D&D Beyond has been on my mind as much as I can afford, as any English major in his senior year can. I recently had a conversation with Scott Garibay about it, too. I can’t afford to do a lot, because I have so much on my plate right now, but I’m really excited by what it’s going to mean. Don’t get me wrong, I think what they’re doing already is good. It’s a useful tool that’s a very efficient version of a lot of things already out there. I know we’re only at the first stage of the beta, and there’s a lot more to come, but that’s the part I’m looking forward to. As it stands, there aren’t really any solutions out there that I like.
Even D&D Beyond doesn’t currently improve my life. In its current state, it’s a quick reference guide for parts of the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual, which I can largely get information from quicker than the website. So, I wanted to take a minute to talk about some of the tools I’ve been finding useful so far.
My Bag of Holding
I’m going to start off with the most useful of things that probably no one thinks of: the actual bag. A while back I bought an actual Bag of Holding off Think Geek. It’s expensive, but it’s awesome. The dimensions are literally perfect for D&D Source Books, and it’s got all sorts of perfect pockets and features a DM would love. Most players could probably benefit from it, too. Unfortunately, all of my players are smokers, and I’m asthmatic. No one is so insensitive they don’t step outside to smoke (and we’re playing at one of their houses), but the smoke still lingers and settles, so I can’t use the bag right now.
However, the experience has taught me a number of things. The first is the importance of the bag. I generally have to lug around grocery store bags when we go play, because I don’t want anything important of mine being saturated with smoke, but it’s cumbersome. That’s saying a lot coming from a guy who has to drag around two to three anthology books every day. So, before you do anything else, make sure you have a good bag. If you don’t already have one, go get one. I’d highly recommend a traditional school backpack. Don’t get fancy about it. Source books can get heavy, plus other materials, so you want something somewhat nice, but you don’t have to go all out. I highly recommend this backpack. It’s the one I use for school, and I love it.
Source Books[amazon_link asins=’0786966092′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’nerdarchy-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’7825994f-1108-11e7-b796-37868be8ccb6′]I’m a firm believer that a GM should own every source book they’re going to use. I know some games have been out for so long that owning every source book is unreasonable for a vast majority, but at least get all of the core source books. Now, by source books I don’t mean adventure guides. I mean books that have or add mechanics or tools. Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has only a few books, being the core books, plus Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and Elemental Evil Player’s Companion (which is at least free if you don’t want a printed version). I’m personally getting Tales from the Yawning Portal that’s coming out soon, but that’s only for the extra classic monsters, and I don’t really recommend that for most people. My current player base may not care about them, but another group in the future might, or it may come in handy for future adventures produced by Nerdarchy, and I feel it’s important to make sure I have it.
Admit it, you thought I was going to say map. That’s important, but not as important as this. Of all the tools I’ve used, this little dumb one was by far the most useful. What I’m sharing here is a template for what I used. At best, it’s a proof of concept, but it’s the first step towards a great tool (which I plan on realizing when I have the time). Based basically around the spell cards (which I love), it’s a baseball-card-sized piece of paper I put in (what else) a baseball card sheet sleeve. I use a spreadsheet and fill in the important stats, including the names and the max hit points, but leave a big spot for the available hit points. Then, with a dry erase marker, I just track the hit points for each of them in a more efficient manner. I had one sheet for each encounter, and I had everything I needed to run each encounter with ease. I’ll probably scrap this design and try to find something more useful, but as a proof of concept, it was perfect. Plus, since I hadn’t yet found a good initiative app, I was able to write the initiative on the unused portions of the sheet (I had dividers between each encounter, so it wasn’t clear on clear) with the dry erase marker.
Maps & Miniatures
Some people like theater of the mind. It has its uses, especially in short, small, unexpected encounters, but I don’t like it for anything beyond that. It’s just too easy to lose track of things, especially if you have a lot of pieces on the field. If for no other reason, the geometry of it can easily be lost. Things may be different for other games, but there are a number of skills, abilities, and spells in Dungeons & Dragons that rely on geometry and relative distance. Losing track of the geometry, by the players or the DM, can wreak serious havoc, especially on area of effect spells. Additionally, while theater of the mind activates each of the players’ imaginations, that means the scene becomes fractured. The onus falls on the DM to constantly try to design the scene on the fly based on player questions, which then becomes another thing that interferes with the DM‘s ability to maintain concentration on the field of battle.
I actually like physical maps over digital ones, which I mentioned in a conversation with Scott Garibay. I haven’t started in on set pieces, so I have no idea about how much I like the idea of traveling with them. If I were to start DMing at home, then I see no interference. Still, drawing on a dry-erase map is more than effective enough, and is extremely portable. Digital maps are a viable solution, too, as I mentioned with Scott Garibay, but I haven’t found anything I think can completely supplement a physical map. I think Playsets has potential, but it has a long way to go.
In the modern era, I think there’s no reason to not utilize any number of digital tools available. Each will have varying degrees of quality and viability. Most of the ones I’ve come across fall very short. Fight Club 5th Edition and Game Master 5th Edition, as examples, are good tools, but they’re iOS only, and it can be too much of a hassle to manage, especially for coordination with players. Lion’s Den also makes a great dice calculator, d20 Calculator, which I think is the best of that category. For iOS owners, Encounter+ is also a great tool. It has its frustrations, but none of them are insurmountable. However, these are iOS only apps. Many companies don’t offer apps on both platforms, so you’re going to have to find solutions for you. Hopefully D&D Beyond will solve a lot of those problems. Still, no DM should be without some digital tools that streamline their games.
[Optional] Spell Cards
This one isn’t so critical, but spell cards have made my life insanely easier. I have a big binder of them, with each spell put in a baseball card sheet, arranged by class. I pull out the sheets of the spells that my players have access to, and I can have them on hand for the fastest possible reference. If you have new players and you want to streamline the encounters, have them on hand for your players to reference. I’d suggest you urge them to get their own, but they only need to buy the decks for the classes they’re actually playing anyway. DMing is usually more expensive for the DM than it is for the players, so don’t fret too much about it.
It’s not a bad idea to have extra dice on hand for your players on the just-in-case. Keep them separate from your personal dice so they don’t abscond with them (intentionally or unintentionally), but it’ll make things go smoother if the need arises for whatever reason. If players have a sudden need of dice they don’t currently own, or they forgot their own, having some extra means that players aren’t wasting time trading back and forth.
Finally, you need something to take notes with. If at all possible, I prefer just using an audio or video recording app on my phone. That way, I can stay in the moment. I’m still trying to find a solution that works best. I liked having video on hand, but four to six hours of video takes up a lot of storage. Audio takes up a lot less, which is a major advantage. I’ve been looking into services that allow me to record directly into the cloud. So far, recording the session Periscope with a private group, and downloading the video with an app, seems like a viable solution, which I’ve done a proof of concept for, but I haven’t had a chance to test it in the wild.
That being said, even with all of the other tools at your disposal, having a pad and paper on hand is also a great idea. There might be times where you’ll need to jot down notes and ideas that are only happening in your head and you don’t want your players knowing what you’re thinking. I’d suggest going analog with this one, because it’s faster and takes up less space.
Stay Nerdy, my friends
Hopefully all of this will be useful for the new DMs of the world, and maybe it’ll help put together a good DM kit. I doubt experienced DMs will learn anything from this, but you never know.