How to play Dungeons & Dragons: Getting started as a beginner

Everything you need to know to get started with Dungeons & Dragons as a dungeon master or player, including how to play, what to buy and the best adventures.

Explore strange new worlds, battle terrible monsters and accure mysterious treasures in one of the greatest tabletop RPGs of all time.

Here, you can learn everything you need to know about how to play Dungeons & Dragons - whether you’re a complete beginner or new to fifth edition - including what D&D actually is, how to play online and off, what to buy to start playing and how to get started with the erstwhile tabletop RPG. Pack those dice. Let's get rolling.

  • What is Dungeons & Dragons? It’s a tabletop roleplaying game set in a fantasy world. You make characters and create a collaborative story using improv, imagination and dice rolls. You are guided through this by the dungeon master, who describes the world, plays all of its characters (including the creatures you’ll fight) and oversees the rules.
  • How to play D&D? You can play with other people in person using dice and the official basic free rules, or online using digital Dungeons & Dragons platform Roll20.
  • How to get started with D&D as a beginner? As a player, you’ll need the player’s handbook or free official rules, a set of seven polyhedral dice and a dungeon master. As a dungeon master, you’ll need polyhedral dice, at least one player and ideally the official Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook, although plenty of rules are available online.
  • What to buy to start playing Dungeons & Dragons? As a beginner, you’ll need a 7-pack of polyhedral dice and potentially Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks such as the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s guide.
  • Is D&D hard to learn? As a player, with guidance, the basics are easy to grasp, but overall, Dungeons & Dragons can take some time to fully understand. That said, it’s fun to play right from the off and once you understand it, the system can be adapted for all types of settings.

What is Dungeons & Dragons?

Dungeonsanddragonscampaigns-demigorgoron-outoftheabyss.png
The infamous Demigorgon features in D&D campaign Out of The Abyss and was mentioned in TV series Stranger Things.

Since its invention in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons has remained one of the best tabletop roleplaying games around. Although it’s predominantly steeped in fantasy lore (and there’s a lot of it), over the years Dungeons & Dragons has been adapted across a range of genres and settings.

And with the likes of actual play series Critical Role (which is even getting its own upcoming RPG official D&D sourcebook) and TV shows like Stranger Things and Community, D&D is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. However, this is no surprise, as the tabletop RPG serves as a foundation for many of the fantasy tropes we see in mass media, mfrom RPG video games to films and books.

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

There are a range of official Dungeons & Dragons settings that contain entire cosmos, however, among the most well-known is the high-fantasy Forgotten Realms, predominantly based in continent Faerûn and is where the Starter Set's adventure is based.

How to play D&D?

Dungeons & Dragons 5E Essentials Kit artwork
You can play epic fantasy tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons in person or via online platform Roll20.

So, 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, or they can use a pre-made one-off or campaign. There are a range of official D&D 5E campaigns out there packing plentiful non-player-characters, maps, lore and story.

As well as guiding the players with descriptions, dialog 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 rules of D&D mimic the real world. For example, falling off a cliff is likely to kill a character. Like the players, the dungeon master will use dice to determine consequences. Leading on from the cliff example, the dungeon master might make you roll a dice to determine how well you land.

bestDungeonsandDragonscampaigns_cover.png
Explore strange new worlds and go on perilious adventures in Dungeons & Dragons.

While storytelling and improv are a big part of most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, true to its wargaming origins, combat and strategy are still integral parts of the game. Combat is effectively conducted as dungeon master versus player, where they run monsters in the same way you’d play your character, using dice rolls to determine whether their punches or spells respectively hit. Battle maps and miniatures (or on a budget option, dice) can be used to depict fights visually.

As a player, you can join one dungeon master to play as two, or join a larger group of up to five other players in total. You’ll each create characters (or use pre-generated ones) to interact with the world. As part of Dungeons & Dragons 5E character creation, you’ll select a character gender, race and name. As part of this you’ll also pick a class - which outlines what type of fighter your character is.

Dungeons & Dragons warlock.
Select a dark patron to make a pact with as Dungeons & Dragons character class, the warlock.

For example, you might want to be lithe and sneaky, so you’d pick the rogue class, or you may wish to use strange magic, so you might pick a warlock or 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 a set number of points to the stats you choose. You’ll write up all of this information, along with an inventory and your skills and abilities, on a Dungeons & Dragons character sheet.

To learn more, take a gander at how to make Dungeons & Dragons 5E characters for beginners and the basics of Dungeons & Dragons.

you'll then get together - either in person or online - and play through the adventure. Consider it as like a television series, where new things happen every episode.

How to get started with D&D as a beginner?

Dungeons & Dragons Dice Set
You'll need a character sheet, dice, rules and a pencil to get started playing Dungeons & Dragons.

First decide whether you’ve got an interested group in real life. If that’s possible, take a look at online D&D platform Roll20 (which has classifieds that helps people connect with groups) where you can play with full audio, visual, battle map, dice and rules support, or take a stroll down your local tabletop cafe. Many of these hold Adventurer’s League sessions, events designed to get you playing D&D. Take a look at how to start a Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying group to learn more.

It’s also important to consider at this stage what you want to get out of Dungeons & Dragons. Different groups will have wildly different playstyles. The majority use a mix of storytelling and combat, however some focus on one very much over the other.

A good place to start is to think about what you like about board games (if you play board games at all); is it the mechanics of a game that draw you in? 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 creative improv - getting into a character’s head for awhile? Do you get attached to the characters you and your friends play?

DungeonsandDragons5E_beholder_theatreofthemind.jpg
An epic battle with a beholder, one of D&D's most iconic monsters.

So how does this particular Rorschach test translate into D&D? See, most D&D players typically fall into two general camps; they’re either in it for the tactical monster-slaying and cool new gear, or they’re in it for storytelling moments and character interactions. 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 go homebrew or pre-built campaign (we recommend this for beginner dungeon masters). 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, high-fantasy adventure or pulply adventures? It's your world. You decide.

What to buy to start playing Dungeons & Dragons?

DungeonsandDragons_UnearthedArcana_AirElemental.png
All kinds of strange entities live in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, from angels to genies to dragon turles.

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, dicesets and gubbins out there. That said, you can’t go too wrong with the official Dungeons & Dragons starter set - as 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.

Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set front artwork
The Dungeons & Dragons 5E Starter Set, which includes sets of polyhedral dice, character sheets, a short adventure and basic rules.

Buy Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

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.

Christmas_02_Metaldice.png
A set of polyhedral dice for Dungeons & Dragons, including seven dice in total, numbering from twenty-sided, to four-sided.

Buy metal dice set at Amazon UK / Amazon US

Dungeons & Dragons 5E book Player's Handbook
There's a range of Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks and campaigns available, such as D&D bible The Players Handbook.

Buy The Player's Handbook at Amazon.

As a dungeon master, you’ll need a set of polyhedral dice, Dungeons & Dragons rules and either lots of notebooks or a laptop. You’ll be writing a lot. The Dungeon Master’s Guide Dungeons & Dragons 5E sourcebook 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 player screen to conceal your activities is handy too.

Dungeons & Dragons 5E book Dungeon Master's Guide
Get started as a dungeon master with the official D&D 5E Dungeon Master's Guide.

Buy The Dungeon Master's Guide at Amazon.

Is D&D hard to learn?

Dungeons & Dragons, the first and one of the best tabletop RPGs. This image depicts Arch Lich Asserac, the antagonist of infamous D&D adventure module the Tomb of Horrors.
Lich Asserac, a well-known evil character (if you couldn't tell) from Dungeons & Dragons lore.

Yes. It’s hard, in that there are an awful lot of rules to get started with. However, unlike say, a more complex board game where play can be stilted until all understand the rules, D&D is easy to get stuck into. It relies on improv as much as it does its rolls, so all can start playing straight away and mete out the rules over a series of sessions. Over time, the Dungeons & Dragons key terms will make more sense and you'll start learning which die to use for what.


Sometimes we include links to online retail stores. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission.

Sara Elsam

Staff Writer

Sara has been writing since 2017, contributing news, features and more to outlets including Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun, Variety, The Guardian, BBC and Tabletop Gaming magazine. The team’s resident expert in Dungeons & Dragons, they’re also a fan of all things horror and psychedelia both on and off the table. They are happiest rolling big dice, raising mobs and rocking out with their Bard-Lock.

More How To Guides