Usually I skip over the basics when I talk about RPGs, but not today. Today I am going to go over the basics of the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons, known more commonly as D&D 5e or D&D Next. Even though there are quite a few concepts to get through, this is a really easy system to introduce to anyone because it’s actually very simple.
Before I begin, I would like to point out that although I will be covering the basics, I will be making some assumptions. The following does assume at least a very basic level of experience with video game RPGs or RPG elements. Most MMORPGs, ARPGs, “RPGs”, and games with “RPG elements” all introduce the concept of having Statistics/Attributes/Characteristics such as Strength and Intelligence.
Meanwhile, some video game RPGs introduce Skills. However, these aren’t the type of Skills where one presses T and transforms into a demon. These Skills are fundamental abilities such as Acrobatics, Medicine, and Sleight of Hand, with potential uses such as balancing on a tightrope, diagnosing an illness, and planting an item on another, respectively. Sometimes they are used by a couple of characters or more in competition with each other – a character using Stealth might be noticed if another character makes a good Perception check.
While having a good amount of experience with these things will help, it is not necessary as I will be going as in depth as possible.
Sometimes talking about one thing will bring up what I find to be an interesting topic that isn’t necessary to understand D&D 5e in particular. But this ‘thing’ may be related to RPGs in general (or as in this case, older editions of D&D as well). These little side topics will be presented in dark-coloured boxes like this and can safely be skipped if one doesn’t share my interest in the topic.
Splitting up Perception
In some systems, a character’s ability to notice something is separated into Skills or even Statistics/Attributes/Characteristics based on our different senses. In systems such as D&D 3.5 for example, there are Skills known as Spot (for being able to see something) and Listen (for being able to hear something). In systems such as GURPS, there is a Secondary Characteristic known as Perception, but under it are Senses known as Vision, Hearing, and Taste/Smell.
This makes it very easy to use one’s senses in different situations and accommodate for different characters because often they’re already clearly written on their Character Sheet. For example, our buddy to the right wouldn’t have much in the way of a Vision Characteristic, but like he says, he’s not deaf.
However, this doesn’t mean that a system that only has Perception as a whole is bad. There are always ways to account for different senses being hindered, but often it’s enough to simply interpret Perception as the most unhindered/capable sense at the moment.
What we need to play D&D 5e
A few things are really useful to have when playing D&D – a Dungeon Master, some Players, and a bunch of dice.
A Dungeon Master
The Dungeon Master (DM) takes on a pretty big role. They keep the story going by describing places and people, they control all of the NPCs, determine the results of some events, and narrate what happens when almost anything happens. It is usually best for the person most comfortable with the rules to take on this role for the first game.
There might only be one player or there might be six players. Either way, the Players each control a Player Character (PC), the details of which will usually be written down on a Character Sheet. The official D&D Character Sheets can be found here and an example of a blank one is shown below.
These PCs will be the ones who get into tough situations and it will be up to them to get out of them.
A bunch of dice
The dice used in most RPGs are referred to by the letter d (for dice) followed by the number of sides that the dice has. For example, the six dice needed for D&D are d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20. There is also a seventh dice which may optionally be used to assist with percentage rolls – the d100.
When a roll needs to be made, the rules will indicate which dice to roll and what Modifiers to add to the resulting roll. For example, in systems like D&D,
3d6 + 2 means “roll three six-sided dice, adding them together, and add 2 to the total”.
The d100 mentioned earlier is known as a percentile dice and works differently to the other dice. A number between 1 and 100 is generated by rolling two different ten-sided dice – the d100 gives the tens digit (its sides are 00, 10, 20, 30, and so on), and the d10 gives the ones digit. For example, a roll of 60 and 5 is 65. However, this can be achieved with two d10s as well – one d10 is assigned to being the tens dice, whilst the other is assigned to the ones dice. This would mean that a roll of a 3 on the tens dice and a roll of a 7 on the ones dice would result in a 37.
Sometimes explaining a topic will bring up something related to the D&D 5e system that may need to be elaborated upon. Often these involve situations coming up in a real game that might leave one wondering, “What does that mean now?” These important side topics will be presented in slightly more colourful boxes like this.
Even though using a d100 is optional, there is still the matter of dealing with some slightly more ambiguous percentage rolls. This can easily be resolved by knowing that percentage rolls are always between 1 and 100. So, for example:
- A roll of 00 on a d100 coupled with a roll of 0 on a d10 means that the result is 100, not 0.
- With d10s, a roll of 0 and 0 is also a result of 100.
- A roll of 00 on a d100 coupled with a roll of 5 on a d10 means that the result is 5, not 105.
- With d10s, a roll of 0 on the tens dice and a 5 on the ones dice would also result in 5.
What we’re up against
As simple as D&D 5e is, there are many things that may not be obvious at the start for a new player.
Using the d20
Most of the time, we’ll be rolling a d20 – the twenty-sided dice. Our goal is to roll above a predetermined number, so the higher that we roll the better. But we’re not just left relying on one dice, we also have Modifiers like in the dice example above. So where do these Modifiers come from? Well, we get Modifiers from a few places – our Ability Scores (the D&D term for Strength, Intelligence, etc.), Proficiency Bonuses, and those granted by one’s Race, Class,Background, or Feats. There are a lot of new terms being thrown around here, but we will get through all of them one by one soon.
Aside from Modifiers, there are also Advantage and Disadvantage situations which may help or hinder our rolls. In an Advantage situation, which means that through some means we’ve put ourselves in an advantageous situation, we roll two d20s and only use the one that rolled a higher number. So if we rolled a 10 and a 15, we use the 15, add any Modifiers to that, and that becomes our final result. A Disadvantage situation is the opposite – somehow we’re in a disadvantageous situation, so we roll two d20s and only use the one that rolled the lower number. If we roll a 10 and a 15 with a Disadvantage, we add our Modifiers to the 10 and use that instead.
Multiple instances of Advantage/Disadvantage
If we’re in a situation where we would be considered to have more than one Advantage or Disadvantage, we still only roll one extra d20 to a total of two d20s. However, if we’re in a situation where we would be considered to have an Advantage and a Disadvantage, they simply cancel each other out.
So what’s important to know for now is that for most things, we will be rolling a d20 (or two and using one of them), then adding any applicable Modifiers. Often, especially if we’re playing using official D&D 5e books, we want to be able to get our result from rolling a d20 to 10 or above.
Dice in reality
With a d20, we theoretically have an equal (5%) chance to roll any of the twenty numbers on it. Therefore, rolling a 1 is just as likely as rolling a 20. In practice however, this isn’t necessarily the case. The usual RPG dice we use aren’t made with such precision in mind. By engraving a number into the plastic and filling that with paint to make the number stand out, the exact weights on each face of the dice we use are going to be very slightly different.
The easiest example to imagine this with is the six-sided dice that has dots, known as pips, to represent its numbers. Opposing sides on these dice all equal 7 when added together, meaning that the 1 is on the opposite side to the 6. If all of the pips are the same size, imagine how much more of the dice was carved out on the 6 face than the 1 face. This makes one side slightly heavier than another, which may seem insignificant, but the chance of rolling each number on individual six-sided dice is now ever so slightly unequal. Because of this, we’ll sometimes see dice like those to the right used and all of a sudden, the 1 side having such a large pip in it makes a lot more sense.
Another example of six-sided dice to note are casino dice. These dice have their pips drilled, and then filled flush with a paint of the same density as the material used for the dice. This is done so that the centre of gravity of the dice is as close to the geometric centre as possible. Considering the amount of money at stake in casinos, it’s not surprising that they would take it so seriously. However, for most of us playing tabletop games, the difference isn’t enough to warrant spending more money to get a whole bunch of Game Science Precision Dice instead.
For some further reading on the topic of dice in relation to role-playing games however, check out How Dice Are Made on the Awesome Dice Blog . They also have a post on the History of Dice and, if you’re still interested after all of that, check out d20 Dice Randomness Test: Chessex vs GameScience . Finally, there’s an article on the DakkaDakka Wiki called That’s How I Roll – A Scientific Analysis of Dice
To get a better idea of our goals with the d20, we will have a quick look at how we use the dice and Modifiers to complete different tasks. In D&D 5e, like many other similar systems, we are provided with a basic guide with which we can determine how difficult a task will be. With D&D 5e in particular, this guide comes in the form of the table to the right.
The first thing to note is the Task Difficulty. This is determined by the DM based on whatever our Character is trying to do. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that our Character has no idea of approximately how difficult a task is. Depending on the DM, we might be told something really specific like, “It’s a DC 10 Dexterity check.” Or we might be told something more ambiguous like, “You look at the lock and determine that picking the lock shouldn’t be too hard.”
So what is a DC, or Difficulty Class? This is the number which we have to roll above with our d20 and its Modifiers. This means that if a task is considered to be Easy, we have to get 10 or above, whilst if it is Hard, we have to get 20 or above. As always, when in doubt, hope to roll as high as possible.