Dungeons & Dragons is a collaborative game, but there’s one person at the table who is more important than the rest: the Dungeon Master (sometimes called the Game Master).
The DM is pivotal because they are the linchpin for every session: they set the stage, create the world, encourage the players, play the foils and non-player characters, and just allow the players to do their thing. Without the DM, there is no game – at least in Dungeons & Dragons anyway.
Playing the part of DM is not a simple prospect; there are some players who spend their whole lives without ever sitting “behind the screen.” (More on this screen idea below.) But the role of the DM is also exceptionally fun – within my first year of playing D&D, I decided that I’d rather play DM than character, and have never looked back.
Whether you’re new to Dungeons & Dragons or want to help your friend become a DM, there are some things every Dungeon Master needs to play – here’s a quick breakdown of the DM essentials necessary for a great session and campaign.
What Dungeon Masters Need to Play
As a dungeon master, there are various tools you need to run your first campaign successfully. Here’s a list of the essential tools you need to get started:
- The Player’s Handbook
- The Monster Manual
- The Dungeon Master’s Guide
- DM Screen
- Dice – lots of them!
- Adventure Module/Campaign Book – or your own Homebrew Campaign notes
- Character Sheets for your players
- Initiative Tracker
- Battle Mat/Map
- Note-Taking Materials
Ready to learn more about why each one of these items is an essential thing every Dungeon Master needs?
The Core Sourcebooks
As a dungeon master, you need to have a set of rulebooks to create and run a campaign. The Player’s Handbook (PHB) is the core book that contains the rules and guidelines for creating player characters, while the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) provides tips and advice on how to run a game, create adventures, and design encounters. The Monster Manual (MM) contains the stats and descriptions for the various creatures and monsters that the players may encounter during their adventures. These books are essential references that you can use during gameplay to resolve disputes, clarify rules, and make decisions.
If you need a more detailed breakdown of these sourcebooks and why every DM needs them all, I’ve got a guide for that!
A DM Screen
For Christmas my first year as a D&D player, my husband came up with the most amazing present: the DMG, a set of beautiful new dice, and my first Dungeon Master screen. He knew that my role in this game was always to DM, and wanted to support me. Having my own DM screen really made me feel ready to start DMing.
A DM screen is a tool that sits between the dungeon master and players, providing privacy and hiding notes. A DM screen can be official or homemade, and it typically contains useful information such as useful tables and charts, such as random encounter tables or NPC names and characteristics. A DM screen can also help you hide your dice rolls and notes from the players, allowing you to maintain an air of mystery and surprise. (Though your players can’t see your rolls, I personally would always feel comfortable letting players check my rolls behind the screen if there were a question – I’ve got nothing to hide!)
Having a DM screen can be especially helpful for beginner DMs who may feel nervous or unsure during their first few sessions. By having a screen to hide behind, you can feel more comfortable and confident in your role as a DM. It also provides a physical barrier between you and the players, which can help establish your authority and set the tone for the game.
Overall, a DM screen is not an essential tool for running a campaign, but it can be a helpful one. If you choose to use a DM screen, you can either purchase an official one or create your own using cardboard, foam board, or other materials. Some DMs even decorate their screens with artwork or information relevant to their campaign, further enhancing the immersive experience for players.
Dice – Lots of Dice
Dice are an essential tool for any tabletop RPG. You need to have at least one set of polyhedral dice, which include a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20 – but as the DM, I recommend having a few sets; I play with three full seven-dice sets and about six extra d20s. Having all these extra dice help when you need to roll initiative for several baddies or roll 2d8 for damage or something similar.
You could also roll all your dice digitally using D&D Beyond, but I love rolling physical dice. It’s entirely up to you though!
Adventure Module/Campaign Book
If you are a beginner dungeon master, using pre-written adventure modules can be helpful in creating your campaign; some popular ones include Dragons of Stormwreck Isle (the current D&D Starter Set), The Lost Mines of Phandelver (the previous D&D Starter Set), and Dragon of Icespire Peak (the D&D Essentials Kit) – but there are many, many more (some I’ve detailed in my D&D sourcebooks guide, too.)
These modules provide a detailed story, maps, and characters, saving you time and effort. Pre-made modules are also useful for learning how to structure a campaign, pacing the story, and setting up encounters. Adventure modules come in various sizes, from short one-shot adventures to epic campaigns that can last for months or even years. You can find pre-written adventures in game stores, online marketplaces, or the official Wizards of the Coast website.
Character sheets are an essential tool for keeping track of each player character’s abilities, equipment, and experience. These sheets contain vital information such as the character’s name, race, class, skills, stats, and hit points. Your players will create their characters using the character sheet – either a physical piece of paper or digitally in D&D Beyond.
Either way, I recommend having a copy of each player’s character sheet as the DM (either a photocopy or access on D&D Beyond); it will help you understand what each character is capable of at each level and plan better sessions for you.
An initiative tracker helps you keep track of the order in which players take their turns during combat. An initiative tracker can be as simple as a whiteboard or notepad or as complex as a digital app. The initiative tracker helps keep combat encounters organized and fair, ensuring that every player gets their turn.
After trying a few different systems to track initiative, I think I’ve finally come up with the best way to track initiative on paper; I’ll share my system soon!
Battle Mat or Map
As part of rolling initiative, it’s probably the case that your players are about to go into combat – and that’s where having a battle mat or map comes into play.
A battle mat is a grid surface that you use to draw maps and move miniatures during combat. The grid helps you visualize the battlefield and keep track of character positions, distances, and movement. You can use a dry-erase board or a piece of paper with a grid. The battle mat helps make combat encounters more engaging and strategic, allowing players to use tactics and positioning to gain an advantage.
Also, it’s worth noting: if you’ve come to D&D from some of the popular games out there (like Critical Role), don’t compare yourself to those DMs. You’ll want to just make your own maps and improve over time – you might be the next Matt Mercer, but we all need time to improve our DM craft!
As a dungeon master, you need to take notes during your campaign. You can use a notebook, index cards, sticky notes, or a digital note-taking app.
Note-taking helps you keep track of plot points, NPC names, and other essential details. Notes can also be used to track player decisions, outcomes, and consequences, allowing you to create a personalized campaign that reflects the players’ choices.
Finally, one of the most important tools a dungeon master can possess is creativity. Being the DM involves – actually requires – the ability to improvise, think on your feet, and come up with creative solutions to problems. Being a dungeon master is about creating a story and world that engages players and keeps them coming back for more. It’s important to be able to think outside the box and adapt to unexpected situations.
While having the right tools is important, having creativity and a passion for storytelling is ultimately what will make your campaign successful.
In summary, as a dungeon master, you need a variety of things to run your first campaign. By having these things and a willingness to learn and adapt, you can create an engaging and immersive campaign that will keep your players coming back for more.
Is there anything else you think DMs need, or do you have questions about these things Dungeon Masters need to play? Let me know in the comments below!