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A Beginner’s Guide To… Dungeons & Dragons – For The Players

What the heck is Dungeons & Dragons (D&D)? Is it a board game? Those kids in Stranger Things seem to enjoy playing it. Is it anything like Lords of Waterdeep? Or Tyrants of the Underdark? (Quick answer: no. Those are board games set in the world of Dungeons and Dragons…)

You’ve heard people talking about Dungeons & Dragons – or, more likely, ‘D&D’. But you haven’t the foggiest what they’re blathering on about. You’re curious, though. Why are grown adults speaking in excited tones about wizards, d20s, and “rolling for initiative”?

Your interest is piqued. D&D sounds like it could be cool. A geeky kind of cool, sure – but the kind of cool you’d like to experience with your friends or family. There’s only one obstacle in the way: how do you start playing? If only someone out there had written a beginner’s guide to Dungeons & Dragons, so you could find out a bit more…

The Elevator Pitch: What Is D&D?

D&D is an RPG (role-playing game) by Wizards of the Coast. You tend to play it as a campaign, in a co-operative fashion. The crux is a bunch of you play as heroes, attempting to overcome any obstacles in your path. You could be mercenaries for hire, or hunting for monsters or treasure. Often, it’s a blend of all three, alongside many more angles!

If the party overcomes said problems, usually by fighting, players will receive Experience Points (XP). Like in any RPG, players can ‘Level Up’, if they earn enough XP. In doing so, they’ll receive more cool traits and abilities. They’ll also gain extra Hit Points (like extra lives in a video game, making you tougher to kill).

D&D is part-strategy (you’ll fight various baddies). It’s part-storytelling – you can interact with everyone and everything. Want to pet and tame that badger? You can try. Want to get the local village butcher drunk so he spills his secrets? You can attempt anything! It’s also part-improvisation and role-playing. How would your character respond and react in the heat of the moment? There is no right answer. Only you, playing as your fictional Playable Character (PC), know what they’d do in those scenarios.

One player, however, will be taking on the role of the ‘Dungeon Master’ (the DM). They don’t have a playable character. Instead, they are like the narrator of the action. The DM has a vital role in making D&D work. It’s up to them to spin the story, to create the drama, and to describe the scene. They also play as every other Non-Playable Character (NPC) in the game. They aren’t trying to defeat you, though. The DM is experiencing the story unfold, along with you, the players!

I’ve written a separate blog for DMs, which you can read here. That consists of the kind of things you might want to check out, if you’re planning to be in charge of a session, yourself. This blog, though, is for you, the players, and what you need to get started…

Is It A Game Or An Experience?

Some might suggest that Dungeons & Dragons is more of an experience than it is a game, per se. There are rules that mechanically tie the experience together, true. But the beauty of it all boils down to the imagination of the participants. It’s not about pure dungeon-crawling, any more. The first edition of D&D might have been, sure, back in the ’70s. But this current 5th Edition (5e) is so much more than moving from room to room, clearing out monsters. It’s also about the role-playing details between adventures. The players and the DM themselves make the game was it is.

D&D involves dice. Weird-looking dice, too – these aren’t regular dice with six faces. Some of them look like pyramids. Some of them have twenty faces (that’ll be the d20)! You’ll roll dice at certain times to find out how successful you are at attempting various tasks.

Luck plays its part, but don’t worry about that. More often than not, the most memorable times had playing D&D is when things go wrong. When you try to climb a rope, but slide down it like Bridget Jones. When you try to pickpocket the orc, but he notices your clumsy hand. No one wants a story where things go smooth and perfect all the time. You want to live in a tale where if you make one false move, it becomes do-or-die. Fight or flight. That’s dramatic, that’s tension. It’s also ripe for rip-roaring comedy!

What’s Your Name And Where Do You Come From?

Players start by creating characters from scratch, set in a Medieval FantasyLand™. You know the sort of setting. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is the easiest comparison, and a clear inspiration. (But in equal measures, you could think of it like Game of Thrones’ Westeros, or a console game, like The Witcher III). The important thing to remember is you’re not playing as someone with a 21st century mindset. You’re in Ye Olde Times, now.

Maybe you’ll be play as a Halfling, like Frodo. Or an Elf, like Legolas, or a Dwarf, like Gimli. Yes… You’re creating your very own Fellowship. Don’t worry though. Your party could consist of five Aragorns, if you want. You could create a character that’s more like a demon than a human – a Tiefling – closer to Hellboy. Or, you could be a Human called Tom. On paper, you could be… anyone. Anything. All of the possible ‘races’ to pick from in The Player’s Handbook in great detail.

The Player’s Handbook is a hardback book, and essential for playing and understanding D&D. It’s great! It also covers the rules for what players can do when playing the game. The first third of it consists of character creation. This answers all questions about who you can portray. It explains their benefits and traits. I guarantee it will also set your imagination on fire!

Should I Be Taking Notes?

As well as picking a race, you get to choose a ‘class’, which is like a profession. You could be a rogue (who’s good at being sneaky and subtle). Or a barbarian who likes to rage and HULK-SMASH things. A smart wizard could be more akin to your ideals – you want to use spells and magic to achieve your means. Also in the PHB are details of every single spell you can learn. I cannot stress how fantastic that book is, for anyone wanting to learn and play D&D!

Also, you pick a ‘background’ for your character. Who were they, before they started off on a life of adventuring? Were they a noble? Were they a hermit, or a sage? A sailor? There are 14 races, 12 classes and 13 backgrounds to pick from in the Player’s Handbook. This provides huge potential for variety. It’s unlikely you’ll design the same character as any of your friends. That makes for amazing adventuring.

Depending on your class, you’ll also start with starting equipment (weapons and tools). Also, you’ll roll dice to determine your initial starting ‘Ability Scores’. You’ll mark all these numbers and equipment on a Character Sheet. It’s like a pencil-and-paper version of your character’s DNA. In theory, most of this can fit on one sheet of A4 paper. There’s a handy-dandy layout of a Character Sheet in the back of the PHB.

It’s full of boxes with labels of what die rolls to fill in where. You could scan this (please don’t get too into character as a Barbarian and rip it out using your teeth). There are also Character Sheets you can download from the Wizards of the Coast website.

You Only Live Once

In console RPGs, if you ‘die’, you’ll see a familiar loading screen. Your character re-spawns at a checkpoint, earlier in the game. It’s a minor irritation, a slap to your pride that you failed. At least you get to re-attempt the level, or mission, again.

That’s not what happens in D&D. There’s a chance your character could die – in or out of combat. It’s not rare, either. Your character is a hero, yes, but all PCs all have a limited number of Hit Points. If these run out (if you’re attacked), you fall unconscious. If you fail to wake up after a given amount of time, that PC dies. There is no loading screen. You don’t get to attempt that mission or combat again. There are consequences.

Don’t freak out. This doesn’t mean player elimination – it just means character elimination. If Barb’s Human Fighter dies, Barb rolls up a brand new character. It can be whoever she wants – her old character’s sister, or spouse, out to avenge their death! Or it could be total random different character. That’s Barb’s choice. The DM will find a way to introduce this new PC into the tale, regardless.

RPGs like D&D need to have this potential threat of character death, to raise the stakes. Without this, the game would feel like your decisions aren’t of any importance, at all. When in fact, every decision you make is crucial. Character death can – and will – occur. But it’s not the end. Far from it. Often, it’s what brings players closer together. You’re all living and breathing this story as one – even the DM.

They See Me Rolling

You and your three pals have created a party of PCs, the heroes-to-be. You’ve filled out your Character Sheets. You’ve all got sharpened pencils and a rubber, to make adjustments to that sheet. What else do you need to start playing?

You can’t play D&D without a set of dice. These consist of seven different polyhedral shapes. One has four sides (a d4), numbered 1-4. There’s a regular six-sided die, then an eight-sided one (a d8), a d12, and the big d20. There are two d10s, too. One is numbered 1-10, and the other in digits of 10, so 10, 20, 30… up to 00. These two d10s are ‘percentile dice’. You’ll sometimes have to roll both of them to get a number between 1-100.

There are swanky dice sets, galore. Cerulean Blue and Terran Brown, perhaps? Ghostly Pink dice that glow in the dark might be more your cup of tea. Or how about Elvish Green?  There’s a countless dice sets available out there, so there’s guaranteed to be one in your favourite colour!

You won’t want to lose your ‘lucky’ dice either, so you could consider getting a dice bag. Brands like Q-Workshop  offer some cloth drawstring bags. Or, you could raise the ante with metal dice that come in a tin! Take care when rolling those bad boys on an expensive wooden table, though…

Of course, you could avoid said disaster by investing in a velvet Dice Tray. After all, nobody wants to be That Guy that rolls dice across the game, knocking pieces over.

The Adventure Begins…

D&D is about escapism. It’s about putting yourself in a fictional character’s shoes and, as Bilbo Baggins put it, “…going on an adventure!” So, what kind of adventure?

Wizards of the Coast have published many awesome adventures. Some are suitable for PCs of varying levels. I’m assuming, though, that you’re reading this because you’re a beginner to D&D. You’re dipping your toe into the RPG pool for the first time. Therefore, I’d suggest starting by creating characters at Level 1. (For context, you can level up to 20, and at that stage, you’ve almost got the powers of a god!)

There are a couple of excellent starter adventures for new players. One is the somewhat-appropriate named D&D Starter Kit.  This features a campaign called ‘Lost Mines of Phandelver’ and a booklet for the DM to read. As well as the plot information, there are also maps (of towns and potential places to explore). And, of course, details about the monsters that lurk along the way! The adventure is perfect for a party starting out at Level 1, and a DM learning the ropes.

There are also five pre-generated playable characters in the Starter Kit. This means if you’d rather jump straight in and get on with the adventure, you can bypass character creation. Instead, you can start playing right out of the box! All characters have backstories that tie into the lore and geographical locations. This package also comes with some dice, and a simplified version of the rules.

On the other hand, you might not have time for a full-on campaign. You might prefer to test out D&D as more of a one-off experience, instead. In which case, the Dungeons & Dragons RPG Essentials Kit might be more tailored to your needs. This package comes with 12 mini adventures that can run as ‘one-shots’.

A one-shot is a one-off adventure with a start, middle and end. It’s the kind of session can you can compleste in about four hours or so (one evening’s or afternoon’s worth of playing). All of the adventures tie into the overall plot arc of hunting down a dragon. It doesn’t take much to stitch them together to make a larger campaign, though, if you like.

We’re starting to verge into DM territory here, with all this chat about books and adventures. This feels like a suitable time to bid you hearty adventures good luck in your quest!

Read Tom's guide to being a DM here.

Read Tom's guide to playing D&D online here.