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Thorsteinn Mar

Thorsteinn Mar

May 22, 2024  ·  15 min read

How to play Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons


Dungeons & Dragons has become very popular in the last decade, partly due to its increased visibility in popular media and greater online marketing. Here’s how to play Dungeons & Dragons.

I still remember how excited I was before the first time I played Dungeons & Dragons. A few guys in my class school played the game, and I had seen them a few times walking around the halls holding books with great pictures on the covers (later, I found out that most of these images were painted by Jeff Easley and Clyde Caldwell) - pictures that piqued my interest. I’ve always been an avid fantasy and sci-fi fan, and at that time, I was knee-deep reading Lord of the Rings, A Wizard of Earthsea, and other similar books. Needless to say, I was neither cool nor popular, but neither were the guys in this group.

During our summer holidays, one of the guys from that group and I worked at the same place and really got to know each other. He told me this group was playing role-playing games, mostly AD&D, Call of Cthulhu, and Toons, which were the most popular role-playing games in Iceland in the early 90s. My newfound friend (who later became a lifelong friend) invited me to join their game late in July that summer.

I had never played before and only knew what he told me about roleplaying games. It wasn’t like today, where you can find out online how to play, see videos of people playing, or even speak to other roleplayers. Sure enough, some films had been published in previous years (Mazes and Monsters, anyone?) where roleplaying games appeared, but my parents didn’t have a VCR, and I wasn‘t too keen on watching TV. I had so many questions before that first night, but fortunately, my friend was patient and explained the process in detail.

After that first night, where we played for eight hours straight in a small, no-so-ventilated room (you’ll just have to imagine the smell), battling a crazed murderer, a zombie horde, and a zombie lord in a desolate town right in the middle of some fog-locked village (I’ll let you D&D historians guess the name of the module), walking home I was ecstatic. I had never experienced such a thrill, so much fun, and a sense of accomplishment playing a game. I could easily envision what had happened and almost felt like I had been magically transported to that small village.

In the following years, I spent so many nights in that small room with this group, where we fought dragons, mind flayers, beholders, and other monsters, watched our characters go down in flames, formed friendships, and shared an amazing experience and many great stories. When that group fell apart, I had already joined others and have been playing ever since. These days, I teach roleplaying games at an elementary school, but I am also a part of three different roleplaying groups where we play many different games, often using Quest Portal, either online or at the table.

So, here you can find answers to some of the questions I had that summer before my first session. I sincerely hope that these can help you take your first steps into an infinite world of imagination.

Step 1: Understand the Basics

D&D is fundamentally about storytelling. A typical game involves the Dungeon Master setting the scene and the players navigating through that world using their characters. The outcomes of player decisions, combat, and interactions are often determined by dice rolls, which introduce an element of chance to the narrative.

As mentioned above, I had read many fantasy books and was familiar with many terms, such as orcs and goblins, before I started playing. But there is a difference between reading a book and participating in the narrative. Role-playing games, such as D&D, give you a chance to leave your mark on the narrative and to be an active part of telling the story through the actions of your character.

After watching the characters of the TV shows Big Bang Theory, Stranger Things, and Community, John and Debbie have a fair understanding of how roleplaying games take place and are interested in trying one out. They know that Alex, one of their friends, has played before and ask them to teach them to play.

Step 2: Choose the Setting and Game Edition

D&D has evolved through several editions, each with its own rules. The most popular current edition is the 5th Edition (5e), known for its simplicity and focus on character development. Decide which edition you'd like to play, though 5e is recommended for beginners. The setting of the game can vary from classic fantasy landscapes to urban mystery and beyond.

For example, my first game was set in the Ravenloft setting (oops, another clue for you D&D historians, if you haven’t already figured out which module we played!) and used the AD&D 2nd edition ruleset.

Alex, having a good understanding of the 5E ruleset, proposes that they use that ruleset and start by playing the module from the starter set, The Lost Mines of Phandelver, which John and Debbie agree, after hearing the premises of the narrative and learn about the Forgotten Realms setting.

Step 3: Create Characters

Each player creates a character by choosing a race (such as humans, elves, dwarves) and a class (like wizard, fighter, or rogue). Characters have attributes like strength, dexterity, and intelligence, which affect their abilities and actions. Players also develop a backstory for their character, which helps define their role in the story.

My first character was a valiant fighter, which I later found out was probably a smart decision since I didn’t have the rulebooks, and fighters are pretty straightforward to play. Just swing the sharp part of your weapon at the monster. No pouring over spellbooks or praying for spells. But I also understand its charm, being a mysterious spellcaster wrapped in robes with arcane powers at their fingertips. Just know that you need to know how the spells work.

Tools Needed:

Character Sheets: These are used to record all your character's details. A friendly tip: You can find D&D character sheets here on Quest Portal, which are easy to use and fill out.

Player's Handbook: This book contains all the rules for character creation. The rules are also available here. I would also like to mention that our AI can be of great help when trying to understand or figure out how to use certain rules, e.g., how feats work.

After a short introduction from Alex and flipping through the races and classes chapters of the ruleset, John and Debbie are ready to create characters. Of course, they could use some of the pre-generated characters found on Quest Portal or get help from the AI. John chooses to be a Tiefling Warlock, a character of a hellish heritage and a knack for spellcasting. Debbie, however, creates a dwarven paladin, a religious warrior on a holy quest to retrieve her clan’s long-lost holy weapon.

Step 4: Understand the Rules

The Dungeon Master's Guide and the Player’s Handbook provide detailed rules. Core aspects include:

Ability Checks: Rolling a 20-sided die (d20) and adding character-specific modifiers to perform tasks.

Combat: Turn-based, involving movement, actions, and interactions.

Spellcasting: Rules for magical characters.

Truth be told, I didn’t understand the rules immediately that first night, but that was alright. My friends in the group were more than willing to explain the rules to me as we went along and pointed out which dice to roll or explained why I had to make this or that roll (“Yeah, you must roll a saving throw now, if you fail it you will flee from the monster…ah, sorry, you failed, you must spend your next turn moving away from the monster!”).

Just remember the most important rule of all: Have fun! Even when you fail a check or a saving throw, remember to have fun and enjoy the game.

Just before the first session starts, Alex teaches John and Debbie to read the character sheet, roll dice, and interpret the outcome of checks. They run a quick show-and-tell combat and introduce the core mechanics to John and Debbie before the narrative starts to ensure that both players are familiar with the game's core concepts, such as checks, actions, and saving throws.

Step 5: The Role of the Dungeon Master

In every D&D game, one player takes on the role of the Dungeon Master or the storyteller. It is their role to:

Narrate the Story: Describes environments, events, and the results of the player's actions.

Enforce Rules: Interprets and applies the game rules.

Manage Encounters: Handles the mechanics of combat and interactions with non-player characters (NPCs).

The DM in my first group was a guy whom I had never talked to in school before that first gaming night. He sat behind a DM’s screen and was reading through the final pages of the module when I entered the room. The room was filled with a strange bodily musk, and death metal music sounded from the stereo (Gothic by Paradise Lost, if memory serves me right). I was initially intimidated, but it quickly wore off, and the DM later became one of my best friends.

Before the first session, Alex familiarizes themselves with the module. They read through the first chapter and familiarize themselves with the rules included therein so that the game runs smoothly. They note down what they need to remember and even dogear the rulebooks where information about spells, monsters, etc. can be found and quickly referenced.

Step 6: Playing the Game

This is where the magic happened! As soon as everyone was ready to play, the DM changed the music, and the slow classical music of the soundtrack from the Dracula movie by Francis Ford Coppola filled the room. The DM described the situation our player characters were in, trudging through some gods-forsaken swamp, and I felt instantly swept away from that small room into a much larger universe, where I took part in a narrative as my player character.

During the game, players describe their characters' actions and converse both as the characters and about what actions to take. The DM describes the outcome based on the game’s mechanics and the dice results.

Game Flow:

DM Describes the Environment: What the characters see, hear, experience, and can do.

Players Describe Actions, Including talking, fighting, or exploring.

Roll the Dice: To see if actions succeed or fail.

DM Narrates the Results: Based on the dice and the characters' abilities.

This step is the most important since most of the game, and the narrative take place here. Make sure you pay attention to the DM’s descriptions and how they play and portray non-player characters, and describe your player character’s actions and reactions. As you get more comfortable inside the game, you might even want to try to use different voices when you portray your characters or discover that they have some traits or mannerisms that help you to get even more.

Once everything is ready, Alex sets the first scene for John and Debbie and tells them what their characters see and experience. John and Debbie react to the description by describing their characters’ actions, and soon, they find themselves battling a couple of goblins after diplomacy has failed. A couple of hours later, and after a few more confrontations with goblins and wolves, the characters emerge victorious from a small cave, tired, wounded, and a few gold coins richer.

Step 7: Leveling Up and Development

As characters go through adventures, they gain experience points (XP), eventually leading to "leveling up." This allows characters to become stronger, gain new abilities, and influence the story more profoundly.

The rules for leveling up are in the Players’ Handbook and here on Quest Portal. They detail what features you gain when you level up and how your characters become more powerful.

Of course, you can use the AI on Quest Portal to help you level up your character and get tips and ideas. Feel free to ask the AI any questions you might have.

At the end of the session, Alex tells John and Debbie that their characters have gained enough experience to level up. They browse once more through the classes and make the necessary adjustments to their character sheets, e.g. gain more hit points and new class features, and divide amongst themselves the treasure they found in the goblin cave.

Step 8: Enjoy the Adventure

The real joy of D&D is the shared storytelling experience. Each session can end with characters resting or at a cliffhanger, ready for the next adventure. On my first night, we played through a whole module (albeit a short one), but not all sessions were like that.

Later, we played longer campaigns, narratives that took many sessions to complete, in which our characters rose in power gradually as the narrative progressed.

Before saying their goodbyes, Alex asks John and Debbie whether they enjoyed the session and if they should play again. John and Debbie both had great fun and are eager to play again, thanking Alex for taking the time out to introduce the game to them. They also decide to see if some of their other friends are interested in joining.

Additional Tips:

Collaborative Storytelling: D&D is best played cooperatively. Work with your fellow players and DM to craft a memorable story.

Resources: Utilize tools like Ques Portal for digital character sheets and rule references.

Notebooks: Feel free to use notebooks to note down memorable events and characters, especially during campaign play.

A few final words

Playing D&D is about creativity, collaboration, and fun. It's a game where the only limit is your imagination. Enjoy building your world and living out your adventures within it!