You’ve probably seen Dungeons & Dragons on Stranger Things or Community. Maybe you’ve even watched Harmonquest, or heck, maybe you’re one of those rare individuals who spent the past 20 years trying to decipher the Marlon Waynes Dungeons & Dragons movie. Either way, what was once basically the nerdiest thing a person could do is now somehow very hip and present within pop culture. Dungeons & Dragons (DnD) is a great game that everyone should try, even when they’re not quarantined at home, and now that everyone has all this free time there’s no excuse not to! Getting started with DnD can be a little intimidating, especially playing online, but do not despair! This guide is here to help you beginners learn how to play Dungeons & Dragons.
What the heck even is Dungeons & Dragons?
Dungeons & Dragons has been the preeminent tabletop role-playing game since its creation by Gary Gygax in 1974. Tabletop RPG’s really stand apart in the gaming world, a unique blend of the in-person community of board games, the intense game mechanics of modern video game RPG’s, and the spontaneity and story development of theater or improv comedy. DnD uses the common tabletop RPG set-up where one person is the Dungeon Master (DM) and everyone else plays as a group. They don’t necessarily play against the DM, rather the DM creates a story, set with many challenges for the Player Characters (PCs) to face. Using the game rules, the DM lays out a setting and the characters respond with which actions they’d like to to take. The DM then determines which dice need to be rolled, and based on those dice rolls (and the game rules) what the result of the player’s action is. For instance:
DM – You all are in a lively tavern. A rude patron spills their drink on you.
PC – My character stands and says “How dare you! Buy me a drink you stinky scum.”
DM – The rude patron says “I’ll never buy a drink for ANYONE!”
PC – My character punches the patron in their stupid face!
DM – Roll to hit!
Now, based on the outcome of that roll, the player may or may not punch the patron in the face. This action and response system built into almost all tabletop RPG’s lends a unpredictability that could never be present in any video game or movie, but the rules lend a level of realism and consequence that could never exist at an improv comedy show. The result is a grand and unique comedic adventure you get to experience with your friends.
Okay that sounds rad. How do I start?
The first thing new Dungeons & Dragons player should do is read the basic rules. In particular look in the first section for “Building Bruenor,” where they walk you step-by-step through creating a 5th Edition (5e) character. 5th Edition is the most current version of DnD and everything I’ll be discussing assumes that’s what you’ll be playing.
YouTube is a great resource for learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons. There are Youtube guides for every aspect of DnD; from world building and the rules, to monster and spell creations. If you’re overwhelmed a good strategy is to find someone you like and just start watching.
I also highly recommend listening to Actual Play RPG podcasts. These podcasts feature people playing Dungeons & Dragons and other RPG tabletop games. This is a great way for new players to get a feel for the flow of the game, the give and take relationship between DM and PC, and the rules. I’ve got three fantastic recommendations for you below, but fair warning, none of these shows are family friendly.
- The Adventure Zone: This show is very popular because quite simply, it’s a very good podcast with a nice blend of fun, silliness, and actual DnD.
- The Glass Cannon: For those of you that are looking for a more rule intensive podcast, this is it. The hosts play Pathfinder which is an RPG with a different system than DnD 5e, but their focus on playing the game according to the rules as written leads to many great explanatory moments. A lot of content from The Glass Canon transfers to DnD and it’s the best example of how RPGs can create totally unique stories.
- Rude Tales of Magic: If you’re looking to go to the other end of the spectrum from The Glass Cannon then you’ll find this show to be a shining beacon of absurdity and an lovely example of how you can adapt the rules of DnD to do whatever the hell you want.
Finally, it needs to be said that the best way to learn about any RPG is to buy hard copies of the books. These things are stuffed with amazing artwork and ideas. I learn something new pretty much every time I pick up any of my DnD books. Plus, once the apocalypse happens and the world comes crashing down you’ll still be able to play!
How do I become a DM?
At some point someone will need to step up and volunteer as Dungeon Master. It’s a lot more work than being a player character, but getting to control the adventure and torment your dear friends with fantasy hi-jinks brings a truly singular satisfaction. As far as hobbies goes, it slaps. Also, now everyone will want to be your friend so they can play in your games! Being a DM will quickly make you crazy popular within the RPG community.
The DM has complete control over the world they create. While a DM must remain fair (or nobody will want to play with them) there is plenty of room to explore. Let’s take our bar example from earlier. When the player stands and demands that this bar patron buy them a drink, the DM gets to decide how the patron reacts. They could fall to the ground in tears, sucker punch the hero, immediately fall hopelessly in love with the hero, or join you on your adventures — anything can happen. Now apply that logic to all decisions made in the entire world by anyone other than the player characters. What color is that building? Does this enemy have a giant mouth on its belly? Can this goat rap? The DM decides and everyone else has to live it.
How do I play online?
Okay, so you are now a literal Dungeon Master and you are ready to lead all your friends through an amazing adventure, but wait, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. Not to worry! Dungeons & Dragons is actually very well suited for online play, and people do it all the time. Familiarize yourself with these tools and you should get going with relative ease.
If I was only allowed one online tool to play Dungeons & Dragons then I’d want to use Roll20. This is the predominant online tool for virtual tabletop RPG systems, including DnD, Pathfinder, and many others. Roll20 allows you to host games and provides you with tools which allow you to display maps, player characters, and monsters, much in the way that you would with miniature figurines on a table while playing in-person.
Character information can be fully integrated and accessed by PC or DM anytime. Roll20 also supports its own video and audio chat, and has a jukebox system that allows you to play music and sound effects. All of these features support crowd-sourced material as well, so you can search for your own artwork and music to use in your games.
Fair warning, Roll20 isn’t perfect and its main drawback is that there’s definitely a bit of a learning curve. The good news is the virtual tabletop has a built-in tutorial that is very thorough and the community and help center are great resources.There are forums for everything, and the tabletop gaming community tends to be very active and engaged. With a little patience and hardwork, you’ll find that you can do some impressive things with Roll20. Another thing to note is that while much of the functionality is free with an account (free to sign up), the best features are for behind a paywall that has two tiers at around $5 and $10 a month.
If you are looking for this type of functionality, but don’t like Roll20, check out Fantasy Grounds. A similar product, Fantasy Grounds is less flexible but also more integrated, especially for 5e. It has its own paywall issues, but some people prefer it to Roll20 as an online virtual tabletop.
Recently, Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, teamed up with Fandom Games to create DnDBeyond, a hub of resources, tools, and news dedicated to Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. While DnDBeyond isn’t as robust a tool as Roll20, it still excels at what it was built for, and that’s primarily to help people play and enjoy the game.
DnDBeyond has great tools for looking up rules and monsters, as well the single best 5e character creator that I’ve used. It has very little functionality in terms of actually running a game, but it’s an amazing resource for DM prep and character creation.
The biggest flaw found with DnDBeyond is that it has even more paywalls than Roll20, and it will charge you for the majority of the best content. It can be nice if you know exactly what you want – you can spend $1.99 on individual monsters or sub-races – but if you’re looking to just browse around you’ll start hitting roadblocks pretty quickly. Keep an eye out for anything labeled “Basic Rules,” that stuff is free.
One of the most important and often frustrating parts of playing online RPG’s is establishing a reliable way to voice chat. That’s why one of my favorite tools for running any RPG is Discord. Discord is a voice, text, and video application that was designed for gamers and is available for free on PC, macOS, Linux, Android and iOS. Discord is quite popular with streamers, with its great social features and custom servers being the primary attraction.
I want to play Dungeons & Dragons, but it sounds like a lot of work.
Now you may be reading this and thinking “This is entirely too much and I’m not doing all that.” And guess what? That’s fine! There are still options for you my lazy, lazy friend.
First of all, one of the most valuable things you can do for your Dungeons & Dragons group is to take on the role of scheduling. If you can find a friend to do the hard work of DMing, you can take a HUGE amount of stress off their shoulders by offering to organize the sessions. DMing is enough work without having to do the alchemy of coordinating between 4 or more adults and their schedules. 90% of DnD campaigns fizzle out because finding time to meet is hard, so make it your mission to gather the troops on a semi-regular basis.
Be sure to let us know down in the comments if you’re stuck and need some help to get your tabletop game up and running.