Today we're going to get into the weeds of the best tools to help us run Dungeons & Dragons games. We're going to start with the minimum needed to play and work our way up into some of the more advanced accessories that aren’t necessary, but are helpful. This article focuses on tools we use at a physical table, not digital accessories for virtual tabletop play. That's a topic for another day.
We mentioned before that RPGs, including D&D, aren’t like other games. You don't buy a box that includes all of the pieces you need to run a game over and over again, although the D&D Starter Set comes close. The tools and accessories we can potentially use in our D&D games is as limitless as the stories we create. Every DM has their favorites. Some tools, however, appear often in the bags of Dungeon Masters and it's these items that we're going to talk about today.
Let's open our book bags and take a look.
Starting with the Starter Set
In previous articles we've talked about the tremendous value of the D&D Starter Set. If you're just starting out, this is a great first purchase. Its slim contents include a rulebook, an adventure book, five pre-generated character sheets, and a set of dice. That doesn't seem like much but if you throw in some pencils and paper, you really don't need anything else to run a D&D game up to level 5. The rulebook includes a bunch of monsters you can use to generate your own adventure if you decide not to use Lost Mine of Phandelver, but you're missing out on an excellent introduction to D&D if you skip it. The character sheets included in the D&D Starter Set, and available online for free, are also perfect for other games since they include all of the rules you need to level from 1 to 5 right on the sheet. The maps in Lost Mines of Phandelver fit commonly used locations in D&D games like ruined castles, thieves’ guilds, dwarven mines, abandoned villages, and monster lairs. You can easily drop these maps into your own game even if you’re not running the actual adventure.
Your First Power Tool: A List of Names
Of all of the tools that can help us improvise and stay flexible, few are as simple and powerful as a good list of names. You can build one of these from the dozens of random name generators on the internet. If you've picked up the D&D companion book, Xanathar's Guide to Everything, it includes seventeen pages of names from all different races and ethnicities you can pull from. That many names can be a bit unwieldy, however. For any given session you likely don't need more than ten or so. Grab a 3x5 note card (more on these power-tools in a moment), and jot down a handful of nice-sounding names. You'll want to mix them up to account for the various races and cultures of the NPCs you might create.
We use these names any time an NPC unexpectedly enters the spotlight. This might be the young bar hand delivering a drink or it might be the one goblin who didn't get killed at the ambush site. As we talked about in our previous article on improvisation, the game goes in unexpected directions. We can think of the eyes of the characters as the cameras in a movie; cameras we DMs don't control. They might turn and focus 90 degrees away from what we thought they'd focus on and suddenly an amorphous blob of ethereal goo becomes an NPC they want to meet and interact with. That's why we have this list of names.
When we're running our D&D games, we also need a list of common office supplies. A set of pencils is nearly mandatory, even if you're using a digital tool like D&D Beyond for your character (you are using D&D Beyond, right?) players and DMs will constantly want to jot down names of people, places, and things. They might even be so inclined as to draw out a rough map of their location. Pencils are much preferred over pens—we're going to be erasing a lot during our games. I like mechanical ones because it takes nothing to pop out some more lead and who wants to use a sharpener like a barbarian?
3x5 cards are likewise a universal tool for D&D games. They're great for taking notes, drawing sketches, passing notes among players, writing down the names and effects of magic items, and as table tents for character names or initiative cards when folded in half. There are many ways to track initiative but one of the easiest is to fold 3x5 cards in half and writing numbers on them from 1 to about 8. Then, when you or your initiative delegate (remember, we can delegate initiative out to one of the members of the group) figures out who goes first in combat, you can pass out the cards from low number to high based on how high they stand in the initiative order.
We can also stick to using pieces of paper to draw out complicated areas that we can't simply describe. Some pencil sketches on blank paper can help everyone get an understanding of what a room looks like and who is where.
It's possible for a group to get away with the single set of dice included in the D&D Starter Set but it's far from ideal. It's much better if everyone has their own set. You can pick up dice at any local game shop or online. Game conventions always have companies willing to sell dice of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. Dice collecting quickly becomes its own side-hobby and one that evolves over the life of a D&D player.
In general, each player should have a set of dice with at least one of each type and ideally two to eight of the dice they tend to use the most. Dice packs run about $5 to $10 a set but can be cheaper when bought in larger sets for whole groups.
Your DM Notebook
Running a great D&D game isn't about spouting out all of the stories we have in our heads. The players and the dice will surprise us. That's the fun of the game. Often, we'll need to write these surprises down. You can keep notes in a stack of 3x5 cards, a small pocket notebook, a smartphone, a word processor on your computer, or just about anywhere else. Whatever you choose, stay consistent so it’s easy to reference this DM’s notebook again later.
Most importantly, we'll use this notebook to write things down about the characters. D&D is a game that focuses on the characters and so should we. We can write down the characters' names, races, classes, backgrounds, flaws, bonds, ideals, and the desires of their players. We can review these notes before we do anything else when preparing for our next game. Doing so helps us keep this focus on the characters as we build out the rest of the world around them.
Keep this DM's notebook on hand during preparation and play. Ask questions, listen to the answers, and write them down.
The Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual
Once you've exhausted the material in the D&D Starter Set and the players get eager to build their own characters, dig into the core books. The central pillar of D&D rests on three books: the Player's Handbook, the Dungeon Master's Guide, and the Monster Manual. Ideally each player has their own Player's Handbook but you might get away with sharing a copy if you need to. Only the Dungeon Master needs the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual. With these three books a group can play D&D for the rest of their lives. They are the only three required books to play D&D to its fullest.
You can also pick up all three of these books right here on D&D Beyond and share a single purchase of the Player's Handbook with the members of your group. Purchasing these books here means you can build characters with all classes and options in the Player's Handbook, get access to all of the magic items in the Dungeon Master's Guide, and have access to all of the monsters in the Monster Manual.
If the prices for these books are too high for you or your group to manage, you can still continue playing D&D past the Starter Set by using the D&D Basic Rules. These are available in PDF and on D&D Beyond for free. These Basic Rules are limited to single archetypes for each of the classes and a limited set of monsters but there’s enough material to play D&D all the way to level 20 without buying a single book.
Numerous other books exist for the fifth edition of D&D including accessory books and published adventures. They have a lot to offer for our D&D games but aren't mandatory to run a full D&D game.
Working our way up in the hierarchy of D&D accessories we come to battle mats. These are common and useful tools that help us draw out rooms, halls, or chambers in a dungeon. For example, when the characters explore Cragmaw Hideout in Lost Mines of Phandelver, we can draw out the rooms as the characters explore them with a marker on a battle map. This lets us draw rooms much larger than we would on a small sheet of paper and help players visualize complexities that we simply can't describe well.
There's a wide range of battle maps available. They run anywhere from $14 to $30 in price for blank battle mats and are available from a wide range of manufacturers. Wizards of the Coast makes a battle grid for about $25 that feels like the board in a board game. Paizo makes an excellent and low-cost laminated fold-up battle map that sells for about $14. You can get these with a variety of textures but the lighter gray for dungeon rooms and lighter tan for overland means your black markers will work well.
Many DMs also use a roll-up vinyl battle map that's been around for decades. You can only write on it with wet-erase markers. Dry-erase markers will mark it permanently. These lay flatter than fold up mats and hold the drawings better so they won't wipe away when someone moves a figure across the board. They do have a tendency to curl up at the ends and aren't quite as portable as a fold-up mat.
A few manufacturers also produce poster mats with pre-printed dungeons, villages, forests, and other specific maps on them. These look beautiful but are of limited utility since you can only use them when you actually need the exact map it displays. One can build a large collection of such maps but at a pretty high price. It's probably better to save the money and stick to a blank battle mat you can use over and over again.
Representing Characters and Monsters
We're going to cover the whole subject of miniatures, tokens, and other options for representing characters and monsters in a future article. For the purposes of this article, we'll offer a single recommendation:
Use whatever objects you can to represent characters and monsters. Steal from a board game. Use dice, coins, LEGOs, or glass beads. You don’t need a beautiful painted miniature for every monster in the game. Doing so will quickly empty your bank account and you'll still never have all the ones you want. Using generic tokens for monsters makes it very easy to set up a battle without breaking the flow of the game.
If you're able to get them, nice miniatures for the players' characters can make a big difference. Players love to see miniatures of their characters and the miniatures can help everyone at the table visualize that character. It's not always easy or cheap to get good character miniatures but it can make a big difference in our game. We’ll dig into the topic of character and monster representations in a future article.
Just the Tip of the Iceberg
Anyone who goes to a big gaming convention like Gen Con can see booth after booth of accessories for our D&D games. Hundreds of small companies have built an amazing array of accessories to make our game more fun. We can find everything from background music to smoke machines. Some of these accessories are wonderful. Others are neat ideas but serve little practical purpose at our game.
As we explore all of these options, we must ask ourselves a few questions:
"Will this make my game more fun? How much so?"
"Is this product easy to use? Can I get it set up quickly?"
"Is it worth the cost?"
"Does it help me improvise? Will it keep my game flexible?"
We can use these filters to help us avoid buying accessories that end up sitting in our basement instead of making our game as great as it can be.
About the Author
Mike Shea is a writer, technologist, dungeon master, and author for the website Sly Flourish. Mike has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, Pelgrane Press, and Sasquach Games and is the author of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Locations, and Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Adventures. Mike lives in Northern Virginia with his wife Michelle and their dire-warg Jebu.