So you’re thinking of playing D&D for the first time…
The public perception of Dungeons and Dragons has changed immensely since its inception. Once the realm of sweaty weirdos in basements and terrifying nightmare fodder for evangelicals, it has seen increasing mainstream acceptance in recent years. Nowadays, it has developed into one of the most welcoming and open-hearted communities around, a few gate-keeping holdouts aside. Perhaps you have some friends who play, or someone who was talking about it at work and a vague sense of curiosity came over you. This article is not for the experienced player, but someone who has a vague sense of what the game is and wants to check it out.
D&D and tabletop RPGs are collaborative storytelling games. There’s more to it than that obviously, but that is probably the most distilled description one can give. I feel like from an outsider’s perspective, there’s an inherent connection to video gaming and RPGs in general, but aside from the fantasy trappings involved they’re incredibly different experiences. Often as a Dungeon Master I set expectations from the outset that what video games do well, D&D could never replicate. That being said, what makes D&D special would be impossible to program into a game. The rules of D&D are to help facilitate imagination and collaboration, not constrain you into a box for the sake of an organized experience. A good Dungeon Master (A DM is the person who manages the “rules,” the non-player characters, and enemies among half a million other things) can keep this from feeling sloppy, but it is a game that even if you played the story 100 times, it would be vastly different every time.
This is a whole lot to explain that you should play, if you’re interested. If you’re worried about feeling dweeby, or dedicating a whole lot of time to something deeply silly then fret not. That is exactly how you will feel, and exactly what you will be doing. Let go of that and enjoy doing some stupid nonsense with your friends because it is fun, and it is a great way to get to know people better. Do it because it’s a surprisingly rewarding creative outlet in a world where those are getting harder and harder to come by. Do it because after you’re out of college it is incredibly difficult to make new friends and D&D is a great way for people to let their guard down around relative strangers and build shared experiences.
If you’re worried some gatekeeper asshole is going to tell you you’re doing it wrong, then know that you’re not out of line for worrying about that. We’ll touch on how to avoid these people later in the article, but know that they are becoming increasingly marginalized by what is by and large an incredibly accepting and patient community. D&D (and tabletop RPGs in general) were once considered among the nerdiest hobbies one could have. In a time not long ago, to admit you played felt like social poison. There are those that internalized this and felt victimized by the world at large and now lash out at a world who is invading a world they felt belonged to them. I’m not going to get into that, which is really a problem with almost all nerd culture in general, but that attitude from the world at large did create a large amount of people who view “normies” coming into the game negatively. To some extent, I feel for their suffering, I too was a horrifyingly nerdy high schooler playing in secret once upon a time. I feel for them, but these people are misguided. The answer is exclusion is not counter-exclusion, but inclusion. Enjoy the increasingly broad perspectives that new players can bring to your table and a brave new world where you can play this great game without feeling like you are doing something wrong. The world sucks sometimes, go be a time travelling sentient houseplant with a tragic backstory for a little while and have some drinks with good people while you do so.
So how do you actually play?
Remember when you were a little kid playing, I don’t know, Ninja Turtles on the playground? Remember how it was all well and good until there was a disagreement about whether or not something “happened”? In its simplest terms, D&D is groundwork to help establish a shared narrative among several people. Using the rules in place you can decide what “happened” while maintaining some sense of risk by there being a chance of failure and catastrophe. Everything is in service of that, and while you’ll meet people who get really hung up on “Rules As Written” the rules are really there to facilitate collaboration and keep everyone on a level playing field. There are limits so while one person wants to tell a grounded story of people gaining power through experience and hard work, there can’t be one jerk who decides that their character is secretly a god who can warp reality at will. These people play wizards, and they’ll get there around level 15.
I’m sure you’ve seen something around the internet about d20s, or “rolling a 20.” Basically when you make a character, they’ll have varying levels of talent at various things. These talents translate into small +1s or +3s or what have you that you add to a d20 roll. Based on what you’re trying to do, there will be rules for how high you have to roll. Let’s say you want your character to kick down a door. Your DM says this is a pretty flimsy door made of rotted wood so it shouldn’t be too hard. You roll your d20 and get a 9, and your character has +3 to strength based actions like kicking down doors or picking up heavy things. Well, you’ve rolled a 12 and internally your DM decided that you’d need to roll at least a 10 to kick down the door. Congrats, the door shatters and you can progress!
You’ll have dozens of these little situations per session playing, limited only by your own creativity. Sure something as mundane as kicking down a door isn’t an example of wild creative storytelling but when you factor in things like magic, fantasy races and 4–5 people all working together and you can find yourself in some really wild situations that the DM could never predict. Something as seemingly simple as an invisible indestructible wall can go from a simple defense device to a sort of magical multi-tool you’ll find yourself using in all sorts of wild situations.
If you look at a character sheet, you’ll see dozens of numbers and a ton of very specific terms that you will likely find not very welcoming. Don’t even worry about it. A good DM will help you fill out your sheet and all you’ll need to know is a vague sense of what your character is good at and an open mind to learn as things come up. You’ll be turning evil overlords into beetles and arguing with street dogs in no time, trust me.
Okay, I’m in. What do I need to get started?
One of my favorite things about D&D is how low the initial investment is to really dive into the hobby. Things like rock-climbing, skiing, cooking, these can run you several hundred dollars just to get some low quality gear the pros will look down on you for using just so you can be bad at it long enough to get okay at it. As long as you find a good group, all you really need to bring with you your first time is a good attitude and maybe some snacks or drinks. Between DNDbeyond.com and good old fashioned sharing, most D&D groups will have the books or websites they use long before you get there, and most folks will be more than willing to share dice with a new player who might not have their own yet. If you decide this hobby is for you, then definitely invest in some dice and maybe a miniature or two. It may seem stupid before you sit down and dive in but you’ll rapidly find yourself caring more than you thought about having a dope dice bag and a representative miniature.
There is, however, one thing you need to make sure you have before you get started: The right group. There are endless schools of thought as to how the game “should” be played, how new players should be treated, and what being at the table should feel like. I can’t speak for you here, you know what kind of experiences interest you. If you’re talking to a friend about joining in, be candid. Ask if there’s someone there who is going to be short with new players. Ask if they’re going to have patience as you learn a big new game. Ask what the ratio is of serious roleplay to messing around with satyr bartenders is. If you pick a group that doesn’t match your interests and personality, you’re going to have a bad time. This is not to say that either you or the group is “wrong” per se. The nature of D&D is that there is room for all these experiences. Your task is just finding the right one for you. Maybe your first group won’t be perfect, but make sure they’re people you sound like you could have fun with. As long as that’s the case, you’re in good shape.
So I’m going to play with these folks from work, how do I make a character?
I’m not going to go into detail about character building here, that’s something you should do with your DM or the friend who is bringing you into the game. That being said, I do have some things you should consider before you sit down. When it comes to your character “Class”, it’s a fairly simple flow chart. Do you want to be strong and intimidating, sneaky and fast, or a font of arcane might? Each of these ideas has several options within to get more detailed but again that’s something your DM can help you with. Maybe you want to be a rampaging barbarian, or a thoughtful cleric healing your allies. Maybe you want to be a stealthy rogue working from the shadows or a powerful wizard with their nose always stuck in some book. Your DM can help you narrow down on details, but you really just need to show up with an archetype in mind that sounds fun to you.
When it comes to the race of your character, we find ourselves in a similar situation. Most folks know the standard fantasy races: Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, Orcs etc. They have some sense of them, but what about the noble Hobgoblin? Or the massive elephant people known as the Loxodon? There’s an incredibly wide world here and I’ll tell you this: Get weird with it. It’s almost universally more fun that way. My favorite character I’ve ever played was a house cat that a druid had cast the spell awakening on to give it sapience and language. From there Lord Arthur Salmontooth became a powerful wizard and a king of his own realm of cats. There’s no official stats for that “race”, but I worked with my DM and we found a way to do it that we thought was fair and fun and it was a wild ride from start to finish.
The last thing to consider is a backstory. Honestly? Depending on the game you may not need one at all. There are plenty of people who basically just play themselves and don’t put any more thought into than that. As long as everyone at the table is having fun, that’s a perfectly valid way to play. But if you’re like me, you may want to play with people trying to get a little more into it than that. The more you put into your character, the more you’ll get out of it. From the get-go, maybe just have an idea of who this character is. Are they kind and outgoing? Are they snobbish and cruel? What about greedy and amoral? Are they a loyal subject of the ruler of the setting or are they an anti-government extremist? You don’t need a 10 page backstory, but making sure your character has opinions beyond your own can make things more fun.
Okay so that was pretty fun! What now?
Well, ask yourself a few questions! The group you picked, can you see yourself making a regular commitment to playing with them? D&D campaigns are usually weekly or bi-weekly, and not having everyone there can really fuck with the structure of things. If you can’t commit to the schedule, be open about that. Trust me you’re doing no one any favors by “doing your best” and missing every other session. If you still want to play regularly, try and find some folks who can play on a schedule more to your availability. Maybe once a month, or a more random “whenever we can make it happen” schedule. Maybe you want to get a group of new folks together for a fresh campaign that you roped that friend who introduced you to their group into agreeing to DM.
What were your favorite parts of the game? Was it puzzle solving and critical thinking? Was it harassing the bard at the tavern to play your favorite song that they’d never heard of? Was it fighting the massive spider at the end of the dungeon? Find folks who like to play like you do, and get a game together. Maybe buy some books or get an account on DNDBeyond. Pick up some dice and miniatures and a big unwieldy hex map that will somehow always be in the way. You won’t regret it.