Overview of the Rules
The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game is about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery. Like games of make-believe, D&D is driven by imagination. It’s about picturing a crumbling castle in a darkening forest and imagining how a fantasy adventurer might react to the challenges that scene presents.
In this fantasy world, the possibilities are limitless.
Unlike a game of make-believe, D&D gives structure to the stories—a way of determining the consequences of the adventurers’ actions. Players roll dice to determine whether their attacks hit or miss and whether their characters can scale a cliff, roll away from the strike of a magical lightning bolt, or pull off some other dangerous task. Anything is possible, but the dice make some things more probable than others.
In this section, we look at the gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons as it unfolds according to this basic pattern:
How to Play
1. The DM describes the environment.
The DM tells the players where their characters are and what's around them, presenting the options that present themselves (how many doors lead out of a room, what's on a table, who's in the tavern, and so on).
2. The players describe what they want to do.
Sometimes one player speaks for the whole party, saying, "We'll take the east door," for example. Other times, different adventurers do different things: one adventurer might search a treasure chest while a second examines a symbol engraved on a wall and a third keeps watch for monsters.
The players don't need to take turns, but the DM listens to every player and decides how to resolve those actions.
3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers' actions.
Sometimes, resolving a task is easy. If an adventurer wants to walk across a room and open a door, the DM might just say that the door opens and describe what lies beyond. But the door might be locked, the floor might hide a deadly trap, or some other circumstance might make it challenging for an adventurer to complete a task. In those cases, the DM decides what happens, often relying on the roll of a die to determine the results of an action.
Describing the results often leads to another decision point, which brings the flow of the game right back to step 1. This pattern holds whether the adventurers are exploring a ruin, talking to a devious prince, or locked in combat against a mighty dragon. In certain situations, particularly combat, the action is more structured and the players (and DM) do take turns choosing and resolving actions. But most of the time, play is fluid and flexible, adapting to the circumstances of the adventure.
Does an adventurer’s sword swing hurt a dragon or just bounce off its iron-hard scales? Will the ogre believe an outrageous bluff? Can a character swim across a raging river? Can a character avoid the main blast of a fireball, or does he or she take full damage from the blaze? In cases where the outcome of an action is uncertain, the game relies on rolls of a 20-sided die, a d20, to determine success or failure.
Ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws are the three main kinds of d20 rolls, forming the core of the rules of the game. All three follow these simple steps:
1. Roll the die and add a modifier.
Roll a d20 and add the relevant modifier. This is typically the modifier derived from one of the characters' ability scores, and it sometimes includes a proficiency bonus to reflect a character's particular skill.
2. Apply circumstantial bonuses and penalties.
A class feature, a spell, a particular circumstance, or some other effect might give a bonus or penalty to the check.
3. Compare the total to a target number.
Describing the results often leads to another decision point, which brings the flow of the game right back to step 1.
If the total equals or exceeds the target number, the ability check, attack roll, or saving throw is a success. Otherwise, it's a failure. The DM is usually the one who determines target numbers and tells players whether their ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws succeed or fail.
The target number for an ability check or a saving throw is called a Difficulty Class (DC). The target number for an attack roll is called an Armor Class (AC).
The basic rules of the game are available to download for free. Those rules tell you how to create your own character to supplement or replace the characters in this set, as well as how to advance a character beyond 5th level.
Plus, any of the D&D starter sets provide a complete Dungeons & Dragons experience, enough to provide hours of play. You can even play through their adventures multiple times. You might be surprised at how differently things can turn out! But one of the most rewarding things about D&D is that it provides the opportunity to create characters, and even worlds, of your own.
If you want to create a greater variety of characters or populate your adventures with other monsters, check out the fifth edition Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide. These rulebooks introduce you to the vast multiverse of D&D and invite you to create unique characters and worlds within it.