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How to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E: A beginner's guide

Everything you need to know to get started with the world's biggest tabletop RPG.

There’s a reason why "It’s like Dungeons & Dragons" has become the universal way to describe any tabletop roleplaying experience. For almost half a century, Dungeons & Dragons has been one of the - if not the - biggest and best tabletop RPGs out there. It's incredibly popular and obscenely polished, with an enormous number of campaigns, settings and books available. Once you know how to play Dungeons & Dragons, hundreds or even thousands of hours of adventure await you.

But Dungeons & Dungeons can be intimidating to approach if you're not already familiar with its rules and world. If you're learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E for the first time (or maybe just the first time in a while) this beginner's guide is the right place to be.

Here, you can learn everything you need to know about how to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E, whether you’re a complete beginner to tabletop RPGs as a whole or just new to Dungeons & Dragons 5E. We'll run you through what Dungeons & Dragons is, what you'll need before you start playing and how to get started with the erstwhile tabletop RPG.

How to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E

While it's not the simplest tabletop RPG going compared to other rules-light tabletop RPGs, learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E is absolutely worth the effort. The original tabletop RPG is still undeniably effective at immersing its players in what remains one of the most richly-detailed and extensive fantasy worlds on the tabletop, and has remained a staple of roleplaying since its inception nearly 50 years ago. (It's enough of a cultural touchstone that The Big Bang Theory featured an entire episode based on it.)

So prepare to explore strange new worlds, battle terrible monsters and accure mysterious treasures in one of the best tabletop RPGs of all time. Pack those dice. Let's get rolling.

What is Dungeons & Dragons?

Introducing the world's biggest tabletop RPG

The infamous Demigorgon features in Dungeons & Dragons campaign Out of the Abyss and made an appearance in Netflix show Stranger Things.

Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop RPG set in a fantasy world. After players make Dungeons & Dragons 5E characters, they weave a collaborative story using improv, imagination and dice rolls. The group is guided through this by the dungeon master, who describes the world, plays all of its characters (including the creatures you’ll fight) and oversees the rules.

Since its invention in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons has remained one of the best tabletop roleplaying games around. Although it’s predominantly steeped in fantasy lore (and there’s a lot of it), over the years the tabletop RPG has been adapted across a range of genres and settings detailed in various Dungeons & Dragons 5E sourcebooks.

With the likes of D&D 5E actual play series including Critical Role and Dicebreaker's own Dungeonbreaker campaign, alongside the tabletop RPG's appearance in TV shows such as Stranger Things and Community, Dungeons & Dragons is undergoing a renaissance of sorts.

The current fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons prioritises storytelling and character immersion more than ever before, with a number of Dungeons & Dragons 5E campaigns available that cover everything from a cursed vampire world to high-tech cities filled with airships, colossal constructs and artificial people.

There are a range of official Dungeons & Dragons settings that make up the tabletop RPG's universe. Among the most well-known is the high-fantasy Forgotten Realms, predominantly based in continent Faerûn and where the Dungeons & Dragons 5E Starter Set's adventure takes place.

How to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E

Getting to grips with the basic rules

Dungeons & Dragons 5E Essentials Kit artwork
You can play Dungeons & Dragons 5E in person or online.

Here’s how Dungeons & Dragons works. One of you is the dungeon master - a storyteller, referee and actor all rolled into one. The dungeon master creates an adventure, which can be a one-off (meaning you can play the whole story in one session) or a longer-form campaign - an ongoing story that lasts multiple sessions.

This adventure can be written entirely by the dungeon master themselves, a type of D&D adventure known as homebrew, or they can use a pre-made one-off scenario or campaign. There are a range of official Dungeons & Dragons 5E campaigns out there packing plentiful non-player-characters, maps, lore and story.

As well as guiding the players with descriptions, dialogue and quests, the dungeon master also ensures that the rules of D&D are being followed. While it is a fantasy cosmos, for the most part, the Dungeons & Dragons 5E rules are designed to mimic the real world. For example, falling off a cliff is likely to kill a character. Like the players, the dungeon master will use dice to determine consequences. For instance, the dungeon master might make you roll a dice to determine how well you land if you stumble off a cliff.

Explore strange new worlds and go on perilious adventures in Dungeons & Dragons.

While storytelling and improv are a big part of most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, combat and strategy are still integral parts of the tabletop RPG. Combat is effectively conducted as dungeon master versus player, with the DM controlling monsters in the same way players control their characters, using dice rolls to determine whether attacks and spells hit and how much damage they do. Battle maps and miniatures can be used to depict fights visually, but they aren't necessary.

As a player, you can join one dungeon master to play with as few as two people, or join a larger group of up to five other players in total. You’ll each create characters (or use pre-generated ones) to interact with the world. As part of Dungeons & Dragons 5E character creation, you’ll choose a character race. As part of this you’ll also pick a class, which outlines what type of fighter your adventurer is.

Dungeons & Dragons warlock.
Select a dark patron to make a pact with as a Dungeons & Dragons warlock.

If you want to be lithe and sneaky, you might pick theDungeons & Dragons 5E rogue class, or you may wish to use strange magic, so you might choose to play as Dungeons & Dragons 5E's warlock or even a D&D wizard.

There’s a huge amount of variation within classes too, with a vast range of Dungeons & Dragons 5E subclasses available, including everything from cursed knights to rogues wielding magical spells.

You’ll then roll dice to determine your characters stats, such as strength and intelligence, or use what’s known as points buy to allocate a set number of points to the stats you choose. You’ll write up all of this information, along with an inventory and your skills and abilities, on a Dungeons & Dragons character sheet.

To learn more, take a gander at how to make Dungeons & Dragons 5E characters for beginners and the basics of Dungeons & Dragons 5E.

You'll then get together - either in person or online - and play through the adventure. Consider it as like a television series, where new things happen every episode.

How to get started with D&D as a beginner

A step-by-step guide to getting your first taste of the TRPG

Dungeons & Dragons Dice Set
You'll need a character sheet, dice, rules and a pencil to get started playing Dungeons & Dragons.

When getting started with Dungeons & Dragons 5E as a beginner, you must first decide whether you’ve got an interested group in real life. If you don't already have a group able to meet in-person, you could always play Dungeons & Dragons online or look to lead the way and start a Dungeons & Dragons group.

It’s also important to consider at this stage what you want to get out of Dungeons & Dragons. Different groups will have wildly different playstyles. The majority use a mix of storytelling and combat, while some will focus on one over the other.

A good place to start is to think about what you like about board games or other mediums, such as films or books. Is it the mechanics of a game that draw you in? Is it the characters? Do you like to hash out the most efficient paths to success? Are strategies and win conditions what you seek? Or are you someone that loves creative improv - getting into a character’s head for a while? Do you get attached to the characters you and your friends play?

An epic battle with a beholder, one of D&D's most iconic monsters.

How does this particular Rorschach test translate into learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E? Most D&D players typically fall into two general camps; they’re either in it for the tactical monster-slaying and cool new gear, or they’re in it for storytelling moments and character interactions. Obviously, people aren’t quite simple enough as to split into two such disparate groups, especially when it comes to something as varied as tabletop gaming. However, figuring out whether you connect more with one approach or the other, will give you a better idea of how you want to actually play D&D.

In a similar vein, as a dungeon master you'll want to consider whether to go homebrew or pre-built campaign. (We'd recommend the latter if you're just starting out.) What are the overriding themes of your campaign? Is it going to be a combat-heavy dungeon crawl requiring strategy and wits, or a character-driven jaunt through a mystical world? Do you like horror, high-fantasy adventure or pulply adventures? It's your world. You decide.

What to buy to start playing Dungeons & Dragons?

The books, dice and starter sets to stick on your shopping list

All kinds of strange entities live in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, from angels to genies to dragon turles.

It can be a little intimidating working out what to buy if you want to play D&D. The tabletop RPG has been around a long time and, as such, there’s an awful lot of books, cards, dice sets and gubbins out there. That said, you can’t go too wrong with the official Dungeons & Dragons 5E Starter Set. If you're learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E, it has absolutely everything you need to get started as either a dungeon master or player - including dice, rules and a one-off adventure titled Lost Mine of Phandelver. It’s ideal for beginners in both counts.

Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set front artwork
The Dungeons & Dragons 5E Starter Set, which includes sets of polyhedral dice, character sheets, a short adventure and basic rules.

As a player, all you’ll need is your character sheet (available to print off for free), a pencil, a set of polyhedral dice and access to the rules of Dungeons & Dragons. Optionally a notebook is ideal.

As a dungeon master, you’ll need a set of polyhedral dice, Dungeons & Dragons rules and either lots of notebooks or a laptop. You’ll be writing a lot. The Dungeon Master’s Guide Dungeons & Dragons 5E sourcebook provides everything you’ll need, while you can start with an official D&D 5E campaign to save on writing your own adventure from scratch. Ideally, a player screen to conceal your activities is handy too.

Is D&D hard to learn?

Dungeons & Dragons, the first and one of the best tabletop RPGs. This image depicts Arch Lich Asserac, the antagonist of infamous D&D adventure module the Tomb of Horrors.
Lich Asserac, a well-known villain from Dungeons & Dragons lore.

Yes - well, sort of. Learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E could be considered hard in that there are an awful lot of rules to get started with. However, unlike more complex board games or heavy tabletop RPGs where play can be stilted until everyone around the table understands the rules, it's relatively easy to dive into D&D and learn as you go.

Dungeons & Dragons 5E relies on improvisation as much as it does dice rolls, so everyone can start playing straight away and mete out the rules over a series of sessions. Over time, the Dungeons & Dragons 5E key terms will gradually begin to make more sense, you'll start knowing which die to use for what and you'll soon find yourself flicking through the rulebook less and less in search of answers.

Want more Dungeons & Dragons?

Dungeons & Dragons comics, films and video games

Betrayal at Baldur's Gate board game artwork
Betrayal at Baldur's Gate relocates the popular board game to the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

If you're looking to delve into the world of Dungeons & Dragons, there's an enormous selection of media beyond the lore in the rulebooks.

These include novels - including a number written by famed fantasy author R.A. Salvatore - comic books and video games, such as the upcoming Baldur's Gate 3 and its PC game predecessors.

On the tabletop alone there are various Dungeons & Dragons board games, ranging from the strategy of Lords of Waterdeep and Assault of the Giants to traitorous horror board game Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate and various dungeon-crawlers based on classic Dungeons & Dragons 5E campaigns such as Tomb of Annihilation.

Dipping your toe in any one of these books, comics or games will give you a taste of what the world of Dungeons & Dragons has to offer beyond just the tabletop RPG. And, of course, they're stuffed full of ideas for you to use in your next Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

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About the Author
Alex Meehan avatar

Alex Meehan

Senior Staff Writer

After writing for Kotaku UK, Waypoint and Official Xbox Magazine, Alex became a member of the Dicebreaker editorial family. Having been producing news, features, previews and opinion pieces for Dicebreaker for the past three years, Alex has had plenty of opportunity to indulge in her love of meaty strategy board games and gothic RPGS. Besides writing, Alex appears in Dicebreaker’s D&D actual play series Storybreakers and haunts the occasional stream on the Dicebreaker YouTube channel.

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