It’s no secret that D&D has experienced a renaissance in recent years. The latest edition (5th, if you’re counting) is a smashing success, selling more copies of the Player’s Handbook than any other modern edition (3, 3.5, or 4). It’s a YouTube and podcast sensation as well, with many players streaming their games, including celebrities. It’s been featured on Big Bang Theory and on Netflix mega-hit, Stranger Things.
Needless to say, interest in the game is high, and lots of people are playing. I suspect even more people want to play, but are intimidated because they think it’s overly complex and difficult to learn. As a long time DM (that’s Dungeon Master for the uninitiated), I can let you in on a little secret: D&D is easy.
Let me qualify that. There can be a lot of depth in D&D if you want there to be. There are a lot of options that can add complexity and detail to the game, but there are really only a few rules you have to know to jump into the game and have a good time. I’m going to give you the basics right now. That way, you won’t have to ask your DM “What die to I roll?” or “How do I attack?” or “What’s a Dexterity Saving Throw?” or “Where’s the Mountain Dew?”* every five minutes.
The Core Mechanic
In D&D, whenever you try to do something where there’s a chance of failure (attack an enemy, climb a sheer surface, pick a lock, dodge a fireball), you roll a 20 sided die and try to beat a target number set by the DM. The 20 sided die is your friend! Don’t ask the DM “What die to I roll for that?” If you’re rolling to attack, use a skill or ability, or make a saving throw (explained below), you roll a 20 sided die (abbreviated d20).
Pop Quiz: What die do I roll?
If you said 20 sided, you’re correct! Don’t ask your DM, just roll it!
Now, how does it actually work? First, your Dungeon Master determines the difficulty of the task you are trying to achieve. He or she will set a number, usually between 5 and 20, called the Difficulty Class (DC). A DC of 5 is very easy, while a DC of 20 is considered difficult. For very hard tasks, the DC might be as high as 25 or even 30.
Next, the player will roll a d20 and add any modifiers they might have to the roll. If the result equals or exceeds the DC, the player is successful in accomplishing their task.
The process for striking an opponent in combat is the same, except you are not trying to beat a Difficulty Class, but instead an Armor Class (AC). The AC represents how difficult it is to strike an opponent, penetrate their armor, and inflict damage.
Example: You are trying to scale a difficult cliff face. You’re a strong character, and you are a skilled athlete. Therefore, you have a +5 modifier to your d20 roll when climbing. The Dungeon Master sets the DC of the climb to 15.
You start to climb and roll an 11 on your d20. You add your +5 modifier to the result of the die roll, for a total of 16. Since 16 exceeds the DC, you succeed and are able to scale the cliff. Congratulations! You would also have succeeded on a total of 15, but had you rolled a 14 or lower, you would not have been able to make the climb. In fact, if you rolled very low, the DM might have decided that you fell while you were climbing and injured yourself.
Example 2: You are trying to attack an opponent with a sword in combat. He is wearing chain-mail armor, giving him an AC of 16. You are very strong warrior and are trained in the use of swords, so you have a +6 modifier to your attack.
You roll a d20 and your result is 9. You add +6 for a total of 15. Oh, so close! You might have struck your opponent, but your attack wasn’t strong enough to penetrate his armor and deal damage.
The fight continues. On the next round of combat, you roll a 12 on the d20. Adding 6, you get an 18! That beats his AC of 16, so you’ve hit hard enough to do some damage.
Special Note: Sometimes you will have Advantage while trying to perform a task, and sometimes you will be at a Disadvantage. If your DM tells you have Advantage, roll the d20 twice (that’s 2d20) and take the higher of the two rolls. If you have Disadvantage, roll 2d20 and take the lower of the rolls.
Ok, So I Always Roll a d20. Cool. How Do I Know What to Add to It?
Almost everything you do will be modified by your ability scores. If you are trained, or proficient, in a certain skill or with a certain tool or weapon, you also add your proficiency bonus.
Your ability scores are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. These scores give you modifiers that generally range from -1 to +5. For example, if you are a weaker than average person, your Strength modifier might be -1 (or even lower). If you are moderately strong, your modifier might be +1 or +2. If you are, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, you would have a +5 strength modifier.
Your proficiency bonus can range from +2 to +6, depending on your character’s level. You add this bonus to things you are proficient with. Your class and background will determine what skills, tools, and weapons you are proficient with.
Example: You’re trying to sneak past a guard, which uses a dexterity-based skill called stealth. You are a sneaky rogue, so this is right up your alley. Let’s say you are 5th level, which would make your proficiency bonus +3. You’re Dexterity modifier is +4. Since you are proficient in stealth, you add your proficiency bonus and Dexterity modifier together to determine what you add to your stealth roll. This gives you a +7 modifier to add to your d20 when you try to sneak past the guard.
The Dungeon Master knows the guard isn’t very good at his job, and his perception score is only 12. That means you only have to roll higher than 12 on your stealth check to sneak past him.
You roll a 6 on your d20. After you add your modifier of +7, you’ve got a total of 13. That’s enough to beat the guard’s perception score of 12, so you sneak past him and he’s none the wiser. Score!
Note: If you had not been proficient in stealth, you would have added only your Dexterity modifier (+4) when you were trying to sneak past the guard. That would have made your total 10 (6+4), which would not beat the guard’s perception score of 12. In this case, he would have noticed you. Bad news!
Great, But I Want to Get to the Monster Killin’. How Do I Fight?
Combat is at the core of almost every D&D adventure. It’s pretty simple.
First, everyone makes an Initiative roll. That means, you roll your d20 and add your dexterity modifier. The result is your initiative score for the encounter. Each participant in the encounter takes a turn in order of initiative score, highest to lowest.
Second, everyone takes an action on their turn. Often, that action is attacking someone (or something). You can also move up to your speed (usually 30’ or 6 squares for most characters), and possibly take a bonus action.
In order to attack, roll a d20 and add the appropriate modifier. Usually, this is your Strength or Dexterity modifier, in addition to your proficiency bonus if you are proficient with the weapon you’re using.
You use your Strength modifier for most melee (close range) weapons, such as long swords, war hammers, and battle axes. You also use your Strength modifiers for most thrown weapons, like javelins and hand axes.
You use your Dexterity modifier for missile weapons, such as bows, crossbows, or slingshots.
You can choose to use either your Strength or Dexterity modifiers for certain weapons designated as finesse weapons. Finesse weapons include things like daggers, short swords, and rapiers.
Attacking with a weapon: 1d20 + Proficiency Bonus (if proficient with the weapon you’re using) + Ability Modifier (either Strength or Dexterity, depending on the weapon).
As already stated, your attack roll must equal or exceed your opponents Armor Class after you add all appropriate modifiers in order to “hit” your opponent. When you “hit,” you deal damage to your opponent.
Each weapon type deals a certain amount of damage. This is where dice other than the d20 come in to play (I know you were wondering when you would get to use all those other dice). For example, a short sword deals 1d6 damage (that is, one roll of a 6 sided die). A longsword deals 1d8 damage, and a great axe (a big, two-handed weapon) deals 1d12. Damage is modified by either Strength or Dexterity—whichever you used to modify your d20 attack roll.
Example: You are fighting a fearsome orc with AC 13. You attack with your long sword. You have a strength modifier of +3, and you are proficient with long swords, so you also add you proficiency bonus of +2 (a total of +5).
You roll a 12 on the d20. Adding 5 to it, your total is 17—more than enough to hit AC 13. You roll your damage die, a d8, and roll a 6. You add your Strength modifier of +3 for a total of 9 points of damage. If the orc was already wounded, that might be enough to put the poor bastard out of his misery. Victory is yours!
If you roll a natural 20 on your d20 attack roll (that is, a 20 on the die before applying any modifiers), you score a critical hit. On a critical hit, you roll your damage dice twice and add them together. You still only add your damage modifier once, though. In the example above, if you score a critical hit (or crit), your damage is 2d8+3 (that is, you roll the 8 sided die twice, add them together, and then add 3).
Okay, so after everyone on both sides takes their action, the combat round ends. If one side hasn’t fled or been wiped out, the action proceeds to the next round starting at the top of the initiative order. Keep going until one side is victorious.
What Else Can I Do During Combat Other Swing a Weapon?
You can attempt anything you can think of. Some common things you might try include: drinking a potion, hiding, pushing someone off a cliff, grappling, tripping or disarming your enemy, fleeing, attending to a fallen companion, or opening a door. The DM has rules on how to resolve many situations. If you attempt something not covered by the rules, it’s up to the DM to determine your chances of success.
If you are a spellcaster, you will probably want to fight with magic instead of a weapon. For many combat-oriented spells, you roll a d20 to attack just as if you attacked with a weapon. But instead of being modified by Strength or Dexterity, your spell attack is modified by Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma, depending on your class. You always add your proficiency bonus when attacking with a spell. Some spells do not require an attack roll, but instead require that the defender makes a “saving throw.”
Attacking with a spell: 1d20 + Proficiency Bonus + Ability Modifier (Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma)
Pro Tip: If you are a wizard or sorcerer, take the spell Magic Missile at first level. You don’t have to roll a d20—as long as you can see your target, it always hits! Pew Pew!
The Sleep spell is also useful for starting magic users. It’s a great way to keep those swarming kobolds off your back while the fighter-types pick them off in their sleep. Coup de grâce! Coup de grâce!
You Keep Talking about Saving Throws. What the Heck Are Those?
Sometimes you have a chance to avoid, or partially avoid, the ill effects of something that happens to you. To see if you do, you make a saving throw, or save. Saving throws are based on each of the six ability scores. You will usually be proficient with two saves (for example, a fighter is proficient with Strength and Constitution saves), so you add your proficiency bonus to those saves as well as your ability modifier.
Example: Suppose a pit opens up in front of your burly fighter. You have to react quickly and nimbly to avoid falling into it, so your DM might ask you to make a Dexterity save. You roll a d20 and add your Dexterity modifier. If you roll high enough to beat the DC set by your DM, you don’t fall into the pit. If you roll under the DC, you topple in, screaming like a baby.
Example 2: Later, your fighter drinks what he thinks is a potion of healing, but it turns out to be poison. Your DM has you make a Constitution save to see if you can shrug off the poison’s effects. Since your fighter is proficient with Constitution saves, he rolls a d20, adds his Constitution modifier, and then adds his proficiency bonus. If the result equals or exceeds the DC, the fighter shrugs off some or all of the poison’s effects.
Some spells you or your opponents cast require the target to make a saving throw. For example, your 5th level wizard casts a Fireball spell at a bunch of pesky goblins. They are all caught in the radius of the blast, and must make a Dexterity saving throw to see if they can hit the floor or dodge out of the way. If they roll lower than your spell save DC, they are too slow and take full damage from the fireball. If they make their save, they avoid the worst effects of the blast and take only half damage.
Saving Throws: 1d20 + Ability Modifier + Proficiency Bonus (if proficient with that save)
That Seems Easy. What Else Do I Need to Know?
Nada! That’s enough to get you started. Congrats! Now you can play D&D.
When in doubt, just remember this simple formula: 1d20 + Ability Modifier + (maybe) Proficiency Bonus.
If you want to know more, you can download the D&D Basic Rules for free from the Wizards of the Coast website. That way you can read up on your class’s abilities and spells and really hit the ground running. But if you’re like, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” you can learn these things as you play, and your DM should be willing to help.
Want to jump right in without having to figure out how to create a character? Use one of these handy pregenerated characters!
Now that’s enough reading. Go play some D&D!