It might seem like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is a very loose game when it comes to the rules, since so much of the adventures happen in the realm of imagination. But when you actually go to owner Wizards of the Coast’s website, you’ll quickly realize that you have to read a 60-page book just to learn the basics.
You don’t have to read everything if you are a player, though. You just need to know the basics of the game so you can get started on your first campaign. Learning things like what you can, how to use the different dice, and combat are the bare bones needed, and any other questions, you can save for your Dungeon Master (DM).
We will explain the latest version of D&D, the Fifth Edition (5E). You can find other versions of this tabletop game such as the 3.5 Edition, but 5E is the most optimized version. Read on for everything you need to know to get started playing Dungeons & Dragons.
How to play D&D 5E
(Please note: If you are looking to be a Dungeon Master (DM), you’ll need to go further than the basics. We recommend you read the Essentials Kit Rulebook or the Dungeon Master’s Guide for more specific information.)
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Create your character
The most time-consuming part of preparing for your D&D game is creating your character. It can be a bit tiring, but this part lets you be especially creative, and your ideas here will be carried throughout your campaign. You can learn how to create your character on our step-by-step guide.
A lot of your campaign’s gameplay will be based on your character’s abilities, so take your time to think of an interesting hero that will represent your actions in the game. You can base your player character off a fictional favorite, an original creation, or, yes, even yourself.
How do I start playing DnD?
There are three categories of actions you can do in D&D: dialogue, exploration, and combat. Your character’s abilities can be used in any of these categories, that’s why creating your character is one of the most important parts of D&D. Normally the player describes what they desire to do, and the DM details what happens after you do the action.
Dialogue is any action in which you interact with a non-playable character (NPC). NPCs can be a guard, a monster, or a resident of the city you are visiting. You’ll normally use your Charisma skills, which include Deception, Intimidation, Performance, and Persuasion.
Exploration is anything you do when interacting with the environment, such as inspecting for traps, jumping over a pit, and trying to open a locked door. You can use your other abilities like Dexterity, Wisdom, and Intelligence. Traveling is done by just stating how much the party walked.
Special types of movement such as swimming, climbing, crawling, and falling have their own rules that you can check on page 32 of the Essentials Kit Rulebook. You can also do a long or short rest to reset your health and magic features, described on page 33.
Combat is self-explanatory. You’ll use your Constitution and Strength most of the time, which will reflect how good you are while fighting and using your weapons. D&D also has a magic system which can be used in combat; read on for more information on that.
When do I use my dice?
You will use your dice every time you choose to do an action that requires some type of skill, like the previously mentioned ones. The rest, such as just walking and having a simple conversation, don’t need a die roll. Your DM will tell you anytime you have to roll a die to make an Ability Check.
Ability Checks are when you roll a die to know how well you did while making an action that can fail. This doesn’t apply for combat, as there is a separate system we will explain later. Here are two examples for an ability check:
- Dialogue: You wish to talk to the guard of a city to open the gates and let your party pass. You can choose to intimidate, persuade, or lie to them to get what you want. These three actions might fail if you have a low Charisma skill, so be careful.
- Since you have proficiency in Deception, you choose to lie to the guard by saying your party was called by the king to deal with a monster problem the city has.
- The DM asks for a Deception check to know whether you were successful. He sets a Difficulty Class (DC) at a medium level since the guard is new to the city, so the player has to get a 15 or more on the die to get the guard to believe the lie. (In many cases, you may not know the DC that a DM chooses)
- You roll your 20-sided die (D20) and get a 12, but your character has a bonus, called a “modifier,” of +3 in Deception. The guard believes the lie and lets your party in.
- Exploration: Your party encounters a considerably large hole in the ground and debates whether players should go around it or jump over it. They decide to go around because it would be safer for everyone. But you want to show off and decide you will jump over it.
- If you wanted to just jump, the DM would request a Strength check. However, you wish to impress your party and do a flip while jumping, since you have a high Dexterity skill. The DM sets the difficulty as easy, so you only need to get a 10.
- You roll a D20 and and fate isn’t on your side, because you get a two and your +5 modifier in Acrobatics is not enough to compensate. You fail, and the DM decides that you trip a little when jumping to do the flip. So you end up falling into the hole.
- It isn’t so deep, but it it’s enough to damage you character, so the DM asks you to roll for a D6 to determine how much damage the fall does to you.
Combat and its glories (or not)
Combat is probably the most expected part of playing D&D. Watching the boys from Stranger Things struggle to decide how to tackle the Demogorgon, which is a real monster in D&D, isn’t a far cry from how combat is done in the game.
The combat system works on turns. The first step is rolling for Initiative. Every player and NPC will make a Dexterity check to decide in what order the players will make their attack. The one with the highest number goes first and so on to the lowest number.
The DM will also determine if anyone is surprised by a stealth attack, which will prevent the affected player from taking any actions for one turn. Your position will also be important, since you have a limited amount of distance you can move when it’s your move. So take note of that.
In your turn, you can make an action and move the same distance as your speed. Your actions include attack, cast a spell, dash, disengage, dodge, help, hide, ready, search, and use an object. Here is a brief explanation of all the actions you can make during combat in D&D:
- Attack: You use your weapon to deal damage on your opponent. First, pick a target and make an attack roll, which determines if you hit or miss the opponent. The number that decides that is the Armor Class (AC). If the enemy rolls a number lower than your AC, they won’t hit their attack. (AC=Dexterity modifier+10+any bonus from armor and shield if your character uses one.)
- Cast a spell: The difference between attacking and casting a spell is that you don’t make an attack roll to know if you hit or not. The enemy will instead make a saving throw to avoid some or all of the spell’s effects. This relies on Difficulty Class, which works similar to Armor Class during combat (DC=8+proficiency bonus+spellcasting ability modifier). Each spell has a description of how it works and what it needs in order to have an effect.
- Dash: You gain double the movement.
- Disengage: If you leave an opponent’s reach area without using the Disengage action, the opponent can make an opportunity attack during your turn without loosing their action in their turn.
- Dodge: You focus on avoiding attacks, so until the start of your next turn, any attack roll made against you has a disadvantage if you can see the attacker. Players make Dexterity saving throws with an advantage. You lose this benefit if you are incapacitated or if your speed drops to zero.
- Help: You can help someone complete a task. The aided person gains advantage on their next ability check. In combat, if you help an ally before their next turn, they will make an attack roll with advantage.
- Hide: You make a Dexterity (Stealth) check to try to hide. If you succeed, you gain advantage on attack rolls.
- Ready: You can prepare an action to happen based on a circumstance. First, you decide what circumstance will trigger your reaction. Then, you choose the action you will take in response to that trigger, or you choose to move up to your speed in response to it.
- Search: You use your action to try to find something.
- Use an Object: You can use an item during combat that you are carrying, such as a potion.
You can play any D&D campaign knowing these basic concepts of what you can do in dialogues, exploration, and combat. We recommend you see more content on the specific race and class of your character to know more about what you can do during combat, dialogue, exploration, and so on.
Don’t be stuck on the rules, though. All campaigns are collaborative stories, and many DMs create their own custom rulesets. Some prioritize storytelling over combat, for example, or streamline camping and fighting to basic ACs and DCs. So come together, talk out your plan with your party, and use your collective imagination to play the Dungeons & Dragons campaign that you and your friends won’t ever forget.
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