As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I have a thing for “kits”. It’s oddly satisfying, gathering a collection of carefully curated items that share a common purpose…whether it’s your camping gear, a first-aid kit, your go-to stash of snacks and sweets you keep in your desk drawer at work (I know I’m not the only one), but even more important than chocolate…your D&D Kit!
I’ve had a handful of people ask about what I keep behind the screen and what tools are in my DM’s survival kit. So, here it is!
WAIT! Before you keep reading, I just want to say that, while there are a lot of commonalities in different DMs’ gear of choice, there is no right or wrong way to prep. It is completely dependent on your own process. Some people like going paperless with their notes and work off a laptop or tablet, I go old school and have my notes printed out in a binder. It’s up to your own preference! I also am NOT sponsored in any way by the products or tools I list below. I simply enjoy using them and want to share it with you!
Ok…Here’s what I have prepared when I’m running a D&D session:
Do you believe in Dice Juju? ‘Cause I sure do. I laugh at anyone who tells me “you have too many dice”, for they clearly underestimate the influence of the ever-fickle Dice Gods. Such doubt shall be their ruin.
I know this one seems like a no-brainer…because it is. You need dice. At least one set (I normally have two set aside for a game, because dice juju), but it’s handy to have extra d20s and d6s handy for NPC checks, initiative rolls, and rolling damage during combat.
I LOVE minis. Probably too much…which is why I don’t actually use them. Minis are awesome, but they can get quite expensive and difficult to store safely once your collection grows. I prefer to use glass tiles, stones, and tokens to take the place of PCs, NPCs, and baddies. I just use wet-erase markers to distinguish between characters, and I use different colors to show status conditions. They are versatile and comparatively inexpensive (find them in your local arts & crafts shop…or a nearby fish bowl). Paper minis are also a fantastic alternative which allows for more customization for each character! You can find lots of different downloadable templates for them online.
Spell and Item Cards
The D&D Spellbook cards are one of the best purchases I have made…you can get a deck of cards for every spellcasting class that contains the details for every cantrip and spell (up to the high levels, too) that you would need! It saves a lot of time when you can shuffle through a few cards as opposed to flipping frantically through the pages of a book. It makes for playing on-the-go much easier too.
If you don’t want to spend the money on spellbook cards, you can always make your own with index cards! It’s just as easy to use, and it’s easier on your wallet, too! You can also use index cards for special items and loot you plan to give your party.
A Journal or Notepad
Always take notes! I repeat, ALWAYS TAKE NOTES! So much can happen during a game, so unless you have a real-life Keen Mind Feat, it’s always a good idea to have paper and pen nearby to keep track of which NPCs your party meets, decisions that they make, items they receive…not to mention the obvious initiative rolls and HP count during battle.
Even with your trusty notebook, it’s easy to miss things now and then. Hopefully, your players are also taking notes and keeping track of the actions they take. They should be able to recap the decisions they have made over the course of a session, but this is especially useful for you as the DM in case you start going off-script and need to tweak a few things post-game 😉
The DM Screen
Like the dice, this one is a no-brainer…HOWEVER, how you customize your DM screen is completely up to you! Some people (myself included) have quick-reference rule sheets, status conditions, and basic stats for the party members. I also have reference details for commonly-used items or interactions, such as healing potions, or how much rooms at various inns cost. The non-combat things that come into play so frequently that it would be a pain to constantly flip through the Dungeon Master’s Guide to find (even if you have it all tabbed out like mine is).
You can also keep “random” lists behind the screen. Remember how I just mentioned going “off-script” in the previous section? This happens a LOT. It happens so frequently that I wrote a separate post about it last week. One of my favorite tools to keep handy are lists of random, un-designated NPC names, combat encounters, and “filler” items. What do I mean by “filler” items? When your party investigates an abandoned cabin, think about the random, mundane things they may find…not all loot is gold and magic weaponry! They’re much more likely to find things like…socks. Random items of clothing, nubbly used-up candles, scraps of parchment, the list goes on. Items that show that someone actually lived there…not just the cool shiny things.
“The Tome of Secrets”
A.K.A., my DM binder (but Tome of Secrets sounds way cooler than that). This is where I keep all of my notes for the adventure, including monster stat blocks for each encounter, NPC notes organized by locality, PC backstory notes, reference pictures for setting descriptions, and any maps I plan on using. I also keep extra character sheets in there for first sessions (or re-rolls). If I lost everything else, I could probably still run a game as long as I have this binder. I’ve spent so much time and energy on this thing, it might actually be a horcrux at this point.
Many people use their laptops or tablets to organize all of this information, but I still like the feeling of flipping through physical pages, and making notes in the margins as the party explores. I don’t have more than two “chapters” prepared at any given time…I like to have the notes prepped for the current session and one after (just in case), but if you over-prepare, you run the risk of either railroading your party or writing yourself into a corner, unable to flex if and when your party diverges from the plan.
While I don’t always refer to them each session (that’s what my quick-reference sheets are for), I always keep the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and, lately, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. There is always something I need to check that isn’t included in the binder…particularly when it comes to certain spells, items, and class features. For that reason, and in case one the party members forgot their copy at home, I like to have these books handy any time I’m running a game.
Some miscellaneous items that I have adopted into my DM’s kit include:
Extra markers and pencils (just in case)
Chessex Grid Mat
- It has a grid on one side, hexes on the other…I’m starting to experiment more with Theater of the Mind, but I still like having this handy!
- Perfect for holding all my dice, wet-erase markers for the tokens/battle mat, and item/spell cards! They also make awesome folding dice trays!
- While I mostly go with the binder, I do like having a laptop/tablet handy. This is one page that I always have open…it’s a great way to quickly assemble random encounters based off the number of party members, their levels, what environment they’re exploring (cave, forest, etc.), and your desired Challenge Rating for the encounter.
Google (I’m not including a link to this one…you know where to find it…)
- Good old Google. If I’m going off-script for a certain setting description and need some quick inspiration, I like to do a quick Google Image search for something similar, and use that for my descriptions. That way, you can either describe what you’re seeing or show the players the picture as you talk.
Scriv’s Beginner Character Sheets
- As promised, here are the Beginner Character Sheets I use in the D&D Storytelling Workshops!! It’s a simplified version of the 5e character sheet, perfect for new players! To be honest, I would have preferred something like this for my first D&D experience…that full 5e sheet can be intimidating for kids and adults alike! Feel free to check it out and use it at home…I have both the letter size and A4 size for my fellow UK gamers! I also included a sample of what it should look like all filled out.
- Some additional notes: The focus of the sheet is the basic ability scores, but leaves plenty of space for customisation of the PC beyond the numbers.
- I encourage starting with the back page, with the four prompts to help spark ideas for Backstory. Backstory and PC perspective is critical and will help you determine everything else from class to appropriate ability scores!
- The small circles on the “Abilities Pie” on the front page can be filled in to denote proficiency in a certain skill. Specified proficiencies and abilities can be recorded in a separate block.
- Things like XP, Background, and Alignment are left out to keep it streamlined. I tend to use the milestone leveling approach at first, or else keep track of XP separately. I would rather new/young players think about their PC backgrounds without needing the labels in the PH, and alignment can often change over time– Just play the character in line with what feels right, without using a specific archetype. Sometimes the labels can add unnecessary complication for players who are new to TTRPGs. That isn’t to say you cant use them, they’re just not on the sheet.
- Final note: this sheet can be used up to the 3rd level with the simplified mechanics. The max number of spells for most spellcasting classes at that level is 6, so there are six “bubbles” to fill in on the Spellcasting block, to help keep track of how many spell slots are used.
Try it out and let me know what you think in the comments!