Creating a DM kit of game necessities is a personal journey. It’s a project you never really seem to finish tweaking. As such there is no way to write a comprehensive must have list of things. So instead I decided to tear apart my own DM kit to show what I use when I run games. If you are a player only, don’t forget to check out my entry The Kit: Player.
The best way to prepare for running a game is to host the game at your home. You can never accidentally leave an integral part of the game at home if you’re playing at home. Plus there’s the whole comfort and home-field advantage. This will focus more on the traveling DM kit.
You will likely need a spacious bag. Between game supplies, journal, game mat, dice, laptop, and all manner of accoutrement a good bag will keep everything in check. I use a large JanSport laptop bag and it keeps everything organized and in reach. I have seen DMs run with everything from a spiral notebook and dice bag to a stuffed rolling suitcase lashed to a full milk crate. Experience will teach you with your game style what and how much is necessary per game.
The Game Mat
Some games do not require game mats and others are so tactically based it is extremely difficult to play without a visual representation. A good mat can be a godsend. There are 3d tiles, 2d tiles, gaming paper and mats. I think the best option for a DM, especially one who is traveling, is Paizo’s Flip-Mat. I own two of the original flip-mats and love them. They fold down smaller than a piece of notebook paper, lay flat when unfolded and can be used with dry-erase, wet-erase, and permanent marker. I drew out an elaborate map in Sharpie for a game and forgot about it for a few months. With 10-15 minutes of retracing and scrubbing I was able to clean it good as new. I highly recommend them for their versatility and durability. I also suggest a small water bottle & rag and/or whiteboard eraser.
The Holy Bible of a DM’s campaign world. This is where you make canon. Assuming you want to keep your notes for a long time and are planning to run multiple games in the world I suggest spending a little extra on a good journal. Moleskin is a reliable brand for a hardbound journal. I choose un-ruled pages so I am free to sketch and draw in the journal and scan it unblemished later. There are also great digital note taking options for a campaign journal. Evernote will keep your notes organized or consider creating an Obsidian Portal site for your campaign world. Generally you do not need to bring the campaign journal to game sessions unless you need to make a lot of reference checks.
The Campaign Journal is canon so you want to avoid making a lot of small, discretionary notes in it. Keep a small steno-pad or notebook to jot down the names of NPCs you made on the fly. Write down something you need to research or add to your campaign journal in the notes and review later. Laptops are great for combining a notebook with other resources.
Two sets of polyhedral dice plus a reserve set, this mirrors the recommendation for dice in the Player Kit. You may want multiple d20s around to make mass attacks go by a little faster.
There are all sorts of miniatures from which to choose. There are tokens, paper cutouts, craft miniatures of plastic and metal that need to be glued and painted and pre-painted plastic miniatures. I have hundreds of miniatures. Personally I prefer pre-painted plastic miniatures as they are durable, light and painted much better than I could manage. I used to carry around a big plastic tub of miniatures but eventually I got wise and re-organized them. I now have about a dozen small plastic boxes, a few medium sized plastic boxes and a large plastic box to hold all my miniatures. This means I only need to bring the boxes/individual monsters I need. Each currently used box is organized thusly:
Amphibian Humanoids (Sahaguin, Kua-Toa, Bullywug), Big Bad Evil Guys (suitable recurring villains), Constructs, Dwarves (Duergar, Azer), Fey Humanoids, Goblins, Hobgoblins & Bugbears, Halflings & Tieflings, Humans, Lizardmen (Dragonborn), Orcs & Trolls, Misc. Undead (Skeleton, Wight, Vampire), Zombies
Natural Beasts (Bear, Bat, Rat, Lizard, Wolf), Heroes (collection of best looking miniatures)
All large-sized or larger monsters
If I know the party will be spending most of its time trying to find a goblin camp in the nearby forest I know to pack goblinoids. I will probably add humans for some bandits and natural beasts to round out the session’s probable encounters.
I don’t actually use a lot of props. What little extras I do bring to my games are notes, hand drawn maps, or drawings of an item or location. I also like to spend some time and occasionally draw high-detail maps. With the flip-mats I can do this in permanent marker ahead of time and it won’t smear in transit. Hats, candles, skeleton keys, stamps, old coins, costume jewelry, music and all sorts of little extras can be added to your game to enhance the mood. Experiment and see what works best.
People run late. A nice way to keep people engaged while waiting on a player to show up is to have a simple game at hand. Keep a deck of playing cards, Three Dragon Ante, Munchkin, Inn-Fighting in your kit. A thematic game, or playing poker/dice with IC currency helps to keep the group on task and ready to start playing as soon as your latecomer arrives. There are lots of simple games for dice and cards on the internet. Playing a game like Gluckshaus (House of Fortune) can help to get your players into and keep them IC. It’s also a great time to do things like PC vignettes.
I have a bag of writing utensils. I have mechanical pencils, pens, and wet-erase/dry-erase/permanent markers. Keep spare writing utensils and erasing supplies for whatever media you use. If you use a vinyl game mat do not even have dry-erase or permanent markers with you. Those markers ruin mats, even avoid colored wet-erase markers. Make sure your group is aware of what markers can and cannot be used on your play surface.
There are plenty of accessories to enhance your game. Many people like initiative trackers, condition trackers, DM screens and a host of other game enhancers. Here are the ones I keep with me. I have a copy of Paizo’s Critical Fumble Deck, but its not very compatible outside of Pathfinder/D&D 3.5. I have a deck of 4e’s Condition Cards. They’re a great quick reference and if someone asks me what their Restrained condition means I can toss them the card and keep moving without breaking the action. D&D 4e has a lot of conditions, marks, oaths, and quarries to keep straight. I purchased a set of 250 transparent color counting chips. The chips are for teaching schoolchildren to count on an overhead projector. They come in 6 different colors and one set will last you and your friends a lifetime. I also keep a package of reusable adhesive (sticky tack). A small dot of the adhesive allows me to stick the counters directly on miniatures during play and remove them effortlessly.
This is another personal taste. Some DMs love the screen and others loathe it. I’ve played both ways and I prefer without it. The DM screen blocks my view of the table and I feel like it’s a barrier between me and the players. I almost never refer to the tables on the screen and generally avoid fudging rolls. But if you have players who constantly meta-game to determine monster to-hit bonuses and cannot keep from scanning your notes use it or better yet get a new group. A decent DM can always find a new group. DMs are the in-demand stock, don’t let a bad apple wreak havoc on your game.
One of my favorite DMs uses a screen in combination with a clipboard. He keeps his dice and miniatures behind the screen and instead of sitting, walks around the table (often behind seated players). He has free access to the whole playing surface and can speak personally and directly to any player. No one can catch a peek at his notes and there’s a palpable tension and unease to have someone walking behind you or looking over your shoulder as you attempt to make a clutch roll.
Hopefully this article is informative for new DMs, aspiring DMs, and veteran DMs alike. Have something that works great in your games or an idea for a topic leave a comment and as always think of subscribing to get notified of my new posts.
When I GM, I usually have my laptop, and a messenger-bag containing my rulebooks, maps, screen, pencils, dice, a notebook, and all of the character sheets. (I tried leaving the character sheets with my players, but they forgot to bring them to a game, so we decided to keep them in one place.) That old laptop probably weighs as much as the rest combined!
I’ve run from a laptop before but I like to avoid it when possible. Laptops eat up a lot of real estate on the table and I always have to sit by the outlet. But Ctrl+F on PDFs is such a nice feature to have during play. Keeps the rule book searching to a minimum.