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How to Play Dungeons & Dragons

by Mike on 10 February 2020

Updated 11 March 2023

This article is for new players who want to learn about playing and running Dungeons & Dragons games. It focuses particularly on the player who will be running the game, known as the "dungeon master" or DM.

If you are a veteran to D&D, send this article to your friends interested in becoming a DM and in running games themselves.

This article covers several topics. Feel free to skip over the parts that don't serve you and focus on those that do.

What is D&D?

The D&D Basic Rules are the best first place to learn about D&D. This free, legal, and official PDF has enough material in it to tell you how to play the game and includes plenty of material to play D&D for a long time.

If you don't know anything about D&D, read the first few pages of the D&D Basic Rules to learn what you need to know about playing the game.

Watch What D&D Looks Like

If you want to get a better idea what it looks like to play D&D, the following videos give you a good idea what D&D actually looks like in play. They range in production quality, but at their core, this is what D&D looks like.

Your First D&D Products

If you're ready to jump into D&D and start DMing, start with the new 2022 D&D Starter Set or the D&D Essentials Kit. Both of these inexpensive boxed sets include everything you need to play the game including rules, maps, adventures, and dice. The new D&D Starter Set includes the adventure Dragons of Stormwreck Isle and a set of pre-generated characters.

The D&D Essentials Kit includes the adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak and rules for making your own characters with five classes, four races, and enough information to reach 6th level.

The previous D&D Starter Set and the included adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver is also an excellent starting adventure.

Running the adventures from the Starter Set or Essentials Kit is the best way to get started running D&D Games.

You can find my guides for running the D&D Starter Set and Essentials Kit adventures here:

Give 1st Level Characters More Hit Points

Starter Set D&D adventures begin at 1st level and can often be deadly to 1st level characters. For new DMs, its easy to kill 1st level characters and ruin a first-time experience for new players.

Give 1st level characters five extra hit points when they begin the game so their first encounters aren't quite so deadly. Level them up to 2nd level fast as well — perhaps after their first encounter — so they have more resources to survive the rest of the adventure and have a good time.

Getting a D&D Group Together

You can play D&D with as few people as a single dungeon master and a single player but one DM and four to five players is more common. Finding and maintaining a D&D group is the hardest part of running a D&D game. Read my article on finding and maintaining a D&D group for advice on finding the right players and keeping your game going week after week.

The Core Books

If you and your friends enjoy D&D and want more, it's time to pick up the D&D core books. There are three D&D core books: the Player's Handbook for players, and the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual for dungeon masters.

While there are many other books and accessories, these three books give you enough material to play D&D for the rest of your life. Instead of physical books you also can license books on D&D Beyond and share them with your group online.

D&D has many other books that add new monsters, races, class abilities, and campaign worlds. These books are entirely optional. You can go a long way with just the three core books.

Wizards of the Coast also publishes several [hardcover campaign adventures]. These big adventures can take a group over a year to complete and do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. Many DMs prefer to run their own adventures in their own world, however. You can read all about these published adventures at my guide for published D&D adventures.

D&D 5th edition is based on a ruleset many refer to as "5e". There are many fantastic products published by other 5e publishers. Here's an article on Notable 5e Products and my favorite 5e products of 2022. Once you fall in love with D&D and 5e, consider expanding your horizons with these awesome books.

Other Accessories

Dice. If you're looking for more dice for you and your friends, you can get a big pack of dice on Amazon for not a lot of money. The Starter Set and Essentials Kit include dice as well but it's nice if everyone has their own set.

A Flip Mat. Being able to quickly draw maps and sketches can be very useful for in-person games, particularly for combat. This Pathfinder Flip Mat is my personal favorite. It's cheap, lightweight, easy to pack, and has tremendous utility for your game. Grab a few dry-erase markers and this flip mat and you're set.

Tokens and Miniatures. Many DMs use miniatures to represent heroes and monsters in D&D games. Miniature collecting and painting is its own limitless (and financially bottomless) hobby. Miniatures aren't required to play D&D. There are many cheap options for representing characters and monsters on the table to help you show positioning in combat. These cheap tokens represent both monsters and characters and can be put together for under $30. Printable Heroes makes excellent papercraft miniatures you can print, paste, and use at the table. For more information on tokens and miniatures, see my New DM's Guide to Miniatures. You can also learn how to play D&D using the theater of the mind or with rough drawings instead of using detailed maps and miniatures.

There are tons of other accessories for running D&D games. Some are good, many complicate your game without making it any better. You need nothing more than the core books and some dice to enjoy D&D for the rest of your life. Start small and add the accessories you need to make your game great.

Playing Online

In recent years, many players enjoy playing D&D online and find it easier to do so. You can read my articles on Shared Experiences Running D&D Online, two years playing D&D online, and Running D&D over Discord for tips to run D&D online.

Top Tips for New DMs

The following tips and advice for running D&D games comes from years of research, hundreds of interviews, and thousands of surveys from both new and experienced DMs.

Be careful at 1st level. 1st level characters are extremely vulnerable, more than at any other level in the game. Consider giving 1st level characters five extra hit points. Don't run more creatures in a battle than there are characters and run only monsters with a challenge rating of 1/4 or below. Level the characters up to 2nd level quickly. The Starter Set and Essentials Kit adventures can be lethal if a DM isn't careful.

Get into the game quickly. There are a lot of rules for D&D but they're best learned by playing. Don't try to teach everyone every nuance of the game before you start playing. Explain the core mechanic of the game (rolling a d20 and adding a modifier to beat a difficulty class determined by the DM) and then get started in the game itself. Teach as you play, not beforehand.

Let the story unfold at the table. DM's don't create the story of our D&D games. The story unfolds at the table based on the situations the DM presents and the actions of the characters. New DMs often feel the drive to make a story go a certain way but that's not how great D&D games work. The sooner you embrace that the story unfolds at the table and not beforehand, the easier it will be to run a great D&D game.

Be fans of the characters. The characters are the heroes of the adventure and you are not their enemy. You are their biggest fan. Focus on the characters. Make them look awesome. Play to see what they do. Let the world evolve and change based on their actions. Before every session, review the characters and their backgrounds to see how you can draw them further into the unfolding story.

Focus on the fiction. It's easy to get caught up in the mechanics of D&D but the story is what matters. Start and end in the fiction. Describe what things look like in the world first, then ask for rolls and figure out the mechanics, and then describe what the results look like in the world. Don't recite numbers, describe what those numbers represent in the fiction.

Work with your players. Your players probably understand half of what you're describing. Work with them to accomplish their intent. Remember that their characters are capable adventurers. Treat them as such instead of nailing them with "gotcha"s. Ask them what they want to do and help them accomplish it. Fall back on your players to help you with the rules. There are a lot of rules and you aren't expected to know them all. Your players are your friends and they want to have a good time. They're on your side. Be on their side.

Keep things simple. Games get complicated all on their own. As you prepare for a session, think of a hook to draw the characters into the adventure, a location they can explore, some NPCs to interact with, and some monsters to fight. Consider following the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master when preparing for your game. Prepare to improvise and let the story go where it takes you at the table.

Become a Lazy Dungeon Master

There's no single perfect way to prepare and run your D&D games. Each DM usually finds their own best approach. I offer one system in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, a refined approach for game preparation with a focus on preparing the things you need to run a fun, flexible, and evolving game. Read the sample chapters including a description of the eight steps for lazy DM prep or watch this series of videos that describes the system in detail.

The Beginning of Limitless Fantastic Tales

Endless adventures await you as you continue your journey into Dungeons & Dragons. Once you've gotten started, check out the Sly Flourish homepage for a selection of the top articles, tips, tools and more to help you along your path. Grab your walking stick, tighten up your boots, and lets explore these fantastic worlds together.

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