How to start as a Dungeon Master on a Budget

Posted by Annabelle Collins on


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.

How to be a Dungeon Master in D&D. A book opening up to show a Dungeon Masters story.

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.

What is a Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master? Modular Realms Blog Post

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


A D&D Character Casting a flaming sphere Spell in the middle of combat

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.

You can read it here.

How to be a DM on a Budget: Illustration of the drawer of shame where all my instruction manuals and rule books hide


 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.

Several Modular Realms Blog Posts displaying different Dungeon Master tips such as what to do if your players derail the campaign and how to flavor magic items


Understand the Character Sheets


Just like you will need to get familiar with the rules, you will need to understand how character sheets work.

A zoomed in image of a color-coded dungeons and dragons character sheet. Dungeon Master Tools.

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.

A watercolor image of some old books representing the dungeon masters guide, the players handbook and the monster manual

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.


Pre-written D&D campaign adventures come with fleshed out NPCs, maps, locations and stat-blocks

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.

Watercolor image of a magic crystal. How to be a DM


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.

How to run a great session zero. A link to the Modular Realms Blog Post filled with Dungeon Master Tips

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.

Watercolor image of D&D Dice. Dungeon Master for beginners, how to be a budget DM

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.

Using Chat GPT to roll D&D Dice and work out more complicated damage and modifiers


Other accessories you might consider when starting out are things to show a battlemap and represent characters and monsters.

A small pebble masquerading as the BBEG. How to be a dungeon master on a budget

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...

Image of the totally awesome magnetic dungeon tiles as part of Modular Realms. Double-sided and Flatpack terrain

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!

A watercolor image of some hard earned gold and treasure

Good luck!





I make magnetic modular dnd dungeon tiles to make epic snap-together battlemaps for all your TTRPG needs!

Annabelle Collins, Chief Artificer of Modular Realms and inventor of the auto-snapping magnetic system. She loves playing DnD games with her friends and crafting DnD Scenery


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!

Modular Realms magnetic dnd terrain, basically a banner with a dungeon tileset I do laid out as different battlemaps and shown with the book box packaging

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