Although there are a lot of cool accessories out there, you can definitely learn how to become a great Dungeon Master without spending a penny. The only investment you really have to make is your time!
Truth be told, you don’t need all the books or mini figurines or cool terrain to be a good DM (and I say that as someone who’s livelihood is based around making cool terrain!).
What you really need is to understand your role, the rules, and the kind of story you want to tell - all of which you can do for free.
Check out how below!
Understanding the Role of a DM
As the DM, you are the binding holding the story together. It’s your job to narrate the story, referree the rules, create the world (if you decide to go down the Homebrew path) and bring it to life.
In practice that means that you’ll prepare the game before each session, thinking about what places your players may visit and what they might do.
You’ll manage the monster stat-blocks in combat and play NPCs during encounters.
You can read more about what it means to be a Dungeon Master in my blog post here.
Get familiar with the rules
The key things you want to get a handle on before running a game are:
- Combat Mechanics
- Skill Checks & Ability Scores
- Magic and Spellcasting
Everything else you can learn as you go!
Even us old-hats usually keep a rulebook nearby to refer to.
If you learn by reading, Wizards of the Coast recently released the entire Systems Reference Document (SRD - basically the rules and stat blocks) to creative commons.
Personally, I’m not someone who learns rules through reading books.
For me instruction manuals only exist to be found in a random draw, years after I actually needed them.
I learned the rules of D&D through watching games being played.
If that sounds more like you, I recommend Critical Role (the worlds most popular D&D game but a big time investment) or NPC DnD (a more relaxed game with half hour long episodes).
Otherwise, there are a plethora of blog posts (like this one! Hi!) or podcasts (check out the Dungeon Dudes) to get you started.
Understand the Character Sheets
Just like you will need to get familiar with the rules, you will need to understand how character sheets work.
Decide what format you’re using (free online character sheets like DnD Beyond or good old pen and paper) and get familiar with those character sheets.
Simple things that speed gameplay up are knowing where to find Armor Class, Saving Throws, Ability Checks and Attacks.
I've colored the most common things on this sheet -->
Read this post for ideas on how to make D&D Character sheets easier to understand.
What D&D Books do you need to get started?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you don’t need any books to play.
The books are nice, and if you can afford them then I recommend getting the Players Handbook, Dungeons Masters Guide and Monster Manual.
You can usually find those three bundled together for a discounted price.
Since you can get the rules and some monster stats free in the SRD, you can get started without buying any books at all.
If you had to prioritise one book, having the adventure book is most important. This might be something you pay for like Curse of Strahd, or an adventure you find for free on the DMs Guild.
Starting Out with a Pre-Written Adventure
Assuming you are starting using a pre-written adventure, the first thing you need to do is read it cover to cover!
If you don't absorb knowledge by straight reading, there are other options. Try some of the video guides others have made on youtube like this one.
The benefits of starting with a pre-written module is that a huge bunch of preparing the adventure has already been done for you.
The maps and locations are made, the NPCs fleshed out, the statblocks balanced.
You can always tweak things to make the game more personal to you and your players (in fact, I recommend it!).
The key thing is that the ground work is pre-prepared.
If I’m suggesting beginner friendly pre-written modules then I have to give a shout out to Wizard’s starter adventure The Lost Mines of Phandelver which is included in the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set.
It’s a decent set that gives you a streamlined version of the rules and a solid starting adventure designed to help new DMs (and new players!) learn the game.
Run a session 0 and set expectations
You’re almost ready to start playing! Before you dive in though, you will want to run a Session Zero for your players.
A Session Zero is a way to get your players all on the same page, manage expectations and get everyone (yourself included) ready to begin!
It's widely considered an essential part of running a D&D game.
Learn what a Session Zero is and how to run one in more detail here:
Which D&D Accessories do I need?
You’ve got this far, and you’ve only had to purchase the adventure (unless you found one of the DMs Guild or are making your own). What other accessories do you need to play Dungeons and Dragons?
The main one is Dice.
Dungeons and Dragons uses polyhedral dice to introduce chance into the game. You can buy D&D Dice online. There are a lot of options out there, from bog standard flat color sets to carved gemstone dice.
If you can’t spare the change even for a cheap set then that’s ok.
Google will roll dice for you quite happily, and if you want to do more complicated rolling with modifiers then Chat GPT is pretty great.
Other accessories you might consider when starting out are things to show a battlemap and represent characters and monsters.
You don't have to buy these either.
When I started out I used pencil and paper to draw the maps and colored pebbles from the beach to represent monsters.
I’m also going to be super cheeky and put a personal plug in here...
Buying terrain is absolutely NOT essential when starting out DMing, but it can certainly add immersion and extra epic-ness to your games!
I just happen to make magnetic, double-sided, flatpack dungeon tiles for use in D&D and other TTRPGs.
It’s super cool (if I say so myself) and you should totally check it out!
Some parting words
So there we have it! You really can be a kick-ass DM without spending much money.
There will probably be some investment in pen and paper with printing character sheets or drawing your own maps and I would recommend buying some dice (call it a tenner and you’re getting yourself a nice set).
Once you’ve got going and you’re into the rhythm of your game you can decide for yourself if and where you want to spend your money!
Hi! I'm Annabelle! I'm the author of this blog and a huge nerd!
I also make magnetic, double-sided, modular dungeon tiles!
My DnD terrain contains secret spinning magnets so that each piece snaps instantly to every other. They even come in a box disguised as a spellbook to store away on your bookshelf!
They're really cool, you should totally check them out here!