So, You Want to Play D&D?
So, you want to play Dungeons & Dragons, or a similar tabletop game. Don’t worry, I know from the outside it can seem like an arcane, daunting world, but today I’m going to give you a quick primer on what D&D is, how it works, things you should know before playing, and how to find a game yourself. Learning the actual rules of D&D will require a lot more reading and practice than this blog, however by the end, you’ll hopefully have the tools needed to reach a point where the learning becomes much easier.
What is D&D?
Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop board game first published in 1974 by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, although culturally Gygax is traditionally seen as the “creator” more often. The game centers around one player, called the Dungeon Master, often building or using maps and figures, who constructs a world and a narrative for the characters. The characters in the game are controlled by other players, these are called Player Characters or PCs for short. Characters are built using the rules of the game to ensure they are all of comparable ability-level despite varying skills and powers, the goal being for everyone character to be useful in some manner of situation.
Characters explore the world, being told by the Dungeon Master, DM, what they see, interacting with Non-Player Characters, NPCs, controlled by the DM, and generally do whatever they please. There are storyline hooks and plots to explore, or the players may elect to start stabbing villagers at random. There are consequences to every action, of course, however the players themselves must decide what actions they wish to take. The DM builds the world, but the PCs choose how to explore it.
How It Works
As described above, the overall idea is to play a game with no boundaries. Any idea, any setting, can be worked into the game. There are no limits to what a character can do beyond what they are physically capable of. I’ve found calling it “a video game with infinite options” gives people a good conceptual understanding.
Of course, some variability is needed for a game to be fun, which is where the dice come in. Rather than merely comparing numbers to see which one is higher, the dice add an element of chance to the encounters. You roll to try hitting and damaging the enemy, while they do the same for you. Rolls are also used to see if you are strong enough, fast enough, skilled enough, basically anytime it wouldn’t be assumed you can succeed on a task (skip the rolls to wipe their asses) dice come into play, so you’ll want them handy. Also, never leave a dice showing the lowest number on the face. D&D players are all insanely superstitious when we start rolling bad, self-included, and that’s one you’ll hear early on.
If you’re playing online, as most of us need to in this day and age, it’s all handled digitally. Webcams to talk, digital maps, digital dice, but still the same overall experience. The main thing to know about D&D is that you can technically do anything, if you can roll well enough. But the world exists as well, so don’t act surprised when wanton theft lands you in jail or stabbed. The more real you treat that world, the more fun the game will be.
Things You Should Know Before Playing
1. While it might not seem that way from the outside, D&D actually does have a fairly forgiving learner’s curve. The trick is to start out using minimal magic, then move into those classes more as you grow comfortable playing. Magic in D&D is often the most complex part, so if you’re nervous about all there is to learn, skip the wizard on the first go-round and take something more straightforward. Barbarian, fighter, monk, any of these are loads of fun to play and don’t require learning about spells. If you 100% want to cast your first time though, consider a hybrid class like ranger or bard, who won’t depend on spells as much and is therefore a more forgiving first caster to play.
2. Everyone fucks up the rules. They are massive, and sprawling, and specific, and even with all the streamlining 5th edition did, it’s a lot to keep up with. Mistakes happen, to you, to the others, to the DM. It’s okay, just don’t be a dick when getting called on it. And in turn, don’t be a dick when calling out others. If someone is intentionally abusing the rules, that’s something your DM will handle. As a player, give them the same benefit of the doubt you’d want on your own mistakes.
3. As a new player, you’ll want to start with 5th edition unless you have good reason (ie: a group playing a different game inviting you) not to. There have been multiple incarnations of D&D (more than 5 but that’s a whole thing) through the years, and as of the writing of this blog, 5th is the most balanced I have encountered. In terms of ease of play and overall enjoyment, I would recommend any new player get their feet wet with 5th edition before exploring some of the more intricate systems out there.
How To Find a Game
Once upon a time, this was a much harder task. You either needed to recruit your own group or start hanging out in comic shops, hoping to get an invite. Thanks to the internet, such is no longer the case. You can use sites like Roll20.net to play online, and they also offer a forums section where you can search groups looking for players, even some hunting specifically for new players looking to learn. Will they all be great? No, everything social is a crap shoot, so you might hit some duds, but all D&D games require taking that risk on a new group at some point.
If those forums are too limiting, check around other communities. “Looking for group” appears in most fantasy/writing/general nerdery places. The Roll20.net forums are an excellent place to search if you’re starting from scratch, but by the same token there’s nothing wrong with playing alongside others in your existing online community.
At the end of the day, the people you play with will matter more than any single rule or roll of the dice. Try some groups, play different characters, don’t be afraid to have some bad experiences as you learn and hunt for the right group. Because once you find a fun game, there’s nothing quite like it.