Introduction to DnD
First, the company who makes D&D (Wizards of the Coast) has helpfully provided a completely free PDF containing the basic rules of the game. This document is called Player’s D&D Basic Rules. It even comes in a printer-friendly version, though I’d recommend against printing it out as it’s going to be changing a little every month or so as they make small additions or edits. You can find it at this link. (Note: there’s a Dungeon Master’s Basic Rules there, too, and I’d suggest you don’t read that one. But, I can’t stop you; I’m not your mom. Reading it won’t spoil the adventure, but it does have a bit of “how the sausage gets made” in it.)
Some people learn by speed-reading books and articles, while others need to get their hands dirty. If you’re one of the former, then plowing through the basic rules will certainly give you the best understanding of how 5th Edition D&D works. But, if you’re the latter, then you’ll probably want to get walked through the process, step-by-step. The following is a very brief synopsis of what D&D entails.
How to play D&D
What you need.
To play, you’ll need to have a pencil, eraser, paper, and a set of dice. I can lend some dice to start with, but D&D players (naturally?) get superstitious about the dice they use, so you may eventually want to own your own set ($5-10 at most hobby stores). If you’re so inclined, there are some goddamn fancy looking sets of dice out there. (The image below shows just the tiniest fraction of the variety available almost anywhere.)
Next, you’ll want to create a character.
Your character is the person or thing who represents you in the game world. They don’t (have to) look like you or even act like you, but you control and depict them. You get to decide what race or species they are, where they came from, and what skills and abilities they possess which make them cut out to be adventurers. You’ll roll some dice to determine some of their characteristics, while others will be selected from a list, or even made up by your brain. It usually takes a few hours to create a complete character, so we’ll probably spend most of our first session doing that.
What do you do with a character?
When we get together for our first “play” session, I will begin to describe the setting and events which will lead you into the adventure. When I’ve finished the description, I’ll ask you what your character wants to do. Sometimes I’ll ask the whole group (e.g. “You arrive at the town gates. A guard’s head appears at the top of the wall. What do you want to do?”), and you can talk amongst yourselves to determine the best course of action. Or, when a situation gets more tense, I may go around the table asking each player individually what they want to do (e.g. “You ask the guard if he’s seen the Holy Grail, but he doesn’t immediately respond. Then, suddenly, a cow is launched from the parapet and hurtles toward you. Kenneth, what does your character do?”). And, of course, you can always tell me what you’d like your character to do, even if I don’t ask you first (e.g. “While we’re exploring these caves, my character is going to be looking for secret doors whenever she gets the chance.”).
Is there anything else you need to do?
It’s often a good idea to have someone keep notes about what’s happening in the game, for your own benefit as well as to combat any memory lapses on my part. Similarly, it’s often helpful to draw a map as you explore certain areas. As Hansel and Gretel knew, finding your way into a strange place may only be half of the challenge. Caves and dungeons can be complex, winding places with secret doors, traps, and the occasional need for a hasty retreat. Knowing where you’ve been can be very useful. Lastly, you’ll want to talk. Discussing things with the other players (or myself) is critical, especially for coordinating your actions or getting answers to your questions. I may describe a location with a couple of sentences, and it’s up to you to ask for more details if you want them (e.g. I might say, “You open the door and find a neglected broom closet, with a standard array of cleaning supplies.” To which you could respond, “Do I see a bucket?”)
So what does the Dungeon Master do?
My job is to manage everything outside of your own character’s choices. I learn the adventure, fill in the pieces which are inevitably missing from the printed product, draw maps, plan encounters, plant treasures, and try to guess what the players might do in each situation you’ll face. I also try to account for player choices which veer away from the written storyline (which is usually fine, by the way… that’s the joy of a tabletop role-playing game). I perform the parts of each person and creature you encounter during the adventure, and I decide how each of them responds to the choices your characters make. I adjudicate the rules and try to portray a world which allows you, to some degree, to suspend your disbelief a little as you play, though not to the point of getting all Mazes & Monsters. Always, though, my goal is to be fair, for better or worse, which means I will always try to give you the ability to avoid serious danger, though you are ultimately responsible for your choices.
How do we win Dungeons & Dragons?
Having fun is kind of the ultimate goal, so it’s entirely possible for you to be swallowed by giant cane toads and for it still to be considered “a win” if you walk away from the table laughing about it. Of course, there are ways to resolve the adventure in a more pleasant manner, from your characters’ perspectives, and that’s normally how you would win. That’s not to say that you’ll always know what the ultimate goal is, and your goals may shift radically as you progress. Figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing from moment to moment is part of the challenge of the game. The authors of each adventure have placed a number of clues, which should help. If you’re baffled, it’s fine to say so, so that the group can figure it out collectively.