You’ve heard of it whispered in the darkest corners of your high school experience, perhaps images of a defamatory news segments or a dorky cartoon flash through your head. You’ve seen the books, lining that section of your comic book store you never go to, dice of strange and unfamiliar shapes shoved into a free-for-all somewhere near the counter. You had a friend or a cousin who wouldn’t shut up about it, maybe made it sound appealing, but it still felt too weird for you. You remember catching the last quarter of a terrible movie about it on television during a mid-day time filler slot. Now, you’re starting to see it everywhere in your Facebook feed. You watched Vin Diesel play it, you saw Dan Harmon‘s HarmonQuest, and of course, people won’t shut up about the Demogorgon after watching Stranger Things. Now you feel like maybe you want to try out Dungeons and & Dragons, but you have no idea where to begin. Well keep reading, because now you’re going to be taken through how to start playing “D&D”.
Part One — Different Editions & What to Buy
The idea of getting into a new hobby can always be a little daunting, especially with something as old as Dungeons & Dragons, which first came out in 1974. However, the game that came in 1974 is not the same game that is played today. D&D has gone through quite a few ‘editions’ which largely rewrite the rules on how the game is played, save for the barest elements. There have been arguably been 10-12 different versions of D&D, depending on who you ask, but officially there’s been five. We’re going to focus on the newest version, also called 5th Edition, because not only is it the most recent, but it also new player friendly and there are plenty of resources to help someone start.
One of those aforementioned resources is the Starter Set. The name does not lie, this box retails around $20 and contains everything you and a group of friends need to begin playing the game, including a set of dice, an adventurous campaign, and a rulebook to explain the basics of playing. There are drawbacks, of course. One set of dice is very limiting—each player should ideally have their own set. Not to worry, dice are cheap and easily available at most comic book stores, tabletop game stores, or websites like Amazon; you can often find them in “bricks“. Of course each player having their own dice isn’t necessary, but one set of dice for all the players will severely slow down the game. The other drawback of the starter set is the inability to create your own character—one of the game’s largest draws; instead you are given sheets of pre-made characters with which to choose from, and fill out a few details. While using pre-made characters is great for learning the game, once you’ve dominated the Starter Set, you will grow tired of them and yearn for more.
Part Two — Really Getting Into It: Player’s Handbook and Adventurer’s League
Regardless of whether you and some friends played through Lost Mines of Phandelver (the Starter Set) or not, you will want to eventually create your own characters and play. The good news is this is free—the Systems Reference Document (or SRD) contains everything you need to create a basic character and for someone to run a game, so people can play. It, being free, is very limited in scope; it does not have all the options for classes or races, and very few monsters. What you really want to do is get the Player’s Handbook (or PHB) which is the first and last book that is ever really “required” to play. It will teach you not only how to create a character, step by step, but also how to play the game more in depth, as well as list every weapon, attack, spell, item, etc. at your disposal while playing.
Now at this point, you and your friends can create your own characters while someone acts as Dungeon-Master (or DM), and come up with your own stories (or if you haven’t yet, play through the Starter Set campaign). However, if you would rather get a good feel for the game with experienced players, considering joining the Adventurer’s League (or DDAL). The league is “organized play” where you can create a new, low level character, and advance them officially as moderated by Wizards of the Coast. Your character will be able to play, level up, and adventure with people willing and capable of making the game easier to understand. You can also take the same character and play them in multiple games, keeping all their experience and loot (like any good RPG) to bring into these new games. It also especially friendly to new players, making death impermanent and letting you remake anything you end up not liking about your character, as long as it is before level 5. It is also not hard to find an Adventurer’s League game nearby, as Wizards keeps track of that for you (simply enter your zip code).
Part Three — Elevating Your Experience and Becoming a DM
Now that you’ve played a bit of D&D, understand the basics of the mechanics and gameplay, and are enjoying yourself, you can consider it a new hobby. This is the point where you consider a heftier, more in depth “home game” with friends. Perhaps you’ve even thought of becoming the Dungeon Master. DM’ing (as it’s known) may look daunting, but it’s really not. Once you’ve understood the game from the perspective as a player, switching sides is actually fairly intuitive… but there is, of course, new material you will need. Specifically, you will need the Monster Manual (or MM). This book will give you all the monsters you need to design encounters for players, and is arguably the most important book outside of the PHB. Next comes the Dungeon Master’s Guide (or DMG); this book will help solve any issues when it comes to how to ‘rule’ situations you may find yourself or your players in.
The PHB, MM, and DMG are the core materials needed to successfully Dungeon Master a campaign, but if you would like to expand options for world-building character creation for you and your players, then the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide (or SCAG) would easily be considered the fourth most important book. It provides new class and race options, as well as settings and adventure material. Beyond that, all the other books provide pre-made adventures (similar to the campaign in the Starter Set), and provide excellent material for a first-time DM to successfully run an interesting game for players. Storm King’s Thunder is the newest book in the series.
Part Four — Maps & Miniatures
Assuming you have been regularly playing in Adventurer’s League, up to this point, you may have noticed that games use miniatures and maps to approximate action in combat scenarios. While the use of minis and grid-based systems is entirely optional, it certainly makes the experience more interesting. There are plenty of options on how to get miniatures, but your best friend will be Reaper; their plastic miniatures are sturdy, cost effective, and pretty. If you opt to get an unpainted miniature, you will obviously have to do so yourself, but this is not a bad thing; there is an entire world of miniature customizing out there, and the crafting aspect of miniatures can extend the enjoyment of your new hobby.
Of course when it comes to running a game, buying miniatures for each and every enemy or NPC is unrealistic; in those sorts of situations, tokens will be your best bet. Similar to Pogs of old, tokens are simply small, circular pieces with pictures on them to represent whatever is on the map. You can craft these yourself easily, and cheaply. As far as maps are concerned, I highly suggest buying a mat and some water soluble pens; in this way, you can easily draw your battle area for use during encounters, and erase with a wet cloth when finished. Simple.
Part Five — Beyond the Dragons
Let’s assume for a moment that you’ve gone through all these steps, played a heck ton of D&D, and still crave more tabletop RPG action, outside of the Forgotten Realms. Well, luckily, there is a plethora of other games to play within the genre, so here’s a few to pique your interest:
- Pathfinder – The Yang to D&D’s Yin and the game’s biggest competitor. Paizo’s Pathfinder is similar in a lot of ways, and not coincidentally; Pathfinder is heavily based on Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, and uses an updated version of that system and setting. It was created by former D&D writers who jumped ship after dissatisfaction with the 4th Edition. Pathfinder has a lot more rules and minutiae, and is therefore not as friendly to new players, but it does boast more character customization and action-options, creating an enriching experience.
- Dungeon Crawl Classics – On the flip side, this game is much more akin to very early D&D, where the only goal was to ‘enter dungeon, beat dungeon, loot, repeat’. There is a charm to this type of gameplay, and Goodman Games went all in to recreate the retroist feel of the 70s and 80s by even employing old school RPG artists for the art. If you like your game rules lighter and action heavier, this is for you.
- World of Darkness – Not one game, but a collection of games, World of Darkness embodies a setting in which truly horrific things lie under the surface of our modern society. Games like Vampire: The Masquerade allow one to play as an undead bloodsucker, and Werewolf: The Apocalypse allow you to play moon-howling abominations. These games (and the many others) are cross compatible, as well, and the setting is likely larger than any other RPG out there. While it’s all quite old, it still feels fresh and is currently being revived and reprinted. Whether you get swept up in vampiric politics or ghostly mysteries is up to you. You may also already be familiar of this setting through various video game spinoffs, or a kitschy TV show.
- Call of Cthulhu – A game where you are constantly threatened by death, destruction, and insanity at the hands of horrors foreboding and nameless. If you love HP Lovecraft, ghost stories, and all of kinds of hellish shenangians, then play the game where if you don’t die, your character probably goes insane (as in you actually roll for your sanity, often).
There is a ton more Tabletop RPGs to look for, of course, and if there is a property or setting you enjoy, simply see if it has an RPG. Star Wars, for example, has a multitude of systems that it has been adapted to, and is always worth a look. As for now, there are plenty of places to find what you need when it comes to Dungeons & Dragons, or any other related game, including some friendly Facebook communities and whole websites dedicated to these types of games. Now it’s time to get your feet wet, so roll the dice for an Athletics check and dive on in.