Beginner's Guide to Dungeons & Dragons

Here (not surprisingly) be dragons ... As the name suggests, dragons are classic D&D antagonists.
Here (not surprisingly) be dragons ... As the name suggests, dragons are classic D&D antagonists.
TM and © Wizards of the LLC. Images used with permission.

It might surprise you to learn that Dungeons & Dragons has roots in a real-life adventure: a teen exploring tunnels under an abandoned asylum in his Illinois hometown. Gary Gygax drew from these underground crawls when he and Dave Arneson started creating games together. Their work launched a whole new genre: the role-playing game.

As an adult, Gygax had discovered a keen interest in war games, including Little Wars: A Game for Boys, which is thought of as the first contemporary war game. Developed by H.G. Wells from his son's toy soldiers in 1913, this game and others like it used dice to determine whether actions were successful, and referees negotiated in-game disputes.

Gygax – intrigued by the rules and backgrounds of his war games' characters – teamed up with Arneson to create a new kind of war game. Arneson's appetite for imaginative, never-ending play, along with the concept of a master storytelling referee, combined with Gygax's meticulousness and thirst for characters to produce Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 [source: Kushner].

Perhaps it's that combination of fantasy lore and intense attention to detail that gave D&D a reputation for being a game for reclusive outsiders. But in reality, D&D is very social. Not only are players sitting around the same table (or maybe the same Google hangout), but their characters are also working together on an adventure. The game revolves around a storyteller, or Dungeon Master, who isn't just building a narrative, but is also facilitating dialogue between characters and players.

In the next few pages, we'll roll the dice and learn the basics of Dungeons & Dragons. We'll also see how Dungeons & Dragons has established itself and evolved in culture. So grab your character sheet, a pencil and paper, and your 20-sided die because on the next page, we'll figure out what to expect from a D&D game.

No, Really, What is D&D?

The Player's Handbook is an invaluable source of information to new players.
The Player's Handbook is an invaluable source of information to new players.
TM and © Wizards of the LLC. Images used with permission.

Let's get a few things established about Dungeons & Dragons before we start playing. The game itself is a collaborative adventure with a constantly progressing story. While very player gets a piece of the action, the Dungeon Master (DM) is the one who holds it all together. The DM guides the game and story by presenting challenges and organizing the overall narrative. He or she also makes sure everyone follows the rules.

That last part is no small feat – the DM needs to have a thorough understanding of:

  • The Player's Handbook, for rules on character creation and game play from a player's perspective
  • The Monster Manual, which lists characteristics and descriptions of the game's beasts
  • The intricacies of the Dungeon Master's Guide, which contains the actual rules and regulations of the game

And – just as important as all of that concrete knowledge – the DM has to be able to tell a story, settle disagreements between players, keep the game moving, and adapt on the fly when players decide to do something unexpected.

If you're not the DM, you're a player, and your character is a player character, or PC for short. PCs evolve through the campaign based on the decisions they make and what they learn. Each PC has specific characteristics and attributes that will affect those decisions – like extra firepower, a keen mind or an overarching desire to do good – but your decisions as a player will also affect how your character's skills are used, and how they grow or diminish.

As you play, the DM will grant your character experience points based on how you contribute to the campaign. Your character will grow and change as you use these points to level up, or earn stronger stats and better skills.

And there you have it! You're playing Dungeons & Dragons now! OK, not exactly. Let's tell our DM we're rolling to the next page to get into a little more detail about how this fantasy works.

The Basic Set: Rolling Up a Character

To get things rolling, you'll need rule books, dice and maybe some minis (to keep up with combat).
To get things rolling, you'll need rule books, dice and maybe some minis (to keep up with combat).
Photo by Simon Hayter/Toronto Star via Getty Images

There are at least 10 different versions of Dungeons & Dragons (along with a sea of revisions), so going over the specific rules for all of them in one article would be impossible. Plus, if you're a first-time player and you have questions, your first, best resource is going to be your DM. He or she can fill you in on everything from the D&D edition you'll be using to any particulars you'll need to know for your game (or your DM's game-running style).

Instead, we'll go over the basics of the game using the classic set known to gamers as the Red Box set. It's an old-school style of D&D, but it also has approachable, easy-to-understand rules that will give you an idea of the framework that many later versions built upon. These particular rules come from the 1983 edition (also known as the Third Edition) edited by Frank Mentzer.

To start out, every player must create a character. In D&D, each character has a set of ability scores that make it unique. In the Red Box rules, these abilities are:

  • Strength – how much stuff a character can carry (and how much physical damage that character can inflict)
  • Wisdom – intuitiveness
  • Dexterity –nimbleness, both in using a weapon and in slinking around unnoticed
  • Intelligence – the capacity for learning new things
  • Constitution – a character's stamina and toughness
  • Charisma – likability, which comes in handy in avoiding fights and making friends

You roll up a character by rolling dice – three six-sided dice for each ability, yielding a score of 3 to 18 for each one.

Added to that, two other important numbers informing a character's basic framework are:

  • Armor class: a number that represents how difficult a character is to hit
  • Hit points: a number that represents how much damage a character can withstand before dying

Together, these numbers will influence how well your character would work in a range of classes, or character types. We'll look at those on the next page.

The Basic Set: Character Classes and Alignment

Maybe you've always wanted to be a Half-Elf Paladin? D&D gives you the chance (though not in the Red Box rules).
Maybe you've always wanted to be a Half-Elf Paladin? D&D gives you the chance (though not in the Red Box rules).
TM and © Wizards of the LLC. Images used with permission.

D&D has used scores of character types over the years, and later editions separate the idea of a character's race (human, elf, dwarf and the like) from his or her class (fighter, thief, and so on). But in the Red Box rules, there are seven playable character classes:

  • Fighter – a human of above-average strength who is skilled in combat. Fighters are typically responsible for taking on threats to protect the rest of the group.
  • Cleric – a cross between a fighter and a wizard. These humans are usually high in strength, dexterity and wisdom, so they can both fight and cast spells. Their spells come through meditation (accounting for the need for a high wisdom ability score).
  • Magic-user – a human with a high intelligence score. The magic-user is high in dexterity, for throwing balls of lighting accurately, and in intelligence, which is required for learning new spells from books.
  • Thief – a dexterous human who can pick locked doors and detect traps, making them invaluable. They tend to hang back during combat, not having much strength.
  • Dwarf – a 4-foot-tall nonhuman with a beard (both males and females alike), whose abilities are based on strength, constitution and their special ability to deflect magic. Dwarves are good fighters.
  • Halfling – a tiny, 3-foot, 60-pound demihuman character who is high in both dexterity and constitution. These abilities make halflings difficult to hit in combat, which makes them excellent fighters. They are also, like dwarves, capable of sustaining magic attacks better than human characters.
  • Elf – another smallish demihuman character, elves are kind of a cross between fighters and magic users, so they require high levels of both strength and intelligence. Elves also have infravision and can see 60 feet in the dark and can detect things like hidden doors.

Combine ability scores with a class, and you have the basic skeleton of a character. Next comes a very basic aspect of the character's personality: his or her alignment. Your character's alignment sets the stage for interactions with others – and plays a part in what actions the character might or might not do. In the Red Box rules, there are three alignments:

  • Lawful – Law is the equivalent of good. In any given situation, a character with a lawful alignment will predictably put the safety and goals of the group first, ahead of his or her desires or safety.
  • Chaotic – Chaos is the opposite of law and is the equivalent of evil. A chaotically-aligned character will make choices based on furthering his or her own goals, without any regard for the group's wishes or wellbeing.
  • Neutral – This alignment is the most animalistic of the three; where law and chaos require higher-order considerations like self-sacrifice or manipulation, neutral alignments are based on the survival of the organism. Neither really "good" or "bad," the neutral character will fight with the group if that will help him survive or take off in retreat if need be.

Interestingly, only some playable characters are adept at speaking languages, but using Red Box rules, everyone can speak at least their alignment tongue. This allows characters of the same alignment to speak to each other without characters of other alignments understanding what is being said.

In other editions, you'll flesh all this out with a set of additional skills as well. Regardless of edition, it may help you to write out a backstory that gives your character some more personality and depth. This could even be something your DM asks you to do ahead of time, to help guide your game play and influence the overall story.

Next, we'll look at what happens once you're in that story – and what dice have to do with it.

Understanding How to Play Dungeons & Dragons

The spectrum of dice: d4s, d6s, d8s, d10s and d20s.
The spectrum of dice: d4s, d6s, d8s, d10s and d20s.

One of the first things a new Dungeons & Dragons player may puzzle over is the weird dice used in the game. Basic D&D uses six polyhedral dice, with four, six, eight, 10, 12 and 20 faces. These dice are the lifeblood of D&D's game mechanics; they're what you use to figure out if what you're trying to do works, or if it doesn't.

In D&D shorthand, the dice are known by a lowercase "d" followed by the die's total number of sides, so a 20-sided die (an icosahedron) is a d20. This shorthand also tells you the number of times the die needs to be rolled: 2d8 would mean you need to roll the eight-sided die twice (or roll two eight-sided dice) and then add the numbers. In this way, your eight-sided die just became a 16-sided die.

When you roll, you and your DM will be comparing your result to a number found in one of the game's manuals. That comparison will determine your action's outcome: In other words, you can boil all your in-game actions down to numbers. For example, if you're playing a fighter and you swing a battle axe at a wandering ghoul, you'll roll the dice to see if you connect. Since ghouls have an armor class of 14 (which, remember, is how hard it is to hit a character), you'll have to roll a 14 or higher on a 20-sided die (d20) [source: Carton]. If the die roll produces a hit, you'll roll again to see how much damage you inflicted.

The beauty of Dungeons & Dragons is that draped on top of this skeleton of tables and numbers is the flesh and meat of the game, created by the players' imaginations. While an action's outcome boils down to the comparison of two numbers, it's up to you to decide what that action will be. Along the way, you can become engrossed in the game by seeing the action in your mind's eye.

Read on to find out who's responsible for setting up all that action.

The Dungeon Master

One of the great basics of D&D is that a group of players is on an adventure together. It's the Dungeon Master (DM) who guides them through this adventure. To do this, the DM has to know not only what is possible for player characters, monsters and non-player characters – the other characters you meet and interact with, who are usually played by the DM – but also everything there is to know about the game itself.

Armed with guides like the Dungeon Master's Guide and the Monster Manual, the game module (a write-up of the campaign, which shows the layout of the environment with hazards clearly noted and described) and a set of dice, the DM presides over the game with a nearly omniscient knowledge. It is the DM's job to keep the game going smoothly by describing the environment, asking players what they want to do and then determining the outcome of the events that follow.

Say, for example, you're in a group of characters on a campaign in a dungeon. The DM may tell you something like, "You are in a long, dark corridor. You can see a faint light at one end. To your right is a 10-foot-by-10-foot door. It is locked. Do you want to try to pick the lock or continue down the corridor toward the light?" You and your party decide to have the thief in your group try to pick the lock, so the DM has the thief roll to see if the action is successful. Since the thief has a high dexterity score and only has to roll a low number or higher, he is successful and the door opens.

Unbeknownst to the player (but not to the DM, since he has the game module), on the other side of the door is a neutrally-aligned gelatinous cube, which oozes toward your party. By rolling on behalf of the monsters in the game, it is up to the DM to determine if the gelatinous cube is successful in its mindless attack, absorbing and digesting everything in its path, including the bodies of hapless victims.

A roll of the dice determines if the thief moves in time to avoid the gelatinous cube; if he hasn't, the DM will then roll to determine how much damage the cube deals. Say the thief has 7 hit points. The damage a gelatinous cube causes calls for the DM to roll 2d4 [source: Hack & Slash]. If, in this case, that number totals 7 or more, the thief is dead. He has been digested alive by the gelatinous cube.

But what is the point of all this? Read on to learn strategy.

The End and the Means of D&D

A Beholder, one of the fiercest and most iconic D&D monsters. You may need some strategy to take it down.
A Beholder, one of the fiercest and most iconic D&D monsters. You may need some strategy to take it down.
TM and © Wizards of the LLC. Images used with permission.

One of the ironies of Dungeons & Dragons is that it was created by people who were into war games like Risk or Axis and Allies, which simulate battles carried out by opposing sides [source: Kushner]. In these games, there are clear winners and losers.

This is not the case in D&D, where the closest a player can come to losing is for his or her character to die. Even then, the player can just create a new character and rejoin the game – the DM will find a way to introduce a new character to the surviving party. Since characters can go on limitless campaigns that may last for hours or months (depending on the breadth of the adventure), the goal of Dungeons & Dragons – beyond just enjoying the story and playing a part in it – is to keep your characters alive and grow their abilities until they're more powerful and better at what they do.

This is done through accumulating experience points (XP) in the game. Every monster slayed and every coin or gem in a captured treasure has an experience point value attached. For killing the rare Minotaur, a difficult adversary indeed, a character is handsomely rewarded with 275 XP. Slaying lesser, more commonly encountered monsters, like a giant centipede or a skeleton, may generate only 10 or 20 XP for a character. On the other hand, treasure tends to grant characters far more XP. Gold coins, for example, offer a 1:1 ratio for experience points, and they're usually found in large amounts in campaigns. Having treasure offer more experience points than killing was a deliberate decision by the game's creators, who wanted players to use their wits to get out of sticky spots [source: Mentzer]. (In other editions, you may get XP for other acts as well, or just based on the DM's sense of your overall contribution.)

With experience points, characters evolve as they enter new levels (all the way up to 36 for human characters in Basic D&D) [source: Mentzer]. Each new level makes them more powerful and more advanced. Clerics and magic-users can learn new spells, for example. Fighters' blows become more deadly; thieves become more adept at picking locks. Even more important, players come to understand their characters and the world more and more, making the game even more enjoyable.

So, you get it: You know who you are and what you're doing. But as a first-time player, how do you do it better? We'll look at that next.

Dungeons & Dragons Strategies for Beginners

Dice of steel. DO NOT TOUCH.
Dice of steel. DO NOT TOUCH.

Remember that D&D is, at its heart, a very social game, and finding people to play with is, forgive the pun, a good move. One of the best strategies you can employ as a beginner is to find more experienced players, who can explain as you go and serve as an example of how to approach game play.

Even if you don't have D&D-playing friends, have no fear: D&D meet-ups and groups are easy to find. Use in your city, check with a local gaming store, or go to the Dungeons & Dragons official Web site to search for groups. While some have closed games – that is, ongoing campaigns with the same players week after week – there are also shorter adventures that can be played in one session. Mini-campaigns like these often take place Wednesdays in game stores and the like. Wizards of the Coast, the company now producing D&D, has also created D&D Encounters, which is a set of adventures specifically designed to be played in game stores, with many different groups of players working their way through the same story each season.

Also, take advantage of the resources available to newbies. Familiarize yourself with the Player's Handbook for the edition you'll be using, as well as any other materials your DM gives to you. Read about other players' experiences on the many gaming blogs on the Internet. Spend some quality time with your character sheet, so when your DM asks you what your dexterity is, you don't have to hunt around for it. You can also use pre-generated characters to get ideas or to make the process of getting started a little quicker.

Some other tips for first-timers:

  • Spend your first D&D game as a player, not as a DM. DMs have a lot to juggle, and it's better to get some familiarity with the game (and some of the ways players will try to push the boundaries) before you try to run a campaign yourself.
  • Remember to separate what you know from what your character knows, and don't let things only you would know influence your character's decisions.
  • Think creatively about what your character can do. Just because you're a fighter armed with a sword doesn't mean the only thing you can do is swing your sword at enemies. For instance, pay careful attention to the way the DM describes the setting – you may find ways to use your environment and what's in it to your advantage, even before you pick a target to attack or defend against.
  • Try not to dither. You can weigh your options before making a move, but too much analysis of actions and potential outcomes can slow the game down tremendously.
  • Don't feel too attached to your character. Sometimes characters die, in spite of the entire party's best efforts. The important thing to do then is to roll up another character you'd like to play, and then get back into it.
  • Bring your own dice. As skeptically-minded as many D&D players are, a fair number are also superstitious about their dice.

Now a little more about all those D&D editions we've been referencing.

D&D Versions!

If you're a D&D newbie, a starter kit like this classic Red Box might be an easy way to start playing the game.
If you're a D&D newbie, a starter kit like this classic Red Box might be an easy way to start playing the game.
TM and © Wizards of the LLC. Images used with permission.

The first version of Dungeons & Dragons was released in 1974: It was just a run of 1,000 rulebooks at a cost of $2400 [source: Kushner]. The game was modeled on Chainmail, a Medieval role-playing game created by Gary Gygax and modified to take place in cramped quarters (like a dungeon) and led by a guide (like a dungeon master) by his collaborator Dave Arneson.

After the first version of D&D took off like a rocket, Gygax's company, TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) released a more expanded version of Dungeons & Dragons in 1977. This edition is now called the Basic Set. At the same time, the company also released a different version, called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D). This version of the game more closely followed Gygax's vision for D&D, with more intricate rules and more involved game play and was different enough so as to be considered a different game. The incompatibility between D&D and AD&D game play created a schism called the D&D dichotomy [source: The Acaeum]. So from 1977 on, the game followed at least two trajectories.

Throughout the late 1970s and '80s, TSR released new editions of Basic D&D and AD&D, including an entirely new Second Edition of AD&D in 1989 [source: WOC]. For Basic D&D, the game's creators released Forgotten Realms, a new fantasy setting for a series of campaigns players could insert their characters into. New manuals, like the Monstrous Compendium, the Complete Fighter's Handbook and the Complete Thief's Handbook added further detail and complexity to the game and expanding its capability of engrossing players.

Both games started to lose steam at the end of the 1980s, however, and sat virtually idle, although still available throughout the 90s. In 1997, Wizards of the Coast (the company that produces the successful Magic: The Gathering card game) purchased the rights to Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons from TSR [source: WOC]. In 2000, Wizards of the Coast released the first new edition of any Dungeons & Dragons, the Third Edition. It went back toward the Basic D&D concept, and the AD&D line was killed off [source: Grabinowski]. Three years later, the company released an updated version of the Third Edition with new rule books.

In late 2007, to much fanfare, WOC released the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The trouble with this version of the game was that characters created with any of the old versions were incompatible with the new edition [source: Grabinowski]. Although Wizards of the coast had cauterized the D&D dichotomy when they stopped releasing new editions of AD&D, it still continued the tradition by releasing what amounted to another entirely new game.

With the release of the Fourth Edition, Dungeons & Dragons had a truly fractured community. Although it was discontinued in 2000, AD&D still had plenty of devotees playing using the old books, either as their exclusive preference or just for a change of pace. What's more, there was now a new schism between Basic D&D and the new Fourth Edition. Then, in 2006, WOC released Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO), a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. A survey of what started out as just plain old Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 has become a lot of disparate parts.

In the hope of bringing it all together under one tidy title, Wizards of the Coast announced that it would release a fifth edition, aka D&D Next. As of this writing, it remains unreleased, but it's been billed as making all past editions compatible. This announcement has been met with incredulity by the D&D community. One player suggested it would be tantamount to "trying to build a car that can use parts from a 2010 Mustang, a 1950 Packard, and a tractor" [source: Grabinowski].

Despite their differences, all editions and versions of D&D have one thing in common: Some people think they're satanic.

D&D in Pop Culture

Sheldon revisits some Christmas memories during a game of Dungeons & Dragons on The Big Bang Theory.
Sheldon revisits some Christmas memories during a game of Dungeons & Dragons on The Big Bang Theory.
Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Images

Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most wildly successful games of all time. It has been published in at least 13 languages, has been played by an estimated 20 million people and has generated about $1 billion in revenue for its owners [source: WOC, McMillan]. And along the way, the game – and its creators – have made some enemies.

Chief among its critics are religious and parents' groups who, during the peak of the outcry in the 1980s, considered D&D at least a waste of their children's time and at worst a recruiting tool for Satanists [source: Chick]. While the imagery associated with the game was enough to raise the fears of some critics, the outcry turned into a type of hysteria beginning in the late 1970s because of some high profile cases concerning people who played the game.

In 1979, Dallas Egbert, a 16-year-old computer prodigy studying at Michigan State University, attempted suicide by overdosing on barbiturates in the steam tunnels beneath campus. He was unsuccessful, and when he regained consciousness the next day, Egbert hid out at a friend's house, prompting a massive hunt for him. The lead investigator used Egbert's playing of Dungeons & Dragons to draw a parallel between a series of steam tunnels and a dungeon maze and suggested that perhaps Egbert had been driven insane by the game [source: Hately].

The media feasted on this and ultimately presented it as fact. Despite Egbert's later admission that it was academic pressure from his parents that made him suicidal, his disappearance gave the critics of D&D a victim of the game.

Egbert eventually committed suicide in 1980. His case was memorialized in a 1982 TV movie called Mazes and Monsters. It starred Tom Hanks, who played a gamer who became so lost in his character that he broke from reality [source: IMDB].

The suicide of another young boy who played Dungeons & Dragons led to the creation of B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons) by the boy's mother, who led a crusade against the game as satanic and offered conferences that introduced law enforcement agencies to the game [source:]. Blaming Dungeons & Dragons for violent crime still continues; when a woman went on a shooting rampage at her workplace at the University of Alabama, at least one news outlet suggested her love for D&D motivated the killings [source: Newitz].

Despite all of this negative publicity, or perhaps because of it, Dungeons & Dragons continued to increase in popularity in the early 1980s. In 1983, a Dungeons & Dragons cartoon show debuted and ran for three seasons on CBS [source: IMDB]. A 2000 Dungeons & Dragons movie was decidedly less successful, however.

While what could have been considered a popular craze has died down over the years, the game is still widely enjoyed, with a thriving community of players and resources available online. What's more, it has become a part of pop culture iconography. The band Weezer referenced Dungeon Masters on its debut album, and episodes of the cartoon show Futurama have centered on D&D (including one which featured Gary Gygax as guest). Basketball player and D&D player Tim Duncan famously asked his teammates to call him Merlin [source: ESPN]. And most recently, the NBC show Community featured an entire episode that revolved around a game of D&D as an homage to it [source: Woerner].

If all of this has you excited about playing Dungeons & Dragons, check out the additional information on the next page.

Author's Note: Kate Kershner

I started researching Dungeons & Dragons with dread. Although I told myself I didn't believe the stereotypes (I have male and female friends, from hipsters to sorority girls, who have played the game for years), I was still leery of a game that was so complicated it required three handbooks for play, about 50 sides of various dice and character sheets more complicated than any number of charts in my medical files. But like any other D&D rookie, as soon as I actually took the time to learn the game from research and other players, I was hooked. D&D isn't a game for antisocial misfits; it is a game for anyone who likes reading a good story or playing a strategy game. Like any game worth its salt, the best part of it is spending time maneuvering, arguing and commiserating with the other players, be they nerds, hipsters, bros, elves, wizards, orcs – or any other character under the sun.

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