Last updated on February 10, 2022
Within the last five years, D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) has surged in popularity. Wizards of the Coast, the company that created D&D, boasts that D&D has over 50 million players. As more and more content creators begin to play D&D, a wider audience has been exposed to the game.
While you may have heard of the game, there are plenty of misconceptions about what Dungeons and Dragons are about. As a new player, you can feel overwhelmed since it can be daunting to know where to start. There are a bunch of guides on the internet if you want to learn the exact rules, enough to make it a full-time job to explain the exact way to play the game. However, this article serves as a quick introduction to D&D for newer players.
At its core, D&D is a role-playing game for friends to create a story together. 5th edition, also known as 5e, is the most widely used tabletop RPG. I recommend playing the 5th edition for its large community and lots of information on the topic. When playing, you immerse yourself in a role and let your imagination take over.
Players are characters and actors in a story or adventure led by the storyteller– the Dungeon Master (DM). Like a video game, the DM acts like the text and images in a video game, describing the world for the players to immerse themselves with characters, monsters, heroes, villains, and the environment that the players are in.
Besides the DM, all the players are characters within the story. Each character has their special abilities and skills for them. There are many types of characters, with 3 parts determining their skills and abilities. This information is tied to your character sheets, which are pretty much the stats of your character: think of an MMORPG, where you have the information of your skills, items, and abilities.
- Character Race
- Classes and Subclasses
- Player backgrounds
A character race is the monster species of the player. Humans, elves, orcs, dwarves, Dragonborn, halflings, and tieflings are some of many player races. Each has its quirk and has benefits for choosing certain classes. Classes and subclasses are names for what the player does.
There are two camps of classes. Martial Classes, and Magic Classes. From Fighters to Wizards and rogues to clerics, there are a few in-between classes, like rangers and paladins. Subclasses are your specialty abilities that only your character might have. For instance, a Wizard that likes to fling fire might be an evocation Wizard. Finally, player backgrounds are the jobs your character does.
Most importantly though, your background also allows you to create your backstory. Every character in video games and books has a backstory, with their behavior, personality, flaws, and beliefs. The player interacts with the world, describing their actions. D&D is an RPG: a roleplaying game designed for the players to be whoever they want. The goal is not to destroy and kill everything, but to have fun. The DM and players work together to have fun and create their own stories.
Players have the freedom to do whatever they want. Everything is contingent on dice roll: if you roll above a number the DM has decided, the action is completed. The players get to make decisions based on the situation that the DM has described. As players level up, they will be able to succeed in harder challenges and have more flexibility in their actions.
- DM: Initiates story, begins describing the surroundings, creatures, etc.
- Players: describes their action, the player rolls dice to determine success or failure
- DM: tells them if they succeed or not: depending on outcoming something new happens, players then get to respond.
- Repeat step 2
The Dungeon Master
The Dungeon Master depicts the world for players to understand their surroundings. From long pages of extremely detailed notes to a few jots of information, the DM has ultimate power and can create obstacles and opportunities for players. However, this comes at a cost: they must make the game both challenging and also fun to be in, to be able to develop a narrative that the players are satisfied with. Dungeon Masters follow the rules of the game and facilitate the campaign (adventure) to run smoothly.
The DM should act as the logical response to the player and non-playable characters’ (NPC’s) actions. The DM describes the world for the players as they try to achieve their goals, like quests. Unlike in writing, where the ending of the story is predetermined, the DM must accept that the players will be the ones driving the narrative, and ultimately creating their conclusion.
Rules & Guides
D&D has some math involved. The world is based on rules and logic. 5th edition uses a 20 sided dice (d20) system, meaning stats, rolling dice, and other systems use dice that go up to a d20.
The rules are meant to be guidelines for the players. At the DM’s discretion, certain rules can be changed or completely removed. But, the rules exist as a balancing tool. When unmodified, the game naturally leans towards the benefits of players rather than the world. When the rules are stacked towards the player, challenges don’t exist.
When the game is hard for the players, the players will feel trapped and are not incentivized to keep playing. The DM should keep this in mind as they play. Homebrew, customized game rules, options, etc, are not official D&D content. I strongly advise against new DM’s and players using homebrew content on their first play-through.
I recommend first-time DMs run modules (premade campaigns), which DMs use to run the game for the players. Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus or Lost Mine Of Phandelver are good starting places. You can purchase these books either online or at a game store. Expect to spend a bit of time to fully complete the campaigns, so spend your time accordingly.
I don’t recommend playing for more than 3 hours per game session. Generally speaking, any more than 3 hours makes gameplay for the player and the DM to be very frustrating. There are several official books for D&D, but the bare minimum for a new group of players includes:
- A player’s handbook
- Access to character sheets (they’re online in pdf)
- The Dungeon Master’s Guide (for DMs)
- A player campaign module (optional, but highly recommended)
The D&D 5th Edition Starter Set is a good beginner’s place for aspiring DM’s to purchase. All the books are available online, so I recommend looking online. Going to in-person game stores also allows you to ask for help if you need it. I’ve also added a link for free materials.
There are plenty of optimization tips on the internet nowadays. After reading and playing for a decent amount of time, I recommend looking for some online tools to help you better understand the game. Reddit communities like r/DND are the general community hub, but more specialized subreddits for number crunching and optimization like r/3d6 also exist. Rpgbot.net is also an amazing tool that I still use today. It’s a guide to how to build characters to be more efficient and pack abilities into their characters. Rpgbot.net also has a more in-depth explanation of the game, which I recommend reading.
For DMs, eye contact means a lot. The description doesn’t necessarily have to be incredibly detailed. For new DMs, the focus is just to get more experience. The more you run games, you’ll eventually be able to find your DM style. D&D uses the theater of the mind as a medium to explain the game. The better you can describe the world, the more immersion you can create.
I highly recommend running games in person if possible: COVID has been rough for a lot of people, and we all haven’t been able to interact in person. That being said, playing online via voice call is harder compared to in person. There’s something about playing with people face to face compared to through a screen.
DMs, it’s better to not say “no” to players but to ask them how or why. The best advice I could probably give is to give reasonable consequences for the player’s actions. This will force players to play smarter. But remember to give them rewards, so they’re still incentivized to be adventurous, just smarter.
As for players, I would just try to have fun. If you don’t understand how a mechanic works, it’s probably because you haven’t read the rules regarding the said mechanic. Google things online when you don’t understand. Keeping track of the dates, your character sheet, and dice are also great ways to help the DM.
There are plenty of online dice rolling apps, so if you don’t want to spend money on dice you can download apps for free. I also recommend playing with 1 DM and five players. Most games are optimized to run smoothly for around five or six players, but for newer DMs, I would recommend having less.
Ultimately, don’t expect to be able to play the game perfectly. There are a lot of really intricate rules with the game, but your first playthrough should be to just have fun and try out the game. That should be the point of playing D&D. If you want to get serious about it, that’s great, but I recommend playing for a bit before making a larger commitment.