You are the Dungeon Master. You control fate, time, and the universe as a whole. But you can’t ever seem to remember who goes next in the initiative order. If you are going to DM, there are essentials you need to have on hand to make sure your players keep rolling!
What are the bare essentials you need to run a game of Dungeons and Dragons? To DM your game you must have the following:
- Core Rule Books (Dungeon Master’s Guide, Players Handbook, and Monsters Guide)
- Dice (one set of 7 dice including d20, d12, (2)d10, d8, d6 and d4)
- Dungeon Master’s Screen
These are the bare minimum that you need to run a game of Dungeons and Dragons, but, if you DM for long, you will realize you need some more tools. Here are the top 10 tools I always use when I run a game of Dungeon and Dragons. You won’t want to DM without them!
Dungeon Master Screen
First things first. You will want a Dungeon Master’s Screen to hide behind. I am a fan of the traditional DM Screen made by Wizards of the Coast because it has status effects and basic weapon stats on it. Of course, you can go all out with some crazy DIY projects, but even a cardboard box will do. Essentially, you just need something to separate your monster, villain, and plot notes from your player’s prying eyes.
Running a game requires advanced knowledge of the rules of Dungeons & Dragons, of which there are a lot. A LOT. Even the best Dungeon Masters forget certain mechanics or rule applications, which is why you need some books at your side with certain pages marked with sticky notes for easy access.
Dungeon Master’s Guide
The Dungeon Master’s Guide, also called a DMs Guide, is the most important book you will need as you are running a game. This book contains all the rules for running a game, such as basic monsters, details on how to create encounters and campaigns, treasure tables, traps, and so much more. If you want to run a game, this is a requirement. You will want to have the following pages marked as you will be using them regularly:
- Poison List p 257
- Creature Size and Space p 251
- Improvising Damage p 249
- Attack Rolls, Saving Throws and DCs p 238
- Random Magical Items Chart p 144
- Treasure Tables p 134
- Traps p 120
- Random Settlements p 112
This book is another requirement if you want to DM. While this is primarily for the players, it includes all the rules for how players interact with the world, which is crucial for you to know. The Player’s Handbook contains the rules for combat, classes, races, equipment, and everything else your players need (and will probably forget, which is why you need one too).
You will want to mark the following pages for easy access, as you will be using them the most during a game:
- Weapons and Armor p 145- p 149
- Adventuring Gear List p 150
- Mounts and Vehicles p 157
- Trinkets List 160
- Vision and Light p 183
- Combat Actions p 192
- Spell Descriptions begin on p 211
- Forgotten Realm Deities p 294
Monster Manuel, Volo’s Guide to Monsters and/or Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes
Because the Player’s Handbook has some monsters listed in it, you can get away without the full Monster Manuel for a while. So if the monsters you are running are in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, you can skip this for now.
As soon as you can, this should be the next book you purchase. Just like it sounds, this is a book full of monsters your players could encounter. It includes lore about the monsters, where they are found, stats, and, of course, all the information you need to create an encounter. This is important to have on hand during a game in case you forget a monster stat, or if you need to come up with an encounter on the fly.
Of course, there are online resources you can use to generate encounters, which include all the monster’s stats, but I prefer the feel of a book in my hand. What can I say? I’m a simple kind of girl.
Both Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Morkenkainen’s Tome of Foes can be helpful to have on hand if your players have a question about culture or monster history that you can’t answer. I like to read parts from them when players succeed on history checks on races, cultures, or monsters.
What is a Dungeon Master without dice? Any DM worth their salt needs a set of dice. But, if you are like me, there are never enough dice. I collect them like I collected Pokemon cards in the ’90s. I just gotta get ’em all!
You will need the following dice to make sure you aren’t scrambling to find enough d6s to roll fireball damage!
- 2 20 sided die
- 2 twelve-sided die
- 2 10 sided die (also called percentile die)
- 2 eight-sided die
- 4 six-sided die
- 4 four-sided die
This combination of dice will allow you to roll the majority of all common attacks. I prefer to have multiple dice instead of rolling the same dice multiple times because, well, I have the memory of a goldfish. If I have to roll one 6 sided dice 4 times, you better believe I will forget the first number. Instead, I roll four dice and add them up.
I do the same for advantage and disadvantage when rolling twenty-sided dice. It just makes it easier and if there are any questions, both dice are there for inspection.
Short on dice? Check out my top recommended dice on my DM Must-Have page!
I also like to make sure I have a dice mat, like this one from Easy Rollers, to protect my table and my beautiful dice. I prefer the mat to a dice tray because there is limited space behind a DM Screen, and I need to make all of it count.
The exact miniatures you will need on hand will depend on the encounters you plan to run, but as a general rule, I always have the following nearby:
- Animals- as many as possible, for the Druid’s “Wild Shape” ability and the “Polymorph” Spell
- Several basic monsters- for random encounters, such as wolves, kobolds, spiders, orcs, and goblins
- PC minis– If they don’t have their own, I try to make sure I have a miniature for each of my Player Characters (correct race and class)
- Accessories– I always have barrels, crates, tables, bridges, chests, and campfires nearby for when the party sets up camp or for encounter maps.
Can’t afford miniatures right now but still want to use cool miniatures? You are about to kiss your computer screen. You can print your very own paper miniatures at Printable Heroes FOR FREE. Like these incredible goblins!
Creating your paper miniatures is as easy as searching for the monster or class you are looking for, downloading the file, printing, cutting and gluing. The original artwork on each of these is stunning! Your players won’t miss plastic miniatures after they get a look at these!
(Side Note: I do not receive any commission or kickbacks for promoting this product. This is just super useful site I found and love. Totally unbiased recommendation.)
#4. Initiative Cards
When you have a large group of players and an encounter with multiple monsters, it becomes nearly impossible for everyone to keep track of initiative. I have found that if players don’t know exactly when their turn is coming up, it slows down the pace of combat and the players become easily distracted when it isn’t their turn.
To help both myself and my players stay on track with initiative order, I have found a few tricks I love.
My favorite way to keep initiative is to use Initiative Tracker Cards that I hang over the top of my DM screen. I use these, by Webb Pickersgill on Dungeon Master’s Guild.
These tents allow you to have info or an image on the player-facing side, with DM-only details on the back. Place these on the table, or on the top of your DM Screen. Cards lay flat on the table and have key details about a character or monster for quick reference. They are smaller and can easily be hidden behind your DM Screen.
Only $1.95, for a package of all versions of these tents, you get access to black and white & colored tracker cards along with built-in class and monster artwork! Of course, these tents are fully customizable, so you can sub in your own artwork or create your own monsters!
These have worked so well for my campaign and I can’t recommend them highly enough. If you just want a very basic version, for now, you can download the B&W and basic Color versions here. But I would suggest you splurge and shell out the money for this one. It really is worth it.
(Side note: I don’t get any kickbacks or commission for recommending this product either! This is a completely unbiased recommendation, I just love it that much!)
#5. Spell Effect Markers
When in combat, it can become difficult to remember spell effects. With all sorts of spells flying around, it is difficult to remember who is blessed, which enemies have bane, and who was blinded in the last round. Do everyone a favor and invest in Spell Effect Trackers.
When a PC or monster has a condition (like blinded, hidden, or poisoned) simply put a token under the miniature and you are sure to remember that status/spell effect the next time around.
You will also want to pick up one of these spell effect area rulers. I got mine on Amazon and it has been SO helpful. Nothing slows a game down more than counting squares for an area effect spell. With this ruler, you and your players can quickly tell how far the spell extends.
If your party will be venturing into a dungeon, castle, lair, or city, you will want to make sure you have a map, even if your players don’t. To be able to describe what your players see and draw battle maps when encounters come up, you need to know the exact lay of the land.
If you are running a pre-written adventure (if you haven’t picked one yet, you can see some of my absolute favorites along with their descriptions here) then the module should come with the maps you will need. If you are running a homebrew game, you will need to create your own or use some already created ones, like the ones found in Tales from the Yawning Portal.
To create your own maps, you can draw them by hand, if you are good at that stuff (I am NOT), or use these resources:
- Basic Battle Map: At the very least, you will need a basic battle map to keep track of players and monsters during combat. These are inexpensive and you can pick them up at your local game store.
- Inkarnate: This incredible, free resource lets you make the most beautiful maps of your world. You can make a map of a city, a castle, or your whole world! This resource does come with a sharp learning curve, however, but they offer some great videos on how to get started. Once you get the hang of it, you will never be lacking in maps!
- Deven Rue: If you are looking for physical maps of worlds that already exist, you have to check out Rue Ink! The campaign my husband is running takes place in the Dwendalian Empire from Critical Role (check out the map on their site!) I ordered a map of it from Deven Rue and it is absolutely incredible! Very reasonably priced, hand-drawn design, parchment paper quality. This map was definitely worth every penny and more! She has many maps and accessories for sale, make sure to give her a look!
#7. Dungeon Master Journal
You are going to need to take notes. You need a place where you can jot down which NPCs you used, where the players have gone, who they have made friends/enemies within each town, and everything else that happens in your session. You can go with a cheap 99¢ notebook at Walmart, or you can go upscale with a leather-bound tome, it’s really up to you.
Whatever you decide to get, you need to be sure you keep it organized. I like ones with pockets where I can stash NPC and Monster sheets, item descriptions I plan to give out, and loose sticky notes.
This RPG Journal on Amazon is of my favorites because it has mixed paper types (ruled, hex and grid) for mapping encounters and taking notes, a cool front design and you won’t believe how cheap is it either!
Looking for something a little more handmade? Check out my favorite DM Journal, “How I Kill the Entire Party” at Etsy.
#8. Music List
No gaming session is complete without background music! Whether it is an epic fight with an ancient evil or a run of the mill bar brawl, music makes everything better! Put spend some time putting together a playlist for your campaign, then just hit play! Sometimes if it is an area, like a cavern, I will even just pick a sound and put it on repeat. Works wonders for role play!
I have separate playlists for each of the following moods/areas (you can click on each title to get the playlist if you don’t have time to make your own)
When the location or mood changes, I simply play a different list, no searching for individual songs! I created my playlists on Google Play, they have a large fantasy selection and I can pick out individual songs or skip if something does quite fit the scene.
Of course, the downside to this method is that the music is playtime is limited to about 2 minutes a song. This means if you find the perfect song to create atmosphere, it only lasts a couple of minutes, then it’s gone. You can put it on repeat, but there is often a jarring start and stop, making it not ideal for extended play.
If you aren’t a fan of this, then check out Ambient-Mixer. This FREE to use platform allows you to listen and create your own fantasy background sounds that will play on a loop forever. No stopping and starting (or running out of songs and having long stretches without music because you didn’t realize it wasn’t playing anymore.)
You can also create your own custom tracks by mixing sounds to create the perfect soundtrack for your unique campaign. Give it a try! I think you will love it!
#9. Inspiration Tokens
This tool is a personal preference. If you are a DM who hates the inspiration system, keep on scrolling. If you love it (like I do) you might think about picking up some “Inspiration Tokens” like these awesome, laser engraved wooden tokens available on Amazon.
I like to hand out inspiration tokens instead of simply telling players they have inspiration because I think that having a physical token on the table reminds players to use their point of inspiration.
Not sure what the inspiration system is or want to know how you can use it effectively? Check out this post on “When and How to Give Inspiration”
#10. NPC Lists
Your players will encounter all kinds of people as they explore the world of Dungeons & Dragons. This is exciting and wonderful for the players and more than a little nerve-racking for DMs! It can be very difficult to come up with NPCs on the fly, which is why I always have some pre-generated NPCs on hand.
Whether you want to do a random generator, purchase an ebook full of amazing NPC ideas (like mine!), or craft your own NPCs for your world, you have many options to help you with NPC creation. Here are my top favorites:
- DMs Guild: Here you can pick up all kinds of ebooks filled with NPCs for a very affordable price!
- Online NPC Generators: My personal favorite in a pinch, NPC Generator has helped me out of more than one pickle! You can pick the race, class, sex, alignment, occupation, and even plot hook, or leave these up to fate. NPC Generator will then create a random NPC complete with status and a plot hook for you to use!
- Create Your Own: Of course, if you are like me, you can’t resist making your own tailor-made NPCs to fit your specific campaign. If you need some help with this, I create a 5 Step Easy Guide to Unforgettable NPCs. Follow the steps and you are sure to make an NPC your players will rave about for many sessions to come! Make a few and keep them on hand! I like to create character sheets for them as if I am making a brand new player character. Works like a charm.
Those are my top 10 tools I use during every game that keep things running smoothly. I hope I provided you with some useful tips and resources that you didn’t have before. If I left anything out, feel free to cast Sending and let me know!
Until next time,
May your game have advantage, my friends!