What is D&D and how do I play? A Guide for Beginners
Updated: Oct 16, 2018
So you’ve heard about the ultimate tabletop roleplaying game and now you wonder..
“How do I play DnD?” “How do I get started playing Dungeons and Dragons?" “No. Really! Where do I even start?”
Have no fear newling, for I shall take you under my wing as we explore the depths of fantastical imagination together!
The real answer here is there is NO EXACT WAY TO PLAY D&D…
Don’t be. This is why it is such an amazing game! As you look more into how to play through youtube videos, forums, and blogs like this, you’ll learn that everyone has their favorite ways to play, and while there are no real official methods for doing it the right way, you’ll definitely struggle to play it wrong.
I hope that puts your mind at ease a little bit, but I am not going to leave you there, my friend. You wanted to know how to play, so I am going to show you what you can do as someone new to the game, to get started with a group, which will guide you through the rest of the way. Are you ready? Great!
First and foremost, I recommend checking out this website for the official rules.
These are very basic rules, but they’ll serve you in a pinch. I do recommend eventually getting the Player’s Handbook because it has images throughout and is much easier to digest than pure text.
That being said, let’s talk about the “rules.”
The best way I can explain how DnD works is I remember back when I was a young child, playing pretend with my friends outside. The rules were that we had to keep an eye on each other, don’t go out into the street, and be inside by 7 pm or stand in the corner! Now as long as I followed those three rules, plus some I didn’t know I needed to follow until I broke them later, I was fine. I could play army men in the dirt, climb the tree, ride the swings, and run around to my heart’s content.
Tabletop RPGs have a similar feel in that the rules are there to give some structure to your imagination, but they aren’t there to prevent your imagination from exploring. After all, games like Dungeons & Dragons are essentially a group of friends telling a story together, in a somewhat planned, yet reaction-based way as you encounter scenarios together.
No single person knows what is going to happen by the end of each session, and that is what many find so addictive about it. It is a form of expression and creation. We make compelling stories together and feel almost as if they were real. It adds a certain quality to life, though something I cannot fully explain in words.
Who governs the rules and what is a Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master(GM)?
The Dungeon Master / Game Master is like a referee making sure the game stays cohesive and follows a narrative.
Let me create a scenario for you...
Imagine you are in a bustling metropolis walking down the sidewalk of a busy street, it is cold outside, a bit windy. There are people walking quickly beside you, some may bump into you, but most simply glide past. You are a bit hungry, but you don’t have a lot of money, and rent is due pretty soon. Your daydream is broken for a second, for right in front of you, a wallet falls to the ground, sprawled about, leaving the possession of someone who hasn’t yet noticed. It is in your path and you are about to step over it. You have a decision to make. What do you do?
As the Dungeon Master or Game Master (someone who prepares scenarios beforehand and shapes the story for the players) I am telling you a story that is completely made up, but as you begin to imagine each detail, the story becomes alive for you. It almost feels like you need to make a real decision about that wallet. To successfully play, all you have to do is respond how you want to react in that scenario.
That’s it. Easy. In fact, that is all any tabletop rpg is at the core. Fundamentally, it is just two or more people telling a collaborative story together.
This, of course is a very simplistic view, there are obviously boundaries to this scenario. Otherwise, this story could turn nonsensical. We refer to game systems, editions, mechanics, etc., to keep the game-play fair. Without these rules, it would be like playing around in a woken dream. That may appear fun, but like a dream the story will quickly devolve into chaos and lose its foundation, so there much be guidelines in place to keep the world stable. Think of the rules as being the “physics” of the game world in which you are playing. Simple enough, right?
So how might rules be applied to this city-street scenario?
Well, one rule might be how fast your reaction time is to pick up the wallet or consequences if you keep walking, whether or not anyone else sees the wallet fall too, if you are accused to stealing it, or if the way the wallet falls means that it can’t be retrieved, like falling in an open manhole.
The Dungeon Master will create scenarios for you to make choices. As you make these choices, there will be consequences. Sometimes the consequences work in your favor, and sometimes they don’t. It is up to the DM to craft the scenario and plan for what might happen should you choose to pick up the wallet or keep walking.
What do I mean by consequences might or might not work in your favor?
What role do the Dice Play in DnD?
I am making a reference to an element common in tabletop RPGs, A poly set of dice. These are offered in sets generally, but you may want to get a few more of each of the following individually too: d20, d12, d10, d8, d6, and d4. The letter “d” refers to the die itself, and the number refers to the number of sides that die has. Different dice are used in different aspects of an encounter or scenario and are there to be used to add a bit of chance to it. In order to keep the game new and interesting, you need to have a little bit of uncertainty to outcomes for choices you make. By adding dice to the mix, you can make attempts to do things, and it is up to luck to determine what happens and to what degree it happens. If you would like a more in-depth view on what each die is used for, check out this article.
To return to the scenario, if I want to pick up that wallet, the DM might tell me to roll the dice with the rule suggesting that the higher the number, the better chance I have of picking it up without anyone noticing, while if I roll a lower number, I may fumble it and fall into an open manhole as a result.
The dice are used in each scenario depending on what types of moves your character wants to make. I will go deeper into each of the dice in a later post, just know that they maintain a sense of fairness during encounters, and add a level of surprise to choices which would not exist if the players always got their way. They are necessary.
What fun is always getting what you want without having to work for it?
Simply put, these systems for the game are meant to keep the players immersed, and keep the story alive. When you are new, don’t worry so much about the rules or the minor things like which dice you use when. You’ll learn them as you go. Just be willing to play pretend and you’ll be just fine. But in order to pretend properly, you will need to pretend to be something, as in you will need to create a character that fits into the mechanics of the game world you want to play within. Exciting!
How do I create a character in DnD?
I’m glad I made you ask, newling. There are several types of characters within the game and various jobs those characters have, as well as personality traits you can associate with them to keep them interesting. I will add a post later on about each character race and class, so until then, let's keep it simple.
When you create a character, think about what kind of player you want to be. Are you more someone who gets into the action up close or someone who prefers to stand at the back of the crowd and attack from afar; does using magic interest you, or are you more into rushing in with brute strength; does stealth matter to you or would you rather take the bulk of the damage for the team by wearing noisy heavy armor?
Do it the Old-fashion Way Wizards provides Character Sheets you can download and fill out by hand. Look through the Player’s Handbook to find a race, and a character class, then fill out the sheet with the information you learn from the book. It can take a while to do this, and I recommend having an experienced player or DM help you with it.
Familiarize yourself with the character sheet here, where we go in-depth with what each thing represents on the page.
But this is the modern age, where we have computers. It makes much more sense to make a base character using an online tool, and then working with your DM/Party to polish your character.
Build a Character using an Online Tool Building a character can appear daunting, but that is why online character creators are great! You could spend a ton of time looking through the Player’s Handbook, researching various races, their benefits, and drawbacks, or you can use an online character generator like from orcpub.
We will get deeper into character creation in another post. Any way you want to do it works, though.
You will need to have a group of players in mind to play with before you start creating characters.
Make sure your DM allows your character, and that it meshes well with the rest of the group so you don’t waste your time.
Now, I’ve made an attempt to give a very basic understanding of how the core game works, but if you are still having trouble imagining the game being played, do a quick search on Youtube or find a video podcast of the game actually being played. Watch some streams. Some popular places to search are Acquisitions Incorporated, Adventure Zone, Critical Role, and Force Grey. Listening to or watching D&D games makes it easier to understand than reading some text about it for some people, but as a player, it is actually very easy to play because the Dungeon Master is in charge of the rules, and can tell you what to do while you play.
Understanding that there are rules is good, but DnD is a group game, right? I don't really recommend trying to play by yourself unless you want to be a fantasy author, but there are ways to play solo.
Find a group to play with
One important concept for a fun D&D experience is to find a group of people you can feel comfortable telling stories with.
You might be surprised with how many people enjoy playing DnD or other tabletop games, given how obscure they are as compared to mainstream board games and video games. What makes Dungeons and Dragons so amazing is how open the mechanics are, how incredible the stories can be, and how really anything is possible with jolly cooperation and a good imagination.
Visit a Game Store The easiest way to get started is to visit your local comic shop or hobby game store. Chances are the people there will know of someone who plays or might have a game you can join. Stores often hold games for players because these players will buy goods from the store while playing.
Play Online A very common place to play online is on a site called Roll20 where there are usually plenty of games seeking players to join.
Find a Group Online Visit sites like Meetup to find a nearby game. See if the group will let you sit in and learn while they play.
No matter how you find players to play with, be sure to ask the DM some questions about what kind of people are playing here how they prefer playing. These are people you could end up spending a lot of time with. Ask if you can sit in during a session to get a feel for their game. They might have a pre-made character for you to play, but the point is to observe.
Here are a few topics to ponder:
What kinds of adventures do you like to do? When you play other games, which types did you enjoy?
Are you a silly person? Do you like humorous adventures or are you more serious with a deep role-play adventure?
Not all groups are right for all players or DMs. Playing with the wrong group can result in a bad experience for you, so it is pretty important that you mesh with the crowd you want to play with.
Sometimes a DM will offer a “one-shot adventure” to welcome new players before integrating them into a much larger campaign if they mesh well.
I hope this has given you a brief overview and understanding of how the core game for most tabletop RPGs are played, specifically, Dungeons & Dragons. In the comments below, let me know what methods you use(d) to learn D&D. Other readers might find your ideas helpful.