How to Play Dungeons and Dragons: A Beginner's Guide

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is what is known as a Tabletop Role-playing Game, or TTRPG. A collaborative storytelling and boardgame experience where various dice rolls help to decide how the game and story progress. With the recent release of Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves more and more people are becoming interested in how to play this classic game. Currently in its 5th edition (D&D 5e), D&D has never been more approachable or understandable for new players and now is a perfect time to join the fun!

What You Need to Play D&D

  • People
  • Rulebooks
  • Dice
  • Character sheets
  • Miniatures and Game Boards

1. The People

D&D can be played with a minimum of 2 people, but often having 3-5 people is an ideal table size. At minimum, you'll need a Dungeon Master (DM), or Game Master in other TTRPGs, and one or more Players. That being said, there is really no limit to how large an adventuring party can be, so feel free to invite as many friends as you can fit in your house.

The DM will lead each game session, develop adventures, adjudicate the rules, and fill the worlds you adventure in with people, places, and things to interact with! The role of DM can be a daunting task at first, but for people that find themselves interested in building the framework of heroic stories, it's an unbelievably rewarding experience.

Two books below, the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual, will help any DM get started. There are also dozens of official adventures (modules) that can help jumpstart your D&D Dungeon Master journey!

2. Rulebooks

These are the core books needed to get started on your own adventure, but only ONE is necessary as a Player!

Player’s Handbook – The only book necessary to begin playing D&D as a player! It contains how to make a character, all the needed rules on how to play, and is always useful to reference even for experienced players!

The Dungeon Master’s Guide – For aspiring Dungeon Masters, this book will help you develop Non-player characters (NPCs), cities, nations, and full adventures of your own making.

Monster Manual – No heroic adventure would be complete without some monsters for your heroes to fight! This book will help the DM fill the game with interesting, dangerous, and wonderful creatures that provide challenges for Players along the way.

There are many additional books that flesh out further Player creation options, worlds and lore to help a DM create, and full adventures that can cut down on the DM workload. A great starting point that will have everything necessary to play and run the game WITHOUT purchasing anything more, even the core books listed above, are the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Sets. These include pre-made characters, an adventure, dice, maps. And a compressed version of the rules. These are both available physically AND on most Virtual Tabletops.

3. The Dice

No game of D&D is complete without a set of shiny math rocks! For the game you will need a set of polyhedral dice including a 4-sided die, a 6-sided die, an 8-sided die, a 10-sided die, a 12-sided die, and a 20-sided die. These dice are colloquially referred to as a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20 respectively. The Dungeon Master and each player will only need one set of dice, but there is nothing stopping you from developing an unhealthy obsession and collecting hundreds of sets. Check out some of the best D&D dice sets you can buy.

4. Character Sheets

These sheets contain a detailed look at your characters stats, abilities, equipment, and any other pertinent information. A basic character sheet can be found within the Player’s Handbook, but you can also find them online or make them digitally on sites like DnDBeyond.

5. Miniatures and Game Boards

These items are optional, but can help aid in the visualization of the characters and scenes. They are used to show the setting and the placement of characters, villains, and monsters during combat. Game boards and miniature figures are often a fun project for players and DMs to design, paint, and personalize.

  • Virtual Tabletop (VTT)
    There are many VTT options, offering free and accessible resources for your game, as well as more powerful paid tools. If you can’t get all your people to one place, these can be excellent options! Use sites like DnDBeyond for character creation and digital rulebooks. For online games, virtual tabletops like Roll20 or FoundryVTT can replace miniatures and maps. Furthermore, tools like Zoom or Discord can help you play online and connect with friends near and far.

I Have All the People and Things, Now What?

How to Play Dungeons and Dragons

  1. Create Your Character: Every player is responsible for creating their own unique character. Using the Player's Handbook as a guide, you will assign your character stats, features, and equipment that will impact how well they fare on your travels.
  2. Create a Setting or a World: This is usually the responsibility of the Dungeon Master. The DM will inform the players of the details of the world and story in which they find themselves. These settings and stories can come from your DM's imagination (homebrewed) or from prewritten modules written by other authors.
  3. Wait for Your Turn: Players alternate sharing the spotlight in order to describe what their characters are thinking, feeling, or doing whether it’s drinking in the tavern, exploring the world, talking to NPCs, or fighting a Hydra. The DM controls the flow of the game, if there’s something you’d like to do, ask!
  4. Roll Your Dice: Depending on the actions you take during an adventure your DM may ask you to roll dice to determine the outcome of an endeavor that has a risk of failure. Your DM will set the difficulty called a DC (difficulty check), you will roll your dice and add any relevant modifier from your character sheet. If you beat the DC then you are successful in your attempt!
  5. Combat: Combat is slightly more structured than general exploration play. Each player uses their turn to attack or use abilities to defeat their foe.

Character Creation

Before heading out for adventure, players will need to go through the process of creating a character. This can be a very fun and rewarding experience, but it can also be challenging for a first time player. So here are the steps need to get going:

  1. Choose a Race: You will find information on the various races in D&D within the Player’s Handbook. Many may be familiar to you such as humans, dwarves or elves, but others may be new. Be sure to read through each option to better understand the variety of choices available.
  2. Choose a Class: Classes will determine the lion’s share of your statistics and abilities. A class will inform what a player can and can’t do. Each class will have different advantages or weaknesses. Again there are many options to choose from here such as fighter, rogue, wizard, barbarian, etc.
  3. Set Your Ability Scores: There are 6 ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Players determine how strong each of these stats are for their character by rolling dice to determine the score for each. Other factors like your race and class can also impact these scores. It is important to note there are alternate methods for setting ability scores defined in the Player’s Handbook.
  4. Choose Your Equipment: Everyone loves stuff, so have some! Players will determine what items they are carrying such as weapons, armor and items. You will select from a few possible starting items that will be determined by your class and background, but don't worry you’ll be looting a dragon’s hoard for magical items soon enough!
  5. Set Your Backstory: Determine who your character is. What is their name, where are they from, what is their tragic backstory that will be dramatically revealed to the rest of the party around a campfire? Add as much personality to your character as possible or play the strong silent type. There is no wrong choice here, but we would suggest working with your DM so they know how best to work your backstory into the world!

Terms and Rules

D&D is expansive and contains hundreds of rules and terms that you will be unfamiliar with. It can even be hard for seasoned players to keep it all straight! Take heart in knowing that every adventure starts with the same amount of knowledge regarding these subjects. Over time you will add to your understanding of the game. In the meantime refer to the rulebooks when in doubt. To get started, here are a few additional items you may want to know to help ease you into the game:

  1. Actions: In combat your character can take Actions. Actions might have designations such as Action, Bonus Action, or Reaction. These are things like attacking, casting a spell, dodging, dashing, and more!
  2. Initiative: During a formal combat setting players will roll Initiative by rolling a d20 and adding on your initiative modifier from your character sheet. This number will determine the order in which players and monsters take action during combat.
  3. Hit Points: Hit points (HP) are your health. When you take damage you lose HP and when you heal you gain HP. When your character reaches 0 HP, you are unconscious and at risk of dying permanently!
  4. Armor Class: Armor Class (AC) is a number on your character sheet that determines how hard a character is to hit in combat. Attack rolls under a determined AC do not hit!
  5. Leveling: As you play, characters will level up gaining new stats and abilities. Leveling is determined by your DM and may be done according to experience points (XP) or via milestone achievements such as defeating a particularly ferocious enemy.

Tips for Being a Great Player

  1. Share the Spotlight: It can be fun to be the hero of the story, but D&D is a shared experience. Be conscious of allowing time for other players.
  2. Be Vulnerable: It can be difficult to role-play as another person. Often you might feel embarrassed or apprehensive. Take it slow, start by describing what your character does or says. Eventually, you can move into first person role-playing including a character “voice”!
  3. Be Encouraging: As mentioned it can be scary to put yourself out there during roleplay. Encourage your fellow adventurers to push themselves and create a space that is welcoming of mistakes and celebratory of successes.

Tips for Being a Dungeon Master

Being a DM can be a difficult and thankless job so here are a few tips to help:

  1. Be Prepared: The more you know about your world the easier it will be to adjust when your players decide to go left instead of right. Having prepared ideas of the people, places, and items in your world can alleviate stress in the moment if improv isn’t your strong suit.
  2. Be Open and Flexible: Plans will go awry. Players will decide to kill your favorite NPC. Remember even though you are running the game this is a shared experience so allow your players the freedom to help shape the world and the story.
  3. Reward creativity: Encourage your players to think outside of the box and not to solve every problem by swinging a sword.
  4. Forget the rules: Sometimes the Rule of Cool is all you need! In the end, this is your table and your shared experience. The rules are more like guidelines. You are ultimately the arbiter of what you will and won’t allow at your table, so play as strict or as loose as you and your table enjoy.
  5. Set Expectations: Before any adventure it is good for you and your Players to establish what kind of game you will be playing. Is it going to be fun and lighthearted, or will Strahd Von Zarovich claim the souls of each person playing? Useful tools for this are Safety Tools, X/O Cards, and Session 0s.
  6. Use Tools: There are thousands of tools online to help improve your game. Use sites like DnDBeyond for character creation and digital rulebooks. For online games, virtual tabletops like Roll20 or FoundryVTT can replace miniatures and maps. Furthermore, tools like Zoom or Discord can help you play online and connect with friends near and far.

Dungeons and Dragons can be enjoyed by anyone from any walk of life. With a little bit of preparation and a willingness to share stories with others you could be well on your way to a fantastic adventure. So light the beacons, summon your party, and roll those dice!

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