D&D Basics: Rules To Get Your Adventurer On Their Feet

By Alyshia 🙂

Dungeons and Dragons, in essence, is a storytelling game. Together with a group of friends you’ll sit round a table and weave a story of epic adventure. The Dungeon Master is the narrator, the adjudicator, the conductor of the story, describing scenes and designing the world. The rest of the group play the Characters, the Heroes, responding to the Dungeon Masters descriptions and taking action in the scene.

Dungeons and Dragons is all about telling an awesome story, and the rules are designed to make that story feel realistic. You’ll create a character and their whole life around them to. Knowing what they’re good at, their flaws, their aspirations, make them seem real and help you feel invested in their journey. The beauty of the D&D system is the sense of value it gives to the Character you create.

This being said, the rules are not set in stone. The degree to which the rules are implemented is up to your Dungeon Master or DM, the person running the game. Each table you play at will have a different feel to it; each DM applies the rules differently and some players prefer certain elements of the game over others. A common concept you might run into is the ‘Rule of Cool’ where a DM may be willing to override the rules on occasion for the sake of something awesome happening. In the end, you’re telling an interesting story, and while the rules help ground the game, being flexible with them can help to bring out the wonder in the story you’re building.

To get started playing, you’ll need friends, a sense of adventure and an active imagination!

The Players Handbook is a helpful guide for any player new or seasoned:

Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook

$60
  • The Player’s Handbook is the essential reference for every D&D player. It contains rules for character creation and advancement, backgrounds and skills, exploration and combat, equipment, spells, and much more. This is the first step to character creation and diving into the world of adventure!
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The game is split into two primary sections: Roleplay and Combat. Let’s look at Roleplay first.

The ‘Rules’ of Roleplay

Roleplay is, for most people, the heart and soul of Dungeons and Dragons. This is where you embody the values and traits of your Character and explore the world in a spoken narrative with your group. To new players, role-play can often seem intimidating but once you get the hang of it, role-play is incredibly exciting, allowing you to explore vast, impossible worlds from an entirely new perspective.

Roleplay will usually start with a prompt from your DM…

DM: “You wake up, your party asleep around the campfire, still warm from the previous night’s festivities. But as you sit up and look around, you realise that the trees around you are unfamiliar, the path that led you to the clearing has vanished, and your caravan is nowhere to be seen…”

Now the scene is laid out for you, we can start figuring out what’s going on. Will you look around for footprints? Wake your party members? Shout out to see if someone is nearby? There are many different ways to approach the same issue and choosing which depends on the kind of Character you’re playing. We’ll get into making your Character in a bit, but for now, think about how different characters from movies or games might react. Think about what things are important to them, what kind of personality they have, situations they’ve been in in the past. How would these things influence what they’ll do? One of my Character’s, Sahara, is distrusting, and might assume there are eyes watching her from the trees;

Alyshia: “Sahara gets up as quietly as possible and sneaks over to Kat, shaking her awake and whispering to her that something’s wrong”

Whereas my other character, Fishbone, is a grump, and is adept at navigating the woods;

Alyshia: “Fishbone tosses off his blankets and strides to the closest tree, running a hand along it’s bark to see if there’s any residual magic in it.”

Many people like to do voices for their Characters and talk as if they’re reading lines in a script. You don’t need to speak as your character right away if you don’t want to, or at all. Describing your characters actions and how they interact with the world, as if you’re reading from a book, is a great start. When your character speaks you can either describe them speaking;

Alyshia: “Sahara tells Kat that they seem to have moved, and that she fears someone is watching them.”

Or you can adopt their voice directly;

Alyshia as Sahara: “Kat, are you awake? I think something’s wrong. The tree’s look strange and I feel like someone’s watching us.”

This direct approach can feel unnatural at first, and you may think a degree of acting skill is needed, and while it certainly can be helpful, role-playing often just comes down to a shift in tense and a good understanding of your Character. You’re allowed to ask for a moment to gather your thoughts or think through how your Character would react to something. I personally love playing charismatic characters, the charming bard or quick-witted wizard, but in real life I have trouble thinking so quick on my feet. Trying to think like someone else can be difficult and a good DM should respect when you need a moment to adjust your thinking.

Alyshia as Fishbone: “I swear, if you don’t hand over that gold now, you’ll-…”

Alyshia: “Ahh, wait. Fishbone wouldn’t say that. Give me a minute, I need to think this one through.”

It’s all about having fun in the end, so be curious! Explore the world your DM has made for you and enjoy imagining how a different person would see a situation!

While there aren’t necessarily rules around role-play, there are some general etiquettes that may be expected at your table…

THE DM HAS LAST SAY. In role-play and combat, the DM is the adjudicator and coordinator of the game. They’re there to ensure things are fair, fun, and sustainable. If a disagreement arises around how rules should be applied, know that the final decision is down to the Dungeon Master.

BE A TEAM PLAYER. D&D is a team sport and try as you might, it’s not about who wins. Let the other players have their time in the spotlight. We all want to have an Epic Hero Moment but taking one from someone else is no fun for anyone. The story follows the adventures of your Party, not just a single Character. That being said, when your moment does come up, go for it! If something rad is happening for your character, have fun, but be cool about it.

CONSENT IS KEY. As players we might forget sometimes, but D&D can be a highly emotional game. Taking on the perspective and experiences of another person can be draining, especially in a fantasy setting that can sometimes be pretty brutal. Remember that, while the Characters aren’t real, the people behind them are. Purposefully killing other Player Characters, taking control of someone else’s Character without consent, or depicting potentially upsetting scenarios can be upsetting to the other players and is often frowned up. Checking before games what people are comfortable with and knowing when to wrap up a scene and move on, is key. In the end, we’re here to have fun and the first step to fun, is making sure people are safe and comfortable.

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Character Rules

Your Character is the vehicle through which you will explore the world and story your DM has made for you, and their unique abilities and traits will influence how they react to different situations. 

My first step in creating a Character, before generating their stats (the numbers representing their abilities), is simply thinking of an idea. Do I want to play a moody musician who loves fashion and doesn’t know how to lie? (That’s my character Sahara). Do I want to play a grumpy little Goblin who loves to cook and refuses to believe in magic? (That’s Fishbone). Or do I want to try to build One-Punch Man as accurately as I possibly can? I mean to each their own. An idea, no matter how simple, is the best place to start.

Then comes RACE. Your Race is your biology and culture. Most games you play in will have your classics; Humans, Elves, Dwarves, as well as some fun ones unique to D&D such as Tieflings (people with demonic ancestry and magic in their blood), Kenku (Small Raven-folk with a proclivity for mimicking people), Firbolgs (gentle half-Giants who protect forests), and many more. Have a look through the Players Handbook (aka the ‘PHB’) or other Expansion Guides and pick a race that suits your idea.

And then there’s CLASS. Class defines how your Character approaches situations. Do they deck themselves out in heavy armor to heal those on the front lines? Then they might be a Cleric! Do they sneak up behind their enemies for that lethal strike? Probably a Rogue. Do they charm their opponents with a few well-placed words? Sounds like a bard to me! There are lots of Classes, each with mutiple sub-classes for even more specialization. Have a look through your books for one that feels right for you.

On to BACKGROUNDS! From Outlanders to Entertainers, your Background is a quick summary of your Characters pre-adventuring life. The Players Handbook gives you a nice selection of Background options that provide your Character with extra skills and help shape their personality. Backgrounds can be pretty customizable, so if no Background perfectly fits your character, chat to your DM about altering a pre-existing one.

And now on to the numbers. The abilities of your Character are mostly derived from their ABILITY SCORES, a set of 6 numbers that describe how adept your Character is in a certain area. These are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Most of your Character’s other statistics will be derived from these. (How much health you have will be based on how good your Constitution is, how adept you are at dodging is based on how good your Dexterity is, etc.) Explained simply;

Strength is being able to hit a snake.

Dexterity is being able to dodge the snake.

Constitution is being able to withstand the snake’s poisonous bite.

Intelligence is being able to identify what type of snake it is.

Wisdom is knowing how to tend someone’s snake bite.

Charisma is being able to convince the Mayor to give you a reward for killing the snake. 

These Ability Scores fall on a scale of 1 to 20, with the average non-adventurer having an 8 for each. For your first time building a character I usually recommend using the ‘Standard Array’ set out in the Players Handbook; 8, 10, 12, 13, 14, and 15, which you can assign to each Ability Score in any order.

And for each Ability Score, there’s an ABILITY SCORE MODIFIER. This is the number you’ll add to a die roll that uses that ability. For example, if my DM asks me to roll a Wisdom Check for Fishbone, I check Fishbone’s Wisdom (it’s 13) which lets me find his modifier (which is +1). I then roll my d20 and add 1 to whatever I roll. This number tells my DM how successful I was at whatever task I was attempting and from there, they decide what happens depending on how successful I was. This system is designed to account for chance but also factor in skill.

Now, being Intelligent or Dexterous in general is helpful, but what if you want to focus on something in particular? That’s where SKILLS come in. There are a set of 18 Skills covering a range of abilities an Adventurer might require, and you’ll get to pick which ones you’re best at. You might be Intelligent, but maybe you specialise in History or Arcana. The Skills you get to pick are based on the Class and Background you’ve chosen. Simply open your Players Handbook to the appropriate Class or Background and under the header Proficiencies or Skill Proficiencies, it will tell you how many Skills you can choose and from what options. Each Skill is associated with an Ability Score; Stealth is based on Dexterity, Medicine and Survival are based on Wisdom, etc.

When you pick a Skill that you’re good at, it means you’re Proficient in it. Anything you are Proficient in, you add your PROFICIENCY BONUS to. You’re good at deceiving people? Well add your Proficiency Bonus to that Deception Check! You’ve trained to use a Mace? Add your Proficiency Bonus when you swing that thing! Your Proficiency Bonus is determined by what level your Character is. Check the table on your Class page in the PHB (the Players Handbook) and it’ll tell you what Proficiency Bonus you should have at each level. Here are a few examples of applying your Proficiency Bonus:

Fishbone ISN’T Proficient in Arcana (which is an Intelligence Based skill), so an Arcana check for him looks like this:

Roll + Intelligence Ability Modifier = Result

1d20    +    1    =   Result

Fishbone IS Proficient in Animal Handling (which is a Wisdom based Skill), so an Animal Handling check for him looks like this:

Roll + Wisdom Ability Modifier + Proficiency Bonus = Result

1d20   +   1   +   2   =   Result

The other main number you’ll need to know is your ARMOUR CLASS or your AC. This number determines how difficult it is to hit your Character with an attack, combining both the strength of your armour and your dodging abilities. If you’re NOT wearing armour, you’ll start with a 10 and add your dexterity modifier. If you ARE wearing armour, swap the 10 out for the number assigned by the type of armour you’re wearing, which can be found in the Players handbook. The result is the number enemies will have to roll equal to or above to do damage to you. For example, Sahara wears leather armour which means she starts with an 11 and adds 2, which is her Dexterity Modifier. For an enemy to hit her with an attack, they’ll need to roll a total (including their modifiers) of 13 or above to hit her. 

Your Ability Score Modifiers and your Proficiency Bonus are the main two things you’ll need to make the rest of your info. Your Hit Points or HP (the score that keeps track of your health) is based off a set number (determined by your class) and your Constitution modifier. The amount of damage your weapon does is based on a roll and either your Strength or Dexterity Modifer (depending on the type of weapon). While I can’t explain all of these things here (doing so could fill a book, it’s called the Players Handbook, haha), knowing these building blocks will set you off in the right direction. The following coloured in sheet is a rough guide to which numbers to use where. Any section with two or more colours in it, means those stats are added together to get your result. All the other areas you see that don’t have colours (the personality traits, the equipment etc.) are for non-numerical information all of which can be found in the PHB. 

While this may all seem like a lot of information, rest assured that game play is reasonably intuitive and knowing that the vast majority of numbers-based gameplay is simply rolling a dice and adding a modifier to it, makes this big ol’ character sheet a lot less intimidating. In the end, these rules are here to facilitate your game, and the top priority is fun. If a rule isn’t working for your table, or you can’t figure out how it works, make it up! As long as you’re all having fun, anything goes. 

Gameplay Rules

Now, the part that D&D is known for, Combat. There’s a sliding scale of what you physically need to operate combat, and it all comes down to the preference of your table and the level of effort the DM can put in. You can have a highly detailed battle map full of terrain and miniatures for every enemy and NPC (Non-Player Character), or you can have none of that and play through combat in what is referred to as ‘Theatre of the Mind’, where the DM describes the battlefield thoroughly enough for the players to imagine and navigate the scene. Most games I’ve played in fall somewhere in the middle, using a grid and whiteboard markers to draw up a quick map, and mini’s (miniatures) or tokens of some kind to represent characters and enemies. In the end, it’s all up to the resources you have on hand and the creativity of your DM. But however you visually represent battle, there are a few consistent rules.

Combat is broken up into ROUNDS, and in each Round every Character partaking in the Combat will take a Turn. At the beginning of Combat, each player (and the DM for each NPC) will roll Initiative to determine which order everyone goes in. Initiative is determined by rolling 1d20 and adding your Initiative Modifier, found on your Character Sheet. 

Once it gets to your Turn in the order, it’s time for your Character to act! There are a few different things you can do on your Turn; use an ACTION, a BONUS ACTION, or your MOVEMENT. An Action is your main step. It’s swinging your sword, casting a big spell, grappling an enemy etc.

A Bonus Action is similar, but smaller; swiping in with an off-hand attack, casting a small spell etc. Bonus Actions are only used when specified, for example if a spell specifically says it only takes a Bonus Action to cast it. Movement is, well, moving. The average person can move 30ft on their turn (this is determined by your Race and should be on your Character Sheet). On your standard grid map, each square is 5ft by 5ft and so, you can move 6 squares in one turn. More arduous movement takes up more of your Movement Speed, such as climbing, swimming, or crawling which halve your speed, i.e. you can only move 15ft or 3 squares (unless you have a specified climbing, swimming, or crawling speed, you lucky duck!)

So, let’s say Sahara finds herself face to face with an angry Troll. Once her Turn in Combat comes up, she might run towards it, using 20ft of her Movement, slash at it with her Rapier, using her Action, and then shout out an inspiring word to a fellow Adventurer, using her Bonus Action on a special Bard Feature called ‘Bardic Inspiration’. That’s a pretty good use of her Turn this Round. 

Now, there’s another act you can take, outside of your turn, called a REACTION. Reactions, like Bonus Actions, need a specific Feature or Spell to call them into play before you can perform them. These are often triggered when you’re hit with an attack. The Spell Hellish Rebuke, for example, can be cast only directly after you are hit with an attack, as a Reaction to it. 

This is the basic structure of Combat. Each Character takes their turn striking out against each other, healing allies, setting off traps, until you defeat your enemy or reach your goal. Remember though, D&D is about creativity! While your Action could be used to swing your sword at that Harpy again, you could also shoot off a firebolt to knock a gargoyle off it’s perch onto the Evil Bird-Lady, pining her to the ground, or you could lasso a rope around her feet to trip her up. Thinking outside the box makes for an interesting battle and can often bring about solutions that’ll open more exciting pathways for the story going forward. 

Also, while I say ‘Combat’ a lot here, the Initiative/Round sequence doesn’t need to be used only for battles. Maybe the Characters are stuck in a room with the walls slowly closing in, or they’re trying to sneak out of a well-guarded prison. The ‘Combat’ sequence helps navigate scenes with lots of action and can help bring in the element of chance that can sometimes fall on the way-side when you’re just role-playing. 

In The Table-Top Role-Playing community, Dungeons and Dragons is known to be on the slightly rules heavier side of the game list, but don’t let that intimidate you. Dungeons and Dragons is as popular as it is for a reason. The system has been refined over many editions and has a balance of rules and freedom that make the worlds and stories told in it feel real yet fantastical. What you’ve read today are the bare essentials. They’re enough to get a game going, and I think that’s really all you need to start. Instead of reading too much at the beginning and feeling overwhelmed, I recommend starting here from what you know, and reading more as you need it. If you get mid-battle and wonder what the rules are about grappling people, look it up then. Below is a list of other concepts that are important but only once you feel content with what I’ve already mentioned here. In the end, it’s the story and spending time with your group that’s important. Accuracy to the rules can come when the story needs it. 

Below is also a quick directory on a few of the D&D books you might come across and what info is in them that you might find handy. The Players Handbook has the majority of the stuff you’ll need, but if you’re interested in running games or checking out different Races and Classes, there are some recommendations below. 

Good Journey, Adventurer!! 

  • Alyshia

More D&D concepts to look into;

Conditions – Blinded, Grappled, Incapacitated, stunned etc. 

Opportunity Attacks – Imma hit you if you try and run away from me.

Jumping – how to jump 

Advantage and Disadvantage – for when the situation’s in your favour, or really isn’t

Hiding, Disengaging, Helping, and Dodging – how to run away effectively

Cover – hiding behind things so it’s harder to get hit by other things

Exhaustion – when you’re really tired you aren’t good at doing stuff

Inspiration – The gold star you get for doing something cool

Resting – Budget healing

Difficult Terrain – you can’t run very fast when the ground is vines

Grappling – hug them so they can’t swing sword

Shoving – does what it says on the box

Passive [insert skill here] – how good are you at performing a skill when you’re not really thinking about it

Saving Throws – like a skill check but to avoid something

Hit Dice – your body’s natural healing ability

Resistances and Immunities – fire damage doesn’t hurt fire dragon very much

Death Saving Throws – track how close to death you are

Spellcasting – How to cast spells (it’s slightly different for each Class)

Types of Armour and Weapons – some weapons are very heavy; some armour is too noisy for you to sneak in

Levelling Up – Each time you level up you get better at things, check your Classes leveling up table!

Multi-classing – Sometimes, your character can have multiple classes, like a Wizard Rogue!

Bonds, Personality Traits, Ideals, and Flaws – A simple way to give your character some personality, derived from your character’s Background

Feats – Sometimes when you level up you can take a feat, and become really good at a very specific thing

Book Recommendations:

The Core Books:

Player’s Handbook – PHB

This one has everything a player needs. All the numbers and info for building a character and running them. A must have!

Dungeon Master’s Guide – DMG

The ultimate book for someone looking to run games. From designing a world, to running combat, role-playing NPCs, to making Magic Items. The Ultimate guide to crafting a Campaign to remember!

Monster Manual

A big ol’ book of Monsters. This one’s great for DM’s looking for casual enemies or End-Game Bosses, or for the curious player wanting to get a peak at what awaits them in the far realms.

Other Sourcebooks:

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

Xanathar’s offers new subclasses, spells, and magic items, plus new ways to flesh out your Character’s backstory.

Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything 

Much like Xanathar’s, Tasha’s offers new and variant character creation options, including new subclasses, spells, magic items, and a whole new class!  

Volo’s Guide to Monsters

Good for Players and DM’s alike, this expansion book has a slew of new monsters for DMs to use as well as new Playable Races such as Aasimar’s, Goliaths, and Tabaxi!

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes

 Great for the eager DM, Mordenkainen’s has a bucketload of new Monster stat blocks, as well as expanded and detailed lore on different Races and events in the canon D&D Universe. 

While these are the big ones in terms of rule books, Wizards of the Coast are frequently releasing more expansions, such as ‘Monsters of the Multiverse’ and ‘Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft’. Get in contact with your local Good Games or check out our store page to see what new books have hit the shelves!