Keep These Tools in Your Real-Life Bag of Holding

Technically, all you need to play Dungeons & Dragons is a set of dice, a pencil, and a character sheet. Sure, it’s very helpful to have least one copy of the Players Handbook on the table, of course, but many optional tools are available for players and DMs that can make game play easier, or just more fun.

I’ve seen old and new players alike get excited about these tools when people use them in games at my shop, and I like using them myself. Since they are optional, some may seem extraneous if you are used to playing without them. It’s obviously is a matter of personal preference, but I like them a lot and I’m curious how you all feel about them.

Maps and Miniatures
Some people prefer the “theater of the mind” technique for everything, but I don’t know how you can effectively run a multi-character combat, or anything beyond a quick skirmish or a two-character fight, without a battle map. I tried once, and it was a mess. It doesn’t replace the need to verbally set the scene and narrate the action, but I am very much a visual learner, and I need to be able to see things in front of me. Seeing how the action plays out is especially important for most new players who are trying to learn game mechanics.

Maps can get incredibly elaborate (and very expensive!), and I could do a whole column on the cool accessories available, including terrain, mounts, combat tiers, and much more. However, I believe those things are genuinely optional. Old-school penciling things on a sheet of graph paper is all you absolutely need, but a good grid map that uses dry or wet erase markers works nicely with miniatures.

Speaking of miniatures, many players and DMs put a lot of effort into theirs, customizing and painting them with incredible detail. They can be a great way help create a little world, and a staggering array are commercially available now. But anything will work if you have a map to put it on. I’ve had players use all kinds of things in place of an actual mini, including a spare die, a coin, a wrapped Starburst candy, and a small ball of aluminum foil. This works for DMs too -- if you don’t have the right mini to represent a creature or object, you can substitute anything.

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When the adventure calls for six giant badgers and you own zero badger minis, improvise!​

Initiative Indicators
Running combats goes more smoothly if everyone knows when their turn is coming up. Initiative tents are a popular solution. Fancy templates are available, but all you need is a strip of paper or an index card that you can fold in half and hang on top of your DM screen.

When I DM, I write the character’s name, the player’s name, and the character’s race and class on both sides so it’s visible to me and to the table. I like to put each character's passive perception on my side as well. Some DMs will add the character’s maximum hit points and other data; you can do whatever you think will help. Make tents for your monsters and NPCs too.

When initiative is rolled, you just rearrange the tents into that order and start the combat. This saves a lot of time because you don’t have to write names down or constantly remind everyone whose turn is now and who is up next.

I’ve seen other initiative indicator styles, including upright rods that you can clamp clothespins or other clips to, with the character’s name written on each clip. That takes up a little table space, but if that’s not an issue, I encourage you to get as crafty as you want to.

Spell Cards
Players have created their own spell cards for years, but now that they are commercially available, they are so popular we barely can keep them in stock at our shop. They are very helpful for newer players who want to try a spellcasting character, and an easy way for anyone to keep track of each spell without having to flip through the list in the PHB every time. As a DM, I love using them for NPCs who have a bunch of spells I’m not familiar with. Part of my prep routine for a game usually involves putting a one-off villain's spells into a nine-pocket card sheet for quick reference.

And good news, DMs: I hear monster cards are coming soon, so you can throw a surprise encounter at your players easily.

Inspiration Tokens
I love it when a DM rewards players with inspiration for particularly their inspired actions, funny lines, or great roleplay moments. You can always tell your player they have inspiration, which they can use according to your house rules (we can use it for advantage on a roll during that session, but I’ve heard of different methods). But it’s nice to give them a physical token to represent this boon. I’ve had DMs use campaign coins for this purpose. It’s such a good feeling to say something funny and receive a response in the form of a coin pitched in my direction. It also reminds me to actually use it, which I tend to forget if I just note it on my character sheet.

Bards can do this too! One of my players keeps extra dice on hand to lend when her bard gives another player inspiration. She literally hands them a d6, which they can add to a roll if necessary. Providing that tangible reminder is helpful, and players get more excited than I ever would have expected, especially new players. And that’s the whole point: finding ways to enhance everybody’s fun.

Do you use any tools of a similar nature that aren’t mentioned here? Because I’m always looking for ways to step up my game! Let me know in the comments.

contributed by Annie Bulloch

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First Post
I appreciate the tips and really like the plastic zoo animals. This can help me DM creatively on a budget.

I have my own DM tools to help track initiative, as well as track PCs and enemies on a dry erase map.

I started using a standard deck of cards to track initiative for everyone at the table, including enemies. Starting with ace and working my way up, I deal out black suited numbers for the players above their character sheets according to their initiative order and use the red suits to include the enemies in the order, as well. This way everyone can see their place in the order and using red cards for the enemies has helped players to strategize more easily around the enemies' place in the turn order.

Tokens and pawns.
I provide each player with a simple half inch board-game-style pawn in different colors with a set of dice that matches their pawn's color. I use all of the colors but red, which I use specifically for enemy tokens. After a couple of sessions, everyone can find their pawn on the map at a glance.

I use miniature red poker chips to mark the enemies' place and numbered them with a permanent marker so that the players can more easily remember which enemy is which. The chips work well for small and medium sized creatures, but larger poker chips and large buttons can be used for larger enemies.

My set up isn't flashy but it seems to move combat along nicely, and I found all of my aids fairly cheap on Amazon. You might also be able to find them at hobby or game stores as well.


As one of those who prefers Theatre of the Mind play, what I prefer over maps and minis is a collection of art, usually on a tablet or something, that can be used to set the scene and establish the mood.


back in the day i had made hand written 3x5 cards that also had magic items and NPC's, and creatures on them. Had a good index of them for 2nd edition. With the electronics big now a small tablet with a book on it is just the best for a gm no page flipping or back breaking with all the books. but cards for NPC's and magic items would be of use and like familurs and animal companions along with summond ones too. pre made or fill in the blank.


For those who have trouble with theater of the mind. Try using zones similar to Conan 2d20 (stay away waterbob stay away)

Having battle areas that roughly represent 30ft zones (for combat) helps dramatically. Personally I still advise taking off the training wheels bit by bit and people will eventually learn. But it is a good tool to get people adjusted to TotM combat.

Oh monster cards sounds awesome!

Great for random encounters. I can pick a handful of monsters that would make sense for the area and shuffle and draw at random. Oh look! Giant spiders!


First Post
For improvised minis, bags of green army men can find many uses. Bargain stores often have large craft bags of colored glass beads that can represent many things from critters to fire to invisible things. And check the toy sections for the bags of zoo critters.

Look at some of the secondary vendors for collectable minis. Often the commons can be had for pennies per mini. Good way to build up a collection of painted minis.

In addition to the Pazio pawns, Steve Jackson Games has a line of Cardboard Heros.

When I started playing, most of us were poor starving college students too cheap to use minis so we got good at the TotM way of playing. More then once, a used pizza box, coke can or small pillow was pressed into service as a building, tower or hill if we needed a little help visualizing something.

+ on PCGen.

Ed Laprade

First Post
I, also, could never wrap my head around TotM. At least without a good deal of description, which needed to be reiterated every turn if there was any movement going on. It was, and probably still is, too easy for players to forget in the heat of combat where their character actually is. (I've seen them teleport their characters several rooms away to get in on the action, without even thinking about what they were actually doing.) This was back in the day, so I was enthralled when battlemats became available, and I still use them today.

As for minis, yes, anything can be used. "Army men" really do work well. Cheap and they look martial. Great article.

Annie Bulloch

First Post
I do like using pictures of settings sometimes, and I've occasionally shown players the Monster Manual illustration of whatever they were fighting if I didn't have the right mini and they didn't know -- especially in the game I run for kids.

You can't always prepare for everything. Yesterday, one of the kids planted a bean from the Bag of Beans before the combat, hoping it might help. When he rolled for the effect after the in-game minute had passed, the battle was already over and everyone was healing up and looting. He rolled a 99 so a huge pyramid erupted from the ground. The kids decided to go in and loot it, and ended up fighting the mummy lord inside. One of them had been polymorphed into a unicorn. It was hilarious, and I wasn't prepared at all mini-wise, but we made it work!

As a player, I love getting a physical card from my DM for a new item. I'll probably get into this more in-depth in a future column, talking about more ways to help set the tone and immerse players in the game.

Ed Laprade

First Post
As a player, I love getting a physical card from my DM for a new item. I'll probably get into this more in-depth in a future column, talking about more ways to help set the tone and immerse players in the game.

I've used (hand-made) magic item cards, but some players either forget them or hand them back for me to hold onto between sessions. So I don't do it any more. All that work, and they really don't care... except when they need to look up what they do, of course!

Annie Bulloch

First Post
I've used (hand-made) magic item cards, but some players either forget them or hand them back for me to hold onto between sessions. So I don't do it any more. All that work, and they really don't care... except when they need to look up what they do, of course!

Boooooooooo, I'm sorry to hear that. I hold onto those things like they would actually work in real life. I keep them all in my notebook forever!


Intricately painted minis to represent the party are no good if you play OSR games where characters die left and right each session.

I have a couple of thousand D&D prepainted minis, which means I generally have the exact minis I need. However, I don't have many dinosaur minis.

As our current DM is running Tomb of Annihilation, he was going to buy some ToA pre-painted mini boxes until I suggested he check out some of the plastic dinosaur toys sold that your average department store sells. Instead of spending heaps of money to try and get some dinosaurs, he was instead able to get all the dinosaur minis he needs for just a couple of bucks.

Annie Bulloch

First Post
We also have a few thousand minis, and had a few dinosaurs among them, but I also got a tub o' dinosaurs from the toy section at Target, I believe. The triceratops in the photo above is from that batch, and the other animals in there came from the same source. I've also gotten a lot of cool minis, plus some cheap terrain pieces, at Michael's craft store.


I make my own laminated Monster Cards with artwork from the internet on one side and stats on the other. Size is roughly 6”x4”. Plus, on the side with the artwork, I also print the AC. Then during a fight I put the cards into a card holder (I don’t use GM screens anymore), so my players see a nice illustration plus the AC during the fight and I see the stats :)

More important monsters (dragons, giants, ...) sometimes get bigger cards (8”x 6”).

As for maps, I buy maps from mike schley and the other artists and print them out, size varying with importance. But I don’t use miniatures. They keep the attention away from the important part of the game (atmosphere, character) and emphasize the unimportant (strategy, tactics, rules lawyering).

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