From p. 6-7 of 4th Edition's chapter, How to be a DM
What do you need to play D&D?
A Place to Play: The bare minimum of space you need to play D&D is room for everyone in your group to sit. Most likely, you also want a table for everyone to sit around. A table holds your battle grid and miniature figures, gives you a place to roll dice and write on character sheets, and holds piles of books and papers. You can pull chairs around a dining table or sit in recliners and easy chairs around a coffee table within reach. It’s possible to run a game without a table for the battle grid, but combat runs more easily if everyone can see where everything is.
With this post, I will be discussing p.7 one paragraph at a time. I'd like to be as positive as possible, but it can be seen with the above that there is plenty of room for facetiousness and sarcasm. [really? chairs can be pulled up to a dining table? I had no idea] The temptation is very strong. But then again, its arguable the writing here is on a child's level, that being the company's marketing agenda.
The experience with playing on soft cushy chairs around a coffee table has not been a good one. It may suit the description-heavy designs of some DMs, but it's difficult to achieve tension in situations of comfort. Sitting up in a chair encourages improved focus, greater activity and direct face-to-face communication. Sitting around a table enhances interactivity out of closeness to comrades, as opposed to people separated by thick padded chair arms, who loll outstretched and have less reason to move. It is easier to get up from a straight-backed chair and move around the room; the position keeps us engaged. A table with chairs is better than a living room with recliners.
Desirably, the dining table should include a 2-3 foot space completely around the players. Often, this isn't possible. A two-bedroom apartment often has a small living room that is already full of furniture and TV, leaving one tiny dining area for a table jammed between walls and the kitchen. Unfortunately, this condition makes role-playing a sanctified upper middle class white person activity -- it is hard to find good space in a one-room apartment in a depressed area -- whereas the children of white parents grow up in houses with large dining rooms and developed basements, often with large gaming areas expressly available for large get-togethers. The writers of 4e were probably not conscious that they're preaching to a social class that can afford expansive dining tables and recliner chairs.
Naturally, pointing this out is something that makes white people feel persecuted for liking something.
Rulebooks: As DM, you need a copy of all the rulebooks you’re going to use to play. At a minimum, that should be a copy of the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual. Your players each need the Player’s Handbook, since every character’s broad assortment of powers, feats, and items means the game runs more smoothly if all the players bring their own copies of the Player’s Handbook to the table.
Rating: mostly true
There's a little selling going on here. I've never played a campaign in my life that had more than two Player Handbooks, and for the first ten years, there was never more than one. Players can share. People do not need to look at the book more than once to make copies of their powers, feats and items. Of course, today we can take a picture of pages, while rule books can be located online and searched through in seconds, as opposed to flipping through pages to find what's wanted. This gets the books off the table, making more room for everyone.
I do agree that the DM needs the rulebooks. I'll add that the DM needs to read the rulebooks and know which pages on which the rules within are written, or at the very least about how deep in the book the rule is. I read the original DMG about ten times between 1979 and 1985; and certain sections, such as the passage on handling troublesome players (p.110) many more times. Even looking just now, it took me about 30 seconds to find it, after not actually opening the DMG for about six months (I hardly ever use the original book any more). In the day, I would have found the page in less than 5 seconds, partly because the pages were stiffer; today, the pages are so fragile I turn them carefully, so as not to rip them.
Reading the books constantly means they need to be used less often during a game. In 1984, I would guess I referred to both the DMG and Player's Handbook together a total of about twice per hour; at 5-20 seconds to find a page in each case, and half a minute to read the book out loud to the players -- which keeps them actively engaged and therefore not bored -- my game's momentum was not especially marred by having to "look up rules," a complaint I hear often.
Dice: You need a full assortment of dice. It’s helpful to have at least three of each kind. (That might seem to be a lot, but when you have to roll 4d12 + 10 fire damage for the ancient red dragon’s breath weapon, you’ll be glad you have more than one d12.) A lot of powers use multiple d6s, d8s, and d10s. Each player at the table should also have a set of polyhedral dice, since most players get very attached to their dice.
How could it not be true? They're dice. Truth is, you can't keep dice out of the hands of players, and the problem isn't too few, it's too many. Occasionally, a player will turn up with a sea of dice, which they like to pour out on the table, covering as much as two to three square feet of space. As a DM, I've never been short of dice; and never had a player deny me the use of a few dice in order to roll 40d12, if need be.
I'm not a fan of dice towers; they're noisy and they take up table space, and for some players they're a sort of mini-game that can't be left alone. I despise players rolling dice at the table to pass the time, when the dice are not needed; I've also run into, many times, that player who feels the need to "warm up the dice" by rolling them a bunch of times before the roll that "counts." I don't allow this, because it kills game momentum and encourages players to use the roll that best suits their needs, describing the one that counts as whichever is best for them. The dice sit still until they're needed; or the player doesn't play with me.
It's funny how making a statement like that encourages online players to believe I must be some kind of tyrant as a DM. In fact, it's a reaction to die-rollers who freely create distractions both for others and themselves, disrupt the game, break tension, ruin immersion and slow momentum. This year, 2020, baseball banned spitting, fighting, tobacco chewing and sunflower seeds. For covid, yes, but these are things baseball has wanted to ban for decades; these habits revolt new spectators and contribute to the agonizingly slow pace of the game, which may have been fine for the 1940s, before television, but are killing baseball today. Momentum matters; and however tyrannical it sounds, I have better, faster, more fluid games because players are not struggling to concentrate while fetishists needlessly bounce dice on the table.
Paper and Pencils: Everyone should have easy access to a pencil and paper. During every round of combat, you need to keep track of hit points, attack penalties and defense bonuses, use of powers, spent action points, the consequences of conditions, and other information. You and your players need to take notes about what has happened in the adventure, and players need to make note of experience points (XP) and treasure their characters acquire.
Rating: trueLaptop computers and tablets can easily replace paper, produce less mess, allow for a constant updating of character sheets, reduce the presence of the player spending an entire session "rewriting their character" ... but computers can also serve as a temptation for players to muck around with computer games while the game is on. It's interesting how this can reveal players who play because they really like D&D and those who consider it a "social activity" -- the latter will find ways to keep themselves busy during the boring bits, as they haven't the motivation or the wherewithal to problem solve or address the metaphysical parts of the adventure. On the one hand, I want these players not to waste my time playing solitaire while I'm laying on the game; on the other, in substance these players are the "cannon fodder" of the party. They don't contribute much to the intellectual game, but they're warm bodies who can give and take damage, throw spells and occasionally perform a skill when its needed, being the only character possessing that skill.
Battle Grid: A battle grid is very important for running combat encounters, for reasons outlined in the Player’s Handbook. D&D Dungeon Tiles, a vinyl wet-erase mat with a printed grid, a gridded whiteboard, a cutting mat, or large sheets of gridded paper—any of these can serve as a battle grid. The grid should be marked in 1-inch squares. Ideally, it should measure at least 8 inches by 10 inches, and preferably 11 inches by 17 inches or larger.
Dungeon Master’s Screen: This accessory puts a lot of important information in one place—right in front of you—and also provides you with a way to keep players from seeing the dice rolls you make and the notes you refer to during play.
Rating: mostly true
Battle grids also make the company money, so there's that. Serious battles require a much larger playing space than 11 by 17 inches, but as I understand most combats promoted by later editions are typically just a few enemies, that size is sufficient. A typically 6th level party in my game will occasionally feature 6 player characters, 6 henchmen and anywhere from 3-12 followers, trained animal combatants and magically generated participants, against 30-50 enemies -- a battle that I can usually manage inside one session or less; from their engagement and after-comments, my players find these battles exciting and satisfying. They're managed on a computer generated game map, that has no dimensions; though a very large battle can seriously challenge the ram on my computer.
Dungeon Master screens are evil. Dice should be rolled in the open, where the players can see the numbers and know what they mean, keeping the DM honest. Seeing the rolls, the players know when they're really in trouble and game tension multiplies, producing a better overall experience even if occasionally the scene ends in disaster. In such cases, the DM is not blamed. Moreover, when the players succeed, they know precisely the odds that were stacked against them, and recognize their triumph as real. They know for a fact the DM did not fake their success.
The important information that's needed by the DM that the screen provides can also be read if the screens are laid flat on the table. There is no reason whatsoever why players should not also be able to read combat tables during the game. Any perceived tension that is created by the mythical fog of war, that DMs will argue for, is trounced by the sheer panic that occurs when actual war is ongoing.
This series continues with More Things We Need