Dungeon Master Essentials: What You Actually Need to Start

There is no shortage of books, guides, accessories, figurines, maps, and tools out there for Dungeon Masters looking to up their D&D games. And while many of those supplies can certainly enhance your D&D sessions, not all of them are necessary—especially for a new DM.

So what are the real Dungeon Master essentials that you need in order to get started? Putting together your first DM kit may not be as challenging or expensive as you think.

Check out my guide on starting D&D as a new player here.

Bare-Bones Dungeons Master Essentials

If you’re worried about the cost of trying your hand at DMing, you can get started without spending a dime. This isn’t necessarily ideal, but it’s possible. At the very minimum, every DM needs these three things:

  • Dice
  • A copy of the rules
  • Pencil and scratch paper

You can get all three of these items for free if you use an online dice roller (like this one) and download the free copy of the basic rules from Wizards of the Coast. Just like that, you could be up and running your first adventure. Going this route is a great option if cost is something you’re worried about. You can always buy better, more in-depth supplies later if you decide to keep playing.

Of course, your first game might be a little easier to manage with a few more Dungeon Master essentials. I suggest adding these to your DM starter kit as well:

Once you’re ready to move beyond the basic rules in the free PDF, you’ll want to invest in a Player’s Handbook. This book includes the full set of core character options, combat rules, basic equipment, spell lists, and more. It will be your go-to reference whenever a question comes up during a game.

A DM screen is another handy tool to help your sessions run more smoothly. While you can purchase DM screens with cool art on the outside and helpful information on the inside, you can just as easily create your own with cardboard or filing folders.

A DM screen offers a few important advantages: first, you can fudge your dice rolls if necessary (like if the evil villain rolled enough damage to kill one of your players but you don’t want that to happen); second, you can use it as a cheat sheet for whatever info you need at a glance, like NPC names or a map of the dungeon.

As a new DM, you might not yet have a large dice collection (check out my list of the best D&D dice). If this is the case, I recommend getting bulk dice, particularly a box of d6s (six-sided dice) if you can. Not only are extra dice helpful when rolling damage and tracking other things, but they can also double as markers in combat.

Finally, index cards. Add index cards to your Dungeon Master essentials kit. You can get a lot for cheap and their uses are almost endless.

In my own games, I use them to track the initiative order (the order in which the players take their turns in combat) by folding them in half and hanging them over the top of my DM screen. On the back of each card (facing me), I have the name of the character and some of their stats like Armor Class and Passive Perception. On the front (facing the players) I write the character name, so everyone can see who’s coming up next in the turn order.

I’ve heard of other uses for index cards as well such as spell lists, player handouts, markers for area effects, quick sketches, and more. As you become more comfortable with your own DM kit, you’ll likely figure out your own favorite use for them.

Dungeon Master Add-Ons

Beyond the basic dungeon master essentials, there are a great many tools that can add to your games and make your job easier. However, these tools also generally cost money, which is why I don’t always recommend them for brand new DMs.

But if you’re looking to enhance your DM kit and dive into D&D, then these dungeon master supplies should be at the top of your list.

Grid Mat

A grid mat is a dry-erase or wet-erase play mat that you can use as a visual aid in D&D combat or exploration. You can draw maps and layouts and place figurines to demonstrate where characters are in relation to enemies, objects, spell effects, and more. Many mats feature a square grid on one side and a hexagonal grid on the other to give you options.

I use what’s called a “theater-of-the-mind” approach in many of my games as a DM (that is, combat happens in words and descriptions rather than anyone drawing it out). However, I use my grid mat during complex combat encounters such as scenarios with special terrain or a large number of enemies. For some encounters, it might be confusing for players to try to follow all the action without seeing it play out on the mat. That’s where my grid mat really comes in handy.

D&D Figurines

Figurines aren’t cheap, and building a large collection of them is a real investment. But it can make combat feel much more intense if your players are able to look at the creature they’re fighting, even in miniature form. Likewise, players enjoy seeing their own characters come to life on a grid mat as figurines.

I suggest starting with a handful of figurines you think you’ll use a lot—common baddies like goblins or zombies. If you have a specific final boss in mind, it might be cool to get a nice figurine for him/her/it as well. As for player characters, you can encourage players to build and print their own if they really want to.

D&D Books

Wizards of the Coast has published several supplemental rulebooks and adventure modules over the years, and it can be tricky knowing which ones you should add to your Dungeon Master essentials list first. After you’ve purchased your own Player’s Handbook, here is the order in which I would suggest getting your D&D books:

  1. Dungeon Master’s Guide– This is a guidebook to help DMs enhance the premade adventures they run or create their very own stories.
  2. Monster Manual– This book contains information and stat blocks for the vast majority of monsters your characters might encounter in a D&D adventure.
  3. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything– This supplement contains new rules for players and DMs, and it’s written from the point of view of an eccentric beholder named Xanathar.
  4. Volo’s Guide to Monsters– This book, written from the view of an explorer named Volothamp, adds new monsters, additional lore, and a few new character races to the mix for players and DMs.
  5. Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes– This is primarily a lore book (with a handful of added monsters) that provides context for many of the most important events in the D&D multiverse, as recorded by a powerful wizard named Mordenkainen.

Each of these books will cost you somewhere in the realm of $30-50, so collecting them all is quite an investment. I am still working on getting them all myself in fact. But there’s no rush, and you can DM a fun game with just the Player’s Handbook in your kit.

On top of these supplemental books are a number of premade adventures known as modules. Some of the most well-known and well-loved modules are Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation—as of this writing there are about a dozen published adventures. As a new DM, I recommend getting started with the D&D Starter Set or the Stranger Things D&D Starter Set (based on the Stranger Things story). Both of these kits contain a premade adventure, premade characters, and all the information you need to run a successful campaign.

Start Building Your Dungeon Master Kit

While all of these supplies will give you a good foundation, over time you’ll discover your own DM style and find what your Dungeon Master essentials are. I suggest you read other guides, learn what other DMs do, and constantly test new ideas while you’re starting out. Eventually, you’ll find things that work for you and things that don’t, helping you become a better DM every session.