by Mike Shea on 10 February 2020
This article is intended for someone who is interested in Dungeons & Dragons but has no idea where to start. If you are a veteran to D&D, consider sending this article to your friends who have not yet started playing D&D.
The D&D Basic Rules are the best place to start learning about D&D. This free, legal, and official PDF has enough material in it to play D&D for a long time without spending any money at all.
If you know nothing about D&D, the first few pages of the D&D Basic Rules tells you just about everything you need to know about playing D&D.
There are a lot of other great resources for D&D that cost nothing or next to nothing as well but the D&D Basic Rules are the best place to start. Within it you'll find the rules to the game, character creation rules, rules for DMs, and monsters to include in your adventures.
If you want to get a better idea what D&D looks like in play, take a look at the following D&D liveplay videos. Many of these have high production values but they still give you a good idea what it looks like to play D&D. Each video is about two to three hours long.
If you're ready to jump into D&D, start with the D&D Starter Set or the D&D Essentials Kit. Both of these inexpensive boxed sets includes everything you need to play the game including rules, maps, adventures, and dice. The D&D Starter Set includes the adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver and pre-generated characters. Here are some tips for running Lost Mine of Phandelver.
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 get them to 6th level. If you're running this adventure, read my guide for running Dragon of Icespire Peak before you get started. The adventure has some rough spots for 1st level characters in it.
Both of these boxed sets also work well together, filling out the area around Phandalin with a host of quests and adventures the players can choose from.
Running the adventures from either the Starter Set and Essentials Kit is probably the best way to get started running D&D Games.
You can play D&D with as few people as a single dungeon master and a single player but one DM and around four players is more common. Finding and maintaining a D&D group is likely 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.
At this point, if you and your friends are enjoying D&D and want more, it's time to dig into 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.
These three books give you enough material for years of play. You don't need any other books or accessories to play D&D for the rest of your life. Instead of physical books you also can buy books on D&D Beyond and share them with your group online.
D&D has a number of other books that add new monsters, races, class abilities, and campaign worlds. These include:
These books are entirely optional. You can go a long way with just the three core books. That said, each of the above books has additional material both in mechanics and lore to grow your game.
Wizards of the Coast also publishes a number of large 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.
A Flip Mat. Being able to draw what a location looks like can be very useful, particularly for combat. This Pathfinder Flip Mat is my personal favorite. It's cheap, lightweight, easy to pack, and limitless in its flexibility.
Tokens and Miniatures. You'll see a lot of D&D games that use miniatures for characters and monsters. Miniature collecting and painting is its own limitless 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 drop on the table. For more information on tokens and miniatures, see my New DM's Guide to Miniatures.
There's a huge array of other accessories for running D&D games. Some are good, many will complicate your game without making it any better. You don't need anything more than the core books and some dice to enjoy D&D for the rest of your life. Start small and add in the accessories you need to make your game great.
The following advice comes from years of research, hundreds of interviews, and thousands of surveys. While every DM is different you will hopefully find some wisdom in these ideas.
Let the story unfold at the table. DM's don't create the story of our D&D games. Though our creative minds want to build out detailed epics that the characters dutifully follow, that's not how D&D works. You have no control over the characters and what they will do. The sooner you embrace that the story unfolds at the table not beforehand, the easier it will be for you to DM. Let go of what you think will happen.
Be fans of the characters. The characters are the heroes of the adventure. Focus on them. Make them awesome. Play to see what they do. Let the world revolve around them 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 story that unfolds.
Build situations. Set up situations and let the characters decide how to deal with them. Instead of expecting that an encounter will go a certain way, build the situation and watch what happens. Let the situation respond to the actions of the characters.
Focus on the fiction. It's easy to get caught up in the math and mechanics of D&D but the story is what matters. Start and end your descriptions in the fiction. Describe what it looks like when the goblin fires an arrow. Don't recite numbers, describe what those numbers represent.
Focus on your next game. Don't worry about your entire campaign, worry about what you'll run when the players sit down at your next session. Think about how that game will start. What will draw them into the action? What secrets and clues might they discover?
Work with your players. Your players are probably understanding half of what you're telling them. Work with them to accomplish their intent. Ask them what they want to do and help them try to accomplish it. Fall back on your players to help you with the rules. There are a lot of rules and you alone shouldn't be expected to know them all.
Keep things simple. Games will get complicated all on their own. As you prepare for a session, think of a hook to draw the characters into the session, 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.
There are many ways to prepare and run your D&D games and no single way to do it. Each DM usually finds their own best approach. After years of interviewing hundreds of DMs and surveying thousands more, I wrote a book on the topic called Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. This book offers a refined approach for game preparation with a focus on getting the right material in front of you to run improvisational D&D games. You can read the sample chapters which include a description of the eight steps for lazy DM prep or watch this series of videos that describe them in detail.
Endless adventures await you should you continue your journey into Dungeons & Dragons. Once you've gotten started, check out my Start Here page for a selection of the top articles from this site to help you along your path. Grab your walking stick, tighten up your boots, and lets explore new worlds together.