Storytelling, Tabletop and Pop Culture
So you wanna play some Dungeons and Dragons.
Maybe you’ve been watching or listening to a great actual play like Critical Role, Adventure Zone or Dimension20. Maybe you saw it on Stranger Things or Community. Maybe you just stumbled onto a book or starter set at the store. Regardless of how you got here, this is your guide to getting into D&D. Our goal for this series is to give you the tools you need to jump in and get playing.
(If you’ve got the basics down you can jump ahead to Part 2 as soon as it is up)
Dungeons and Dragons (shortened to D&D) is a Tabletop Roleplaying Game, often shortened to TTRPG. A Roleplaying Game (RPG) is a specific kind of game where you take on the role of a character in a shared fictional world and make decisions for them during play, often using dice to provide random outcomes. The term Tabletop distinguishes them from video games, most TTRPGs can be played at a table without technology (though technological assists are definitely growing). D&D includes elements of Improvisation (or Improv) in that the story is unscripted and the players are largely reacting on the fly. It also has elements of tactical or strategy gaming in that conflict is often resolved through turn based challenges or combat.
(D&D isn’t the only TTRPG and I highly encourage you to branch out and try out some other systems)
D&D is produced by Wizards of the Coast which is often shortened to WotC or Wizards in conversation. WotC is owned by Hasbro.
Dice are usually abbreviated as d + the number of sides. So a d20 is a 20 sided die (the most commonly used die in D&D). A normal set of dice for D&D will include a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20 and an additional dice called a percentile dice which is used together with the d10 to generate a random number up to 100.
Learning the Basics
First up, there is way too much D&D content to know everything. I’ve literally put thousands of hours in D&D and related systems and I am always learning new things (and forgetting things I needed to know). Absolute mastery isn’t the goal. So what do you need to know to actually get started?
In D&D you will take on the role of a specific Player Character (PC), an individual with unique skills and abilities, usually (though not always) a hero. You’ll be going out into the world with a Party (the PC’s of your fellow players). The world will be filled with Non-Player Characters (shortened to NPCs) run by the Dungeon Master (shortened to DM).
The DM is a player who takes on the unique role of being everyone and everything in the world that isn’t the PC’s. They describe the world, they determine how NPC’s respond and act, they decide what creatures and monsters populate the world. Using the D&D rules, they even run the basic physics and mechanics of the world (they decide if a boulder is going to fall on you, how hard it is to dodge and how bad it is if you fail). The DM makes the judgment calls at the table on how rules should be applied. It’s a job that takes a lot of extra work so be kind to your DM.
(If you want to be a DM, there is a matching series of articles coming for them eventually)
Your PC is the biggest part of how you interact with the world. You’ll have a character sheet of some sort that records all of your character’s important information. Every character has a race/lineage. Race is a weird and loaded term that the game seems to be moving away from but we’ll use it for now because it's what's in the books, it really means something more like species in this context.
You’ll get some special abilities from your race that reflect the biological features of the race (Elves don’t sleep, Aarakocra have wings, Dwarves see well in the dark etc.) and some that reflect some of the culture your character comes from (like training in specific skills, tools or weapons). The latter of these you can swap around under the newest rulebooks.
Your PC will also have a class. A class is the biggest piece of your character and where most of your features come from. A Wizard or Sorcerer casts powerful spells, a Fighter is a master of weapons, a Bard supports and empowers others. This is a major choice. Right behind it is a subclass. Some classes get these at level 1 and some get them later. Subclass is a general term, Clerics get Domains (their god’s specialty), Fighters get Martial Archetypes (their special fighting style), Warlocks get Patrons (the source of their power). These subclasses add an extra layer of abilities and features and can really change how the class works. There are a lot of great guides to choosing class/subclass (I highly recommend RPGbot).
You’ll also choose a background. A background isn’t quite as important as the others but adds some flavor and uniqueness to your character. You can be a 2nd career Wizard who used to be a sailor. Or a Cleric who is also a spy.
Between your class, race and background you’ll also get skills. Skills are roughly how good you are at different non-combat tasks. Just about everything falls under one or another. It can include how well you balance and jump, how much you know about different topics and how well you notice things in people or the environment.
Ability Scores are the basic statistics that measure your character. Scores generally range from 8-20. Strength is pure muscle power like grappling and swinging sturdy weapons. Dexterity covers agility and accuracy, including projectile and finesse weapons. Constitution is physical hardiness and improves the amount of damage you can take before you die. Intelligence represents logic, memorization and academic knowledge and helps certain spellcasters. Wisdom is often understood as insightfulness, empathy and intuition and affects certain spellcasters and special abilities. Charisma is force of personality, social graces and charm and is an important stat for many spellcasters and class features.
An ability score also has an Ability Score Modifier. This is the important number. An ability score of 10 has a modifier of 0. That means if a roll calls for that stat you don’t add or subtract anything. Every 2 points above 10 raises your modifier. So a 12 gives you +1 and a 14 +2 etc. Points below 10 give penalties, 8 or 9 is a -1. 6 or 7 is a -2.
Finally your character has a proficiency modifier. This is a simple universal bonus that gets applied to basically any d20 roll for something you are good at. It increases as your character improves.
The DM will decide how difficult the task you are attempting is and give it a numerical value called a Difficulty Class or DC (usually between 5 and 20 but very difficult things can stretch upwards into the 20’s and even 30’s). The vast majority of rolls are a d20 + an ability score + proficiency if you have it. If you are in a particular good position you might get to roll with Advantage, which means rolling twice and taking the better outcome. If the deck is stacked against you, you might roll with Disadvantage, rolling twice and taking the lesser roll.
Attack Rolls use the same system to determine if certain offensive actions connect with their target. Instead of a DC the attack roll is rolled against Armor Class (AC). Instead of an attack roll, some abilities require an active defense from the target. These abilities call for a saving throw. Each saving throw is your ability score and possibly your proficiency bonus if you are proficient.
All this can sound like a lot (and it is). But here’s the short version. The DM tells you what is happening around you. You think what your character would do in that situation, then you say what you want to do. The DM tells you what to roll and you roll it. They tell you how it works out.
As you’re getting started, a digital tool or character manager like DNDBeyond or Roll20 can automate a lot of this math and is a great way to jump in more quickly (once you play a bit it will sound less complex).
(Not Long Enough, Read More)
If you really want to get a head start and check it out for yourself, all of these rules are covered in the Player’s Handbook (or PHB) in detail. If you want to know more read the Intro and Chapters 7-9. You can go back and read the stuff about races, classes and whatnot later (and even then only what you need to make a decision). You can also grab the Basic Rules for free which covers similar content in part 2.
So what do y'all think? For our veteran players is there anything you big you felt was left out? New players, what are your big questions moving forward? Let us know in the comments!
Hi! I'm Colby. DM, Nerd, IRL Cleric and Writer.