12 Things You Need To Be A Dungeon Master
Running your first game of D&D requires a little preparation. Whether you’re running it online or in person, there are certain things you’re going to need to make the game a success! At the behest of members of our online Discord community I was asked last year what I brought to the table… literally… when it’s time to play D&D! Based on my response (which you can watch HERE) I made a list of what I consider the basics, and also some recommendations on cost-effective improvements when you’re ready to take things to the next level!
As a disclaimer, you’re able to run the game without several of these things... A pen, some paper, your imagination, and some dice are all you REALLY need. But the game wants and expects you to have certain resources available to get the most out of your D&D experience, so we’ll be covering those things as well. Also, these are the tools I use to run D&D when hosting a game at my house for my friends. As you run your own games, you may find other options are better suited to you. And that’s fine! All Dungeon Masters and all games are different! But all DMs use their tools to serve the same purposes: the ones listed here. With that in mind, let’s dig in!
1. Rules Reference
First of all, you're going to want to make sure that you have easy access to the rules! This is normally accomplished by keeping books like the Player's Handbook, the Dungeon Master's Guide, and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, and other tomes containing different rules on how to play the game moment to moment. At great personal expense, I own all the published D&D books for Fifth Edition… but, honestly, I don't use those books so much anymore because I have… a phone!
All of the rules that you can possibly want to know (as well as many lengthy discourses on their interpretations) are available for free online via databases, or just a quick Google Search. Gone are the days of clawing through a book to find the page containing a rule specific to the situation that’s come up! Instead, go to Google, type in your question, and get an immediate correct answer! What's the difference between stunned and incapacitated? What kind of racial bonuses does a kenku get? How long does a Barbarian’s rage last? What happens to the spell I'm concentrating on if I go unconscious? Answers to these questions (and, realistically, any other) are just a few keystrokes away! While there was a time when you checked your phone the door when you sat down to play D&D in order to eliminate distractions, having access to the internet while running the game just makes everything so much easier, faster, and really streamlines the process of playing the game!
2. Character Sheets
Next, your players need to be able to run their characters. Traditionally, you’ll set aside some time to use the Player’s Handbook and supplementary books to make everyone a custom character, and write their stats and equipment down on character sheets you can print for yourself at home. The blank sheets can be found HERE. This is a time-honored and certainly effective method of creating characters, but requires the investment of some books.
Rather than buying the books, the basic info needed to create classic D&D characters is available for free online! Reference everything you need with one click HERE! The menu on the left side of the screen serves for easy navigation and takes you directly to information relevant to you! But all the bells and whistles introduced in the many, many books that have added to the game over the years can't be found here.
If you want to streamline that process, online services like DNDBeyond can be a great help! It’ll cost some money to unlock all the character options… This site is really a financial investment! But if you know that you’re going to be playing often, it’s a valuable resource! This site can perform many of the functions listed later in the article, and do them well. Your players can keep track of their characters, manage their spells and inventories with a few clicks, and you can reference anything and everything that Wizards of the Coast has created for Fifth Edition (once you’ve paid for the privilege). Give it a once-over if this is a hobby you’re going to be spending a lot of time with.
No one sitting down to play Dungeons & Dragons, especially not the Dungeon Master, is ready to play without dice! These little polyhedra are going to be seeing a lot of action, so it's good to have them very close to hand! Every person playing the game is going to need to roll a dice at some point, and increasingly large numbers of dice as they learn more powerful attacks and face greater challenges. In the interest of time, it’s ideal that everyone have their own set, maybe even a couple of sets, so that they can roll more efficiently!
If you’re looking to get your first set of dice, or add to your collection, you’re in the right place! There are all kinds of dice here on the site! Just scroll to the top and click the word SHOP! Use the discount code WANNABE10 at checkout to save on your purchase!
4. Campaign Notes
When sitting down to run a game, you’ll also want to make sure that you have notes on the adventure we’re going to be playing that have been prepared in advance. Whether it's information on NPCs, towns, nations, kings and queens, villains, or just creatures that fill the world… anything that you want to know about your campaign or might need to reference absolutely has to be somewhere close to hand.
It may be more helpful for you to have notes for the particular session you’re about to play rather than the adventure or setting as a whole, preparing in a more step-by-step fashion. Regardless, whatever you want to make sure that you know to run tonight's game, bring it to the table!
If you're running a pre-written campaign or module from Wizards of the Coast, this might take the form of the Adventure Guide: the Tomb of Annihilation book, or the Curse of Strahd, or Storm King's Thunder, or whatever adventure you and your friends are playing through! These books contain everything you need to know about running the adventure, but not all of that information is useful every session. Consider bookmarking particular pages and chapters that you might need to look up for this particular session before sitting down to play.
If you want a short, starter adventure, there's one I wrote available HERE!
5. Session Notes / Scratch Paper
Whether you are running a pre-written adventure or something completely new, your players are going to make unique decisions and interact with the world in unexpected ways… ways you’re going to want to remember later! The Paladin accidentally offended the countess, the gypsy placed a curse on the Ranger, or the Monk swore vengeance on a villain that got away… So have a place where you keep notes on YOUR campaign as a whole, and make sure that it and any source material you’re using are well within reach!
Anyone who has watched my New Dungeon Master's Tips video knows one of my Top Five pieces of advice for someone running the game is to take notes all the time while running D&D! It can be as simple as a little yellow legal pad, or as fancy as a special, custom-made leather bound journal. Have some way to take down information that you're going to want to remember later on! You can use good ol' pen and paper, or go modern with Google Docs or Microsoft One Note. Dealer's choice!
Your notes don’t have to be in any particular order or style. You’re going to transcribe them into your campaign notes later, and you can be more organized then. For now, just get your thoughts on paper in black and white! You could use different colored pens to make your notes catch the eye, or to distinguish between different types of notes: blue text for character details, green for places or things in the world, and red for info about the bad guys, for example. Whatever you decide to do, make sure that you're getting that information down the minute it happens and don't depend upon your own memory! Make sure that you have it for later!
6. Battle Map
At some point during your D&D campaign, you are going to engage in combat! Some games emphasize this a lot more than others, but since a lot of class features and spells that your player characters are going to be obtaining as they ascend through the levels focus on dealing or mitigating damage, your players are getting the most out of their characters if they never fight. So when they do, you need to be ready.
Very early in my career as a DM, I invested in a blank battle map, like the one linked HERE. It’s reusable, wet-erase, and offers both the standard grid or a hexagonal map on the flip side. I can use this to quickly create a custom battle map and scene for a combat encounter when it arises. I can even have it drawn out in advance if I know they have a battle coming up.Using a map ensures that all of my players know exactly how far away that enemy is, what's between it and them, how they can best use their environment to their advantage. Visual aids like this really help set a scene, as well as keep the game moving so that you don't have to explain the terrain or where everyone is at any given moment! Speaking of which…
7. Visual Aids
(character tokens / minis / pawns)
You’re going to need a way to represent your players’ characters and their adversaries in every encounter. Having specific miniatures for ALL of your combat encounters for every single creature in every single session of your campaign can become very expensive very fast… even if you have a reputable seller offering discounts on them... like Misty Mountain Gaming (coughcough use code WANNABE10 at checkout and save 10% coughcough)!
When you’re starting out, you can use spare dice, coins, or little pieces of candy to represent different things on the map. These work as well as anything for strategy and planning. If you want something a little more immersive to visually represent what you are seeing, I use these Pathfinder Pawns. They’re made from fairly durable cardboard set into little round plastic bases, and they do a great job of quickly and effectively conveying what the party sees. That patented Pathfinder art style is a little darker than what D&D 5e gives us, and makes the monsters that much more intimidating! Boxes contain hundreds of pawns, and cost around $30-$40 USD depending on where you shop and which box you're hunting.
8. Combat Tracker
Now that everyone around the table has a clear idea of what they're up against, you actually have to run the combat! That's going to involve writing and math with numbers that are changing pretty regularly! You might need to know a creature’s Passive Perception score, the new armor class of a creature that just dove behind half cover, the initiative order, and the hit points of every creature involved in the combat (except the player characters, they can handle that themselves)! Those numbers are all subject to change, so make sure to have pencils with erasers handy! That way you can write and rewrite the particulars of the combat. I often use the same pages I keep my session notes on for this purpose, but there are websites and apps that can help with this too!
9. Sticky Notes
In case you need to jot down something quickly or keep something visually within your eyeline that you are otherwise likely to forget, consider bringing index cards or sticky notes with you when you run D&D. You can stick them to your side of the DM screen, or somewhere else that they’ll catch your eye. If a monster has Legendary Actions and you want to make sure to use them, that’s sticky note worthy! The initiative order may be an important thing to keep distinct from your other notes, as might any special notes about the dungeon (door to Library is trapped, DC 15 to notice, DC 18 to disarm). Maybe you'll need to make sure you introduce two more enemies in the third round of combat, or that after four rounds the ritual that started before combat began is going to be completed! It's convenient to be able to set some of your notes apart from the rest so that they stand out a bit, making them easier to reference! Easier is always better when you’re juggling all the elements of running a D&D game!
10. DM Screen
Speaking of the Dungeon Master screen, you should try using one if you haven’t before! You can buy them individually, they come with every D&D starter kit, or you can make your own from pieces of a cardboard box! While many DMs use these screens simply to hide their rolls from their players and discreetly cheat the game, these screens do have other uses, especially if you’re using one of the official screens. Its inside faces are covered in useful information, tables, and reference material. Having that info clearly visible from where you’re sitting means that you don't have to use your phone or pick up any other device or book to be able to tell your players some of the rules. For example, having the different conditions broken down right in front of you while you're running the game is incredibly convenient! Depending on the screen that you use you can actually have customized overlays or inserts to tell you exactly what you want to know!
Whether you’re playing D&D, throwing a party, or planning a date, setting the right mood and atmosphere can go a long way to achieving the desired effect. Consider having something nearby to play some music… maybe a tablet, phone, or a nearby Smart TV… whatever you have access to! Having a little mood music really adds to the atmosphere of the evening, and can assist the players in immersing themselves into the story you’re all telling together. I have an old tablet with a cracked screen I use and get my music from youtube, but you can use whatever device you normally do to listen to music!
Finally, running and playing D&D is thirsty work! Make sure that there’s easy access to refreshments of some kind when you play. Your friends may want to contribute, bringing their personal favorites to the occasion! At its heart, D&D is still a gathering of friends, and you and your friends will all appreciate having snacks and drinks handy!
If you haven't run D&D before, was this list helpful to you? Do you still have unanswered questions? If so, come join our discord community and ask me there! Maybe yours will be the next question I answer in one of these articles!
If you are already a Dungeon Master, tell us what you use when you run! Is there anything out there that you feel new DMs NEED to know about? Let us know and help us spread the word by commenting below or by reaching out on our socials by clicking HERE!
Rob Franklin (@thedndwannabe) has been a Dungeon Master for many years, and has a deep passion for roleplaying games. He runs the MistyMountainStreaming channel on Twitch, our Misty Mountain Gaming YouTube channel, and is cohost of the Bardic Twinspiration D&D podcast. He also enjoys bourbon, From Software games, and his dog Bigby.