Update June 1st, 2012: It has been over two years(!) since I first wrote this guide. I have gotten great feedback that this guide has been helpful. Since so much has change in two years, I wanted bring this guide up to date. I’ll be sure to update this again to reflect the current state of D&D and the hobby.

First of all, welcome to the hobby.  It’s a very fun, very rewarding hobby that provides great opportunities to be creative and meet people who share your interests.

One thing I’ve noticed while searching online is that there isn’t a good guide to getting started with Dungeons & Dragons (and the wider world of pen and paper RPGs).  Most of the ones I’ve seen are so basic that they are less useful than the Wikipedia article for D&D.  I’m going to assume you’ve already read the wiki and done some basic research online.  This guide will hopefully help new gamers get beyond the basics and up to speed with the hobby.

- The Wide, Wide World of Pen & Paper RPGs -

While Dungeons & Dragons is the biggest and most well known pen and paper Role Playing Game (RPG), there are many, many others out there.  D&D is really the tip of the iceberg; a gateway to the wider world of PnP RPGs.  There are other RPGs that, like D&D, have a fantasy setting.  There are also RPGs for about every genre you could think of: Super Heroes, Sci-Fi, Horror, Cyberpunk, even Mice with Swords.  If you can think of a genre, especially a geeky one, someone has written an RPG for it.

In my opinion D&D is the best RPG to get started with the hobby, but I encourage you to check out the wider world of RPGs once you are more settled in.

- Edition Clarification -

The current version of D&D is 4th Edition. It’s called 4th edition, but there are more than four versions of D&D when you count the various updates, spin offs, and clones. And the next edition of D&D is in the works (which will require me to revise this guide another time). Each edition of D&D has a different rule set (and rule books) from the next, sometimes so different that they are very different games. They get confusing pretty fast. To make it more confusing, a company called Paizo created an update/revision to the previous D&D edition (3.5) called Pathfinder. Pathfinder has gained a lot of popularity among the D&D crowd.

If you are just starting out in the hobby, I believe 4th edition is the way to go.  The books are in print.  All the other official versions of D&D are out of print and not as readily available.  The rules are well laid out in the books and internally very consistent.  It’s fairly obvious the game was designed with new players in mind.  The simplified rules make it easier to Dungeon Master the game.

Fair warning, if you ask three different gamers which is the best version of D&D you’ll likely get four different answers. The change over from the last edition of D&D (edition 3.5) and 4th edition has sparked a particularly vigorous debate, commonly known as the edition wars.  Like any other geeky debate on the internet, people have strong opinions about it. I’m sure  a lot of other gamers would disagree with me that  you should start with 4th edition.

One more note on editions: while 4th edition is great for new players and new dungeon masters, if you are being invited into an existing group with experienced gamers, go with whatever edition or game system they are playing.  They’ll be able to teach you what you need to know to get started.  I find that my enjoyment comes more from the people around the table than from whatever edition of D&D (or RPG system) I play.

- What You Need -

Free Stuff
The publisher of D&D, Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), used to have more free stuff. In particular, the D&D Character Builder software which is great for building characters, was free, but now it requires a subscription.

They still have quick start rules and sample adventures for free, though. This is enough to get familiar with the rules and try things out if you don’t want to commit any money.

Dice
One thing you should really buy before you start playing is a set of dice.  While RPG gamers are friendly and will share dice if you don’t have any, it is better to have you own. Some people have thing about touching there dice.

Dice are designated by the number sides they have.  A six-sided die (the most common die type that pretty much every board game uses) is called a D6.  A 10 sided die is a D10, and so on. A complete set consists of a D4, a D6, a D8, 2 D10′s, a D12, and a D20.  That is all you need to get started, but once you are hooked, you end up with a lot more.

Starter Sets
I think starter sets are a great way to get started with the hobby. They contain everything you need to get started and are written for beginners.

  • The Dungeons & Dragons Red Box: This is a great place to start. It’s cheap, around $13 on Amazon, and has everything you need to play the first couple levels. It comes with a neat (but limited) narrative character creator, game rules, adventure, maps, and monster/hero tokens.
  • Pathfinder Beginner Box: As I said earlier Pathfinder is an update to the D&D 3.5 Edition rules made by a different company. It is D&D in all but name. Pathfinder is very popular and has been outselling D&D recently. This starter set is very well put together. It has as all the rules, cardboard standups, and adventure. It is more expensive than the red box ($23), but has more content and is better put together. Don’t let the name fool you, this is still D&D and is a great place to get started.

Books
When I first wrote this guide, this was a lot less complicated, but things have changed a bit. When D&D 4th edition first came out, it consisted of these three books:

  • Player’s Handbook (PHB): This is the only book that a player needs to get started with D&D.  It lays out how the general structure of the game works, how to create a character, background stories for the races, and the combat rules.  There is a PHB 2 and a PHB 3, but those just layout new character options and do not change the core rules defined in the first PHB. If you can find this in a store, it’s a good deal if you do want PHB and PHB 2.
  • Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG): This is only necessary if you plan to run a game for other people as a Dungeon Master (DM).  It gives you rules, advice, and resources to DM a game.
  • Monster Manual (MM): This is also only necessary if you plan to DM a game at some point.  This book is just a list of monsters that the DM throws up against the players.

These are still the only books you really need to get started, but in the past two years, WOTC has sort of replaced these books with a new line called D&D Essentials. So, you could get these books, but they are considered to be out of date.

D&D Essentials

The Essentials line was created to revise the 4th edition rules and make it easier for people to start playing D&D. While I think some the rules do make D&D easier for newcomers, the new line of books with their confusing titles and duplication of rules are more confusing. WOTC has laid them out fairly well on this page. The Rules Compendium is cheap and gives you an overview of the rules without character creation. The Heroes of the Fallen Land book gives character creation rules for the four iconic class with other Heroes of . . . books for other classes. There is a DM Kit and Monster Vault as well. Thankfully, Essentials was written in such a way that it is compatible (for the most part) with the original 4th edition material.

The bottom line with books is that I wouldn’t invest much. With the next edition of D&D on the horizon, they are all likely to change soon.

Miniatures

For the most part in D&D, combat takes place on a 1″ grid with miniatures or some other type of marker used to represent players and monsters.  4th edition is especially reliant on miniatures and a grid.  You don’t have to buy a miniature to get started.  Some things people use instead of miniatures include cardboard tokens, chess pieces, LEGO figures, and coins.  If you are going to a public game, it’s easy to borrow a miniature from another player as many people have extra.  If you do want to get your own minis, Wizards of the Coast has a line of Player’s Handbook minis. Your local game store will have minis.  Ebay is also a good place to look as well as sites like www.miniaturemarket.com.

Battle Grid

If you want to DM a game yourself, you’ll need a 1″ grid for combat.  There are many options for combat grids:  Dungeon Tiles put out by WOTC, pricey, not versatile, but very pretty; Chessex vinyl Battlemat, moderately priced, very versatile, very sturdy; Gamemastery Flip-Mat: cheap, very versatile, not as sturdy; Gaming Paper: very cheap, very versatile, disposable.

- Finding a Game -

Finding a game can be a difficult task, especially a long running game with players and a DM that fit your gaming style.  But, you do have a lot of options to get started and to find pickup games that can lead to a longer running game.

  • Meetup.com: Search for RPG or D&D.  This is how I got started playing RPGs.  Meetup is a great way to find other gamers and events that are friendly to new gamers.
  • Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS): Your local game store is another great place to look.  Many have calendars with events, many of them open to anyone.  Talk to the store clerk.  They can let you know what events are good for new players.
  • Attend an official D&D event: There are many events like Living Forgotten RealmsD&D Encounters, and Worldwide D&D Day that occur at local game stores and are designed  for anyone to jump into a game without any commitment. They are very new player friendly.  LFR and Encounters run weekly.  You have many opportunities to try out D&D with no commitment.
- Online Resources -

There are many online resources available to dive deeper into the hobby and get your questions answered.

Podcasts

There are quite a few RPG podcasts out there.  They are great places to get discussion on the latest news.  Most importantly for a new player, there are podcasts that are recordings of actual game sessions.  These give you a good idea of how an actual game session works before you dive in and actually play.  Here some notable podcasts:

  • The Penny Arcade/PvP/Wil Wheaton podcasts (Series 1 and 2, Series 3 ep 1): Wizards of the Coast invited geek celebrities Mike Krahulik & Jerry Holkins of online comic Penny Arcade, Scott Kurtz of online comic PvP, and Wil Wheaton of Star Trek fame to play D&D.  What resulted were three hilarious sessions of D&D.  They are entertaining and very informative for a new player since one of the players is new to D&D.  Series 4 has been recorded and should be out soon.
  • Robot Chicken podcasts: After of success of the Penny Arcade podcasts, WOTC invited the writers of the show Robot Chicken to play D&D.  This time they recorded video.  Several of the players are new to D&D, so it’s also a good learning opportunity.

Forums

There are many active RPG forums that are great places to ask questions and start to become a part of the community.  Here are a few that I have found useful:

  • The official Dungeons & Dragons forums: great resource for D&D
  • EN World: a popular RPG forum with an emphasis on 4th Ed D&D, but has discussion on many other RPGs
  • RPG.net: active forum with lots of 4th Ed discussion as well as other RPGs

Blogs

There are many, many D&D and general RPG blogs out there.  Check out my blogroll for a few that I frequent.

- Go Forth and Game ! -

Hopefully this guide has been helpful to you.  Once you are hooked (as I know you will be), come back and tell me about your experiences.

I will try to keep this guide up to date with regular updates as links change and new products become available.

20 Responses to “Get Started with Dungeons & Dragons”

  1. Azhriaz says:

    4e is total crap, you would be better served sticking to WoW instead of playing that BS. IF you want a real game with a decade’s worth of resources then look to PATHFINDER the REAL D&D!

  2. Well, I obviously disagree. I feel that 4e is the best place for beginners to start on their own for the numerous reasons I elaborated on in the article. Also, in my opinion, there is no “real” D&D. D&D is played different ways by different people. Each edition fits those different styles of play in their own way. 4e is great fit for a certain style of play (and I believe for beginners) while Pathfinder may be a better fit for others. Also, like I said in the article, if you are beginner and you find a group that’s already playing a game system like Pathfinder, then go with that. They’ll teach how to play.

    If you care to elaborate in a reasoned manner on why you don’t like 4e or why you think Pathfinder is better for beginners, I’d love to here it. I don’t have high hopes though considering the derogatory nature of your reply.

  3. FatherAntos says:

    Thanks for this primer Level 1 Gamer. I haven’t played D&D since the late 80′s and now my kids are begging me to start a campaign with them. I’m excited about doing that, but they range in age from 8-12, and I don’t want to overload them with too many rules up front. I’m also very rusty at DMing. I have an old D&D Basic Set from the late 70′s or early 80′s, but I figured it would be better to start with the latest version that has the most available resources. I checked out the WOTC web site and you’ve confirmed that I’ve taken the right first steps by downloading the 4e starter set. Thanks for your help.

  4. That’s awesome! I’m really glad I could be of help. 4th edition is a good place to start with kids. Also, Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of D&D, just released an adventure written specifically for kids. It simplifies some of the mechanics and softens some of the imagery. I haven’t read it, yet, but you may want to check it out: Also, watch for the new starter set coming out in September called Dungeon & Dragons Essentials. It’s an updated version of the Basic set that’s designed to ease new players into the game. Happy Gaming! Let me know how it goes.

  5. Brian says:

    This is a great primer for D&D 4e. I think I will link to it so that I don’t have to look around for my resources.

    D&D 4e has done something great for the hobbby. I can use my creative time to develop stories rather than rules. Fighting is very tactical and uses up much less of my creative power. I can focus on the aftermath to answer questions like, “Why is there a beholder in this cave with all sorts of undead?”

  6. Spencer says:

    Great article! I have been searching the whole internet for something like this. I haven’t played D&D in like ten years, and even then I was pretty young and fairly confused by a lot of it, but am looking to get into it again and 4th ed seems to be the way to go. I would love to DM and just bought the core books off amazon, but mainly I’m looking for a real live person to bounce question off of.

    P.S. – I love how you handled Azhriaz comment! Great stuff!

  7. Thanks for the comment. I’m glad this post was useful. Contact me if you ever want to chat about D&D.

  8. Geek Gazette says:

    While I am a huge Pathfinder fan and can not tell enough people how great it is, I don’t dislike 4e Essentials. I’m not fond of 4e as it was originaly released and feel like I wasted my money buying those books, but I do like Essentials a lot.
    If someone was just getting into 4e I’d recommend Essentials hands down over buying the original core books. While I disagree with the first poster and 4e is not crap, I do think Pathfinder is just as much D&D. My primary group refers to Pathfinder as D&D and D&D 4e as simply 4th edition. We also refer to 4e Essentials as simply Essentials. So there is still some anti-4e sentiment and we won’t let go of our love for 3.x, we just like it too much. Still with the release of Essentials we are atleast willing to give WotC a thumbs up with the current edition.

  9. John E says:

    Good article! I like finding advice on teaching people about D&D. In my opinion, the best ‘version’ or ‘edition’ of D&D for beginners (and is my current favorite to play even with experienced players) are the new board games. I have Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon. Both of these board games are a really good deal. At $60 or less, you get absolutely everything you need to play this version of the game: dice, minis, tiles, cards, encounters etc. I’ve played them with everyone from experienced D&D players who have been playing since the 70′s on one end of the spectrum to people who don’t even know what D&D is on the other end. All of them had a good time.

    I love how every player gets a feel for what it’s like to both role play their hero and what it’s like to control monsters, lay out the map, describe encounters etc. These games make it simple enough that even kids who are just starting to get good at reading and math can play. The stat cards use smaller numbers than other editions do so that doing the math in your head is really easy. Your bowshot attack may only do 1 damage for example, but then the creatures you are shooting at may only have 4 HP to start with. Really, playing these games made me have an “aha” moment. I realized just how needlessly inflated the stats for the RPG versions have gotten. If you keep it all in scale, you don’t need big numbers to make things impressive. A huge dragon that does 5 damage with his fire breath might not sound too impressive to those used to the RPGs, but when your hero in the board game only has 12 HP to start with, that’s plenty impressive enough :) You still get to decide which powers your hero has and you even have a chance to level up to level 2 (assuming you live that long, this game can be as brutally tough on heroes as some of the D&D video games like Eye of the Beholder depending on how you use the healing surges).

    Once you’ve played through all of the published scenarios that come with it (and the free ones on the website), you can play them all again since the puzzle-like tiles and randomized monster and encounter cards ensure that each game you play is different from the last one.

    It also makes a great starting point for new DMs (or old ones who need some inspiration). You can take the encounters and scenarios from these board games and build whole campaigns out of them. I’m even tempted to take the simplified stats, defenses, attacks etc. and use them in my next “full blown” D&D RPG campaign. It might help some of my players to focus more on the story and less on the “crunch”.

  10. Cody K says:

    Thanks for the article! I have been a fan of RPG’s since I was 5 and now that I am in my 20′s I want to go back and start playing some PnP’s and thought D&D would be a great start. I have been researching for a few months and this is by far the best article I have found in laying out on how to get started in the hobby! Thanks much and I can not wait to join this game!

  11. Laika says:

    I don’t really care about the edition debate (read: school yard fight)
    It’s just Team Edward Vs. Team Jacob all over again.

    What I *do* care about is how informative and helpful this article is.
    Thank you for taking the time out to write and post this.
    I think I might make a point of sending people who are curious about D&D to this page.

  12. Thanks. I appreciate that. I don’t really care about the edition debate either. Like I pointed out in the article, edition doesn’t matter nearly as much as your game group and your DM. I geared this article more to someone completely new to D&D with a group new to D&D. That’s why I focused on 4th Edition, because it is more accessible to new people.

    That said, things have changed a lot since I wrote this article. I need to update it to include some new options out there (ie. Pathfinder Beginner’s box, the new D&D red box). I plan to do that soon.

  13. Benji says:

    3.5 is the best so suck it up and learn the best

  14. Benji, please see my reply above to Azhriaz. Furthermore, if you are going to leave a comment on my site, please say something that actually adds to the conversation and is hospitable. Use your words and explain yourself if you can. I would have rejected this comment, but as much as I hate comments like this, I hate censorship more.

  15. [...] hope to blog here more frequently. First on my plans is to update my Get Started with Dungeons and Dragons guide. Be on the look out for more from Level1Gamer. May 21, 2012 | Level 1 Gamer | No Comments [...]

  16. [...] finally got around to updating my Get Started with Dungeons & Dragons guide. It has consistently been my most visited page and I have gotten a lot of great feedback from [...]

  17. Jasper says:

    I’m trying to put together a gaming group, and after a long (oh, so very long) night of researching, I have to say that this was the most clear, comprehensive, and yet concise article I’ve found. It’s kind of disconcerting when I find better advice with a simple google search than through an hour of scouring D&D’s official site. My thanks for your advice here. You really have helped me to figure out what to do. I’ll echo Laika’s sentiment here; I’m making a note of the URL of this article, and I’ll send it around if I ever find somebody in need of help.

  18. Cleverlegs says:

    I’ve recently taken an interest in DnD. I bought the Player’s Handbook, and will be getting the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual, since I plan on DMing for a group of my friends. This guide was helpful! I’m still in the dark about the editions, but as you said, I don’t think it matters too much as long as we’re having fun playing the game.
    Do you have any tips on beinng an effective DM? I literally have zero experience in the field

  19. Jim says:

    Thanks for post, I have a gifted 9 year old who started creating Pokemon worlds complete with maps and original Pokemon when he was 8. With Christmas right around the corner I find myself struggling yet again with finding something “Santa” can leave that will interest him for more then a moment. Thats when I read an article about how gifted childeren respond well to games like D&D due in no small part to the amount of Imagination and creativity that goes into playing them. I myself have never played the game and was at a loss as to where to begin… I looked on Amazon found a ton of stuff but still had no Idea what was required vs what was optional or in what order,if any, that items needed to be purchased just to play. Your post helped a TON. Now Santa knows what to get and more importantly how to get started.

  20. Brad says:

    Thanks for the awesome post! My friend introduced me to the hobby and I have been searching and searching for a basic guide to help me, or at least be pointed in the right direction. If you could, please email me so I could ask you a few more questions? I can handle all the game mechanics, rules and regulations are nothing new to me, I would just feel more comfortable with someone else to ask about it, thanks! :)

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