For most of us, Dungeons & Dragons needs no introduction. It is a completely ubiquitous part of geek culture, and its influence is immeasurable.
Still, despite its towering legacy, one of the most common questions surrounding D&D is “Where do I start?”
Dungeons & Dragons has over 45 years of history to it spanning 5 editions, countless sourcebooks, tons of board and video games, comic book adaptations, a cartoon series… you name it. With so much content, it can be more than a little intimidating for someone who is just interested in seeing what the game is all about. As such, this article will provide a basic overview of D&D – what it is, how it works, how to get started, etc.
What is D&D?
Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop role-playing game. It is a game of the imagination, in which players take on the personas of brave adventurers in a fantasy world. Unlike most board games, which have strict rules, clear-cut objectives, and can be played in a single evening, D&D is a freeform exercise, usually played as a continuous campaign.
A game of D&D requires a “Dungeon Master” (or “DM” for short), essentially the game’s narrator and world-builder. The DM runs the game, controlling the encounters players have and painting the mental picture of what is going on inside the game’s world.
Generally speaking, D&D sessions are not one-and-done affairs, but rather, they are “episodes” in a larger, ongoing narrative. D&D groups typically meet regularly, each time picking up where they left off the last time, using the same characters and continuing their adventures.
How does it work?
Dungeons & Dragons is a heavily story-driven experience. Each session of the game has a general narrative arc, either written ahead of time by the DM or pre-made in one of the game books. (In addition to the core materials, there are tons of “sourcebooks” available which provide supplemental game content and pre-written scenarios.)
To give an example of actual gameplay, the DM might provide a narration like this:
As you enter the door, the light from your torches dimly illuminates a sprawling chamber.
To your left, you see a large stone basin detailed with intricate, eldritch carvings. An enchanting blue light glows from within as steam trickles upward.
In front of you, you see three weapon displays mounted on the wall. Hanging on the left and right displays are glimmering swords, but the display in the middle is empty.
To your right, you see the entrance to a long, cavernous tunnel, but your torchlight only allows you to see a few steps in.
What do you do?
From here, a player might say, “I go examine the stone basin.” The DM would then narrate what happens next:
As you approach the stone basin, you feel heat radiating from it, but when you get close enough to look inside, you are surprised to see that the liquid within is frozen solid! Make an Arcana check.
Frequently, players will be asked to make “skill checks” like this to determine the outcome of an event or encounter. This is where those cool dice come in. To perform a check, players roll dice and, depending upon the result, they may succeed or fail at their task.
A Perception check, for example, could determine if a character sees a hidden trapdoor; a roll of 14 might mean they see it, but a roll of 2 would probably mean they do not. Similarly, a Dexterity check might decide if a character can scale a wall or not.
In a sense, D&D is like a semi-structured form of improv. The DM works with a skeleton of a narrative, but ultimately, it is up to her and the rest of players to create the story.
What do I need in order to play?
In short, a few books, some dice, and your imagination.
The game system of D&D operates using 3 main books: the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Player’s Handbook, and the Monster Manual. These make up the core rules of the game, and together, they run about $85 on Amazon. They are also available in a handsome slipcase edition (pictured) that includes all 3 books and a DM screen (a truly invaluable resource for running the game).
Now, I realize that these books can look quite daunting, but they do not need to be read cover to cover in order to play. This is a common misconception; the majority of their content is merely reference material, rather than actual “how to play” guides.
In addition to the books, a game of D&D will require at least one set of polyhedral dice (preferably two), which typically cost about $10 each. Players will also need some type of miniatures to represent characters, but these can be anything from LEGO figures to miniatures from a board game to official D&D minis.
Lastly, though it certainly not required, if you are interested in DM’ing, I highly recommend getting a Chessex Battle Mat for drawing maps and battlefields. I can personally attest that it’s an excellent investment.
That sounds like a lot of stuff. Is there a way for me to try out the game without buying all those materials?
Absolutely. For those who just want to dip their toes into D&D, the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is a perfect tool. It comes with ready-made character sheets, a pre-written scenario, and a dice set. Additionally, players can check out the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit, which offers a similar, but more “next-step” experience. Both of these hover around $15 on Amazon, so they provide the chance to try out the game with very little investment. (Heck, there are even officially-licensed Stranger Things and Rick and Morty sets available as well!)
Of course, another great way to check it out is to join an existing campaign! Local game stores frequently host D&D meetups, so give yours a call if you’re interested!
Do you have tips for first-time players?
- Don’t let the perceived “size” of the game scare you away. As I said, the core rulebooks do not need to be read word-for-word in order to play, so the system is not nearly as intimidating as it may seem.
- It’s totally fine for a DM to fudge the rules as needed. Frankly, a good rule of thumb for any RPG is:
If the rules get in the way of the experience, ignore them.
The game system of D&D is merely a framework for an imagination-based groupthink exercise. Don’t take it too seriously.
- I recommend being a player before being a DM. Some folks may disagree with this, but I personally feel that it’s helpful to see D&D in action before trying to run it yourself.
- If you are a new DM, understand that you will never be able to predict everything that the players will want to do. Despite your best-laid plans, they will inevitably gallivant off in a completely different direction than you had expected. Be flexible and ready to adapt the story as needed.
- Also, as a DM, keep in mind that your goal is not to make the players lose, but merely to tell a story and bring the fantasy world to life. It should not be you-against-them, but rather you-alongside-them.
- Above all else, D&D should be fun. If everyone involved is having a good time, then you’re playing it exactly right.
There’s a reason Dungeons & Dragons has remained popular for so long. Playing it is an amazing experience. If you have never tried it out, you should absolutely do so. (Just don’t split up the party when you do. That never ends well.)
A review copy of the D&D 5th Edition Gift Set was generously provided by Wizards of the Coast.