Getting Started With Dungeons & Dragons
Dungeons & Dragons is more popular today than ever. Between the success of things like the Critical Role web series and D&D’s prominent appearance in the Netflix show Stranger Things, it seems like the 50-year-old game has at last gone mainstream.
Even with D&D seemingly everywhere, it can be hard to know where and how to get started actually playing the game, especially if you’ve never played a tabletop RPG before. If you’re someone who would love to try Dungeons & Dragons, but you’re not sure how to do that, this article is for you.
A Quick Note on “Editions”
Throughout this article, I recommend books specifically for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. The differences between the various versions of D&D is far too wide a topic to cover here. The good news is, you don’t have to worry about it! 5th Edition is the current and most widely-supported version of D&D. If you’re brand new, that’s the one you want. And, if you’re coming back to D&D after not playing since an older edition, you’ll find a lot to like with 5th edition. For more on the history of different versions of D&D, you can read my series of articles on that very topic starting here.
PART ONE: THE ESSENTIALS
The first thing you’re going to need before you start playing is a set of D&D rules. Wizards of the Coast, D&D’s publisher, offers a few different products that include the rules for how to play the game. Here’s a quick summary of each of them, along with advice on which you should get depending on your situation.
Starter Set: Dragons of Stormwreck Isle: Assuming you’re a brand-new player who is planning on running a D&D game for a bunch of (equally new) friends and colleagues, you’ll probably want to begin with this set. It comes in a box, like a board game, and contains an abridged version of the rules, a set of dice, a ready-made adventure to get you started, and a set of polyhedral game dice. In other words, everything you need to get started with D&D.
I strongly recommend the Starter Set, especially if you’re very new to D&D. There’s enough inside this box for multiple games of D&D. The adventure book and ready-to-play characters means you can get started playing with minimal effort. Once you’ve played through the included adventure, you’ll be ready to move on to the Core Rulebooks and a published adventure of your choice.
Player’s Handbook: If you’re a new D&D player who has access to a group of experienced players willing to teach you how to play D&D (lucky you!), you should start with a Player’s Handbook. This book contains all the rules you need to play D&D (as opposed to running the game as a Dungeon Master). With just this single book, you can create characters, run combat, and understand character abilities like spellcasting.
You can think of the Player’s Handbook as the main rulebook for Dungeons & Dragons. If you’re brand new, this 320-page hardcover can seem a bit daunting. Don’t let that discourage you! The Player’s Handbook is a reference guide, not a book you have to read from front to back all at once. Once you’ve played a few sessions, you’ll have the basics of D&D down and you’ll find the book far more manageable.
The Core Rules: Once you’ve mastered the basics offered in the Starter Set, or you’ve experienced D&D as a player and are ready to run some games of your own, you’ll want to pick up the books that make up the Core Rules of D&D.
The Core Rules consist of three main books: The Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual. You can also purchase these as a cool giftset with foil covers. We’ve already discussed the Player’s Handbook. Let’s take a brief look at the other two books that make up the rest of the Core Rules.
Dungeon Master’s Guide: While the Player’s Handbook contains the main rules of the game, the Dungeon Master’s Guide is full of advice for how to run a D&D game as a Dungeon Master (or DM). It covers world-building, adventure creation, and optional rules. The Dungeon Master’s Guide also contains the rules for magic items. If you’re going to be running D&D, as opposed to experiencing it as a player, you’ll want this book.
Monster Manual: As its name suggests, this is a book full of monsters. Here you’ll find the stats for a variety of potential adversaries (and possible allies) for your players. Whether you’re planning to run one of the many published D&D adventures or make up your own adventures, you’ll need a Monster Manual in order to understand the game stats of things like orcs, mindflayers, dragons, and more.
Whether you’re grabbing a Starter Set, a Player’s Handbook, or a full set of Core Rules books, you’re also going to need dice to play D&D. The game uses a special set of multi-sided dice, called polyhedral dice. These dice range in size and shape from the 4-sided d4 all the way up to the more well-known twenty-sided d20. There are 7 dice in a typical poly set: d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d%, and d20.
Note that the Starter Set, mentioned above, comes with one set of poly dice, but you’ll probably want at least two sets: one for the DM and one set for the players. Ideally, you’ll want each player to have their own individual set of dice, but that’s not strictly necessary when you’re first getting started.
There are a lot of dice and dice sets available for purchase. Chessex makes some great affordable starter sets in a variety of colors. You might also check out dice from Role 4 Initiative. There are even luxury dice made of exotic materials like copper or stone, or crafted dice that are themselves works of art. Over the years, dice collecting has grown into its own hobby outside of roleplaying games. You might find that expanding your collection of dice is a fun way to engage the RPG hobby even when you aren’t playing.
If you’re just getting started, I recommend one of the following:
Chessex Poly Sets: Pick a color you like and you’re set. As long as it’s a full polyhedral set, it’ll work fine for D&D.
Role 4 Initiative Polyhedral Sets: These dice are a bit larger and chonkier than Chessex dice, for better heft and visibility. They also use a d4 that has a slightly different shape than the more traditional pyramid style.
Xeno Games Dice: If you’re on a budget, these dice are my go-to recommendation. While not as pretty as some other company’s dice, you can get a poly set for under $5.
Beyond the rulebooks, you can’t play D&D without some kind of adventure. While it’s perfectly viable (maybe even preferable) to design your own epic adventures for your players, that takes some time and experience. It’s far easier to run something that’s already been written for you by professional game designers.
Wizards of the Coast, D&D’s publisher, offers a full line of ready-made adventures, each published as a hardcover book. These adventures provide great value for you as a DM, as they can provide months and months of gameplay. They vary in plot and theme, but each offers an extended plotline that unfolds over a series of smaller sessions, much like a season (or multiple seasons) of a TV show.
So, which adventure should you start with? Whichever one most interests you! I’ll make three brief recommendations. If you’d prefer, you can check out the full line of these adventures here. Just make sure to read the description to see what levels the adventure is written for. Some adventures assume you’re starting with characters above 1st level, which probably won’t work for you if you’re starting a brand-new game.
Phandelver and Below – The Shattered Obelisk: This adventure expands on a very popular adventure that appeared in the first version of the 5e D&D Starter Set. The investigation of a lost mine full of typical D&D monsters eventually unearths an otherworldly threat and a much larger plot. Takes characters from 1st to 12th level.
Icewind Dale – Rime of the Frostmaiden: A winter-themed adventure set in a famous region of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Does a nice job of offering a fairly typical D&D experience that’s nicely tied to the backstory of the setting. Takes characters from 1st to 12th level.
Curse of Strahd: I can’t write about 5E modules without mentioning Curse of Strahd, which is arguably the most popular of these adventures. It’s a great adventure that puts the characters in a gothic-horror setting and pits them against a Count Dracula-inspired villain named Strahd Von Zarovich.
One caveat, though, is that this might not be the easiest adventure for brand-new DMs and players. For one thing, the original version (linked here) is written for 3rd level characters. That means you’ll want to run some other adventures first to get your characters up to the appropriate level. It’s also steeped in its gothic horror theme, so if that doesn’t appeal to you, then consider a different adventure.
All that said, if you like the dark theme and are willing to put in a little extra work, it’s a popular adventure for a reason.
PART TWO: THE EXTRAS
Miniatures are small (usually 28mm) plastic or metal figurines that represent the players, monsters, and other characters in a D&D game. They aren’t strictly necessary to play. In fact, you can get by your whole D&D career without using minis at all. However, many players enjoy the added level of detail and immersion they can add, particularly during combat.
Collecting and painting miniatures is a deep and rewarding hobby into itself, so there is a lot out there to choose from in terms of minis, paint, and other supplies. But you don’t have to feel intimidated. If you’re just looking to add a few minis to help you figure out where everyone’s character is standing during combat, there’s nothing wrong with using pre-painted or even unpainted miniatures. My advice is to shop around and grab the miniatures that work for you and your group. Consider starting with any of the following:
Official D&D Miniatures: You can find a variety of official Dungeons & Dragons minis. These will generally match the look of the different classes, races, and monsters from D&D.
D&D Prepaints: The Icons of the Realms line from WizKids (makers of the official D&D minis) are quality, prepainted miniatures for D&D. These mins don’t look half-bad, they require zero painting, and they cover a wide variety of iconic D&D races and classes.
Reaper Miniatures: Don’t think you have to stick with the official miniatures. Reaper has been making Dungeons & Dragons compatible miniatures longer than 5th Edition has been in print. Particularly check out their bones line for some great, affordable options.
If you’re using miniatures, you’ll probably want a battle mat of some kind. Battle mats are game mats, often made of vinyl, that you can write on with wet erase markers. Most feature a grid to aid with measuring and moving. The idea is that you draw the dungeon or battlefield when your players enter combat, helping to visualize the scene as it plays out. A battle mat helps the players and DM better understanding things like spell ranges, positioning, and terrain.
Chessex Battle Mat: I recommend this product from Chessex as the de facto standard D&D mat. It has a square grid on one side and a hexagonal grid on the other. You’ll want to get a set of wet erase markers. Note that you should not use dry erase markers on this mat, as they can permanently stain it.
Paizo Flip-Mat: For a less expensive but equally viable option, try this Flip Mat from Paizo. It’s a laminated sheet of paper that folds up, kind of like a board game board (but much flatter and lighter). Unlike the Chessex mat, you can use wet erase or dry erase markers on this mat.
Dry Erase Dungeon Tiles: Here’s an option that’s a little outside-the-box. These are laminated tiles from Role 4 Initiative that connect together like puzzle pieces in a modular fashion. You can draw a dungeon beforehand and add the pieces as your players explore, creating a kind of fog-of-war effect.
The Core Rules provide enough content for years of play. However, you might eventually want to expand beyond those books and add some supplemental rules to your game. I don’t recommend worrying about these books if you’re just starting out. However, it can be useful to at least understand what these other books offer, if only so you don’t feel overwhelmed by the options! Here’s a quick summary of a few of Dungeons & Dragons’ supplemental rulebooks.
Mordenkainen Presents Monsters of the Multiverse: This book has a confusingly similar title to the other Mordenkainen book. It partially replaces Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, but offers content for players (new and revised races) as well as DMs (revisions to monsters). Also available as part of this set.
There’s more (a lot more). Dungeons & Dragons has decades of history and play behind it, but you don’t have to digest it all at once! If you’re just starting out, grab a Starter Set and a Player’s Handbook, gather some friends, and just play Dungeons & Dragons.
The only wrong way to get started is to never try!