Getting Started with D&D: Start Small
By: Chad Christian a.k.a. TapRackBang
SO - you’ve decided it’s time to give this Dungeons & Dragons thing a shot; you ask your nerdiest friend how to get started and are promptly flattened into the pavement by a truckload of information. You go to the internet and are overloaded with instructions on “How Not to Suck.”
Don’t give up just yet! D&D is a fantastic game, and with the 5th edition, now is arguably the era in which to get started. As someone who’s spent more time behind the DM screen than as a player, I’ve seen just how much info is out there and how intimidating it can be. Whether you’re aiming to jump in as a player or want to take a crack at running the game as Dungeon Master, I’ve compiled a little list of things I’ve learned and wish I knew when I was getting started myself.
First Thing’s First
Whether you’re new to the game or a crusty veteran, think of how you picture D&D. What kind of game comes to mind? What are you hoping for? Some envision D&D as more like a board game, going around the table taking turns towards completing a clear-cut objective. Others visualize more of a role-playing experience - a robust story arc with plot twists, exploration, combat, well-rounded NPCs, etc. The beauty of it is that it can be any of those things or anything in between. Do yourself and your group a favor, though, and discuss what kind of game you all would like to play. There’s room enough in one game to provide elements for every play style.
You’ll hear me say this a few times: start small. You can argue that the Essentials Kit and Starter Set are all you need to get going - which isn’t wrong. Those are great tools if you want to dip your toe in the primordial soup and haven’t yet committed to diving in headfirst. However, if you want to give the game a real shot, all you need for a literal lifetime of adventure is the proverbial trifecta: the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual. To go any further than those intro kits, these three are needed, so go ahead and drop the dosh for them. The rest is quite literally fluff. The other myriad of published works offer more official options, both mechanically and narratively, but those three tools give you everything needed for players to make characters and dungeon masters to create unlimited adventures. The good news is it doesn’t look like you’ll have to worry about buying into a new edition any time soon. Wizards of the Coast has said that 5e is as smooth as the game can get for now, and instead of updating to a new edition, the plan is to roll out more content and options for 5e. The tough part is we have a metric Evergreen barge-ton of content that keeps growing for those just starting.
Another benefit of the growing popularity of D&D is the amount of visual tools, terrain, miniatures, and more that are available. There are several great tools to play online, but I won’t dive into those here. From your local game shop to Kickstarter, it can be tempting to take out a second mortgage to purchase all the Dwarven Forge dungeon tiles and miniatures to represent every possible scenario. You technically don’t need any visual representation to play the game; it can be played entirely in what is affectionately dubbed “theater of the mind,” where the DM describes each scenario and walks you through the game verbally. All you need to play the game is some scrap paper for notes and a set of polyhedral dice. OH, THE DICE. Control yourself. Start small. I do, however, recommend at least getting some one-inch grid paper and markers to draw out your dungeons and snag some minis or tokens to represent characters and monsters. I’m a sucker for visuals, but it’s something that can undoubtedly grow over time.
Dungeon Mastering (DMing)
When I first started playing, I thought DMing meant “taking one for the team,” as you don’t really get to play your own character. Don’t write it off, though! You’re the master of worlds, the architect of tales, the mastermind behind each story arc, each non-player character (NPC), each monster. It will take more work on your part to plan your adventure, but again, start small. Don’t listen to all the opinions on the internet about how classic scenarios are “played out and boring.” There is nothing wrong in starting your game with a time-honored fairytale cliche. In fact, I encourage it. Let your party rescue princess Fiona from the dragon (or the prince, or the blacksmith, or your stepbrother.). Have them clear the sewers of giant rats or retrieve the royal family’s lost sword from the necromancer’s crypt. Borrow from the tried and true, then tweak it a bit to make it your own. Most people think of these types of tropes when they think of fantastical worlds and stories anyways, and I guarantee you you’ll all still have a great time being able to play through them yourselves.
PSA: Do yourself a favor: If you don’t plan on being a DM anytime soon, don’t read the DM guide or Monster Manual. If you’re playing through a published module, do not read up on that adventure. Spoilers are no fun; let your DM enjoy creating surprising encounters.
Modules vs. Homebrew
There are tons of published adventures out there that can take some of the burdens of planning off the DM’s shoulders and help get you started if you’re not feeling particularly creative. You can find these at your local game store or cheaper on Amazon, but I encourage you to support your local shop when you can. “Homebrew” is the familiar term given to the creation of your own adventure. I personally prefer homebrew as it gives you complete creative freedom. It’s easier when things go off-script when it’s your script, to begin with. The DM Guide offers tons of tools for sparking creativity and building your adventures. However, running published adventures that others worldwide have participated in has its draw, and I enjoy them as well. If you choose to run a written module, I have only one piece of advice: READ. Read, read, and read again. You can choose to tweak these adventures to make them your own, but it’ll be much easier to maintain continuity if you are familiar with the source material inside and out. In my experience, this takes more planning on your part than homebrew, but it does pay off well in the end.
Resources and Content
Last bit of advice: There are podcasts, YouTubers, Twitch channels, and online reviews (like this one?) that offer every kind of opinion under the sun. These can be fun, funny, and very helpful to new DMs and players, and they can also be very detrimental. Watching some videos on how to get started is a great idea, but going too far can easily make you feel like you need to follow all these unwritten rules to live up to some impossible standard for your game to be “good.” Hogwash, I tell you! Critical Role is fun to watch, but expecting your DM to be a Matt Mercer clone is not a good mindset.
There is an unending amount of advice out there; these are just the wavetops - stuff I wish I knew getting started. I also recommend that, if you have a bad experience or don’t jive with your first group, give it another shot or two with different folks. Most of the time, a bad experience isn’t the game’s fault. Relax and keep an open mind. Be a considerate player or DM. You’ll all get better at it along the way and form your own preferences, but set any outlandish expectations aside, take things in stride, and start small. Most importantly, have fun enjoying the world’s greatest tabletop roleplaying game.