Dungeons and Dragons is a fun, social game that can be played in person or at a distance, making it one of the most versatile and accessible facets of “nerd culture.” Unlike many gaming systems (virtual and tabletop), it does not require a large financial investment to get involved, and in fact, it can be played almost entirely for free. All you need to get started are dice, access to a copy of the Player’s Handbook (which is made available online both in pieces and as a whole for free), and a group to play with. The first two are easy, the last is more complicated.
Every Dungeons and Dragons group is different. The preferences and tastes of the Game Master (GM) can strongly influence the vibe, rules, flexibility, and overall tone of the game. Having been both a player and a GM myself, I know that it can be really difficult if a certain group isn’t a good fit. The causes of this feeling can vary, but common ones include feeling like your playing style is out of place, feeling like you have different expectations for commitment to a game, or feeling like you don’t have enough experience or knowledge about the game to really do anything. This is especially difficult for new players who have yet to master all of the rules, but who are too nervous to learn by doing.
If you are looking for ways to get involved with Dungeons and Dragons or, better yet, how to encourage others to do so, there a few things to keep in mind.
Most character building starts with Race, but I like to start with class.
GMs: Please don’t let a first-time player choose the druid class, even if your player is really excited about it.
First-time players: Please don’t choose the druid class, even if your GM seems to think that it’s a good idea. It is not.
It’s fun. It’s flashy. You can talk to and turn into animals. You have a strong relationship with nature. But it’s just not that simple.
This is one of the most technically complicated classes in the basic Player’s Handbook. To be played correctly, the Druid class requires a player with a high level of understanding of the rules, a good note-keeping habit, and patience for a ton of concentration checks. This level of attention to technical gaming can take away from the role-playing and adventuring aspect of the game, which for most players (definitely not all players) is the fun part of Dungeons and Dragons. New players who are still learning some of the basic rules related to ability checks and spell casting might become frustrated if playing in a complicated class, and might lose their taste for the game entirely if they feel like they can’t understand their own character. If you or your player is interested in working with animals, let me direct you to the Beastmaster Subclass of Ranger, for a simpler experience*.
Other things to consider with classes:
You don’t necessarily have to choose a non-spellcaster. Wizards start relatively simple and become more complicated as you level up and learn more about the mechanics. Classes that “do both,” such as Bards (my personal favorite), Clerics, Paladins, and Rangers are all great ways to dip into different playing styles while learning the different mechanics. They’re also helpful in the sense that if you find that you’re more comfortable with fighting mechanics than spellcasting, you can lean on that until you get better with spells or vice versa.
That said, non-spellcasters shouldn’t go ignored. Barbarians, Fighters, and Rogues are all great ways to play a simpler game yourself, balance the party, and play just as strong and powerful a role in a game as any Wizard or Druid, without the hassle of spellcasting.
Your class can help you establish a vibe for your character. You can go tried and true with a human fighter, or play against type with a half-orc bard. But knowing what you want to do is more important from the get-go than knowing what you want to look like. After you choose your class, you should choose your Race, Background, and personality traits.
*any time you deal with animals, make sure you know that you should have the stats of any animal that your character can turn into or fight with on hand because you’re going to need those.
Group Vibe and Role-playing
Every GM and player has been at a table with a Chaotic Evil Rogue. He wears all black, has a tragic backstory, and he’s constantly trying to be the edgiest murder hobo he can be, all under the guise of “it’s just my character!!!!” First of all, this is so annoying. Everybody at the table is totally sick of this guy and his self-centered attitude. The first rule of role-playing: remember that this game is about cooperation, collaboration, and living out a story. It is not an excuse for you to talk over anyone, needlessly derail the GM’s game, or steal the spotlight from another player. You’ll get your moment, don’t take someone else’s.
Second rule of role-play: your Ranger doesn’t have to be Aragorn; your Wizard doesn’t have to be Gandalf. A common misconception of Dungeons and Dragons is that you have to be 100% serious about it all of the time and that your characters have to be cool, collected, fantasy-story heroes. I once ran a game where the characters were: a gnome wizard who rarely spoke, a seven-foot Dragonborn who managed to walk the line of chaotic annoying and chaotic hilarious like it was a fine art, a gnome cleric who got stuff done but also had a talent for starting chaos with the potential to momentarily derail my campaign, a turtle with a “world’s best dad” greatsword, and a druid (who eventually quit; I learned by experience). They were all sarcastic, messy, and had a tendency to miss points of the campaign entirely. But they had the most creative solutions to almost everything I threw at them, got inspiration for role-playing on a regular basis, and made me a better GM by encouraging me to think on my feet.
In short, don’t be a jerk, but don’t hold back.
Of course, I run a generally lighthearted game. If you want a more serious vibe, maybe cut back on the shenanigans or find a group with lower stakes. Know your playing style, and keep it in mind before joining a campaign where it might go against the tone of the table.
First-time players: Ask.
No one is expecting you to know everything right off the bat. The Player’s Handbook is an excellent resource, but a lot of GMs have house rules that can sometimes conflict with what you are familiar with. It’s a general rule of thumb that the GM has the final say, not the Handbook. So ask, learn, and take notes so that you can reference back later. Also, don’t be afraid to ask other players about certain mechanics, especially when it comes to character building. A good group and a good GM will be patient with you and help you out, they want you to join the game.
Keep in mind, however, that you should always try the book first. Learn how to navigate it so that over time you have to rely on others less and less. The internet is also a fantastic resource. If you’re having trouble finding a certain chart or descriptions, a quick Google search is all it takes to find the information that you’re looking for.
It can be difficult when you have a totally new player at your table, and at times it’s easy to feel frustrated when you find yourself fielding a ton of questions. But keep in mind that this is a pretty complicated game and that it can take years to fully understand all of the ins and outs of Dungeons and Dragons. Even Matthew Mercer has to reference things sometimes. When a player asks you a question, try to answer it by showing them the correct section of the handbook, or by linking them to helpful websites. Try to have questions before a game starts, so that play doesn’t have to be interrupted so frequently. Remember to be patient and friendly with all your players, old and new alike.
In summary, if this is your first game, you’re going to want to be patient with yourself and the process. Remember, Dungeons and Dragons is about sharing an experience with friends, building a story together, and having fun.