A New DM’s Kit

A lot of new DMs are worried about whether they have everything they need to run a game.  I and older gamers like me don’t help with the situation.  I won’t lie, gamers are by definition geeks, and geeks love collecting stuff.  I’ve got two dice bags (one for my “core” dice that’s black leather and a large Crown Royal bag whose seams I worry about at times with my extras), three erasable mats (two vinyl of different sizes and one laminated cardstock), a magnetic dry-erase board just for tracking initiative, three massive boxes of minis, and of course a bookshelf full of books.  And I’m considered rather restrained in my gaming pack-ray habits.  So it’s no wonder many new DMs worry that they have everything they need to run a game once they see everyone else’s collections.

Luckily, there’s a difference between what you need to run a game, what’s helpful but not necessary, what people like me collect just because we can’t help ourselves, and what is flat-out unnecessary and actually detrimental to a game.  While I’m not going to go out endorsing or reviewing specific products (at least not until I start getting free stuff), I’m going to tell you exactly what you need and what will just get in the way of running a game.


Player’s Handbook: At least three copies, one for the DM and two others for the players to look up stuff during the game (though you can drop this to one copy for the players if your group has less than four players).  You can also substitute the Rules Compendium from the Essentials line as well.  This is mainly for looking up rules during the game, as at least one of your players will want to find out the rules on some weird action they have in mind while it’s everyone else’s turn at the same time you’re trying to figure out the rules for the weird action another player’s trying on their turn.

Dice: The more, the better.  But each player will need at minimum 2d6, 1d8, 2d10 (of different colors or one with 1-10 and one with 10-00 so you can simulate a d100 roll), and 2d20.  Wait, why two d20s?  Because one of them will inevitably roll under the fridge or across the room (or will get thrown across the room in frustration after one too many low rolls) and it’s good to have a back-up.  They’ll also need any other dice needed for their attacks without needing to re-roll any.  You as DM should have at least two of each die and a total of 4d6.  Of course, more is better and it’s always good for the DM to have enough dice to loan a few to their players if needed.

Dungeon Master’s Guide: One copy for you, and you may not even need it during the game (especially if you have a Rules Compendium).

Monster Manual or Monster Vault: You only need one of them and it doesn’t matter which one you pick.  The reason you want this at hand is for that moment that comes once every three or four sessions when your players completely ignore the story you have planned and run off to start a fight you weren’t ready for (usually a tavern brawl but sometimes they decide to go hunting for dinner while camping).

Some way to track PC and NPC locations in combat: Old school gamers will scoff at this being under the “needed” category, but I feel it’s impossible to play without some form of visible indicator of positioning.  Doesn’t matter if it’s the official Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures, those nice cardboard tokens for Wizards of the Coast, painted minis from a third-party company, or really anything at all (some favorites I’ve seen are minis from other games, the pieces from a Monopoly game, those cheap plastic army men, coins, and one time M&Ms (for which we had to determine rules for when someone at the table accidentally ate the pirate captain before we’d killed him)).

An adventure: You have to have something to run.  You can run out of a published book, print out something from the internet, or write it yourself; but you need something.

Character sheets: Doesn’t matter if it’s pre-printed or just notebook paper.

Lots and lots of paper: You’ll want to make notes.  Your players may want to pass notes.  You have to track initiative somehow.  And there’s always at least one doodler at the table.  There’s no such thing as too much blank paper at a gaming table unless you’re playing in a paper warehouse.

Pencils: Not pens, but pencils.  Make sure you have at least two per player as one will get dropped under the couch.  I prefer buying the cheap mechanical ones that come in bags of 20, and while you don’t have to, I would highly recommend mechanical as they don’t need to be sharpened in the middle of writing down initiative order or tracking damage.

Snacks and drinks: You don’t have to have a 7 course tasting menu of gourmet food ready, but you have to have something edible around.  I’ve got an entire article in the pipeline about gaming refreshments (including the pros and cons of alcohol at the game table), but hungry people are grumpy people and snacks help prevent that.  Yes, they’re necessary.  Buy some chips and soda or better yet, get everyone to bring one thing and spread the cost around.


Battlegrid: You can go out and buy one of those nice vinyl wet-erase mats that are bit enough to double as a table cloth, use Dungeon Tiles, or buy a tablet of chart paper with a 1” grid on it from an office supply store.  It will help your games run just that much faster.

Other tracking methods: If you’re just flat out dead set against using a grid, there’s another method.  First, get one of those flexible tailor’s tape measures for tracking distances.  Then make circles or cubes in one inch, three inch, and five inch diameters out of anything at all (pastry/cookie cutters work well, empty and clean cans with the tops and bottoms cut off do well, or you can just roll up a piece of flexible cardboard) for marking out blast/burst radii.

Calculator: You will regret not having one the first time you have to divvy up XP.

DM screen: Again, it doesn’t have to be the official one, but the official release has some amazingly useful charts to save you time from looking up tables and rules.  However, you need something to hide your notes and your dice rolls because there will be one player who is capable of reading upside-down and will do so to get an advantage.

More dice: You can never have enough dice.


Magnetic dry-erase initiative tracker: I swear this is the best $10 I’ve ever spent for my gaming sessions.  The entire thing is dry erase and it has little tags for you to write each character’s name and each monster.  You can then slide them around if there’s any delayed/readied actions.

Little clear plastic stands: They’re made for miniature wargaming, but they’re great for flying or levitating characters.  You can also stack up 1” tall blocks, cylinders, etc.

More dice: You can never have enough dice.  I’m not kidding.


Side books: Anything outside the core rulebooks will add far more complexity to the game that you may be ready for.  If you and your players already know the rules well enough, you can add them in.  However, be careful about biting off more than you can chew.  Complexity can add more fun, but it also adds more complexity.

Terrain minis: Things to represent trees, pedestals, stairs, hills, pillars, etc.  There are some great sculpts out there, and you can also use the terrain minis used in model railroading (check on the scale before you order online).  Just makes the game more interesting to have them around.


These are items which are very tempting for gamers to buy/bring, but will only detract from your gaming experience, especially for new players and a new DM.

Laptops, cell phones, etc.: Many players like keeping track of their characters on the computer and many DMs like running off the computer (I’ve done it myself a few times to save printer paper or when my printer broke), but it’s far more likely people will get distracted with Mybook, Twitface, or just flat out browsing.

Custom minis for each monster in the session: If you’ve got the money to blow on a mini collection large enough to support that sort of gaming, that’s great.  It can be more immersive if every mini matches what the players are fighting.  But going that route does take a lot of money that (especially when you’re starting out) may be better spent elsewhere.  Like on more dice.

Fancy dice: Another money sink for players and DMs both as it’s a great status symbol to have your twenty-sider made of hematite, brushed steel, jade, or even solid gold or carved from an actual meteorite (I’m not kidding, they’re out there).  You do not need them.  Repeat to yourself slowly, you do not need them.  Why buy one die for $20 when you can get a hundred dice for the same price?  Also, every single person I’ve ever seen with those fancy dice have horrible, horrible luck with them.  I’ve never seen one roll a crit but I have seen dozens of 1s pop up on them.  Spend your money on more minis and more dice instead.

It can be intimidating at first, but you can run a game successfully on under $100, and if you shop well and take advantage of sales and used products, you can get a game started for $50 or less.  Don’t feel you have to go out and buy every toy all at once.  Talk to experienced players and read reviews online before you buy.  Basically, be smart with your money and your collection of gaming tools will grow organically to fit your game and your style.  And if $100 seems like a lot to you, look at other hobbies out there (carpentry, cooking, sculpting, car repair, etc.) and check out the cost of the most basic tool sets and raw materials and suddenly a few books, a bag of dice, some minis, and a battlemat don’t seem like such a huge investment compared to the amount of enjoyment gaming can give you.

Published in: on December 17, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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