An Introduction to Dungeons and Dragons (from a DM of 40+ Years)
My old man is, in my opinion, a legendary Dungeon Master. He has played Dungeons and Dragons for over 40 years, and passed that love of the game down to me. We now team up, taking it in turns to run one shots and campaigns. This winter we are running two campaigns, and so over the next few weeks we will be writing a lot about Dungeons and Dragons, building resources and introductions for our players. This here is my Dad’s introduction to new players looking to get into D&D.
You’ve taken the plunge and are about to play Dungeons & Dragons, the most widely played fantasy role playing game on the planet. You’re now looking at nearly a thousand pages of rule books, some strangely shaped plastic polyhedra and an eager bunch of friends. It’s not unnatural that you’re a bit apprehensive and confused.
Don’t panic (although that was the Hitchhiker’s Guide and not D&D it’s still a good motto). This is D&D in just under 1200 words…
The Basic Concept of Dungeons and Dragons
D&D is a role playing game where you take the part of one fantasy character. Each of your friends also has one character which will (hopefully!) be different to yours. The rest of the universe is played by the referee or Dungeon Master (that’s the person sitting opposite you with the screen and a sadistic grin). He or she will guide your players through their adventures and resolve any encounters and puzzles you may come across. Every Dungeon Master has a different style but they all share one common feature – they are always right.
Your Character is Unique to You
Your character is all you can control in the game. He or she will have a profession, a race and a background which determine the skills that he or she can use in the game. Your character will also have nine very important numbers which we’ll come on to in a minute.
There are no restrictions in the rules about what kind of character or race you can play although your friendly Dungeon Master may guide you in a certain direction to ensure you get the best out of the forthcoming adventures. The D&D environment is a mixture of several fantasy genres but doesn’t adhere slavishly to any of them (for example, Dwarves are largely Tolkienesque but have overlays from other fantasy epics – you can build yourself a Gimli if you want or you can have a magic-using Gimli who’s never touched an axe and has knitting as a hobby if you prefer).
The options open to you may seem daunting but there are really four types of character depending on how you want to play the game. Fighter types tend to be simple uncomplicated creatures who rely on muscles and a hefty weapon or two to get the job done. The sneakier characters aren’t so hot in battle but come into their own picking locks, spying and creeping up behind people to put a dagger in their shoulder blades. Clerical characters are a little more stayed and focus on doing the will of their deity. They tend to have medical skills and a friendly cleric is usually your best chance not to bleed out if you come off worst in an encounter. Finally there are the magic users who run the whole spectrum from Gandalf to Ged. Pretty useless at fisticuffs these are the characters who can shoot lightning and move mountains (OK, lift pebbles).
Finally your character will have an alignment which drives his or her world view and ethos. You can be good or evil (or a sitter on the fence if you prefer), You can tend towards the rule of law or be a free spirit – it’s totally up to you. It does help if all the characters in a party have alignments which will get on with each other but it’s not obligatory.
The Nine Numbers Essential to Dungeons and Dragons
The majority of your character’s abilities come back to the nine numbers we mentioned earlier. Six of these are randomly generated, three are calculated. We’ll look at the random ones first.
- Strength is a measure of the character’s musculature. Stronger characters can carry more loot, kick down doors and put more “ooomph” behind their attacks. A weak character won’t blow away in a strong wind but may have problems achieving tasks where simple brute force is required.
- Dexterity is a measure of hand to eye coordination and reflexes. Higher dexterity characters will find it easier to climb trees, swing across ravines and dodge angry enemies. Very clumsy characters shouldn’t really be allowed to touch sharp objects.
- Constitution is a measure of health which covers resistance to disease, how easy it is to poison your character and generally how strong he or she is internally.
- Charisma is probably the hardest attribute to define. It’s not just about good looks but covers the presence of a character, how easily you can persuade someone that you’re innocent, how well you negotiate in the market and what followers will do if you shout “follow me!” and run at a bunch of trolls…
- Intelligence is all about brain power, problem solving ability and how easily you can think your way out of trouble. High intelligence characters speak many languages and easily research information. Very low intelligence characters aren’t necessarily dribbling cretins but can have problems with basic concepts.
- Wisdom is another difficult one to define. It’s a measure of common sense, perception and using your experiences to guide your actions. Wise characters are thinkers who notice the unusual. Characters with low wisdom aren’t stupid but can be childish.
The other three numbers are calculated.
- Hit points is the one number you’re going to watch more closely than any other. Hit points measure how much damage your character can take before collapsing into a heap of bloody pulp. You don’t start with many hit points and every blow you take will lower the number you have available. At zero hit points you’re comatose and on your way to the next world. Fortunately there are a lot of ways to increase your hit point count as well which stops all games ending too soon!
- Armour class is a measure of how easy you are to hit. The higher your armour class the fewer blows will land and do you damage. Armour class is a mixture of your natural abilities such as dexterity and size plus any armour you’re wearing. Simples.
- Level is the attribute that determines how skilled your character is. At level 1 a character is a weakling with few skills. As he or she gains experience through adventuring the level will increase and the character’s abilities will improve. Fighters will gain additional attacks, rogues will find it easier to sneak about in shadows and magic users will progress from being able to light a candle by clicking their fingers to being able to incinerate half a city just as easily.
Hints for Playing Dungeons and Dragons
The rule books are thick but most of the rules are about specific events which don’t happen that often. You’ll pick up the basics very quickly.
Parties who support each other usually get better results than parties who fight among themselves.
Parties with a diverse range of skills tend to perform better than groups where all the characters are very similar.
Most characters are flammable.
Your Dungeon Master is always right. Even when he or she isn’t. Don’t argue with the DM – you’ll lose. Player against Dungeon Master is only ever going to end one way and it’s usually messy.
It’s totally natural to be a bit self-conscious at first. Don’t worry about it – we’re all in the same boat.
Finally, and most importantly – have fun and prepare to have your mind blown!