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 -
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Realms, D&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.
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.
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
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.