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Dungeons and Dragons 5e: Basic Game Mechanics

Updated on September 9, 2014

Dice Notation

Dice in Dungeons & Dragons have their own notation for representing the dice to roll. It looks like this: 3d6. The first number represents the number of dice to roll, and the second number is the type of die to roll. In this case, d6 is a six-sided die. These are probably the most familiar of all the dice used because it is used in several board games.

To get the value from the roll, you add all of the dice together then add any applicable modifiers. So in the above exampe, say you roll 4,2, and 6. The value would be 12.

Types of Dice Used in Dungeons & Dragons 5e

Number of Sides
Recommended Number of Dice
The dice that make up a standard set of Dungeons & Dragons dice. Not listed is a d100, which isn't used often. It uses 2d10 to determine the value. An example would be rolling a 1 and a 9 would be 19, and rolling a 0 on both (or a 00 on a percentile

Basic Breakdown: Rolling Dice

Actions that have pass/fail or varying degrees of success are resolved using dice. When you boil everything down, you only have types of dice rolls in the game:

  1. Non-damage
  2. Damage

Non-damage Rolls

To make a non-damage roll, you roll a 20-sided die (d20) and add all relevant modifiers from your character sheet. For exampe, to make a Dexterity (Stealth) check you would roll d20 + Dexterity Modifier + Proficiency Bonus (if your character is proficient in Stealth). The target number to meet or exceed will be determined by your Dungeon Master, who will let you know if you succeed or fail.

What Counts as a Non-damage Roll?

If you aren't rolling your weapon's damage, then you are making a non-damage roll! These fall into three categories, but you roll them the exact same way:

  1. Ability check
  2. Saving Throw
  3. Attack

Ability Check

An ability check is a roll using the modifier from either an ability score or skill. Initiative rolls are really just Dexterity checks. Initiative will be covered a little later.

Saving Throw

A saving throw is your ability to avoid and survive certain situations, such as avoiding spell damage, catching on to a ledge when the floor collapses under your character's feet, or your character gets bitten by a poisonous snake. There is a saving throw for each ability score, and each class is proficient in at least two saving throws. Proficiency will be covered a little later.


An attack roll is used to determine if you hit or miss in combat. You compare the total after rolling the die against a number that represents the opponents defense. If the total is equal to or greater than that number then you succeed in hitting. If you roll a 20 on the die (natural 20) then you score a critical hit! What happens on a critical hit will be covered in the next topic.

Advantage / Disadvantage

Under certain circumstances, your Dungeon Master will ask you to make a roll with "advantage" or "disadvantage". In either case, you will roll two d20s, but the value you use will differ. With advantage you take the higher number and with disadvantage you take the lower number.

Polyhedral Dice

Dice typically used in roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons 5e.
Dice typically used in roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons 5e. | Source

Basics Breakdown: Non-damage Roll Modifiers

There are a few sources of modifiers (both positive and negative) that can apply to a non-damage roll, which are:

  1. Ability Score Modifier
  2. Proficiency Bonus
  3. *Skill Modifier

Ability Score Modifier

Based on the values of your character's ability scores, each one will have a modifier that can range from -5 to +5, though with the standard set of ability scores with racial increases will range from -1 to +3. As your character's level increases, you get the option to increase an ability score, and there are also magical items that can increase ability scores.

Proficiency Bonus

Based on your choices for race, class, and background, you will have proficiency in certain saving throws and skills. This bonus increases at certain character levels and is added to the ability score modifier associated with the skill or saving throw.

For example, a level 1 character with 16 Dexterity and proficient in Dexterity (Stealth) attempting a Dexterity (Stealth) check would roll the d20 then add +2 for the Dexterity ability modifier and +2 for being proficient. This means that the roll will be d20+4.

There may be situations where you will need to multiply or divide your proficiency bonus before you apply it to a roll. Some class abilities give a character Expertise with skills or tools, which double the proficiency bonus, for example.

Skill Modifier

Each skill has an associated ability that is in parenthesis to the right of the skill. You use the ability score modifier for the skill modifier, unless you are proficient in the skill. In that case you would use the ability score modifier plus the proficiency bonus.

Basic Breakdown: Combat Rolls

Combat can be broken down into three types of rolls:

  1. Initiative
  2. Attack
  3. Damage


At the start of combat the Dungeon Master will ask everyone to roll initiative. This is a Dexterity check (non-damage roll), and is only rolled once at the beginning of a combat. The order of action is high-to-low, meaning whoever has the highest total goes first and then it counts down from there. Anything that effects Dexterity checks apply to initiative, including bard's Jack-of-all-Trades.


Based on the type of weapon, you will use either your character's Strength or Dexterity modifier with your attack roll. Also, if you are proficient with the weapon that you are using, you will also add your character's proficiency bonus. The Dungeon Master will know the number you need to meet or exceed to succeed in your attack.


Your damage roll will be based on the weapon your character is attacking with. You will roll dice other than the d20 for this roll. You roll the specified weapon damage dice then add the same ability score modifier you used for the attack roll. For example, you attack with a weapon that uses your Strength modifier on the attack roll will also use the Strength modifier on the damage roll. You do not add your proficiency bonus to damage.

Critical Hit

You score a critical hit when you roll a natural 20 on the attack roll. When this happens, you roll your character's weapon's damage dice, and any additional dice from class skills like backstab, twice and add it all together for the total damage. Some class skills will also allow you to add additional damage on top of that total.

Savage Attacks

Savage Attacks is a Half-Orc racial ability that allows you to add an additional weapon damage die to the roll. This means that if the damage normally uses 2 dice, like 2d6, then the attack would allow you to roll an additional 1d6 to apply to the total damage.


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    • profile image

      Joe 2 years ago

      Great article! I was wondering if you could help me with the meaning of

      "6(1d12) poison damage". What does the 6 at the beginning mean?


    • Jiggadias profile image

      Nick C 2 years ago from Chattanooga, TN

      The 6 is the average result, if you don't want to roll for it. Just a way to speed up combat.

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