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A Beginner's Guide to Dungeons and Dragons

Updated on March 9, 2013
A D&D Paladin
A D&D Paladin

Don't Panic

The rules, organization, creatures, and even game-play lingo are a lot of information to take in. It can be a bit intimidating if you're entirely new to it, and never knew, much like myself, until you started playing that dice actually come in several varieties. There's a good chance though, that if you've been invited to play, then you've been accepted into the inner-sanctum of nerdom. Plus, every DM (Dungeon Master, or the "moderator" of your group) knows that more players makes for a much more fun game.

Unlike so many other multi-player games, even similar ones like World of Warcraft, Dungeons and Dragons is much more heavily based on role-playing. For this reason, the most critical step, and also the first step, is creating a character. Should the character be male or female, elf, human, half-ling, or orc? What will its class (warrior, wizard, cleric, paladin, etc.) be? Will it be good, evil, or neutral? If you happen to strongly want, for example, a high elven female rogue character, then have at it. But, here are some guideposts to determining this first step:

  1. First, focus on some generalities. Will your character be good, evil or neutral? If you're concerned about how this meshes with your specific group and other characters, have a chat with your DM. Characters of different alignment often clash with each other, so some groups tend to avoid it, others (like my own) actually thrive on it. Your alignment determines a good amount of your role-play, and how you approach different situations your character will encounter. If you happen to be a cleric, paladin, or monk (or any class that channels positive/negative energy)then your alignment will also determine what kind of spells you can cast without a penalty. For example, take Cardinal Gilliard, an evil-aligned Cleric. He's faced with a decision to letting undead roam freely in the surrounding town slaughtering townspeople. He decides to rebuke them, out of a rare sense of mercy. His patron, the lord of the nine-hells, Asmodeus, cuts him off from his power for this indiscretion. Once you've decided on your character's alignment, move on to his/her preferred gender, race, and class.
  2. Don't be too impulsive about these generalities. Gender doesn't have much bearing on the game in terms of mechanics, though some choices can create some interesting interactions in the game. Some races for example have traditional class-roles for men and women, which could raise the ire of non-player-characters. Your race is largely a "flavor enhancer" and usually nothing more, but certain races do have useful abilities (elves for example have the ability to sense magical traps). And some races are simply better suited for some classes, and worse at others (elves don't usually make the best melee fighters but are naturally adept at magical spells). Of course, this doesn't mean you can't choose something unconventional.
  3. Classes can be difficult to choose. There are your basic classes (bards, monks, paladins, clerics, sorcerer, wizards, and others) along with prestige classes (if your character level is high enough). The rules of D&D are flexible enough that thousands of potential combinations are possible. That said, looking at just the basic classes and how they compare to each other provide some insight on what direction to take. For example:
  • Wizards and Sorcerers: Wizards tend to be far more versatile than sorcerers because they can choose from a much wider array of spells. Their main hindrance though, is that they can only cast a limited number of spells which they must have already prepared. At lower levels they tend to do very well in comparison to sorcerers who know only a handful of spells. However the game progresses into higher levels sorcerers tend to the gain the edge. Part of the reason is that at higher levels enemies you may encounter are simply higher level too, and it takes more spells for them to go down which negatively affects wizards who have a limited number of spells. What sorcerers lack in versatility, they make up for in sheer magical ability, for they have no restriction of on the number of spells they may cast per day.

There are a variety of other combinations to consider, such as cleric and paladin, monk and paladin, bard and druid, ranger and rogue, among many others. All of these will depend on what kind of class you're interested in playing -- caster or melee fighter. Healer or damage dealer. If you happen to have an understanding DM, for the new player it may be better to just simply jump into the game start playing a class and if you're not satisfied with the class you're playing, just change it or kill off the character and start anew.

An undead figure from the D&D handbook "Libris Mortis"
An undead figure from the D&D handbook "Libris Mortis"

The basics of game play

Yes, there's math involved, but I assure you it's simple enough that a 5th grader could do it. There's a very good chance you'll be spending most of your time dealing with dice, or the virtual version, located here.

You'll often see dice rolls described like "12d8+4" which means "roll 12 8-sided dice and add 4". So, the first number tells a player how many dice to roll, while the number after the "d" tells a player the type of dice he'll need. Any number after that is either added or subtracted as indicated.

D20 is the die you'll become most familiar with, as it's the die you'll be rolling most often. That's because the core mechanic of the game is that whenever you attempt an action that has some chance of failure, you roll a twenty-sided die (d20). To determine if your character succeeds at a task you do this: roll a d20, add any relevant modifier to the result, and compare the result to the target number. If the result is equal to or greater than the target number, you succeed. If it's less than the target you fail.

In d&d, if you have a fraction, you will always round down. But hit points and damage always have a minimum of 1, if a fraction occurs.

Now, lets say you score a critical hit. (That's rolling a "natural 20" on a 20-sided die). In most cases you'd double the damage you would normally do, so just multiply by 2. Every other spell or attack will have critical mechanics described out that you will follow.

An often over-looked HD (hit-die) descriptor concerns the summoning of a monster/elemental/undead/etc. In all of these spells, you'll see that you're limited to summoning, for example, a creature of "12HD or less" for that particular spell. 12HD means just a creature of up to 12th level in this example." #HD" is just a way of describing a NPC's (non-player-character's) level.

Abilities and ability scores

Every D&D game centers on the scores of characters. In fact each ability and its associated score describes your character, so it's worthwhile to put some thought into how these scores are divided up. Each ability has a total score that includes your modifier as well as gear and effects. Your modifier is the number which only you innately possess, your modifier increases with character level. The abilities are: charisma (cha.), wisdom (wis.), intellect (int.), constitution (con.), dexterity (dex.), strength (str.). More than likely if you're playing a game of D&D, or about to start a game, you have access to charts/graphs from D&D materials that explain in great detail what each ability consists of, and which one your particular class will need most. Thus, I won't go into anymore detail here.

A dark-elf, or Drow, ranger.
A dark-elf, or Drow, ranger.

How to Roleplay

Role Playing, as mentioned, is a critical part of the game. And truly makes the game into an interactive, epic, story.

In role-play you take on the persona of your character, you assume their point-of-view, and take on their speech patterns (if they have any), attitudes, and actions. However, it's a bit more than just adopting your character's perspective.

Role Playing is a bit like acting. Unlike actors, you don't have the benefit of scripts, direction, or even queues on what to feel. In this sense, it's like improv. But you don't have to make random decisions of situations you'll come across. You have several guideposts:

  • The alignment of your character will determine more often than not what attitudes and actions are most consistent with your character's personality. For example, take Celesta, a High elven paladin. Her fallen comrades on the battlefield are calling out to her for healing, even though she is also heavily injured. Given her good-alignment, she chooses to heal those closer to death than herself.
  • Your character's race colors your character's back-story. It often determines what his/her family (or lack thereof) is like, and what kind of society they come from. Take Xalip, a Drow (dark-elf) sorcerer. He's lawful-evil in alignment, because the Drow as a whole are usually this alignment. He despises high-elves, as almost all Drow do, and humans in particular given that his parents were killed by an adventuring human. It's possible that you can even switch this up, and play as a character that's originally an outsider in their own culture. Take a look the Drow again, and you find Pelixia the cleric. She's a servant of the god of the seven-heavens, Pelor. As such, she's good-aligned, but given her life among the Drow, she's very slow to trust others, or reveal any information. She's often mistrusted by others, or even outright attacked, given her Drow lineage.

So, as you role-play your character, you're not without guidance. You have a character who has his or her own personality, as well as a sense of morality. When you choose actions for your character to take, it should be based on what that character would do, not yourself.

Many new players often get the hang of it by role-playing pre-created characters. There are an abundance of such characters to choose from in D&D source books such as Complete Divine, Complete Arcane, or Book of Vile Darkness, among many, many others.

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