How to Play Dungeons and Dragons
A number of excellent resources are available for learning how to play DnD (Dungeons and Dragons), and while those resources are fantastic on their own they are also limited. While they can teach you the rules of the game, in many cases you may still be left with questions, and it may be unclear where to look for answers.
This guide is intended to be a full, thorough introduction not only to the rules of Dungeons and Dragons, but to the act of how to play the game. When you finish this guide, you will not only understand the rules, but you will be ready to build your first character, to join your first group, and to play your first game with full confidence that you know the rules well enough to enjoy the game. I still recommend reading the Player’s Handbook to get the official text of the rules, but consider this guide a helpful companion, here to clarify and simplify the confusing parts of the official material.
This guide is a lot of text. I don’t expect you to read it all in one sitting any more than the Player’s Handbook expects that you will read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. This guide is equal parts guided walkthrough and reference document, and while it’s organized in a specific order, I fully expect that many readers may skip around, revisit sections, or skip sections entirely.
I encourage new players to read the full guide in order, but because the rules of the game all reference each other it will often be helpful to peek ahead at later sections for context or look back for reminders. If you’re the sort of person that learns by doing, consider skipping ahead to the Creating a Character section, then go back to previous sections when those sections become important to the character creation process.
This guide is intentionally presented in a different order from the Player’s Handbook. This guide is ordered to teach you the important concepts of the game before walking you through the process of creating a character so that you can begin the process of character creation confident that you understand what each of your decisions means when you make them.
If you prefer an audio medium, I strongly encourage you to listen to our 4-part podcast series on How to Play Dungeons and Dragons. It’s intended to cater to people who may have no prior exposure to tabletop RPGs, which makes it an excellent resource for newcomers to the game and to the hobby in general.
- RPGBOT.Podcast – How to Play Dungeons and Dragons, Part 1 – Concepts and Themes
- RPGBOT.Podcast – How to Play Dungeons and Dragons, Part 2 – Characters
- RPGBOT.Podcast – How to Play Dungeons and Dragons, Part 3 – Playing the Game
- RPGBOT.Podcast – How to Play Dungeons and Dragons, Part 4 – Questions and Answers
A brief introduction for those who are totally unfamiliar with roleplaying games and how they are played.
1. The Basics
The absolute basic rules of the game. This is the foundation upon which the rest of the game is built.
2. Ability Scores, Skills, and Tools
Ability scores are a character’s most basic stats, and they are the primary contributor to your character’s chances of success and failure on any task which requires a d20 roll. There are six ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Each describes a specific aspect of your character’s capabilities, which are described in the sections below.
This section will explain what each ability score represents and what it is used for, and will explain each of the skills associated with each ability score. The final portions of this section will discuss tool proficiencies and using ability scores and skills in unusual combinations.
- Ability Modifiers
- Passive Skills
- Tools, Gaming Sets, and Vehicles
3. Exploration and Social Interaction
The first two pillars of the game, Exploration and Social Interaction cover the majority of a character’s life, at least in in-game time.
The third pillar of the game, the Combat rules take up roughly 10 pages of text, but they are very dense. Until you’re confident in the rules, expect to reference these rules frequently during game sessions.
- Combat Basics
- Movement and Position
- Space and Reach
- Actions in Combat
- Attack and Defense
- Damage, Healing, and Dying
- Mounted Combat
- Underwater Combat
5. Items and Equipment
Material items are an important part of any character. You’ll spend a lot of time collecting treasure and spending it on equipment for your character, as well as mundane things like food and housing. In some cases, you may even encounter magic items with fantastic abilities.
- The Economy
- Armor and Shields
- Adventuring Gear
- Tools and Gaming Kits
- Mounts and Vehicles
- Magic items
- Selling Treasure
Magic is a defining feature of fantasy, and Dungeons and Dragons would be a very different game without it. While magic can come in many forms, the most common is the casting of spells. Being a spellcaster opens up a lot of new options that aren’t available to characters who don’t cast spells, but it can also be complicated and intimidating for new players.
If you’re not ready to take on the challenge of spellcasting, I still encourage you to read Magic Basics so you at least undestand the basics of what spells are and how they work. You’ll probably have spellcasters in your party, and it’s nice to understand what they’re talking about when they start throwing magic around.
7. Creating a Character
If you read all of the previous sections start to finish, you probably have a lot of questions. A lot of things you just learned aren’t going to make much sense until you put them to use, but understanding them will make you next step make more sense.
It’s time to build your first character! Building a character can be intimidating because there are a lot of options to choose from, but don’t worry: You can make more than one character and pick which one you want to play when you start a campaign. If you never use a character you made, that’s perfectly fine. If you start making a character and want to start over, that’s perfectly fine. The goal of this section is to get you to the end with at least one complete character which you can then bring to a game ready to play.
This section will roughly follow the format of Chapter 1 of the Players’ Handbook, but will provide more guidance on making specific decisions like your race and class, and will provide specific advice on how to handle things like ability scores and buying equipment. It will not simply teach you how to build a character, it will teach how to build a character well.
You don’t necessarily need to do each step in order. It’s common to jump around, changing decisions you’ve made earlier as your character evolves in your mind. Takes notes to keep track of all of the decisions you make along the way. At the end, we’ll look at a character sheet and where and how to record your character so that you’re ready to play.
- Character Concept
- Choose a Race and Class
- Choose Ability Scores
- Choose a Background
- Choose Starting Equipment
- Character Details
- Your Character Sheet
8. Finding or Forming a Group
You know how to play and you’ve built your first character. Now it’s time to get into a game.
Keep in mind that you may not be able to use your character in its current form: you may need to make some adjustments to fit the party, or to accomodate house rules. Even if you have to start fresh, building your first character was an important way to learn a major part of the game that will make you a better player.
You’re ready! You know the rules, you have a group, and you have a character. You’re ready to start your first game. Welcome to the hobby. I hope you enjoy it for years to come.
If you have more questions, don’t hesitate to email me. I’m always happy to help.
You don’t need to read these articles to understand how to play, but you may still find them helpful.
- Intro to Character Optimization: A brief introduction to the concepts and philosophy behind character optimization.
- Trouble at The Tonesvale Fair: An online solo adventure for players new to DnD 5e
- Player Glossary: Terms used by players
- Dragons of Stormwreck Isle: The current starter set. Includes a short adventure, 6 dice, pregenerated characters, and a condensed version of the 5e rules. (affiliate link)
- D&D Essentials Kit: While is is more expensive than Dragons of Stormwreck Isle, the Essentials Kit also contains considerably more content. Coupled with free digital expansions available via DnDBeyond, the Essentials Kit runs from levels 1 to 12. The box includes a set of dice, the first adventure in the 4-part series (the remaining 3 are digital only), a condensed version of the 5e rules, and rules for “Sidekick” characters so that you can play with groups as small as one DM and one player. (affiliate link)
How do I start playing?
Start by getting access to a copy of the rules, such as those included in the starter set. Assemble a group of folks to play with. Read the rules together. Play an introductory adventure, such as the one in the starter set.
How many people do I need to play?
At minimum you need two people: a Dungeon Master and a player. A typical group will have 4 to 6 people, one of whom will be the Dungeon Master. There are also 3rd-party rules for playing the game entirely on your own.
Is it easy to learn Dungeons and Dragons?
Yes! While the big pile of rule books can be intimidating, the parts that you need to learn to get started are very simple, and you can look up and learn the rest of the rules as you go.
What do I need to play?
Surprisingly little. You need a way to track character stats, a way to roll dice, and a copy of the rules. You can use a pencil and paper or free digital character sheets to track characters. You can use a free dice app on a smart device to roll dice. The Basic Rules are free, and include enough rules content to get started.