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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.

View attachment 98044
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
 

Comments


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DM Dave1

Adventurer
While players usually have their own minis at our tables, I've been using chess pieces to represent foes when we're not running TotM. I don't have to search around for the perfect mini, it's easy to keep a single chess piece set in my bag, and there is enough variation that I can easily have different monsters represented on the grid. I do need to find me some good generic substitutes for large and huge sized monsters though. For large monsters, I've used some old Skylanders - which sometimes cause a bit of a disruption for being too comical. For huge monsters like giants, I've used empty beer/soda cans.

We track initiative on a small whiteboard that gets put on a shelf so all can see. Conditions can be easily notated next to PC/monster names, too.

I encourage spellcasters to print a spellbook by using this site: www.dnd-spells.com. It has saved a lot of page flipping at our table.

Inspiration gets tracked on the character sheets, although I allow stacking up to 3. I haven’t been giving it out as much lately but we do end every session with a secret ballot for the players to choose a “Player’s Choice Inspiration Award” for the session. They each write a PC name and a reason and turn it in. I later review them all and post the winner online later that night or the next day.
 
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Li Shenron

Legend
Maps and Miniatures
We use Lego minifigs, but no maps. We also use some Lego bricks for terrain elements.

Initiative Indicators
Never used. We just write down the initiative list on paper at each encounter.

Spell Cards
Not yet... Being a strong fan of DIY, I have created my own "action cards" that include more than just spells, but I am still prototyping different printing options, so the cards are not ready yet.

Inspiration Tokens
I very rarely use Inspiration, but I thought about tokens for conditions and buffs. I don't have a plan yet, however.

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.
Well there's always the DM screen :) Actually I haven't used that in a while, but in the past I have used a DIY mock screen made by a simple folding cardboard with pinned tables and other printouts (the idea is that I can change each session what to pin on it, depending on what I think I need, instead of having a one-size-fit-all permanent screen layout).

Another thing I've used is magic items tokens. But since we started using Lego minifigs, those tokens often take the form of actual minifigs accessories.

Did I mention I am a strong fan of DIY? :) For me, coming up with custom props is a favourite part of the hobby. I want D&D to always feel "pen & paper, plus my own stuff!" and even tho I was tempted to pick up the GF9 spell cards (they are nice and cheap), nothing beats the feeling of making the game more personal with my own custom projects.
 

smiteworks

Explorer
While I prefer to use Fantasy Grounds at the table to track all of these things, I did see a very clever idea by the Beadle and Grimms folks that they used in the premium box. They used a folded card with the image of the monster on one side and the stat on the back that they could hang over their DM Screen to track initiative. The players see who is coming up and the DM has all the stats. Simple and effective.




Here is a link to their site:
https://www.beadleandgrimms.com/platinum-edition
 

Skyscraper

First Post
Here are a few of those that were not named by the OP that we use:

1) Cards for initiative: we use Tarot cards with cool artwork but any card will do. Each character (PC, NPC, villain) or group of characters (red shirts, minions) is represented by one card. PCs keep the same card each game, so they recognize their card. We draw them at the start of battle to determine initiative order, and then it's easy to refer to the order during the entire round. No Dex bonus to initiative, with this rule, but Alter Feat gets an extra card in the deck, acts at the first one that comes up and ignores the second. (This idea was posted here by someone else, and after a year of testing, we love it.)

2) rules summary sheet. For quick reference to useful rules, including conditions.

3) spell summary printouts. Useful mostly for the DM that needs to refer to spells on the spur of the moment and read what a spell does in 1-2 lines.

4) painted D&D miniatures and poster maps. I'm a fan :) Though, for me, it's a question of when to take out the miniatures, and the map. Some battles require one, some both, some none.
 

jrowlandstuart

First Post
Two DM that I play with use tokens that they hand out to players for inspiration.
One uses small plastic red hearts.
The other uses poker chips (and allows multiple chips per player)
 

I use maps and minis sparingly. Mostly only for combat. Since combat involves a lot of movement, I am able to move the minis as they fight. No one just stands in one place and fights like fighters in a ring. They move about, they turn, sometimes they lunge at one another and miss. In a multi player fight with PC's and NPC's, I can move players around so that if someone wanted to take a swing at a new opponent, now since the battle has moved around, they can see if they are in easy range, or if they have to move. For my games, it makes for faster game play. Again, I only use minis and maps for fight sequences, everything else you need the to imagine.
 

guachi

Explorer
I backed a Kickstarter of nicely illustrated tokens from gamemash.com. The tokens end up being something like 40 cents for a 1 inch token. They also have 1/2 inch, 2 inch, and 3 inch. They are mounted on little magnets and the early versions even had a felt backing. The benefits, aside from being cheap, are that they can't be knocked over, they are numbered so the PCs can easily say, "I attack goblin #12", and they reduce clutter as the only tall things are the PCs' minis.

I'ev had two DMs use initiative cards and neither time did it save any time at all. There was far too much time spent by the DM fiddling with the cards to speed the game up.
 

guachi

Explorer
I backed a Kickstarter of nicely illustrated tokens from gamemash.com. The tokens end up being something like 40 cents for a 1 inch token. They also have 1/2 inch, 2 inch, and 3 inch. They are mounted on little magnets and the early versions even had a felt backing. The benefits, aside from being cheap, are that they can't be knocked over, they are numbered so the PCs can easily say, "I attack goblin #12", and they reduce clutter as the only tall things are the PCs' minis.

I'ev had two DMs use initiative cards and neither time did it save any time at all. There was far too much time spent by the DM fiddling with the cards to speed the game up.
 


Laurefindel

Adventurer
Like flametitan mentioned earlier, I tend more toward Theatre of the Mind lately and vastly prefer images and sketches to scaled maps and minis. When I have the time, I draw a perspective rendering of the scene ahead of time, or surf the internet for images or picture that I find evocative of the local and/or ambiance I aim to convey.

For my last campaign, I've been finding image for each important NPC and villains, and print them on 4"x5" cards, with its name and a short description. (Like Duchess so-and-so, 40ish y/o, monarch of that-town, ambitious military leader and rival of that-other-noble). This makes it a lot easier for the players to remember the proper names of my NPCs, so that they don't have to actually call her duchess so-and-so.

'findel
 

I'm super surprised no one has mentioned DnD Beyond, which I love for their character sheets, easy to search and reference spells, monsters, etc. I also really like Improved Initiative, which is free, although only has the base level monsters. When we play I've got a browser up on a screen and will have the "player view" of improved initiative up. I can also track basic stats and hit points for monsters and NPCs.

Thanks for all the ideas for budget miniatures. Someday I'd love to have a collection, but I'm just not there yet. I love the idea of chess pieces and I'll have to look up those tokens, because it's not uncommon around our table to hear "which one was orc #5?"

https://www.dndbeyond.com
http://www.improved-initiative.com/e/gaxg03ut
 


mrrockitt

Explorer
I'm super surprised no one has mentioned DnD Beyond, which I love for their character sheets, easy to search and reference spells, monsters, etc. I also really like Improved Initiative, which is free, although only has the base level monsters. When we play I've got a browser up on a screen and will have the "player view" of improved initiative up. I can also track basic stats and hit points for monsters and NPCs.

Thanks for all the ideas for budget miniatures. Someday I'd love to have a collection, but I'm just not there yet. I love the idea of chess pieces and I'll have to look up those tokens, because it's not uncommon around our table to hear "which one was orc #5?"

https://www.dndbeyond.com
http://www.improved-initiative.com/e/gaxg03ut
Just wanted to add my admiration for Improved Initiative, is an excellent tool!
 

dumdragon

Explorer
Solve two problems at once -

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/643710787/stat-trackers-a-gm-accessory-for-5e-dungeons-and-d

They are incredibly useful - glad I backed the Kickstarter but you should be able to order them separately now.
I know James and these are great. You can find them here. https://www.topdoggames.net/shop-1

I have a couple large vinyl mats and some colored markers I use for most setups. Like many here I have way too many minis and need a portable hole to transport them.
I also use a magnetic board with movable counters for conditions and hit points
 


ColonelHardisson

What? Me Worry?
I DMed Theater of the Mind for a decade during the 1e era. What I kept behind my DM screen was graph paper. When combat commenced, I jotted down the positions of PCs and opponents on it, and kept track of movement with pencil as players called out their actions. Players could quickly sketch out where they were on paper of their own, or use whatever they had as tokens or minis. Areas of effect and ranges were kept track of by me. Yes, this involved some work on my part, but it lent a "fog of war" feel to fights. Plus, it made combat quick and fluid. 5e isn't much tougher than 1e to keep track of, in my experience. So graph paper is my main tool for the table.
 

Istbor

Dances with Gnolls
I used a lot of Legos when I would play at my home. They worked pretty well. I had a lot of the Knights sets and such, that it would work.

I bet now, I could do a Star Wars campaign pretty easily lol.
 

I must admit that I cheat. I use Photoshop to make little card minis (with the rear a greyed out silhouette), just like BloodBowl used to do. I then use my original BloodBowl bases to stand them up in. In a pinch, I suppose I could just use BloodBowl card minis as monsters but I’m too much of a stickler and the American Football helmets kind of ruin the look!
I appreciate that anyone under a certain age won’t remember BloodBowl in its original incarnation, so sorry for being The Grassy Grognard.
 
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