Learn How to Start Playing Dungeons and Dragons – 3 Simple Steps

Learn how to start playing D&D

If you’re new to the game and have been thinking about playing, I know it can seem a bit daunting.  So many books, manuals, dice, rules, sheets of paper and little miniature figures.  Yet, you’ve heard about the game for a while now, maybe you’ve seen people play in a Movie, on TV, YouTube or Twitch.  It seems like a lot of fun, and you think you might really enjoy it!  So, how do I play? What do I need?

At the end of the day, all you need to start Dungeons and Dragons is a Character and a couple of people to play with. That’s really all there is too it!

Making a character is a lot of fun, it’s your chance to create an avatar to go on an adventure with.  Is it Arya, Daenerys or Jon Snow type character from Game of Thrones?  Maybe you want to be Frodo, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas or Gandalf from Lord of the Rings.  Or how about someone who can keep other people healed and protected, or a thief who can hide in the shadows and pick the locks on that fancy treasure chest?  Is your character brave or timid?  Funny or stoic, honorable or… not so much?     You can be virtually whatever you want, and that’s a lot of the fun.

As for people to play with, if you don’t know of any friends who are interested, D&D is a perfect opportunity to meet some new people.  You can find people at a local hobby shop, an existing game night somewhere, or organize your own!

My goal here is to give you what you need to be comfortable starting on your D&D journey.

The Three Simple Steps To Playing Dungeons and Dragons Are:

  1. Character Creation:  Look through the many different races, classes, and ethics (alignments) of the characters available in D&D.  For this, I’ll outline a bit for you and point you in the right direction to start out.
  2. A Regular Group:  This is a pool of people who agree to get together and play at whatever schedule you decide.  As few as 2 and up to whatever feels comfortable here.  Large groups can get by if one or two people don’t show, and smaller groups are a bit easier to manage.
  3. Decide on a DM and Campaign:  This is the adventure you’ll go on and who is running it.  The Dungeon Master (DM), or Game Master (GM) is the person running the show.  They let the players know whats going on, and decide any outcomes of actions the other players take.  The Campaign is usually a pre-written adventure for the players to navigate.  So, for example, a starting town is defined, and maybe there has been a bit of trouble at the old crypt a few miles away… can you investigate?

What is Dungeons and Dragons?

You come upon a graveyard. It looks peaceful except that several of the graves look freshly dug. Too many. In the distance you can see a large building that looks a lot like a prison, complete with lookout towers. Part of the wall facing you has been destroyed. What do you do?

This probably feels like a scenario from a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. A familiar concept as many of us read these books as kids or perhaps you have even stumbled across some of the Dungeons & Dragons Endless Quest series along the same lines. What if you could play your own Choose Your Own Adventure, one where you get to control the twists and turns? One where you help tell the story? 

This is what Dungeons and Dragons (D&D from here on out) is. If you do a quick search of how to start playing D&D, you will run across a plethora of great resources. They tell you what to buy, where to begin, and while I am going to cover those things here too, I am also going to answer the number one question that I get from people who have never played before: What exactly is D&D?

D&D is a tabletop role-playing game (RPG) created in the 1970s that has risen in popularity over the decades, making its way into more mainstream culture. Stranger Things, The Big Bang Theory, Community, and Futurama all make mention of the game in some capacity. Celebrities like Joe Manganiello, Steven Colbert, Anderson Cooper, Drew Barrymore, Vin Diesel and many more have sung the praises of the game. Watching Terry Crews play a version of D&D will take up a chunk of time, but his commitment to the game is awesome (and a nice introduction to role-playing).

There are, of course, many different types of RPGs, but I think D&D is perhaps the most famous and also the most misunderstood. It isn’t a bunch of teenage nerds in a basement dressed in costumes pretending to be elves. I mean, it could be that if you wanted it to be, but I don’t believe the game would be as popular as it is if that was the case. 

Getting Started

Jumping into role-playing can be daunting. That’s why Wizards of the Coast created the Starter Set for DnD. They want to hook you, let you get a taste of what D&D can be like. Created for 5-6 players, the starter set comes with the very basics. A rulebook, dice, character sheets and a pre-made adventure guide called the Lost Mine of Phandelver.

Within your game, you will choose one player to be your Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master (GM) if you prefer, who represents the world and referees the events as they happen. They are the impartial judge. The players are heroes and villains that interact with the world through their characters.  There are also pre-made characters included in this set, so you’ll get a good feel for every phase of the game.

Pre-made adventures are a great way of getting your feet wet as they provide a nice balance of characters. The starter set includes two human fighters, a dwarf cleric, halfling rogue, and an elf wizard (more on this in a bit). This means that you can learn to play a bit before trying your hand at creating your own character.  

The D&D Essentials Kit is a bit more substantial, with some added pieces and a different pre-made adventure featuring ice and dragons. With additional character sheets, a DM screen, and a gaming mat, this is the next step up for those who have just stumbled into D&D but are still learning the rules and how to role-play.

Forming a Group

Of course, in order to play you need to create a group or “party” in D&D speak. If you are lucky, you can convince a small group of friends to play with you. If you are having trouble convincing your friends to commit, you can travel down to the nearest hobby/game store and see if there are any groups in need of players.

Some stores have D&D nights specifically for groups and new players to join. Some people prefer to find their groups through the internet via Reddit, Meetup.com, or even Facebook Groups. Gaming conventions normally have adventurers league sessions for D&D 5e or sign-up sessions for one shot adventures.

There are also groups out there that play D&D online using platforms like Fantasy Grounds and Roll20, so if you can only find players scattered all over, you can still form a game and play together. I will warn you that the last option has a learning curve, but no more than other software.

Moving Beyond Kits

I think the hardest part of D&D is learning about the different types of characters, creating a believable and interesting backstory, and then making choices that match the person you have created.

The first place you have to begin if you are going to delve into creating your own character and moving away from pre-made character sheets is to purchase a copy of the D&D Player’s Handbook. This is essential to building a character as it carefully lays out the details of all the different races, classes, weapons, spells, equipment, and so much more. 

If you have decided to build your own character from scratch, then the first thing you need to do is choose a “race”.

The core races in 5e include:

  • Dragonborn
  • Dwarf
  • Elf
  • Gnome
  • Half-Elf
  • Half-Orc
  • Halfling
  • Human
  • Tiefling

After choosing a race, you then move on to choose a class. 

The core classes in 5e are:

  • Barbarian
  • Bard
  • Cleric
  • Druid
  • Fighter
  • Monk
  • Paladin
  • Ranger
  • Rogue
  • Sorcerer
  • Warlock

My first go-around, I decided to play a Tiefling because, well, it sounded interesting. Of course, I knew nothing about Tieflings or monks, so I struggled with my character’s identity.

Folks, I can tell you that the backstory I created made what should have been a badass fighting monk into a meek and shy creature with all the charisma of a wet noodle. That first character was tough to play, but it taught me a lot for my next character.  

My second go-round, I created a Human Fighter who I designed to be an Errol Flynn-like swashbuckler who flirts and laughs and boasts and is enjoying every moment of his adventuring. Much more entertaining for everyone in the group and much more fun to play. 

If you want to move up to the next level, there are additional supplementary materials you can purchase. Books like the D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide along with the D&D Monster Manual and Xanthar’s Guide to Everything, cards and spells for the cleric, wizards, and bards of your group. Reading all these books isn’t for everyone, but it will help familiarize yourself with the many moving parts of the game. 

Creating a Character Sheet

I’ll admit right now that this process can be very convoluted and confusing for a beginner.  If you started with the Starter Set, you’ll be in good shape to make your own Character next. 

To make that easier… Enter D&D and Beyond, a website that will help guide you through character creation. There are several such websites, but I have found this one to be the most intuitive. They will walk you through every step of the process from your basic stats like strength dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma to weapons, special skills, and spells. 

It is also important at this stage to determine the alignment of your character. The alignment is arguably one of the easier elements of D&D role-playing to understand. They are as follows:

Your character’s alignment will determine how they react in certain situations. For example, good characters will do everything they can to protect and save innocents, while an evil character would do the opposite for profit or worse, for fun. An evil character will hurt people, possibly even murder and will have no issue doing so. Some may work for an evil deity or another evil master. Neutral characters may not murder for fun, but they aren’t going to put their neck on the line for no reason. 

Lawful is its own thing as it means that a character will tell the truth, is honorable, respecting of authority, and doesn’t suffer those who do not do what they are supposed to do. A character can be lawful and evil, like a thief who belongs to a Thief’s Guild and follows their rules to the letter, even if it isn’t the law of the land. Chaotic characters are more prone to buck authority, doing what they want to do when they want to do it. A promise for a chaotic character is more like a, maybe if I feel like it. 

All of this means that as you navigate adventures with your character, some of your decision making needs to work within the alignment you have chosen. Typically, a Paladin will be Lawful Good, a Barbarian will be Chaotic something, and most monsters would be evil on some level. 

Sure, an evil character can do some good things, but in the end, who they are at their core is important to your role-playing.

Your First Game

Your first session is probably going to be a lot of character building and making sure everyone has everything they need. Character names, stats, backstory, etc. 

Dice

You can purchase dice online or at your local hobby shop (see our article on best gaming dice for D&D). Make sure you have a set with at least one 20-sided dice.

Character Sheet

If you made your character ahead of time, bring along your computer or a print-out of your character sheet. I like to print mine out and then put it in a binder with plastic sheets. I then write on the plastic with a dry-erase marker. Something about the tactile nature of writing makes me feel more engaged with the game. However, we have players who prefer to look at their character sheets and make modifications electronically. 

For your first session, you don’t need anything more than this. Everything else is a bonus. Gaming mats, miniatures, terrain, background music. This all adds to the gaming experience but isn’t needed, especially if you aren’t sure you want to commit to it yet.

What Does Role-Playing Look Like?

There are so many great shows out there like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone that will show you some top-mark role-playing. Those are goals, but for most people starting out, it isn’t nearly as finessed. Sometimes the choices are clear.

You come upon a graveyard with a prison in the background. What do you do? Well, my swashbuckler is always looking for a fight so let’s head to the prison first.

A ghost appears. Do you try to speak to it? Hmmm, well my character isn’t very wise or intelligent so, yes, let’s try that. The ghost is whispering in your mind telling you to kill your friends. Uh oh. Maybe you shouldn’t have done that.

There is also one other element that we should touch on here and that is dice. This adds an element of chance and makes it feel more like a traditional board game.

For most actions, players will roll a 20-sided dice. That ghost I decided to talk to earlier? Perhaps the DM asked me to roll for wisdom and I rolled a 6. Not a great number and since my character isn’t particularly wise, this is the reason why the ghost is able to get inside my mind.

However, if I had rolled an 18, the DM might have said, “You hear a whisper in your mind, but you know better than to listen.” This may give my character some time to escape and come back better prepared. There are several other dice that are used in the game to determine things like how much damage you inflict on your enemies or how much health is restored.   

So, Ready to Get Playing?

Role-playing is about making choices, it is creating your own adventure as a team, but most importantly it’s staying true to a character that you created. A character, that hopefully, you enjoy pretending to be.

Now if you really want to get into it, you’ll grab yourself some miniatures to represent your hero. 😉  And if you’re the DM, I’d go ahead and pick up some monsters so the players can really feel like they know what they are facing!  Maybe you’ll even get into painting them like I did!  By the way, there are books for that too…

Rich holding a D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) handbook in a hobby shop. Handbooks are helpful when you first start playing.

I have a feeling that if you are reading this and about to play your first adventure, you may like it. And if you do, I can promise you that once you slay your first goblin or one of your characters accidentally sets off a booby trap and is deaf for an entire session, you will be hooked.