How do you start your Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game? It is easy and free, let me show you how. All you need is friends, some weird dice, and a place to play.
Tabletop roleplaying games seem to have finally hit the mainstream after decades on the fringes of pop culture. Classes, characters, experience, and levels have become integral parts of computer games. We have enthusiastic kids in Stranger Things. Fantasy and superheroes are part of mainstream cinema. Streaming shows like Critical Role and Titansgrave showcase what this great hobby can be, and who does not love The Big Bang Theory?
Perhaps it is time to wave the geek flag yourself? You are ready to try the real thing, but not sure where to begin?
Running a Dungeons & Dragons game can be as serious and time-consuming as you want it to be. You can run long-winded dramas with D&D. You can also run fast and lighthearted games with little preparation. Let’s dig into that. This post is for people just starting out.
“You must gather your party before venturing forth.” (Baldur’s Gate, 1998)
Dungeons and Dragons is a social game where you and your friends create a collective story about a group of heroes or villains making their way through a dangerous and fantastic world.
D&D works with just two people, but you can be as many as your room, time, and attention span allows. D&D works best with between four to six people, in my opinion. Three is enough to get a nice group dynamic going, while six can be a bit crowded. However, there is no right or wrong here.
The funny thing is that when you have played a few games (often called “sessions”), you will notice people play D&D for many reasons, in addition to just hanging out with friends:
- Some enjoy portraying people other than themselves.
- Others like creating stories.
- Some enjoy the tactical challenges the game offers.
- Others enjoy exploring the options for creating characters.
- All of the above and almost any other reason you can imagine.
Playing When You’re Just Two People
Dungeons and Dragons is most commonly played in groups, and the game assumes four-five people, but it is possible to play if you are just two people, sometimes called one-on-one adventures or a duet game.
Check out Beth and Jonathan’s DnD Duet website to explore this more.
The second D&D starter set, the Dungeons and Dragons Essentials Kit (2019), includes this play mode.
Yes. Weird polyhedral dice. You need those. At least one set, but having one dice set for every two people certainly speeds up things.
Get the Rules
The basic rules for Dungeons and Dragons are free from the Wizards of the Coast’s company website.
The Basic Rules are roughly 180 pages and include everything you need to start. It has material enough to keep going for months potentially.
The rules teach you to play the game, create characters with the four most basic classes, provide monsters dozens of monsters, and some loot for rewarding the adventurers. Back in the 80s, we played for years with a similarly sized set of rules, so this is a fantastic place to start.
The rules lack depth – especially compared to previous editions of the game – but it is free, and plenty to get you started, and everyone has to start somewhere. Right?
So do not focus overly on the rules. It is a game!
Prepare Your Adventure
The basic rules, being basic, do not have any artwork or setting material. It is written for clarity like a textbook.
Clarity does not necessarily make it a fascinating read, so you need to find inspiration for setting and stories elsewhere. This spark of inspiration, the joy of creating a story with your friends, is where the real fun begins.
You need content to start your Dungeons and Dragons game, that is:
- A setting
- An adventure
- Lists of scenes and names
The Adventure Setting
You need a setting for your adventure. You need to have an idea of what is going on in your world and visualize it enough to portray it to others.
The setting can be as simple or complex as you want to, for instance:
- A small valley with a village and a cave or two.
- A world of vast empires with thousands of cities.
- Planar Metropolis with a thousand portals.
- A dark city ruled by ruthless thieves opposed by a lone tormented vigilante.
But if this is the first game, you may want to start small. Your setting needs to include where the characters meet, the locations of the events, and anything else you add for depth, scope, and flavor.
The adventure is the events of the story, for example:
- Hunt down Demogorgon in the Abyss.
- Slay a great red dragon slumbering in a dwarven ruin.
- Stall the apocalypse by thwarting evil cultists.
- Carry a magic ring to a volcano and cast it into the fires that created it.
- Save the school of wizardry from a returning dark overlord.
- Protect the village from orcs raiders.
A heavily scripted adventure means you have mapped out every scene and the likely outcome. The heavier scripting also makes it easier to run.
Alternatively, a lightly scripted adventure takes less effort to prepare and will throw surprises at you, but may also be more fun to run. A lightly scripted adventure also lets you work on your improvisation skills.
Once you get some experience, you will be able to figure out what works for you and your group.
When I say script, I mean it in the loosest sense possible, like a hook and lists of:
- Possible scenes
- Likely monsters
- Names and descriptions of potential nonplayer characters
Anything more elaborate is just a bonus.
Gather Your Party and Venture Forth
You are set to play Dungeons and Dragons once you have a setting, an adventure, and someone to play with.
The beauty of roleplaying games is that your carefully plotted adventure never survives its first meeting with the players, and the adventure will take some twists and turns.
- Perhaps bandits attack the village, and heroes need to step up and defend the villagers?
- Maybe the characters are the raiders attacking the village?
- Perhaps the king’s knights have rebelled, and the village is becoming a haven for refugees?
- The characters learn that the king is a tyrant, and the characters join the rebels?
- A dangerous ring of power has reappeared and cast it into a volcano halfway across the world is the only way to destroy it?
You decide the events if you are the person running the game. The players interact with these events, and together you create a story. That, my friends, is the heart of a Dungeons and Dragons game.
Why Play Roleplaying Games at All?
After all this, you may ask yourself, “why bother?” This is undoubtedly escapism and a waste of time!
The thing is, escapism does not quite fit cost-benefit thinking. We’re all so driven and frankly pressured that everything becomes a side-hustle. Escapism does not pay any immediate bills. However, in the long run, exhaustion and overwork will leave you incapable of being “productive.”
We all need to take time away from the capitalist grind. Dream, play and think. Gaming ties folks together, you learn who they really are. Cooperation, trust, generosity, and creativity is the core of any enduring gaming group. You can’t buy skills like that. Also, the entertainment value is great.
- Creating A Fantasy Setting
- Creating Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Areas
- Create Fantasy Maps
- Fantasy Races for Your Roleplaying Game
- Create Roleplaying Game Campaigns
Sometimes you just want to hang with your friends and roll some dice. You can jumpstart your new hobby if you are prepared to spend some money on gaming, beyond the before mentioned dice. It is not necessary, in fact, part of the fun is doing the design yourself, but buying published adventures will save you some time and even give a creative boost.
The current edition of Dungeons and Dragons is usually referred to as the fifth edition of the rules, although it could be argued there is at least a couple more. But I will not nitpick. Not today.
The Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set combine both a setting and an adventure. The set for the current edition of D&D is set in the Forgotten Realms and includes a village and a couple of small dungeons. Note that this is not the same as free Basic Rules. The two supplement each other, in my opinion.
The Wizards of the Coast have some products to continue the story beyond the starter set. The Player’s Handbook (2014) has the full rules for players, the Dungeon Master’s Guide (2014) offer tools and advice for the dungeon master, and finally, the Monster Manual (2014) has hundreds of critters to populate your game. There are many published adventures, for instance Princes of the Apocalypse (2015) is excellent and picks up right after the starter set. Finally, the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide (2015), provide more information for the Forgotten Realms, the setting of the starter set.
Check out the Art and Arcana (2018) for more about older editions of Dungeons and Dragons. It is an exciting story, and the art is gorgeous.
Cultural Impact and All That
Perhaps you are a writer, but doubt playing D&D is a worthwhile pursuit? Rolling the Dice: 5 Ways D&D and “Critical Role” Made Me a Better Storyteller, by Angela Mitchell.
The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game
The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game deserves mention, as it will show up when you explore your options. Pathfinder is an alternative to Dungeons and Dragons built on the older D&D third edition, first released in 2001. Perhaps you want to try Pathfinder instead?
The Pathfinder RPG was first released in 2009, and a second edition is to be published in 2019.
The differences between Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder RPG (2009) are beyond the scope of this post. In short, the publisher based Pathfinder an older version of the game. Pathfinder is more complicated, but also adds more options.
The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Beginner Box (2013) teaches you how to play. This attractive box set includes rules up to 5th level characters. Paizo, the publisher, has also released the bulk of the rules for free and is worth checking out.
The Pathfinder Second Edtion was published in 2019, to my great delight. They will undoubtedly want to publish an updated beginner’s box at some point.