Call it fate, luck, or , but the wheel of time has turned and now, suddenly, Dungeons & Dragons is popular again.
According to game's publisher Wizards of the Coast, 2016 and 2017 were Dungeons & Dragons' most profitable years since its inception in 1974. Whatever the reason behind this resurgence, it’s bringing together people and dice of all shapes and sizes.
I've been playing D&D for over 14 years, and there’s something ineffable about the mix of storytelling and camaraderie that keeps the game fresh. So I'm here to tell you, you should start playing D&D—and you should start playing right now. The absolute best way to learn is with a group of friends who already know the rules and can guide you through the learning curve. But let’s say your group of friends are also new to the game. Well, don't worry. We’re here to help.
What Should You Expect?
At its core, Dungeons & Dragons is a group storytelling game.
You can think of it a lot like a collective choose-your-own-adventure book. One player prepares a fantasy story of sorcery and adventure, then the rest of the players take charge of characters in that story and gather together—preferably around a kitchen table—to cooperatively tell the tale.
Maybe the story you'll tell is a mystery. Maybe it follows the classic hero's arc. Or, heck, maybe the story is just thin window-dressing with a series of spectacular battles. D&D is all of these things, and just as there is no single best way to tell a story, there is no "right" way to play D&D.
All the players, experts, and shop owners I spoke to about this story had one shared thread of advice—the best way to dip your toes in the roleplaying waters is to experience it, to play it, or at the very least, watch it be played. So before we get further into the weeds, watch Vin Diesel play D&D in this hilariously over-produced game, excellently named D&Diesel. Four minutes will be enough, just focus on the group storytelling.
That is D&D. After a short introduction, which places the four players within the rich world of the story, the entire game flows from a simple three-step process, looped over and over again:
- The narrator of the game or Dungeon Master (or simply DM) describes the environment.
- The players describe what they wanted, or were attempting to do. This usually involved throwing around some dice.
- The DM refereed the success or failure of what the players attempted, and then narrated the results of the player's actions.
Although the DM acts as the narrator and the ref, the players are choosing what to do and how to progress in the story. Often the players just talk and act amongst themselves, while the DM looks on. Pretty simple stuff, right?
Well...yes and no.
What You'll Need
So what exactly do you need to get a game going? I spoke with Lauren Bilanko, the co-owner of Brooklyn's game shop. She guides new players on almost a daily basis. While veteran players all need polyhedral dice and copies of theor the Dungeon's Masters Guide—a DM's sacred text—Bilanko says this isn't what she suggests for new players.
“We get people coming into the store all the time who aren't really sure what D&D is, but think it might be something they're interested in,” Bilanko says. “I always lean people toward the...which teaches you how to be a Dungeon Master as you're playing, and it has a rule book and pre-generated characters with backstories for everyone else who wants to play.”
The largest task for a new group of players is finding a DM, someone who prepares an entire world (basically writes the choose-your-own-adventure book) before anyone even sits down. Although any good D&D game involves one part preparation and two parts winging it, it's hard for new players to know exactly what they need to prepare, what they don't, and how they can craft a story that's fun to play.
As Bilanko explains, the Starter Set not only solves all these issue with its pre-written story, “The Lost Mine of Phandelver,” it gives you tips and teaches you how to prepare your own story the next time around.
In addition to the Starter Set, you'll also need some polyhedral dice. This is a set of 6 to 7 multi-sided dice, which you can buy at either a game store or online. We recommend getting multiple sets online for cheap—or an entire . The Starter Set comes with a single set, but because players often need to roll dice all at the same time and sharing them can get tedious.
These odd dice measure the attempts and efforts of the players. As an example, you might use the 12-sided die to calculate the damage dealt by a greataxe. Or a 20-sided die to see if you find anything during a burglary, but we'll get to these rules a bit later.
The Starter Set will get you and up to five other friends through two-to-four, several-hour gaming sessions all on its own. It'll help you decide whether or not D&D is the game for you, only setting you back around $20 in the process.
But if you’re bitten by the roleplaying bug, you can level up to the core rulebooks—the , the , and the . Here are a few other things you might consider if you're ready to move beyond beginner:
The Scary, Scary Rules
Now that you understand the soul of D&D, now it’s time to learn the mechanics. D&D has had many incarnations and editions since its 1970s inception. With each version came new rules, creatures, monsters, and game mechanics. Today the modern rule-set is called 5th Edition, which was originally released in 2014.
The large tomes of rules in Dungeons & Dragons is the biggest intimidation factor to your first game. But unlike a board game, you don't need to know all the rules before you start playing. In fact, you can jump in with only a modestly loose grasp of how the game works. Sixty percent of the rules should do the trick. Because as D&D’s lead rule designer Jeremy Crawford reiterates, there’s no one way to play:
Remember, in your game, you can run things however you like. Knowing the rules can be a useful foundation for your storytelling, but your creativity and roleplaying brings the game to life. The rules serve you, not the other way around.
The key is simply knowing how to progress when you and your friends run into a situation where you just don't know the rules.
Here's an example: Say you're the DM, and your players are trying to move across a slippery surface, like a frozen lake or a blood-slicked hallway. What do the players need to do to make sure they get through this dangerous room unscathed?
D&D definitely has rules for this situation (it's spelled out in the Player’s Handbook, page 190, under “Difficult Terrain.”) But if you don't know them off the top of your head, it could take you 10 fun-killing minutes to identify them.
When you're first playing, these relatively obscure, situational types of questions can trip up or paralyze new players quite a bit, says Kimberly Hidalgo.
Hidalgo started a D&D web series with her friends in 2015 called , which they're . At the beginning, all of her players were pretty new to the game, and Hidalgo opted to take the helm as the Dungeon Master.
“I think it’s very easy to get bogged down by the intricacies of what at first looks to be 800 pages of rules,” Hidalgo says. “But ultimately we learned that if you're a new DM, you make the rules. If you don't know what to do, you make something up, and it becomes the rules.”
“Just make sure you're having fun,” she adds, “that's the main thing to keep in mind.”
Maybe the DM says that all the players have to roll some dice to see if they slip. That works. Maybe they just can't move as far or as fast. That works, too. Of course, once the gaming session wraps up, you can check the written rules for next time.
Almost all aspects of play can be moderated like this by spit-balling on the spot. Even after more than a decade (and several different editions), I still forget rules or get into confusing situations and make up some new rule, and we just keep playing.
Once you have your first few sessions, or even your entire first campaign under your belt, then it’s worth learning most of the written rules because they build a common understanding of how the game-world works. As Jeremy Crawford puts it:
Rules are also a common language. They're a way to shape what characters do and how to determine whether actions succeed. Rules help make D&D a game, rather than simply make-believe.
The Godly 20-Sided Die
Luckily, you can get about halfway to our 60 percent, loosy-goosy grasp of D&D's rules right now—by just learning how ability scores and skill checks work.
Of all of the rules in the book, these are the most crucial because skills and ability scores govern almost everything your characters will attempt, whether you’re an axe-swinging half-orc fighter or a spell-slinging half-elf wizard.
In D&D each character and creature has six different mental and physical characteristics: strength, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, charisma, and constitution.
How good or bad a character is at these characteristics are denoted by a number that's usually between 1 and 20, with 1 being horrendously terrible and 20 being freakishly good. We call these ability scores.
Here are some examples: a Dwarf with 15 strength can probably lift up a huge rock quite easily. A wizard with 6 wisdom probably won't realize when they're getting conned. A bookish monk with 20 intelligence but just 4 constitution (which measures toughness and physical endurance), would intuitively know the perfect regimen for training for a marathon, but couldn't even come close completing one.
When you start playing Dungeons & Dragons, one of the first things you do is generate these 6 ability scores for your character (this is done though some dice rolling, but we won't get into the details of it.) Or, if you're playing with the Starter Set, they're already on the sheets that outline each character.
These ability scores help determine whether your character succeeds or fails at something they try. These attempts, like trying to break down a door, hitting avoiding a trap, or convincing the town mayor to let you guard the town's treasury, are called skill checks.
Skill checks work pretty simply. First you'll announce to your DM and the rest of the players, what your character is trying to do before you do it. For example, you could say, “Ok, this conversation with the guard isn't going so well, so my character Barry the Barbarian is just going to bash down this door with his great-hammer.”
The second thing you'll do is look at the character's ability score that would regulate the act you're trying to complete. For Barry breaking down the door, that's a test of strength. Barry, a rather large, beefy barbarian, has an ability score of 18. The dude lifts.
From that score, you'll already have derived what's is called an ability modifier, using the following chart before you even started playing.
This looks a bit complicated, but it's simple at heart. These modifiers are just a way of translating your ability scores to the amount of help/hindrance you get when you attempt one of these skill checks. If your ability score is a 10, your modifier is 0 because you're neither particularly skilled nor unskilled with that ability.
Barry's strength score is 18, so he gets 4 points of help because, again, he's pretty damn strong. One the other hand, if his name was Barry the Welp he’d have a lowly 5 ability score, or a minus 3 modifier because he’d be so pathetically weak.
The last thing you do is take a 20-sided dice, you roll it, and then you add or subtract that modifier to whatever you rolled (plus any other magical enhancements). You tell the Dungeon Master the final number, and the DM then decides what happens, based on your skill check.
It's a pretty fuzzy system, and there's lots of room for the DM to use discretion in deciding just how difficult a task should be to complete.
So let's say Barry rolled a 14 on his 20-sided die, to which he'll add his +4 point modifier. His DM might decide 18 was a high enough skill check to bash down the door, and respond by saying “Alright, Barry puts his hammer into the door and it shatters into a spray of wooden shards, revealing the elaborate foyer of the house and an extremely frightened butler who drops a tray of tea.”
After this completion of the skill check, the game continues.
Or maybe the door Barry was trying to bash in was reinforced on the other side, and the DM decides 18 wasn't good enough, so says: “Ok Barry, you slam your hammer into the door, which produces a slight dent and a thudding echo, but nothing more. Watching your flailing attempt from the distance, a group of small children laugh at you.”
And the game continues.
These skill checks are the heart of Dungeons & Dragons, and you'll notice a ton of them in D&Diesel. Of course, you don't have to do them for every action. Sometimes a player can say “Barry looks around the foyer of the house. Does he see the chest he was looking for?” and of it's trivial enough task, the DM will just respond directly—no check needed.
Although this was a strength check example, versions of these skill checks rule combat, spellcasting, and 90 percent of everything your characters will want or try to do. It's that simple.
Armed with this knowledge, you're ready for your first Dungeons & Dragons session. Now gather your friends together, order a pizza, and get those dice rolling.
Leveling Up Your D&D Skills
Started your first game and need some tips? Well, here are the online tools I’ve found the most helpful for running my own Dungeons & Dragons games:
- - When you can’t all be at the same table, Roll20 is the absolute best online alternative. Like Skype with character sheets, handouts, and maps + miniatures, you couldn’t really ask for more. I’ve played over a hundred hours of D&D on Roll20 when my players were spread over 3 continents. Roll20’s is also my go-to for answering quick questions or referencing niche rules, like the text of certain spells.
- - Your players fish through the pockets of the warlock they just slayed and (whoa!) out comes an awesome looking map of the surrounding countryside, which you made from scratch with Inkarnate. As a DM, maps are my favorite handout to give to my players. They can bring to life an imaginary world, and Inkarnate is the quickest way to produce gorgeous maps.
- - Struggling to create a compelling adventure from scratch? Worry not, this offbeat podcast has hundreds of “DM-Nastics” episodes, which recently helped me write an adventure my buddies spent two years (!!) completing. Topics to muse over have previously included: how to craft compelling villains, how to design interesting traps, and dozens of deep dives into the lore and history of the D&D world.
- - Running abysmally low on creativity? Here are more random generators than you can reasonably ever use, to help you create everything from fantasy names to interesting treasure, to adventure arcs and fresh villain encounters.
- - Matt’s amazing intro-to-D&D videos are lengthy, but they delve even deeper into the machinery of the game than I get to in this article. Give them a watch.
- - Better yet, listen to a campaign in action. The DM you’ve already seen in the D&Diesel series, Matthew Mercer, leads a group of voice actors on a unforgettable journey in this fantastic podcast.
- - Another great podcast that will get you jazzed for your next D&D session. It'll also teach you a thing or two about what makes a great campaign.
- - Need some mapmaking inspiration? This Twitter account tweets randomly generated maps along with names. Just choose one for your next big adventure.
- - As a player or DM, you might want to forever memorialize a favorite character, NPC, or arch-villain. Hero Forge lets you digitally craft your own D&D miniature, 3D prints your file, and sends you the copy. They'll even make minis out of bronze or steel if that's something you're into.