Beginner's Guide to Dungeons & Dragons

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.