“Before you stretches an immense cavern, stalactites dripping into the inky abyss below. In the far distance a pair of large glowing eyes illuminates the piled coins that fill the grand natural hall. A deep and sinister voice echoes from the center of the enormous chamber, calling you to reveal yourself and do battle. What do you do?”

What Is Dungeons and Dragons?

Dungeons and Dragons, often shortened to D&D or DnD, is a tabletop role-playing game where the players create characters, form an adventuring party, and explore a world that exists in their own imaginations. The players’ characters (PCs) complete quests, combat monstrous foes, unearth mysterious treasures, and solve clever puzzles. At its core, the game is about getting together with some friends, rolling weird-shaped dice, eating snacks, and having fun telling stories cooperatively.

A player might create a mighty warrior in gleaming armor who seeks  to honor his family name. Another might create a sly rogue, who finds her fortune robbing the fortresses of nobility. Some players might create powerful magic-wielding sorcerers, or clerics to some forgotten god. Each of these archetypes has a unique set of rules, and the players can choose innumerable combinations to create virtually any character they can imagine.

There is one player in the game we haven’t mentioned yet. Every story needs a central conflict. Memorable stories need diverse characters, twists and turns, and interesting locales. In Dungeons and Dragons, these are all the domain of the Dungeon Master, or DM. While the rest of the players create characters to adventure in a new world, the DM creates the world itself. The Dungeon Master breathes life into every person, place, and thing the rest of the players encounter. The DM isn’t playing directly against the other players, but is instead helping them to cooperatively tell their story.

What can my kid learn from this game?

D&D, like any tabletop game, is about having fun with friends. Players are encouraged to think outside the box and try new things. Because of the teamwork and creative environment, D&D also helps build social skills through direct social interaction that is hard to find in this world of smartphones, headphones, and television. Players in Dungeons and Dragons sit across the table from one another, invent dialogue, make eye contact, and even high-five!

D&D also puts players outside of their comfort zone and often forces them to find creative solutions to diverse situations. In my own games I have seen players filibuster a speech to prevent an assassination, flood a dungeon to reach distant upper levels, introduce a non-native species of insect to clear up a plague, and traverse a portal-filled maze with a ball of string to guide them.

So how exactly does the game work?

The characters in Dungeons and Dragons are measured, among other things, by their six attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Charisma, and Intelligence. These attributes vary in value and determine most of the characters’ abilities in the game.

The core mechanic in Dungeons and Dragons involves rolling a 20-sided dice and adding the relevant modifiers from the characters’ attributes, which the DM compares against a predetermined number representing the attribute of their opponent or obstacle. If players meet or beat the number, their action succeeds. If they fail, the DM describes what happens next.

For example, Karo the Unseen wants to sneak through the goblin king’s throne room. The DM says that because the guards are on a fresh shift and paying attention, he needs to roll a 25 on his sneak. Kevin (playing Karo) rolls his 20-sided dice and adds the +4 modifier he gets from his ninja-like dexterity. Kevin also adds the +5 sneaking bonus from Karo’s training in the “sneak” skill, and a +2 bonus from his enchanted Boots of Silence. When Kevin rolls a 16 on his check, his overall result of 27 allows Karo to successfully sneak through the room while the guards are none the wiser.

Sounds fun! Where do I get started?

The first thing to do is to pick an edition to try. Dungeons and Dragons is an old game, and the rules have undergone numerous revisions. Looking back on over 30 years of publications, it can be a bit daunting to find out where to start. For the most current rules, I would suggest checking out wizards.com, which has a handy introduction and some tips on which of their products to pick up. In general, newer editions are easier to learn than older editions. I personally enjoy the Pathfinder ruleset.

To play Dungeons and Dragons, you need a small group of people (three to six, plus a DM) paper, pencils, the “Player’s Handbook,” the Dungeon Master’s Guide,” and some dice. Dungeons and Dragons uses dice that aren’t common in other games; most games use six-sided dice, but D&D uses 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 20-sided dice!

To visualize the game many players also get miniatures, dungeon tiles, and all sorts of other props, but these aren’t required for all editions of the game. Really, the best way to get involved with the game is to get some friends together and head to your local gaming shop! The folks there can set you up with books and will sometimes even run a game for you if you ask politely. Dungeons and Dragons is just one of many tabletop role-playing games, and isn’t for everybody, but it is a fantastic first game to try.

This article was written by

Carson is a technical writer with a degree in Culture, Literature, and the Arts from UW Bothell. He is a sometime author, amateur ukulelist, master of dungeons, and enthusiast of both science fiction and fantasy. He is also an avid tabletop gamer, video gamer, player of roles, singer of songs, and reader of all things fiction. Carson spends his spare time playing games, following tech news, cooking things, and creating fictional worlds that may eventually find their way to the internet. He writes much, much more about DnD at his website, Dice'nButtons.