How to Play D&D

people at a table

Dungeons and Dragons can be a little intimidating for beginners. From learning how to use those weird shaped dice to creating a character, there is literally an entire book of rules designed specifically for players. But don’t worry–you won’t be expected to memorize the whole book.

When it comes right down to it, any beginner’s guide to D&D can be boiled down to two things: understanding how use your dice, and understanding your character sheet. Everything else you will pick up on the way.

How to use your dice

You should have at least one set of polyhedral dice, which will be used whenever there is uncertainty as to whether your character succeeds in something you want to do. Sometimes the DM will ask you to make a roll and sometimes they will roll in secret for you. Either way, it will determine the outcome of whatever action you’re taking and therefore shape the story.

In our Guide to Polyhedral Dice, we went over what each die is for and what it looks like, but the important thing to remember is that the d20 (the largest die) is the one you’ll roll for pretty much all actions. The other dice are mostly there for spells and combat. So any time your DM asks you to make a check, the d20 should be the one you reach for.

But what can my character do?

When it comes to playing D&D, this is easily the most common question and the short answer is: anything. This is a fantasy world and your character can try to do literally anything you can think of–just remember that there are rules to the world and some things may not be possible no matter how well you roll your d20.

If you don’t know what to do, just think about what is happening in the game, what makes sense, and then talk to your DM about it. There’s nothing wrong with asking clarifying questions or checking if something is possible before you do it! Sometimes even a dumb action is better than no action.

Understanding the character sheet

When it comes to playing D&D, filling out the character sheet is only half the battle. The rest is understanding what all of those numbers actually mean and how to use them. In the Beginners Guide for Building a 5e Character we went step-by-step through filling out a character sheet. For a more in-depth look at each of the sections, check out the guide, or read below for a brief refresher on the important parts:

  • Statistics – These six scores define the character’s mental and physical capabilities
  • Saving throws – These modifiers are used for checks regarding reflexes and reactions.
  • Skills – These modifiers are used for skill checks
  • Features & Traits – This is a list of your character’s abilities, based on race and class
  • Armor Class – This number represents how hard you are to hit in battle
  • Hit points – This represents how much health you have
  • Attacks – How your character does damage

Obviously these are not the only things on the character sheet, but the rest can be picked up on the way. Don’t hesitate to ask your DM or more experienced players to help you out!

Playing the Game

game-3863091_1920.jpgDespite the fact that there is an entire book of rules for players, the average D&D session consists of the same basic sequence of events which can be summarized in three steps:

Step 1: The DM describes something

Since D&D is mostly a game of imagination, all sequences will start with the DM describing something in the world such as a character, location, item or interesting event.

Step 2: Players announce their actions

When the DM stops talking, it’s your turn. What do you want to do with the information you were given? This is the point where you’ll want to ask any clarifying questions, and then announce what your character would do. I recommend talking in first person, as if you are the character–especially if you’re interacting with a non-player character or NPC. It will seem weird at first, but it makes the game more immersive.

Step 3: The DM determines the result

Once you and your party have announced your actions, the DM will call for any necessary rolls (or make rolls for NPCs) and then describe what happens as a result of your party’s choices and/or rolls. This will usually result in a looping back to the first step, where more description is given, and the game continues.

These three steps are used both with roleplay and battle scenarios, although battles also feature initiative, or the order in which the characters will take their turns–meaning in step 2 there is only specific character who can choose to take an action at a time.

To start off, that’s all you need to know. You’ll pick up more things along the way, and it’s not a bad idea to read through the Player’s Handbook either. If you can’t afford one just yet, then you can check out the free SRD online, although that’s really better for reference than just reading.

So now that you’ve got a character, understand how to roleplay, and know the basic rules, the only thing left is to find a group and play the game! Be sure to check out the final article in our D&D Basic series, which will go over some things I wish I’d known when I started playing D&D. Or, if you’re feeling pretty confident, head over to read some Character Hacks or check out the Archives to find more tips and tricks!

Next: Things I Wish I Knew When I Started D&D