As a dungeon master or game master, you can run a fun game with almost no gear, just a couple of dice, a pen, and some note paper. I prefer to operate on the other end of the spectrum, with a full array of miniatures, markers, and props. This guide takes a tour through the tools in my DM’s kit. You do not need any of this equipment, but I suspect you will see some items to add to your case.
A bento box provides storage for my gaming essentials. This Japanese-style lunch set includes two boxes with lids that pull together with an elastic band. I put pens, pencils, and tokens in the one box. Dice go into the other. When I take out the pens, the empty box doubles as my dice tray. Best of all, when I go to play, just need to grab the box and a character sheet. Also, except for a battle map, all my dungeon mastering essentials fit in the box. Amazon offers some appealing bento boxes for around $20.
The miniature figures I need for a game fit into a translucent-plastic, compartment case. Removable dividers make the compartments’ size adjustable. As visible in the photo, I half-filled some of the compartments with foam rectangles. This prevents miniatures from banging around and makes small items easy to reach. When I need space for a larger miniature, I pluck out the foam for extra room.
Dungeon master’s screen
I typically use a DM screen. I prefer the 6” tall mini version of the World’s Greatest Screen from Hammerdog games. This screen is constructed like a loose-leaf binder, with clear-plastic pockets on both sides. I filled the DM-side pockets with the tables and rules I needed most at the table. Stuff the players’ side with your favorite fantasy art.
I have created rules inserts for fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, which you can download as a PDF file. Put them in the Hammerdog screen, or just put the inserts on cardboard and fabricate your own screen.
You can learn why I choose to use a screen and download my inserts in “Dungeon master’s screen.”
I always carry a blank battlemap. The Pathfinder flip-mat works with both wet- and dry-ease markers and folds for easy storage. When laid out, the mat tents a little at the creases.
The Chessex Battemat rolls out and lays flat, but the rolled map is harder to carry. This vinyl map limits you to wet-erase markers.
When I use folded poster maps, I typically make the map lay flat by covering it with a Lexan Polycarbonate Sheet—the sort of material used for storm windows. The Lexan sheets cost more than Acrylic, but they resist cracking. By using wet-erase markers, you can write on these sheets and then erase. Purchase these sheets from your local home-improvement store for under $20.
I transport my maps and Lexan sheet in a inexpensive, artist’s portfolio case.
Some poster maps printed for miniature skirmish games lack a grid. You can still use these maps for your D&D games. ArcKnight sells clear-plastic sheets that overlay a grid on any map. Some DMs avoid grids. Tokens or miniatures on an informal map gives a picture of the battlefield without encouraging anyone to quibble over squares. Alternately, you can use a tape measure to find distances in inches, just as Dave and Gary once did.
Rolling in a box
For reasons explained in “Rolling in a box,” I always make die rolls in full view of the players. I used to use a clear, plastic box to keep the dice corralled. This clear box never hides the outcome of a roll, but now I use one of my bento boxes as a dice tray. The bento box doubles a storage, so it packs more easily.
Fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons required combat-status markers to track all the conditions on the battlefield. I invested in a set of Alea Tools magnetic status markers. You can mark the edges of these markers with adhesive labels so everyone can read the status names. The markers cling in place, and a storage case makes organization easy.
Fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons eliminates much of the need for combat-status markers, so I no longer bring a case full of markers to the table. However, I’ll always use the numbered markers to tell one identical monster figure from another on the battlefield. When I lack miniatures for a game, I use my numbered markers as creature tokens.
Colored plastic disks provide any easy way to mark the location of things like a key, a magical glyph, or a wall of fire on the battlemap. Because the disks lay flat, miniatures will sit on top of them. I purchased my set from a convention vendor. You can also buy plastic countersonline.
Marking zones and areas of effect
To designate zones and areas of effect on the battlemap, I use three types of markers:
Colored transparencies. I keep a set of transparent, colored sheets clipped to the inside of my DM screen. Whenever someone drops, say, a cloud of darkness, I can lay down a sheet on the battle map. Because you can see through the sheets, the terrain stays visible. Typically, you only have to lift one or two figures to place a small sheet, which is easier and faster than marking each of the area’s four corners. You can purchase the transparencies from American Science and Surplus.
Boundary markers. These plastic angles mark the four corners of square areas. The boundry markers from Litko Game Accesories come cheap, work for any size area, and allow the miniatures to stay put.
Area-of-Effect Templates. For third-edition D&D and descendants like Pathfinder, I recommend the wire templates from Steel Sqwire. Frugal gamers can bend and snip templates almost as nice from coat hangers.
The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide drops the jagged spell templates of 3E. Instead, the rules suggest that players measure actual circles and cones on the battle map. Spellcasters no longer need to stay inside the lines. Despite the change, eyeballing spell areas on a grid remains a chore.
To show circular spell effects, use macrame rings. The rings come in variety of sizes, so you can get an 8-inch ring for Fireball, a 6″ ring for Darkness, and a 4″ ring for Antimagic Field—or for the tactician who wants to launch a fireball above the battle to catch a smaller circle. The sturdy rings pack easily into your game bag.
I still hunt for wire templates for cone effects. I may try to bend my own.
A line-of-sight indicator reels out a string that you can stretch between figures on the battlemap to see if obstacles block the line. The string is spring loaded, so it draws back automatically like a tape measure. Paizo sells these, but office supply stores and Amazon offers the same item as a retractable badge holder.
I track initiative using folded, card-stock tents with names written on both sides. I drape the tents across the top of my DM’s screen in initiative order. If you work without a DM screen, or prefer to delegate initiative to the players, you can stand the tents on the table, lined up in order.
You can find more advice and my printable initiative tents at “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”
Pens, clips, and scissors
Obviously, your DM kit requires regular pens and pencils as well as wet- or dry-erase pens suitable for your battle map. I bring clips so I can affix maps and pictures to my DM screen in the players’ view. Any convention DM must carry scissors to cut apart certificates and player hand outs.
Post-it flags enable me to affix reminders to my initiative tents, so I can remember when conditions lift, and when the purple worm will burst from the floor.
I give players poker chips to represent inspiration. Different colored chips can also account for magical talismans, blessed elixirs, keys, and other items players must collect or use during the course of an adventure.
As I confessed in “Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard – I made a Drowslayer,” I enjoy representing the action on the table with the correct miniatures.
My DM case always includes an assortment of two types of miniatures:
- Bystanders and civilians. As I wrote in “Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads,” miniature figures for unarmed civilians can serve as bystanders to be protected as moving obstacles. Civilian figures can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat. You can find townsfolk from TurnKey miniatures, Dungeon Crawler, and Reaper’s Bones lines.
- Beast forms and animal companions. While fourth edition encouraged characters to collect animal companions, fifth edition lures many folks into playing Druids with animal forms. I pack an assortment of the most common beasts. In ascending level, Druids favor the following forms: Wolf, Bear, Hyena, Giant Vulture, Giant Snake, Ankylosaurus, Giant Scorpion, Giant Crocodile, Mammoth, and elementals.
For a list of other miniatures that I keep close at hand, see “The 11 most useful types of miniatures.”
To avoid the expense of miniatures, you can substitute tokens, Alea markers, or candy—tell players, “If you kill it, you eat it.”
ArcKnight offers a line of flat, plastic miniatures as a cheaper alternative to the real thing. These figures stand upright, so they offer more visual appeal than a token. Once you take them off their bases, they pack flat, making them easily portable.
The flying figure stands from Litko game accessories offer a way to mark airborne figures. The stands allow you to position one figure over another, or to set a die under a flying figure to indicate elevation. The flight stands come in three pieces that require assembly. Typical CA glue will fog the clear acrylic, so I suggest using the Craftics #33 Thick Acrylic Cement. Use nail clippers to trim the long tabs on the vertical support so they fit flush with the base and platform. Pack the stands carefully, because they snap easily.
When I use Dungeon Tiles, I arrange them on sheets of non-slip drawer liners, available anyplace that sells housewares. The liners grip the table and keep the loose tiles in place. These lightweight liners easily roll up for transport.
For all but the simplest layouts, loose tiles take too long to arrange on the table, so I like to assemble maps in advance. I use removable mounting putty to stick the tiles on foam-core art boards. Office supply stores sell both the boards and the putty. Get the Removable Adhesive Putty, and not clear removable mounting dots, because the clear stuff sets after a while and will damage the tiles.
For more one dungeon tiles, see my “complete list and gallery of Dungeon Tiles sets” and “complete guide to using Dungeon Tiles.”
I carry a couple of corked glass vials from American Science and Surplus. While completely unnecessary, I find them enchanting and I sometimes use them as prop potions.
While completely inessential, I pack some miniature dungeon decor to add to the battlemap. Figures such as chests, statues, and altars can add three-dimensional flavor to the battlemap, while calling attention to important features. Ballistas appear in enough adventures to make a figure useful. The photo below features items from more recent D&D miniature sets and from Legendary Realms. Reaper’s Bones line also includes some unpainted decor.
Glad I found your site. This is a great article and well thought out. Thanks for sharing!
Here is one of my DM tools.
Toy containers found at supermarket vending machines.
Very nice. I like the status markers and transparencies – off to online stores.
I started using a little laser to check for line of sight. It works great. I use it for wargames, etc.
That Bento Box might be worth investing in…
Thanks for sharing!
The technique my friend used for 4E area-of-effect templates might be of use to some. The same gaming group came up with using Goody hair bands to mark minis and it works great and is super-cheap. Finally, my favorite way to track initiative is with these initiative table tents yet another friend came up with. Works so well that we use it even when at cons with a random DM.
Ahh, those were the days. Back as far as AD&D I had thousands of miniatures, along with dungeon tiles, and all sorts of other aids. I sold them off long ago, and with 5e going back to theater of the mind makes things much simpler, cheaper, and portable.
Cool stuff, though. Just don’t have the time or budget for it anymore, plus I love how without it the game focuses less on the combat (and MUCH less on the fiddly parts of combat).
A one minute sand hourglass timer.
It’s a small tool that has changed the way I DM stories. Once I decide that the next event in the story is ready to happen, I don’t interrupt the players immediately. Instead I flip the timer behind my screen, and *then* interrupt the players when the minute is up.
It’s a small change, and you wouldn’t think that one minute matters, but it does. Instead of the next major plot point happening at a lull in the player’s table conversation, or at particularly dramatic moment, it just happens. I segue into it very roughly with something like, “as talks of robbing the innkeep, three dead orcs fall through the doorway.” It keeps the players on their toes, and they stop looking to you for nonverbal cues for pacing.
Some DMs will only use a one minute sand hourglass by occasionally putting it in front of players, to build some tension for a big moment. That’s a good use. But I use it behind the screen all the time.
I don’t have a lot of money to spend on miniatures or the time to paint them so I built a magnetic chalkboard to use as my battle map.
I purchased the wood, magnetic paint, and chalkboard paint from Home Depot. Cut and glued the wood to form the board. Covered the board with the magnetic paint, then the chalkboard paint, and then added the grid lines (3/4”) with a sharpie permanent black marker.
I purchased the square ¾” magnetic from Michaels and used red marker to apply the characters initials to some and black marker to apply numbers to the monsters.
Finally I purchased some cheap laser pointers (cat toys) from the local pet store so players can point out positions without getting up from the table.
Hi, i love also the fantasy tiles by Pwork Wargames! really good for RPG! http://www.pworkwargames.com/en/22-tiles-sets
Awesome article with so much good information. David, what do you use to transport your dungeon tiles?
I use the same plastic, folder cases that I use to store the tiles. Here’s the sort of thing: https://www.amazon.com/3-X-Hanging-Project-Cases/dp/B01GU152BE/. I keep the cases in a file drawer.
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