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A beginner’s guide to playing Dungeons and Dragons

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Whether you watched the Stranger Things kids fight a demogorgon, listened to Taako, Merle and Magnus hunt down relics on The Adventure Zone, or watched and listened to “a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons” on Critical Role, chances are you’ve consumed D&D in some form of media.

The iconic fantasy role-playing game is having a moment. Publisher Wizards of the Coast confirmed to Syfy Wire that 2017 was its biggest sales year in history, thanks in large part to streaming. When high profile nerds like Dan Harmon and Felicia Day bring their celebrity friends to the table and put it on the internet, their fans are introduced to the joys of fantasy roleplaying without ever picking up a 20-sided die.

Watching live D&D campaigns can be alternately inspiring and intimidating for potential players looking to get into the hobby. I spoke to Nathan Stewart and Greg Tito, two representatives from Wizards of the Coast, who both compared watching D&D streams to watching professional athletes. You can appreciate the “sport” while recognizing that you won’t reach that level of mastery without years of practice.

Whether you’ve watched a ton of D&D streams and are ready to run your own games or you have never seen a roleplaying game in action, this guide will help you figure out where to start. It can be daunting, but the good news is that there are so many resources out there for new D&D players.

Why D&D?

While Dungeons and Dragons is definitely the most popular tabletop roleplaying game, it’s not the only one. There are tons of RPGs with different settings and mythologies. There are Star Wars games, games based on tarot cards, and even a Wet Hot American Summer game. All come in varying levels of rule complexity and structure.

Dungeons and Dragons is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum — the rules are simple enough to follow as a beginner, but there’s a very clear structure to work within. Players have room to get creative without feeling paralyzed by infinite choices or bogged down by complicated rules. Unless you’re looking for something extremely specific, I’d recommend starting with D&D and branching out from there once you get the hang of roleplaying.

Getting Started with D&D

D&Dgiveawayheader01 Wizards of the Coast

One of the great things about D&D is that you only really need a copy of the rules, some pencils and paper, a set of dice, and your imagination. Wizards of the Coast put a PDF of the basic rules online for free because they “want to reduce the barrier to entry as much as possible,” according to communications director, Greg Tito. The pared down version of the ruleset cover the core mechanics and math of the game, a step-by-step character creation guide, and information on monsters.

D&D famously uses a bunch of weird-looking dice, which some players collect like they’re Pokémon cards. If you’re super into that aspect of the hobby, you can fall down an Etsy wormhole of unique handmade dice sets. (I’ve never been one of those players, but will admit that I backed a Kickstarter to get a set that looks like the bisexual pride flag.) For everyone else, a standard set of polyhedral dice from Amazon works just as well.

The best place to start is with, well, the Starter Set. The box includes everything you need to get started: an essential rules handbook, an introductory adventure (which fans of The Adventure Zone might recognize from the first few episodes of the podcast), five pre-made character sheets, and a set of dice. There’s even a Stranger Things Starter Set, with an adventure based on Mike’s homebrew campaign to fight the demogorgon.

Buy the Starter Set here: Amazon | Walmart | Barnes & Noble

Players are sometimes disappointed that they don’t get to make their own characters, but trust me, all those pre-made character sheets do is get a bunch of math out of the way for you. The personality traits, motivations, and relationships listed on the sheets are meant to serve as inspiration, not hem you in.

Of course if you really want to create a character from scratch, you can do that too. The website D&D Beyond offers a character creator tool that can help.

The hardcover Player’s Handbook, which covers everything in the Basic Rules with additional character customization options and beautiful art, is good to have at the table to reference spells and abilities while you’re playing. The Dungeon Master can also pick up the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which covers how to create memorable stories, and the Monster Manual with stats for creatures to challenge your players.

Buy the Player’s Handbook here: Amazon | Walmart | Barnes & Noble
Buy the Dungeon Master’s Guide here: Amazon | Walmart | Barnes & Noble
Buy the Monster Manual here: Amazon | Walmart | Barnes & Noble

Becoming the Dungeon Master

The Dungeon Master (DM for short) refers to the player who acts as narrator, antagonist, and guide to the rest of the players in D&D. (In non-D&D games they’re called the Game Master/GM.) According to Wizards of the Coast brand director Nathan Stewart, rule number one for aspiring DMs is “you don’t have to know all the rules.” In fact, he shared a quote from the creator of Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax.

“The secret we should never let the game masters know is that they don’t need any rules.”

A tinker with a black face, moments after his experiment blew up on the workbench.
Art from the new D&D supplement, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes.
Wizards of the Coast

Do you have to create a story from scratch?

As a new DM, it’s usually easier to run a pre-existing adventure rather than immediately come up with your own story. You certainly don’t have to — former Polygon producer and current GM on The Adventure Zone, Griffin McElroy, says that “one of the best starting points is to take something you like and figure out how to D&D-ify it” because the rules are so easy to tailor to what you want to do. However if you’d prefer to start with a pre-written adventure, your options are practically endless.

The adventure included in the Starter Set is called Lost Mines of Phandelver and is a good introduction to how stories work in D&D, as well as its settings and lore. Wizards of the Coast also periodically publishes full campaigns that are either stand-alone adventures or part of a series. These assume that you have a regular group playing together frequently, because campaigns are meant to be played out over several weeks or months. For shorter one-off dungeons that can be finished in one sitting, you can check out the anthology Tales from the Yawning Portal.

Buy Tales from the Yawning Portal here: Amazon | Target | Barnes & Noble

Officially published adventures are only the beginning. D&D is a hobby that is very easily crowdsourced and people publish their own adventures on the internet all the time, many of which are free. You can find a bunch of free, cheap, and premium adventures on DriveThruRPG, which is a lot like Steam for roleplaying games, or their D&D specific site, Dungeon Masters Guild.

Adventure Time

Emily Heller

Once you’ve decided on your adventure and have assembled your players (the website Roll 20 has a matchmaking-type service for virtual groups), you’re ready to get started. Assuming you’re not using the pre-made characters in the Starter Set, you’ll probably spend the first session creating characters together, discussing your characters’ relationships to each other and setting the scene for the adventure.

I’d also recommend talking about what kind of game you’ll be running. Do you want to run a serious, by-the-book campaign, or is there room to get silly and loose with the rules? Neither option is necessarily better, it’s just a matter of preference, but it’s good to be on the same page with your players about the tone your sessions will take.

When you start running your adventure, you’ll probably be referencing the book a lot and that’s totally okay. No one expects you to have every spell and monster memorized. A Dungeon Master’s Screen can help here. It does double duty since it hides notes and die rolls from the players and has handy references to the stats and rules you’ll use most often while playing.

Once you start running your adventure, you may find that the dungeon crawls and combat simulations are a lot easier with visual aids. These are generally referred to as “maps and minis” and they can become a hobby unto themselves. If you don’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of drawing/painting/3-D printing your own maps and figures, you can just pick up a dry erase adventure grid and some dry erase markers. (For running a virtual game, Roll 20 has a marketplace full of digital maps and tokens you can buy.)

The real treasure was the friends we made along the way

Playing D&D, like any game, gets easier the more you practice. It can feel awkward getting started, but as long as you have an open, supportive group, that awkwardness goes away quickly. The game is as much about relationships as it is about fighting monsters, so make sure that the people you bring to your table are people you’d be willing to get trapped in a dungeon with.

The online community of players and DMs is (for the most part) incredibly supportive and encouraging of new players. They can answer any questions you have, no matter how dumb you think they are. Case in point: the most googled D&D-related question is “are dnd dragons immortal.” (No, they live a long time but they can be killed.) The subreddits r/dnd and r/dndnext are great resources as well.

Thinking of starting a campaign and don’t know where to start? Have specific questions about running a game? Feel free to post them in the comments below!

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