What is "roll for initiative" and should I do it?
February 8, 2011 3:49 PM   Subscribe

I have never played D&D before, but last week's Community looked super fun and interesting (not to mention, what a great episode) I've hit up some friends who used to play and there's some interest about getting a game going. But I literally know nothing, and don't know if I'm going to like it. How do I proceed?

Background: I'm a guy in my early 30s, and I've never been interested in Dungeons and/or Dragons, but as I said that episode of Community really looked interesting, and I love playing some of the other games that are out there (eg: Catan, Munchkin, Ticket to Ride, etc.) so maybe I could give it a shot? I am very, very embarrassed to even be looking into it, which is why I've asked as an anonymous question, but I am curious enough to try and... well, at least give it a try.

I started with some Google searching, but most explanations are way over my head, or just incomprehensible to me. I didn't want to start buying books and whatever else you have to buy right away because I might very well not like it, right? And I know there are shops that sell the things and host tournaments or whatever, but the few times I've been in there for other things, the people playing have been SUPER serious (which is intimidating) and I know this sounds silly, but I work in a pretty small city and Dungeons and Dragons out in public... I really feel like it might hurt me professionally (I work in a very social, networking-heavy field and reputation is paramount) Which, again, is a reason for the anonymous question, because I've had people tell me they've read something I put into the green, recently in fact.

My hope is that I can try out some D&D, like it, and maybe get into it a bit and then be more comfortable coming out about it. But as it is now, the sort-of stigma makes me want to be very cautious.

I've downloaded blank "character sheets" but I don't understand what 97% of it is. I mostly sort of know what I want my character to be, and I know that's what I need to come up with before we even start playing. Also: I don't know what "version" I'm supposed to be using. I tried to get some clarity from the Wikipedia entry, but I just got more confused. I think the guys I reached out to said they'd be using the "2nd edition" because it was "old school" but, as I am sure you could guess, that doesn't really mean anything to me. And is it that different than the 3.5 and the 4 and whatever else is out there rules?

So, I want to try it out. I know I need to create a character, and I have thought about what I'd like it to be, sort of, but I'm sure I don't even know about a ton of stuff that I should be thinking about. What should I read to get me started? (and bonus points if it's something online to read). A quick search of my local library only seems to have fiction under "Dungeons and Dragons" and nothing under "gygax". I'm assuming these guys that I'll play with have dice and whatnot already, so I wouldn't need to buy those things right away. Assuming I'm going to mostly going to do this research before the game on my own, what should I be doing, reading, thinking about, etc?

I know how newb-ish this all sounds, and I know there are a lot of MeFites in the green who take this stuff very seriously, but any help I can get would be well-appreciated. I'll include a throwaway email address in case anyone has any specific questions that I might be able to answer, or if I have been completely all over the place with this question (a very real possibility) but I just want to thank everyone beforehand for their kindness and patience with my ineptitude in this area.

In some ways, there's a part of my brain that keeps saying "man, you are WAY too old for this" but the other part of me keeps saying "life is an adventure, so why not give everything a chance?" So I want to give it a chance. And I know there can't be anything less cool than coming to this from a prime-time sitcom, but here I am and I want to be open about it, not that it wouldn't be everyone's first guess anyways.

Thanks again.

(throwaway email: deleteaccount@hotmail.com)
posted by anonymous to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (29 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Aww, D&D isn't embarassing! It's totally fun. If you like making up stories and creating complex and interesting plots, you'll love it. As with most things, if you just own it, people don't really question the coolness levels.

My suggestions is that you go to the library and get the basic D&D Players Handbook and read it or order in on Amazon for increased secrecy if you don't mind the investment. Between that and your friends who have played before, you should be just fine. And every group plays a little differently, so whoever is running your game will probably help you along as you go.

Check out The Order of the Stick for an idea of the kinds of plots that might come up. Evil twins! Hungry monsters! Illicit interspecies love!

It really is great fun. I have wonderful memories of playing with my friends.

posted by chatongriffes at 4:00 PM on February 8, 2011

Are you seriously embarrassed enough by doing something you think will be fun that you feel you have to post anonymously on a pretty anonymous forum? I'd say, if that is the case, then you may want to find something else you aren't so embarrassed by.

If you are serious, I would find a game shop and go in and ask. Since we don't know where you are, we can't really give you any advice on where to go, but there should be one in your local mall. Go in and find out if the person behind the counter knows of a local game. Sometimes these guys run games out of their shop.

I would start there instead of trying to get a group of friends together that haven't played/haven't played in years since it can be a little confusing.

I've never played so I can't really give you any advice on which books to pick up, or where to start.
posted by TheBones at 4:01 PM on February 8, 2011

There's a new starter kit for the latest version of D&D that is probably what you want. It's aimed at people who don't know anything about it.

And D&D is on some levels not like a board game at all. Comparing it to Ticket to Ride is... well, it's not exactly the same thing.

Anyway, get the starter kit.
posted by GuyZero at 4:01 PM on February 8, 2011

Also, as TheBones alludes to, you're unlikely to get beaten up for playing D&D at 30. You might get flames for playing 4th ed, but that's a whole different thing.
posted by GuyZero at 4:03 PM on February 8, 2011

Really, what you need is a group of people to show you how to play. If you hadn't asked the question anonymously, there might have been someone in your town who could have invited you to one of their games :)
posted by lilnublet at 4:05 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Get your friends who used to play to help you out. Have an evening where you all create your characters together. They will show you what to do. Yes version 2 is different from 3.5 etc. They are different sets of rules. You will not need to buy anything just to start with (or ever, if you like.) Rulebooks are available to download online, especially older ones. The only one who needs a rulebook really is the dungeon master. He/she will tell you what to do and how to calculate everything. Having a good DM is essential to enjoying the game. I have dabbled a bit myself, and hated it when the dungeon master himself was unsure of rules, constantly looking things up, unprepared, and just a bad storyteller. When these problems aren't present, it can be a lot of fun.

Oh, you should probably buy a set of dice. But they are cheap: about $10 for all the variants you need in a pretty set (four-sided, six-sided, etc through to 20-sided).
posted by lollusc at 4:06 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

You're overthinking it.

I'm in the same boat, sort of, where I've started hanging out with a group of serious gamers and me and the wife have been tagging along, playing the games. We're open that this is new to and that have no idea how the rules are or how to play. They're fine with that and take time to explain stuff and rules and strategies.

We've played literally dozens of games over the past few months (they're hardcore) and every single one of them has been completely fricking new to me, where the game and its objective have to be explained. It's been fun.

The rules and what not aren't the point. The point is to get together with some like minded people and have some fun doing the same thing. For some people it's baseball. For others it's board games.

Relax, make it clear you're not familiar with things and trust me, the lovable geeks will be tripping over themselves to bring you into the group and explain the game. While they take their hobby seriously, it because they have serious fun with it and want to share that fun with others.

posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:06 PM on February 8, 2011

Incidentally, another idea if you want to get a better sense of whether you will enjoy it or not, is to play D&D online for a bit first. The basic account is free, and you don't have to buy stuff in game unless you really get into it.

It's not at all the same thing, because you don't have the same story-telling and improv aspect to it as you will in a real group, but you will learn the basic rules, how things are calculated, what the stats mean, what types of enemies there are, etc. And you can experiment with creating different characters through their walk-through process, and then base your real live D&D character on one that you like.
posted by lollusc at 4:12 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow. That's a long question about playing a game. Let's see what we can do.

First off, on the practical side, you need to find out what version your group will be using. If they don't know, don't already have books, don't care, or you don't have a group... you get to choose the edition! That sounds intimidating, but it's easy in practice: just go with the newest one. There are strong opinions on which ones are better, but it doesn't really matter if you aren't already used to one of the previous editions.

The different editions are definitely completely different. They're fundamentally incompatible most of the time. "2nd Edition" sounds like AD&D 2nd Edition (not just D&D, which is the name of both the ancient "original" game and the new Wizards of the Coast d20 version). If indeed that's the case, you're going to have to find used copies--'cause shit's been out of print since I graduated high school.

Having determined the edition, go on Amazon or eBay or whatever and find yourself the Player's Handbook for that version. That's the book that every player will need, and will cover all of character creation and many of the basic rules of combat and whatnot. If you don't want to buy one, borrow one from one of the other folks in your group. But, it's almost always easier to just buy your own, since it lets you do your "homework" without inconveniencing anybody else. One person in the group, the DM, will need the DM's Handbook and maybe the Monstrous Manual; but, that's probably not you, so don't sweat that stuff.

Now, read the handbook. It's going to tell you everything you need to know to make sense of the character sheet. I'm not even going to bother discussing rules of the game, as they're in the book.

Also, really, a quite complete set of dice is, like, $12. And it makes life so much easier if everybody has their own. Get some of an amusing and unique color/pattern so you can tell them apart from everybody else's.

Next, on the social side. I'm with you about playing at gaming shops and whatnot. The people who are into playing RPGs with strangers are largely either kids or socially awkward weirdos. They either take the shit way too seriously, or they can't stay in character for more than two seconds at a time.

On that matter, there is something to be said for taking the game fairly seriously. It's definitely true that it's a game, and it shouldn't be so serious that it's work. But, much of the fun comes from suspending your disbelief and enjoying it. It's very hard to enjoy an RPG if somebody is constantly sabotaging the proceedings by deriding the very activity you've met to pursue. Yeah, you feel like a dumbass sometimes; but, if your response to feeling like a dumbass is to then point out to everybody else how much of a dumbass they're being, you're going to ruin this excellent opportunity for fun. It's like watching a dumb sci-fi movie with the dude who's constantly pointing out that it's retarded because you can't dodge lasers and there's no sound in space.

As for being "way too old for this"... plenty of people have silly hobbies. Really, how is D&D any more silly than fantasy football?
posted by Netzapper at 4:17 PM on February 8, 2011

Easiest way to find out: find a local game store that does "D&D Encounters". It'll cost you a few bucks (like $5?) to play a game, and get a chance to learn what it's all about.

Second easiest way: get that intro box mentioned above.

Mind you, you should be aware that D&D has changed a lot over the years. The sort of D&D Community is playing off of is significantly different than current D&D - there's similarities, but it's different enough that it is a very different experience.

Current D&D, "4th Edition", has a lot of specific abilities and tactics and things to track. 1st & 2nd Edition D&D has a lot less to track, but the game you are playing can vary drastically depending on who you're playing with and their playing style.

PM me if you want to shoot any questions! I can geek out on rpgs all day.
posted by yeloson at 4:24 PM on February 8, 2011

For your first game: Don't panic. Tell the folks you're playing with that you've NEVER played before, have no idea what you're doing or how to do it, and you'll need a lot of explanation/handholding. Sure, it'll be awkward, but as long as you can identify a d20 from a d6 you'll prooobably be okay. Any gaming group worth a shit should be very supportive of a new player.

Your local gaming store might also have something called D&D Encounters, which is a simplified, quick, pick up and play version of the game. It's Fourth Edition, which I personally despise because I'm an old-school nerd, but for a start? It's GREAT.

Ask around and see if you can borrow the Player's Handbook for the game you'll be playing, then read up on it.

I do agree on the dice -- get your own! My gaming store sells them from anywhere between $8 to $25 for a set, depending on how fancypants you want your dice. Your friends will appreciate it (there's an unwritten gaming rule about rolling another man's dice -- that is, try not to do it) and if you turn out not to like it and don't want the dice anymore, I'll bet there's someone who'd be willing to buy them from you.

Remember: It's just a bunch of grownups sitting around a table and playing pretend. Who says grownups can't have fun.
posted by Heretical at 4:25 PM on February 8, 2011

I'm not much of a player myself, but I have friends who play and I'm sort of vaguely aware of the rules. I've poked around at the edges of the experience a bit and asked of them a lot of the same questions you're asking.

Per the question of which edition to use, everyone I've talked to is totally unanimous - the latest (4th edition) rules are fantastic and the haters are predominantly traditionalists who resent the simplification of the game systems. The latest set is way more tractable for newcomers and is much less about knowing weird rule arcana to think your way out of situations. The result is that you can focus more on the story-telling side of things and the DM can feel free to bend the rules to fit the situation a little more. I'm just parroting them and other people with first hand knowledge can probably advise better. But in the absence of your best friends saying "we're playing second edition and nothing else" I would aim for 4th edition. Plus, all things being equal, it's where all the content is being produced and the center of mass of the hobby will be moving forward.

I really enjoyed the Penny Arcade podcasts that are just straight audio recordings of a few of their play sessions with a Wizards DM. They gave me a super clear sense of how different people negotiate the "being in character" part of things. For some people, they speak as their character, some people play in a third person mode, some people shift around. There's a lot of negotiation that goes on about what it means to be playing the game and it seems like people warm up to it and get kinda sucked in, even if they're initially skeptical. You can find one of those adventures here.
posted by heresiarch at 4:32 PM on February 8, 2011

D&D is just a game. If you play with fun people, you will have fun. If you play with uncompromising rule nazis, then it might not be that much fun, unless of course that fits your playing style. Get your friends you mentioned together and they can show you the ropes. Back when I played, we picked and chose the rules we wanted to play by and often made up our own.

The stigma that D&D had back in the 80's and 90's isn't really present anymore. People have found other things to blame society's woes on.
posted by Roger Dodger at 4:35 PM on February 8, 2011

It's Call of Cthulhu, not D&D, but this audio should give you a pretty good impression of what to expect from an RPG gaming experience.
posted by Artw at 4:36 PM on February 8, 2011

I would highly suggest trying d20 Modern. This is the core rulebook, and there's a list of supplemental rulebooks (depending on the direction you want the game to take eventually) here. You can find all of 'em for decent prices used on Amazon. The crazy stuff you can do with the combination of a modern-day setting and psionic powers is wonderful—you really get to exercise your imagination, without feeling like you need to wear a cape to the game to get in character or something.

Note: With any D&D variant, going through and filling out your character sheet for the first time can be a bit tedious, what with all of the rolling (and, for the more artsy, sketching out what you think your character looks like). I would suggest getting a D&D-savvy friend to walk you through that the first time before you actually play—if you're meeting up somewhere, see if they can meet you there early to go through that. The rulebook you use will also give you pointers on how to set up your character—so it's a good idea to get a copy of whichever book your group ends up using, so you can read up when you're not in-game.
posted by limeonaire at 4:48 PM on February 8, 2011

lollusc writes "Incidentally, another idea if you want to get a better sense of whether you will enjoy it or not, is to play D&D online for a bit first. The basic account is free, and you don't have to buy stuff in game unless you really get into it."

While DDO is based on the 3.5 ruleset it is much more combat oriented than most PnP D&D games. I enjoy the heck out of both but for different reasons however both can be very social. If you want to give DDO a try drop me a mefimail. I run a friendly, small guild on the Ghallanda and we're talking about recruiting. Even if you decide not to join up with us I'd spend a few hours with you getting you on your feet. The game really is free to play, 99.999% of the content can be accessed without spending actual money and without dieing of boredom from a grind. VIP status for $10 bucks a month for the most part just makes things quicker and 30% of that is sidestepped if you have an elite opener available. The down load is about 5Gigs but it runs adequately on even my old wheezer of a Vista laptop.

heresiarch writes "Per the question of which edition to use, everyone I've talked to is totally unanimous - the latest (4th edition) rules are fantastic and the haters are predominantly traditionalists who resent the simplification of the game systems."

4th edition is pretty good but the combats take too bloody long and the rules aren't really simple; they just aren't nearly as byzantine as previous editions were. Also, IMO, you pretty well need access to the online character builder which requires someone(s) in your group to pony up a monthly fee.

Having said all that my weekly group has been playing Gamma World for the last couple weeks as a break from the Tomb of Horrors and it's bloody fantastic. Character creation takes less than 20 minutes manually or you can whip up a character in under a minute with the free online builder. The box comes with pretty well every thing you need except dice (each player is going to want a different colour scheme anyways). It's a great intro to RPGs generally and 4e specifically; at least from the player side, I'm not sure how it is to DM. The rule set is similar to 4e D&D but the number of choices has been drastically pared down. It's a great deal of fun though players will probably die a lot so it's not really a campaign setting.

There is a D&D board game which is pretty good though not really a Role playing game. It's almost pure combat but would serve as an introduction to how combat works. The version I played was Castle Ravenloft which might work for you because only people familiar with D&D's campaign settings are going to know that it is a D&D game (if you cover up the big logo on the front). One of it's advantages is you can play by yourself once or twice before trying to get others to play.

Finally if you have an iPhone/iTouch there are several dice rolling apps available for that platform that would save you having to buy any dice to start. One of the guys in my group uses one because he has trouble reading the numbers on a die (OMG we're old).
posted by Mitheral at 5:58 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

The above advice is all pretty good, and all I can add is that you might read "comic book stores" where people have written "games stores" -- dedicated games stores are a little bit rare these days. Comic book shops usually have a shelf or two of games, at least where I have lived.

Anyway, check out a comic / games store and see if they have a bulletin board... In many places, there are games starting up all the time or ongoing ones you can wet your toes in.

Age is scarcely a factor: I spent the evening with a gaming group and about half of us are on the grey side of forty.

It is really nothing to stay anonymous on... Feel free to memail me if you havemore questions.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:42 PM on February 8, 2011

DnD is a game that is passed along from friend to friend. It's really a social experience, which is at the heart of it, and what makes it really enjoyable. Playing around a table with a bunch of people is definitely the way to learn, and essential to the whole experience of playing RPG's. It's possible to read every rule book ever printed, and still not really understand how the game is actually played.

Find some gamers where you live, and just jump in.
posted by EvilPRGuy at 8:00 PM on February 8, 2011

what EvilPRGuy said. A lot of places have stores where you can look online for schedules, some of them having new-player nights or demos of the games, so you can join in. Or there's games that have been running a while and people will let you sit own, watch, and explain things to you as it goes.

At the core these are social games, and the more people that play, the larger the pool of players and people to hang out with.
posted by mephron at 8:31 PM on February 8, 2011

I had the same thought and did a little research earlier this week and found an official free test drive download from Wizards of the Coast. Here is the quick start rules and the Keep on Shadowfell adventure for free as PDFs. These two PDFs have pretty much everything you need to start a game except for dice and some pens and paper. You even get a few pre-rolled characters. The quick start guide is something like 25 pages, so its not exactly something you skim, but after reading it and most of the Shadowfell guide I feel like I could at least make a sincere effort to DM a game.

From what I can tell its a lot more tedious and rule-based than the Community episode you saw, which seemed to be a lot of improv and simplified rules. You'll be dealing with maps, figuring out placement/positioning on a grid, calculating damage and hit points, keeping track of everyone's hitpoints, and following a guide that more or less spells everything out. Community was more "okay roll better than a 15 to defeat this guy" and have sex with a maiden/find the magic amulet laying around. The real game seems to be a bit more involved.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:42 PM on February 8, 2011

For something more lightweight, may I recommend Ninja Burger? It's designed to be played in stand-alone missions that take no more than a few hours to do, and the rules are pretty straight forward. I haven't played since it was a small yellow book, though it looks like the second edition isn't that much more complicated than the first. It was very similar to the way the group on Community played: You need to roll an x or above to make your attack work.

On a side note, I was the Ninja Master of the games I participated in, and we played on a board (usually a cork board with graph paper on top and push pins with little flags on them for the ninja pieces). And some six sided dice. And that was about it.

It's a blast to play. I had a few house rules, but my favorite was really an encouragement to my players: If you want to try it, I'll let you try it. If you want to try to shoot lasers from your eyes, for the love of God, please try. I've had players devolve into an epic battle in a Blockbuster Video, disguise themselves as Wayne Brady, literally WALTZ out of a dangerous situation, and accidentally conjure orange Jell-O from the land of Wind and Ghosts. I still talk about these games close to seven years after the fact.

I've also listened to a Mouse Guard game being played, and it sounded very straight forward and very inclined towards story telling.

Lastly, check out NearbyGamers and see if it's of any use to you.
posted by gc at 12:40 AM on February 9, 2011

In addition to the podcasts mentioned earlier, there is the video series on The Escapist called I Hit It With My Axe, which can give you an idea of how things can go and how you can use your imagination.
posted by WhackyparseThis at 1:35 AM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you'd like to find out a little bit about what Dungeons & Dragons is about with very little upfront investment, I can't recommend one of the several free retro-clones currently available enough.

Almost every flavor of the original game has been reworked to some degree under the Open Gaming License, and the rulebooks available free for download in pdf form. Here are a couple versions that are the closest to the editions of Dungeons & Dragons that were played in the late seventies/early eighties:

Dark Dungeons
Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game

These are just the rulebooks, but they do contain just about everything you need to start playing. Read through the basic rules. Try making a character and filling out a character sheet. Make this character fight an Orc for a pie and kick the wheels of the combat system. You don't have to know all the rules to run a game, in fact some of these versions of D&D simply don't have a rule for everything, so some improvisation is encouraged on the part of the Dungeon Master.

I've also found that A Quick Primer to Old-School Gaming is surprisingly helpful to help capture the mindset of some of these more "rules-lite" games.

You can always use a One Page Dungeon for your first adventure.

Once you've found a game that you like, then some friends, graph paper, dice, beverages, snacks and imagination are pretty much the only other ingredients.
posted by ktrey at 3:30 AM on February 9, 2011

I really enjoyed the Community episode and felt it really captured a typical "Dungeons & Dragons" session for people unfamiliar with the game. It had it's own eccentricities (DM rolling all the dice. That would not fly in my groups), but I suppose all games do. The trade-dress for the made up adventure really invoked the older era, and all the books in the episode were Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, with a smattering of 1st Edition and 2nd Edition books thrown together (just how I remember playing back in the day, we used any book we could get our grubby hands on).

I learned to play Dungeons & Dragons around two decades ago, by getting some of the books for my birthday. Looking back, I did a lot of things wrong when I eventually started running games, but that was part of the fun.

Alright, enough nostalgia. You seem like someone generally interested in learning how it works. The basic units of virtually all roleplaying games are a Game Master (Dungeon Master) and the player participants. In the Community episode, this is reflected pretty accurately. The Dungeon Master writes/imagines/designs or arbitrates the scenarios that the players encounter. This is mostly done using everyone's collective imaginations, around a table, with some dice to provide an element of randomness.

From your post, you sound like you might be more interested in being a player rather than the Dungeon Master. This is a great way to learn about the game, but all Dungeon Master's run their games differently. So it helps to try things out with an open mind, and remember that the golden rule is to have fun.

For now, I'll assume the role of Dungeon Master and guide you through the first step in any D&D game. Generating your character (NB: This is pretty editionless, but probably closest to Tom Moldvay's old Blue Book).

So let's make a character. For anyone interested in the process and playing along at home, here's what you will need right now:

A Pencil or Pen
A piece of Paper
Some dice (raid a Monopoly/Yahtzee set if you have to, we'll only be using six-sided dice (d6) for character generation).

Write the following down the left side of your sheet of paper:

These are what are known as your character's ability scores, they stand for Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution and Charisma respectively. These scores are measured by a value from 3 to 18 which we need to randomly determine. To get this value, we roll a six-sided die three times and total up the rolls. Do this now for all six stats in order down the page.

Done? Good. You might have low scores, you might have high scores, that's completely fine, as they don't impact play as much as you might think. A high score might give you a bonus to some activity, while a low score might penalize you in a particular area. For the sake of brevity, we won't worry about this now.

What is your highest score? Are you Stronger than Smart? Are you Wiser than Agile? The highest score might help you get an idea of what Class you want to play. A character's Class is like their occupation. Fighters fight and need to be strong, Thieves thieve and need Dexterity, Magic-Users use magic which takes Intelligence, and Clerics pray and destroy undead (Wisdom). Pick one of these archetypes and write it next to "Class" somewhere on your sheet.

Next we'll determine your hit points. Hit points are how much damage your character can take before they die. For simplicities sake, roll a single d6 and record this number in a box labeled HP somewhere on your sheet. In some editions Fighters roll die with larger values and Thieves and Magic-Users get less hit points. This is unimportant for this example.

Wow, not many hit points huh? That's okay. First level adventurer's often get by with their wits and daring do, and any adventurer worth his or her salt knows when to run away and fight another day. You get more hit points by surviving and gaining experience. You can write Level: and 1 next to it somewhere on the sheet.

Pick a cool name. Write it somewhere on the sheet. We're almost done. Did you like Lord of The Rings? In some versions of the game, in addition to class you can also pick a Race and play something other than Human. You can be a stout Dwarf, a sylvan Elf, or a sneaky Hobb-err-Halfling. In older games, these races usually just provide some minor benefits like being able to see in the dark, having a better chance to notice secret passageways, or being able to hide in the woods. Humans are the default race in most game worlds, but in D&D you can be anything. So write Race somewhere on your sheet and pick one.

Your character won't survive very long with only 1 to 6 hit points and no armor to protect them or weapons to vanquish foes, so at this point we usually go shopping. Most systems give players 3d6 (3 six sided dice) x 10 gold pieces to saunter over to Bloodbath and Beyond with and shop. Let's just say your character's father left you a neat sword and some old but serviceable platemail armor if you're character is a fighter. A large arcane tome and an ornate dagger if you decided to be a Magic-User, a Holy symbol, some chainmail armor and a Morning Star if you're a Cleric, and if you are a Thief you stole some leather armor and a couple daggers. In D&D heavy, cumbersome armor interferes with thieving and the delicate motions required for spell casting. So really, only fighters and clerics can take advantage of this protection. Write your stuff down under a heading called "Equipment."

On your sheet somewhere, draw a little shield, label it with AC (Armor Class) and put a 3 if you have plate armor, a 5 in it if you have chain, a 7 for leather, and 9 if you are an armorless Magic-User. Write Damage somewhere and write 1d6. Some weapons do more, some less, but d6 is fine for the second-hand weapons we're working with (and I never liked variable weapon damage anyway). If you're a Magic-User you can intone a secretive reality bending incantation that allows you to put several foes at once into an unnaturally deep slumber, allowing you time to escape if things get to hairy. Write Spells: and SLEEP next to it somewhere on the sheet. If your a Thief, you have a percentage chance to scale walls, pick locks, hide in the shadows, pick pockets and find traps, but I usually don't worry about filling these out until the situation arises. As a Cleric at first level, you can hold aloft they symbol of your deity, and calling upon holy might, cause skeletons and zombies to cower before you or flee.

Congratulations! You have just created a bona-fide Dungeons & Dragons Character. The first step required to actually participate in a session of D&D. That's really almost all there is to it. Later editions have several more steps, but for the most part the basic concepts have remained pretty similar. For things like Saving Throws and how to Hit Things, you'll need to get a hold of an icosohedron, more commonly known as a twenty-sided die (d20).

You guys can talk to each other now.
posted by ktrey at 4:42 AM on February 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

I highly recommend just getting a small group of friends that might be interested together and just start figuring it out. People enjoy D&D on extremely different levels of seriousness, all the way from super casual on up to dressing in costume. I recommend that you keep it light starting out, start playing with a beer in hand and cracking jokes and you'll have a good time even if you don't get much of the game figured out right away.

Just choose an edition and a person in your group to be the DM. If anyone in the group has previous experience they'll be the best DM candidate and have an idea on what edition you should play. I would not recommend doing anything less than 3rd edition. People that play the older editions do it mostly out of nostalgia. The newest edition should be just fine. Also, whoever ends up being DM has a little more responsibility because the either need to prepare an adventure or read the book to a pre-made one.

I think your first session could just be making characters and figuring things out. All you need for this is a copy of the Player's Handbook and some character sheets printed out (a few dice wouldn't hurt either). Just go through the first section of the book about making characters as a group. Choose a class and a race, get your ability scores figured out, spend your skill points, pick out a feat or two, choose some starting gear, sprinkle on a few spells if your character is so inclined and before you know it you'll have a solid character and a decent idea of how the game works. The next time you sit down to play you can just start of on the adventure.
posted by cirrostratus at 8:47 AM on February 9, 2011

I've been recently getting into DnD myself (as a near-35-year-old), it's been great fun. One of the best things I've found so far was this handy dandy article: How to read the DnD4e Players Handbook.
posted by soplerfo at 9:52 AM on February 9, 2011

In my regular game, we often invite 'guest stars' to come play a night with us. The DM usually makes a standard character sheet for them and spends a little time beforehand explaining it, and we all help them along. It's a good way to get a taste for the game, and is very low pressure.
If you can find a group that is willing to let you tag along for a single night, I highly recommend it. If you find you like it, you can see about joining a group of your own (or joining that group, as one of our guest stars did). Just remember that if you don't like it, you probably shouldn't say so DURING the game (as another of our guest stars did).
posted by smoakes at 7:07 PM on February 9, 2011

Mod note: From the OP:
I just wanted to take the opportunity to first say "thank you" to the mods for allowing me to ask the question; I've never asked a question anonymously before, and I know it's kind of silly to worry about people finding out about a game, but I do legitimately work in a field where it is conceivably damaging, professionally. And not just this one thing, there are a lot of things that we have to watch, but it's the business we've chosen.

I am a long-time MeFi member, and you'll probably be able to see who I am because of this form, but I trust the mods to keep that info in confidence. MetaFilter is truly one of the absolute best of the Web (and I know that phrase is overused, but it is applicable) and I feel fortunate to count myself among the community here.

The real reason I was writing this message, however, was because I wanted to point out how amazing, how thoughtful and how, just, overall awesome all the answers people gave to my question were. It really reflects the quality of the community as a whole, and I only wish I could have marked some answers as "best". I won't list them all here, but it's easy enough to go through and the majority of the comments are kind, thoughtful and absolutely useful. Several people did take advantage of the throwaway email address, writing at length, and I will make sure I take the time to answer them back completely.

They say that if you take a man's money, you take his money... but if you take his time, you take a part of his life away. The folks who took the time to answer my question were so incredibly generous with their time, and so very patient with someone they didn't even know on a question that is, let's face it-- not life threatening at all. I was just very touched by this outpouring, and I wanted to recognize it in some way.

I can tell you I've contacted two friends individually to see if either of them will get a game started (both former players) and if I can get them to follow through, I think we can make it happen. In one group, we are going to get together to play another game one evening, and work on character sheets together which I think is an important first step, and it was advised by one of the commenters.

So, again, I just wanted to pass my gratitude on to the community, even if indirectly, and to the mods especially (including #1) for giving us a forum that allows this kind of generosity and kindness to happen. I am so SO grateful, and only hope I give back a fraction of what folks gave me on this one question.

Yours in the blue (and green, and gray, and everything else),
posted by mathowie (staff) at 8:03 PM on February 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'd also recommend that you go ahead and get an account at one or more of the larger game specific sites and ask questions there. With new accounts you can keep your identity as private as you wish, and still ask and participate in responses to game specific questions.
posted by meinvt at 10:16 PM on February 24, 2011

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