First Time DM Setup
What You Need to Get Started
Aside from players, you need four things to get started in D&D:
An adventure to run
In this post, we'll cover how you can get each of these for as little money as possible, or at least get the best return on investment.
As usual, many of the links on this page will be affiliate links, but most of what's here is free! Once you've covered your basics, though, and you want to start stepping up your game, head over to my shop and check out some other products that I highly recommend for D&D.
Before we dive into this, it's worth noting that you can pick up one of the D&D starter sets. Each of these is a prepackaged way to kick of your gaming, and includes all of the basics listed above. They come in various flavors, but each has everything you need to run at least a handful of sessions.That said, while these are convenient, they're not all that cheap for what you get - especially considering that you can get most of what you need further down this list for free (or close to it). They're good products, but you're paying for the convenience (or the novelty in the case of the Stranger Things set) rather than the actual stuff.
The traditional way of kicking off your very first campaign of D&D is purchasing the three core rule books, reading the important sections, and then figure it out from there. However, you don't need the three core rule books, especially not at first. All you really need is the basic rules, which you can download for free on the Wizards of the Coast website.
In the basic rules, you'll find all the core features of D&D. What you miss out on is all the character options and optional rules, but for first time players, it's often best to keep it simple anyway. Too many options can feel overwhelming to new players, and the Basic Rules cover the basic fantasy archetypes (warrior, wizard, cleric, rogue) pretty well.
Once you've got a decent handle on the core rules, and you've decided that you're going to be spending enough time with this game to invest more money in it, it's time to upgrade to the three core rule books. These expand greatly on the Basic Rules. Just having the Player's Handbook triples the number of classes players can choose from, for example.
Side Note: You can find some additional rules for free in the D&D System Reference Document, but the purpose of this document isn't really to help you play the game, so while the info is there, you're still better off starting with the Basic Rules if you're just getting started.
D&D requires a special set of dice that you probably don't have lying around unless you have one of just a handful of board games that use similar dice (like this one). The good news is that they're pretty cheap, and it's easy to get all you need for less than $10, especially if you and your players are willing to share. Who wants to share, though? For $20 or less, you can have plenty of dice in matching sets or a huge random assortment.
If you're just looking for a digital option, there are several options online. If you're using digital character sheets from D&D Beyond (see below) there's a built-in dice roller. If you're playing online with Roll20 or Foundry VTT (or something else), those tools typically have embedded dice rollers as well. But if you need something quick for your table, there's always the classic wizards.com dice roller here or RPG Simple Dice for your smartphone here.
For your first time DMing, especially if you're running a game with players who are just as new as you are, I suggest pregenerated characters. These are super easy to find with just a Google search, but here are character sheets for a pretty stereotypical adventuring party (all free, released by Wizards of the Coast):
Eventually, you'll want some character sheets that your players can fill in. They'll level up and need to adjust scores, for example, or they'll want to play a different character altogether. It's always good to have a handful of blank character sheets on hand. There are tons to choose from (some free, some you have to purchase), but I like these.
If you want a digital solution, sign up for a free D&D Beyond account and create characters using the Basic Rules. This especially helps new players by walking them through character creation step-by-step. If you really love the digital tools, you might want to purchase your books on D&D Beyond instead of buying print copies. It's good to think about this ahead of time, because they're purchased separately.
An Adventure to Run
Once you've filled out those character sheets, your players are going to need something to do in the game. Technically, you don't need an adventure at all. You can create your own or make it up as you go! However, if it's your first time running the game, I suggest following a roadmap, which means running a published adventure of some sort. For this, I have two suggestions:
1) Choose an adventure for 1st level characters over on DMs Guild. I linked "A Chance Encounter" here because it's super simple and easy to follow. I also suggest adventures that are created for Adventurers League because they tend to have very clear goals for players to achieve, and most are meant to be played in one sitting (2-4 hours). These adventures are also cheap... almost all of them are free or less than $5.
2) Pick up a copy of Tales from the Yawning Portal. The first adventure in this book is The Sunless Citadel, which was written as an introductory adventure for a previous edition of D&D and updated a few years ago. It's a great little adventure, and is time-tested. It's pricey for your first time running a game, but if you think you'll be in it for the long-haul, it's a decent deal because it also includes six more adventures to keep your game going for quite some time.