What is Dungeons and Dragons?


DnD 5th edition is a fantasy roleplaying game. While styles vary between groups and campaigns, it is often described as “swashbuckling fantasy adventure”, which means that there are lots of exotic locations and magical themes, and that conflicts are often resolved by defeating an enemy through force of arms.

Dungeons and Dragons was create in the 1970s by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and the current edition is created by Wizards of the Coast, carrying on Gygax’s legacy 50 years later.

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What kinds of stories does Dungeons and Dragons tell?

I could type out explanations of the sorts of stories told in DnD until my keyboard shattered, but I think that some examples will be more useful.


Conan the Barbarian

One of Gary Gygax’s major influences, Conan the Barbarian features a strong hero and his allies in a dangerous, fantastic world full of strange magic and weird creatures. It also includes some iconic DnD themes like “dungeon crawling” and fighting monsters to claim the treasure that they’re guarding.

Lord of the Rings

While Gary Gygax supposedly did not like Lord of the Rings, its impact on today’s idea of “fantasy” is undeniable, and many of its thems, concepts, and creatures made their way into Dungeons and Dragons. Elves, Dwarfs, Halflings (hobbits), Treants (Ents), Trolls, and all manner of other creatures appear in DnD. If you are are familiar with none of the other examples in this document, Lord of the Rings may be the best example of the sorts of stories which are common in DnD: A band of people of often varying races, skillsets, and backgrounds coming together to go on an adventure for some purpose.

Video Games

Final Fantasy

The original Final Fantasy was, in many ways, a video game emulating Dungeons and Dragons. It used a class system which nearly mirrored resembled DnD, the spells has levels in much the same way the DnD does, even sticking to 9 levels of leveled spells, and many of the monsters were renamed monsters from Monster Manual (Mind Flayers, for example). While later games have evolved and developed their own systems, the original game was not shy about where it drew inspiration.

Official Dungeons and Dragons Video Games

Over time, DnD has seen dozens of officially licensed video games across a variety of formats. Among the most popular are the legendary Baldur’s Gate franchise and the Neverwinter Nights franchise. A word of caution: while those games are spectacular and I highly recommend them, they use the rules from previous editions of the game and aren’t as easy to learn as 5th edition.


DnD is often described by roleplaying game designers as having three “pillars” which define its themes: Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat.


Adventures in a fantasy world take you to all manner of strange and exotic locations. A single character might spend their whole life within the borders of a single country, or they might walk across the out planes, visiting the mountains of Celestia or the infinite layers of the Abyss.

Exploration and discovery are a foundational part of the game, but the exact definition of “Exploration” is intentionally vague. Sometimes and adventure will take you far from home, but sometimes you’ll discover adventure right beneath your feet.

Social Interaction

While DnD involves a lot of going to dangerous places and fighting the monsters which live there, you’ll often spend just as much time talking. You’ll meet creatures as mundane as other humans and as fantastic as sentient mushroom people. While some of these creatures will be hostile and often violent, many are willing to sit down and talk to you rather than attempt to kill you on sight. An adventure might take you into the den of strange, cannibalistic lizardfolk, or it might take you to the halls of power, eating and drinking with kings and nobles.


The bulk of DnD’s rules are dedicated to combat, and while combat may not be the defining aspect of your game it’s likely to be part of it. Combat is important and defined strictly in the rules because even the least important fight has the ability to completely change the game by killing one or more of the player characters.

Combat can be hugely exciting. The thrill of eking out a victory while narrowly surviving! The triumphant feeling of defeating a great foe! The sense of strength and confidence as you carve a bloody path through hordes of implacable foes! Sweet, sweet victory!

However, combat is also the most complicated part of the game. While the DM and the players can typically act out a social situation using only their voices and occasionally an ability check, combat happens in a fixed turn order and requires tracking resources like hit points, spell slots, arrows, and other minutiae. Some people find the combat rules daunting, but when your character’s life is on the line you want to know that everyone is using rules that are fair.

While you get comfortable with the rules, expect combat to be slow and require frequent excursions into the rulebooks. This is totally normal, but in this guide I’ll offer suggestions and strategies to help speed things along.

Core Mechanics

DnD 5e is d20-based, which means that success and failure are determined by rolling a d20+modifiers against a target number (or “DC” in the case of DnD 5e). Success is “binary” which means that you either succeed or you don’t, and generally a d20 roll will have no immediate results other than success or failure at whatever you’re attempting to do.


Most tabletop RPGs involve doing some amount of math, though this varies. DnD 5e is reasonably light on math: if you can handle adding and subtracting two-digit numbers, and very occasionally multiplying or dividing two-digt numbers, you’ll be fine. If you’re worried, bring a calculator (a calculator app on a phone works great, too). The most math that you’ll need to do unassisted is adding up the totals of damage dice from spells, and even then that won’t be difficult until you’ve been playing for a while and gained a bunch of levels (and real-world practice).

Characters in DnD 5e

Characters in DnD 5e are defined by their level, race, and class. You might describe your character as a “Level 5 Elf Wizard”. While this doesn’t tell you all of the great details of your character, it helps to explain to everyone else roughly what your character is and what they are capable of.

More information on characters, including how to make them, will be covered later in this guide.

Combat in DnD 5e

Combat is turn-based, so each character takes one turn to act in each “round”. If you’re familiar with turn-based tactical RPGS like Fallout 1 & 2 or XCOM, that’s a decent comparison. More information on combat will be covered in later sections of this guide.

Getting Started With DnD 5e

5th Edition is the current edition. The Starter Set includes several pre-made characters, an adventure, a small collection of monsters, and rules for playing through several levels with the premade characters. The content in the starter set will take a typical group 4-8 play sessions to complete, so it’s well worth its price.

In addition, WotC publishes “Basic” DnD rules, which are free on their website. They include a small set of iconic races, classes, and backgrounds, and the full rules for character creation and playing the game. The Basic rules are enough to get into the game, and reading them is a good starting point if you plan to try 5th edition. If you don’t have cash for the starter set, the basic rules offer enough options to keep you busy for a long time without costing anything.

Further Reading

The Wikipedia article on DnD provides a long and thorough summary of the history of the game.

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