Is Dungeons & Dragons Hard to Play? A Beginner’s Introduction

When you play Dungeons & Dragons, it transports you to another world through roleplaying and storytelling. It might seem intimidating, however, when you play the game for the first time, and you wonder how hard it really is to learn.

Are Dungeons & Dragons hard to play? The game of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D, for short) has a 328-page rulebook and an amazing variety of characters to choose from, but it is not hard to play when you have a vivid imagination and the ability to read and follow the rules.

D&D, the first true roleplaying game, shares elements with childhood games of make-believe. Like those games, D&D is driven by imagination. It’s about picturing the towering castle beneath a stormy night sky. It’s about magical wizards and mystical fairies, sword-fighting barbarians and fire-breathing dragons. It’s about going on an adventure while sitting at your kitchen table and reacting to challenges that your character faces.

But in order to understand how to play the imaginative game of Dungeons & Dragons, you need to know how the fantasy world of D&D got its start.

Why Is It Called Dungeons & Dragons?

Dungeons & Dragons was given its name by its creator, Gary Gygax, in 1974. Gygax was a gamer and game creator in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin back when gamers would name their gaming groups. At the time, Gygax was in a group called The Castle & Crusade Society.

Before D&D, Gygax and a friend created a game called “Chainmail” that simulated medieval combat. At the end of the game, there was a 14-page supplement providing rules for magic spells, monsters, and other mystical things. These 14-pages of rules were the spark that ignited D&D.

Another game creator, Dave Arneson, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, read these rules and, from them, created his own fantasy game called “Blackmoor.” In it, players would create a single character and explore magical realms and underground dungeons, facing perils along the way. The characters would remain the same throughout other games, improving their skills over time.

Arneson met Gygax and gave him the 18-page rulebook for “Blackmoor” to look over. Gygax loved it and expanded it to 50 pages. He then formed his own publishing company called Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR) and published the newly created game known as Dungeons & Dragons.

The Growth of D&D

Dungeons & Dragons sold 150 copies in its first month, and TSR ordered another 1,000 copies for distribution. The $10 game (expensive for 1974) became difficult to find in its first few years, causing players to pirate photocopies and share the rules.

It gained a cult following with teenage nerds nationwide who would hide in their basements and create their own powerful worlds of fantasy and adventure. Anything could happen in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, and players had total imaginative freedom. This made the game a runaway hit.

Over the next 10 years, thanks to D&D, Gygax grew TSR into a multi-million-dollar company. After some hiccups and a potential end to the game, TSR sold to a west coast-based publishing company called Wizards of the Coast in the 1990s. Wizards of the Coast revived Dungeons & Dragons, keeping it alive for a whole new generation of players to experience.

 How Do You Play Dungeons & Dragons?

Unlike a simple game of make-believe, D&D offers structured, well-contrived stories with characters and actions and consequences and conquest – all led by a Dungeon Master. Players roll dice to resolve problems or solve mysteries, and anything is possible.

The Character

In Dungeons & Dragons, each player creates a character and teams up with other characters (typically played by friends) to start an adventure. Character creation is one of the most important parts of the game and, if you are new to D&D, it can be overwhelming and intimidating.

You want your character to be fun to play and exciting to grow. You will need to think about which stats, skills, and spells you want your character to have. More importantly, you will need to decide what type of character you are – a magic warlock, a brave barbarian, a mystical elf or a feisty gnome, for example.

Working with your group, you might explore a dark dungeon, a ruined city, a haunted castle, a lost temple deep in a jungle, or a lava-filled cavern beneath a mountain. You can solve puzzles, talk with other characters, battle fantastic monsters, and discover fabulous treasure.

Each character brings particular capabilities to the adventure in the form of ability scores and skills, class features, racial traits, equipment, and magic items. The best group of characters is one in which they all complement each other and cover the weaknesses of their companions. The adventurers must cooperate to successfully complete the adventure.

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The Character Classes

There are 12 basic character classes that you can choose from when deciding whom your alter-ego is going to be in D&D. From these, there is a myriad of other choices and combinations of characters that can be created.

  • Barbarian – This character is full of brute strength. That’s it, just brute strength. They like to hit things really hard and not wear any armor.
  • Bard – This character is charming, charismatic and inspirational. They can also get their group into (and sometimes out of) avoidable trouble.
  • Cleric – This character is the strongest healer with divine powers. They are also good fighters and carry a wide variety of spells.
  • Druid – This character is a wizard connected to the natural world, and is able to harness the power of nature. They can turn into an animal if needed.
  • Fighter – This character has power and diversity. They can swing a sword or shoot an arrow and cast magic spells, as well.
  • Monk – This character is a fighter that excels in hitting and punching, and is very fast.
  • Paladin – This character is a devout warrior with divine magic skills. They can cast healing spells and are typically courageous and compassionate.
  • Ranger – This character is a warrior that is good at tracking and survival skills.
  • Rogue – This character relies on stealth and deception. They can dole out a lot of damage with their Sneak Attack feature.
  • Sorcerer – This character was born with magical powers. The origin of their power, however, could be divine or from a dragon, making their abilities as diverse as a player wants.
  • Warlock – This character is a spell caster that is good at blasting things.
  • Wizard – This character is one of the most complicated to play. With their abilities, they can learn almost any spell, and a player is acting as a wizard needs to be prepared to know and cast these spells. Wizards are the nerds of the D&D characters, making them perfect for the game.

The Dungeon Master

You can’t go on any of your adventures, however, without the Dungeon Master (DM). One player takes on the role of the DM, the game’s lead storyteller, and referee. The DM creates adventures for the characters, and the players decide what they want their characters to do in the adventures. The DM, in turn, determines the results of the characters’ actions and narrates the story. The DM has the ability to improvise and switch up the storyline, making each adventure exciting and unexpected.

The Non-Player Character

Over the course of an adventure, your character might be confronted by a variety of creatures that you and your team will have to deal with along the way. These non-player characters (NPC) are typically created by the DM to enrich the storyline. They may be allies, enemies or just background extras. Most of the time the NPC is a villain whose agenda drives much of the action in the adventure.

The Adventure and The Campaign

The adventure is the heart of the game – a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. But, unlike other games, D&D has no real end. When one adventure wraps up, another one can begin, creating an ongoing story called a campaign. Many players keep campaigns going for months or even years, meeting once a week to pick up their adventure where they left off. Characters grow in strength as campaigns continue.

Adventures can vary in length and complexity. A short adventure might have a few challenges with a single session to complete. A long adventure may involve hundreds of combats and interactions and could take many sessions to finish. You can think of an adventure as a single episode of a TV series, and a campaign as the whole series. It’s a string of adventures joined together with the same cast of characters following the narrative along the way.

There’s no real winning or losing in Dungeons & Dragons, either. As monsters are defeated and treasures are recovered, characters gain new capabilities and enter new levels. Even if your character meets a grisly death, other characters can use their magic spells to revive you, or you can just create a new one.

The Three Pillars of Adventure

Characters can try to do anything their players can imagine in an adventure, but character activities will mainly fall into three different categories, or pillars – exploration, social interaction, and combat.

  • Exploration. This includes a character’s movement through the world and their interaction with objects and situations that require their attention. It could mean spending a day traveling across a vast countryside or a minute pulling a lever to open a drawbridge.
  • Social Interaction. This is when a character talks to someone or something else in the game. For example, you may need to demand the release of a prisoner, plead for mercy or convince a magic object to give up information.
  • Combat. This is the most structured element of a D&D adventure, with characters taking turns to make sure everyone has a chance to act. It involves swinging weapons, casting spells and fighting in an effort to defeat an enemy. It may involve killing your opponent or just taking it prisoner.

The Worlds

The worlds of the Dungeons & Dragons game exist within a vast cosmos called the multiverse, connected in strange and mysterious ways to one another and to other planes of existence, such as the Elemental Plane of Fire and the Infinite Depths of the Abyss. Within this multiverse are an endless variety of worlds. Many of them have been published as official settings for the D&D game. They begin with a foundation of medieval fantasy and then add the creatures, places, and magic that make these worlds unique.

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Your DM will create the worlds for you to explore on your campaigns. It might be an official setting or it could be one created out of their own imagination. Ultimately, it is up to the DM to set the foundation for your fantasy adventure.

The Game

With a rulebook of more than 300 pages, it might seem daunting to learn how to play Dungeons & Dragons. D&D is limited only by your imagination, but typically each game unfolds in a consistent pattern:

  1. The DM describes the environment and adventure. The players are told where their characters are in the adventure and what is surrounding them.
  • The players describe what they want to do. Sometimes one player will speak for all of them, and other times they will each explain their individual task – search for the treasure, keep watch for monsters, etc.
  • The DM listens and decides how each player’s action will resolve itself.
  • The DM narrates the results of the characters’ actions, which may lead to another action and its varying result. Most of the time, play is fluid and flexible, adapting to the circumstances of the adventure.

Most often the adventures take place solely in the imaginative minds of the DM and the players. However, some DMs use music, art or sound effects to set a scene. Also, to help keep track of gameplay, a map may be laid out with tokens or miniature figures to represent each creature involved in a scene.

The Game Dice

When you need to roll dice, the rules of D&D tell you how many dice to roll of a certain type, as well as what modifiers to add. The game uses polyhedral dice with different numbers of sides, ranging from the typical 4-sided die up to a 20-sided one.

In cases where the outcome of an action is uncertain, Dungeons & Dragons relies on rolls of the 20-sided die to determine success or failure.

Every character in the game has capabilities defined by six ability scores. These abilities are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, and they typically range from three to 18 points for most characters.  Also, characters have class features, spells they’ve learned and other negative circumstances that will give them bonus or penalty points when rolling.

When you need to determine whether an attack will succeed or you can save another character’s life, for example, the DM will give you a target number. You will then roll the die, take that number and add your ability score to it. You will then add or subtract any bonus or penalty points you have. If the total equals or exceeds the target number, the outcome is a success. Otherwise, it’s a failure.

Is Dungeons and Dragons Cool Again?

When it first came out, D&D was not considered cool. In fact, the kids who played it in the 1970s and 80s were considered the nerdiest of nerds. If you were one of those nerds, and others knew you played the game, you stood the chance of being beaten up for it. So, hiding in your parent’s basement and creating an amazing world of adventure was your only choice.

Those nerds have since grown up, and they now own multi-million-dollar tech companies or are A-list actors and media moguls – among other things. Many of them are still playing Dungeons & Dragons, and they’re not hiding it.

Also, thanks to the TV show The Big Bang Theory and the Netflix series, Stranger Things, a whole new generation has sparked an interest in D&D. The hugely popular dragon-filled series, Game of Thrones has also created a new love of all things mystical, magical and fantastical.

The game’s popularity has ebbed and flowed over its 45-year history, but since its resurgence on Stranger Things, its Hasbro-owned developers, Wizards of the Coast, sold more units than ever before. Sales of anything D&D has grown in double-digit percentages just over the past five years.

So, D&D isn’t cool again – because it was never considered cool – Dungeons & Dragons is cool now!

Why are Dungeons and Dragons Cool?

D&D is Still for Nerds

Dungeons & Dragons are back and better than before, with an unprecedented number of adults taking part in the ultimate role-playing fantasy game. With over 40 million players, the game is played more now than when it was invented in 1974. It is a true sign that nerd culture is now mainstream and even, dare I say, popular.

One of the intriguing aspects of the game is that it stimulates both sides of the brain, which really seems to appeal to players. The right side of the brain gets a boost from the role-playing aspect. From choosing your character to its background to how you play out its story, you can do anything you want with creative role play. The left side of the brain gets a kick from the math and probability part of the game.

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Before, you didn’t want to admit you played, but now people are proud they are Dungeons & Dragons fanatics. Actors like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jon Favreau and James Franco have played. Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert have made their own characters. Even Game of Thrones writer, George R.R. Martin grew up as an imaginative Dungeon Master.

D&D is Social

Humans are inherently social beings, and the game of Dungeons & Dragons is part of a movement away from the isolation of computers and mobile devices. The increased popularity of D&D shows that people still enjoy the physical and material experience of books, board games, and face-to-face interaction.

Dungeons & Dragons allow people to get together around a table again to not only play the game but also to talk and socialize. It’s a chance to step away from their computer and cell phone screens.

D&D is also part of a social movement where games are being played at pop-up events in bars, restaurants, resorts and even castles all over the world. They range from one-night to full-week Dungeons & Dragons parties. For most of the players, it’s a chance to break through their shyness, get from behind their computer and connect with others.

In addition, Dungeons & Dragons is using the “social” in social media to its advantage. There are several podcasts devoted to the game, and a web series called Critical Role has its own channel on Twitch (a live-streaming platform for gamers) and can be viewed on YouTube. You can be entertained and learn the game of D&D by watching professional voice actors play spontaneous and unscripted games. It’s like a reality show for Dungeons and Dragons.

D&D is Therapeutic

As a social game, it is believed that playing Dungeons & Dragons could have therapeutic benefits. Players, for example, use their D&D characters as a way to not only escape reality for a while but to also channel and work through grief and trauma. Dungeon Masters have also written and built campaigns around real-world events, leading to open and honest discussions with their groups.

Also, teachers are organizing D&D after-school groups and summer camps to help students socialize. They are even using the game to help students improve their math and reading comprehension skills. Some therapists use D&D to help autistic children with social skills and conflict management.

Dungeons & Dragons has interactive storytelling that promotes friendly collaboration, creative thinking, active listening, and keen problem-solving skills. It is played in safe, social and positive environments, were developing your D&D character also helps develop your own personal character.

D&D is More Inclusive

Dungeons & Dragons is being played by a bigger variety of people than ever before. More than 60 percent are older than 25 years of age, and 38 percent are women – with the help of improved rules.

The updated version of the game has taken out the rule that female characters’ strength is less than a male characters’ strength. The sexist artwork that included armored bikinis, monsters with large breasts and topless women have all been deleted.

Women and young girls are also more interested due to a Web series called Girls, Guts, Glory, where eight actresses play Dungeons and Dragons as a way to improve their improvisational skills.

Characters and role-playing are also more inclusive in other ways. Characters come in a rainbow of skin colors, body types, and sexual orientations. You could play a purple, bearded female dwarf or a wood elf that identifies as non-binary.

D&D is Less Complicated

Inclusiveness is not the only thing that has changed over the years for D&D. The game has shifted focus away from the intricacies of all the rules, the game mechanics and statistics. Today, it is more focused on creating narratives and rich stories.

More people are playing, not just because of it being re-introduced on TV, but also because it is easier to play. In 2014, a 5th edition came out with a more streamlined game-play and fewer rules. But that doesn’t mean that the game is “dumbed down” – it is still a highly creative, thought-provoking and sometimes a challenging game.

Another game-changer, literally, has been technology. Today, people can play D&D via video conference, using dice-rolling apps, filling out online character sheets and drawing maps on their laptops. There are virtual games, as well, where you can play against people anywhere in the world and hire a Dungeon Master to run the campaign over the internet.

Tips for Dungeons & Dragons Beginners

If you have finally convinced yourself that Dungeons & Dragons is a game that you want to take on, and you’re ready for a fun night (or nights) of strategic, complex and highly imaginative adventure, here are some tips to help you with your experience.

Offer to be the DMs assistant. By subtly interacting with the players and observing the gameplay, you are able to pick up on a lot of the intricacies of Dungeons & Dragons. Each DM will allow you to help in different ways, but you could roll the different dice, for example. This way, you could learn the mechanics of the dice roll and how it affects the outcome of an adventure.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. As you are watching and listening to the game for the first time, there will undoubtedly be an incredible amount of curious questions that come to mind. Questions about characters, questions about rolling the dice, questions about why there are so many dice and questions about achieving goals and objectives. You can’t fully learn the game without asking questions.

Read player guides and handbooks. Besides asking questions, read any and all information you can get your hands on – especially when it comes to developing your character. When you are ready to play, you will want to make sure that your character has a great backstory.

Have fun. Dungeons & Dragons was designed as a socially interactive role-playing game. It is only a success, though, if you bring your highly creative, imaginative mind and free-spirited sense of adventure to the table. And it won’t hurt if your character is a butt-kicking Barbarian or a roguish Ranger.