The Best Resources for Running a Dungeons & Dragons Session on a Budget (That Actually Runs Smoothly)
Dungeons & Dragons can be one of the most confusing, disorganized games pretty much ever. Trust me, D&D can be pretty wild if you don’t have everything in its place or you don’t have the resources to make a session run smoothly. Well, that’s why I’m here. Today, I’m going to be listing and semi-reviewing some resources that I use to help me streamline my experience as a Dungeon Master while still maintaining a small budget.
The Dungeon Master’s Screen
First things first. The DM Screen. Whether you play digitally or on a real table-top, the DM screen can be a real lifesaver. Sure, you can get one from Wizards of the Coast but there is a lot less customization if you go that route. The truth is, everyone’s DM screen is completely different to other DM screens out there. Everyone has their own set up and their own way of organizing their space. Personally, I’m the type to forget rules under pressure so a screen that gives me some cheat sheets on Difficulty Classes or travel time rules is going to be my best friend. But other DMs might not need that. When I was looking into DM screens on Amazon, I found a cheap one for $20 (pictured above) that was perfect for customization. This DM screen has eight clear plastic sleeves on it that allow a DM to put pretty much any guide they could want in front of them. The product actually comes with some suggested inserts of its own. Personally, I use these free screen inserts that you can find here.
Occasionally, I run sessions for my family at our dining table. However, I don’t have the money nor the crafting skills to make elaborate maps a la Dwarven Forge. If you don’t want to spend a fortune on building maps, especially if it’s for beginning players, use something like this dry-erase grid map board. As far as map-making goes, it’s fairly cheap and comes in a pretty sick box. Also, something tells me that if you’re writing a cool adventure for beginning players, the map isn’t going to be what blows them away. Side-note, if you don’t have the money for miniatures, use Monopoly pieces. Even though people will fight over who gets to use the dog, it works well enough. The housing pieces actually work pretty well as substitute monster minis, in addition.
Map-making on a budget is also a little easier from a digital perspective. For this, I would suggest Dungeon Painter Studio. It’s a $15 program you can buy on Steam. While some of it’s presets are a little limited, it still has some very nice base textures for floor tiles and furniture that you can use to create some interesting experiences for your players. In addition, if you’re familiar with the Steam Workshop, you can also download user-generated texture and item packs to add to the experience. I will warn you, though, the layering system isn’t even remotely close to the one used in Photoshop. It’ll drop your table under your chair with no warning. It definitely takes some time to get used to but it’s worth-while.
Enemies, Core Books, & Making the Combat Experience Easier
Let’s discuss monsters, likely the big threat in whatever adventure you happen to be running. For this, I recommend no other than The Arcane Library’s Monster Cards. Each card contains every bit of info you could ever need on a specific monster during combat. The Challenge Rating, Max Hit Points, Ability Scores, the list goes on. They’re really cheap too. To buy a deck of pre-filled cards that contain the monsters listed in the Manual and then some, it only cost $4.99. Plus, when you buy something from the website, you also get a free adventure written by the site’s creator, and a free starter kit that both come with even more Monster Cards. Oh, also, while I didn’t buy them, the site also sells Character Cards, which are exactly what they sound like. You can also buy packs of blank or form-fillable cards for even cheaper if you wanted to create your own stuff.
In regards to the core rule books, since we’re talking about how to run the game on a budget, you can actually get books for a lot cheaper than at some book or tabletop gaming stores. If you have Amazon Prime, you can get the first three core books (Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide) for under $100. The price is drastically cheaper than it is at bookstores.
I think everyone at this point knows how annoying it is to flip through the Player’s Handbook to find a spell’s effects. I also know just how expensive it is to get the spell cards. Turns out there is solution for that budget-unfriendly issue. Using this website, you can pick decks of spell cards according to class and then apply filters to find the spells you need for a specific level and create your own deck. Plus, it is very free, although I’m sure the creator of this site would appreciate a little love.
The Digital Tabletop
In regards to digital tabletop play, a really good, budget friendly option (for both DMs and Players) is Roll20. While it has D&D 5th Edition rules, you can also organize games under different rulesets. It’s also a rather social site, in that you can, rather easily, advertise your game to players if you’re in need. It’s also an incredibly fun tabletop experience. I’m 90% certain that Roll20’s free-hand drawing feature is one of the biggest reasons my current campaign is just one big goof. But seriously, it gives you a lot that you can use without even getting close to paying for anything. Even when they have something behind a paywall, like a specific token for a monster or something, there are plenty of ways to make up for it. Whenever I run out of good tokens, I just scribble a little blob on my screen and move it around. That also happens to be a pretty good way to differentiate between monsters, especially if they’re all cannibals with their own distinct appearances. Roll20 also lets you import your own maps, add musical cues, and gives you a way to smoothly distribute information to players through their journals.
Creating Graphic Resources
Speaking of journals, for this next part, I want to talk about ways you can make some fun stuff for your online (or IRL) sessions for free. For this you’re gonna need the program GIMP and Microsoft Excel, or Google Sheets.
First up, GIMP. Using GIMP, a graphic design software similar to but way more free than Photoshop, you can create cool flyers, documents, letters, and many other things. With the font used in Skyrim (Viner Hand ITC), a parchment paper texture, and maybe a signature generator, you can do anything you set your heart to. Just check out this one that I made for my campaign using the same program and technique:
Next is Excel/Google Sheets. Using either of these, you can do some really sweet stuff that will potentially impress your players, especially if you’re the type to Homebrew your own content. On DM’s Guild, you can find some amazing resources, one in particular that is good for creating your own monster stat blocks. Found here, this template allows you to create your own monster that you can use in your campaign. Matthew Mercer of Critical Role has also made an amazing template for creating quick cut-out cards for magical items and weapons. Found on Geek & Sundry’s website, the template is useful in either Excel or Google Sheets. Just check out a couple that I created for my own campaign:
Dice & Related Items
Now, for dice. Everyone knows that polyhedral dice are on a list of the most important things in a D&D game. You can actually get a ton of dice for a fairly cheap price. The ones that got me started on my dice addiction were these. They come in some really nice colors and a beautiful dice cup (plus a little box that looks like a chest, which turns out to be a good card deck box or dice jail) for only $13. You can also get a large dice bag and dice tray for around the same price each.
Organizing It All
Now, if you’re wondering how you should organize all of your campaign info, try using Google Drive to start off with. It’s the simplest and most effective way of creating campaign notes. I organize mine by story-arc and it truly is a very easy way of organizing everything. You don’t have to pay for it and you can access your notes from any device with the Google Drive app. Added bonus: Co-DMing (if that’s your thing) is probably a lot easier when both of you can look at and edit the notes at the same time.
Sharing the Experience With the World
If you’re looking to stream or even record your sessions for the internet, I know all about doing that on a budget too. Keep in mind, these tips are for streaming digital tabletop games or games without the use of webcams. All you need is Open Broadcaster Software, microphones, and a Twitch or YouTube channel. OBS is completely free and a simple headset will do for the microphone if you’re doing the session through a voice call. If you want something with higher quality, try the Blue Snowball. It’s in the $50 range and is an easy plug-and-go mic that you can hook up via USB. There are hundreds of tutorials about using and setting up OBS that you can find on YouTube and with a little minor graphic design work, you can make something that looks fantastic and operates smoothly.
It wasn’t until June of this year that I owned any of the core books. For the first few months, I ran my sessions on anxiety, crappy phone apps, and the Basic Rules that you can get from the WoTC website. Because I didn’t have the money to pay for the things that fueled my passion, I had to learn ways that I could play the game and have fun doing it, despite the barren nature of my wallet. It was all about making the best out of my situation and learning that I didn’t have to be Matthew Mercer to have a good time playing the game. I don’t think any other DND group has to fight over who gets to use the Dog Monopoly piece as their miniature every session. I’m kind of glad that an experience like that is unique to the sessions I run for my family. I don’t think other groups can say that their players have started free-hand drawing Satanic rituals in an apothecary shop in Roll20. As insane as that sounds, I’m glad that was an experience created by the circumstances of how we run that game.
Bottom Line: You can be on a budget and still have fun playing the game. It might even be because of your budget that you get to have certain experiences that could prove unique to a specific group. It might seem like it’s hard to run a session like that, but it isn’t all that hard when you really get into running the game. Once you start, everything just kind of goes downhill from there (in the good ‘easier-to-walk-down-than-up’ way).