During the last few years, my corner of the world has been transformed by strange, arcane forces: More and more of my friends are playing Dungeons & Dragons. I’d known of D&D as a math-heavy tabletop role-playing game first published in 1974 with a historically white, male, and nerdy fanbase. I wasn’t completely turned off, but I didn’t expect to find it especially addictive or intuitive. But after hearing enough secondhand D&D stories about dead gods and magical pets, I succumbed to curiosity. After one session, I was hooked. It has taken longer for me to internalize all the rules — I just figured out how to use my rogue’s class features correctly — but in the midst of a long COVID winter, it was a good excuse to make up a character, put on a wig (not mandatory but fun), roll some dice, and learn surprising things about your friends.
If you’re gift-shopping for a D&D player (or for yourself), some good news: The game requires less equipment than I expected, though there’s always room for more. While some players will carry around a “backpack full of role-playing gear,” according to Anthony Burch, a co-host of the Dungeons and Daddies podcast, part of the game’s appeal is a short list of essentials. “All you really need to play D&D is a way to record character information and a set of dice,” says Brennan Lee Mulligan, the creator and dungeon master (the person who runs a game, usually abbreviated to “DM”) of the show Dimension 20. “If you have dice and you have a pencil and paper, you can play this game.”
We spoke to 16 devoted D&D players — including podcasters, professional tabletop role-players, actors, and the friends who first got me involved in the game — about gifts they’d recommend for everyone from the level-one bard to the level-20 multi-class sorcerer-barbarian.
The absolute basics
The rulebook and a beginner kit they’ll need to get started (if they don’t have a friend who DMs).
Nearly everyone we spoke to recommended getting a hard copy of the Player’s Handbook (PHB), the game’s illustrated rule book for players. (Other core books like the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual are necessary for DMs.) “Not only is it your guide to the rules for playing and building your first character, it is an essential reference for the base spells, combat, skills, and equipment,” says professional DM Satine Phoenix. Ally Beardsley, a Dimension 20 cast member, appreciates its tactility: “It’s very nice to play D&D and not have your phone or any electronics, and the PHB is amazing for that.” It reminds James Melo, who has DM’d most of the campaigns I’ve played, of “playing Dungeons & Dragons in the basement at the hobby shop that was in my neighborhood, and we’d be up until three in the morning slaying orcs.” Mulligan recommends it particularly for younger players: “Giving them books to get totally absorbed in is great.”
The background information in the book is also useful for longtime players. Dimension 20 cast member Lou Wilson says the PHB helps him improvise as a DM because “it lets me understand what the nature of a paladin is so that I can always figure out, based on what a player wants to do with a character, how that fits into the dynamic.” You can also buy a digital version of the handbook on D&D Beyond, but the hard copy is more fun. Plus, Wilson says, flipping through a book for answers is on-brand for D&D. “It feels of the game to be like, ‘Oh, do you have a question? Let us consult the tomes!’”
If you’re playing with other beginners, Melo recommends the D&D Essentials Kit. “If you don’t have a buddy who’s a dungeon master, it has all the rules that you need to play for a couple months without needing to get anything else,” he says.
Dice and dice accessories
“Dice are the quintessential D&D gift. You can never have too many,” Mulligan says. He has four criteria for good dice: legibility, aesthetic, “rollfeel” (a neologism he defines as similar to “what you would call mouthfeel in wine”), and performance record. “Do these dice get the job done, or are they traitors?”
You’ll find inexpensive Chessex dice at nearly any game store in America — the brand has been making dice since the 1980s. “If really expensive dice make you super-happy, go for it, but I am on the cheap dice side,” says Beardsley, a self-described “Chessex-head.” They’ve given these swirl-patterned pink dice to “multiple friends to get them into D&D” and describe them as “the most beautiful object I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Professional tabletop role-player Krystina Arielle recommends dice from Dice Envy, particularly its pink-and-gold set. She prefers dice that “have a nice weight to them when I roll. I don’t like flimsy dice, and they do not make flimsy dice.”
Meghan Kelly, the friend who first introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons and who owns about four pounds of dice, says this opalite set has a good balance of aesthetics and legibility. “They’re really clear to read, which I always appreciate,” they say.
“I recommend investing in a set that can withstand your epic gaming sessions and that you can also show off at the table,” Phoenix says.
“We’re all adults here, which means we have nice kitchen tables that we want to avoid scratching up,” says actor Ify Nwadiwe. He recommends dice trays (felt- or leather-lined landing zones for your rolls) from Wyrmwood, the Le Creuset of D&D accessories and a brand name mentioned by nearly everyone we spoke to. Mulligan has gifted Wyrmwood items to his family, and Beardsley describes its rolling tray as “the only bougie thing that I’d recommend.”
Before investing in a luxury dice tray, Kelly recommends beginners get a dice bag as a functional, affordable stopover “while you’re still figuring out what you want and what your setup is.” A dice bag is on the less formal end of dice accessories, but it’s lightweight, inexpensive, and can become backup storage once you level up to a dice vault. They like this eight-pocket bag from WanderingHare because it can be expanded and the center can be used as a rolling space.
A lot of classic D&D gifts are decidedly low-tech from an entry point into the miniature-painting rabbit hole to a gaming-specific notebook for tracking information about your campaign.
“As you barrel through your campaign, there will be lots of information thrown at you and your party. You’ll need to document to have all this information at your disposal,” says Nwadiwe. He recommends keeping track in a notebook: “It’s also a good way to stay focused within the story, off your phone, and keep you from falling asleep as your wizard takes forever deciding which spell to use.”
Field Notes, the maker of one of our favorite planners, also sells D&D-specific gaming journals. The player version includes sections for character stats, a spell-casting table, and a session log. “It’s a great way to enhance your role-playing ability and make sure you don’t let any clues the DM has masterfully left for you slip away,” Jasper William Cartwright, a co-host of the Three Black Halflings podcast.
Painting minis (miniature figurines used to represent characters) is a huge part of D&D fandom. A good way to test out the hobby is this compact beginner set, which comes with ten paints and an unpainted mini. Games company WizKids “hosts both in-person and virtual paint nights based on that kit, to sit down with somebody in the hobby scene and paint this mini, and they go over it with you,” says Melo.
Melo’s favorite brand is Counterspell Miniatures by 1985 Games, which he likes for its “superhigh-quality resin” and “dynamic sculpts.” Mulligan caveats that you should check with your DM before buying a ton of minis: “Some dungeon masters run exclusively theater of the mind,” he says, and you might not have use for them. Still, “it’s awesome to just have a mini if it’s like a little totem for you.”
If you don’t have minis, Melo recommends using a bag of gummy bears to represent characters. “That’s the beauty of Dungeons & Dragons: If you want to get into all the superfine-detail, high-verisimilitude physical representations, you can do that. But it’s equally fun to be like, ‘You come across a patrol of goblins that are torturing a merchant,’” he says. The red gummy bears “are the goblins; the green one there is the merchant; these five blue ones are you guys.” A built-in incentive is that “when you kill the bad guys, you get to eat the gummy bear.”
This vinyl battle map is what Wilson “grew up with” as a kid playing D&D. It’s reversible and can be marked up with a wet-erase marker to model a range of combat scenarios.
Melo brought out these condition rings, a gift from Kelly, in the first game of IRL Dungeons & Dragons I ever played, and I loved using them. They’re a bright, easy-to-read reminder of conditions affecting your character — whether they’re blessed, poisoned, concentrating on a spell, etc. — which are always harder to keep in mind than you expect.
Beardsley says spell cards are “a great tool that I learned about way too late.” If you’re playing paper-and-pencil D&D, buying a pack of spell cards will save time spent preparing spells and streamline the process of deciding which to use; just make sure to pick up the pack that corresponds to the character’s class. (If you’re playing on a computer or tablet, D&D Beyond includes the same information, but it’s still satisfying to hand a card to your DM as you explain how your fireball will destroy their ice elemental.)
“I’m not gonna sit here and tell you how to live your life. But if you don’t wear a fun, character-relevant hat, how are people supposed to know you’re really going for it?” says Justin McElroy, who co-hosts The Adventure Zone podcast with his brothers and father. (He wore this hat to play “conservative futuristic country star Pepsi Liberty.”)
Dungeons & Dragons can be a paper-and-pencil game, but many players say the right tech can really improve a session.
“In the old days, folks used paper and pencils to track their character sheets,” says Burch. Today he recommends using a form-fillable PDF and a tablet. “Granted, you will have to deal with your friends mocking you for not rolling ‘real’ dice,” he says. “Whatever. They’re just jealous that you’re living in a slick cyberpunk future while they’re still huffing eraser fumes.”
Several of the D&D players who run their own games mentioned the importance of music in creating an immersive experience for new players. Mulligan and Wilson recommend using a portable Bluetooth speaker; Wilson likes the Wonderboom, which he describes as “a great speaker.” He also says Zoom and the D&D platform Roll20 allow you to stream music to players, which is helpful for pandemic-era games. “When everyone is in disparate spaces, playing music helps build the atmosphere and world,” he says.
Inspired by Dimension 20, which uses lighting to signal the beginning of combat, Beardsley recommends Phillips Hue bulbs for an at-home D&D game. “Having the lights all turn to red right when you’re like, ‘Roll initiative’ is so impactful. It’s so punchy.”
Cartwright told us about Hero Forge, a company that produces 3-D-printed miniatures. “You can create nearly any character you can imagine into a 3-D-printable mini. You can either download the code if you have your own 3-D printer or they can print it and send it over,” he says. Wilson mentioned the company as well — he gifted Hero Forge minis to the players in the game he DMs as a Christmas present.
There is a trove of Dungeons & Dragons content online, and a subscription is often the quickest way to sift through it all for what you need — better maps, rare Druid classes, or a streamlined system to get remote players on the same page.
Most D&D players we spoke to recommended D&D Beyond, the game’s official online platform. I use the free version, which allows me to create up to six characters and access free game content online; a subscription begins at $3 per month, which gets you unlimited character slots and access more content and features including home-brewed systems made by other players. Phoenix says she uses it “every day, multiple times a day,” and Cartwright describes it as “the most effective way to run a campaign.” Arielle likes the site’s “extremely user-friendly” character builder, which I’ve also appreciated as a new player. “It makes keeping track of everything really streamlined,” says Jake Hurwitz, a co-host of Not Another D&D Podcast.
Another consensus favorite is Roll20, an online platform for running D&D games remotely. “If you’re playing virtually with cross-country or cross-neighborhood pals, Roll20 is a wonderful tool that’ll help you keep track of basically every element of your game no matter how far apart you are,” McElroy says. Cartwright appreciates the site’s “dice rollers, inbuilt character sheets, chat, and maps, including a feature called Fog of War, which lets you hide areas of the map from other players.” Although the density of Roll20’s features can be intimidating at first, “once you get into it, it’s really awesome,” says Wilson.
“My thing with D&D is all about engagement and immersion,” Wilson says. He uses mapmaking platform Inkarnate for the campaigns he runs: Having a detailed map, he says, “makes it that much more concrete, which I think is really special for players.” A subscription starts at $5 per month or $25 per year, but the “free service is also great,” Wilson says.
Other role-playing games
D&D can be an entry into the wide world of tabletop role-playing games, which is full of expansive, original systems often with shorter learning curves.
“Fate is a simple RPG system you can use for literally any setting and story imaginable,” says Burch. “We once DM’d a Space Jam campaign in Fate, and it worked like a charm.” Kelly recommends an accessibility toolkit designed to work with the Fate system “for both being disabled at the table and playing disabled characters. That’s very worth including regardless of what system you’re playing.”
McElroy mentions The Quiet Year, a gaming system that follows a community’s decisions in the year after a collapse or cataclysm, which was used to create a backstory for the current season of The Adventure Zone. It’s available as a PDF for $8 or a “lovely evocative set” for $51.
[Editor’s note: The physical set is out of stock until January, but the PDF is still available.]
If combat-oriented systems like D&D are one pillar of the role-playing community, dating simulators are another. Kelly mentioned Monsterhearts 2, “a spooky teen romantic drama, but you’re also a werewolf kind of thing” in which “you’re just trying to kiss your friends, which is all I’ve ever tried to do in D&D anyway.” It’s available as a PDF from $10 or a book from $25.
Beardsley is a “really big fan” of Kids on Bikes, a gaming system that uses most of the same polyhedral dice as D&D but tailors rolls more closely to characters’ strengths and weaknesses. “I think the whole game setup for it is great, and the book was written in a way that I think is so cool and easy to generate characters,” they say.
Mulligan describes Wickedness, a role-playing game that uses a tarot deck instead of dice, as an “incredibly profound game. You play as a coven of witches facing the challenges of a fantastical world you co-create together.” It’s less rules-intensive than D&D, and he recommends it for “people that are looking for a tabletop role-playing experience that allows you to fall in love with a character but also to have more control over the world and setting that you’re in.”
Daniel Varghese contributed reporting.
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