dungeons & dragons for absolute beginners
part 1: Intro & races
What exactly is Dungeons & Dragons?
These days, most people have heard about Dungeons & Dragons, even if they don’t know exactly what it is. Basically, it is a role-playing game, where you can create a heroic character and then play through a story with that character. It was one of the very first role-playing games, and has definitely been the most well-known by far. That said, it is far from the only role-playing game out there. It is probably the best one to dip your toes into the role-playing world though, as it is very well supported and you will most likely be able to find people to play with you in most areas (and if not, you will definitely be able to find people to play with you over the internet). It was initially published in 1974, and since then has had quite a few upgrades. We are now kind of into the 7th version of it, depending upon how you count. It’s called the 5th edition, or 5E for those in the know. Don’t ask- it’s complicated.
The basic premise behind Dungeons & Dragons is that you and your friends create characters (player characters, or PC’s) who are heroes, adventuring together around the world. The world you find yourselves in is usually (but need not be) a fantasy medieval world, populated with magic and mythical monsters (hence the “dragon” part of the name). If you are familiar with The Lord of the Rings, then you will be very familiar with the types of characters available in the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons, as the books were definitely a strong source of background material for the game. Much of that can still be seen today, although much new material has been added in subsequent decades. At its core, it is a storytelling game. There is a dungeon master (DM), who designs the world and populates it with other peoples (NPC’s, for non-player characters) and monsters and situations for your party to interact with. Your party then decides what to do within that world. Anything and everything is on the table to try, but your likelihood of success depends upon your particular skills. In the end, dice are rolled whenever there is a chance that something which you would like to attempt may be unsuccessful. The characters which each person in the “party” (the group of characters which you and your friends have made) play will have a variety of strengths and weaknesses, and only by working together will you be able to succeed in many of your quests.
What do I need to play 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons?
If you book a session to play with me, you need nothing. I will provide everything that you will need.
If you want to try it on your own, you will need a few things.
First, you will need a friend or two who wants to play with you. If you don’t have any friends who want to try out Dungeons & Dragons with you, then you can try asking your local game store- they often run games of D&D for newcomers at their store. You can also look online. There are places which are set up to connect people of all different levels of experience so they can play games together, often online.
Second, one of you will need to want to be the dungeon master. If someone really likes being a storyteller or being especially creative, this is likely the person who will fill that role. But remember that they will also want to play a character sometimes as well, so you might want to switch it up sometimes. It is also somewhat traditional for players to thank the DM by supplying offerings of food and drink, traditionally in the form of chips, pizza, and Mountain Dew, although the offerings vary by group.
Third, you will need at least one full set of dice to share between you (I will discuss dice later). In a pinch, this can be sorted for free using either with an app on your mobile phone or through Google (If you type “roll 2d20” into the Google search bar, it will roll two 20-sided dice for you. It can also roll any other combination of any type of dice which you want.) For many people though, the love of rolling physical dice is a big part of the fun of the game. Game stores should have full sets of dice for sale, and the internet is absolutely chockers with dice for sale in every colour.
Finally, you will need the basic rules for D&D. This could come in one of several forms. If you just want the most basic feel for the game, Wizards of the Coast, the makers of Dungeons and Dragons, has a free download of some of the base rules available. It doesn’t include many of the races & classes which are available in the Player’s Handbook, but it will do to get you started, and then you can decide if you want to continue playing and want to invest more in the game. They also sell several different starter boxes, which usually include dice as well as a basic rulebook, and which usually includes an adventure for starting players to run through. You should be able to get this at local game stores easily enough, or online if you can’t find it locally. If you want to get into it seriously, you will want a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide & the Monster Manual for the dungeon master, and you will need a copy of the Player’s Handbook. That’s it really. Many people use miniatures to play, but you don’t need them; some people play in “the theatre of the mind”, while other people use paper minis or bottle caps or painted pebbles. In the end, if you have access to dice and a set of the rules, you are good to go.
How do you win?
The short answer is that you don’t. Some games have been going for decades. The correct answer is that you win by having fun with your friends playing Dungeons & Dragons. After accomplishing a bunch of amazingly heroic deeds, your character gets to “level up”. When that happens, your character gets better at doing some things. Much better at certain things. Your character’s awesomeness increases in ways that you largely choose. You may be familiar with this concept from video games. They got it from Dungeons & Dragons, so yeah, it’s a very similar thing.
Basics of the game
For simplicity’s sake, I will be explaining how to play a game using only the Player’s Handbook. If you want to get fancier, there are many other books which add content. All you really need is the Player’s Handbook however, so I leave that extra material for my more advanced guide. Start here and you can graduate to there later, after you are terribly, terribly addicted and are buying dice sets in every colour.
I will give only the briefest of overviews here for all of the options here- for fuller stats and information, read about them in the Player’s Handbook. For maximum enjoyment, pick what feels like it would be fun for you to play and the stats will work themselves out later.
There are 6 main ability scores for your character, which will (usually) be between 3-20, with higher numbers showing that you are better at it. Strength (STR) is a measure of how strong you are. Dexterity (DEX) is a measure of how nimble you are. Constitution (CON) is a bit trickier, but it is a measure of how healthy or resilient you are in general. Intelligence (INT) is a measure of how smart you are. Wisdom (WIS) is a measure of how insightful or aware of your surroundings you are. And finally, Charisma (CHA) is a measure of how good you are at influencing people. We will get into them in more detail later, but for now know that those are the 6 traits which influence your abilities. They can be improved, but only by small amounts and only very, very slowly. Choose wisely when you first set these scores down. The race which you choose will also alter those scores in various ways.
What manner of persons ought we to be?
To begin, you will need to choose a race. “Race” is a loosely defined term in Dungeons & Dragons. Most of the time it would roughly translate into what biologists would call a subspecies, although sometimes it would instead equal a species. Other times it is waaay more complicated. Best not to overthink it too much and just choose something which looks fun to you. Each race gets certain advantages. The original races were all picked based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The current ones include a bunch of other options in addition to those. If you look at all of the races from all of the currently available Dungeons & Dragons 5E books, there are a dizzying array of races and subraces. For now though, we will only focus on the handful of options available in the Player’s Handbook- that is more than enough to pick from for beginners. I have attached a video to each race to give you a quick feel for what each race is like, as well as longer videos at the end of this section which go more in depth about how each race plays. I had nothing to do with the making of these videos- they are added here purely to give you a bit of the flavour of each race.
Dragonborn look like a cross between a humanoid and a dragon. Because that’s exactly what they are; or at least they have a mix of both in their DNA. In Dungeons & Dragons, as long as the individuals of both races are up for it, interbreeding is just fine. Dragonborn are covered in scales of the colour of their dragon ancestor (yes, there are different colours of dragons in D&D, each of which spits different things out of its mouth, fire being only one of the options). They also get their STR score increased by 2 and their CHA increased by 1. Depending upon which colour of dragonborn you are, you get to spit either acid, lightning, fire, poison, or ice breath, and are resistant to the damage type which you personally spit.
Dwarves are based on the Tolkien dwarves. They are short & thick, living under the earth in caverns which they have dug. All dwarves live much longer than humans, can see in the dark, are difficult to poison, move slower, get some dwarvish skills for free, and get their CON score increased by 2. There are 2 subraces of dwarves: hill dwarves and mountain dwarves. Hill dwarves also get their WIS score increased by 1 and are even tougher than other dwarves. Mountain dwarves also get their STR increased by 2 and are better prepared to wear fancier armor.
Elves are based on the Tolkien elves. They are willowy and spry, living with a strong connection to forests. All elves live much longer than humans, can see in the dark, are very perceptive, are resistant to being enchanted, need little sleep, and get their DEX score increased by 2. There are 3 subraces of elves: high elves, wood elves, & dark elves. High elves also get their INT score increased by 1, get a free cantrip (low level spell), know an extra language, and are skilled at elvish weapons. Forest elves also get their CHA increased by 1, are even faster, are better at hiding, and also are skilled at elvish weapons. Dark elves, or drow as they are more commonly known, come from deep underground, where their group went long ago to worship an evil spider goddess. Their CHA increases by 1, they can see even further in the dark, they know a few low level magic spells, and are skilled with some drow weapons. In addition, drow are sensitive to sunlight, which makes them less effective if they are outside in the sun.
Gnomes are wee little folk, 3-4 feet tall, who live in burrows underground. All gnomes increase their INT by 2, can see in the dark, live much longer than humans, are quite slow, and are not easy to affect by magic. There are 2 subraces of gnomes: forest gnomes and rock gnomes. Forest gnomes are also able to speak with small animals, can cast small illusions at will, and increase their DEX by 1. Rock gnomes are good at tinkering with mechanical objects & can build clockwork toys and the like, are really knowledgeable about magic items & mechanical objects, and increase their CON by 1.
Halflings are 100% a Tolkien invention. They are a small people, about 3 feet tall. All halflings are quite slow, but they are also very lucky and are quite hard to frighten. Their small size allows them to sneak past people without being noticed, and their DEX score increases by 2. There are 2 subraces of hobbits, the lightfoots and the stouts. Lightfoots are really good at hiding and their CHA increases by 1, while stouts are hard to poison and their CON increases by 1.
Half-elves also come from Tolkien. They don’t look that much different from either of their parent races, as both are quite similar in many ways. Half-elves can see in the dark and it’s difficult to enchant them, like the elves. They also get to choose 2 extra skills of their choice (we’ll get into what skills are later), as well as an extra language above most races. They live longer than humans, their CHA score increases by 2, and they get to increase 2 other ability scores of your choice by 1 each. Half-elves are more flexible than many other races.
Half-orcs are a bit trickier. Orcs are typically considered to be bad guys in D&D (and are always bad in Tolkien’s books). In Dungeons & Dragons, half-orcs can be good or bad, depending upon the individual. Myself, I play orcs that way as well as a DM. Apart from demons & devils, I play every species/race that way though. So anyhow, half-orcs have green or grey skin and big ol’ teeth, sometimes even tusks. They are big and tough. They can see in the dark, are really good at intimidating people, do lots of damage when they hit with a weapon, are hard to kill, and their STR increases by 2 and their CON by 1.
Humans are the vanilla of the races in some ways. They can’t see in the dark. They can’t vomit up fire or poison or lightning on people. They are a bit better in general than other races though. They start with an extra language and every ability score increases by 1. Or, if you choose the variant human, 2 ability scores of your choice increase by 1, you are good at a skill of your choice, and you gain a feat (feats are cool things that you can rarely get, so that’s actually a pretty cool thing), as well as that extra language.
Tieflings are the final race in the Player’s handbook. Tieflings are people who, at some point in their past or an ancestor’s past, got the essence of a devil in their blood. This doesn’t mean that they are evil. It does mean that they have horns, a long tail, eyes without pupils, and skin which comes in an exciting and unusual colour. It also means they can see in the dark, can cast some fancy spells, are resistant to fire damage, their CHA increases by 2, and their INT increases by 1.
That is the last of the races found in the Player’s Handbook. If you end up getting into the game, many more races can be found in other books. In the meantime, here are some short videos made for beginners to help explain some basics about those races, in case you feel the need to get a bit more into what they are about. Except for the last video. The last video is special. It is a link to a group of friends playing Dungeons and Dragons together. They are actors who have been playing together for many years, and many of the videos I have posted so far are either from them or reference their game. If you want to see D&D being played, watch them to see how it works. Be warned though: it is extremely addictive. Also, do not expect your game to be the same; these people are all professional voice actors/actors, so their jobs are to act and to play characters and to be really good at improvising. You don’t need to be as skilled at it as they are. Just as long as you’re having fun, you are doing it right.