Learn how to play the world’s most popular Tabletop RPG
So you’ve heard tell that in the dank corners of some foul tavern, there’s a group of adventurers hatching a plan to save the land once again (or maybe swindle some halfling out of his hard-earned fortune) and you want in! Well you’re in the right place, because this guide is here to explain how you can start playing D&D and have many adventures just like the ones described above (and also, many very different adventures to the ones described above).
For the purposes of this guide, we’ll be focusing on how to get started with Dungeons & Dragons as a player rather than as a guide for Dungeon Masters. We’ll take you through all the important elements of playing a game from what you’ll need to play, to character creation and gameplay too.
What is Dungeons & Dragons?
D&D is a Tabletop Role Playing Game (or TTRPG). Players take on the roles of adventurers solving puzzles, fighting in combat and interacting in a huge variety of ways with the world created for their game. It’s a co-operative game for groups of typically 3-4 players (but there’s no specific number of players needed) who navigate their way through scenarios and situations that the Dungeon Master engineers for them. A game can last for a single session of a few hours or can span a campaign of multiple years. A typical session though, will last 3-4 hours with a typical campaign taking up anywhere between 5-15 sessions though many campaigns do vary greatly in length.
D&D has many settings that players can expect to adventure within from high fantasy settings like Faerun to cyberpunk lands like Eberron to the horror setting of Ravenloft and all sorts of places in between. There really is a huge variety to where you can end up. The many varied settings of D&D allow for a huge variety of adventure types. Players needn’t be the archetypal heroes of a game, nor do they need to embark into dungeons. D&D can see players take on the roles of evil characters with sinister motives, enlisting in diplomatic missions, joining a war, puzzling through mysterious landscapes and even find themselves fighting across space in the Spelljammer setting. The scope of the game really depends on the players and more importantly, the DM and what kind of adventure they want to send you on.
What do you Need to Play D&D?
You don’t need a lot to play D&D. Here’s all the essentials for any player, plus we’ve included some optional extras if you want to take your gaming to the next level:
Essential D&D Gear
- Player’s Handbook 5e – This is the rulebook for D&D and we absolutely recommend purchasing this (or borrowing it from a kind friend). This contains all the rules you need to know,shows the abilities you can have, and will be essential when leveling up characters.
- Polyhedral Dice – These dice are used to determine scores for certain tests, checks and combat attacks. You’ll need a; d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20
- Character Sheet – All the important information about your character goes on a character sheet from hit points to armour class to ability scores, it all goes on here.
- Notebook – You’ll find that most games of D&D last over several multi-hour sessions called a campaign. A lot can happen over the course of a campaign including information to be remembered weeks and even months later. A notebook is really important to keep track of everything that’s been happening.
- Pencil and Rubber – You’ll be making lots of changes to your character sheet from keeping track of hit points and spell slots to adding equipment to your inventory. You’ll also need something to write down all the notes you have on what’s been happening in the campaign.
Optional D&D Gear
- Character Model – Many players like to play on a battlemap or even with real scenery. It’s not essential, but you can take your gaming to the next level with a physical representation of your character.
- Virtual Subscription – If you’re playing online, or if you prefer to keep track of your character online, you can use virtual D&D software to help you. D&D Beyond is a great tool for players wanting to use character sheets online, make skill checks with online dice and keep their book purchases virtual. Other software like Roll20 will give you online battlemaps and other nifty features that allow you to play entirely virtually. Many of these subscriptions have a free layer with less features that are perfectly adequate for beginners to the game.
How to Create a Character in D&D
The first thing you’ll need to do to play D&D is create a character. This will be the character you control within the game. The main things you’ll need to decide about your character are:
A character’s race relates to which of the humanoid species you want to play as. There are dozens of different races and each race comes with unique traits and abilities. Your race could very much impact your playing experience, for example, if you play as a drow (dark elf) you may find that other characters treat you differently because drow are often cold-hearted killers. You’ll also have a weakness to sunlight but find operating in the dark much easier than a human for example who does not have the “darkvision” ability. Other races may have the ability to fly, cast innate spells, have phenomenal luck, breath fire, resistances to certain conditions and damage or many other different abilities.
Below is a list of the playable races in Dungeons & Dragons 5e (though new races are always being added):
- Air Genasi
- Astral Elves
- Deep Gnome
- Earth Genasi
- Fire Genasi
- Sea Elf
- Simic hybrid
- Water genasi
- Yuan-ti Pureblood
You can learn more about the different races of D&D in our Race Guide.
While your race determines your species, your class determines your adventuring discipline and the skills you have as a result of this. D&D has many different classes ranging from close-combat specialists like fighters and barbarians to magic-wielders like wizards and sorcerors and all sorts of other class types. We’ve listed all the different classes available in D&D below:
- Artificer – Master inventors that use magic and technology to turn objects into powerful tools
- Barbarian – Fierce warriors willing to risk life and limb in the rage of combat
- Bard – Inspirational magic wielders and performers who utilise a wide array of skills in adventuring
- Cleric – A priest that wields the divine magic of a chosen deity to act in behalf of the virtues of their God
- Druid – A wielder of powerful nature magic
- Fighter – A skillful warrior trained in the art of combat
- Monk – A master of martial arts that has honed their body and mind into powerful tools
- Paladin – A powerful warrior bound by an oath
- Ranger – A skilled warrior that operates on the edges of society
- Rogue – Cunning individuals that utilise stealth and trickery to overcome obstacles
- Sorceror – Powerful magic-wielders whose source of magic is either gifted or genetic
- Warlock – Spellcasters that have obtained powerful magic from a patron they are now indebted to
- Wizard – Intellectuals who have dedicated years of life to the study and mastery of magic
As you progress through a campaign, your character will become more experienced and will gain levels. Once a character reaches level 3, they’ll be able to specialise further within their chosen discipline taking on something called a “subclass”. Each subclass has unique features that enable characters to become specialists in a certain field. For example, a rogue might become an assassin, a scout, a thief or one of several other different subclasses.
While most classes are detailed in the Player’s Handbook, the Artificer is only found in one of the expanded source books (originally in Eberron: Rising from the Last War, but now updated in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything). The Player’s Handbook also includes many subclasses but many more have been added into the game within Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. This means that while you only need the Player’s Handbook to create a character, some subclasses may only be available once you’ve purchased these additional books.
Your abilities determine how good you are at certain activities. Characters have 6 abilities; strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma. There are different methods for determining a character’s ability score. 3 of the more common ones are:
- Roll 3d6, add the values together and assign it to one of the abilities. Repeat this for all 6 abilities. This method tends to produce low-powered characters
- Roll 4d6, get rid of the lowest roll, add the values together and assign the value to one of the abilities. Repeat this for all 6 abilities. This method tends to produce higher than average scores
- The point buy method assigns a certain number of points that the player can distribute however they like among each ability. Depending on how challenging the DM wants to make the campaign depends on how many points players have to distribute among their abilities. 27 is a typical number of points to assign with each ability score starting at 8
In addition to the scores determined above, the race a player chooses will also provide the player with additional points to add to certain abilities.
When a player makes an ability check, they will roll a d20 and add their ability modifier to the score. The higher the ability score, the higher the modifier with no ability score being able to exceed 20. The table below can help you work out the modifier to add to your dice roll.
Abilities in D&D are used in all sorts of scenarios. For example, an attempt to grapple another creature might result in the player and the creature making a strength check where they roll d20, add their modifier and see who gets the higher score. Attempting to scale a wall, evade an attack or resist a psychic attack are just a few examples of the types of activities you might undertake that would require you to make an ability check. In addition, certain ability modifiers will affect certain other aspects of your character such as the ease with which they can hit an enemy, their armour class, the number of hit points they have and their spellcasting ability.
Characters will also have a set of skills that encompass a broader range of capabilities. Each skill is covered by a certain ability. Skills are used when a character needs to perform a more specific kind of check to see if they can accomplish a task. For example, a player that is attempting to lie may need to take a deception check. To do this, the player rolls a d20 and adds the related ability modifier to the die roll, in this case, charisma.
During the game, players will be able to choose certain skills to become proficient in. This means that your character can add their proficiency bonus as well when making a check for that skill. At level 1, characters start with a proficiency bonus of +2, this will increase as players gain levels. A list of the different proficiency bonuses at each level can be seen below:
The total score of your ability check will be successful if it’s equal to, or higher than the task DC. Easier tasks will require a lower score while difficult tasks will require a higher score to accomplish.
A list of all skills can be found below:
- Acrobatics (Strength)
- Animal Handling (Wisdom)
- Arcana (Intelligence)
- Athletics (Dexterity)
- Deception (Charisma)
- History (Intelligence)
- Insight (Wisdom)
- Intimidation (Charisma)
- Investigation (Intelligence)
- Medicine (Wisdom)
- Nature (Intelligence)
- Perception (Wisdom)
- Performance (Charisma)
- Persuasion (Charisma)
- Religion (Intelligence)
- Sleight of Hand (Dexterity)
- Stealth (Dexterity)
- Survival (Wisdom)
A character’s moral compass can be roughly determined through the use of alignment. When you create a character, you’ll need to determine what alignment they have. A list of the different alignments available are below:
- Lawful Good – Attempts to be a force for good while operating within the boundaries of the law
- Neutral Good – Believes in altruism above anything else. Does not seek to rebel, but may do so if seen to bring about the greatest good
- Chaotic Good – Intends to bring about good in the world but is comfortable breaking societal rules to accomplish this
- Lawful Neutral – Attempts to keep the law as fairly as possible acting impartially in all matters
- True Neutral – A seeker of balance or an individual with no particular leaning towards goodness or evil
- Chaotic Neutral – Tend to follow their heart and their personal desires without interest in self-sacrifice
- Lawful Evil – Is willing to perform evil acts within the realms of law such as punishment of others or acting selfishly
- Neutral Evil – Will do what they want as long as they feel they can get away with it
- Chaotic Evil – A malevolent character that will stop at nothing to enact their own evil desires
A character’s alignment is not fixed and can change over time as characters develop or depending on the circumstance of the situation. For example, a lawful evil character might be selfish and happy to punish those that wrong him, but might draw the line at harming children, for example.
In the D&D universe, many terrifying and terrible creatures await, many of whom may be antagonistic to the players. In particular, when your occupation is that of an adventurer, chances are you’re going to have to do a bit (or a lot) of fighting.
Combat in D&D works around taking turns. When combat begins, players will roll for initiative (to determine who reacts first), this will decide the order of turns for both players and enemies. To work out your initiative order, players and the DM (rolling for non-playable characters) roll a d20 and add their dexterity modifier to the score. The character with the highest roll goes first taking turns in descending order. Once everyone has taken a turn, the first player takes a 2nd turn continuing in the same pattern until the combat ends either because one side are all incapacitated, retreat or surrender.
On a turn, players can perform a movement, an action, a bonus action and possibly a reaction; no specific order needs to be followed here.
- Movement – Characters will have a movement speed. This is usually 30ft but can be more or less depending on race, items and other effects that may be in force. As an example, halflings can only move 25ft. If using a battlemap, distance can be measured using the grid which will be 5ft per square on the grid.
- Actions – An action is the main thing a player will do on their turn. Usually, this will involve making an attack such as shooting a bow or hitting with a sword, casting a spell or performing some other action. As players progress in levels and gain additional skills and feats, they may be able to do multiple things with their action, for example, a fighter will eventually be able to attack twice with their action because they’ve become such a master of combat.
- Bonus Actions – Some abilities that characters can use don’t require taking a full action and can be used as a bonus action. You can only use 1 per turn and it must be described as a bonus action in the rules to be able to do this
- Reaction – A reaction can be taken during someone else’s turn to react to what’s been done. Only 1 reaction can be made per round. As an example, some spells are reactions such as counterspell which can be used when someone casts a spell you want to stop
When attacking, a player will choose a target and roll a d20 to see if they hit. If the player is using a finesse or ranged weapon, they add their dexterity modifier to their roll, if they’re using another weapon type, it’ll be their strength modifier. On top of this, you’ll also add your proficiency bonus. The total of these 3 numbers will be your score. You then compare your score against the enemy’s armour class (AC), if the score is equal to or higher than the enemy’s AC, then you’ve hit them.
If you roll a 1, this is called a critical miss and always results in a miss. If you roll a 20, it’s called a critical hit and always hits. On top of this, you double the die roll for damage. Sometimes, a situation will mean it’s easier to hit something and the character will be given “advantage” (like when 2 characters attack an enemy on their own), this just means you can roll the d20 twice and use the highest score. The reverse can happen when an enemy might be harder to hit for some reason (like if they’re surrounded by darkness), you then have “disadvantage” and must roll the d20 twice and take the lowest roll to hit
If you do land a hit, you can roll to see how much damage you do. Your weapon will have a dice associated with it with weaker weapons rolling a d4 and stronger weapons rolling up to a d12. Some more powerful weapons may have a bonus to that score indicated by a +. Whatever number comes after this + indicates what you add to your roll for damage. In addition, you add your ability modifier for whichever ability you used to make the attack. Add the die rolls and modifiers together to determine how much damage you do to the enemy. If you take their health to 0 or below, then they’ve been incapacitated.
Some characters can cast spells which can be cast as an action on your turn. Different spells work in different ways. Some will require enemies to take a saving throw against your spell DC (10+ proficiency bonus + your spellcasting ability modifier), some will require you to hit a target like in combat (d20 + proficiency bonus + your spellcasting ability modifier), others might work automatically or require something different depending on the rules detailed in the spell rules.
Different classes will use different abilities to determine their capabilities in spellcasting but they will always be one of wisdom, intelligence or charisma. Below we’ve detailed which classes use which ability to determine their spellcasting ability:
|Druid||Fighter (Eldritch Knight)||Sorceror|
|Monk||Rogue (Arcane Trickster)||Warlock|
In some instances, certain races may have innate spellcasting abilities that give them magical abilities regardless of their class. In such cases, the character can typically choose which ability they use for their spellcasting modifier.
Often, players will need to engage in elements of role-play in order to interact with the world around them. This might involve talking to one another, making decisions or convincing others to some course of action or another. In particular, this will involve interacting with the DMs non-playable characters (NPCs). Some actions may require taking skill checks such as attempting to jump a large gap, convincing someone to help you, sneaking past some guards or picking a lock.
Because the game utilises imagination, a near infinite number of actions could be taken to utilise the things in the world around you. This is different from similar media like video games in which every action needs to be programmed into the game. To get into a castle, players might choose to steal a key, fight their way in, climb the walls, look for a secret entrance, build a ladder, destroy the wall, instigate an uprising or any other number of solutions. Obviously the DM will need to determine through dice rolls and logic what actions will be successful and which will not. As shown previously, when a dice roll is involved, the DM will determine the difficulty class (or DC) of the check. This is the score that the player needs to roll (when ability modifiers have been taken into account) to succeed in a certain action. A rough guide to DC scores required for tasks of varying difficulty can be seen below:
If all of this sounds overwhelming, don’t worry. Unlike many games, D&D is a collaborative game where players and even the DM work collaboratively together. As long as your group has at least one experienced player, they can help everyone else along the way. And even if no one is sure of a rule, a DM’s word is final and they can choose to approach any given situation in a way that they deem best. If you want to learn the rules of D&D in detail, then we recommend buying the Player’s Handbook which will guide you through all the rules you need to know for playing or if you want to become a dungeon master, you’ll need the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster manual as well.