You’ve got your players. They’ve created their characters. You know the story and locations inside and out. You’ve even sorted out some tasty snacks for everyone, but what are the D&D essentials you need to run a seamless session?
Building up the courage to run your first Dungeons & Dragons game as Dungeon Master is always a massive step. You might have spent hours watching live streams online and now you’ve coerced you friends into joining you around the table. But how do you ensure everything goes as well as it can? After all, this might be their first experiences of D&D and you don’t want it to go badly.
Well, it certainly helps to have a good story; you might be running a one-shot or beginning an official WotC campaign, or perhaps you’re just making it all up as you go along (if this is the case, you’re far braver than I!). You’ll also need to decide if you’re adopting the Theatre of the Mind approach or using a more tactile maps and minis system. I prefer the latter, but both are valid choices. So once you’ve got all that settled, it’s time to think about what goes on behind the screen (if you’re using one that is).
Here are some D&D essentials that I couldn’t DM without.
In many RPGs, D&D included, the DM or GM or whatever you’re calling yourself—I always liked “they-who-must-be-obeyed”—sits behind a game screen. This has the primary function of allowing a bit of secrecy and affording an element of mystique to proceedings. It is also a great place to keep all those useful pieces of information and rules references that eventually, hopefully, might become second nature.
From behind the screen the DM can fudge die rolls, pretend to take notes at opportune moments, and generally pretend like you know what’s going on and that you totally expected the rogue to drink that clearly labelled bottle of poison and aren’t now frantically searching for the rules on internal acid damage and consumption.
So, if you are looking for a good screen there are a few options out there for. You could make your own, either from card or wood or LEGO, you could buy an official WotC screen, you could get one of these fancy Wyrmwood ones once they’ve finished fulfilling their crazily successful Kickstarter project, or you could even try to DM without one.
For my games, a screen is a D&D essential. I tried without one once and ended up with my players capturing Orcus (the Demon Lord of the undead) in an iron flask because I rolled a 1 on his saving throw and didn’t have the screen to fudge the result!
I currently use the original 5th edition DM’s Screen and I have done since I started DMing. It has everything I need: rules references for conditions, cover and monster sizes, as well as having a handy NPC name generator.
In 2017, a Kickstarter was launched to support the production of some D&D reference cards, and they’re fantastic. Fellow GeekDad Rory Bristol covered it here.
From monsters to NPCs to weapons and conditions, the Deck of Many has it all, and I would now be totally lost without them. Every game I DM, once I have decided what encounters are likely, I make sure I have the correct reference cards ready to use. Sure, they might not have all the monsters from all the manuals, but they do send out blank cards that you can fill in yourself prior to a session.
Following the successful Kickstarter, the guys behind the Deck of Many set up a Patreon site to continue making and designing cards. I instantly backed them and now each month I receive a print’n’play copy of their latest designs. For me these are definitely one of my “must have” D&D essentials when planning my next session.
Other reference cards are available, including the official WotC Spellcards. These are useful for players and DMs alike and essential if you’ve got multiple spellcasters to keep track of.
My Best Dice
Like any other dice maniac, I have one or two more die than I will ever actually need. Technically you only need one set of seven polyhedral die to play D&D; that’s enough for the starter set, so it should be enough for me too. Right? No.
There’s something very strange that happens to me when I come within 5 feet of a new set of unusual or shiny or special dice. I just simply must have them. But, oddly, when it comes to DMing, I always use the same ones.
I have two sets of dice that I consider my “best dice” and that therefore have earned their place on my D&D essentials list. The first is a set of Acquisitions Incorporated dice that are really pretty and have a sweet pearl finish. The second set are these cool rainbow dice I bought from Etsy.
If you’re looking for dice to add to your collection, Etsy always has a good selection of unusual dice. Or if it’s a more standard bulk die you want, the Chessex Pound-O-Dice is a classic.
Keeping track of combat conditions during encounters can be tricky. It’s hard enough remembering what all the conditions do, let alone recording who’s got what. For me this can be a real problem.
For instance, it’s not uncommon for me to spend more time (than any adult with parental responsibilities reasonably should) planning combat strategies for NPCs. Perhaps the first round they inconvenience the players in some way (fear or slow or confusion), and then in the second round they make use of the player’s condition by casting a spell that is influenced by it. A slowed character might have difficulty evading a Fireball or Cloudkill spell for example.
However, it’s also not uncommon for me to have totally forgotten about the first round by the time the second one comes along. Meaning, the players get away without being hampered and all that planning was a big waste of time. This is why I have markers and tokens as one of my D&D essentials.
You can get all sorts of condition tokens online, but I’ve found the most useful are the ones which Matt Mercer uses each week on Critical Role. Plastic bottle top rings. Not only does this count as recycling (just about), but they are freely available and can be found almost everywhere.
Using battle grids and minis for combat situations mean there are inevitably going to be some arguments about weapon ranges and area-of-effect spells. Luckily you don’t have to carry a geometry set around with you for every session. You don’t have to, but you may choose to. And that’s OK. But thanks to these basic area-of-effect markers, those arguments need no longer occur.
Alternatively, I use some basic craft wire to fashion similar circular discs; they do the same job, but need to be maintained from time to time.
Either way, area-of-effect markers definitely make it onto this list of D&D essentials.
This is right up there with the Players Handbook, Monster Manual, dice, and character sheets as one of the most vital D&D essentials. From the very first game I ever DMed to the most recent, there have always been, and always will be, Post-it Notes.
At first I would scribe out the stat blocks for every monster in a campaign on individual sticky notes. I have folders full of them. I have since moved on from this but still always have a pile of blank Post-its ready behind the screen for that private note, secret whisper, or hidden clue. They’re also really good for jotting down initiative rolls, damage taken, or pizza orders during the game.
Cool Goblet to Drink From
I would drink from this goblet all the time if my family would let me.
My wife gets excited when we play D&D in my house, not because of the game (she doesn’t play), nor is it because of the chance to see all of our friends. No, she gets excited because of the donut tax.
Anybody who plays tabletop RPGs knows that a session can last a long time. A very long time. Therefore you will definitely need sustenance during what can be a four or five hour stint.
All of these things I consider to be my D&D essentials, but of course there are many more tools out there than can help make your D&D game run smoother. Organizational apps like DndBeyond, and audio toolsets like Syrinscape, will both help to add an extra multimedia dimension to your games. DndBeyond is also a fantastic way to organize, set up, and share character sheets for players, and DMs will enjoy having an online resource with all the monsters’ stat blocks and magical items readily accessible too.
Of course, while these are my D&D essentials, that doesn’t mean they have to be yours too. You may choose a far more streamlined (and ultimately more sensible) approach to your sessions. You might decide that all you need is a printed copy of the basic rules and your collective imaginations. Whichever way you go, just make sure you have enough donuts when the taxman (or woman) comes calling.