The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game is about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery. It shares elements with childhood games of make-believe. Like those games, D&D is driven by imagination. Unlike a game of make-believe, D&D gives structure to the stories, a way of determining the consequences of the adventurers’ action. Players roll dice to resolve whether their attacks hit or miss or whether their adventurers can scale a cliff, roll away from the strike of a magical lightning bolt, or pull off some other dangerous task. Anything is possible, but the dice make some outcomes more probable than others.
In the Dungeons & Dragons game, each player creates an adventurer (also called a character) and teams up with other adventurers (played by friends). Working together, the group 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 mysterious mountain. The adventurers can solve puzzles, talk with other characters, battle fantastic monsters, and discover fabulous magic items and other treasure.
One player, however, takes on the role of the Dungeon Master (DM), the game’s lead storyteller and referee. The DM creates adventures for the characters, who navigate its hazards and decide which paths to explore. The DM determines the results of the adventurers’ actions and narrates what they experience. Because the DM can improvise to react to anything the players attempt, D&D is infinitely flexible, and each adventure can be exciting and unexpected.
How to Play
The play of the Dungeons & Dragons game unfolds according to this basic pattern:
1. The DM describes the environment. The DM tells the players where their adventurers are and what’s around them, presenting the basic scope of options that present themselves (how many doors lead out of a room, what’s on a table, who’s in the tavern, and so on).
2. The players describe what they want to do. Sometimes one player speaks for the whole party, saying, “We’ll take the east door,” for example. Other times, different adventurers do different things: one adventurer might search a treasure chest while a second examines an esoteric symbol engraved on a wall and a third keeps watch for monsters. The players don’t need to take turns, but the DM listens to every player and decides how to resolve those actions.
Sometimes, resolving a task is easy. If an adventurer wants to walk across a room and open a door, the DM might just say that the door opens and describe what lies beyond. But the door might be locked, the floor might hide a deadly trap, or some other circumstance might make it challenging for an adventurer to complete a task. In those cases, the DM decides what happens, often relying on the roll of a die to determine the results of an action.
3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions. Describing the results often leads to another
decision point, which brings the flow of the game right back to step 1.
This pattern holds whether the adventurers are cautiously exploring a ruin, talking to a devious prince, or locked in mortal combat against a mighty dragon. In certain situations, particularly combat, the action is more structured and the players (and DM) do take turns choosing and resolving actions. But most of the time, play is fluid and flexible, adapting to the circumstances of the adventure.
Often the action of an adventure takes place in the imagination of the players and DM, relying on the DM’s verbal descriptions to set the scene. Some DMs like to use music, art, or recorded sound effects to help set the mood, and many players and DMs alike adopt different voices for the various adventurers, monsters, and other characters they play in the game. Sometimes, a DM might lay out a map and use tokens or miniature figures to represent each creature involved in a scene to help the players keep track of where everyone is.
The game uses polyhedral dice with different numbers of sides. In these rules, the different dice are referred to by the letter d followed by the number of sides: d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20. For instance, a d6 is a six-sided die (the typical cube that many games use).
When you need to roll dice, the rules tell you how many dice to roll of a certain type, as well as what modifiers to add. For example, “3d8 + 5” means you roll three eight-sided dice, add them together, and add 5 to the total.
The same d notation appears in the expressions “1d3” and “1d2.” To simulate the roll of 1d3, roll a d6 and divide the number rolled by 2 (round up). To simulate the roll of 1d2, roll any die and assign a 1 or 2 to the roll depending on whether it was odd or even. (Alternatively, if the number rolled is more than half the number of
sides on the die, it’s a 2.)
Does an adventurer’s sword swing hurt a dragon or just bounce off its iron-hard scales? Will the ogre believe an outrageous bluff? Can a character swim across a raging river? Can a character avoid the main blast of a fireball, or does he or she take full damage from the blaze? In cases where the outcome of an action is uncertain, the Dungeons & Dragons game relies on rolls of a 20-sided die, a d20, to determine success or failure.
Every character and monster in the game has capabilities defined by six ability scores. The abilities are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, and they typically range from 3 to 18 for most adventurers. (Monsters might have scores as low as 1 or as high as 30.) These ability scores, and the ability modifiers derived from them, are the basis for almost every d20 roll that a player makes on a character’s or monster’s behalf.
Ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws are the three main kinds of d20 rolls, forming the core of the rules of the game. All three follow these simple steps.
1. Roll the die and add a modifier. Roll a d20 and add the relevant modifier. This is typically the modifier derived from one of the six ability scores, and it sometimes includes a proficiency bonus to reflect a character’s particular skill.
2. Apply circumstantial bonuses and penalties. A class feature, a spell, a particular circumstance, or some other effect might give a bonus or penalty to the check.
3. Compare the total to a target number. If the total equals or exceeds the target number, the ability check, attack roll, or saving throw is a success. Otherwise, it’s a failure. The DM is usually the one who determines target numbers and tells players whether their ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws succeed or fail. The target number for an ability check or a saving throw is called a Difficulty Class (DC). The target number for an attack roll is called an Armor Class (AC).
This simple rule governs the resolution of most tasks in D&D play.