A quick guide to D&D for newcomers, or a refresher for those returning to the tabletop fantasy RPG hobby.
Taking your first steps into the world of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, or getting back into “D&D” after an extended absence, can be intimidating — but it doesn’t have to be. These days, the game’s Fifth Edition is segmented in ways that make it easy to learn in small steps, whether you want to take up the mantle of an adventurer as a player character or create worlds of intricate fantasy as a Dungeon Master.
- Endless Quest
News to Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy roleplaying entirely? These all-ages “pick a path books” will give you a taste for the D&D world, mainly in the form of the popular and richly detailed Forgotten Realms setting and its diverse characters. The Endless Quest line was recently resurrected — be aware as you search the web that there is an older line with the same name, which may be harder to find but is no less rewarding. If these do-it-yourself game books hook you in, there’s an entire library of Forgotten Realms fantasy novels awaiting you, based on decades of D&D-informed situations — but that’s another story.
- Basic Rules
What’s better than free? You can play Dungeons & Dragons without ever investing a penny with the free-to-download PDF version of the game’s Fifth Edition Basic Rules. This will give you a chance to kick the tires before making a single purchase, and offers a taste of the rules system so you can decide whether it’s right for you (there are many other games out there of varying complexity that may be more to your liking, after all). There are pre-generated characters, ready to play, available for download as well. If you want a more general overview before jumping in, try this explanation.
- Starter Sets
If you need more guidance, or plan to run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign but have never been a Dungeon Master yourself, a boxed Starter Set will give you everything you need, including a full set of polyhedral dice, pre-filled character sheets, the Basic Rules in print form and a fully fleshed-out adventure scenario for the DM, ready to go. You can choose from the standard Starter Set, or themed versions for fans of Netflix’s Stranger Things series or Rick and Morty. There’s also a new Essentials Kit, available first at Target stores this summer before a wider release this fall, that is a new form of introduction to the D&D game with rules for a one-on-one variant. You only need one of these, but collectors may want to grab each one for the exclusive adventure booklets they contain.
- Core Rulebooks
If you want to take your Dungeons & Dragons game further than the Basic Rules and Starter Set options, you’ll need some or all of the Big Three: The Player’s Handbook, with options for character creation and races and classes not available in the free Basic Rules; The Monster Manual, with a full menagerie of creatures a DM can use to stock their deadly dungeons; and The Dungeon Master’s Guide, which is a toolkit for those creating adventures and running the game for the players. These are available in hardcover but also as digital releases only on the D&D Beyond digital platform.
- Older editions
If you’re looking for older editions of D&D, like First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, you’ll have to dig around for used books or PDF or print on demand (POD) re-releases.
D&D Beyond is completely optional, but if you would rather search databases and generate characters on a digital device than hunt through tomes and do it all on paper, this may be for you. There’s only so much you can do for free — create a limited number of characters and/or campaigns, with limited options — but there’s a subscription that unlocks more, as well as individual or bundled purchases of digital content matching hardcover book releases. (Buying a book does NOT unlock its digital version.)
By this point, you’ve probably already got polyhedral dice, but you’ll soon find there’s no such thing as too many! Just make sure you have one each of: four-sided (d4); six-sided (d6); eight-sided (d8); 10-sided (d10); 12-sided (d12); and 20-sided (d20) dice. Extras are recommended.
You’ll also want a sturdy dice bag. You can make your own (or repurpose an old whisky bag) or buy handmade products from artisans, or get an official dice kit that can include a number of different containers. There are even plush dice pouches based on iconic D&D creatures like Mind Flayers, Mimics and Owlbears. (Oh, my!)
Printable character sheets are available for free download from the official D&D website, or you can buy a fresh pack that includes a folder and different configurations.
A Dungeon Master Screen protects your confidential notes and evil plans from players’ prying eyes. Official versions are available, including some specific to adventure books, but many prefer to build their own.
Modular Dungeon Tiles and blank, erasable play mats can enhance the experience at the table, especially when your players use miniatures to represent their characters and their relative positions or marching order. (Many rolls of wrapping paper also have square grids on the back side that work well for this purpose.) DM’s often get into the miniature craze as well, and this can be as simple (using LEGO Minifigures or board game pawns) or as elaborate (custom-painting lead figurines or 3-D printing your own creations) as you want it to be. There are also some pre-painted, official miniatures available.
If you aren’t yet up to writing your own Dungeons & Dragons adventure scenario or winging it completely, there are many published adventure modules awaiting your players’ characters. There used to be many inexpensive adventures on the market, but these days official releases more often take the form of hardcover books as thick as or thicker than the Core Rulebooks. A good starter would be one of the compendiums of updated iconic adventures from older editions of the game, such as Tales From the Yawning Portal or Ghosts of Saltmarsh. There’s also a flourishing trade of third-party or independently published adventures available as PDF downloads, many of which are priced perfectly for budget-conscious DMs.
If you want more than random adventures, you can purchase or create a series of interconnected episodes that make up a campaign, with a grand arc and secondary threads, such as Tomb of Annihilation, Storm King’s Thunder, Curse of Strahd or Tyranny of Dragons, or the upcoming Descent Into Avernus. Each year, the D&D creative team publishes a different major storyline as well as a few other smaller products. Of course, third parties are also hard at work publishing compatible campaign products such as Kobold Press’ Midgard setting and recently released Courts of the Shadow Fey; even if a large adventure isn’t designed as a campaign, it can usually be expanded or incorporated into one by crafty DMs. Many a homebrew campaign has sprung from a DM’s own mind or knowledge of fantasy literature.
- Organized play
Whether you’re having trouble mustering a group of players and a DM, or just want to try a more competitive experience, organized play programs such as the Adventurers League allow you to meet up with other players at participating game and hobby stores and gaming conventions.
- Online play
A variety of virtual tools like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds exist to connect far-flung players and DMs from across the country or world, although you could roll your own setup using something like Skype or Google Hangouts.
Whether your Dungeons & Dragons gaming group meets in person or dials in from different locations, if think you’ve got something special and want to share it with the world, you can join the legions of tabletop gamers streaming their sessions to a worldwide audience. If you’re not quite ready for that, watching some popular streamers like Critical Role or Acquisitions Incorporated can give you a feel for how a game session can flow (and demonstrate how D&D streaming can lead to a spin-off media empire).
If you’re proud of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure you’ve written (or a character class, race, magic item or spell you’ve designed) and want to share it with the world, you can become a publisher yourself and sell it on the official Dungeon Masters Guild e-commerce website.
- Next steps
This obviously isn’t a comprehensive guide to Dungeons & Dragons — that would be impossible! But we at Nerdvana hope you’ve found it helpful in lighting your way. The links you’ll find here may lead you to an affiliate site where, if you make a purchase, a small commission will help us keep this site running.
Dungeons & Dragons promotional images from Wizards of the Coast; dice and miniatures images licensed from Adobe Stock