The Budget DM - Dungeon Mastering on the Cheap header

The Budget DM – Dungeon Mastering on the Cheap

So you want to become a dungeon master like @matthewmercer, but you don’t have the cash for the cool toys? @thespirit_riley shows you how to embrace your inner DM without breaking the bank!


There’s a common misconception that you “need” things to run D&D. Nope. Where there’s a will saving throw, there’s a way. Not having the gear shouldn’t stop you from being a DM. There’s options to make do because players can use that imagination of theirs to fill in the rest.

Figures in Play

We’ll start with some of the more iconic aspects of the game: miniatures. Generally, they come into play during combat or the need to visualize a space, like a dungeon room. Let’s be honest, we all want our characters to be properly represented. Not to infringe on the miniature business here, but you don’t need a traditional mini. There’s dozens of alternatives, so I’ll name a few.

Creative use of origami! Photo by /kallu

If you play D&D regularly, chances are you or your friends own some board games. Grab those tokens or meeples, and voilà, you have something, however basic. Have a little more time on your hands? Then why not try origami? You can make almost anything you need in any color or pattern. It’s simple, it’s cheap, and frankly, it’s relaxing to do. Not to mention, they take up far less space than actual minis. If you dig arts and crafts, go a step further and make basic molds from clay. I’ve even seen knit variants of larger D&D monsters. Look at those adorable googly eyes.

The fiercest little Beholder. Grawr! Photo by Gregory P. Smith

There’s still more options! I’m willing to bet you grew up with Legos, that or you know someone who did. Most of us couldn’t let them go. Legos are a great way to customize minis for relatively cheap, if you still own them. Best of all, you can mix up the same pieces for different characters of your game.

If you’re really looking for the on-a-dime budget, there’s always printing out your character design. You can glue the paper upright on a piece of cardboard, then onto a cardboard or plastic stand.

Most of us snack at sessions. Candy, chips–they’re part of the deal. Use that to your advantage, or rather, as tokens. Yes, you can use them as tokens and eat them as you beat them. M&Ms are my particular favorite. You can even theme them for holiday games. Food and fun. You’re welcome.

Dungeons & Places

Let’s face it, not every DM can afford Dwarven Forge, myself included. Don’t be discouraged, this obstacle is one of the easiest to overcome when trying to represent combat or dungeons. Erasable grids can be expensive, even if they’re easily worth the cost. If you’re just starting out, you can print or draw grids on paper that match the dimensions you’ll need for a game. Have extra copies on hand so you can piece together a layout that matches your space design. You can even print or draw top down tokens to place in your scene.

Walls and objects are a bit more difficult, but once again, solutions exist. My favorite of all: wooden blocks. They’re cheap and incredibly versatile. I keep a small bag with me for makeshift terrain and obstacles of all sorts.

Oh hey, remember those Legos you wanted to throw away? Think again. They have their uses here too, on so many levels. Literally.

Then there’s always the naturalist route, if you don’t mind taking a nice walk in the outdoors. Rocks of all shapes and sizes will come in handy. Everything from hazardous terrain to pebble markers. Put them in a bin and save them for the perfect encounter.

Photo by Iwan Gabovitch

Getting Creative

Then there are the things you really don’t need, but definitely want … I’ve been there. Like what? How about combat raisers? I almost spent fifty bucks on a fancy plastic set, then found myself with a better solution as my pizza arrived. You know that little plastic stand that holds your slices together in the center? Ta-da! You now have elevation, and I bet you were going to throw it away. Tsk tsk.

I love the Deck of Many Things. I nearly treated myself to an ornate set in place of the cheap playing cards you can get at any convenience store. I stopped myself, thinking: why not just give it a face lift? The internet is a wondrous place, here you can find the imagery for the original deck. If you have the time and patience, print out the full set, back and front, and get gluing. If you look at the before and after below, it’s not half bad.

There’s an App for That

Finally, there exists the “I need nothing but my wits” option. It’s in the form of online play with sites like Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds. They generally have everything you might need (from dice rollers to tokens) without paying the premium. I’ve particularly enjoyed Roll20 for the community work that’s shared and accessible to everyone. The downside? It limits the social aspect you get from physically sitting at a table with others.

Don’t have dice? There are more dice rolling apps than I can count on your phone’s store. Pick one you like and you’re set. Can’t remember your spells and don’t have the book? Spell cards can be printed and kept safely tucked in card sleeves for all your casting needs.

Final Thoughts

I’m mostly trying to encourage the DM who’s just getting started. You really can get going with almost nothing at your disposal. With a bit of scrounging, some arts and crafts, even borrowing from other games, you can run something. Your players needn’t be wowed by a three-hundred dollar, one-use set. Your hosting abilities will do that for them, and I guarantee, they’ll just be happy to play.

About the author

KM Riley

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  • Yesterday I found an amazing castle at Michael’s Craft Store and the perfect little saloon for $10, both made of a thin wood. I’ve painted them up and they are amazing. The castle was $25 but was damaged slightly so they gave it to me for $10.55 and the saloon I used a 40% off coupon and so it came to $6.

    The castle I spray painted black and then sprayed with stone texture spray paint. Looks pretty good I think. The castle is hinged in the middle and opens to a playable area with stairs and everything but I also think it would make a cool DM screen. Michael’s has a lot of other buildings that I’ll be getting soon.

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