A beginner’s guide to Dungeons & Dragons

Image Credit: Samaneh Sadeghi Marasht

Between popular podcasts and people looking for group activities to enjoy over video chats, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) grew dramatically in popularity. Keogh outlines the basics of setting up a game so you and your friends can enjoy epic quests together.

Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop role playing game where a group of players take on the role of adventurers, in a fantasy land, using dice and storytelling to describe their adventures. A final person takes on the role of the Dungeon Master(DM), who controls all the Non-Player Characters(NPCs), monsters, and the world itself. The Aim of the game isn’t to “win”, but to tell the story of an epic adventure with your fellow players.

Setting up your first Dungeons and Dragons game can seem like an extremely daunting task. Where is the setting? Will I be a good enough DM? Being a player is relatively easy once the DM has a good idea of the campaign they want to run. Although setting up a character can be a challenge, once the DM has a copy of the handbooks, and the players are willing to put in a little bit of work, the campaign can run so smoothly and be a really rewarding experience. 

These questions all plagued my first campaign and made gameplay difficult as I second-guessed every decision I made. The story was rigid and too forced, the characters weren’t themselves, combat and turns were just a mess, the interactions between the players and NPCs felt so awkward. After my first campaign I felt like a failure, and only through a year and a half of asking my DMs questions about the enemies, about how they told such amazing stories and got the players hooked on every word they said, have I finally understood how to DM, and how to do it fairly well. 

The key is planning and structure. This may sound extremely formulaic, but the fact of the matter is once you have a story to tell, players that genuinely want to engage with the world you’re forming around them, and the DM’s and player’s handbook, you’ve got all the tools you need to start a campaign. With a little help from this article, you’ll be able to run your first campaign in no time.

Recruiting your players 

Having an interesting story is one of the most crucial parts of making any D&D campaign enjoyable, but that’s useless if there’s nobody else playing. Recruiting a band of players can be one of the most frustrating steps of running a campaign, especially if it’s your first being a DM for new players. They’ll constantly need help and reassurance that they’re filling in the stats and the backstory correctly and they’ll ask a lot of questions about things that are clearly laid out in their handbooks. To manage this, two things I would be absolutely lost without are digital PDFs of both handbooks, and Roll20. 

The PDFs, as you’ll soon learn, mean that the players and DM can use control+F to search for keywords to find the information they need. Roll20 allows each player to upload their character sheets so that the DM has immediate access to all the stats and spells. It also makes games so much easier to play, especially over zoom, as in the Roll20 game that you set up, you can upload maps, play music that fits the situation, and rolls will appear for everyone to see, so that there’s no doubt about a player rolling natural 20s on the dice 5 times in a row. Once you have your spells and attacks inputted correctly, the killing blow that the bard delivers via vicious mockery will be visible to all players and automatically rolled for them. Turn orders also appear automatically when the DM sets it up, meaning there’s no forgetting over whose turn it is.

The Storytelling

The biggest part of running a successful D&D campaign is having a story to tell and telling it well. 

Though you’re not going to be giving a TedTalk to your players, storytelling, in my opinion, is the best part of D&D. Besides, who wants to listen to a DM that can’t describe the bare minimum of details? You don’t need to be the next Shakespeare; you just need to give good descriptions. Where are the players going? What can they hear, see, smell, taste and touch? If they’re going through a market on their way to slay a Dragon, a Kobold or even fight a Sorcerer, tell them about their surroundings. The smallest detail can be mentioned here. 

The shouting of a store clerk trying to sell apples from her orchard, make up accents for the people of the town if you want. Have constant shouting like a Moore Street market. The smell of something almost sickly sweet and smoky from the butcher selling delicious honey roasted hams, the clank of the forgery and the feel of the heat inside and out of the shop. The faint orange glow seeping through the gaps of the door frame and through the window.

 In short, you are the guide through which the characters experience everything, and without being able to travel there, you need to be able to get them fully immersed.

Storytelling isn’t only about your ability to explain to the players what’s going on, it’s also the use of pictures, drawings, maps, and music to make the world more real. Once you’re confident enough to start your first campaign, draft a story. Failing this, there’s plenty of prewritten adventures you can use. The great thing about D&D is there is no one way to run a campaign. You can take elements of the handbook like monsters and apply your own stats to them so that players can face a dragon earlier in the campaign. If your idea is to get your players to fight a high-level dragon at some point, start them off with some easy enough enemies. Skeletons and Undead are great starter enemies to use as they’re low level and easy enough to tackle. The players will be focusing on combat, learning on the spot whether certain attacks are more effective than others, how turn order and movements work, and how to work as a team to take down enemies. Roleplaying also should be taken into consideration: you want them to focus on the enemy and you should provide them with something of a backstory. Undead usually don’t just show up, a Necromancer has brought them back to life, but why?

This is where storytelling comes in again. Your players need something to work towards so that when they fight hordes of the Undead, defeat the evil Necromancer, and interrogate him about his motive, he doesn’t say “I was bored, so I thought I’d try necromancy and give some adventurers a challenge” in a D4 accent. It’s your campaign, you can do whatever you want, but to make it believable. Make the Necromancer a disgruntled older wizard whose family was killed by adventures he seeks revenge. With his dying breath, he mentions a town not too far east from where they are, a day away on a cart at most. Get the players to make a check or two, such as wisdom, to see if any of the party would know where the town is or if they’ve heard of it. If they all roll Nat ones, get them to roll for Insight. Would any of the players roll well enough to remember the name of the town and go to whatever towns close enough and ask if anyone knows a way to get there?

I mentioned that the key to running the sessions and the whole campaign is to have it planned, and this should account for the unplanned. You’re running a D&D campaign with 3-6 other people playing: You can’t make them do anything, and there’s always at least one player who will try their best to mess with the campaign. So rather than getting frustrated at this, you need to account for it. 

Let’s say you need the players to go into a certain building, but they all go in separate directions to different buildings. Tell them as soon as they walk into the buildings, they all end up in the same pristine white marble hall, and they hear a booming voice address them all. They’ve magically been teleported to a blindingly white marble hall and there are no doors insight. The characters are controlled by real people. If you want to control what all the characters do, you should write a book instead.

As the DM your objective is to get the players to fight and advance in their quests. If you want them to go somewhere, tell them there’s a bulletin board in the store they just walked into. It says there’s a five thousand gold reward for capturing the bandits that wait near the outskirts of the town to rob traders. They can’t find the traders? Oh well, there’s a storm approaching and there’s conveniently an eerie abandoned castle they can stay in for a while. Everything has a workaround to get the players where you need them to be.

You should familiarize yourself with a few basic things for the characters and the enemies you create. A few statistics such as the Spell Save Difficulty Class and Armour Class are really all you need to know for enemies. For the players, read their character sheets and get to know just how powerful they are. After all, there’s virtually no point in making a session all about killing low-level Undead if all the characters can defeat them easily. There needs to be a challenge for the players to overcome so that they can gain experience and level up.

A note for the players

A good D&D campaign relies on not only the DM but the players too. Exposition doesn’t need to be everything, but half the fun of being a player is creating your character, creating their backstory to show what motivates them. It doesn’t have to be super serious either. If you want to play Boblin the Goblin whose sole purpose in the game is to eat the entirety of the land's cheese because he was dared to by a wizard who wanted to get rid of him, do. The beauty of D&D is that you can literally do anything, as long as you consult the DM and maybe do a few acrobatics checks.

Once you have a backstory and have checked with the DM that your character fits into the campaign, next up is doing your character sheet. This can look confusing, as there seems to be a lot too it. The DM should be able to help you with this, and the Player's Handbook is gospel here. It contains literally everything you need to know about creating your player; picking classes and background, spells and weapons. For example, creating a bard is simple once you know where to look in the handbook. I mentioned previously to try and find a PDF version of the handbook, as it allows you to search for “bard”, and it will show you which colleges you can pick from, what spells bards can use and what the background you pick gives you. If you don’t fancy doing it with the handbook, there are plenty of websites that make it easy to create a basic bard from the get-go, an example of which is D&D Beyond, which for all classes has a section that sums up all you need to know to get you started. 

I’d advise you to get to know your character sheets. You need to keep a track of the spell slots you use, the attacks you have, and easily forgotten-about tricks; such as bardic inspiration for bards. This gives you the ability to choose a companion and give them an extra D20 to use on any attack roll or ability check, but it needs to be used before the DM confirms if the first roll fails or succeeds. Trust me, as someone who mains as a bard, bardic inspiration has saved me more times than I can count.

All I can say is good luck, enjoy and for the love of the Gods, get at least one person to be a healer of some sort. Please.