Your First Game

What Do I Do?

The problem with D&D is that it’s really hard to explain. Yeah, most people know you sit around a table and roll some dice, but that describes Monopoly, too. When you’ve never played, you don’t have an idea of what exactly you should do at the table. When do I roll? What do I say? Who goes first?

Honestly, the easiest way to figure it out is to watch someone else play. Then you get an idea of the flow of the game, what is expected of the players, how you interact with the other people at the table, etc. And you’re in luck, you can do this from the comfort of your own home, thanks to the wonders of the internet and YouTube.

These days, many people record their D&D sessions, and put them up on youtube. This may sound weird to you if you’re one of the very large percentage of people who have never uploaded anything to youtube. Or even if you have. But it’s actually more entertaining than you might think. But you don’t have to take my word for it.

The most popular youtube D&D campaign, by far (as of this writing) is Critical Role. Critical Role is a bunch of voice actors that happen to love D&D. With their acting experience and great voice caricatures, it makes for a very entertaining game. Critical Role has a youtube channel with basically infinite games you can watch, but I’m going to point you at early in their first campaign, after they got a lot of the bugs worked out of their recording and such. This episode is the beginning of a new story arc, so you won’t be totally lost, but don’t even worry about following exactly what the plot is like, just watch to see how people act around the table. (Yes, that’s a link to 11 minutes in, the first section of the video is all announcements and garbage that you don’t need to watch.) Also note, you don’t have to watch the whole thing. It’s just a useful point of reference for people who have really never seen what it looks like while a D&D game is going on.

Don’t Worry, It’s Fun

Rule number 1: D&D is fun. Everyone at the table has taken time out of their busy lives to sit down and have fun. And people have fun when everyone has fun. Above all, D&D is a social game. So don’t worry that you don’t know all the rules. Hell, don’t worry if you don’t know any of the rules. Someone else at the table will help you. Experienced players love D&D, and we love to introduce new people to the game. If everyone at the table is new, then you’re all in the same boat, and you can laugh as you figure stuff out.

Rule number 2: the rules don’t matter. No, really, they don’t. If you don’t know the rules for something, just ask the DM and/or another player. If no one knows, just make something up that makes sense. Look it up in a book later. Keeping the game going is more important than knowing exactly what the book says. And often times, especially in 5th edition, the rules may not cover what you’re doing. That’s ok, you can still do it, the DM will just have to figure out what happens. That’s the DM’s job.

Aspects of Play

D&D is really separated into three parts: combat, exploration, and everything else.

Everything Else

Everything else includes long distance travelling, social interactions with people in the game and other players, investigation, drinking at a tavern, etc. Outside of combat, there are no turns. Everyone sort of just talks about what they want their characters to do, the players may discuss strategies and plan where to go, and what to do. This can take up a whole night of D&D if you want it to. It’s the DM’s job to make sure everyone’s character gets to do what they want to do, but several people may be having their characters do wildly different things. Maybe the rogue is searching the streets for the entrance to an underground lair. Maybe the wizard is at the library researching spells, maybe the fighter is training behind the stables, and maybe the barbarian is dumping back pints at the tavern.

The DM will tell you if anything you want your character to do requires a roll. Many things don’t, like walking down the street, buying armor from the blacksmith, etc. It’s only when you have a reasonable chance of failure that the DM makes you roll. If you want to convince the shopkeep to give you a discount on that armor, or if you want to try to extract information from the barkeep without arousing suspicion.

Critical note: you do not need to speak in a funny voice or fake accent to play D&D. In fact, you often don’t even need to tell the DM exactly what your character says. You can just describe generally what your character does. “I explain to the barkeep where we’re from, and ask for a room.” That’s totally fine. Your DM may occasionally ask you for specific wording of what your character says, if the exact phrasing is important for some reason, but this is the exception rather than the rule. You shouldn’t ever feel like you need to act exactly like your character. Most people, especially new people, are not comfortable doing that, and that’s totally ok. Although as the game goes on, you may find yourself referring to your character as “I”, as in “I go into the blacksmith’s shop”. That’s also ok, everyone knows you mean your character, and it’s just easier to say “I”.

Long distance travel also occurs in this aspect of play. Long distance is relative… maybe it’s going next door to the tack shop, or going to The Warrens to look for clues, or even going to the next town over, or the next continent over. Just tell your DM what you want to do, and she’ll tell you what happens. In D&D, the wilderness is often dangerous, so sometimes if you’re just walking from one town to the next, you might encounter strange beasts or highwaymen or other things that want to do you ill. These encounters may be random, or they may be planned by your DM. Just be aware that they can happen, so you should take that into consideration when leaving the relative safety of civilization.

In general, when you’re doing “everything else”, the players don’t really need a map. Either the DM can just give them the map of the town, or they can imagine it in their head. This differs from DM to DM, so ask your DM… but generally DMs don’t worry about keeping the layout of a town hidden. It’s generally safe, and your characters can just wander wherever. This is what differentiates it from exploration.


Whether you’re exploring an ancient castle, going into a cave complex, or delving into a dungeon, one thing links these play experiences together - danger. In exploration, the threat of attack is always imminent. Every move must be carefully considered with the understanding that foes might pop out at any moment. In some games, this means creating a map. Either the DM gives you a pre-made map, or describes the areas to you so that you can draw them. Some games dispense with a map altogether, and just create the experience in your imagination.

Regardless, the assumption is that any time you open a door, there could be something on the other side that wants to kill you. Thus, there’s a lot of talking and planning among the players about which character goes first, who listens at the door, who opens the door, etc. This is basically pre-combat. You’re planning your moves through the area with the expectation that at some point, you’ll find monsters. The idea is to

  1. not get surprised by the monsters and
  2. not let the monsters know you’re there until you’re ready

Surprising monsters in the next room can easily make the difference between an easy fight and a really hard fight.

Speaking of fighting…


Combat starts when the DM tells you to roll intiative. This is the universal sign for “something’s going to try to kill you”. Once you start combat, D&D is entirely turn based. Each player rolls initiative (a d20) for their character, and the DM rolls for any monsters. Then, everyone goes in the order of their initiatives. At this point, some DMs use a mat covered in squares, called a battle mat, during combat, to make it easier to see where your characters are in relation to everyone else. Some DMs don’t do that, and you just need to describe where your character goes and what she does.

Going fully into combat is an article all in itself, because that’s where fully 2/3rds of the rules in the game are used.


That’s basically it, folks. I’ll probably cover the different aspects of play more in-depth in a later article. Each one is easily able to take up as much time as I can devote to talking about them.

I hope this serves as a useful introduction to playing D&D. If you think there’s anything I’ve missed, please hit me up on twitter @noxpio, leave a comment here, or post on reddit at r/NoXP.