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Beginner's Guide to Dungeons & Dragons: How the Game Works

Ever wondered how fun it would be to embark on a fantasy adventure full of epic fights, friendship, and mischief? Dungeons & Dragons may be the game for you! Learn the basics of playing D&D here.

Dice Rolls

An image of a TTRPG dice set on a map with a bag for holding the dice.

Whenever your character interacts with the world in such a way that an ability check would be required, your DM will tell you what dice you need to roll. Dice are named d+the number of sides they have. So, a 6-side die is called a d6. If the DM asks you to roll 2  6-sided die, they might ask you to roll 2d6.

It's not necessary to remember the use of every die since the DM will tell you what to roll, but for those interested, d4-d12 are used for damaging and spell casting to determine how much damage is dealt to an enemy.

A d20 is typically used for roleplaying and ability checks, which we are about to go over. It is also used to see whether an attack hits or misses. There’s also percentile dice, which can be used by the DM or by special classes to determine the probability of an event or an effect taking place. 

Player's Handbook: Your Guide to D&D

Getting Started

How Campaigns Work

A typical D&D “campaign” (or story) consists of a party of adventurers set out together on a similar job or mission. The adventurers can be friends from the beginning or total strangers – it’s all up to you! 

The players of the game roleplay as the characters they’ve created and follow the story that the Dungeon Master (DM) tells them. The Dungeon Master is the rules keeper of the game and creates obstacles and interesting story devices to challenge the player. Ultimately, the goal of the game is for the players and the Dungeon Master to work together to create a unique and engaging story. 


Long-Term Vs. One-Shot Campaigns

A one-shot is a campaign that lasts only for a single session. Many D&D campaigns will last multiple months or even years, with players creating new characters as old ones die or retire. A one-shot, on the other hand, focuses on a single mission that can be completed within just a few hours. One-shot campaigns are good for new players who just want to dip their toes in or long term-players looking to test out a new character build. 

But don’t let the brevity of the campaign drive you away! The characters that you create in one-shots can be foundational for characters in future long-term campaigns.


Understanding the Game

Getting started can feel like a lot, but once you get started, it'll be second nature!

The game is run by the Dungeon Master, who presents a story. An example of an opening sentence for a story might be, 

“You meet in a dimly-lit tavern, and a mysterious cloaked stranger approaches you with a bag of gold.”

Your characters have the opportunity to ask questions about the world, speak to characters, and investigate mysteries. For example, in the starter above, you may want to question the character, sneak the bag of gold away from them, attack them, or ignore them.

Most actions that your characters will take – such as investigating a door for any marks of entry, persuading a merchant to lower the prices of ale, lying to the town guard to provide entry without a passport, or shooting an arrow to knock down a target – will require a roll of a die, also known as an ability check. For an ability check, you will roll a twenty-sided die, also known as a d20. (Dice are called d + the number of sides they have).

Ability Checks

Your ability checks are empowered by your character’s base stats. Different types of characters have different stats, much like video games. For example, wizards have high intelligence so they wouldn’t have to roll as high of a number on an ability check that requires intellect. 

Ability checks are challenged by a difficulty class, which is a set number that the player must roll higher than in order to succeed in an action. The Dungeon Master determines what the difficulty class of an action is, and will tell the player whether they’ve succeeded or not after the player has rolled. 


Examples of typical ability checks you may come across:


You ask the merchant for a lower price on goods: Persuasion Check
You climb up a particularly rocky wall: Athletics Check
You calm down a feral dog: Animal Handling Check
You sing at the town tavern as a distraction: Performance Check
You cheat at playing cards: Sleight of Hand Check
You try to remember who the statue in the middle of town might be depicting: History Check


Something important to remember is that there are two “lucky” rolls: a Natural 20 and a Critical 1. Rolling a Critical 1 is always a failure, while a Natural 20 is always a success, regardless of the level of difficulty class. 

Don’t be afraid of failure: failures are learning opportunities and can usually be the most memorable moments of the campaign.


Let's do an example ability check!


You're in a tavern, and you want to persuade the bartender to give you 
a bottle of ale at a discounted price since you helped him earlier by delivering a package for him.

You're playing a level 3 Warlock with a high Charisma stat providing you with a +2 modifier..
You also have proficiency in persuasion, bringing your total added bonus to +4
since your proficiency bonus at level 3 is +2.

Since you helped the bartender previously, the DM will likely keep the difficulty class of the roll low.

Let's say you rolled a 12, which comes to 16 after your modifier and proficiency bonus. A 16 is pretty high,
so the DM will narrate your success!

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