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.”
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.