Dungeons and Dragons is more popular than ever. Thanks to the success of Critical Role, Stranger Things, and The Adventure Zone, more people around the world have gotten into playing the world’s most well-known tabletop roleplaying game. But I still see this question all the time: how do I start playing D&D?
There’s a short answer and a long answer to this question. The short answer is: buy the books, buy some dice, grab some friends, and just go for it. The long answer is significantly more complicated. That’s what this article is for; to hopefully give you the resources, whether you’re a player or a DM, to get started with my favorite game of all time.
This section assumes you’re starting from nothing and have absolutely none of the equipment necessary to play the game. If you already have the basic stuff then you can feel free to skip this section. The most important tools for Dungeons and Dragons, aside from the dice, are the rulebooks. There are a number of legal ways of acquiring them and I’ll take you through them here.
If you’re not sure about playing the game and want to invest as little money as possible, the basic rules are free from the publisher’s website. You can find the page here.
The basic rules are an introduction to the game that let you get a feel for the game. If you can make your own basic adventure, you can get started with just these rules and have a good time.
If you’re more sure about the game and willing or able to invest some money, there’s a next step up, and that’s the introductory products: the Starter Set and the Essentials Kit. These both contain a printed out version of the Basic Rules, a short adventure, and a bunch of other goodies that will help you get started. I’ve personally played the adventure that comes with the Starter Set and can vouch for its quality. The Essentials Kit is relatively new so I haven’t had a chance to test it out yet. But both are specifically designed for new players in mind so they’ll be an excellent starting point. You should be able to find both of them at your local game store or online for no more than $25.
The next step up is the books themselves. Now, I do understand they can be pricey for a lot of people, but there’s really no way around it. To play the fully fledged game you do need the content in the books. If you absolutely want the paper books, don’t be surprised to be spending between $35 and $50 depending on where you get them. The idealist in me says to support your local game stores and buy them there, but if you’re on a budget, you can find them on Book Depository for about $37 each. If you’re a player, you’ll definitely need a copy of the Player’s Handbook, as that has all of the rules for creating characters and playing the game. If you’re planning to be a Dungeon Master, you’ll be needing the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide as well.
One thing to know is that there are far more books than the basic three of Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide. There are expansion books like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, setting books like The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, and even published adventures like Hoard of the Dragon Queen. They’re nice to have and give some cool options but they’re certainly not necessary.
If you don’t mind digital copies, there is one even cheaper way you can gain access to them. There are no official PDF releases of the books, but if you plan to have access to some kind of electronic device during your sessions, then D&D Beyond is your best bet. This officially supported website is an online resource for the modern age of D&D players where, for $29.99 per book, you can unlock all of the information from each book so you can access it from any browser or through their official app on both Apple and Android phones. It’s convenient, easy to access and search, and cheaper than buying the physical books.
You’ll also want to pick up some polyhedral dice, as they’re the tools you’ll be using to actually play the game. You can buy them in sets of 7 from game stores or various online sources. One set will include dice with 4, 6, 8, two with 10, 12, and 20 sides. Realistically you’ll eventually end up needing multiples of some of these dice but you can definitely start with just one set. There are also some online dice rollers if you don’t want to or can’t buy dice, including one by Wizards of the Coast. I highly recommend having this bookmarked in case someone forgets their dice.
You’ll also want a notebook or some loose leaf paper to make notes on and some writing implements.
There’s lots of other things you could buy if you wanted to, including reusable maps, dice towers, dice trays, spell cards, and much more. But what I’ve talked about here is the absolute basic stuff you need to get started.
Getting A Group Together
So, you’ve gotten the tools you think you’ll need. You have the books, you have the dice, and the desire to have some good fun. Now you’ll need some people to play with. The best candidates are friends or family members. People you’re able to see frequently and on a regular basis are the best people to play D&D with. They’ll also need to actually want to play the game, which is equally important. If there’s nobody in your circle of friends or family who is interested in playing, worry not. There are a number of things you can do.
You’ll also need to determine who will be the Dungeon Master. It’s a different role to the rest of the players as they’ll know what the story of the adventure is, they control all of the NPCs and monsters, and construct all of the encounters. This sounds like a lot of work, and in some ways it is, but it’s not as hard as it seems. Don’t worry too much about making mistakes on your first time. The books are there to look stuff up in, and your players won’t mind if you need to double-check something. If you’re not up for making an entire adventure, you can also buy one of the published adventures made by Wizards of the Coast. I recommend starting with the Essentials Kit or Starter set, or a simple one-shot to get a feel for it. The Wild Sheep Chase comes highly recommended.
The first option, if you have access to one, is going to your local game store. If you talk to the owners you might be allowed to post an ad that you’re looking for a group. If you’re extra lucky, they might know someone else looking for a group that they can introduce you to. Or the store could be hosting Adventurer’s League, which is an in-store system for running premade adventures in a structured setting. I don’t know much about how this works because I’ve never done it, but it might be an option available to you.
Another option that may be available to you is playing online. It’s definitely a different experience but if there’s really no people around you who want to/ can play, playing online is a perfectly fun and valid way of playing D&D. The best place I know of to find people to play online is the r/LFG subreddit.
A brief digression about playing online: this can be extremely fun but also be slightly strange. There’s less ability to lean in and give your piece because you have less ability to use body language so you have to be a little more assertive to get your stuff in. There’s also some complicating factors. Getting a group to meet on a regular basis is hard enough, but having to keep track of time zones on top of that can be a nightmare. Also, be careful. Don’t give out your personal information online to strangers. In my experience, most people online will be perfectly nice because they’re going to be in the same boat as you of just wanting to play D&D, but I will still caution you to be careful.
You have a group and a Dungeon Master. Now it’s time to start playing. Something I highly recommend you do is having something called “Session Zero.” This is typically where the Dungeon Master introduces the themes and setting of the adventure and you roll up characters together. This is a pretty involved process that the Player’s Handbook does a good job of guiding you through. Doing a Session Zero allows everyone to get acquainted with the adventures, other players, and the other player characters. It’s a great way to bounce ideas off each other and make sure you can all work together properly. It’s also good to know more or less what to expect from the adventure so you can talk to the DM if anything makes you uncomfortable or if something doesn’t seem to make sense.
Being A Player
So now you’ve got your group together and you’re ready to play. But what does it mean to play? There’s a couple of things that you can do to make your time during the sessions as effective and efficient as possible.
The first thing you’ll want to do is literally just read the Player’s Handbook. Get familiar with the rules and your race, class, background, and equipment.
The second thing you’ll want to do is really know how your character works. What are their abilities? Are they actions or bonus actions? How often can you use them between rests? If they have spells, what kind of components do they have? You don’t have to memorize all of this, of course. I just copy the descriptions into a Word document or page of a notebook for quick reference.
Taking notes is a good habit to get into. DMs love it when you take notes. It allows you to remember plot points, NPC names, and world details a lot better than just doing it from memory. It also helps you get more invested in the story because you’ll end up asking for details and extra information.
Combat in D&D is turn based. Aside from knowing your abilities or having them all written down, one thing that can help combat go a lot faster is thinking about what you’re going to do while it’s not your turn. You’re free to discuss it with the rest of the players as well. I recommend this because if you wait for your turn to look up your spells or abilities, it’ll grind combat to a halt, and nobody likes waiting.
Roleplaying can take many forms. For some people, it’s doing a special voice for their character. Some people even dress up or act out what they’re going to do. If you’re not comfortable doing any of this, that’s absolutely fine. Just describing what your character does in a situation is also roleplaying. You might want to start adding to that later, or you might not. Either way is perfectly valid. Though if you are going to do a voice, make sure that it’s one you can do for an entire play session without hurting your vocal chords. Doing a super gravelly Doctor Claw voice may seem cool at the time, but you’ll end up regretting it after three hours.
Being A Dungeon Master
This is a special section for those lucky enough to take up the mantle of Dungeon Master. It’s a lot of work, but it’s incredibly rewarding. So here are some tips and resources to help you get started running the game.
You may initially be daunted by the fact that being a DM is a lot more work and responsibility than being a player. That’s basically true, but I promise you that it’s less scary than it seems. The two most important things a Dungeon Master needs is a firm grasp of the rules (or the ability to look them up) and the ability to improvise. If you have those, you could become a very good DM. Things like an epic campaign idea or high quality acting ability are just nice to have, but not entirely necessary,
My advice is to start small. Find a one-shot online, or buy the Starter Set, and give your players some pregenerated characters to get a feel for it. You’ll make some mistakes, and that’s okay. The more you do it, the better you become. I’ve been DMing for three years and I still make mistakes. Don’t worry too much about it. Just try to make it as fun as possible for everyone, yourself included. The best DMing advice I ever saw came from Dale Friesen “it’s your job to sit there and say yes to things.”
The next step is a longer adventure. Wizards of the Coast has published a number of adventures. I haven’t played all of them so I can’t speak to their quality, so just pick one that looks cool and read it to get a feel for what kind of adventure it is. If you want a dungeon crawl, Dungeon of the Mad Mage exists. If you want a dragon-themed adventure, Hoard of the Dragon Queen is there for you. The four elements? Princes of the Apocalypse. Horror? Curse of Strahd. There’s a bunch more, so just read up on them and pick one.
So how do you prepare a session? It’s really quite simple. If you’re using a published adventure, read the section you think you’re going to be using so you’re familiar with it. The book will usually have some guidelines for what to do when the players encounter the situation. If there’s a combat encounter, roll the initiatives of the enemies ahead of time. This will save a bunch of time during the session. Figure out if they’ll fight to the death or surrender. Again, if you’re using a published adventure, it usually gives you info on this, and if it doesn’t, assume they fight to the death. An average session of D&D lasts two to three hours. This may sound like a lot but you’re usually doing about one encounter per hour.
If you’re looking for more detailed and specific tips, I highly recommend checking out Matt Colville’s “Running the Game” series. And if you listen to or watch other D&D content on the internet, don’t be afraid to steal from them. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Just don’t compare yourself to them too much. Everyone runs a game slightly differently. Just because they do it a certain way, doesn’t mean you have to.
Also, bookmark donjon. It’s a website with a great dice roller and a number of random generators for things like NPC names, restaurant menus, and even random dungeons. It’s saved my bacon more than once.
Other Helpful Tips
The most important thing in Dungeons and Dragons is that everyone has fun. People will have fun in different ways, so try to accommodate as many people’s desires as possible. Some people love combat, some people love to act, some people just want to experience a cool story with their friends. As long as nobody is being disruptive and actively ruining the game for someone else, don’t be afraid to take a step back and give someone else a moment in the spotlight.
Your mileage may vary, but I personally don’t like having Evil characters in the party right away. They can be very disruptive and contrary to the point of the campaign. If you’re considering it, talk to the rest of the group and especially the DM to find out if it’ll gel well with the rest of the party.
The Beastmaster Ranger subclass is severely underpowered and poorly balanced. That doesn’t mean you can’t play it, but just be aware that you’re probably going to be contributing to combat less effectively than the rest of the group.
The ideal situation is that you get to meet once a week to play the game. For many people, especially adults, this is borderline impossible. People have jobs, and those are going to get in the way. It can be frustrating to meet infrequently, but sometimes that’s the best you can get. Please also be respectful and understanding if someone can’t make it. Urgent things might come up, or they might just be too tired to play.
No D&D is better than bad D&D. If you find yourself not looking forward to sessions, or if there’s a player in your group who is actively making your experience worse, it may be time to make a change. Either see if that disruptive member of your group can be removed, or talk to your DM to see if there’s something to be done to make it more fun for you. If you’ve tried everything and you’re still not having fun, either quit or find another group. It’s supposed to be fun for everyone.
If you have any other questions, hit me up in the comments or on Twitter and I’ll be happy to answer them. I love introducing people to this game and the more people that play it, the merrier.