If you’ve heard the words “Dungeons and Dragons” a million times without actually having any concrete idea what it is, let alone how to play it, then don’t worry… you’re definitely not alone. Most people only have a very vague (and often wildly inaccurate) notion of what Dungeons and Dragons is at best; whilst the game’s abstract nature – most, or even all, of the game takes place in your imagination – makes it very hard for newcomers to understand.

Basically the rules meant nothing to me, because I didn’t have any context to understand the game. And probably you don’t either, in which case this post is especially for you.

I once had the same problem myself. I distinctly remember having a burning desire to play this game at 10 years old, but no one I knew could really explain to me what it was. That was until a friend’s older brother lent me the Player’s Handbook (the most important of the game’s core rulebooks) and a Penguin guide entitled: What is Dungeons & Dragons? Awesome! I got stuck in straight away, starting at the start, expecting it all to click within a few paragraphs. But it didn’t. I kept reading, and then re-reading, because I felt certain that I’d somehow missed that vital paragraph or page where the basic concept of the game is explained. Granted, the Player’s Handbook contained lots of seemingly useful rules and tables, and yes I could look up the price of a spear and see that it did 1d6 damage, which was all very well and good, but something crucial was missing… who is buying the spears? And why? Is it me? In which case, how many do I need? And anyway where is the board? Who are my opponents? How do I win the game? SOMEBODY PLEASE JUST FUCKING TELL ME!!!

Beginner's guide to dungeons and dragons

These are just confusing me! (Photo copyright Hipsters & Dragons).

Basically the rules meant nothing to me, because I didn’t have any context to understand the game. And probably you don’t either, in which case this post is especially for you.

What is Dungeons & Dragons?

The short answer is that Dungeons and Dragons is a roleplaying game.

A slightly longer answer is that D&D (as we nearly always abbreviate it) is the world’s first roleplaying game first launched in 1974, which has since become much more than just a game, but a mega brand spawning novels, kids’ cartoons, computer games and even Hollywood films

An even longer answer follows after the question…

What is a Roleplaying Game?

Many people think that roleplaying is so called because you roll a lot of dice. But in fact it’s called roleplaying, because you play a role. In other words you act out a part or character. Whether you gave it much thought or not, you’ve almost certainly taken part in a little roleplaying already yourself, most probably in French class when your teacher asked you to read the part of Pierre who is calling Claudette (Bonjour Claudette, ca va?) to ask her if she would like to go to the cinema tonight. Or maybe you’ve indulged in a little roleplay when your partner asked you to dress up as a police(wo)man and handcuff them to the bed for being a naughty little… well it doesn’t matter why exactly.

The point is that a roleplaying game involves playing a character other than yourself, and pretending to be that person for the duration of the game.

The point is that a roleplaying game involves playing a character other than yourself, and pretending to be that person for the duration of the game.

In Dungeons & Dragons you typically play the role of a heroic character, which we call a Player Character of PC for short. Nearly all Dungeons & Dragons games take place in a fantasy setting, ie. in a world that is similar to Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.

It’s worth noting that thousands of other roleplaying games besides D&D exist, and depending on which game you’re joining you could end up playing for example a detective in Victorian England, a soldier in World War II, a vampire in Imperial China, or possibly a paranoid fighter pilot in a dystopian sci-fi setting. There’s even a Star Wars roleplaying game.

Think you can pilot the Millennium Falcon?

Think you can pilot the Millennium Falcon?

Finally in this section, I guess I should also distinguish tabletop roleplaying games from live roleplaying games. Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game, meaning that you don’t physically act out what your character does… you simply describe it. If you’ve ever seen anyone dressed up as a barbarian chasing other people with a rubber sword in a woods somewhere that would be a live roleplaying game. You’d never catch a hipster like me doing anything like that! (And if you did it would be during a zombie apocalypse in a small Spanish town).

I Still Don’t Really Get It!

I know, I know. It’s still not really clear is it? But we’re getting there…

To play Dungeons and Dragons one person needs to perform the role of Dungeon Master, the rest all play Player Characters… let’s start with them…

What is a Player Character?

So to elaborate in Dungeons & Dragons, the tabletop roleplaying game, you play the role of a character… almost certainly a heroic character, which you create (if you’re new to the game someone might create one for you). Your Player Character has a gender, male or female are generally the two most popular options; a race, which is where things get a bit more fantastical, as typical D&D races include not just humans but elves, dwarves, dragonborn, halflings and gnomes, and a class. You can think of class as a little bit like an occupation, and typical classes include fighter, wizard, priest, thief/rogue, barbarian and ranger. In fact pretty much every D&D character can be summed up in three words.

“Hey Duncan, what PC (Player Character) are you playing next Sunday in my Curse of Strahd adventure?”

“Hey Bob, I’ll be playing a female elf wizard.”

Additionally, depending on how you choose to build your character (there are strict rules that govern this, which is why it’s better to have an experienced player do this for you to begin with) you will have different strengths and weaknesses, as well as different abilities and skills. For example typically a fighter is strong and tough, is great with a sword, but they generally can’t cast any spells nor are they the guys you turn to when you need someone to sneak into a castle undetected… that would be the role of the Thief/Rogue who are not so strong or tough, but are great at climbing, sneaking around in the shadows and picking locks (useful skills in many of the games scenarios). Meanwhile a wizard generally has to avoid hand to hand combat as they are neither strong, nor good with weapons, but their array of spells can be deadly in combat or very useful in non combat situations.

A character sheet...

A character sheet…

Normally we write on a sheet of paper (or on a purpose built Character Sheet) all of our character’s skills and attributes and then refer to them whenever the game demands it, to help determine whether our player will be successful in any given situation… whether they are trying to track a bear in the forest, interrogate a prisoner, or shoot an enemy with a bow from 200 yards.

Once the game gets started it will be up to you to control your character, reacting to events in the game, deciding whether your PC attacks the ogres with a glint of madness in their eyes, hides behind a pillar until an opportunity arises to stab their opponent in back or runs away screaming for his mummy. You decide what your character does, but the dice – and your character’s abilities – decide their success in doing it. One of the fun things about D&D is that there is a lot of luck involved, meaning events are rarely predictable and often amusingly absurd.

Roleplaying is lifted from a game, and closer to an art form, when we develop our characters’ backstories and personalities, bringing them to life and inhabiting them according to their unique identity.

There is one more very important thing to note on creating and playing a character, that relates back to what I wrote earlier about playing a role. When I was a kid pretty much all I cared about as a D&D player was how many orcs could I kill in combat, but anyone over the age of 14 should view their character as much more than a collection of stats. Roleplaying is lifted from a game, and closer to an art form, when we develop our characters’ backstories and personalities, bringing them to life and inhabiting them according to their unique identity. Thankfully the latest edition of the rules makes creating three dimensional characters easier than ever before, by offering players a choice of backgrounds and lists of personality traits, flaws and bonds to choose from (or select randomly). Maybe like BA Baracus, your character is scared of water and declares “I ain’t getting on no boat,” every time your party need to cross a river (leading to a merry pantomime of his teammates constantly trying to slip some powerful sedatives in his pint of ale). Maybe your fighter is actually a pacifist, who is determined to see the good in people, and tries desperately hard not to kill even downright dastardly goblins and ghoulies (“they just need a second chance in life!”), before lopping off their heads only as a last resort. Maybe your priest is a playboy and nymphomaniac who has to beg his deity for forgiveness on a daily basis after indulging in the sins of the flesh by corrupting the nuns next door. Once you’ve got a firm idea of who your character really is, from his unique upbringing to his motivation and personality quirks, you’re ready to play the game on another level, interacting in character with your fellow PCs in what is essentially improvised theatre (still with some orc slaying in between to keep it spicy). I don’t think it gets much better in this regard than Force Grey having fun with each other in this adventure chronicled on Youtube.

Introducing The Dungeon Master… aka God

Everyone growing up has played board games or computer games, and its pretty obvious what they are and how to play them. There is an objective, clearly defined rules and strict parameters… for example if you’re playing Call of Duty you can move and shoot, and well that’s about it. The reason is the “architect” of the game only was able to programme a finite number of scenarios and he figured the only thing you’re going to want to do is kill the enemies so he made a game to fit those criteria, and didn’t bother giving you any other options. What makes Dungeons and Dragons so appealing to its fans is there are no limits to what you can do (or rather try to do, because if your character can’t fly then he will die when jumps off a cliff). And what makes this possible is The Dungeon Master. The DM is the “architect” of any given session of Dungeons & Dragons, aka God… he creates the world in which your characters inhabit and he describes the scenarios that your characters find themselves in, and with the help of the rules and the dice, he determines what happens when your character tries to do something a bit tricky, like hit someone with their sword or ride a horse through a raging river (you don’t have to roll a dice to open a book or eat a bowl of soup). And whilst sometimes we use maps and miniatures to help imagine the exact locations of characters, especially in combat, when it’s often important to know whether you’re 10 or 30 feet from a door, or whether a troll stands between you and the cave entrance, but generally speaking most of the action takes place in the DM’s and players’ collective imaginations.

Imagination is essential, miniatures are optional... (Photo copyright H&D).

Imagination is essential, miniatures are optional… (Photo copyright H&D).

Importantly the DM also controls all Non-Player Characters (NPCs), ie. any character in the fantasy world that is not controlled by one of the players. If the Player Characters (PC) meet a traveller on the road, or decide to speak to the local innkeeper, it’s the DM who relays how they behave and what they say. Similarly the DM controls all monsters and bad guys (often taking an unprofessionally sadistic glee in them thwarting, injuring or even killing the PCs). As you can probably tell by now the DM uses NPCs to stage much of the adventure and provide the challenges that make the game so much fun. A good DM will give his NPCs as much personality as the players have given their PCs and they will have their own way of speaking, character traits and motives.

Sessions, Adventures and Campaigns

A session of Dungeons and Dragons is the physical time a group of friends spends playing the game, typically a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. An adventure gets underway when the PCs (Player Characters) decide to take on a quest usually suggested to them by an NPC… for example the mayor of town offers the characters a pot of gold if they will journey into the hills to kill a foul giant that continually steals their livestock. Depending on the adventure it might typically take two or three sessions to run. A campaign meanwhile is a series of adventures which are related to one another, and take place in the same fantasy world. So carrying on from the aforementioned adventure, maybe when the characters kill the giant in his lair, they discover a magical item that, unfortunately, bestows a curse upon them… and so they set off on a second adventure to remove this curse. Usually in a campaign the players play the same characters (unless until they die, perhaps crushed by the vast foot of that giant, in which case they will need to make new ones with new histories – and then the DM will integrate them into the story). Campaigns can go on indefinitely, and indeed many do go on for years. During this time characters gain what are known as “experience points” which accrue after each adventure and enable the character to gain new powers and skills, and generally be a lot more badass. This is a lot of fun for players who enjoy seeing their characters progress from “have a go heroes” to perhaps the most powerful beings in the realm (although they will have to play for a long time for that to happen… there are strict rules governing how characters develop!). A good roleplayer may well factor this change of character status by altering the way his character behaves… perhaps they turn from idealistic young man intent on saving the world, to power-crazed politician seduced by his own status and a taste of the finer things in life.

Campaigns can go on indefinitely, and indeed many do go on for years. During this time characters gain what are known as “experience points” which accrue after each adventure and enable the character to gain new powers and skills, and generally be a lot more badass.

Preparing an adventure, let alone a campaign, in a fully fledged fantasy world of your own making is a massive undertaking for any Dungeon Master, and luckily the game’s publishers, Wizards of the Coast, not only publish the core rulebooks of D&D, but they also publish readymade adventures, most of which take place in a fantasy world called the Forgotten Realms. There are in fact several official D&D worlds, like Dragonlance, Greyhawk and Dark Sun, but the Forgotten Realms is perhaps the most detailed and has been developed as a D&D setting since the 1970s. Nonetheless many DMs, including myself, prefer to create their own worlds, as that’s kind of half the fun for those of us with too much time on our hands…

How Can I Get Started?

By far the best way to get started is to join a game of experienced players, which admittedly is not always as easy done as said. However if you search around on community websites like Facebook, Craigslist, Meetup, Couchsurfing etc. you might a group of people like you looking for one or two new players. Also gaming stores are often a meeting point for those who want to run adventures and these days of course it’s also possible to play online – sign up to Roll20 and look for a game to join!

For more details check my in-depth post on how to start playing Dungeons & Dragons.