Last night my friends and I traveled a vast distance by foot until we came upon a modest village. We explored a bustling marketplace, haggled with vendors and sought out a blacksmith skilled enough to craft personalized weapons out of our latest hard-earned magical trophies: the acid-laden teeth of a black dragon. We arrived jingling with gold, and left with pockets nearly empty, but harnessing weapons that deal an extra 1d6 of damage in battle. Newly empowered and in need of more funds, we set off in search of another quest.
We did all this without breaking the rules of social distancing– though we wore no masks and didn’t bother to walk six feet apart. In reality we were miles apart, our adventure only virtual. I sat in the comfort of my room, cold drink in hand and feet up on my bed, like I do every time. But our adventures feel no less real— full of calculated decisions, playful conversation and intense battle—I’m always looking forward to our weekly escapes.
Chances are you’ve heard of Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D. It’s a cultural phenomenon, one with a reputation for being complicated, nerdy, and highly exclusive. I’ve always loved the idea of the game—one where you are, in theory, bound only by the limits of your imagination and your luck as translated through the roll of a die. But like many prospective players, I felt intimidated by the expansive and complex rules of play. A few months ago, my boyfriend invited me to join an online campaign with him and some friends. I was ecstatic to finally have an opportunity to delve into the magical realm of D&D, with a group comprised in equal parts of experts and beginners. It was the perfect way to learn the game.
If you’re interested in learning but don’t know any experts to walk you through the game, this article is here to help. Be sure to check out the resource links at the end, and in the meantime, here’s a microscopic summary of how to play Dungeons and Dragons:
You’ll want a group of about 4-6 people—one to be the Dungeon Master (or DM), and the rest to be players. The DM is responsible for setting the scene, moderating, voicing and rolling for non-player characters (or NPCs), etc. “DM-ing,” as it’s called, can be a big job.
Each player designs their own character, choosing a “race” (human, elf, halfling, dwarf, etc.) and a “class” (fighter, cleric, druid, thief, etc.). Each “class” and “race” come with given strengths and weaknesses, but players can further individualize their characters. My character Shrek (named for the Yiddish word for “fearsome,” as well as the iconic Dreamworks movie) is a Fire Genasi Druid—which basically means she likes to play with fire and magic.
Players must roll a 20-sided die to determine their level of success at any given action. Based on your character’s strengths and weaknesses, they might get a bonus or penalty for different tasks. For example, Shrek has +5 wisdom; this means that if she wants to do something that requires wisdom (like a perception check to assess a stranger’s intentions), she has the advantage of adding 5 to whatever number she rolls. Conversely, Shrek has -1 stealth, so stealthy tasks (like a sneak attack) are a bit riskier for her. The dungeon master decides the minimum number needed to succeed, based on the difficulty of the task.
That barely scratched the surface. No wonder so many people are intimidated by the prospect of learning D&D.
I spoke with the current and former heads of Lesley’s Strategic Gaming Club, junior creative writing major Harrison Genest, and 2020 elementary education and history graduate Elise Ward. They had a few suggestions for beginners:
First of all, they both recommend “Critical Role,” a live-streamed show (and podcast) featuring voice actors playing D&D. Listening to other people play is a good way to become familiar with the rules and flow of the game. Harrison also recommends the podcast “The Adventure Zone,” which has shorter episodes and is hosted by a father and two sons. Harrison says that these two programs show two very different styles of play: the actors in “Critical Role” play by the books, while “The Adventure Zone” hosts are more lenient. He recommends checking them both out to decide which style you prefer.
In terms of virtual gaming tools, Elise recommends the website DnD Beyond. “It helps people create a character, which can be really confusing if you do not have someone who knows what they are doing… It also gives short cuts to remember what everything is. It really simplifies things when you are still learning the rules.”
Both Harrison and Elise recommend the website Roll20, which allows DMs to share interactive maps with their players. Neither club head recommends Roll20’s voice-chat feature—they opt instead for zoom or discord to communicate with their party members. Harrison finds that the visual component of a zoom call adds to the roll-playing experience. Many players like to gesticulate, emote, and embody their characters physically– this aspect of play can get lost in virtual D&D with no video chat component.
In terms of creative play, Elise says, “[If] you have an idea that seems silly but could work, try it! No idea is a bad idea…The most memorable points are when something funny happens. Also take notes, you never know when some information will be important for later on.”
Elise told me about some of her characters. My favorite was Eloria, who Elise described as her “anxiety ranger elf.” Elise explains, “I rolled one really bad stat and put it in charisma… Based on this, I decided to make her super anxious.” Eloria’s backstory is that “she went on an adventure after she saved her town but felt she couldn’t live up to being a hero.” This is a perfect example of how one can personalize their character.
Harrison makes a point to play as characters who are “not just me with a sword.” He says for him, that’s “part of the appeal of playing [D&D].” His current character is a sorceress named Dina, who he describes as a troublemaker in their group.
Harrison advises new players not to get too bogged down with the rules, but to focus instead on the story. “[The rules] exist to help the story move along,” he explains. “In D&D, the [dice rolls] reflect things in the story happening outside of the characters’ control.” Like when an opponent dodges your attack. Or when you step on a creaky floorboard, announcing your presence to a room full of enemies.
“D&D is good, especially in times like this, because it lets you just be somewhere else for a little bit… For me, when D&D really starts to click is when you’re in it for the story telling.” Harrison’s big secret is this: as a DM, you don’t really need to be exact with the numbers—it’s all up for personal interpretation. There is no one right way to play.
Of course, for some this is a controversial opinion. According to Harrison, the best way to describe the D&D community overall is “split.” The game has been around a long time, and the stereotypical unwelcoming sticklers in the community tend to be old-school players.
“There are people who will claim [the 3.5th edition] was the best version… and D&D stopped being good after that. The reality is that D&D started trying to attract a wider audience” after that. Especially with the 5th and current edition, Harrison says.
Harrison describes the old generation of D&D players as mostly “old, white dudes.” He attributes their hostility towards newcomers to a discomfort with the growing popularity of their once-exclusive pastime. Many old-timers claim that the new generation of D&D-ers– a group Harrison describes as largely young, queer, and drawn to the game as a “fantasy exploration of [different characters and] alternate worlds”—don’t know how to play correctly.
Harrison’s advice? Just ignore it. “There are a lot of people playing D&D who are of the ‘new generation,’” who tend to be freer in their interpretations of the rules and accepting of everyone who wants to play. “[Lesley’s strategic Gaming Club] community has always been very open and fun. It’s meant to be a de-stressor.”
“We are a bunch of people who want to escape reality for a bit and go on an adventure” Elise sums up. “Even if we didn’t know each other well before our campaign we become good friends.”
Over the past several months, I have found D&D to be a form of self-care. If you could use a creative and social escape from reality, here are some resources to help you start your own online Dungeons and Dragons campaign:
Polygon Guide (no need to buy anything):
Beyond 20 (automates rolls from DnD Beyond to Roll20):