Sam Bateman

Playing and Running Dungeons and Dragons FAQ

What is D&D?

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a Tabletop Roleplaying Game. Explaining it is pretty hard, but the maker of the game Wizards of the Coast has a decent video explaining it anyways.

Why should I play D&D?

Matt Colville, a game designer and founder of MCDM, has a good video explaining what makes D&D (or any TTRPG) different than anything you can find in another game.

Why should I listen to your opinions on this?

In short, it might be useful, but you should definitely also consult other opinions and resources. I played D&D for the first time about 12 or 13 years ago, and initially bounced off it. It was too complex and it seemed pretty boring. However, the persistence of one of my friends who enjoyed running these games kept bringing me back to try it. After a few false starts, around 9 years ago I started to engage with it more actively, and I found it a fun way to blow off some steam, hang out with friends, and do something like structured improv of a fantasy world.

After heading off to college, I missed playing with my friends, and I realized that if I wanted to play D&D and keep engaging with this hobby, I was going to have to be the one to run it. I asked my friend who had originally got me into the hobby how to get into running the game for myself, and he pointed me to some of the resources I will lay out here. Since then, I have run a number of campaigns of D&D on and off for about 5 out of the last 7 years. I wouldn’t say I am a great Game Master, or even a very good GM, but for the most part my players seem to enjoy themselves and keep coming back.

It’s important to note that there are people who are MUCH better GMs with FAR more experience who post way more information on the internet. My intent with this FAQ to point you towards some of them and sprinkle in some stuff I have learned from experience to save you time and get you to have more fun playing and running D&D.

How do I start playing D&D?

You will need to find a group of 5-7 people (including yourself) who are interested in playing.

One member of the group will need to elect themselves the Game Master (GM), and will need to prepare and organize the sessions and content to be played. The rest of the group will play the role of player characters. This GM plays the role of the eyes and ears of the players, explaining every person, monster, building, and environment the players interact with and how their actions affect the game’s characters and world. The most important lesson I can give you: The GMs primary directive, above all else, is to make their players have fun. Nothing else can override this central tenant. Even if everything feels like the whole game is in shambles but the players are having fun, the GM is doing something correct.

The best way to start playing D&D is to elect yourself a GM. If you are new, and your players are new, no one will know if you are good or bad at it, and it’s likely everyone will have a lot of fun. It’s much easier to find players than it is to find GMs, and once you have a regular group that has played a campaign or two, people are more likely to be willing to step up and try being GMs themselves.

A small aside, some people reach out to anonymous online groups or go to games run in a local game store, but I have heard mixed reviews of such an approach. I am sure they work for some people and can turn out great, but the best way to start playing D&D in my experience is to ask around your friend groups and your workplace to see if anyone is already interested. You would be surprised how many people are looking to try playing D&D especially after you explain it to them. This is particularly true since D&D has started to seep into the larger culture recently. Lots of people want to try and play but they don’t know how to get started.

How do I get into D&D as a player?

I will assume you have a group of friends already and someone else has offered to be the GM. You will need to work with your GM and other players to make a character based on the guide in the beginning of the Player’s Handbook. Once you have that, most of the work is showing up regularly and consistently to sessions and actively engaging with the world the GM puts in front of you. A much more nuanced and detailed introduction to starting to play D&D was made by Matt Colville, and you can find it here.

One small extra caveat: over time, you should read and reread the description of your character and their abilities in the Player’s Handbook. If everyone is well acquainted with their characters capabilities, the game can move much faster and be more fun for everyone. It’s reasonable to expect that the GM doesn’t know as much as you do about your character and their abilities, and they should be able to look to you for expertise around it.

I want to run D&D. Where do I start, it seems very intimidating?

Is it better to play in person or online?

They both work and can be lots of fun. Personally, I am biased, I like playing around a table. For me, there is something particularly genuine about sitting around with your friends telling stories. I like to think that long ago in pre-industrial times, when people were done with their work for the day and light was getting dim, they had little to do but sit around fires telling each other stories and chatting for entertainment. This is probably a simplistic and naive view, but nonetheless, there is some sort of magic for me in getting a group of your friends to sit around a table, everyone putting away their phones, and, leveraging only books, drawings and theater of the mind, being genuinely present doing something creative together for several hours. If only for a few hours, the complexities and demands of the challenging modern day-to-day melt away into a level of carefree play that we often don’t engage with in the modern world.

With all that said, you can play a great game over a Virtual Tabletop (VTT). I personally have used Roll20 and Foundry VTT for online games. I personally thought Roll20 was much easier to get started with but the level of customization, automation, and gameplay quality you could have in Foundry was astronomical, particularly if you have experience coding.

What do we need to play D&D?

To start, your whole group will definitely need:

If you have those and still have more money for your group to spend, the bargain upgrades are:

How do I make/get maps for my game?

This is a pretty opinionated topic. One initial distinction to make is that there are 3 major types of maps one can deploy at the table in D&D:

With that background information, I can give some advice on how I do maps. When I first started running D&D, I used pencil and graph paper to draw out the rooms, buildings, and encounters of an adventure, and then I drew it for my players in real time as an area came into view on a Chessex Wet Erase Battle Map. I did this for many years, and still rely on this method for a number of encounters. It allows for lots of flexibility and allows the players to move off prepared content smoothly and reduce the load of prepping every week. Overall, I would highly recommend purchasing one if you are going to play in person.

For further quality and customization, or if you are playing virtually with your friends, there are a few other options to consider. In the intro videos linked above, Matt Colville recommends Dungeonographer, but I bought it when I started GMing and unfortunately I can’t recommend it. As I remember, it’s a solid piece of software, but there are a number of other options that are either more cost effective, more time efficient, or result in a higher production value in my experience. To be more specific:

What other tools do you use to run D&D?

What about miniatures?

You 100% do not need miniatures to play D&D and not having them doesn’t exclude you from having a good experience with the game. I used loose dice and coins for years as tokens to represent monsters and players in combat, and I didn’t have any less fun for it. D&D is a tactical TTRPG, meaning positions and distances matter, but the game pieces representing that don’t have to be expensive.

With that said, I have recently started collecting and painting minis for my D&D games and have found it to be a fun and meditative corner of the hobby. Matt Colville can speak more authoritively on the subject than I can as he has been playing for much longer. The brands he mentions are pretty good in the linked video and I have seen players and myself buy from a few of them.

One thing out of date with the linked video is that bulk lots of minis or cheap minis in board games are much harder to come across these days, but you can get a similar level of value from stuff like Reaper Miniature’s Bones Kickstarters. The lead time on receiving these is often a bit long but its well worth the wait in terms of quality and quantity. In terms of what I buy for non-bulk, specific minis I need soon, I buy lots of Reaper Minis for general figures and from lots of small sellers on Etsy for really niche figures. I would also recommend strongly that you just visit your local game stores and see if one of them has miniatures and paints. Not all of them do, but some of these stores have an excellent variety of in-stock minis you might not consider otherwise.

#ttrpg #hobbies #D&D