This is intended to be a comprehensive guide to all 5E Dungeons & Dragons players, and mostly new Dungeon Masters. It contains lots of questions I’ve seen during my years of DMing, and other stuff that comes from my experience as a player. I really hope you find it useful.
I don’t play 5th edition anymore as I find it not suiting the style of gameplay I like. This guide is kept for posterity and for utility purposes but I strongly recommend you reading my OSR primer and trying a game of B/X
So, you want to play Dungeons & Dragons. Let’s say you learned about it after watching Critical Role or some other show. Or maybe some friend told you about it. So now you’re eager to play. But before you do this there are something you must consider. Is D&D the right game for you?
Since it’s the most popular role-playing game ever, many people play it and suggest it to others without realizing what’s behind. D&D has a great history, and it was born as a game where you enter a dungeon, slay monsters and get loot. That’s it. Many editions have passed since then and the game evolved, but always remember its roots. Why do you want to play D&D? If you want to play a game for the role-playing element, then D&D isn’t probably the best choice (social interactions with NPCs are a nightmare!). If you want to play a game in a different setting then D&D isn’t the right game for you either. Evaluate the possible choices and choose accordingly, trying to force yourself to play a game just because it’s supposed to be fun for you won’t work.
Dungeons & Dragons has a very long history. Gigantic communities have been built around it, there are lots of books, materials and supplements. You’ll never run out of content and the lore of some of its settings is rich and deep. D&D (at least its 5th edition) is easy to pick up and teach to your players. It doesn’t require too much prep work, and there’s usually not much stuff to track. Right now Dungeons & Dragons is one of your best choices if you want to run a classic adventure in a classic fantasy setting, that has a good compromise between killing monsters, exploring and socializing.
To play the game you’ll need some multi-sided die, at least one friend (it works best when there are three or four of them), and some pen and paper or a pc. That’s it! It’s that simple. If you want a brief explanation of rules because you’re eager to play then here you go: one person (called the Dungeon Master) tells a story and the other players react with their characters. If the result of an action isn’t guaranteed then you roll a die and react accordingly. Of course the truth is a bit more complex than that, but this description pretty much sums up 90% of the game.
But let’s say you want to bring your game to a higher level. Luckily Wizards Of The Cost provide a free basic ruleset that covers pretty much all the rules. You still don’t have to pay for anything except the dice and the rules don’t become much more complex than “if something is difficult then you roll a die and add the appropriate modifiers”. There are also some free classes and some free races, so everyone can build their own unique character.
Not everyone has to read the rules; only the DM can do so and then explain the basics to the players while playing. But it’s advised that everyone reads the rules at least once so the flow of the game can be more fluid.
Now you played a game or two and found out that you like the game. Where do we go from there? Well, now you can buy some books. The latest edition of the game is the 5th one, and pretty much all the relevant material online is about this edition (but some people like to play older editions as well, keep that in mind!). So you’ll have to look online for some 5E Manuals.
The first one you’ll need to buy is the Player’s Handbook (PHB for short). It contains everything you need to play, all the classes and the sub-classes, all the spells, the races etc. and it costs ~$50 (as of the writing of this article). You can buy it physical or digital, and you’ll need only one copy, but it’s better if you have more than one so you can pass it around easily.
The next step, if you’re a DM would be to buy the Monster Manual (MM) that contains a lot of monsters to populate your adventures, and the Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG) that gives a lot of tips on how to build your world and your adventure and gives some advanced and variant rules. Those two last books are entirely optional and are used only to enhance your game.
Or, if you’re still not sure about the game, instead of buying the manuals you could buy Lost Mines Of Phandelver, a Starter Adventure!
Adventures are books published by Wizards Of The Cost that contain a fully developed story, with descriptions of NPCs, key locations and monsters. They’re meant for those that don’t have the time to write their own adventures, want some inspiration, or just can’t create something good because they’re not experienced enough.
Before I told you about Lost Mines Of Phandelver. It’s a beginners adventure that is meant to teach newcomers how to play D&D. It features a full adventure, some premade characters, a starting rulebook and some dice. And it costs half the price of the PHB! It’s a simple adventure to run, it’s simple to play, and has a bit of everything: combat, exploration, side quests and politics (even a Dragon!).
Other adventures have been released during the years, but be wary that some of them can be hard to run for an inexperienced DM. LMOP is the one I’d recommend for starting.
The Player’s Handbook has an entire chapter about that, it can be intimidating at first, but it’s really simple. At first you choose a race and a class, then you roll for your abilities (4d6 six times, dropping the lowest). Instead of rolling you could use point buy, or the standard array. All of them are viable, but I think that point buy is the most balanced one. After you have your stats you assign each number to the stat you want. The PHB provides some suggested builds for each class if you don’t know how to distribute them.
Then you add the bonuses from your class to the characteristics. Now the score you assigned to your stats will determine the modifier for that stat. A score of 10 or 11 will give you a +0, 12 or 13 a +1, 8 or 9 a -1 and so on and so forth. You can find the exact table in the PHB. From now on each time I’ll mention a characteristic I will be talking about its modifier and not about its pure number, those are pretty much never used.
You write down the speed and the proficiency bonus (usually 30 feet/round and +2 at level 1). After you’ve done that you calculate your HP: each class has a hit die (and at first level your HP is the maximum of your hit die + CON)
Then you write down your starting equipment (it’s indicated in your class description) and you choose a background. The background will give you gold, some equipment, some skills and some traits, write them down. Now go back to your class’ description and select the remaining skills you want (the number of the skills, and the list you can choose them from is in the description). Those given to you by your background don’t count for the total number.
You’re almost done! Write next to each skill the appropriate modifier, and add your proficiency as well for those that you have selected. You’ll need to do the same for saving throws: if your class is proficient in one of them then you add write down your stat modifier + the proficiency bonus, otherwise it’s just the stat modifier.
Passive perception is 10 + WIS.
Fill out your attacks section with the weapons you got from your starting equipment. Remember, a weapon attack is 1d20 + STR / DEX (if ranged or Finesse) + Proficiency (if proficient) and the damage is based on your weapon + STR / DEX
Then you’ll have to indicate what’s your Armor Class (and it’s based on your base AC, given you by your starting armor + DEX)
Lastly you’ll have to fill out your Features and Traits, copying them from the PHB.
Easy huh? And all of this considering you didn’t pick a spellcaster! We’ll talk about them later.
Fear not and play whatever you like most! The race has almost no influence on the gameplay (especially the basic ones) so you can’t go wrong with that. The class is a bit more tricky. I’d suggest avoiding the spellcasters if you’re a new player since they have lots of things to track. My suggestion would be to play a Barbarian, a Fighter or a Rogue.
Well, every class in the game has something called “spell slots”, every level you gain new spell slots and every slot is tied to a spell level (not to be confused with class levels!) Whenever you cast a spell you have to use one slot of the level of the spell you want to cast, or higher. For example if you wanted to cast a 3rd level spell called Fireball you’d have to spend a slot of 3rd level or higher. There are also level 0 spells called cantrips: those do not require a spell slot to be cast, and can be used at will. All the spell slots reset after a long rest.
What spells you know and what spells can you cast varies depending on your class, but first we need to make a distinction between known and prepared spells. Known spells are spells you can prepare, prepared spells are spells you can cast. Each day (this is valid for most of the classes) you decide which spells you want to have prepared from the list of known spells, and until a long rest you can use spell slots only to cast prepared spells
At level 1 a Wizard knows six level 1 spells and three cantrips. For every additional level in your Wizard class you gain two new spells of a level you have slots for. Each day you can prepare a number of spells equal to your Wizard level + your INT modifier. For example a level 3 Wizard with a 16 in Wisdom will get to prepare 3 + 4 = 7 spells in one day. Every Wizard spell is written in their spellbook, and they need to have access to it to change spells. If a Wizard finds a magic scroll he can write the spell in their spellbook, effectively learning a new spell (the scroll is consumed in the process)
All of these classes know a fixed amount of spells that goes up whenever they level up. They don’t have to prepare spells and can just cast them at will using slots. If you gain a level in one of these classes you can swap out a spell you don’t want for another one.
Instead of knowing a set amount of spells, you know all of your class’ spells if you have a slot of the appropriate level. But you will still need to prepare them, and the number of spells that you can prepare each day varies from class to class but generally speaking it’s Class Level + Spellcasting Modifier. Whenever you do a long rest you can change the prepared spells. One thing to keep in mind is that these classes have extra spells granted to them via some class traits. These spells are considered always prepared and do not count towards the number of spells you can prepare each day.
Warlocks are really similar to the second group of spellcasters I mentioned since they know a fixed amount of spells and don’t have to prepare them, but they work a bit differently. Warlocks have a very small amount of slots, that recharges whenever they do a short rest, instead of a long one. Also their slots are always maxed out regarding the spell level, and said level increases with character progression.
Bards, Clerics, Druids and Wizards can cast ritual spells. If a spell they have is labeled as ritual in the PHB this means it can be cast a ritual. If you spend 10 minutes casting the spell, it will be cast without expending a slot, basically giving you a free spell. Wizards can cast ritual spells even if they don’t have them prepared, while Clerics and Druid do have to have it prepared.
If you’re a DM then you will have to challenge your players. If one of the characters is attempting to do something, and there’s no guarantee he’ll succeed, it’s an action that calls for a skill check! The player will have to roll a d20, add the modifier of the skill he’s using to perform the action and then he will confront the result with the Difficulty Class (DC) of the action. Remember that DCs between 10 and 12 are considered to be of average difficulty. Climbing a wall (DC10) won’t be as easy as jumping across a 10 feet river with crocodiles and piranhas (DC20).
If there’s no fitting skill you can just make the player roll and add the stat modifier that is more fitting.
If you have advantage on a roll you roll two dice and take the highest, if you have disadvantage you do the same and take the lowest. Remember that multiple instances don’t stack and advantage and disadvantage cancel each-other. If you have at least one effect that gives advantage and one effect that gives disadvantage you roll normally.
Combat is divided in rounds, each round is 6 seconds long. Try to avoid confusion between turn (one single turn of one of your players) and round (a set of turns).
When a combat starts everyone rolls initiative (d20 + DEX), and the rolls determine the turn order, with the highest going first. Each player (and enemy) have one movement, one action, one bonus action and a reaction. The movement can be used to move up to the character’s movement speed (usually 30ft or 6 squares). The action can be used to perform various things like attacking or casting spells and the bonus action and the reaction are usually consumed by your traits and abilities.
I won’t go too much in detail since there’s an entire chapter dedicated to this in the PHB but I will go over some of the basic stuff, errors and misconceptions.
There are 10 basic actions in D&D
This allows you to attack a target you can see using your weapon. Remember that if a feature allows you to attack twice, you’re not doing two attack actions but you’re doing two attacks with one action.
The name is self-explanatory. You can start casting a spell (if the casting time is longer than one action you’ll have to wait)
Whenever you use the Dash action you can move again up to your total speed (basically doubling your speed for the round)
The action allows you to avoid all opportunity attacks (more on this later) until your next turn.
With the dodge action every enemy has disadvantage until your next turn if its attacking you, and you make DEX saving throws with advantage. If you’re in doubt on what to do always take a Dodge action.
You aid a companion in one task and your companion gets advantage on their next roll to do said thing. Remember, this is not a free advantage action. You’ll have to explain how are you helping your friend, and the explanation has to make sense. You can also aid a friendly creature in attacking a creature within 5 feet of you. You feint, distract the target, or in some other way team up to make your ally’s attack more effective. If your ally attacks the target before your next turn, the first attack roll is made with advantage.
Whenever you take this action you can do a Stealth check to hide from your attackers. Remember that you can take this action only if you’re fully hidden (unless specified otherwise)
This is a tricky one. You can use this action to specify a trigger in the future and a reaction to said trigger (i.e. when an enemy opens the door I cast fireball on him). If the trigger occurs you can spend your reaction and perform the action you described after the trigger occurred, or you can ignore the trigger.
Search allows you to do a Perception or Investigation check to investigate the surroundings
The name is, once again, self-explanatory. If the use of an object takes more than an instant then you have to use an action to do it.
If you’re standing in range of an enemy you’re in his zone of influence, if you move out of it then you provoke an opportunity attack from him (basically a free attack he does against you). The same goes for you, if an enemy moves out of your range then you can spend one reaction to do an opportunity attack on him (the reaction is consumed so you can’t do more than one per round!). Going around the enemy doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks since you’re never leaving his reach, and remember you can use the Disengage action to avoid opportunity attacks.
I’ll ignore some of the smaller details that you’ll find in the PHB and will talk about the spells themselves. There are mostly two types of spells: “against save” and “to hit”. If the spell is against save then you cast the spell by using an action and then every creature targeted by it must make a Spell Save roll, with your spell determining what happens if they fail. Then there are the “to hit” spells. Those are similar to a ranged attack, but instead of applying DEX you apply your spellcasting modifier. If the roll is higher than the target’s AC then you hit and do damage.
Some spells require concentration, this means that you need to be concentrated on the spell for it to work. You can do basic actions in the meanwhile but you can’t cast another spell that requires concentration unless you want to break it. If you take damage then you have to roll a d20 with DC 10 or half the damage you took, whichever is higher. If you fail the spell ends.
Now that we went over everything necessary to play the game we need to talk about everything that is necessary to run one. This section is aimed to contain everything you’d wanna know to start running your very own adventure.
You might think that you’re not ready, you might think you don’t have enough imagination, but you shouldn’t worry. DMing is very satisfying and not that hard once you get the grasp of it. Some of the following advice will be personal, some of them will be generally agreed upon. Just remember that your goal is to have fun and to let your players have fun.
If you’re a DM you control the world. You are the world. You control the monsters and move along the story. You tell your players the result of their actions, and your ultimate goal is to create an interesting and fun world an experience. Remember that because you’re the world it means there’s no answer you don’t know. If a player asks you what is the name of the guard outside the city of Irilleth you can’t just say “I don’t know”. That’s not realistic.
Prepare an outline for a story. Have some ideas about the starting couple of hours, and that’s it. Let your players create the story for you, it works better than you think. Have their sheets ready, read a bit about their abilities so you can decide how to challenge them, and write down some ideas you might use if they get stuck. Where do they start? In a tavern? In a city? Have the description of those places ready and go from bottom to top. Create descriptions and events as they explore and don’t plan too far ahead. Your players will never do what you’ve planned
A session zero is the beginning session where everyone gathers at the table to create the characters and talk about the campaign and about the general expectations. Remember, different people like different things: someone might prefer combat, another one might love political intrigue. Try to listen to what they like and plan your campaign accordingly. Also it might be a good idea to tell them about your style, about what you have planned for them and to set the tone of the campaign. Is it a fun campaign where the main villain is called FartyMcPants or it’s a serious and grim one where players are expected to roleplay as good as they can?
Yes, but slightly less. Depending on the adventure you might need to read the first few chapters of it, maybe the whole book (yes Curse Of Strahd, I’m looking at you) and get used with the places your party’s gonna visit. It might be good to prepare some voices for the NPCs and think about how’re they like and how are they gonna interact with the party. The more you know about the adventure the more enjoyable your experience is going to be.
This is a very broad and subjective topic, but one main thing you can do is to say “yes” to your players. You might’ve created a story and you’re party is going to destroy it with the thing they’re asking to do, but you just have to say “yes” (if it’s reasonable of course). The players don’t really care about what they don’t see, they just want to do cool things and get cool results. If a player is asking to do something then he’s going to have fun by doing it. If a player asks “What’s above the giant behemoth?” don’t just say nothing, say “there’s a giant chandelier made of glass right above his head”. Let your players play. The game is not about players listening to your story, it’s about players interacting within it.