How to Play Dungeons and Dragons (D&D)

dungeons and dragons
Wizards of the Coast

Dungeons and Dragons may be the world's most complicated game, but it doesn't have to be the hardest to play. While the rules to D&D encompass multiple rulebooks and involve a group of people playing both cooperative and competitive roles in a fantasy world powered mostly by your imagination, most of your time spent playing it will be focused on playing a role rather than rolling the dice or spouting encyclopedic knowledge of the rules.

In fact, many people find the hardest part of getting started with D&D to be finding other people interested in playing, rather than actually playing the game. But thanks to the growing popularity, this is getting easier and easier.

Established groups often have a fair amount of experience when it comes to introducing new people to the game. Don't worry, players don't think of this as a hassle. In fact, many find it to me among the most rewarding aspects of the game. And each group has a "dungeon master" that tells the story and manages the game, and who can quickly get a new player up to speed on the basics.

What You Need to Start Playing D&D

Of course, you don't want to just walk into a group empty-handed. If you are really interested in playing D&D, you will need a few things to help you prepare and to bring with you during your sessions.

  • The Player's Handbook
    While you can get by without it, the Player's Handbook will allow you to plan out your character before your first session. The first step in creating a character is to pick a race, for example, a dwarf, elf or human, and a class, such as a fighter, priest, or sorcerer. Reading through these sections will give you a head's up on what to expect and help you decide on your first character.     
  • A Set of Dice
    D&D uses a host of different dice to help determine outcomes. This includes the ever-popular 6-sided dice, but also includes 20-sided, 12-sided, 10-sided, 8-sided and 4-sided dice.
  • Pencil and Paper
    The Player's Handbook will include a character sheet that can be photocopied, but even with plenty of character sheets, you'll want blank paper to scribble notes and keep track of your inventory.
  • Snacks
    D&D sessions usually take several hours to complete. A snack and a favorite drink are often encouraged.

Dungeons and Dragons: The Basics

Before we cover how you might go about finding a group of players to join, let's go over some of the basics of how a session of D&D works. While D&D encompasses several handbooks, at its core, its not incredibly hard to play. The most difficult parts—story, combat, rules, etc.—will fall on the shoulders of the dungeon master, leaving you the two most basic actions: roleplaying your character and rolling the dice to determine the outcome of your character's actions.

  • Preparation
    As a character, your job is easy. You don't need to invent a story or read the notes of a published adventure. You don't need to worry about maps or non-player characters. But there is some prep work involved. If your character has advanced a level since the last session, which means they have gained in power, you will need to read over any new skills or abilities acquired. If your character can cast spells, you will want to note which ones you may have prepared. Some players create spell cards that can be flipped over when the spell is used, which helps them to track which spells are available.
  • Story
    Most sessions will start with background and a story. This can be as simple as walking into a new town or as mysterious as waking up in a dungeon with all of your equipment missing. Adventures can be combat-heavy, which means you'll be doing a lot of exploring and fighting, but just as often as not, they are story-heavy with sessions that may feature only a few instances of combat.
  • Roleplaying
    You'll be jumping into your role as the character far quicker and far more often than you'll actually be rolling the dice. This is what makes D&D an easy game to start playing, but it can also be the most difficult aspect of the game. Not only do you need to become comfortable speaking and acting as your character in front of other people, you also need to separate what you know and what your character knows. You may know that bat droppings can be a key component for making gunpowder, but your half-orc barbarian just thinks they are gross.
  • The Dice
    The roleplaying side of the game isn't just about taking on a role. There will be plenty of rolling as well. This will happen when you interact with non-player characters, which include the innkeeper, the guards, and other persons of interest you will meet. For example, you may want to persuade that innkeeper to give up more information about a bad guy. You can use your charm, intimidate him, or perhaps just bribe him. And depending on which route you take, the dungeon master may decide a roll of the dice is needed to determine if your are successful.
  • Action
    Any time you take an action, you will generally need to roll the dice. This includes whether or not you hit that orc with your axe, or if you can successfully cut the tripwire to an arrow trap. The dungeon master will help out with the rules, but it is generally up to you to decide exactly what to do in these situations.
  • Wrap-Up
    Most sessions will end with divvying up any treasure that wasn't claimed during the adventure and the doling out of experience points, which are used to determine if you are ready to advance to the next level. Your character's power will grow as it progresses in level, and you may need to make choices about that progression. For example, maybe your sorceress also wants to learn how to swing a sword.

How to Find a Group of D&D Players

This is where it gets tricky. While it is possible for a group of people to learn on their own and start playing, it is far easier to learn the game by playing with experienced players. But how do you go about finding other players?

  • Game Shops and Comic Book Stores
    Many of these establishments have tables set aside for playing and can be packed with players on the weekend. And just as people want to start playing, others need to drop out, so established groups do need to find new players from time to time. Check with the owner or manager. And if the store has a bulletin board, check to see if any groups are advertising for new players and put up your own advertisement.
  • Craigslist
    Metropolitan areas will usually have at least one if not several game shops, but you may be on your own if you live in a rural area. Craigslist can help solve this problem. Search the community section for people looking for groups and leave your own ad on the site.
  • Facebook
    Facebook can be a great alternative to Craigslist. Try doing a search for "D&D" plus your town name to find Facebook groups with people in your area.
  • Meetup
    You may not have heard of this website, but Meetup is designed specifically for the purpose of getting people together that have the same interest or want to do something together.
  • Reddit
    The LFG subreddit is designed for people who are "looking for group," including those who want to find a D&D group.

Do You Have to Play D&D in Person?

While D&D is a very social game, you don't have to be in the same room to play it. Virtual Tabletop software like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds allows you to play a session with people spread all across the world. This can be great if you want to hook up with a buddy that lives too far away to meet up in person. It can also be a good option when trying to find a group of players.

Can a Group Learn to Play D&D Alone?

Ideally, D&D is learned from experienced players and dungeon masters. Even just a single experienced player can make a big difference, but being unable to find someone shouldn't dissuade the group from playing. As a substitute for learning-while-playing, it is recommended for the players and dungeon master to watch podcasts to get an idea of how the game is played. Facebook groups dedicated to Dungeons and Dragons can also be a great way to clarify rules that are causing confusions.

Critical Role is by far the most popular D&D podcast and can give newcomers a good look at D&D. Force Grey: Lost City of Omu is a popular podcast hosted by Wizards of the Coast, and Twitch hosts a D&D channel with a variety of shows.