The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Dungeons and Dragons

Welcome to Part One of our D&D 101 series where we’ll cover the very basics and some frequently asked questions. My goal is to help break down the world of D&D for complete newbies (or confused parents)! Related video series in production by Hashtag Gameschool.

So, what is Dungeons and Dragons?

Dungeons and Dragons is not a video game, but a tabletop roleplaying game (known as a TRPG)— the most popular one, at that. There are other TRPGs in the world but our focus here will specifically be D&D.

Think of it as “choose your own adventure” combined with improvisational storytelling and dice rolls to determine your fate. Dungeons and Dragons is cooperative storytelling, plain and simple.

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” — Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal

Why am I hearing about D&D all the time lately?

Dungeons and Dragons has hit the spotlight recently thanks to shows like The Big Bang Theory, Stranger Things, and Riverdale (Griffons and Gargoyles? Not even sly). No longer is it a taboo, Satanic Panic hot topic, but a game used in classrooms and even therapy!

It sounds fun, can I play RIGHT NOW?

If you’re trying to jump into Dungeons and Dragons for the first time, know that it’s slightly different from any other tabletop game you might be accustomed to. You’ll need a dungeon master (known as a DM) to lead the game. In other TRPGs, the DM is known as the game master or GM.

Wizards of the Coast offers some board-game style D&D options that don’t require a dungeon master. This may be a good starting point to getting involved in high-fantasy dungeon crawling, though it’ll never truly replace the full Dungeons and Dragons experience! They’re a nice option when you want to play a quick game with only a couple of people.

Another great option is to jump into an established playgroup of friends who can teach you how to play as you go. They’ll probably love the opportunity to co-opt you into the D&D club.

Honestly, Dungeons and Dragons is something to keep learning about for years and years. But I don’t want that to intimidate you. I really think anyone could jump in and start playing and simply scaffold their knowledge from there.

How to Get Started in Dungeons and Dragons —

1.Get your basic supplies. While there are endless amounts of things you can buy or make for Dungeons and Dragons, all you really really need are The Player’s Handbook, a character sheet, and a set of 7 polyhedral dice.

WARNING: You will get addicted to collecting dice.

If you can’t afford to grab the book yet, Wizards of the Coast offers a free PDF of basic rules for beginners. They don’t want anyone to be left out of D&D if it comes down to funds. The book is much more detailed and extensive, though. If you can’t afford a dice set right now you can use a virtual dice roller.

2.Create your first character! Here is a helpful post about filling in your first character sheet. You‘ll also use The Player’s Manual to guide you through building your character, as it has all the details about proficiencies and stat increases based on your chosen race, class, and background. D&D Beyond even has a virtual character creator that is pretty simple to use.

If you’re not ready to create your own character yet, you can print pre-generated characters. The Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set also include pre-generated character sheets. These might not be as fun as building your first character from scratch, but it’ll help you get started.

3.Get Acquainted with The Player’s Manual and the basic rules. Once you’ve got the core ideas down, feel free to expand your knowledge with more of the meta-rules!

4.Find or Choose a Dungeon Master. Every standard game of Dungeons and Dragons needs a dungeon master. If you do not have a DM, you can find one in your community or even online.

5.Gather two or more players. Though there are typically 3–6 players in a game. If you don’t have enough players, you’ll want to find some.

Here we see the dungeon master behind their DM sceen + the minimum required two players!

The Basic Structure of Dungeons & Dragons —

A. The dungeon master is the overall storyteller of the game. They set up the “scenes” as well as play the non-player characters and monsters.

B. The game’s story is called a campaign. This can be written by the dungeon master or pre-built campaigns by Wizards of the Coast or independent publishers. The Starter Set has a simple starter campaign but I honestly like The Essentials Kit better. The mini-campaigns in each of the official sets take place in the same world, so getting both isn’t a waste of money. There is also the Dungeons and Dragons Stranger Things themed starter set for those into the pop culture phenomenon.

C. The plot unfolds to the players throughout the game. They’re not supposed to know a lot of the details of the story ahead of time, though they may know about the world and history in order to aid in-game roleplay.

D. The players roleplay within the scenes created by the dungeon master. Whether they’re exploring the woods near the local village or slaying a dragon in battle, the players are responsible for embodying their character and informing the dungeon master of their actions.

E. The players move the story forward through their choices and actions. They choose what to do. They write their game destiny — to an extent.

F. Die rolls determine the success or failure of a player’s actions. These polyhedral dice are also rolled by the DM to determine action outcomes, combat damage, and more.

Example: Pretend a player character is trying to get a discount on a sword from the town’s merchant. They might want to buy it for half the amount of gold being asked. They’ll roll the dice. If they roll high (combined with their stat increases), their negotiation is successful and the story unfolds from that perspective. If they roll too low, their attempts are unsuccessful which moves the story in a different direction.

Natural Twenty, the Ultimate Roll

G. There is no single “winner” in Dungeons and Dragons. It’s a cooperative game. The players all need to work together to meet their objectives, typically being to complete a quest in exchange for gold.

H. The only time limit is the one predetermined by the playgroup. The game could go on forever or it could be concluded at the end of a quest. A “one-shot” is a campaign that can be played from start to finish in a 1–4 hours. An ongoing campaign is exactly what it sounds like.

You Wanna Be the Dungeon Master?

  • You’ll want a copy of The Dungeon Master’s Guide to help you learn how to build your world and story.
  • Because you’ll be the game’s antagonist, it’s a good idea to have The Monster Manual at your disposal as well. You don’t need to memorize all the monster stats but having them available to look up as needed is important. (You can always use D&D beyond to quick-search stats as well.)

The Basic Rules of Dungeons and Dragons

“Why does an open-ended activity like D&D have rules? Rules give us a framework for our play. Rules are also a common language. They’re a way to shape what characters do and to determine whether things succeed. Rules help make D&D a game, rather than simply make-believe.” -Jeremy Crawford, lead rule designer for Dungeons and Dragons

In Dungeons and Dragons, each character has six basic traits that determine a lot about how they’ll roleplay, battle, and more. I’m going to use the popular “tomato explanation” to give you an idea for how these work:

Strength: Can you crush a tomato?

Dexterity: Can you dodge a tomato being thrown at you?

Intelligence: Do you know that a tomato is a fruit?

Wisdom: Do you know it probably shouldn’t be put in a fruit salad?

Charisma: Can you sell a tomato-based fruit salad?

Constitution: Can you eat a disgusting, rotten tomato without getting sick?

Dice Names and Meanings

#D4 is the four-sided die. It’s a bit funny to read.

#D6 is the die you might be most familiar with. It’s standard for many many games. This one will be rolled often during combat.

#D8 is the eight-sided die.

#D10 is the ten-sided die.

#D12 is the twelve-sided die, also known as the barbarian’s die because they’re one of the few classes that get to use a D8 to calculate combat damage to an opponent.

#D20 is the most-used and, honestly, the most important die in your set.

Key Words and Abbreviations

  • RPG – Role Playing Game
  • DM – Dungeon Master
  • CP (Copper), SP (Silver), EP (Electrum), GP (Gold), PP (Platinum)
  • D&D, D&D 5e – Dungeons and Dragons, Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition
  • PHB – Player’s Handbook
  • d4,d6,d8,d10,d20 – Various types of dice: d4=four sided die, d6=six sided die, etc (NOTE – When preceded by a number, such as 2D4, means two four-sided dice.)
  • HP – Hit Points
  • AC – Armor Class
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