As a dungeon master (DM) for Dungeons & Dragons, there’s a lot that goes on behind the screen. From dice rolling, checking rules, to looking up monster stats, there’s a great deal of preparation that goes on before running a session. Personally, I like to prepare for what my players might end up doing during the session but that’s more for my ego than anything else. Truth be told, DMs don’t know what players will do until they do it. Here is an inside look of what’s behind my DM screen when I run a session.
Whether you’re running a homebrewed game, an Adventure’s League module, or a full campaign, having the rules books next to you is a good move. Personally, I don’t play spell casters so I don’t know a lot about spells. In any adventure, enemy spell casters are going to appear. When that time comes, I like to have the rules books in hand so I can look how the spell works. However, it’s not only spells. Maybe you need to look up conditions like Exhaustion, Poisoned, or Grapple. As a DM, you don’t have to know every single detail. It’s useful to have the rule books in hand.
Another thing I keep behind the DM screen is a notebook. Notes are helpful for players and DMs alike. As my players defeat monsters or disarm traps, I make notes of the experience they gain for accomplishing a task. I find this to be extremely helpful because then I don’t have to take time at the end to look for every creature they fought. I can give them their individual total experience.
Experience isn’t the only thing I make note of either. If a player antagonizes a group of cultists, they’re bound to keep an eye on him and of course, there is going to be consequences later…like character death. Actions have consequences. The effect might not happen soon, but it might just occur when they least expect it.
This point comes hand in hand with having the rule books in hand. If you’re like me, I don’t remember everything. Remembering every monster stat is not on my priority list. With this in mind, I keep the Monster Manual next to me during every session that I run. To take it a step further, before each session, I like to bookmark every creature that I might end up using. This way, it’s easy to flip between creatures and have them ready in hand when players roll initiative. Combat runs more smoothly, and I don’t have to stop every few minutes to figure things out.
Dice – Lots and Lots of Dice
This one shouldn’t
come as a surprise to anybody. Dice are extremely important in D&D. I tend to roll a different d20 for every creature. It’s just the way I roll [pun intended]. Additionally, when there are a lot of enemies on the field, I use my dice to number them. These numbers then correspond to their individual hit points. This way works for me because I’m one of those DMs that can’t memorize every enemies’ hit points. It’s impossible for me. Plus, numbering enemies helps me be organized when I run sessions.
Of course, let’s not forget that we all have those dice that tend to go after certain players. Or that set of dice that ends up rolling a lot of natural 20s. You have to keep those around. And you never know. Luck jumps from dice to dice. It’s best to have all your dice on standby behind the DM screen, just in case.
Miniatures aren’t always necessary. I make do with using dice for enemies. Sometimes, I get fancy and have the actual creature mini on the table. A lot of my players currently, are visual players. They need to know what the terrain looks like and where everything is in relative to them. Having minis also helps me because I don’t have to remember everyone’s position during combat.
It’s definitely less stressful for me and my players because we get to see everything and use that knowledge to plan our next move. Plus, as a painter of miniatures, it takes a lot of time to paint a mini. It’s nice to show off your skills to others.
Why paper? I mostly use extra paper to jot down initiative order and the monsters’ hit points. It is on said paper that I like to subtract the damage they’ve taken. It’s different from the notes because I can discard this after a session. For the most part, I keep the paper for maybe a week or two in case my players forget how much experience they received in the previous session.
I keep paper behind the DM screen, not only for experience and subtracting damage, but to increase tension. It’s the same thing as rolling random dice when you’re buying time or you’re just messing with your players. I do this all the time.
This is a bit self-explanatory. It’s always nice to have a calculator around. I find this helpful when there were a lot of encounters. I can add the experience and divide it among the players evenly. Some DMs use it during combat to subtract damage taken from enemy hit points. It really all depends on when you want to use this if at all. Running sessions is different for everyone.
Another thing I recommend is to be mindful of the time. This isn’t a huge problem if you’re at home with friends. You can opt to play for hours on end and that’s fine. However, taking breaks is good way to refocus your players and yourself as well.
If for whatever reason you’re at a game store, being mindful of their hours is a huge plus. Before you know it, time flies by. It gets late and people want to get home. Allow your players and yourself enough time for cleanup.
Lastly, having a timer on hand can increase the tension during a high stakes situation. It doesn’t have to be an actual timer unless you need one. Sometimes, a die can be the timer too.
Maybe on the tenth turn the enemy is going to transform and you have to defeat it before then. My DM at the time used a dice to count the turns. However, this doesn’t have to be kept behind the DM screen. Timers/ counters can be shown in full view of the players, so they know that there is a time limit.