When prepping for session and running the game, these are my go-to programs.
The best stuff in life is free, no? If you really like what you see, you can in some cases donate to the programmers to ensure they produce more quality updates in the coming months.
There’s nothing quite like the perfect song to complement the action, intrigue, or suspense of the scene. One of my signature GM’ing moves is to use music at the table, and so I keep a couple of playlists on hand for the occasion. I use iTunes because of the library’s ease of use, but I suppose you could use your music program of choice. I’d try to avoid Pandora, at least, because it has a nasty habit of playing precisely the wrong thing. Downloadable from Apple
Masterplan Adventure Design Studio
Even after they stripped the compendium integration, Masterplan continues to be the hands-down best bit of software a GM can ask for. Initiative/damage tracker, map-maker (with the right know-how you can even get it to use WotC’s own dungeon tiles), and–perhaps best of all–a plot point tree, but also so, so much more. WotC should have bought them out instead of shutting them down, especially when WotC’s own cloud apps are so horrendously buggy, and they’ve still yet to deliver a long-promised tabletop program… Downloadable from Habitual Indolence
The following are only accessible with an active subscription to Dungeons & Dragons Insider, which is worth it just for access to the Dungeon and Dragon magazines. Protip: Go in with up to five of your friends, which turns the $10 monthly subscription fee into $2. The software allows the same account to download updates for up to five computers, so…
Want some monsters without having to buy the Manuals or Vaults? Well, guess what? That $10 subscription gets to access to all of them up to the Dark Sun Creature Catalogue. Considering you’re talking at least $70 for the three MM’s, excluding all the monsters included in books like Dungeon Delve and the Planar supplements, that’s a great deal. It really should be enough to keep your characters busy. Really. Did I mention you can customize them all or even create you own using the templates? Downloadable from Dungeons & Dragons Insider
Unforunately for you kiddies, the Character Builder was moved from a Desktop App to a Cloud App in November of ’10. The new version is notoriously buggy, crashes in the midst of creation, requires an active internet connection, and doesn’t even let you download your chars to your hard drive. If you can find the install file, I’d recommend the old version, which unfortunately will not be updated any longer, but is much more stable and needn’t be accessed from the site always ever. Considering the drastic slowdown of new material for 4e, this might be your best bet. If one of your characters does want the latest and greatest, point them to WotC’s site, but don’t say I didn’t warn ya. Cloud App on Dungeons & Dragons Insider
It’s no secret that I loathe math. I avoid it whenever I can. So why wouldn’t I take advantage of something that will calculate how badass and how many creatures should go up against my X number of characters at Y level? I guess you can pick monsters from there, but I’d rather go into the Adventure Tools Monster Builder, which has a more complete listing, and just add up the XP values until I hit the target range given to me by the Encounter Builder. You may find, however, that you’ll be wanting to throw Hard encounters at your PC’s, if you want them to ever know their mortality. Cloud App on Dungeons & Dragons Insider