How to Start Playing Dungeons & Dragons

As you may have heard before, Dungeons & Dragons is on the rise. Thanks to pop culture treatment from Stranger Things as well as a surge in female participation, D&D has emerged from the shadows of basements and into the sunshine of almost-mainstream.

And you want in, right?

If you’ve never played D&D before, it might feel like you’re staring at a great big wall wondering how to get to the nerd fest on the other side. Let me help you start playing Dungeons & Dragons with this guide.

What is Dungeons & Dragons?

Tabletop RPGs (role-playing games) like Dungeons & Dragons are a truly unique experience. They’re in this incredible middle space between video games, movies, books, theater, and writing. My favorite definition I’ve heard tossed around is this: Dungeons & Dragons is a form of collaborative storytelling. The players and the DM (Dungeon Master) work as a group to tell a unified story and build a fictional world in which their characters operate.

The story typically starts with the DM, who presents plot hooks, settings, NPCs (non-player characters), and more; then the players move the story along as they make decisions via their characters. The players roll dice to see how effective their actions are, and the DM explains the outcomes of those actions—like whether or not Cedric the barbarian impresses the queen with his dancing skills, or Ophelia the sorceress turns the goblin into a newt. An exchange around the table might look something like this:

  • Player: “Ophelia will try to sneak past the sleeping pack of wolves to see what’s inside the cave.”
  • DM: “Okay, make a Stealth check.”
  • Player: “I got a 16.”
  • DM: “Great! You creep past the sleeping wolves and none of them stir.”
  • Player: “What’s inside the cave?”
  • DM: “Make a Perception check.”
  • Player: “Oh, I only got a 4 this time.”
  • DM: “You can’t see very far into the dark cave from where you’re standing. You may have to walk farther inside to get a good look.”

At this point, another player may jump in with what their character wants to do, which may in turn push the action in a different direction. For example, Cedric the barbarian may get impatient and decide to ambush the wolves instead. In this way, players affect the world that the DM sets up, and the DM narrates those effects.

Step #1: Find Your People

The first step to start playing Dungeons & Dragons is to find people to play it with. With its rise in popularity, there may be D&D geeks hiding in plain sight among your classmates, coworkers, friends, and neighbors—you just don’t know it yet.

The best way to find out? Ask around. Mention that you’re interested in learning more about D&D, and their answers may surprise you. I have met at least half of the people in my D&D circle simply by mentioning that I enjoy playing and discovering that they do as well.

And if no one you know is a closet-geek, maybe they will be interested in trying it out with you (you can try convincing them with a compelling list of the benefits of playing D&D).

There may be D&D geeks hiding in plain sight among your classmates, coworkers, friends, and neighbors—you just don’t know it yet.

If combing through your list of friends doesn’t work, you can go to your local game store or hobby shop. Many shops host Dungeons & Dragons nights or can recommend groups who are playing. They are also a great source for learning more about (and purchasing) the basic supplies you might want as a beginner.

Finally, there are a handful of nifty online resources for finding people to play with:

  • The Looking for Group subreddit includes people who are searching for in-person games in their cities or online games.
  • Table Finder is another resource for finding both online or in-person groups.
  • Roll20 is a good resource for finding and playing with online groups.

Step #2: Get Your Supplies

Once you’ve found a group, you will want to gather your starter supplies. Below is the list of the most foundational items I’d recommend for every new player:

  • Dice set– There are tons of colors, styles, and materials to choose from, but a basic plastic set from your local game store is a good place to start. A D&D dice set includes a d20, d12, d100, d10, d8, d6, and d4.
  • Player’s Handbook– This book contains all of the rules, guidelines, and explanations you’ll need for every piece of the game, from creating a character to casting a spell. Once again, you can find it at your local game store.
  • Character sheet– This is where all of your character’s stats, abilities, equipment, background, and more will live once you build your hero and start playing. You can print out a physical copy, fill it out as a PDF, or even use a digital character sheet on sites like D&D Beyond.
  • Pencil– You’ll want to take notes (and it will make your DM happy to see that someone is paying attention).
  • Notebook/scratch paper– See above.

Now, if you’re worried about the financial investment up front, you can reach out to your fellow players or DM to see if anyone has the Player’s Handbook or extra dice already. If someone else owns the book, they can help you create a character and reference things at the table as needed—you could play a full campaign and never buy a thing!

However, if you suspect Dungeons & Dragons may become a new regular hobby for you, it will make a world of difference owning your own supplies. Especially dice. Choosing your very own dice set feels a bit like going to Ollivander’s to find your own wand (any Harry Potter fans in the house?). In fact, many avid players collect dice sets for the fun of it.

Choosing your very own dice set feels a bit like going to Ollivander’s to find your own wand.

Step #3: Choose a Place and Time

This part is easy—just choose the time and place that work best for your group. Many groups find that a weekly schedule works well because it doesn’t leave a lot of lag time between sessions and keeps the story moving. However, I know of groups who play multiple times a week or only once a month. The most important thing is to try to keep a consistent cadence, as this will make scheduling much easier.

Now the next question: How long should a Dungeons & Dragons session last? That really depends on how much time you and your friends want to spend. My recommendation, especially if you and your group are new, is to shoot for about three hours. Any less might make the session feel rushed, and any more can make it feel exhausting.

The ideal location for playing Dungeons & Dragons is any place that is relatively quiet and has a large table. This might include your kitchen, a game store, a friend’s basement, a community center…you get the picture. You want your space to be distraction-free so everyone in the group can focus, talk, and listen easily.

Step #4: Build Characters

Building a D&D character can be an overwhelming process at first. For a step-by-step walk-through of how to do it, you can check out the Player’s Handbook. But to get you started, here are a few high-level tips:

  • If you’re using a physical sheet, use a pencil so you can erase things
  • Choose a race and class that sound fun to you
  • Don’t fret about memorizing what everything means right away
  • Ask a friend who’s played before to help you if possible
  • Talk to the other members of your group to figure out how your characters will mesh
  • Come up with a backstory that you think sounds cool
  • Chat with your DM to figure out how your character will fit into the campaign

While some experienced DMs will offer to build characters for their players, I recommend each player build their own. You can learn a lot simply by reading the rules and working through the building process.

Step #5 Start Playing

As you take your first steps into playing, remember this: You don’t have to know all the rules. You’ll probably forget which dice to use and ask the same questions a dozen times—but that’s alright!

You don’t have to know all the rules.

This is usually why I recommend starting with what’s called a one-shot adventure. This refers to an adventure that can be completed in one session (or maybe two or three depending on how long your sessions last). One-shots can work as stand-alone stories and don’t require DMs or players to invest in a months-long campaign. In other words, they’re perfect for people who want to dip their feet in the D&D pool first to see how the water is.

You can find premade one-shots with a quick online search or from sources like these.

Another great option for beginners is to use the D&D Starter Set or the Stranger Things Starter Set (yep that’s a thing). Both of these sets include everything you need to immediately jump into playing Dungeons & Dragons, even if you’re a brand new DM. They even have premade characters if you and your group would rather not go through the character creation process at first.

Now It’s Your Turn

You’ve got the info, you know what supplies you need, maybe you’ve got a list of people in mind to invite…now all you have to do is start. Introducing new players to the world of Dungeons & Dragons is one of my favorite things to do. So, do me a favor and tweet @Level1_Geek if this guide helped you get started. Or if you have any questions. Or if you just want to say hi. I’m good with any of those.