So, picture this: you’re out with a few friends, and one of them mentions:
“Hey, why don’t you join our D&D group? You’d fit in quite well.”
You say yes, because you like these friends and they’ve mentioned their interest a few times, and it sounds fun.
Trouble is, you have no idea what D&D is. Worry not. We’re here to help you out. Consider this guide to be your one-stop shop to getting started on the wonderful world of Dungeons and Dragons. Note, though: This guide is not going to tell you the precise mechanics of how you play. You’ll see why.
[image idea: the Dungeons and Dragons logo, as seen on the official page]
What Is D&D?
Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game. It’s the first and oldest of the genre, and is the titan among titans in that industry, such that even outsiders know about it. Say that you play tabletop RPGs and most laypeople scratch their heads; say that you play D&D, and a good few will get what you mean.
Of course, this raises the question:
What is a tabletop roleplaying game?
Quoth the wiki: “A tabletop role-playing game (or pen-and-paper role-playing game) is a form of role-playing game (RPG) in which the participants describe their characters’ actions through speech.” It’s played by at least two people, with one person taking the role of the game master (GM); D&D calls this person the Dungeon Master or DM.
The DM sets the scene, and the players narrate their characters’ actions. Most actions are resolved as successful or not through a dice roll; this covers pretty much anything from attacks, to attempting to persuade a guard to let you into a place, to sneaking into somewhere.
Think back to Lord of the Rings. We can easily compare it to a D&D group. The Fellowship is a really large adventuring party, each character played by a different person at the table. JRR Tolkien is the DM, coming up with the story and putting obstacles for the party to overcome. Everyone else are various characters that pop up for the Fellowship, controlled by the players, to interact with.
Think of the DM both the umpire and the enemy team. The DM isn’t trying to beat you, though sometimes it may feel that way (especially if you roll badly). A good DM throws challenges for you that you can overcome with the right amount or type of effort to keep you on your toes.
Or, boiled down very simply: It’s your children’s game of pretend, or cops and robbers, with rules. It’s improv theatre with a bit of extra. It’s you making your own radio drama.
Trust me, it’s a lot more fun than it sounds.
Another note: While this guide is specifically geared towards Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, you can strip out the specific products and apply it for most other tabletop RPGs. Most of the tips will still work just fine.
So, What Do I Need?
The good news about D&D, and really, all tabletop roleplaying games, is that 98% of the action takes place in the mind. Miniatures and maps help, but it’s entirely possible to play without them; in fact, some other RPGs dispense with the need for this entirely.
So what’s the one thing that you absolutely, positively, outright need to play D&D with?
That’s it. That’s all. No need for a costume, a soundtrack, no need to buy yourself anything at all. You don’t even, strictly speaking, need to get any books at all; someone else in your gaming group, or your DM, will have the core rules handy. So focus first on your character. Talk to your DM about what sort of setting you’re working in, and get his advice as to what might fit in. That is, after all, his job.
Of course, you can’t just keep sponging off the other players, so you will need to get the rules on your own at some point. The good news is that Wizards of the Coast have released the basic rules for D&D 5th Edition for free online. Download the player’s rules, and get through a quick read. We’ll be right here while you wait.
[image idea: screenshot of the front page of the D&D Basic Rules PDF] So. The Basic Rules are there to start you off with, well, the basics: a small selection of races and classes, plus the ruleset. That’s why we’re not including a ‘how to play D&D’ guide here; why reproduce the efforts of the Basic Rules? Yes, it’s 114 pages, but there’s no need to take it all in one sitting. Take it slowly, a bit at a time, and focus on the parts that interest you the most.
Check with your DM as to what kind of campaign you’re running. A Fighter built to crack skulls and take names, for instance, is going to have a hard time in a game of intrigue and diplomacy. Thankfully, D&D 5th is much more forgiving in this aspect; it’s hard to make an outright useless character.
If you’re absolutely new, it’s best that you make a Fighter, as you won’t have to think about much while you get your head around the system, just put your blade in when the fight occurs. Move on to the other three classes in the Basic Rules once you’ve got the mechanics down. Of course, if you don’t mind the challenge of learning a few more extra mechanics, it’s perfectly fine to go Cleric or Wizard for spells, or Rogue for general sneaking and the indirect approach.
Other Basic Stuff
[image idea: screenshot of a character sheet] You’ll want a character sheet. Your DM should have some on hand, or you can download and print out, or edit on your computer, or grab an app for it. If you’re printing it out, best to use pencil; your character sheet will be going through plenty of changes over the course of play.
[image idea: picture of dice, ideally showing the types in paragraph] Also, you’ll want dice. Get these off Amazon or your Friendly Local Game Store. You absolutely need a 20-sided dice; you’ll learn to love him. Also get yourself a bunch of the smaller ones: 4 sides, 6 sides, 8 sides, 10 sides, 12 sides. You might not use all of them, but really, can anyone say no to rolling a bunch of dice?
For later reference, dice notation. Dice and dice rolls can be easier noted using the classic system: AdX, where A is the number of dice, X is the number of faces on the dice, d being short for, well, ‘dice’. Thus you may see ‘4d6’; this means to roll four dice, each of six sides. It’s also much easier to refer to dice in this manner; you’ll soon find yourself looking for your d20 when trouble approaches.
With a character concept, a sheet, and a bunch of dice, you now have all you need to get started. Read through the basic rules, and if you can, try out a few things with your DM or a fellow player to get familiarised. Then when your first proper gaming session comes, see how you like it.
Moving On From The Basics
[image idea: picture of the Player’s Handbook]
Okay, so now that you’ve got your feet under you, you want to go beyond the basics. Our first stop after the D&D Basic Rules is the Player’s Handbook. It’s a hardcover book that goes for fifty USD, and it contains the full set of rules and a greater set of races and classes as compared to the Basic Rules.
In taking this step, you walk along an old and storied road that goes back thirty decades. Most generally stay on it: D&D, after all, is the biggest tabletop RPG. Or you might hear of another system and shift to that. That all depends on you. It’s certainly not unusual to be interested in several systems at once.
The downside about 5th Edition is that its books are not quite available digitally, and the Player’s Handbook is a rather hefty tome to lug about. Thankfully, there are solutions to this, in particular, the 5th Ed System Reference Document. The SRD has been a fixture of D&D since the old days, and it’s been a great help to countless players over the years.
Also, you’ve picked the perfect time to get into D&D. 5th Edition was created specifically as a streamlined, back-to-basics system, tossing out the complexity that dogged older editions in favour of something simpler and friendlier to beginners. The barrier for entry is lower than it’s ever been.
After the Player’s Handbook, there’s a few more books that you can pick up, but none of them are outright necessary, thankfully. They do offer additional options for your character if you’d like to expand beyond the Player’s Handbook. If you want to try out being a DM, then of course you’ll need the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
The Community Experience
[image idea: picture of a D&D game in session]
Before we continue any thoughts of mechanics and play, though, there’s something that tends to get overlooked. D&D is a cooperative game. By definition you can’t play it yourself; even a ‘solo’ game has you playing with your DM. You’re going to have to brush up socially a bit for a game to really work. Not that you have to charm everyone at the table, but you should be capable of getting along with people for the span of a session.
Also, there are other players to consider. If you’ve got any experience in multiplayer video games, you know what that’s like. The difference here is that there’s a stronger emphasis on cooperation. There’s a distance between you and the other players in a video game that doesn’t exist in a tabletop one. Also, video games are inherently limited by their own mechanics, while tabletop games are much more free-form.
Now, where does all that come together? The answer is that there isn’t really a good answer that can cover every possible situation. Every gaming group is different, ruled as they are by the various personalities and egos of everyone in it.
So build your character as you like, but also learn to read the group. Your DM is the one who has to tailor the story to the group, but it helps to also take some of the burden off his shoulders. Ask the others about their characters, see if they’re willing to try and tie your character’s backstory in with theirs. Assuming, of course, you’re running the kind of game where backstories matter.
How You Can Play
Now, you may have noticed the lack of more specific advice in this article so far. That’s because no two games, and no two groups, are similar, and the D&D ruleset is sufficiently flexible that you can use it to play practically any sort of game.
Pure hack-and-slash several different ways? Doable.
A story that totally does not look like Lord of the Rings, with epic quests and powerful enemies? A classic.
Day-to-day survival where you have to make every bite of food count? Someone’s done it.
Star Wars? Switch a few of the labels around, and you’re in business.
There are, however, a few particular themes a game can get into. Most games will generally take a little from most of the ones listed below, with emphasis on one or more depending on what the group enjoys best.
Murderhobos R Us
[image idea: classic fantasy warrior type with a weapon out] Ah, the classic murderhobo. This stems back from the grand old days when the DM was considered an opponent and was trying to kill you. Anything you put on your character sheet was liable to be used against you. Family back home that you went adventuring to support? Next time you visited, they’re all dead. Little sister you leave in the town every adventure? When you get back, she’s been kidnapped.
To avoid such pain, the murderhobo incorporated absolutely no ties to anyone and anywhere, and was outright focused on combat. The classic murderhobo simply goes around the game world, interacting only to find out where to go, and goes there to kill stuff. After killing, he loots the bodies and gets paid for it.
With that done, the murderhobo departs town for the next town and thing to slash.
As with all things, a murderhobo game has its appeal, like when you and the group are agreed that nobody wants to do anything complex and just want to kill the hell out of something. Think of this as the fast food burger-and-fries option.
[Image idea: some form of art with two people talking] In terms of ideology, a social game is diametrically opposed to a murderhobo one. A social game immerses you in the world, makes you care about the characters the DM has made, and lets you navigate troubled waters in that world, all depending on how the DM wants to flavour the campaign.
Social games will generally see a lot less combat than usual and a lot more dice rolls on things not related to combat. Strength and Constitution are not as important as Intelligence and Charisma, though a good DM will still come up with something for players wanting action.
These are best for players who prefer narration and story over just finding the next monster to kill. They provide a welcome change of pace from the hack-and-slash but may be a bit too slow for some players. Also, there’s practically no chance for a Fighter or Barbarian to shine.
Totally Not Lord Of The Rings, We Swear
[image idea: A screenshot of the Fellowship from the movies] When all else fails, there’s nothing like picking up an established concept: the epic quest. The details and the threats can all be switched out as needed, but practically every player thinks about doing one of these, sooner or later. Most games will incorporate a measure of murderhoboing and social messing-about, but the classic D&D game still revolves around the quest.
This provides the greatest freedom of movement in every possible direction. Does the party want action? The next town is plagued by goblins. Does the party want social interaction? Something’s afoot in the city you just got into. The only limits are the DM’s imagination and what kind of world he’s written up.
The downside, such as it is, is that it’s stereotypical; everyone’s done epic quests already. And a quest may end up being too short, leaving players feeling shortchanged, or may be too long, making players fatigued, and perhaps feel like they’re not really accomplishing anything of note.
A good DM can still overcome those downsides; with the right twists and plot turns, it’s easy enough to dispel dissatisfaction and make the players happy again.
[image idea: a screenshot from the Elder Scrolls games] Of course, it’s not necessary for a DM to have a plot in mind when he runs a game. There are some DMs who, after seeing the characters their players have come up with, simply drop them into a place and see what kind of plot threads they latch onto.
This is generally a DM who’s sufficiently confident in his improv skills and worldbuilding, as well as in whatever he can throw at the players. This does allow for a plot that’s tailored to the characters, and lets players feel they’re really moving the plot instead of just dancing to the DM’s tune. This works best with smaller parties; larger parties tend to benefit more from the DM pushing.
Of course, players being players, it’s also possible that something can happen that the DM never saw coming. While this is always a hazard, freeform games tend to take the effects harder if the DM hasn’t something prepared that’s reasonably similar and easy to plug in.
All right, some tips to make life simpler.
To make it easier to get into the game, make a cheat sheet. If you’re a combatant, note down your attack rolls and damage, and how much extra you get on a critical. Do the same for rolls that may crop up a lot: perception especially. Note down what kind of dice you need for that roll. This’ll save you from having to look stuff up later when you haven’t quite got it all down.
Same deal with spells, if you’re playing a caster. Your DM may already have spell cards ready, but there’s no harm in making your own, and it’s good practice; you’ll rapidly find yourself making your own player aids. 5th Ed’s spellcasting system is notably a touch different than others, so it helps to have effects ready at hand when you need them.
Also, index cards, or Notepad, or anything to use for quick-and-dirty notes. Keeping a few things written down will ease the load on your memory, and make it easier to refer back to something the DM may have said earlier. Those are best tracked; DMs are mysterious creatures who give hints about everything.
Use your online resources. There’s a significant community on the internet centered around tabletop roleplaying, and if you’re the type who wants to optimise for best possible results, then it’s easy enough to find forum discussions debating the precise class you want to trick out best.
[image idea: a screenshot of the front page of the SRD] And remember that the System Reference Document is also available. Having it on a tablet or laptop can help streamline a lot of things, especially when a quick lookup is needed. Love it and cherish it, as countless other players have before you.
If you want to see D&D in action but haven’t quite got a group yet, the internet also has solutions for you. Voice actor Matthew Mercer and several of his voice actor friends livestream their sessions every Thursday as the web series Critical Role, which you can view on Twitch.tv and YouTube. You’ll no doubt have heard some of the voices before, and Critical Role shows one possible way a campaign might go.
D&D is a lovely little hobby to get into, and you’ll be surprised at the things you can do in it. Practically anything you can think of has just about been done by a group somewhere in the world and considered a good idea at the time. It may be, on its face, just rolling dice while you narrate your actions like a radio drama, but it won’t feel like that in-game.
It’ll all be worth it. All the effort you put into learning how the game works, into crafting your character, into assisting your fellow players, all of that will be so much sweeter when you finally stand against the Evil Overlord of the campaign, tell him he goes no further, and charge.