How to get your head around – and into – the fantasy role-playing phenomenon
By Dan Jolin, Writer
From the outside, it probably looks, well, weird. Mystifying, even. A group of people sat around a table, which probably has a large map in the middle – a subterranean labyrinth, perhaps, or a shadowy forest – dotted with miniature figures.
One of the people sits behind a small screen, which blocks a stack of notes and books from the others. They each have a pencil and sheet of paper covered in numbers and phrases like “Hit Points”, “Armour Class” and “Saving Throws”, and regularly toss oddly shaped dice across the table.
Guided by a narrative delivered by the person behind the screen, everyone seems absorbed and not quite themselves. They might even be talking in voices that aren’t quite their own, as if acting out a kind of shared, improvised drama. Or perhaps they’re locked in imaginary combat with a fantastical monster, each swing of a weapon represented by a roll of a 20-sided die.
It might seem mystifying, but one thing must be clear: they are all players, and this is a game.
And not just any game. This is Dungeons & Dragons, arguably the most innovative and influential game of the last half-century. One which has been embraced by popular culture (you’ve seen Stranger Things, right?), and with the assistance of online gaming platforms like Roll20, Discord and DnDBeyond, enjoyed its biggest ever year in 2020 despite – or because of – the Covid pandemic.
It’s even become entertainment, with games live-streaming on Twitch, and through web series like Critical Role and HarmonQuest on YouTube. Its countless fans include such big names as Joe Manganiello, Rainn Wilson, Vin Diesel and Vince Vaughn.
With its promise of high adventure in the kind of worlds we’ve grown to love through Lord Of The Rings, Game Of Thrones and The Witcher – and the attraction of some good, old-fashioned social interaction (even if that’s via Zoom rather than around a real table) – more people are getting involved in Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D, than ever before. And trust us: it is bloody good fun.
So if you’re curious and new to D&D, here’s our ultimate beginner’s guide to the greatest game you’ve never played.
Dungeons & Dragons: the origin story
Dungeons & Dragons was first published in 1974, and was created by two men, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. Both were inspired by the historical wargames they’d been avidly playing for years and the pulp sword-and-sorcery fiction (primarily from writers like Conan The Barbarian creator Robert E Howard) they enjoyed as kids.
Using Gygax’s recently published medieval combat game Chainmail as their basis, they came up with an entirely novel concept: a game in which players don’t command warring armies, but instead control a single hero, who would explore underground complexes, searching for treasure and glory by fighting monsters (orcs, trolls, and of course dragons), solving puzzles and dodging deadly traps.
Despite the complexity of its system (the first set contained three rulebooks), it was a hit, and over the years would be republished in a variety of editions that sold millions worldwide, while proliferating into video games, novels, a kids cartoon show and a few movies that are probably best forgotten. There was controversy along the way – a lawsuit from the Tolkien estate, accusations during the ’80s that the game was Satanic (which actually boosted its sales) – but with the game now on its fifth edition, it is more accepted and popular than ever.
Dungeons & Dragons: how the game works
Though it often involves board elements, D&D isn’t a board game. It’s more like an analogue operating system: a rule-set around which games can be created via a kind of shared theatre of the mind.
The director of this “theatre” is a single player known as the Dungeon Master, or DM. They set the scene, oversee the action and guide the story, which can either be a single “episode”, or an entire “season”, known as a campaign. In short, the DM is part referee, part narrator, and they also control all the enemies and allies the players will meet on their adventures.
Everyone else is a player, in control of a character. On paper, this character is represented by a Character Sheet, which gives numerical values to their core physical and mental attributes, as well as details about their background, choice of adventuring profession, equipment, skills, spells and so on. But the character can also be fleshed out through play and interaction with the other participants, bringing their personality alive.
Typically, a DM will describe a scene, a place, a person, or a particular event, then invite the players to describe how they react. While there are rules to be followed, it is an organic, fluid process where almost anything goes.
Maybe you don’t want to simply attack that goblin you’ve just encountered. Perhaps you’ll try to befriend it, or cast a spell that makes it fall gently to sleep, or try to sneak past. To determine the outcome, dice are rolled: a persuasion check, a spell check, or a stealth check. The better your character is at a certain thing, the bigger the bonus they get to their die roll, improving the odds of success.
You’ll also work with the other players – usually as a group of questing friends – so teamwork is paramount. You’ll find ways to complement each other’s abilities as you all develop and become more adept, being awarded “experience points” for your actions, and gaining “Levels” of power. Over time, your lowly Level 1 apprentice might become an awesome Level 20 archmage, while forging their own destiny and changing the world the Dungeon Master has created.
Dungeons & Dragons: what you need to play
The most important thing any D&D player needs is imagination. You don’t have to be a trained actor to play a character, but you will need to engage with the DM’s descriptions and visualise the setting and action. If you’re a bit self-conscious, there’s no need to worry. Most D&D groups welcome players who prefer to simply outline what their characters are doing or saying, rather than completely immersing themselves in the role. (And no, you don’t have to wear a costume.)
You also need people to play with. Ideally, as a newcomer, you’ll join a group that has an experienced DM who already knows the rules and can ease you in. Or perhaps you want to try out the game with friends or family who are also first-timers, in which case one of you will need to step up and become the Dungeon Master.
D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast has some good starter sets available for first-time DMs. Their Essentials Kit, for example, contains the very basics of what you’ll need: dice, character sheets, tokens, the basic rules and a set of low-level adventures to get your characters going. It’s ideal for any parents thinking of playing with their kids, too (as well as being fun, D&D has great educational and social value).
Once you’re familiarised with this content, there is a whole set of high-quality, hardback rule books you can delve into, including The Player’s Handbook, which details all the core rules and character types; The Dungeon Master’s Guide, which should be self-explanatory; and The Monster Manual, a bestiary of all the nasty (and sometimes lovely) creatures players might encounter.
If you’re old-school, then you’ll have your character sheet on paper, which you’ll scrawl on and take notes in pencil. But it’s also possible to keep heroes in PDF form on tablets or laptops, alongside a whole host of free online resources – as well as the official D&D online platform D&D Beyond, which contains all the contents of all the books but doesn’t come cheap.
Finally, if you’re a DM, you can either create your own world from scratch, or you can buy ready-made adventure campaigns and settings, which take some revising, but certainly make things easier.
Dungeons & Dragons: what roles you can play
To a certain degree, D&D players (meaning those players who aren’t the Dungeon Master) can be anybody they want – within the limits of the game’s fantasy genre setting. A cantankerous gnome who weaves illusions and has a pet frog? Sure, go for it. A lumbering, tattoo-smothered warrior who swings a gigantic, double-headed axe? Knock yourself out. A laconic elf with a dark past and light fingers, who’s most comfortable lurking in the shadows? Sounds great!
The Player’s Handbook offers a variety of races, classes and backgrounds to help you shape your hero (or antihero, or even villain, if that’s what you’re into). You might choose a sturdy dwarf, a cheery halfling (aka Hobbit, but don’t tell the Tolkien estate), or even an imposing, reptilian dragonborn.
Then you’ll pick their class – i.e. their adventuring profession – to determine their specialist skillsets and your play style. If you just want to steam in with a sword and shield, for example, then you’ll want to choose the Fighter class. If you want to play someone with innate magical power, select the Sorcerer. If you want to play a charming scoundrel who can inspire their allies through the power of music, then it’s the Bard for you.
Finally, to round things off, you’ll decide on your character’s background, which will determine who they were before they embarked upon (or were thrown into) the adventuring life. They might have been an urchin, scraping a living from the city streets. Or a sailor, who earned their crust on the high seas. Or an acolyte, raised in a holy temple.
After that it’s just a matter of choosing your gear and your spells (if you have magical abilities), and you’re off.
Dungeons & Dragons: stats explained
Traditionally, D&D included a lot of off-putting number-crunching, which for many was a barrier to entry. Thankfully, the game’s latest edition is beautifully streamlined and makes its rules pleasingly intuitive, while much of D&D’s terminology will be familiar to video gamers. (In fact there’s a strong argument that, without D&D, most of your favourite video games wouldn’t even exist.) Even so, if you’re coming into this totally cold, some of it might give you pause. So here’s a quick glossary of some of the key terms:
Ability Scores: The core of any character. There’s Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma, each with a value of 1 to 20. Rogues will need a high Dexterity, Druids require a high Wisdom, Wizards should have a high Intelligence, and so on.
Advantage/Disadvantage: Every action, whether an attack in combat or an attempt to deceive a city guard, requires a dice roll. If conditions favour your character (as determined by the DM) you will roll two dice and pick the higher result. If they work against them, you will roll two dice and pick the lowest result.
Alignment: A summation of your character’s ethical values. Are they good, neutral or evil? Do they favour or chaos? A heroic outlaw would be “Chaotic Good”, for example, while a nefarious cultist would be “Lawful Evil”.
Armour Class (AC): A number which represents how much protection your character has, whether due to the armour they wear (duh), or their blow-dodging nimbleness.
D4, D6, D8, D10, D12, D20, D100: These are simply shorthand for the different dice used in the game. So a D4 is a four-sided die, a D6 a regular, six-sided die, and a D20 the most commonly used 20-sided die. (A D100 is just two 10-sided dice, one representing the tens and the other the units).
Critical hit: If you roll a 20 on a D20, it is considered a “critical hit” and offers a guaranteed success. Conversely, the roll of a 1 is a “critical miss” and will always fail.
Experience Points (XP): The reward for your heroic deeds, doled out by the DM, usually at the end of each session. At 300 XP you’ll become Level 2, at 900 XP Level 3, and so on. (To hit the highest level, 20, you’ll need a whopping 355,000 XP).
Hit Points (HP): These represent your character’s health. Each time they’re hurt, they will lose a number of hit points, until they hit zero, when they’ll fall unconscious and will die if not recuperated. As you increase in level, you will gain hit points.
Initiative: A term used for combat, which determines the turn order for the players and their foes, based on the roll of a D20. Whenever a DM says “roll initiative,” you know a fight has just started.
Dungeons & Dragons: other games to play
It’s worth pointing out that while it was the first-ever role-playing game (or RPG), Dungeons & Dragons isn’t the only one. So if you’re into the concept but just don’t dig elves, trolls and gelatinous cubes, there is plenty out there for you.
In Masks: A New Generation you play teen superheroes, trying to find their way in the world as well as save it. In Fiasco, you can create your own Coen brothers-style crime-going-wrong caper. In Traveller, you explore other worlds in a futuristic, space-based adventure. And in Call of Cthulhu, you must investigate supernatural mysteries in a 1920s, Lovecraftian horror setting.
Those are just a few examples of the games which arrived in D&D’s wake. There are many more. But D&D is the original, and certainly offers the most easily available resources for anyone starting out. It’s not a bad place to start. So what are you waiting for? Get rolling!
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