When the majority of your D&D group is in college or recently graduated, you’ll find that games tend to be fairly primitive. Commercial Tabletop-RPG supplies are often unaffordable to the strapped players who pass around a single corebook. While barebones roleplaying adds a certain old-school charm, it can also lead to arguing over silly details instead of important matters… like which stupid plan to implement. In this series, I’ll be sharing some of the cheap tricks that my party and I use to help our weekly sessions run smoothly.

Theater of the mind is often useful in RPG’s but for more complex encounters most players prefer to play out combat on a battlemap, especially in combat-intensive systems like Dungeons and Dragons. Today I’d like to share with you a few homemade tools you can use during your grid-based combat.


The Homemade Area of Effect Template: ~$3

Isabeau and Qelkul struggle to escape from Evard’s Black Tentacles!

In game stores across America there are plastic spell templates of varying size, thickness, color, and design hanging from a rack next to RPG and miniatures supplies. The only problem? They cost over $15 and inevitably won’t cover all of the various spells and effects that most games have to offer. Featured at our gaming table is a set of homemade plastic AoE templates fit perfectly to our grid and tailored to the specific spells commonly thrown out by our spellcasters. Crafted by our druid Isabeau, these templates were created using cheap plastic binder dividers and a sharpie. Just trace over whatever grid-size your dungeon master commonly uses and you’ll not only have a template to check ranges but you can also slip it underneath the miniatures to mark an ongoing terrain effect.


The Plastic Ring Condition Marker: ~$0

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On old DM’s trick made popular by Geek and Sundry’s hit D&D stream Critical Role, one of the best ways to remember all those pesky conditions is to simply plop a colored ring around the base of the miniature. Quick, unobtrusive, and free, everyone will be able to glance at their miniature and remember they are poisoned… before they try to attack again.  Now that you’ve read this, start popping them off your friend’s soda bottles and save them for your next session. If you collect enough of them you can even make a color-coded system for the most common effects.


The Lego Height Indicator: ~$5-10

Professor Klabonzaas and his ranger friend Shadow bring death from above!

This is the most expensive tip but trust me, if you have a flier in your party it will save you a ton of hassle. Critical Role fans may have seen DM Matthew Mercer’s super awesome adjustable height indicators, the only problem is: they’re discontinued. Playing a wizard in my ongoing campaign means that flying (and the occasional HALO drop with Featherfall) is bound to happen. Although not as shiny as Matt Mercer’s, I found that my Lego height indicator can be super easy and just as effective if you have the right pieces. Although you could go digging through your old legos, I went over to https://shop.lego.com/en-US/ and just bought the ones I wanted. 8-12 of the transparent wall element 1x2x2 ($0.14 per brick) and two of the white plate 6×6 ($0.48 per brick) will give you one complete platform with enough variable height to make a visual difference. I splurged and bought three complete platforms and still only spent around $9 after shipping. Now I spend my game nights soaring majestically over the heads of my enemies, all without disrupting the board!


Feel free to give these tips a try at your next session, and share your group’s favorite DIY combat aids in the comments. I’d love to see them!