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How to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E for beginners

Everything you need to know to get started with the world's biggest tabletop RPG.

An image of the Dungeons & Dragons 5E Player's Handbook.
Image credit: Wizards of the Coast

Whenever anyone thinks of roleplaying games, the title that immediately pops into their head is Dungeons & Dragons. A tabletop roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons – also known as D&D 5E – is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, with the most recent movie adaptation performing well critically and series like The Legend of Vox Machina highlighting the game in the public consciousness. Playing D&D is no longer the extremely niche activity it once was, with more and more people who have a reference in Stranger Things or the D&D movie, picking the game up to try for themselves.

Arguably, it’s never been easier to get into D&D than right at this moment. There are many ways to get started with the fantasy tabletop RPG – from books to apps to pre-made adventures – the materials are widely available to buy and there are plenty of resources to help you along the way, including this guide. If you’re entirely new to Dungeons & Dragons, you’re likely wondering what you need to do in order to begin playing. This guide is designed to walk you through understanding what Dungeons & Dragons is, how to play it and where to start.

How to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E

Though D&D can come across as incredibly overwhelming to begin with – there is a lot to take in to begin with – it's not impossible for a complete newbie to pick the game up quickly. Of course, like a lot of activities, the more you play Dungeons & Dragons, the better you’ll get at it, so don’t be disheartened if it’s a struggle to start with. However, you’ll be able to get the basics in hand and be ready to jump into doing things like making a D&D character and experiencing a D&D campaign in next-to-no-time. Get ready to dive into the world of tabletop roleplaying, with our guide to How to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E for beginners.

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What is Dungeons & Dragons?

Welcome to the world's most popular TRPG

Players will need a set of polyhedral dice in order to play D&D 5E. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop RPG set in a fantasy world. After players make Dungeons & Dragons characters, they weave a collaborative story using improv, imagination and dice rolls. The group is guided through this by the dungeon master, who describes the world, plays all of its non-player characters - including the creatures you’ll fight - and oversees the rules.

Since its invention in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons has remained one of the best tabletop roleplaying games around. Though it’s predominantly steeped in fantasy lore, and there’s a lot of it, over the years the tabletop RPG has been adapted across a range of genres and settings detailed in various Dungeons & Dragons 5E sourcebooks.

With the likes of D&D 5E actual play series including Critical Role and Dicebreaker's own Storybreakers campaign, in many ways, watching Dungeons & Dragons has become more popular than actually playing it.

The current fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons prioritises storytelling and character immersion more than ever before, with a number of Dungeons & Dragons 5E campaigns available that cover everything from a cursed vampire world to high-tech cities filled with airships, colossal constructs and artificial people.

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There are a range of official Dungeons & Dragons settings that make up the tabletop RPG's universe. Among the most well-known is the high-fantasy Forgotten Realms, predominantly based in continent Faerûn and where the Dungeons & Dragons 5E Starter Set's adventure takes place.

Next year will see the release of One D&D, which is the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Playtest materials for One D&D are being published online for free in the run up to its launch, giving players the opportunity to preview what the edition might be like before it’s released in full.

How to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E

Get your head around the rules

Image of someone playing D&D
Taking notes when playing D&D is generally a good idea for all players. | Image credit:

Here’s how Dungeons & Dragons works. One of you is the dungeon master - a storyteller, referee and actor all rolled into one. The dungeon master creates an adventure, which can be a one-off, meaning you can play the whole story in one session, or a longer-form campaign - an ongoing story that lasts multiple sessions.

This adventure can be written entirely by the dungeon master themselves, a type of D&D adventure known as homebrew – which is content made by the community - or they can use a pre-made one-off scenario or campaign. There are a range of official Dungeons & Dragons 5E campaigns out there packed full of non-player-characters, maps, lore and story.

As well as guiding the players with descriptions, dialogue and quests, the dungeon master also ensures that the rules of D&D are being followed. While it is a fantasy cosmos, for the most part, the Dungeons & Dragons 5E rules are designed to mimic a version of real world. For example, falling off a cliff is likely to kill a character, or at least mortally wound them. Like the players, the dungeon master will use dice to determine consequences. For instance, the dungeon master might make you roll some dice to determine how well you land after you stumble off a cliff, which could either improve on or worsen the outcome.

While storytelling and improv are a big part of most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, combat and strategy are still integral parts of the tabletop RPG. Combat is effectively conducted as dungeon master versus player, with the DM controlling monsters in the same way players control their characters - using dice rolls to determine whether attacks and spells hit and how much damage they do. Battle maps and miniatures can also be used to depict fights visually, but they aren't necessary.

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As a player, you can play D&D with one dungeon master and as few as two other people. Otherwise, you can also join a larger group of up to five other players in total. You’ll each create characters - or use ready-made ones - to interact with the world. As part of character creation, you’ll choose a character species and a D&D class, which determines what type of character your adventurer is.

If you want to be lithe and sneaky, you might pick the rogue class, or you might want to use magic so you might choose to play as a warlock or even a D&D wizard.

There’s a huge amount of variation within classes too, with a vast range of Dungeons & Dragons 5E subclasses available, including everything from cursed knights to rogues wielding magical spells.

You’ll then roll dice to determine your characters stats, such as strength and intelligence, or use what’s known as points buy to allocate numbers to the stats you choose. You’ll write up all of this information, along with an inventory and your chosen skills and abilities, on a Dungeons & Dragons character sheet.

You'll then get together - either in person or online - and play through the adventure.

How to get started with D&D as a beginner

Where to begin with Dungeons & Dragons

The d20 is easily the most important die in Dungeons & Dragons. | Image credit:

When getting started with Dungeons & Dragons 5E as a beginner, you must first decide whether you could drum-up an interested group in real life. If you don't already have a group able to meet in-person, you could always play Dungeons & Dragons online or look to lead the way and start a Dungeons & Dragons group yourself.

It’s also important to consider, at this stage, what you want to get out of Dungeons & Dragons, as different groups can have wildly different playstyles. The majority use a mixture of storytelling and combat, while others will focus on one over the other.

A good place to start is to think about what you like about board games or other mediums, such as films or books. Is it the mechanics of a game that draw you in? Is it the characters? Do you like to hash out the most efficient paths to success? Are strategies and win conditions what you seek? Or are you someone that loves improv and getting into a character’s head for a while? Do you get attached to the characters you and your friends play?

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Most D&D players typically fall into two general camps: they’re either in it for the tactical monster-slaying, or they’re in it for storytelling moments. Obviously, people aren’t quite simple enough as to split into two such disparate groups, especially when it comes to something as varied as tabletop gaming. However, figuring out whether you connect more with one approach or the other, will give you a better idea of how you want to actually play D&D.

In a similar vein, as a dungeon master you'll want to consider whether to choose a homebrew or pre-built campaign - we'd recommend the latter if you're just starting out. What are the overriding themes of your campaign? Is it going to be a combat-heavy dungeon-crawl requiring strategy and wits, or a character-driven jaunt through a mystical world? Do you like horror or high-fantasy adventure? It's your world, so you – and your fellow players - decide.

What to buy to start playing Dungeons & Dragons?

Get what you need to begin your D&D journey

New D&D 5E starter set layout image
The D&D 5E Starter Set is an excellent option for new players getting into the game. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

It can be a little intimidating working out what to buy if you want to play D&D. The tabletop RPG has been around a long time and, as such, there’s an awful lot of books, cards, dice sets and gubbins out there. That said, you can’t go too wrong with the official Dungeons & Dragons 5E Starter Set. If you're learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E, it has absolutely everything you need to get started as either a dungeon master or player - including dice, rules and a one-off adventure titled Lost Mine of Phandelver. It’s ideal for beginners in both counts.

As a player, all you’ll need is your character sheet - available to print off for free - a pencil, a set of polyhedral dice and access to the rules of Dungeons & Dragons. Optionally a notebook is ideal.

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As a dungeon master, you’ll need a set of polyhedral dice, Dungeons & Dragons rules and either lots of notebooks or a laptop, as you’ll be writing a lot. The Dungeon Master’s Guide is a sourcebook that provides everything you’ll need, while you can start with an official D&D 5E campaign to save on writing your own adventure from scratch. Ideally, a DM screen to conceal your activities is handy too.

Is D&D hard to learn?

Here's what to expect from the TRPG

D&D 5E takes some time to learn, but players will improve as they go. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E could be considered hard in that there are an awful lot of rules to get started with. Whilst not the most complicated tabletop RPG out there, learning D&D will still take some time if you’ve never played a TRPG before.

Dungeons & Dragons 5E relies on improvisation as much as it does dice rolls, so everyone can start playing straight away and mete out the rules over a series of sessions. Over time, key D&D terms and rules will gradually begin to make more sense, you'll start knowing which die to use for what and you'll soon find yourself flicking through the rulebook less and less in search of answers.

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Alex Meehan avatar
Alex Meehan: After writing for Kotaku UK, Waypoint and Official Xbox Magazine, Alex became a member of the Dicebreaker editorial family. Having been producing news, features, previews and opinion pieces for Dicebreaker for the past three years, Alex has had plenty of opportunity to indulge in her love of meaty strategy board games and gothic RPGS. Besides writing, Alex appears in Dicebreaker’s D&D actual play series Storybreakers and haunts the occasional stream on the Dicebreaker YouTube channel.
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