The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Dungeons & Dragons
Dungeons & Dragons has once again stepped into the public eye, after a bit of a renaissance.
You might remember how it made the news in the 1980s due to misconceptions involving Satanic cults. Sales skyrocketed despite—or because of—the controversy, and today, the tabletop role-playing game enjoys a growing popularity in mainstream culture.
The game largely plays out in the theater of the mind. Players take on roles or characters, while a Dungeon Master, or DM, vividly describes everything from the location to the monsters your characters suddenly face.
D&D can easily overwhelm a newbie, but the game is pretty straightforward once you’ve nailed down the basics. This beginner’s guide to Dungeons & Dragons will teach you everything you need to know to start playing.
- What You Need to Play
- Rules of the Game
- Dungeon Master
- Building Your Character
What You Need To Play
While many serious players invest money and time in elaborate maps or miniature figures for their characters, none of that is actually necessary to start playing.
Because the majority of D&D happens in your imagination, all a player really needs is some paper, a pencil, and a set of dice.
The dice used in Dungeons & Dragons, however, are different from the six-sided ones you might be used to. While D&D does utilize six-sided dice, the most common die rolled is twenty-sided, and known as a d20.
Additionally, you’ll need four-sided, eight-sided, ten-sided, and twelve-sided dice, like this set here.
An alternative to physical dice is an online dice-rolling generator, such as Roll a D20.
With dice in one hand and a pencil in the other, you and your friends are ready to become true adventurers!
Rules of the Game
In D&D, there are three parts of the game, known as pillars: social, combat, and exploration.
Every group of friends will focus on one of those pillars. However, all three are essential to keep everyone immersed in the world you are building together.
Combat refers to fighting against evildoers and the monsters that roam the lands.
This pillar can be very complex, especially in groups of four or more players. Therefore, it’s good to know what your character is capable of doing, and plan things out in advance.
In D&D, combat is turn-based, meaning that each person (and monster) can perform a certain number of tasks during their turn. They then wait for everyone else to take turns before acting again.
At the beginning of combat, everyone participating will roll initiative. That means rolling a d20, then adding a numerical bonus based on an ability score (covered in a later section).
Starting with the highest score, the turns will proceed in order, until everyone has had a turn. That marks the completion of one round. If the enemies and heroes are still at odds, the next round will begin immediately.
During a standard turn, your character can choose an action, a bonus action, and move.
Narratively, a turn only takes a few seconds, so you can’t do very much in that amount of time. Most players can move up to 30 feet in a single turn, in addition to their action and bonus action.
A bonus action is often something small and fast, since your action is the focal point of your turn.
For an action, you can cast a spell, attack with a weapon, interact with an object (like opening a door), or whatever you can think of. Some players get very creative by setting up traps for enemies, or escape routes for friends.
As long as it’s something that you can do in the heat of battle, your Dungeon Master will likely let you do it.
The social aspect refers to role-playing, as well as the interactions between your character, traveling companions, and the people who live in the fictional world.
Depending on your comfort with your friends, this can be as simple as befriending the people in your party, sparking a rivalry with them, or forming romantic entanglements with non-playable characters, also known as NPCs.
You don’t have to put on a funny voice or have any acting experience to explore your character’s personality, although you certainly can. Above all else, just have fun with it.
Exploration focuses on interacting with ancient relics, or delving into the eponymous dungeons that seem to be everywhere.
This is where the majority of your character’s skills will come in handy. Find a locked door? Get someone who can try to pick the lock or kick it down!
Your character can read books left behind, analyze a crime scene, cook a hearty meal, or climb a tree to get a better lay of the land.
The possibilities are endless. As characters interact with a world, its setting becomes clearer and more vivid, which makes for much more immersive gameplay.
The Dungeon Master, or DM for short, is the god of the world. They are the narrator of the story and enforce the rules. When there is some disagreement about a situation, they are the referee.
In summary, the DM’s word is law.
Of course, Dungeons & Dragons is a collaborative game—so don’t be afraid of talking to your Dungeon Master and explaining your ideas or views. Just remember, however, that theirs is the final decision.
As you can imagine, it’s a lot of work to be a DM! They have to create the world everyone explores, fight as the monsters during combat, and act as the non-player characters (NPCs) whenever the party encounters them.
There are tons of aspects to keep track of when you’re a DM. Because of this, good players do their best to keep track of their own characters and items: that’s one less thing for the DM to worry about.
One of the biggest draws of D&D is that it often takes place in a magical world.
The ability to cast spells is present for most classes (covered more in a later section), and there are spells for nearly every situation you can possibly dream up.
Spells require a few things to work in D&D: time, components, the ability to speak, and a free hand. For characters who are juggling swords, bows, and shields, magic can be pretty challenging.
However, not all spells require all of these things. A spell will say how long it takes to cast, which can range from a second to a day.
Some spells need expensive equipment like diamonds or gold, but others need only a simple word from the caster to work.
Remember, however, that magic isn’t the solution to everything!
Besides the titular dragons, there are hundreds of monsters in the worlds of D&D.
Depending on where your character chooses to explore, you might find terrifying monsters guarding precious treasure troves, or strange creatures who simply wish to defend their territories from invaders.
It doesn’t always have to end in a fight, either. Plenty of D&D players end up befriending some of the monsters they encounter.
Building Your Character
One of the best parts of Dungeons & Dragons is building a character. Who are they? What do they look like? What did they do before becoming an adventurer, and what weapons and spells do they use?
Your only real limitation here is your mind, although the dice will certainly play a part in how your character turns out, as well.
When you design your character, one of the most important aspects is your six ability scores. These include Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.
Although there are a few different ways to assign scores, you essentially end up with six numbers that range from 3 to 18.
Depending on where you put the highest scores, your character will act, think, and be good at very different things.
Don’t worry if you have low numbers to start with, since there are ways to improve them as you play the game.
Your Dungeon Master might ask for a Strength check to see if your character can lift something heavy. For an Ability check, you roll a d20 and add your modifier.
Your modifier is based on your total score. A 10 in an ability score is considered average for human abilities. If your character has a 12, your modifier is +1 because you are one standard deviation above average.
You can also have a negative modifier: for example, if your score is 8, then you are below normal.
Ability scores also affect both saving throws and skills, both of which are addressed more in-depth below.
Saving throws are similar to skill checks, since they are based on the same ability scores but are situationally different.
A player rolls a d20 and adds their modifier, just like a skill check, but a saving throw is reactionary instead of an active choice.
If your character chooses to climb a wall, they will make an Athletics skill check. However, if they start to fall, they will make a Dexterity saving throw to land on their feet instead of their butt.
As you continue to play your character, you gain experience from solving complex puzzles, muddling through social situations, defeating enemies, and exploring new towns. And, as you gain experience, your character will then advance in levels.
Most characters begin at level 1, and can advance no higher than level 20.
As your level increases, you’ll find yourself unlocking new abilities, finding rarer items, getting more exciting storylines, and being capable of dealing more damage during combat.
There are a few aspects tied to your level progression.
One is your character’s hit points. You likely won’t have many hit points when you begin, because you aren’t very skilled in battle yet. Over time, you gain hit points with each level.
Another factor is your proficiency bonus. This bonus applies to skills, saving throws, or tools that your character is proficient with. It scales with level, and goes from 1 to 6.
When you start, your character might be proficient with a sword. This means that when you roll a d20 to attack, you can add your proficiency bonus to the number you rolled, in addition to your Strength modifier.
This can take you from a 10 on the die to a higher number, increasing your chances of hitting the bad guy.
Your character has a choice of specific skills that they can have proficiency or expertise in. This indicates that your character is good at those chosen skills, and you have a higher bonus to add to a skill check.
When you make a skill check, roll a d20 and add your skill bonus for your total. Each skill’s numerical bonus is based on proficiency, as well as your ability score.
When choosing skills to be proficient in, most players choose those affected by their highest ability scores. Dungeons & Dragons often encourages leaning into your strengths, instead of trying to be just okay at everything.
There are 18 skills in total. If you’ve never played before, it might surprise you to learn that Wizards of the Coast actually condensed the skill list. It used to be far more extensive—although, to be fair, even this shortened version can seem intimidating to new players.
Don’t panic: your DM will tell you which skill applies to a situation, whenever you aren’t sure.
Below, you’ll find each skill, followed by which ability score affects it.
- Acrobatics (Dexterity)
- Animal Handling (Wisdom)
- Arcana (Intelligence)
- Athletics (Strength)
- 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)
So, why do adventurers go racing into dungeons and potentially fight dragons? For the treasure, of course!
Treasure comes in many different forms in D&D, from gold coins and exotic jewels, to magical shields and talking swords.
You never know what you’re going to find when you defeat a bunch of enemies, so make sure you investigate their lairs for some extra goodies.
For more cautious players, you can also purchase items from traveling merchants, or in towns and cities.
It’s also good to be prepared. There’s something great about being able to pull out the perfect item when your group is facing an insurmountable challenge.
You’ll need to bring food, water, and other necessities when your character decides to brave the wild unknown, so be sure to stock up whenever your party is in a town.
Some magical items require a special kind of focus called attunement. This means that your character has taken the time to practice with and bond with an object, in order to unlock its true potential.
You can attune to an item while your character is resting, as long as you have an available slot. Most characters cannot be attuned to more than three items at a time.
In Dungeons & Dragons, the term race refers to the species of a character. This is a controversial topic in the D&D community, and has recently undergone some major revisions, since the creators realized how offensive some of their traditional stereotypes were.
Depending on the game setting and players’ comfort, there are quite a few different races available. Certain races give extra advantages, which may be helpful if you already know what kind of class you want to play.
Plenty of players choose elves, dwarves, humans, or other well-known races like tieflings.
A new race is simply called Custom Lineage, where the player gets to decide traits and features to give their character, without relying too heavily on pre-existing races.
Besides race, your class is a defining factor for your character.
Every class has different mechanics, and essentially outlines the type of role you should take in your party. Your class gives you skill options and insight into which would be most beneficial for your character.
There are 13 classes to choose from, which can make the choice a bit daunting. An easy way to choose is based on the class’s aesthetics, and which ability you want to focus on.
For example, if you’d prefer Strength as your highest score—which means it will dictate how you fight and interact—you should play as a barbarian, paladin, or fighter. Alternatively, for Dexterity, you’d likely choose a monk, fighter, ranger, or rogue.
For Wisdom, try a druid, monk, or ranger; when it comes to Intelligence, there is the artificer and the wizard. Charismatic characters include a bard, paladin, sorcerer, and warlock.
Bards, clerics, druids, sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards are mainly based on casting spells. All of the classes have specific options that allow players to cast spells, but generally, those have other options for fighting, like weapons.
An artificer studies magic and invention, creating magical items to augment their limited spellcasting.
A barbarian focuses on combat above all else. They can usually take the most damage, and then deal it right back to whatever monster is currently threatening their friends.
A bard loves performing and showing off. Their singing, dancing, and musical instruments allow them to cast spells and charm people in equal measure.
Clerics draw their power directly from the gods themselves. In D&D, there are numerous gods to choose from, and plenty of ways to show your character’s piety.
A druid is in tune with nature and draws their power from the planet’s lifeforce. They often befriend animals and plants alike, and may rely on them in combat.
Fighters specialize in weapons of all kinds, and excel with those weapons on the battlefield.
Monks channel their will into their fighting, and predominantly use their bare hands to strike opponents in close quarters. Outside of combat, monks are often spiritual and introspective.
Paladins are holy warriors of the gods. While they worship like clerics, paladins rely more on weapons than spells to vanquish foes.
Rangers are like less magical druids, and are the ultimate explorers. Instead of focusing on the magic of nature, they seek to understand and predict it logically, using their bows and arrows to hunt and ward off monsters.
Rogues are sneaky characters who tend to have a large number of skills at their disposal. They do best with ranged weapons. Often, rogues go ahead and scout out an area, or remain hidden until they suddenly take the enemy by surprise.
A sorcerer’s magic comes from their bloodline, rather than a powerful outside being.
They can feel magic in a way none of the other classes can. While they have fewer spells at their fingertips, they can modify the flow of magic in exciting ways.
Warlocks get their magical power from a patron, a mighty entity that may or may not be on par with the gods.
The narrative separation between a warlock and a cleric can seem non-existent, but the mechanics are pretty different.
A wizard is a quintessential spellcaster. Wizards love learning and acquiring knowledge in their spellbooks, so that they can always have some incredible tricks up their sleeves.
Each class has multiple subclasses that you can choose from as you gain levels. These subclasses offer different abilities to enhance your character and provide a unique flavor or aesthetic.
Two clerics in a single party can be vastly different characters, both on and off the battlefield, if they choose different subclasses.
When you choose your class and race, you also select a background for your character.
Think of what your character did before they sought this life of adventure. Were they a sailor doing back-breaking work on a ship? A simple farmer who wanted a better life for their kids?
Or has your character been adventuring for a while already, and just decided to join a group now?
Even if you don’t consider yourself particularly creative, you’ll be surprised at what you can come up with once you have a character in mind.
Oftentimes, it won’t feel like you’re creating details, so much as uncovering them.
Dive in to D&D
While revisiting this guide will help you memorize the basics, the best way to learn Dungeons & Dragons is to simply start playing.
Although the game can seem insanely complicated at first glance, you’ll quickly find it’s easier than expected—and that many groups are quite welcoming to new players.
The best part of Dungeons & Dragons is that no two games are alike. So much of it is customizable and varied, because you and your friends are the masters of your world.
Whether you want to go beat up some evil monsters akin to those in Resident Evil, Silent Hill or Kingdom Hearts, insinuate yourself into political intrigue, or just run around a planet of your design, this game perfectly accommodates any and all shenanigans.
The next time you find yourself in a break from your favorite horror and survival horror games, take some time with your friends to explore the world of D&D.