Getting into Dungeons & Dragons can be intimidating. You need maybe three or four other nerds to play with, some pricey tomes full of numbers and tables, ample free time, and several dice with as many as 20 sides. It's a lot to fathom, and even more to set up. How will you find D&D-curious friends? How will you decipher the ruleset? What are the best D&D snacks?
Whenever I write about D&D, I get a lot of comments from folks asking how to "break in" to the D&D world. There are a few simple, concrete things you can do to get a game going. The easiest solution is to find a hobby shop that hosts the D&D Adventurer's League. There, seasoned dungeon masters run ongoing adventures that new players can jump into. I've heard good things, but nothing beats playing D&D in a cosy home with your friends. Getting immersed can be difficult around a dozen strangers in a public place. And, usually, you can't drink in hobby shops.
If you are at all curious about D&D, I recommend that you try it out on your own terms and in the comfort of a home. And, for this, I have a few tips from my lengthy experience introducing new people to D&D. It isn't easy. But it doesn't have to be intimidating.
Dungeons & Dragons
Be Prepared To Take All Responsibility
You have to face the reality that, if none of your friends already play D&D, you are going to do most of the heavy-lifting alone. No one's going to drop a rulebook in your lap, imbue you with higher knowledge, and transform some cellar rats into an adventuring party. If you want to start a D&D group, it will be your D&D group and you will be responsible for it.
You will probably have to be the dungeon master and host the game. That means that you will "run" the adventure: Acquire and read a pre-written adventure, take notes, guide players through making characters, be the point-person for rules, and, while playing, act as the God hand that throws NPCs, monsters and plot points at your friends. It may not seem like it, but this is actually a good thing. You can craft and customise a role-playing environment where you'll feel most comfortable and creative. You will have a cool new skillset. You can learn at your own pace.
Taking the responsibility was inevitable — but why not make it fun? And, anyway, if you suck enough, maybe one of your friends will take the reins next time.
Acquire the Materials
To start a D&D game, I recommend the following:
- A 5th edition Player's Handbook
- One set of dice: A D4, D6, D8, D10, D12 and D20
- Printed character sheets
- A whiteboard (for maps)
- Dry erase markers
- An adventure (a pre-made book that contains a story, NPCs and monsters)
When you're choosing an adventure for your first game, make sure to pick up a one-shot (an adventure that can be completed in one session) instead of a fully-fledged campaign. It's easier to pitch a low-commitment adventure to your friends and less work to get off the ground. The Lost Mine of Phandelver comes with the D&D Starter Set, a well-curated box that also contains pre-made characters, a rulebook and dice. It's a short (though, in my opinion, uninspired) adventure that provides an easy entry point into the game. If you'd prefer something a bit less shallow, the Dungeon Master's Guild, a website where anybody can upload their homemade D&D adventures, is full of great one-shots you can purchase and download online. (As an aside, character creation is the easiest way to familiarise yourself with the D&D rules; taking that away from first-time players is a bad idea.)
You can buy D&D materials at your local hobby shop. It's a chance to support them, and the people who work there can give you good advice. Likely, a salesperson will say, "Oh, you want to be a dungeon master? Better get a Dungeon Master's Guide." That is not true. The Dungeon Master's Guide is an incredible book full of sacred role-playing wisdom, but it's not necessary for brand new dungeon masters.
On the flip side, I was once asked to recite D&D 3.5's grapple rules while buying a Dungeon Master's Guide from a hobby shop. Bad hobby shop employees are the worst of the worst when it comes to gatekeeping. Most of the time, though, they recognise that selling products to new people is how they stay in business. That's better accomplished by not being an arsehole. Don't be afraid to ask questions. In all likelihood, they got into this business to effuse about D&D and, barring a few bad apples, will be happy to help you.
Learn the Rules
If you have played other tabletop RPGs, learning the D&D rules will be like learning Italian when you already know Spanish. The grammatical rules and vocabulary are basically the same, but you'll need a shift in mindset to understand D&D on its own terms. If you are completely new to it, picking up D&D is like studying for high school Spanish: Memorise the grammar and some common words, but mostly, reference the dictionary.
You should know how roll characters; what the different classes and races are; what a "turn" of combat looks like; how to attack with ranged and melee weapons; how movement and navigating maps works; what happens at 0 hit points; and how skills and abilities work.
I promise it's not that hard. Like anything worthwhile, learning the D&D rules will take some concentration and memorisation. Luckily, 5th edition D&D is the most intuitive version yet — I tell people familiar with other D&D rulesets that 5th edition is whatever version of it they could remember drunk.
I could scream this from the rooftops: The best people to play D&D with are not necessarily gamers.
D&D is accommodating of all types of people, and your game will reflect your players' personalities. Anybody can memorise a ruleset. Not everybody can role-play a believable character or accommodate other people's personalities or ideas. The most important qualities for new D&D players are empathy and creativity. Target friends who you feel easily relate to others and enjoy "going with the flow". An inclination toward the fantastical is helpful, and it may be easier for these players to get immersed in the game, but it isn't necessary to quiz each of them on the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Refine Your Pitch
D&D can be a hard sell because there's a lot of misinformation and negative preconceptions about it. Some friends I've proposed D&D games to didn't know you play in-person, around a table. Often, when I tell them that, they're immediately intrigued.
Many newcomers believe that D&D is hard to learn how to play. That doesn't have to be true. As a player, your first game should be no more difficult than picking up any board game. The difficult stuff comes later on: Levelling-up, many-layered puzzles, complicated combat sequences. Frankly, if you're the dungeon master, you'll be doing most of the hard stuff yourself. It's in your power to shield players from complicated ruleset realities.
Keeping all this in mind, here are a few more bullet points to hit during your pitch:
- It's social storytelling
- You can do whatever you want in-game, basically
- It's better than spending money at the bar
- It's more interactive and less predictable than video games
- No, you don't have to worship Satan to play D&D
Pick A Time and Place
Coordinating players for a D&D game is notoriously difficult. A service like Doodle, a free website that lets people mark down the dates and times they're free, can help. For a location, pick somewhere your friends are comfortable and where they can feel free to explore D&D without worrying about being interrupted or judged. Home kitchen tables are ideal. Basements, as tradition tells us, are ideal. Make sure to minimise outside distractions, like people who are not playing or unpredictable noise. The goal is to find an environment where it's easy to get immersed.
Snacks are extremely important. If you are the dungeon master, your friends must purchase and bring snacks. This is a rule, although Wizards of the Coast somehow forgot to print it in the Dungeon Master's Guide. The more unhealthy and regrettable the snacks are, the better. Don't ask questions. Just buy garbage food and enjoy it.
Popcorn, gummy lollies, chips, dip, crackers and pizza are good options. Sometimes, I will go to Asian supermarkets and purchase snacks with cute mascots and descriptions I can't read.
When it comes to booze, I urge you to tenderly manage your players' alcohol intake. One belligerently drunk player can ruin hours of hard work you put into organising a game. Provide beer, wine or cider and, perhaps, stay away from hard liquor.
Dim the lights. Put on some chill tunes. Gather your friends around a table. Walk them through character creation and explain the rules. Maybe run them through a practise combat session, so they will know what to do when some goblins spring out from the bushes. Ask them to go around in a circle and talk about their character. And, finally, begin the adventure.
It seems like a lot of work, but everything you put into getting a D&D game going will be rewarded, as long as your players respect your efforts. D&D is probably my favourite free time activity, and, as both a social and creative pursuit, it always feels fun and productive. Your friends will realise that, too — you just have to set the right tone.