A beginner’s guide to DnD

Mark Saroufim
7 min readSep 7, 2020


Is DnD a board-game or a video-game?

Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game and while it does have its fair share of complicated rules, it’s not a board-game.

The distinction is important because in DnD you roleplay as a character in a world entirely created by your dungeon master (DM). The rules are mostly there to facilitate the storytelling and not to beat you down with minutia.

While some min-maxers which I like to call board game accountants may enjoy complicated rulesets where you add and remove points to a score to optimize winning, I personally don’t.

While DnD is amenable to board game accounting it’s actually a very fiddly experience relative to a combat system in a video-game.

DnD lets you play in worlds that are as vivid as your imagination, something some video-games get close to but have never quite achieved.

Constraints make you more creative

One of the main reasons why DnD introduces so many rules is to make sure that players put in effort and thought into their characters beyond just “I’m a demigod that can devour planets” or “I’m gonna slaughter everyone in this village for the lolz”.

Decisions are only impactful if they have meaningful consequences

Background prep

DnD comes with 3 core rulebooks

  • The player’s handbook
  • The DM manual
  • The monster manual

As a player you do not need to read the 320 page players handbook cover to cover to actually understand how to play DnD. A DM however does need to do an insane amount of prep, to craft a world, NPCs, dungeons, twists & turns and of course still improvise based on the decisions that player make.

A DM has to be prepared and a player has to go with the flow

A DM is a benevolent dictator who is tasked with making sure the players have fun.

Have fun

DnD is a game where you get out the more you put in. The more involved you are in roleplaying your character and the more involved the DM is in crafting their world then the better the experience will be for everybody.

So “yes and..”, make voices, role-play the character you’re farthest from in real life and most importantly have fun!

DnD campaigns can vary drastically between DMs ranging from horror, survival, detective, adventure so don’t think of it as a board game rendition of something like Lord of The Rings, the scope of DnD is much more ambitious.

DnD is an engine to create gaming experiences so it’s very common for DMs to invent their own characters, rules, spells, items to further their narrative goals.

Character Creation

When you create your character you have 3 things you need to decide on

  • Your race: Human, Dwarf, Half Orc etc..
  • Your class: Cleric, Warlock, Sorcerer etc..
  • Your backstory: Noble, Thief etc..

You can totally download a character sheet and create your character manually but I’ve found a lot of success with using this app since it automates away all the fiddly parts, like figuring out exactly what your modifiers are or what you get when you level up.

And if you’re playing a spell-caster, you should also download

If in doubt just ask your DM what kind of character you’d like to play, generally there’s an archetype for everyone and DnD makes it easy to customize classes to suit whatever fantasy you have.

Basic rules of DnD

As you play DnD you’re going to have a 20 sided die in your hand at all times and there’s 3 main use cases for the beloved D20.

  1. Skill Checks
  2. Saving Throws
  3. Combat

Skill Checks

Skill Checks determine what you can do in the world. Can you punch a door in? Can you pickpocket someone? Can you translate a Dwarfish rune?

Each Skill Check will have a certain difficulty associated with ranging from 0 (trivial) to 30 impossible. You’ll roll your D20 add your modifiers (determined by your character sheet) and pass if your score was hire than the skill check.

But remember this is a roleplaying game so you’re a lot more likely to pass ability checks for things your character has a natural affinity towards. Different classes and races have affinities towards various attributes and skill checks.

Strength: Athletics — useful for Barbarians

Dexterity: Acrobatics, Sneaking, Initiative — useful for Rogues

Constitution (Toughness): Resistance, HP — useful for Clerics

Intelligence (Book smarts): Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature, Religion — useful for Wizards

Wisdom (Street smarts): — Animal Handling, Insight, Medicine, Perception (lets you detect traps), Survival, — useful for Druids and Rangers

Charisma: Deception, Intimidation, Performance, Persuasion, — useful for Bards

Rolling a natural D1 or natural D20 are respectively called critical fails and critical hits. So a critical fail would be something like you try to jump across a chasm, trip, fall and break your leg — a natural D20 would be you do a pirouette in the air and land on your feet without making a sound alerting enemy guards.

Saving Throws

Saving Throws are similar to Skill Checks but are instead instigated by the DM. For e.g: a boulder is falling on you and you need to quickly dodge it, you need to roll a D20 and add your Dexterity modifier.


DnD is a turn based game so when combat starts, the DM will ask players to roll a D20 to determine initiative. The DM will also roll a D20 for each monster and then sort everyone’s turn order by initiative.

Once it’s your turn you can either

  1. Move 25 feet (represented by a square or hex on a board)
  2. Attack
  3. Cast a spell


A physical attack is very similar to other skill checks, you roll a D20 and compare it to your enemy’s Armor Class (AC). Armor Class is a misnomer in my opinion and I like to think of it as Evasion instead. So if you roll an 18 and your enemy AC is 13 then that’s a hit.

No damage is taken yet though, you then roll damage dice specific to your character to deal damage. So for e.g in the case of a Barbarian this would be a 1d12 + 3 which translates into roll one D12 dice and add 3 to the result.

DnD combat can be notoriously slow so make you spice things up by interacting with the environment and roleplaying, mental accounting a is great way to drain enemy HP and the motivation of your fellow players.


DnD has an insanely large repertoire of spells and you need to be familiar with yours before you go into combat. Can you unleash a fireball that burns down a castle or can you light candles? Spells are generally extremely detailed in this regard if you read them carefully. Ask your DM if anything seems confusing

Spells are a finite resource in the form of spell slots. Suppose you have 4 spell slots that means you can cast 4 spells before you need to rest in an inn or campfire. Your DM will generally make it clear when you are resting. Spells slots associated with them so if you 2 level 1 spell slots and 3 level 2 spell slots that means you can cast 2 level 1 spells and 3 level 2 spells before you need to rest.

So while spells are tremendously powerful, you should use them sparingly. The exception to this rule are cantrips which are essentially free spells you can use whenever you like.

Advanced rules

The above rules don’t cover any class, race, environmental or weapon specific rules. However, the player manual has an excellent table of content which you can refer to and even though there may be lots of advanced rules

You only need to be familiar with the couple of advanced rules specific to your character.

E.g: if you’re playing a Barbarian, you don’t really need intimate knowledge of how the spell system works but if you’re a Wizard expect to be reading and memorizing a lot about how your specific spells work as Wizards do!

Have fun!

I hope this guide got you excited and confident about starting a DnD campaign with some of your friends. It’s really an experience like no other and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.

For more in depth explanations, I highly recommend