In this post, we’re going to talk about something that is vital to being a Dungeon Master…how to set up a dungeon master screen!! Yes, this isn’t the most thrilling topic, but as an up and coming Dungeon Master you might be struggling with how to get your setup rolling. Now, before you continue reading I must let you know that everyone’s Dungeon Master setup should be unique to that Dungeon Master’s playstyle. That little disclaimer aside, let’s go ahead and get rolling!
Here’s a basic spread of what we’ll be covering and the essential materials you’ll need:
- Materials/ Setup:
- DM Screen
- Campaign Note Binder
- Music Apparatus
- Figurines/ Miniatures
- The Books (Player’s Handbook/ DM Guide/ Monster Manual)
- Condition Markers
- Spell Templates
- Wet Erase Markers and Playmat
- Going Forward:
- Check Out Some GM Forums
- Customize Your Setup to Work for You
First thing’s first, you’ll need to get a screen. If you’re unfamiliar with what the DM screen is or how it functions, it is a barrier between you and your players. It guards your notes and secrets from curious, prying eyes and serves as a great quick reference to rules and regulations. You can buy the official Dungeon Master’s Screen for 5e from retail book stores and game shops, create your own custom one with rules you can print off the web, or even a combination of the two.
One of the most helpful things I have learned when getting my screen ready is to keep in mind what rules are more prevalent and come up more in my game sessions. You can find these rules, print them out and add them to your custom screen, or tape them over parts of the official screen that you find to be less useful. Another thing I like to do is highlight things I tend to forget so I actually do the stuff I’m supposed to. It helps make me look more competent than I am, and may help you as well.
There are a number of things that you can add to your screen that can be beneficial to your game. For instance, I like to have potion breakdowns and damage level by severity, as well as DC by severity. However, you need to choose what it is that works for you, and while I could list off every single rule and regulation, we would never get to the next segment…like ever….that’s how many rules there are, and the combinations of these rules you could put on your DM screen are infinite. The point is, you need to prioritize.
This is not an ordinary binder, with ordinary notes about what you covered in math class yesterday. This is your canon, your legacy, your ultimate book of lore and history, as well as the chronicles of your adventurers. Inside your binder should be basic notes on the world you have constructed. It will include locations, important NPCs, great events that shaped the world, the events and conflicts experienced by the party, and future plot hooks and adventures.
Again, what this binder is comprised of will ultimately be up to you. However, here’s a few things that may prove useful to include:
- Lists of NPC names
- Quick Rule Cheat Sheets
- Copies of Your Players’ Character Sheets
- Breakdowns of Locations Your Players Have Visited
- Character Sheets of Important NPCs
- Character Sheets to Use for Overall Generic NPCs
- Artwork That Portrays the Lands Your Players Have and Will Visit
- Maps of Locations Past, Present, and Future
- Experience Tracker for Your PCs
- And Whatever Else You Can Think Of!
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about some other materials you should consider having.
Notebook or Notepad
This is an extremely crucial thing to have at the ready. As the Dungeon Master, your job is to balance the chaos and as such you will have a lot to remember. Thus, you need to take notes…..Seriously, for the love of all that is holy, take notes!! It will help you when you create an NPC out of the ether or create a random encounter that may have relevance or need consequence later. You could also jot down cool and unique things that your players have done to award them extra experience.
Music is a great way to create an immersive atmosphere. Whether your players are in a tavern after their latest dungeon crawl, treading through a dark forest tracking quarry, or in a grand hall fit for kings about to receive the sovereign of a kingdom, the background noise and music will help to ignite your players imagination. As such, you’re going to need a tool for music.
You could use your computer, ipad, ipod, or mp3 player to accomplish this. There are a variety of apps and websites that have a plethora of ambient sounds and soundtracks you can use for free, or for a price. When you’re building your soundtracks, be sure to make them fit the situation you intend to use them for. You can create playlists for creepy ambience, battle songs, and tavern and city music. Be careful if you’re wanting to live stream your games, and make sure you have permission to play any songs and sounds you intend.
Ok…let’s be real for a second. You need dice….doi!! Now, dice can be expensive. Most stand-alone sets of your polyhedral dice can cost anywhere from 10 to 50+ dollars. However, you can get bulk sets of dice, some of which have up to 18 sets of polyhedral dice for around 20 dollars online. Now, if you are a bit short on cash, there are plenty of free phone and computer apps that act as virtual dice roll simulators. One of my personal favorites is D&Dice, which can be found on the Google Play Store. You can check out my review on D&Dice here. I will say though, that this is no substitute for the experience of rolling your own physical dice on the table with your friends. At least, not in my experience.
Having something physical to represent your player characters, NPCs, and monsters is another helpful tool. However, this can also be quite expensive. If your budget allows, I recommend you get a collection of miniatures. If you’re a bit short on change though, you can use other things to track your players, NPCs, and creatures. A fun and interesting idea is to take bottle caps and paint them with a custom logo for each of your player characters and NPCs. You can do the same with small to medium creatures. However, you may need to use something else for creatures that are large and beyond.
All the Books You Can!
In any of my articles before this, you have seen me mention the Dungeons and Dragons 5e resources. This post is no exemption. I can’t stress to you enough just how handy it is to have the books nearby. No matter how much planning, screen setup, or memorizing you do, you will run into a situation where you need to make a final decision on a technical aspect that you are unsure about. Therefore, if you can, try to have a copy of The Player’s Handbook, The Dungeon Master’s Guide, and The Monster Manual on hand.
Purchasing the hard copies of these books can be a little pricey for some. However, if you have a laptop or tablet, you can easily pull up the free pdfs free of charge. But you will need to have these things at your fingertips at a moments notice. So, keep that in mind.
Often in combat encounters, your party members will place conditions upon their foes, as well as come under these same conditions. Whether they’re stunned, blinded, or poisoned, it will be easier to keep track of who has what with some sort of marker. Wizards of the Coast does sell specific markers for their games. However, if you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, you can use different colored soda tabs. You could even use strips of construction paper as a condition placeholder.
You don’t have to get condition markers if you’re good at keeping track of what condition is on who for how long. Just be sure to do whatever works for you in order to avoid confusion or losing track of things.
These are little cut outs that help you measure the area any given spell has taken effect in. They are extremely useful in combat situations where character and foe placement are sporadic. You can utilize these to give your players a solid visual representation of the spells area of effect during combat. Whether it’s their own spells, or the spells and abilities of their foes, you’ll be glad to have them.
Having something to present an extra challenge to your players is always a good time. Speaking of time, what better way is there to challenge your party than by giving them a time limit to complete a task. A timer is a great way to achieve this. Of course, you can easily use the timer on your cell phone, if you have one. If you don’t, you can get a digital timer for relatively cheap. Or, if you want to be a little more theatrical, get a good old-fashioned time glass. This will create a little extra tension within the session and push the party to a hopefully badass and creative ending.
These tools are used most during the unexpected. When the party decides to tread off the path you have beaten for them, you need to sketch up a quick map. There are big mats you can buy that have the square movement blocks on them. With these, you can draw up a quick map and after you’re done using it, you can take a wet cloth and erase it so you can have a canvas for future endeavors.
You can also use these wet erase markers on any sheets in your binder that are in plastic sheet holders. This can allow you to write down some quick notes you want to have later for whatever purpose. Say for instance that one of your major cities has suffered an attack from otherworldly forces and as such, many prominent leadership figures were lost in the attack and the city is in ruins. Your basic notes for the city is in a plastic sheet within your binder. With the marker you can write down what has happened to the city and its current status, crossing off important NPCs that were killed or are missing. Then later, you can transfer those scribbles from the plastic sheet holder into the physical paper copy of your new notes pertaining to that city. It is extremely handy to have wet erase markers….trust me.
Now that we’ve covered the basic setup, what materials you’ll need, and how they function, let’s discuss what it is you can do after your first couple sessions.
As you progress through your campaigns, you will learn more and more about yourself and how you Dungeon Master games. Throughout this process, you will learn what rues come up more than others in your games and you can adapt and customize accordingly. If you Dungeon Master for multiple games, then you will be spending perhaps a little more time on adapting. After all, not every game will ever be the same, so this is key.
If you find yourself running dry on ideas to better customize your setup to maximize your Dungeon Mastering potential, check out some Game Master Forums. The internet is full of great sites filled with the wisdom and experience of others. You can tap into that knowledge, or even ask your fellow Dungeon Masters for help and guidance. Now, I know this can be intimidating, as the internet can be a scary place to expose yourself to. However, I’ve found that if you are honest, in need of help, and don’t mind some criticism, you will find the answers you are looking for. Heck, you may even find an answer you weren’t expecting, or some suggestions that have never occurred to you or most Dungeon Masters.
At any rate, make it a fun process. Dungeon Master can be a tedious role, but it can also be quite rewarding if you let it. Thank you all so much for reading! Please subscribe to our email list for more updates, tips, and tricks for D&D 5e. Also, I ask that any experienced DMs leave a comment adding something I missed from my list of things that helps you. Any technique or material components that you add to your games is knowledge for a new DM to be inspired by. If you are a new DM and you have a question, please feel free to ask!
Author: Ven’Orik (Zach)
I’m just a regular nerd with a passion for storytelling and fantasy. Growing up I read books by Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, and this solidified my love for the genre. I first started playing D&D when I was 13 and have been pursuing it since. I’m just here to share my knowledge and hopefully learn a thing or two from all of you as well!