This weekend I had the pleasure of playing with my sister-in-law and her husband in their first ever game of D&D. I’ve also been helping out with Jonathan’s D&D club at the high school where he teaches, so pretty regularly, I get to work with new players as students join.
One of the heads of Wizards of the Coast, the company behind Dungeons and Dragons, said recently that a big gap in the D&D-verse is how-to player modules and guides for brand new players that would teach them how to make a character and explain what they can do during a game before they go into their first session with a group or, like we discuss on our blog, their first session with a partner.
This post is intended to help fill that gap and to increase your confidence heading into your first session.
What this post will not do
Wizards has strict rules about other people explaining how to make a character, so I will not be able to discuss that in this post, but I can share with you other aspects of how to play. The good news is that pre-made character sheets are relatively easy to come by, so if you’re not totally sure of the type of character you’d like to play but you do want to try out a few different things, there are all kinds of fun quizzes online that detail what type of character you might enjoy playing, and you can also find character sheets to go alongside those classes.
character class—the type of character one plays in a D&D game, such as a druid, barbarian, paladin, cleric, warlock, wizard, bard, rogue, etc. This is one of the primary determining factors for how your character will play during the game.
What this post will do
- I’m going to cover the basics that you’ll need for your first session, including which dice to use when and what you can do on your turn
- I will also define some key terminology so you don’t get lost in the jargon
- Finally, this post will talk about important aspects of your character sheet so you have go-to places to look when you’re unsure.
In a follow-up post, we’ll go into more detail about spellcasting and options for your turn during gameplay.
General Best Practices
Your first session will probably still be a little awkward, and there will be things that you don’t understand. Depending on how comfortable you are with not knowing, it might even be a bit frustrating. But, your DM [Dungeon Master-the person leading the group, sometimes referred to as the GM or Game Master] will help answer your questions during the session.
And please make sure you ask questions!
A Helpful Resource for You
We would love for you to check out our adventure for new one-on-one games and/or new D&D players, First Blush, available on DMsGuild.*
First Blush also comes with three pre-generated character sheets for you, so you can pick up and start play immediately!
Your DM may also be interested in running through a “session zero” with you before you join the rest of the group.
session zero—a short adventure where the DM helps a player (or players) develop part of their backstory and find a hook into the main narrative, explaining why they’re taking part in the larger adventure. This usually happens before the character meets the rest of their adventuring party.
For New DMs
If you’re looking for advice on being a new Dungeon Master, we have a few resources just for you!
- The Basic Roles of the Dungeon Master
- 5 DM Tips for Running Your First Game
- and Researching an Encounter
How does playing D&D work?
Whether playing directly with your DM or with your DM and other players, there are a few types of things that happen during a session when it comes to your character. The information on your character sheet relates to these elements of play.
Your DM will present you with opportunities to problem solve and interact with others as well as to take on creatures of various kinds. This is where the structure of the rules comes into play and why you have dice. Rolling the dice helps to determine if a particular plan or idea succeeds or not.
Some plans are doomed from the beginning, which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But the dice add weight to decisions as well as a fun element of chance.
Below, I walk through the elements of play your character might engage in during a typical D&D session, as well as how to know when to do what.
A lot of D&D is about creative problem solving, but it’s also about creating a full and vibrant world. Luckily, interacting with others inside the world allows you to do a bit of both.
You and your party may need to gather information to understand something that’s going on in a particular town. Or, perhaps, you’re wanting to join friends in a tavern to celebrate a successful adventure.
You might also need to persuade someone to help you or to reveal a secret. You can do all of these things and more with role-playing [RP] conversations between yourself, the DM, and the other players.
Quick caveat: to have a broader reach for this post, I’m going to address parties of two as well as larger groups. If you are playing in a one-on-one game, you can just ignore the “other players” part.
Where your DM comes in
Perhaps you’ve already looked at your character sheet and seen a long list of “skills” in alphabetical order or grouped next to the strength, constitution, etc. boxes.
And here’s the good news about this list: you do not need to know, especially at the beginning, which skill does what or when you’re supposed to use them. Your DM will ask you for the roll.
You’ll notice pluses with little numbers next to these skills. Each character is going to be good at different types of things. Some people may be very persuasive whereas others may be extremely strong. Or maybe your character is both!
What not to do
Some players like to try to lead the DM by asking if they can roll a particular thing, especially if they’re good at one skill (have pluses to it that they’ll add to their dice roll to see if they succeed at what they’re trying to do) but not so good at something else.
I find this very frustrating as part of the DM’s job is to say which skill they want a player to use when. “I want to use my acrobatics to jump on this monster and pin it to the ground” is a no-go. “I want to jump on the monster and pin it to the ground” is fine. Your DM will then tell you what to roll (likely strength or athletics, not acrobatics in this case), and you’ll roll the d20 (the biggest dice) and report the score to them. The DM will then help narrate the level of success or failure of your grapple attempt.
I’ve also heard players decide to roll something all on their own and report said score to their Dungeon Master. In many cases, the DM will graciously ignore this or they may permit it that one time but really, it’s their job to ask you to make a roll. It’s your job to come up with a cool thing you’d like to do and communicate that to your DM and other players.
You can try skills even if your character isn’t proficient (the circle to the side will be dark or you’ll have an asterisk next to the skill name which adds additional points). For example, maybe your character isn’t very sneaky, but they would like to try and take an artifact from behind a guard’s back. You might be adding one point to your roll where another character in your party could be adding ten, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a shot!
There are always exceptions!
Now of course, there are exceptions to this, and some DMs don’t mind their players asking to try a particular type of check. There’s not a clear-cut right and wrong way to play here except to say that what the DM says, goes, at their table.
The biggest exception I’ve seen to this is people asking to make an insight check to see if they believe someone, but it’s still more immersive to say, “do I believe them?” and find out than asking, “Can I roll an insight check?”
But especially for your first time playing, your DM should be careful to ask you to make specific rolls, which brings us to dice.
Which dice do I roll?
Jonathan stumbled upon some of the most helpful advice for new players that I’ve heard during D&D club one day, and I have been trying to share it with as many new players as possible ever since.
In nearly every case, roll your d20 first.
With dice, the number refers to how many sides a particular dice has.
Again, almost always, when your DM asks you for a roll, you will pick up the d20 and roll it. You will then add a modifier to the roll. A modifier is going to be the +_ or -_ next to one of your skills or abilities. It is not the above 10 number under Intelligence (for example) on your sheet. It will always have a plus or minus.
During combat, you’ll roll a second, smaller dice to determine how much damage you’ve dealt after a hit.
When you cannot solve a problem with words or tricksy plans, you may need to fight something or someone.
Combat generally takes place in turns after everyone rolls “initiative,” which determines the order of turns taken. Most likely, there will be a box at the top center of your character sheet that is labeled initiative that will tell you what to add to your d20 roll (+3, for example).
If you are using a simplified character sheet, add your dexterity modifier to your d20 roll.
On Your Turn
Once everyone has reported their numbers to the DM, you will enter “initiative order,” which just means that people are taking turns and not all participating at once. Your DM will let you know when you are in or out of initiative order. The rest of the time, you can usually collaborate with your party members in no particular order.
Combat takes place in rounds, when you move from the top to the bottom of the initiative order. Once everyone has taken their turn, you move on to the next round. Each round lasts six seconds of in-game time.
What you can do
On each turn, you have a few things you can use: action, bonus action, movement. You can do these in any order you like. You also get a reaction each round.
This will depend on your character class, but most simply, you can take the “attack” action and attack something with one of your weapons, or you can cast a spell.
If you don’t want to do either of these things, you can hold your action, which means that you are waiting to do a specific thing when a particular trigger occurs: “I am holding my action until someone comes within melee range (5 ft) of me, and then I would like to stab them with my shortsword.”
Sometimes you may need to use your action to break out of or away from a spell effect or other creature. Your DM will tell you what to roll on your turn when that’s the case.
You can also dash, hide, disengage, or help, among a few other options, including special things your particular class allows you to do.
- Dash allows you to move up to your movement speed in a direction you choose.
- Hide allows you to attempt to slip out of sight; your DM will ask you to make a roll to determine your success.
- Disengage allows you to move out of melee range (usually 5 ft) of an opponent without taking an attack of opportunity, which we’ll discuss in the reaction section.
- Help permits one of your allies to roll with advantage (roll the d20 twice and take the highest number) on something they’re attempting that you’re assisting them with.
Some spells, like healing word, take a bonus action rather than an action to cast. In each case, they’ll be labeled as such. Generally, this means they’re faster to cast and can be done more quickly.
If you cast a spell as your bonus action, you cannot cast another spell besides a Cantrip on your turn this round. (We will discuss spellcasting in more detail in a follow-up to this post.)
You may also be able to make an offhand attack as a bonus action, which means using a second weapon as long as you’re not holding your weapon with both hands (it will be marked as 2-handed). This can only happen if you are holding a light melee weapon. For this, I’ll advise checking with your DM to see.
And, like your action, some classes have special options for a bonus action.
This basically determines how quickly your character is able to move on a given turn/round. This will be listed next to your initiative on your character sheet at the top.
There are special situations where you may need to stand up from being prone (on the ground), which would use half your movement. Or perhaps you need to use a special type of movement, like climbing.
Remember, you don’t have to use all three of these—action, bonus action, movement—on each turn, but they are options available to you each time.
Each round, you also have one reaction. This can be used to attack an opponent if they move out of your melee range (the attack of opportunity we mentioned earlier), and there are also certain spells that can be cast as a reaction.
Some classes also have fighting styles, like protection, that let them help protect an ally who is within 5 ft as their reaction.
But remember, you only get one reaction per round. This resets if you don’t use it.
Which Dice to Use on Your Turn
Assuming you’re making a weapon attack, you will add your attack modifier (usually your proficiency bonus [top left of your sheet] and your strength or dexterity modifier) to your d20 roll. You will report this added number to the DM and see if it “hits.”
What the DM and your dice are determining at that point is if your roll is higher than the creature or character’s Armor Class [AC]. This is a score that expresses how dexterous and well-protected this target is, or, in other words, how easy or difficult they are to hit and hurt with a weapon attack.
If your attack roll (your number rolled on the d20 plus your attack modifier or, sometimes, you spell attack modifier) is equal to or higher than the creature’s AC, the attack hits, and the DM will narrate the success of the attack you attempted. If the number is lower, the DM will describe your miss.
Rolling a “nat 1” or a “nat 20”
The top and bottom 5% possibilities on a d20, the 1 and the 20, take on special significance in combat. Rolling a natural one (nat 1) is a critical fail (or critical failure), and rolling a natural twenty is a critical hit (occasionally called critical success).
If you roll one of these numbers “unnaturally” (reaching them with a modifier and not solely on your d20), you’ll proceed as though you’ve rolled a normal hit.
With a critical failure, it is likely that something you didn’t intend will happen. You might accidentally strike someone you weren’t aiming for, like an ally or someone you’re trying to help, or perhaps your weapon breaks.
A critical hit, on the other hand, means that you were incredibly successful in injuring the target. When this happens, you’ll double the dice damage rolled. You will not double the number of dice, and you will not add any modifying damage to this roll.
So if you’re supposed to roll 3d6 (the regular-looking dice with six sides), you will either roll one three times or roll three of them. Then, you double those numbers added together (2+4+5=11 on a regular hit, on a critical, you’ll double the 11, making it 22 plus any additional damage points, such as if you have 3d6 + 4 piercing damage; you won’t double the 4).
This brings us to the other dice.
If you successfully hit your target you’ll roll the dice specified in your weapon attacks section and add any additional damage points listed to the side (likely corresponding to your strength or dexterity modifier) to what you’ve rolled.
You’ll then report this number to the DM, and they’ll reduce the creature’s hit points [hp] by that number.
Depending on the size and strength of a particular creature, they may take a while to kill. Even if your DM says “your blade goes through their forehead and they scream,” they may still be totally capable of continuing to fight.
For new players, I recommend only keeping the dice in front of you that you would conceivably use during a session. If none of your attacks or spells use a d12, for example, it can probably stay off to the side to cut down on confusion.
In the next post in this series
I had planned more for this one, but I think this is probably enough information to read through for now. There are lots of other videos, blog posts, and tutorials available online to help you learn how to play.
In the follow-up post to this one, we’ll talk about more options for your turn during combat and spellcasting.
You’re joining an amazing and really fun community, and we are so happy you’re here! Welcome to the world of D&D!
As always, if you have any questions or want to share your ideas, we’d love for you to post them in the comments section below!
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