Dungeons & Dragons Beginner's Guide Part 2: How to play D&D
New to dungeons & Dragons and don't know how to play? Learn the basic rules.
At its heart, Dungeons & Dragons focus on storytelling. Players start by creating or using pre-generated characters, representing them in the adventure. Then, with the Dungeon Master, they build a story through collective creativity and some randomness through dice rolls. This story unfolds according to a basic pattern: description, decision, and result.
In the end, unlike board games or video games, there are no winners or losers. Instead, good times around the table make everyone a winner, even if the group doesn't succeed. It is all about experiencing the story and collaboration.
To play Dungeons & Dragons, you need the following:
- 1+ Player
- 1 DM
- A couple of character sheets
- At least a set of polyhedral dice
- Space + Table and chairs
- The basic rules or Player's handbook for the players and DM
- An adventure book or a simple encounter for the DM
How is a game played?
In D&D, an adventure occurs in the form of a series of encounters comparable to movie scenes. Each encounter needs to be resolved by the players' actions to move the story forward.
Those encounters follow three main steps :
(1) Scene setup: The Dungeon Master describes the environment.
First, the DM tells players where their characters are and what's around them. The goal is to present players with a scope of options.
«After a day of walking, you finally arrived at your destination, the castle of Lord Dracula. It's almost dark and slightly cold. You hear nothing but dead silence. In front of you lies the entrance of the castle. There is water all around. And the bridge is closed.»
(2) Players' decision: The players describe what they want to do.
Then, knowing the situation, the players decide on their actions and tell the Dungeon Master.
One player can speak for the whole party «Ok, we walk around the castle from the east and try to find another entrance». Or each player can decide on separate actions.
For example, one strong character might want to swim and climb the wall to sneak into the castle and find a way to open the bridge while others wait at the entrance.
Outside combat, there are no turns, but the DM listens to every player and decides how to resolve those actions.
Resolving actions can be as easy as difficult for the players. In our example, if the bridge were open, the players could ask to cross the bridge altogether, and the DM might say ok and describe what lies at the entrance. But in our case, the bridge is close, and swimming and climbing the wall require strength and constitution. So the DM might ask for a die roll from the player to determine the result of the action.
(3) Results: The DM narrates the results of the characters' actions.
Finally, depending on the difficulty and results of the rolls, the DM describes the outcome of the characters' actions.
This outcome often leads to another decision point, which brings the game flow back to step 1.
Note the action is more structured in combat, and players take turns. But most of the time, the gameplay is fluid and flexible, adapting to the circumstances of the adventure.
How long does the D&D game last?
A session usually takes 2 to 4 hours on average. Still, it can be 1 hour for a short introduction or 6 to 8 hours for a more challenging adventure.
Furthermore, a campaign is a succession of sessions. Thus a game can last dozens or even hundreds of hours. Some group play for years.
What are the main activities players can do in a game?
Every adventure in Dungeons & Dragons relies on three main activities: exploration, social interaction, and combat. They are called the three Pillars of D&D Adventures.
This activity represents the characters' movements in the world and their interaction with objects and situations.
That might involve the characters spending days traveling to a place in their world or an hour making their way to find the entrance of a dungeon. It could also mean one character looking at an object to identify it or operating a mechanism to open a door, for example.
This activity represents the characters talking to someone or something else.
It usually means interrogating an NPC to get information or persuade someone to do something.
It can also mean interacting non-verbally, like discreetly giving a crucial object to an NPC to succeed in a quest.
This activity represents characters trying to defeat their opponents.
In this context, characters take turns, use their weapons or spells, and move to take specific positions. They can kill, take captives, or run away from their enemies. They can also interact with the environment and objects, like opening doors or recovering an artifact. And eventually, interact with allies or enemies, like grappling a creature or helping an ally unconscious on the floor.
What dice system does D&D use?
Called the d20 system, the game uses polyhedral dice with different sides, symbolized in the rules by the letter d, followed by the number of sides: d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20. So, for example, a d6 is a six-sided die (the classic cube die you find in many games).
In the case of the d100, called percentile dice, you generate a number between 1 and 100 by rolling two different ten-sided dice. One die gives the tens digit, and the other provides the one's digit. For example, if you roll an 8 and a 3, the number rolled is 83. Two 0s means 100.
Some ten-sided dice are numbered in tens (00, 10, 20, and so on), making it easier to distinguish the tens digit from the ones digit. In this case, a roll of 80 and 3 is 83, and 00 and 0 is 100.
When and how to use dice?
When needed, the rules tell you how many dice to roll, which type, and the modifiers to add. For example, "2d6 + 4" means you roll two six-sided dice, add them together, and add 4 to the total.
Sometimes, we must roll a "1d3" or a "1d2." To simulate a 1d3 roll, roll a d6 and divide the result by 2 (round up). For a 1d2, roll any die and assign 1 or 2 to the result depending on whether it was odd or even. Alternatively, if the number rolled is more than half the number of sides on the die, it's a 2, and less than half is a 1.
Finally, D&D relies on rolls of a d20 (20-sided die) to determine success or failure. Ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws are the main d20 rolls, forming the core gameplay. The other dice determine the damage and healing points or help pick an item in a random table.
What are ability scores?
Six ability scores define every characters and monsters abilities in D&D.
Strength represents the physical power of a character.
The higher a character's strength, the harder it can hit. Or make athletic moves like jumping, climbing, swimming, lifting, pushing, and pulling heavy objects.
This ability is essential for barbarians, fighters, and paladins.
Dexterity represents the character's agility, reflexes, and balance.
The higher a character's dexterity, the better it can make acrobatic moves like moving into a tricky environment, doing stunts, dodging attacks, and being stealthy. It also reflects the capacity to be meticulous, like picking locks, disabling traps, or crafting small objects.
This ability is essential for monks, rangers, and rogues.
Constitution represents the character's endurance (Health, stamina, and vital force).
The higher a character's constitution, the better it can hold its breath, endure a physical activity longer, survive without food and water, or even sleep.
This ability is essential for every class but more necessary for characters facing melee combat.
Intelligence represents the character's logic, education, memory, or deductive reasoning.
The higher a character's intelligence, the more it can recall information about arcana (spells, magic items, etc.), history, nature, or religion. It also makes it better at investigating, like making a deduction based on clues, determining how an object works, or estimating its value and properties.
This ability is essential for wizards.
Wisdom represents the character's perceptiveness and intuition. How aware you are of what's around you and the keenness of your senses.
The higher a character's Wisdom, the more it can visually notice or hear something or someone in the environment and detect its presence. It also makes it better at finding hidden spots and objects, reading body language, finding your way in a big city or middle of nature, and diagnosing injuries or illnesses.
This ability is essential for clerics and druids.
Wisdom represents the character's confidence, eloquence, and leadership.
The higher a character's charisma, the more it can influence someone or a group. It also makes it better at negotiating, lying, intimidating, and entertaining people with performance.
This ability is essential for bards, sorcerers, and warlocks.
How many points can we have for an ability score?
Typically scores range from 3 to 18, and a score of 10 or 11 is the normal human average. Of course, characters and monsters usually have higher-than-average scores.
A score of 18 is the highest that a person usually reaches. However, characters can have scores as high as 20, and monsters and divine beings can have scores as high as 30.
What is an ability modifier?
Ability scores and modifiers are the basis of every d20 roll, and the modifier acts as a bonus.
The higher the score, the more the character has extra points to add on a d20 roll. To simplify, the more your character is good in ability, the more chance it has to succeed in a task involving this ability.
How to determine an ability modifier?
Each ability score has a modifier. It derived from its value and ranged from -5 (score of 1) to +10 (score of 30).
When to use the ability modifier?
Use the ability modifier in every roll involving the related ability.
What are proficiencies?
According to your character's race, class, or background, your character can be proficient with a weapon, saving throw, skill, or tool.
A bonus represents this proficiency which can be used on ability checks, saving throws and attack rolls.
Like an ability modifier, the more your character is proficient in a discipline, the more chance it has to succeed in a task involving this discipline.
How to determine the proficiency bonus?
The character's level determined the bonus. A 1st-level fighter has a +2 proficiency bonus, for example.
When to use the proficiency bonus?
Proficiency bonus can be added on ability checks, saving throws, and attack rolls.
A fighter, for example, is proficient with martial melee weapons, meaning that for every attack roll you make with a longsword, you can add +2 as a bonus.
Proficiency bonuses don't stack. If by some circumstances, two rules tell you to add your proficiency bonus, then you add it only once.
Occasionally, an effect or ability can tell you to multiply or divide your proficiency bonus.
What are skills?
Each ability covers a broad range of capabilities, including skills in which a character can be proficient.
A skill represents a specific aspect of an ability score, and an individual's proficiency in a skill demonstrates a focus on that aspect.
The skill of stealth is associated with dexterity, for example. Therefore, if your character tries to stay hidden from someone and is proficient in stealth, it has a better chance of succeeding at a dexterity check. In this case, it is called a stealth check.
The following list shows the skills related to each ability score:
Dexterity: Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, Stealth
Intelligence: Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature, Religion
Wisdom: Animal Handling, Insight, Medicine, Perception, Survival, Charisma: Deception, Intimidation, Performance, Persuasion
Note that the constitution is the only ability score that doesn't have skills associated.
How to determine skill bonuses?
Like proficiency bonuses, a character's race, class, or background determines skill proficiencies.
So, to determine your skill bonus, you will add your proficiency bonus to the related ability modifier. This way, if your 1st-level character is proficient in stealth and its dexterity modifier is +3, its stealth bonus is +5.
What is a difficulty class?
Before trying to accomplish any task during the game and testing your character's abilities with an ability check or saving throw, the DM has to determine the task's difficulty. It is called the difficulty class, or DC.
How to evaluate a difficulty class?
In the d20 system, the DC ranged from 5 to 30. Where 5 is an effortless task, and 30 is nearly impossible. And average tasks often vary between 10, 12, or 15.
To better understand the influence of your character's abilities on a task, if you have 0 as a modifier and the DC is 10, you have a 50% chance to succeed. If you have +1, you now have a 55% chance to succeed at a DC10.
What is an ability check?
An ability check tests a character's or monster's ability to overcome a challenge.
Thus, an ability check is when it attempts an action other than an attack with a chance of failure. Therefore, the dice determine the results.
How to make an Ability Check?
For every ability check, the DM decides which of the six abilities is relevant to the task.
The DM decides the difficulty of the task, represented by a Difficulty Class. Remember, the more complex a task, the higher its DC.
The player rolls a d20 and adds the relevant ability modifier, bonuses, and penalties.
The DM compares the total to the DC. Suppose the total equals or exceeds the DC. Then, the ability check is a success, and the character or monster overcomes the challenge. Otherwise, it's a failure, which means the character or monster makes no progress toward the objective or makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.
What is a skill check?
Sometimes, the DM might ask for an ability check using a specific skill, for example, "Make a Wisdom (Perception) check." At other times, a player might ask the DM if proficiency in a particular skill applies to a check.
In either case, proficiency in a skill means a player can add their proficiency bonus to ability checks that involve that skill.
Without proficiency in the skill, the individual makes a standard ability check.
For example, if a character attempts to climb a dangerous cliff, the DM might ask for a Strength (Athletics) check. The character's proficiency bonus is added to the strength check if the character is proficient in Athletics. If the character lacks that proficiency, they make a Strength check.
What is a passive check?
A passive check is an ability check that doesn't involve rolling dice.
It represents the average result for doing a task repeatedly, such as searching for a hidden object or monster.
To determine a character's total for a passive check, you use 10 + all modifiers that generally apply to the check.
For example, suppose a 1st-level character has a Wisdom of 15, +2 Modifier, and proficiency in Perception (another +2 bonus). In that case, they have a passive Wisdom (Perception) score of 14.
So if a monster is hiding, the DM compares the monster's Stealth Check with the character's Passive Wisdom (Perception). If the monster's Stealth Check is higher than the character's passive Wisdom, the monster stays hiding. On the opposite, the character can see the monster.
What is a contest?
Sometimes characters and monsters try to do the same thing.
For example, they try to grab a precious item on the floor. Or when one is trying to open a door when the other tries to keep it closed.
This situation is a contest, and only one can succeed.
Therefore, both participants make ability checks and apply their bonuses and penalties to perform such an action. But instead of comparing the results to a DC, they compare the result of their ability checks.
The higher result wins the contest, and they either succeed at the action or prevent the other from succeeding.
In case of a tie, the situation remains the same as before the contest. Thus, in our examples, no one grabs the item, and the door stays closed.
What is a Saving Throw?
A saving throw, also called a save, represents an attempt to resist a spell, a trap, a poison, a disease, or similar threats.
During the game, you don't decide to make a saving throw. But because your character or monster is at risk, you are forced to make one.
How to make a Saving Throw?
Roll a d20 and add the appropriate ability modifier.
For example, you use your Dexterity modifier for a Dexterity saving throw.
What influence a Saving Throw?
A situational bonus or penalty can modify a saving throw.
Also, each class gives proficiency in at least two saving throws. This proficiency lets a character add their proficiency bonus to saving throws made using a particular ability score. The wizard, for example, is proficient in Intelligence saves and can add its proficiency bonus on Intelligence saves.
Some monsters have saving throw proficiencies as well.
How to determine the difficulty of a Saving Throw?
The effect that causes the saving throw determines The Difficulty Class. For example, the caster's spellcasting ability and proficiency bonus determine the difficulty of a saving throw caused by a spell.
What are the effects of a Saving Throw?
The effect which caused the save details the result of a successful or failed saving throw. Usually, a successful save means that a character suffers no harm or reduced damage. And a fail save means that a character suffers injury or penalties from a condition.
Advantage and Disadvantage
What are advantage and disadvantage?
Sometimes a unique situation, ability, or spell can bring an advantage or disadvantage on an ability check, attack roll, or saving throw.
Advantage reflects the favorable circumstances of a character's action, while disadvantage reflects the opposite.
For example, helping another character as an action can provide an advantage on their next ability check or an attack roll. In contrast, being blinded by an enemy give you a disadvantage on your next attack roll, and any attack roll against the character has an advantage.
How can I gain an advantage or disadvantage?
You usually gain an advantage or disadvantage through special abilities, actions, or spells. Inspiration can also give a character advantage. The DM can also decide that circumstances influence a roll in one direction or the other and grant advantage or impose a disadvantage as a result.
What to do when advantage or disadvantage?
When you have either an advantage or a disadvantage, you roll a second d20 when you make any ability check, attack roll, or saving throw.
Use the higher of the two rolls if you have an advantage, and use the lower roll if you have a disadvantage.
For example, if you rolled a 17 and a 5, and you have an advantage, then use the 17. If you had a disadvantage, you would use the 5.
Do advantage and disadvantage can stack?
Suppose multiple situations affect a roll. Each one grants an advantage or imposes a disadvantage on it. In that case, you don't roll more than one additional d20.
What to do when we have both advantage and disadvantage?
Suppose circumstances cause a roll to have both an advantage and disadvantage. Then you consider having neither of them, and you roll one d20 only.
It is also true if multiple circumstances impose disadvantages and only one grant advantage or vice versa.
How to help another character?
Sometimes two or more characters can team up to perform a task.
The character leading the effort, or the one with the highest ability modifier, can make an ability check with advantage, reflecting the help provided by the other characters. In combat, this requires help action.
A character can only provide help if the task is one they could attempt alone. For example, opening a lock requires proficiency with thieves' tools. Hence, a character who lacks that proficiency can't help another character in that task.
Moreover, a character can only help when two or more characters working together would be productive. Some tasks, such as threading a needle, are no easier with help.
What is a group check?
When several characters try to accomplish something as a group, the DM might ask for a group ability check. In such a situation, the characters who are skilled at a particular task help cover those who aren't.
How to make a group check?
To make a group ability check, everyone in the group makes the ability check. If at least half the group succeeds, the whole group succeeds. Otherwise, the group fails.
Group checks only come up sometimes, and they're most useful when all the characters succeed or fail as a group.
For example, when adventurers are navigating a swamp, the DM might call for a group Wisdom (Survival) check to see if the characters can avoid the natural hazards of the environment. If at least half the group succeeds, the successful characters can guide their companions out of danger. Otherwise, the group stumbles into one of these hazards.
The starter set is a great way to start with a small budget. It is a ready-to-play set.
- The basic rules (without the character creation chapter)
- Pre-generated characters
- A set of 6 polyhedral dice
- And a short adventure created for new dungeon masters
The essential kit is another excellent way to start with a small budget. It is also a ready-to-play set, but this one includes the character creation guide.
- The basic rules, plus the character creation guide and sidekick rules
- Blank character sheets
- A set of 11 polyhedral dice
- Reference cards rules and magic items
- A DM screen
- And a short adventure for new dungeon masters
If you want to go deeper into the rules or already start playing and want to learn more simply.
In that case, in the player's handbook, you can find all the rules needed to create, level up, and start adventuring with your D&D characters.
You can always download the basic rules in pdf if you want to learn more without investing much. Or also read it directly on D&D Beyond.
You may watch this series of videos from Wizards of the Coast about the Starter Set.
You may also watch this series of videos from Critical Role Handbook Helper.