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How to start playing D&D, a crash course for Critical Role fans and beyond

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We have Stranger Things, Critical Role, and much more to thank for legions of newcomers being inspired to play Dungeon & Dragons (D&D) in recent years, but just the act of getting started can be the highest hurdle for fledgling party members. Go to your local game store, or search for D&D on Amazon, and you'll find reams of books, dice, and miniatures for the game (and many other games like it). What, exactly, do you need to own to play one of the best tabletop RPGs of all time? What in those seemingly endless tomes do you actually need to know to play? And how do you find people to play with?

I'm going to answer those questions in a way that you need no previous experience with D&D to understand, because a) that's the point of this article and b) I genuinely love getting more people into the game. I've been playing D&D regularly for more than a decade, and I built my first character another ten years before that. Nothing refreshes and renews my love for the game more than seeing it spread good times and ridiculous table talk to new players. So, regardless of whatever piqued your interest in the first place, it's time to learn how to start playing D&D.

What you need to have to play D&D

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The most remarkable parts of D&D take place in your imagination, (and yes, you should absolutely picture Spongebob making the rainbow gesture as I say that), but you'll need some physical objects to properly establish your kingdom of fantasy. The most important thing is a set of polyhedral dice. This includes the standard six-sided dice and also ones with four, eight, ten, 12, and 20 faces. They are typically printed with numerals rather than pips, and are referred to individually as D6, D8, and so on. You can find rarer dice that go up to D100 and beyond, but you'll only need a D20 and below to play D&D.

Nice to have

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If you plan on playing with miniatures, it's handy to have a few of your own to represent different kinds of heroes.

You can raid your old board games to grab some D6s (trust me, D&D is way more fun than Yahtzee), but you'll probably need to buy a specialty set of dice to get the rest. Consider this your warm welcome to a whole new world of things to compulsively collect. There's an entire industry of dice creators out there and they offer everything from simple solids to color-blending, glittery shapes. There's even a burgeoning market for hefty metal dice - just be careful about denting your table. You only need one standard set of polyhedral dice to play D&D, but it will speed up your rolling if you have at least two or three. Lots of other tabletop games use the same dice, too.

The second thing you need is a set of D&D's rules. Wizards of the Coast, the company behind the game, offers a basic version of them for free on its website.  (download some character sheets while you're at it). "Basic" undersells the 180 page document, as it includes everything you need to create characters and play for hours upon hours with a full party. That said, the character options it affords you are limited compared to those in the D&D Player's Handbook. The handbook is the bible of D&D, and if you plan on playing for a while, you should pick one up when you can.

The third thing you need to play D&D is the most precious resource of them all; other people who want to play D&D, but I'll talk more about finding them later.

What you need to know to play D&D

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The Player's Handbook ought to have the words "DON'T PANIC" written on the cover, Hitchhiker's Guide style. Once you get it (or the Basic Rules) in your hands for the first time, it's going to feel like a lot. But, again, don't panic. You only need to be familiar with a fraction of the material, and as long as you have your book on hand while you're playing, you only need to know one thing by heart: how to make a check. Spoiler: it's super easy.

Make your character online

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It's a good exercise to make your first character on paper, but D&D Beyond also offers easy tools to make them on your phone or computer.

If your character attempts a difficult task, it's typically resolved by rolling a single D20 and adding certain numbers to the result. If the total meets or exceeds a number determined by the Dungeon Master (DM), your character succeeds. If it doesn't, your character fails. What numbers you add will depend on what your character is trying to do (deciding how they attempt tasks is a big part of what makes the game special) and what they're good at. How do you figure all that out? Head to the "Step-by-step character creation" section of your rulebook, follow the steps, and you'll have your answer!

Tons of options for creating a character exist in D&D, and you can get really fancy by taking feats, by planning ahead for another class you'd like to add to your starting class, or by using material from sources beyond the Player's Handbook. I strongly encourage you to not to do any of that stuff for your first character. Keep it simple. Your D&D group will be much happier to see you roll up to the table with a nice and simple Half-Orc Barbarian than a super unique Aarakocra Artificer who needs a half hour to figure out their optimal actions for each round of combat.

Proficiency and you

New players often forget about their Proficiency Bonus and miss checks they shouldn't. You'll always add at least 2 to your D20 roll if your character is proficient with the skill or item they're using, so make sure you write their Proficiencies down!

You'll probably have a bunch of questions by the time you're done putting your character together. This is the perfect time to dive into the later chapters of the rules and get an idea of how the game's systems work. Again, you don't need to memorize or even read all of the chapters before you start playing, but at least skim the 'Using Ability Scores', 'Adventuring', and 'Combat' sections if you have time. If you chose a Spellcasting class, you should also read the introduction to the 'Spellcasting' section. Don't feel like you have to read the spell list itself. I've played regularly for more than a decade and I still haven't read through all the spells in any D&D book. There are… a lot.

How to find a D&D group to play with

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This is where it gets trickier, because you have to start dealing with people and schedules and oh no is it even worth all this headache maybe I should just stay home and roll dice by myself. Few adults have a Stranger Things-like group of friends who are ready to play D&D whenever and wherever, but we still make it work! I mean, if you do have friends like that, that's awesome and you should totally play D&D with them and also cherish those friendships forever. You can skip this section, I guess.

For everybody else, there's D&D Adventurers League, otherwise known as D&D organized play. Adventurers League is an official meta-campaign for D&D run at the top level by Wizards of the Coast and played by thousands of groups around the world. Go to the Wizards of the Coast event locator, select the D&D category, and you'll find the nearest location running DDAL. Many take place in game stores, though it could also be a group that meets at a library or some other public place. Note: you should never meet up with strangers in private, even if they promise to let you put 18s in all your ability scores and start with a +2 Greatsword.

+1 Facebook of Invites

I know, nobody uses Facebook anymore, but it can be a handy tool for finding events at local game stores or conventions and linking up with other players.

Adventurers League uses standardized rules that go on top of, and in a few cases supercede, the standard D&D systems (you don't need to know them ahead of time). This allows a player to take a character from an Adventurers League event with one group and keep playing them with another group, perhaps a few miles or a whole continent away. It also means that you can just show up and play. You don't need to commit to a long-running campaign, though many people do come to all of their local events. Adventurer’s League is a great way to meet D&D players in your area.

Adventurers League is always my first suggestion for brand-new players looking for a group, but you have other options if it doesn't work for you. You could use social media to put out a call for a group, and you may get lucky and discover some friends you didn't know shared your common interest. If you want to expand your search beyond your current social circle, you could put up a post on Reddit's LFG subreddit or scroll through to see if anyone else is looking in your area. Roll20, an app for playing tabletop RPGs online, also has its own looking-for-group listings. As always, be cautious when interacting with strangers online.

If you want to know the easiest way to get a new D&D group started, no matter where you're playing, read on to the next section.

How to be a D&D Dungeon Master

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Normal players only need to know who their characters are and what they can do to play D&D. Players who take on the role of Dungeon Master (there's only one per game) must account for the rest of the world in the game’s tabletop universe, which makes it both a subtle art and a demanding science. You should put some time in as a player of D&D before you try running your own game, if at all possible. Or you could just watch a lot of Critical Role, but keep in mind that most groups aren't as good at improvisational roleplaying as a table full of professional actors.

Be a benevolent dictator

D&D is designed to work best with a strong presence at the front of the table. Listen to your players, be flexible and fair, but always remember: You're the boss!

Observing what rules come up the most frequently in play and how other Dungeon Masters handle common situations will give you invaluable perspective for running your own game. If you're planning to do your own campaign and not just a single adventure, the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide would also be wise investments on your part. The former is filled with creatures to challenge your players both in and out of combat, while the latter has great rules for running full-length campaigns (as well as a bunch of handy pre-made magical items).

Many more seasoned DMs than I have written advice about how to run a game of D&D, so I'll just leave you with one practical pointer that I picked up along the way: ask questions and use the answers. Empowering your players to help fill in the details of the world will make your game better and easier to run, and you can always veto ideas that don't fit. As it happens, I got that mantra from Dungeon World, so there's another piece of advice: check out games besides D&D and steal any ideas you find interesting!

What to do next

Hopefully this guide has been enough to put you on the path to your first game of D&D. As you get more experience making and playing characters, you may want to expand your options for the kinds of adventurers you can build. In that case, your next purchase should be Xanathar's Guide to Everything. It bundles together new specialization options for every class, valuable tools for building out your character's backstory, and optional mechanics that DMs can add to their campaigns. There are many more official books out there to expand your possibilities, and a whole world of fan-made content beyond them.

Wherever and however you start playing, I hope you keep at it long enough for you to start feeling the magic of D&D. The fuzzy feeling kind, that is, and not the kind you have to spend spell slots on. D&D has been the source of countless happy hours and the start of beautiful friendships for myself and many others, and we're always happy to welcome more people into the hobby. Here’s hoping we meet again on the Sword Coast!