it here it's because I was able to get a working PDF without paying anything for it. (Having said that, I also want to state that I don't plan on linking any pirated material; everything in this list will be official and above-board.)
Third, at least initially, you might notice a theme of sorts in the RPGs I'm listing. Although I'm a fan of D&D 5E, my introduction to RPGs (as mentioned on the About page of this website) was the first edition of AD&D, and my experience with that game established certain preferences that I still have. What I'm trying to say is that a disproportionate number of the games listed here are likely to be either older games, or Old-School Renaissance (OSR) games that draw inspiration from the type of gameplay more common in the earlier days of TTRPG.
Okay, with those notes out of the way, let's get to the list.
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Set in "Mythic Europe," an alternative version of Europe in 1200 AD, in which folklore and superstition are actual reality (i.e. fairies and devils are real). This game is especially celebrated for its magic system.
One of my personal favorites. I've heard this RPG described as a "d20 version of basic D&D," meaning it's like the original D&D game (the boxed set version, before Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was created) but with a few specific, modernized tweaks that make it easier to understand and use. This game is one of the two that started the Old School Renaissance movement. A project of love, everything is free in PDF format or, if you want print versions, you can get them for the cost of printing (i.e. usually less than $5) at Amazon.
This is the other RPG that helped kick off the Old School Renaissance. Whereas the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game (mentioned above) provided a cleaned-up and clarified version of classic D&D, OSRIC did the same for AD&D. It's available as a free download from DriveThruRPG.
This is sometimes described as a cleaned up and clarified version of Lejendary Adventures, which was the last RPG made by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax, and which is now out of print.
The Talislanta RPG originally came out in the late 1980s, and went through a succession of editions with different publishers. A Kickstarter is being set up for a new edition, but the creator has made all of the older versions available for free download. The website recommends people download either the 4th or 5th editions, with the 4th being described as a "purer Talislanta experience" though potentially irritating to D&D players because of its archetype-oriented character creation system. For D&D folks, Talislanta's 5th edition might be a better fit.
Castles & Crusades (update 11/25/23 - the Castles & Crusades freebie was apparently a limited time deal, and is unavailable as of this update)
When D&D 3E came out, with its Open Game License that allowed other creators to modify the rules and publish their own systems, this game appeared as an effort to retain the feel of D&D while simplifying the rules (mainly by getting rid of Feats and Skills). Some of D&D co-creator Gary Gygax's last works were written for this system.
Another OSR retro-clone, following along in the vein of the original basic box-set D&D, but geared toward "Weird Fantasy and Horror" types of stories. There is a darkness here that may not appeal to all role-players, a certain "Norwegian Death Metal" tone rather like what is so masterfully wielded in the Mork Borg RPG (see below), and it's especially apparent in the illustrations you'll see in the paid version. Most of the content is also available in free PDFs on the website (linked above), or here's a link to get a "Rule and Magic" free version through drivethruRPG, though the free versions don't include illustrations.
Similar to the Basic Fantasy RPG in that it's a revamped version of basic D&D, but this version makes certain changes to reduce the "super-powered" type of characters you can create in other RPGs. In Swords and Wizardry the player characters are closer to regular people, and the focus is more on the player's wits than the PCs abilities.
Another box-set D&D retro-clone. I haven't explored it very deeply, but it's got its fans. Goblinoid Games is currently creating a new version, but this revised edition of the original version is still available for free through drivethruRPG.
Remarkable for its dark tone, Mork Borg is a rules-lite RPG dripping with attitude and verve. It certainly isn't for everyone, but I personally found this blast of ultraviolet blackness to be a refreshing take on role-playing. The regular rulebook is notable for its thematic graphic design, but a free "Bare Bones" version (stripped of illustrations and font) is available on the publisher website (fourth item down on the linked page).
Another Original D&D clone, this one describes itself as a redone version of Swords and Wizardry (see above) with a focus on making it easier to read and better looking.
This is a retro clone of 2nd Edition AD&D. The link takes you through to its page on drivethruRPG.
A response to the OGL debacle, this in an attempt to put D&D BX rules into a document with alternative terminology in order to break those rules free from copyright. The core rulebook is a stripped down zine, but the creators have added several supplements to further flesh it out.
A space opera RPG that uses basic D&D style rules. The link takes you through to the DriveThruRPG page for the official free version of the revised edition.