How to Play Dungeons and Dragons

If you’re curious about collaborative storytelling/role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons but don’t know where to start, this is the post for you. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) and similar systems don’t have to be overwhelming! In this post I will break down how to start playing in simple, bite-sized steps.

Who am I to talk?

I began playing Dungeons and Dragons (3.5) in 2009. Since then, I have run weekly games with a rotating cast of good friends. I’ve created worlds, and have a stack of notebooks, props, spreadsheets, and even a wiki to help my players feel immersed. While I don’t pretend to be perfect at the game, I certainly have oodles of experience to draw from. I have played in and run a large variety of systems, including:

  • Dungeons and Dragons
  • Pathfinder
  • Dungeon World
  • The Sprawl
  • Lancer
  • Masks
  • Blades in the Dark
  • … and more!

I also run a TikTok where I build terrain for my games, and write fantasy novels to help enhance my storytelling abilities.

What do you need to start playing Dungeons and Dragons?

For any TTRPG system, including D&D, there are a few essentials that every game needs:

A Space – Somewhere to play! This can be digital using platforms like Roll20 or Foundry, or physical places to play in person. Aim to have enough space for 3-7 people (including you) and a surface to write on (a dining table is best, but I’ve seen coffee tables, TV trays, and clipboards work.) Try to choose places where wind and weather won’t impact play. If possible, try for somewhere semi-private, as some players can be self-conscious about roleplaying in front of strangers or in public.

Dice on character sheet

A rule book – Almost all TTRPG gaming systems will have a rulebook or two. While you don’t have to obey every rule and know every detail, they are important as a reference. Most rulebooks will also have pointers for new players on how to play, and contain information on building characters and worlds to play in. A rulebook is especially useful if players disagree about how something works – you can always fall back on it.

A Game Master (GM) – Also called Dungeon Masters, Referees, Masters of Ceremony, and Snack Repositories, GMs are vital to game play. The Game Master creates the scenario for the game, acts as the non-player characters (NPCs), and makes critical decisions for the group. They put in time outside of the game to ensure everyone else has a good time. It’s not an easy job! But it is a rewarding one when things go well.

PS: If you are considering being a GM for a group, but have no gaming experience, I salute you! I will write a post just for you – but today we’re going to focus on the players.

Dice – The clicky-clacky math rocks are important for most TTRPG games. They come in a variety or shapes, sizes, and colours to suit your style, and you may find it hard to stop at just one set! They are generally sold in sets, though different systems may need different quantities of each.

Dice add an element of chance to Dungeons and Dragons, ensuring that no one knows quite how any action might go!

Character Sheets – In the game, you will play as another person. This person will be represented on your character sheet. Most systems have character sheets available online that you can print out at home, school, or the local library. If you’re using programs like Roll20 to play, digital sheets are often available through those platforms.

Pencils – Never pens. Mechanical pencils work best in my experience as they have fine points for writing in small spaces. Make sure they have erasers and don’t go for expensive ones – if your friends are like mine, they’ll break them on contact.

Accessories – 100% optional, but many players like to play with a variety of gaming accessories like dice towers, dice jails, dice trays, dice guardians, etc. You can find lots of great options at curationsbyKira, or other etsy creators.

Gaming accessories

People! – You can probably find a way to play D&D alone (Baldur’s Gate 2, anyone?) but it’s more fun with friends! Most systems are designed for 4 players but can have more or less as needed. I prefer groups of 5 players so we can still play if one or two people can’t make it. Much more than that and it becomes unwieldy.

You may not have a lot of people who want to play at first (my condolences) but if you know enough people to be picky, here are my recommendations for choosing a group with excellent chemistry.

  • People who like each other already.
  • Avoid people with a temper.
  • Approach highly competitive people with caution.
  • People who took drama in school are top tier.
  • Lean towards people who listen well to others and don’t interrupt or try to override what their friends or teammates say.
  • Don’t count out the quiet, anxious people. Once you get them comfortable, they are often the best players out there.

If you can, have the people you’re thinking of inviting over for another collaborative activity and see how they interact. Board games where you have to work together are great, as are ‘one shots’ or single session adventures in your chosen RPG system.

I cannot stress this enough: Player chemistry makes or breaks a campaign. It just takes one obnoxious twat poor fit to ruin everyone’s fun.

How to Prepare to Play Dungeons and Dragons

Unless you’re the Game Master, you probably don’t need to do anything. Show up with a pencil and some dice and let your GM guide you through the process. If you want to make a character in advance, ask your GM first. Most GMs prefer to build characters with everyone together, to keep all players on the same page and inline with the world they’ve built.

If you really want something to do before your first session, however, here are some ideas:

  • Buy or make snacks (always a good plan)
  • Read/skim the rulebook, especially areas that you may need for your character
  • Listen to podcasts of games in the same system (eg: Critical Roll, Dungeons and Daddies, etc) This helps you to familiarize yourself with the rules and flow of gameplay.
  • Ask your GM questions. Learn about the setting and premise of the upcoming campaign.
  • IF your GM says you can build your character in advance, AND you feel you know their setting well enough, try writing some fan-fiction. It can be a really great way to get in the character’s head.

Playing the Game

Generally speaking, here’s how an evening of D&D or similar games tends to go:

  1. Arrival – players trickle in with various levels of punctuality.
  2. Segue – players and GM catch up, open snacks, pour drinks, and generally settle in.
  3. Recap – The GM will remind you what happened in the previous session and set the scene for this session.
  4. The opening question – the GM will usually end the recap by prompting the players to action.
  5. Session – the GM leads the players through the story they’ve prepared, adapting it as needed to the actions of the characters.
  6. Hijinx
  7. End of Session – Depending on what game system you’re playing, there may be a process at the end of the session. You might be awarded points towards leveling up your character or answer questions about the session. Your GM should guide you through this.

For the most part, your GM will be your guide and give you prompts, but here are a few tips become their favourite player:

  • Pay attention. Or at least find a subtle way of not paying attention. Staring at your phone and asking ‘what’s happening?’ every time your turn comes around is a bad look. If you’re struggling to keep focused, find something physical to do with your hands that allows you to listen. Drawing, knitting, etc are all things that can help… just clear it with your GM first.
  • Be a team player. This is a collaborative team game. If your character won’t interact with the other characters and is constantly going off on their own… build a different character. They can be an ass but make them an involved ass. (Maybe with a heart of gold?)
  • Question the GM, then accept their answer. The GM won’t always be right, and you won’t always like their rulings, but don’t fight them. If you’re concerned that a rule isn’t being followed, find it in the book and show them. If they say no after that, listen to them. Their word is law. (A good GM won’t abuse that power.)
  • Communicate. Tell them what you liked about each session. Ask them questions between sessions. Tell your GM (nicely) if you aren’t enjoying a campaign. Depending on what’s bothering you, they can often make tweaks to accommodate. They want you to enjoy yourself!
  • Don’t run from the plot. The GM put a lot of work into the story and encounters. Within reason, try to follow their vision. You don’t need to let them lead you around be the nose, but you also don’t need to ignore the obvious heroic problem in order to rob a bank and run off to Bermuda.
  • Lean into your character. If you have the confidence to do it, a well-played character makes the game more fun for everyone. Make choices your character would make, put on an accent, use body language to help with communication, give your character a hobby – whatever makes them more real to you.

Have Questions?

If you have any questions about the above, or about playing D&D in general, let me know in the comments. I’ll do my best to answer! This post is written for people getting ready to be players in a D&D game, but there is a lot to say about being a DM too! That will come soon and I’ll link it here.

Happy gaming and good luck!

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