Pop quiz, hot shot.
Let's say you're a complete newcomer to roleplaying games. You and your friends want to jump into D&D. And you, you lucky bastard, have been elected Dungeon Master. Well, guess what? You're literally the only player who needs to have the rules on hand. Serves you right for being so handsome and personable.
What do you do? What do you do?
90's action-movie references aside, your options are as follows:
Amazon can take the sting out of the cost of the core rulebooks, dropping the cost to around $60 for just the Player's Handbook and Monster Manual. The Starter Set generally runs close to retail, but you can sometimes find a third party seller packaging it with extra dice.
My personal recommendation? Don't start with "official" D&D. Start with the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game.
Like most independently-published retro-clone games, the core rules are available as a free PDF. Unlike most of them, that free PDF includes all art and illustrations. The game's publisher has also made the print version available at cost, meaning a physical copy of the rulebook will only set you back $5.
And that rulebook is an all-in-one, containing the complete Players' Guide, Game Master information, and Monsters. Getting the same "complete" rules for 5e will run you around $150.00, by comparison.
Below is my copy of the core rulebook, along with six sets of dice (and bags) I scored for $10.99. Total cost? Less than sixteen bucks before tax.
For my money, this is the best "D&D Starter Set" you can build. It's cheaper than the official one, provides complete rules, and each player gets their own set of dice. Hell, if you wanted to be extra generous, you could buy each player a copy of the rulebook. You'd still come out of it cheaper than the 5e Players' Handbook.
Sure, BFRPG lacks some of the bells and whistles of 5e, like Backgrounds and Feats. But it's close enough to give you (and your players) a real taste of the game. You can always upgrade to 5e later, after you're all hopelessly addict— er, umm... comfortable with the game. Even if you don't, BFRPG has enough free supplements available to keep your group going for years.
No matter what version of the game you start out with, just remember: the smart DM lets his players buy the pizza. The wise DM gives them an XP bonus to make sure they do it again.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.