What You Really Need to Start Playing Dungeons and Dragons

The basic essentials for starting D&D as a player and as a DM

What You Really Need to Start Playing Dungeons and Dragons
Photo by Timothy Dykes / Unsplash.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again — Dungeons and Dragons is a fantastic game to play. You have total creative control over a world of your own making, to explore, expand, save, or destroy as you see fit. It’s just you, your party, your rulebooks, and a whole bunch of dice. So…how do you start?

There’s a lot that goes into the first session of a new campaign, especially if you’ve never played D&D before. Whether you’re the Dungeon Master (usually referred to as the DM) or a player, you’re going to need a few key items and ideas before you can get started in your game.

Here’s what you need to know — on both sides of the DM screen — about preparing for your first session of D&D.

What you need as a Dungeons and Dragons player

Congratulations! You’re playing a party member in a D&D campaign! Except, you can’t just rock up on game night having done no prep whatsoever. Nope, this game requires a bit of setup.

These are the essentials of your first session as a D&D player.

Dungeons and Dragons and DICE!

The first thing many people think of when they think D&D is the dice. Now, D&D dice aren’t like the kinds you’d use for other games — it’s not just a standard six-sided cube. There are actually seven dice in a standard set.

  • The d20 is the die you’ll be using most often. It’s got 20 sides and is used for most rolls including stats, ability checks, combat, and saving throws.
  • The d12 is used to roll hit points for certain classes and damage for some spells.
  • The d8 is again used for hit dice and spells.
  • The d6 is another hit dice and spell die.
  • The d4 is most often used to add bonuses from spells. It’s also the most dangerous die to step on.
  • Percentile dice — a set of two dice, one with numbers 1–10 and the other counting by 10s up to 100 — are used fairly rarely, but are important for chance magic like wild magic and item rolling.

You’re also going to need a character sheet — a one-to-two-page summary of the character you’re playing. These sheets keep track of your character’s stats — Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma — as well as their class, race, level, hit points, bonuses to rolls, inventory, and backstory. The character sheets for fifth edition D&D, the most recent and commonly played version of the game, are relatively simple to put together as long as you know what the parts of the sheet mean.

Other than that, you’ll just need a copy of the rules and any of the information your DM has given you about the world. Optionally, you can bring a picture or, if you’re really dedicated, a mini figure of your character to use as a placeholder on maps.

Rules and regulations

The wonderful thing about D&D is that, because it’s such a long-standing game, there’s a huge wealth of official material that you can use to understand the game’s mechanics and basic setup. The bad thing? Most of the rulebooks cost upwards of $50 apiece.

So, here’s what you actually need to know: most of the rules for D&D are freely available online. Fan and official sites are excellent resources if you can’t afford the books just yet. They’ll outline the basic rules, give you what you need to make your first character, and even let you roll dice digitally so you don’t have to have a physical set.

My go-to sites are:

  • DnDBeyond. This one is the official Wizards of the Coast website, meaning that the rules there are as up-to-date as they can possibly be. Basic accounts are free, and allow you to make and store up to six characters with their character builder. They also have a built-in dice roller and easy-to-search databases of races, classes, items, spells, and lots more.
  • The WotC Dice Roller. Exactly what it says on the tin. It’s another official site from the makers of the game where you can roll digital dice if you don’t have physical. It’s extremely simple to use and keeps track of previous rolls in that session so you can look back if you need to.
  • Hero Forge. Okay, this one’s not strictly necessary, but it is fun. Hero Forge is a miniature-making company that has a 3D model designer you can use to make scaled miniature models of your characters. Again, accounts are free, and they’re always adding new design options to the engine. The best part? If you do want to shell out the cash, you can get a high-quality, fully-customized physical mini!

If you do want to get the physical books, know that all you really need for your very first session is the Player’s Handbook. It’s designed to be your all-in-one basic guide to the game and includes removable character sheets to work with.

Keeping up with the campaign

It’s a very good idea to keep meticulous notes during a D&D campaign. Not only will that make remembering what you did and said easier between sessions, but it’ll also help your DM keep track of everything.

Remember, they’re in charge of an entire world. If you’re keeping track of your own character’s journey in as much detail as possible, that’s one less thing for them to have to balance.

When keeping notes, be sure to write down:

  • The date of the session.
  • Where you start on the map and where you end up.
  • What’s in your inventory, including how much money you have.
  • Important NPCs that you meet, including their names, locations, and classes (if they have them).
  • Any quests you and your party are assigned.

Try to keep it all in one centralized place like a single notebook or a document on your computer so that you can reference your notes quickly next time you play.

What you need as a Dungeons and Dragons DM

DMs have the hard job in D&D — they’re playing god (sometimes literally) to a world of fantasy and adventure. They’re trying to manage not just one character, but an entire world of detailed, complicated characters that have to interact in a way that makes sense. They’re also in charge of what that world looks and sounds like and where the adventure goes.

To be a DM, you’re going to need a few more things than the players.

Setting up your world

Before starting on any kind of adventure, there needs to be an adventure to set out on! That’s your job as a DM — to set up the world that your players are going to explore and the story you want them to follow. The basics you need to know before you start are:

  • Your setting. Are you using a premade setting like Faerun or Eberron, or are you creating your own world with its own history, politics, and magic system?
  • Your plot. This is the general arc of the story you’re following, including some side quests you can incorporate as your players progress. There are lots of premade plots you can use — such as Dragon Heist or Curse of Strahd — which come complete with their own campaign books. You can also use community-made plots.
  • Your hook. This is the specific plot for session one. It’s how you’ll introduce your characters to the world, bring them together as a party, and point them in the direction of the main plotline. The most classic examples of hooks are mysterious strangers in taverns and letters, though of course, anything interesting can work if you play it off well.
  • Your key NPCs. Who’s delivering the plot hook to the players? Who can they go to for information? For items? You’ll need basic sheets for recurring NPCs, and simple stat blocks (pretty easy to find online) for one-offs, especially those you plan to use in the first session.

Other than that, you’ll want to have your Dungeon Master’s Guide (or some other rule compendium — online works!), a screen or something to separate your roles from your players’ eyes, LOTS of dice, and copious amounts of notebooks.

Keeping up with your players

Remember the copious amounts of notebooks I just mentioned? Yeah, those are for doing exactly what you hope your players are doing and taking notes. DM notes are going to look a little different from player notes, and can generally be categorized in three ways.

  • Pre-session notes include a session outline, key NPC info, maps, and anything else that helps you keep track of the overall plot from one session to the next.
  • Mid-session notes include item tables, encounter tables, initiative order, monster stat blocks, and the specific notes you keep about what players find (or don’t find) and what they know (or don’t know).
  • Post-session notes include anything that you think you'll need to remember in the next session, including whose turn it is in combat, where the party ended up on the map, any item or spell effects in place, and how much HP everyone has.

It’s perfectly fine to ask your players to help you keep track of things. They’re part of the game, too — it’s their responsibility to know what’s going on with their character.

Oh, and remember to keep track of what day it is. That makes roleplaying MUCH easier in long campaigns. It also means you can mess with your players by giving them important dates to remember.

What to expect in your first D&D session

Okay! You’re geared up! You’ve got notebooks and character sheets and stat blocks and rule books and a world to explore. So…now what?

Now, you have your first session of Dungeons and Dragons.

Before the session starts

The most important part of pre-session planning is ACTUALLY planning. The entire party, DM included, should sit down together and work out a time, place, and duration for the session. This holds people accountable, first, and gives you a definite deadline to finish prep work, second.

Everyone should have a finished character sheet, rough backstory that the DM has been informed of, dice to roll, a copy of the rules (especially their spells), and plenty to drink (you’ll be doing this for hours — HYDRATE!). Sit down together and give everyone time to set up their space to their liking.

Then, before you play at all, it’s a good idea to just chat for a while. It helps the group get comfortable talking to each other, especially if you've never played together before, and can ease everyone’s nerves so the game is more fun.

Welcome to the world

Okay, showtime! Your first session is here! What should you do?

Well, in this session, the DM is introducing and giving the characters a reason to stick together for the adventure! Maybe you’re a pre-established adventuring party, maybe a band of mercenaries on a job, or maybe you’re suddenly smashed together into a haphazard party by sheer coincidence. Whatever the case may be, this is where you learn how the party works together.

This is also where your DM has a chance to show off the world they made! Enjoy listening to them set the scene, and DMs, enjoy setting the scene! Where are you? When are you? What’s the relevant history and current context? Go nuts and enjoy having a little ramble about this campaign you’ve poured your heart into.

In the first session, you’re aiming to learn who your party members are, what your main quest is, and how you’re going to get there. So, have fun with it! Just try not to kill anyone…yet.

Unless that’s the point. Then…do?

Wrapping up and scheduling

When you’ve reached a good stopping point, and when your allotted time is done, you’ll need to wrap up the story. This means either ending it in a logical pause point (like an overnight stay in an inn) or a cliffhanger (Roll initiative!).

Once you’ve wrapped up, consider taking a moment to talk about the session. What did everyone like? What can be worked on next time? It’s important to have open communication between the players and the DM so that everyone is having fun. If you feel like there was an issue, speak up! You’re probably not the only one who caught it.

Speaking of communication, now is a good time to set up a regular session schedule. Maybe you’ll meet once a week, maybe only once a month. Whatever you decide, make sure that everyone writes it down and commits to it.

There’s a sad trope that D&D players are terrible at keeping a schedule, and that’s true a lot of the time — life happens and occasionally a session will get skipped, but having a set schedule can make playing easier and more fun for everyone involved. And besides, it gives you something to look forward to!

Photo by Nika Benedictova on Unsplash.

Dos and don’ts of first-session D&D

As a parting gift for you, here are a few do’s and don’t’s for your first session.

  • DO remember that this is just a game! You don’t have to be a perfect role player or have a photo-perfect memory for the rules; as long as you’re trying, you’re doing great.
  • DON’T criticize other players’ choices. It’s rude to tell someone they’re playing the game “wrong” or that they’re doing badly. Unless something they’re doing actively hurts or upsets you or someone else at the table, just let people play how they want to play.
  • DO let people focus in whatever way works for them. Some people may need to do multiple things to be fully focused (hello, ADHD friends!), and that’s perfectly fine and valid. If you need a fidget toy, your phone, music, or something else to keep your brain stimulated and engaged, use it!
  • DON’T ignore the game. There’s a huge difference between having an attention disorder and being just plain rude. If you’re so focused on other things that you’re completely missing the story, ignoring when it’s your turn, and people are waiting forever for you to play only to be told “huh? Oh, I wasn’t paying attention, say it again”? You need to reassess whether or not you really want to play.
  • DO ask questions! If you want to know more about something, if you’re confused, if you just need the rules repeated again, ask! You’re never doing anything wrong by trying to understand the game you’re playing.
  • DON’T intentionally ignore your DM’s story. Your DM has spent months preparing a game that’s meant to be fun for everyone. Respect that. If they hint that they want you to go somewhere or talk to someone, go do it! You can still explore and do things your own way while following the story.
  • DO make your games challenging. Your players can handle more difficult encounters and puzzles, and they’ll probably find them really fun!
  • DON’T intentionally try to TPK in session one. Unless you’re planning to bring them back immediately, you’re just ruining weeks of character building for the sake of one moment of drama.
  • DO bring food. Always. Food at a D&D session makes you a hero.


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