D&D Gameplay Explained: The Best Way to Play DnD

Almost 46 years after its initial release, Dungeons & Dragons (arguably the most influential role-playing game of all time) is more popular and making more sales than ever before. Part of it is because of the Stranger Things reference, which brought it to the mainstream eye.

And the other part? Well, that’s because of the newest edition, which made the game easier to approach for new players while still keeping it engaging enough for seasoned players.

D&D didn’t just influence the hit Netflix show, but it has been the inspiration for some of the best role-playing games, video games, TV shows, and movies with the same name based on the game that came after it. Plus, according to the Senior Director of D&D, Nathan Stewart, the number of D&D references in pop culture has only been rising for the past few years.

But even before its rise in recent years, D&D has always been a major phenomenon. The game’s popularity started growing throughout the late 70s and 80s. By 2004, D&D remained the most popular, best-selling role-playing game in the US, with more than 20 million players and $1 billion in revenue. 

Even celebrities like Vin Diesel, Mike Myers, and Mathew Lillard have been rumored to play D&D. Not only do people like playing the game, but they love watching others play just as much, if not more, as millions of people stream other players go through their own adventures in the game. 

Dungeons & Dragons have come a long way since its first edition. From being at the peak of its popularity… to going bankrupt… to then being bought by Wizard of the Coast… to rising once again… to getting involved in weird controversies linking satanism. It’s safe to say that the legacy of D&D is one of its kind. 

Maybe it’s the escape from the real world that the gameplay provides, or the fun times with your friends, or the limitless possibilities of the game that draw people in. Nonetheless, all we know is that people love it. 

In this article, we will talk all about Dungeons & Dragons, as well as:

  • Its gameplay
  • All the different editions
  • Their pros and cons
  • Our top recommendations
  • The best way to play the game

This is the ultimate guide to the gameplay of D&D. But before we start, let’s look at the history of the game to understand it better. 

But First, A Brief History of D&D

The Pre-Release History

It all started back in 1970, when Gary Gygax formed the Castle & Crusade Society, a subsection of the International Federation of Wargaming (IFW). The Castle & Crusade Society was about medieval wargaming, and all the members had different ranks and nobility, and were assigned property in an imaginary continent called the Great Kingdom. Dave Arneson, the co-founder of D&D, was also a part of it.

In 1971, Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren wrote Chainmail, a game based on medieval combat. This is where the evolution of D&D started. Inspired by Chainmail, Arneson created his own world, called Blackmoor. Blackmoor adapted the game mechanics of Chainmail and the elements of Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and some fragments of his own imagination to create the atmosphere of the world. 

A year later, Arneson comes to Wisconsin from Minneapolis to visit Gygax and show him Blackmoor. Gygax was instantly hooked and impressed by the game, and he requested Arneson for the rules of the game. After receiving 18-handwritten pages from Arneson describing the rules, Gygax expanded them to 50. 

In the following year, Gygax and Arneson tested and worked together on multiple drafts of the game, which we now know by the name of Dungeons & Dragons. The name itself was suggested by Gygax’s daughter, when asked to choose from multiple possible names. 

Unable to find a publication for the game, Gygax formed a partnership with Kaye, and they named it Tactical Studies Rules (later known as TSR). Finally, Brain Blume — the last piece of the puzzle — joinsedTSR to help produce Dungeons & Dragons. The Original Dungeons & Dragons, now known as OD&D, was finally published in 1974 as a small box of three booklets. 

At first, OD&D grew popular among wargaming enthusiasts, but gradually it started expanding among a more general audience. Within the first eleven months of being published, TSR sold out 1000 copies of the game

Post-Release History

After its release in 1974, D&D went from selling 1000 copies in its first year, to selling 12,000 copies every month pretty quickly. Soon after, D&D went international, and TSR became a million-dollar company, with offices in both Los Angeles and Great Britain. 

This was a huge transition, not only for the company but for Gygax, too, who went from being an unemployed game designer to having his own mansion in Beverly Hills. But Gygax wasn’t the only one with all the luxury, as TSR also had its own mansion on the Isle of Man. 

For the next two decades, TSR experimented a lot, most notably when it split D&D into two branches in its 2nd edition. One was the Dungeons & Dragons Basic (which was more suitable for the newer and general audience), and the second one was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D), which was meant for the hobbyist gamers. 

There was even a short period of time when D&D got into controversy for allegedly suggesting satanism and satanic practices through the game. It also received criticism for having explicit images and artworks. Some players reportedly faced discrimination and unfair treatment due to false associations with cult and satanism, so TSR made changes and modifications to some game elements, characters, and artworks in the 2nd edition of the game to deal with the controversy. 

During this time, D&D started growing as a brand and appearing in more and more pop culture references. They even produced an animated show based on Dungeons & Dragons. 

Unfortunately, in 1985, Gary Gygax, the co-creator of D&D, was forced out of TSR, Inc., after a series of legal battles. Some people believe that he was kicked out over internal politics caused by Arnenson’s lawsuit against the unfair distribution of royalties, while others believe that it was over a disagreement between TSR and Gygax’s decision to create a competing role-playing game. 

Nonetheless, it left Gygax angry and frustrated, ultimately forcing him to leave the company he created from scratch. After Gygax left, TSR tried its luck in strange and new places to expand the franchise further. Some of them worked, and some of them failed miserably.  They even released a video game version of D&D for the Apple II computers.

Apart from that, TSR also released:

  • Video games
  • Trump cards
  • CD-ROMS
  • Videotapes of the D&D game rules

After a long run of successes, it seemed like nothing could stop TSR… until it all fell apart. Around the late 90s, after a series of expensive failures, TSR was on the verge of bankruptcy. The company was neck-deep in debts. But in 1997, another game studio swept in and bought TSR, and with that, the D&D franchise for a cool $25 million. 

How This All Affected Gameplay

Nearly three years after Wizard of the Coast bought TSR, the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons was finally published in 2000, after being under the developmental stage all this time. Luckily, the 3rd edition of the game changed everything for the legacy of D&D. 

The 3rd edition dropped the Advanced and Basic versions of the game and turned it back into a single unified game. Apart from that, there was a ton of new changes and modifications that only made the game even better and more appealing. 

Following the success of the 3rd edition, the developers announced the 4th edition of D&D in August 2007, at a GenCon event. A year later, in June 2008, the 4th edition was released. Once again, it was a resounding success. 

After the 4th edition, the fans now wanted a new one. The developers asked fans to have patience, as they were trying their best to make the next one the best out of them all. Finally, Wizard of the Coast released the most recent 5th edition of D&D in 2014, the same year as D&D’s 40th anniversary.

Now we’re in 2021, and D&D is still relevant — and probably more than it has even been before!

Gameplay of D&D 

Dungeons & Dragons had something unique that no other role-playing games at that time had, and that unique something is not singular. It’s a combination of different factors that come into play that make the gameplay stand out from others. 

The game allows players to make their own choices that will lead them to different adventures and consequences to explore. But of course, the game does provide structure and order. Otherwise, the game would get too chaotic to handle. 

There are three main factors in D&D that directs and influences the outcome of the adventures:

  • The players or characters of the game
  • The Dungeon Master (DM)
  • The dice

Let’s take a closer look.

The Players and Characters of D&D 

As a player, you can create your character with its own backstory, personality, and appearance. Not just that, you can choose its race (such as elves, dwarves, humans, for example) and its class (such as cleric, fighter, monk, or ranger). 

Of course, there are pre-written templates that you’ll use to create these characters, but you’re allowed to create your character from scratch if you want to, using the rulebooks. Like you, your friends would also need to create their own heroes to play the game. 

The Game’s Dungeon Master (DM)

In a game of D&D, one player of the group has to take the role of a DM, who will act as a storyteller and referee while you and your friends lead through various challenges and obstacles. In other words, the DM is in charge of the adventures. The DM can improvise and react to anything the players do, making the game more flexible and uncertain. 

The D&D Dice

The game of D&D demands a D20 dice, which, as the name suggests, has 20 sides. It’s the determining factor of all the strategies and attacks that players will plan and use. The dice provide structure, at the same time adding to the unpredictability of the game.

As a side note, D&D is famous for using many bizarre-looking dice that players love to collect, like rare collectibles. It’s a separate hobby that has its own audience. 

The D&D Game Mechanics

Apart from the three main factors, the game mechanics of D&D also influence how an adventure will turn out. Most of these mechanics weren’t there in the game from the start, but as more and more new editions came out, the game mechanics kept changing and evolving. 

These game mechanics include:

  • Ability Scores. This is your character’s primary statistics of how good they are overall. It includes strength, intelligence, constitution, wisdom, charisma, and dexterity.
  • Armor Class. This is your character’s defense against physical attacks from monsters. It represents how well-protected you’re from such attacks.
  • Attack Rolls and Damage Rolls. This is your character’s ability on how much and how effectively they can inflict damage on another character. 
  • Saving Throws. This is your character’s defense ability against non-physical attacks, like poisons and fireballs. 
  • Hit Points. This is your character’s threshold of how much damage and punishment they can take before they actually die. 
  • Skills. This represents your character’s competency in different areas of expertise. (Skills were introduced in the 3rd edition of D&D.)
  • Feats. This is your character’s special powers acquired through natural ability or training. (Feats were also introduced in the 3rd edition of D&D.)

Dungeons & Dragons is an endless game that you can play for days, weeks, months, even years, and it still won’t end. Each adventure you complete, each monster you kill, and each treasure you find progresses your character arc and story, preparing you for the next big adventure. The cycle never ends. 

D&D Editions (And Their Pros & Cons) 

D&D 1st Edition (1e)

Before the 1st edition of Dungeons & Dragons, TSR released the Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) edition (also known as D&D 0e) in 1974. However, the OD&D was more of a game made by wargamers for wargamers. It required players to have Chainmail, a separate game entirely, for the rules of D&D.

As the RPG wargaming genre was pretty new in the market, it’s needless to say that the OD&D edition wasn’t the easiest to play. However, after fans demanded a more dedicated RPG ruleset, TSR released the 1st edition of Dungeons & Dragons, also known as D&D 1e. 

As we mentioned in the History of D&D section, D&D 1e was split into two versions. The basic one was built upon the OD&D, while the advanced version was an entirely new game. It was AD&D that got more popular in pop culture and among the general audience at that time. 

Pros

  • It has very adaptable rules, as few rules are interconnected.
  • The combat is pretty simple and straightforward.
  • It doesn’t require you to have miniatures, maps, or girds to play (which is a great thing for some people).

Cons

  • AD&D is pretty hard to understand fully just by reading books, as it has a very steep learning curve. It’s better to learn by playing with friends already experienced with the game mechanics and rules.
  • The game still feels more targeted towards wargamers. This makes some people feel alienated as the game assumes you have some wargaming experience or knowledge. 
  • The books, skills systems, and some rules are very unorganized and confusing. 
  • It’s very tough to win in combat. 

D&D 2nd Edition (2e)

The 2nd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, also known as D&D 2e, was released in 1989. In a way, it was mostly an updated version of D&D 1e, with a lot of improved and reorganized rules. The D&D 2e is known for mainstreaming the infamous THAC0 system, along with out-of-combat abilities and magical spells. 

But that’s not all. D&D 2e popularized many official campaign settings, some of which are still being published to this day. It included the gothic horror landscapes of Ravenloft, the arcane starships of Spelljammer, the Dune-Esque deserts of Dark Sun, just to name a few. 

Pros

  • Very little difference between D&D 1e and 2e. So, one can easily apply the rules and concepts of one edition to the other without having much trouble. 
  • Better non-combat abilities, of course. 
  • Class kits allow better customization options.

Cons

  • Unbalanced system of race and class selection, as some races are limited to certain classes. Also, players require different experiences to level for each class.
  • The concepts of “Multi-Class” and “Dual-Class” can be confusing and difficult to understand. 
  • It’s still very tough to win combats. 

D&D 3rd Edition (3e)

In 2000, Wizard of the Coast released the long-awaited 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons. There were a lot of fixes and customization for better game rules and structure. This edition introduced a ton of new rules and options, like the feat system, while improving the existing ones like multi-classing, prestige classes, and the like. 

However, D&D 3e is most famous for introducing the d20 system, which basically allows resolutions for every action with a roll of a dice. After some time, Wizard of the Coast released an updated version of the 3rd edition, fixing some balance and customization issues. This edition was popularly known as D&D 3.5e, which overshadowed the original 3e. 

Pros

  • The characters are highly customizable.
  • Magic weapons, armors, and shields are customizable. 
  • Spells allow space for better and more creativity.
  • It has a very thorough skill system. 
  • A large variety of classes and races and a vast library of “Prestige Classes.”

Cons

  • Game balance is terribly weak at higher levels, as players start facing balance issues between spellcasting and non-spellcasting classes, along with many other problems. 
  • At higher levels, it’s extremely difficult to increase stats for some classes. They are popularly known as “dead levels.”
  • A few other issues that make the game boring, predictable, slow, and frustrating at times.

D&D 4th Edition (4e)

The 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons was released in 2008, and it was a game-changer for the franchise. D&D 4e brought massive changes and modifications, primarily focused on revamping the entire combat system. 

Every class now had “Powers” instead of a few. The game introduced new races like Dragonball and Tieflings. Elves were split into three separate races. But the biggest highlight of D&D 4e was probably the introduction of healing surges. 

Pros

  • 4e fixed the problem of “dead levels” from the previous edition. 
  • Everything from characters to classes to levels was well balanced.
  • The learning curve of D&D 4e is fairly simple, making it easy for new players to enjoy the game. 
  • For a monthly subscription, Wizards of the Coast provides Dungeons & Dragons Insider, giving you access to Character Builder, the Rules Compendium, Dungeon Magazine, and Dragon Magazine. 
  • New gameplay makes it easier for DMs to increase or decrease the difficulty, and this edition makes it easier for the DM to write encounters. 
  • A few other improvements and changes made the game way more exciting and easy to play. 

Cons

  • Unfortunately, the 4th edition is so focused on combat that some people find it difficult to actively roleplay.
  • Players require a combat grid or miniature, as combat is highly tactical and difficult to manage. 

D&D 5th Edition (5e)

The 5th and current edition of Dungeons & Dragons was released in 2014, and it’s probably the best edition till now. As we said in the beginning, D&D 5e is very simple, allowing new players to enjoy just as much as the hardcore players of the game. 

D&D 5e was positively received by the audience, as, unlike other previous editions, 5e was playtested publicly before the release. This made the game mechanics well balanced and approved by the D&D community. 

Pros

  • Really simple rules, making it pretty easy for beginners. 
  • It doesn’t take much time to create characters. 
  • Overall, probably the most well-balanced edition of the game.
  • Although some things are missing, the “Basic Rule Set” available for free on the official website of Wizard of the Coast is a great resource for beginners to get started without investing much.

Cons

  • Some people feel that a few game mechanics makes it harder for characters to master their skills. However, most people don’t have a problem with this. 

Best Ways to Play D&D 

Even after being more than 40 years old, more and more people want to start playing Dungeons & Dragons than ever before. However, a lot of these people don’t know where exactly to start. 

If you have never played any role-playing games before, D&D might seem a little too confusing, complex, and maybe even terrifying due to all the rules and fancy terms. That’s why if you’re starting out in D&D, firstly, you should start with the 5th edition. It has the easiest rules and is pretty simple for beginners to grasp the game mechanics faster. 

It’s specifically designed to reduce the barrier of entry and encourage more and more new players to start playing the game. That’s why Wizard of the Coast offers a free “Basic Rule Set” PDF on their official websites so that anyone can have access to the game. But then what?

Play With Your Friends

Playing with your friends is the most obvious choice for most people. It’s something that people have been doing since the beginning of the game. You and your group of friends gather around and play together. That’s it. This is the way we like to play the game and have the most fun. It’s better if your friends already have experience playing D&D, but if they don’t, do this.

Starter Packs

In case all your friends are newbies to D&D just like you, your best option is to buy the Starter Set, of course. Not only does the starter set have everything that you ever need to get started and play the game, but it’ll spice up your gaming experience. 

Online Communities 

Lastly, thanks to technology and the internet, unlike back in the days when D&D first got out, you can now actually meet thousands of players who are starting just like you. These online communities have a ton of resources, probably everything you can and can’t imagine, plus awesome supportive people that will help you learn and grow. 

There are even websites that have matchmaking services to get you into a virtual group of players. These online communities are especially great for these times of pandemic when meeting with people might not be the safest option. r/DnD in Reddit is one such community. You can find more by searching for it. 

Our Top D&D Product Recommendations

Although you can get started with Dungeons & Dragons with just the free “Basic Rule Set” from the website and a set of polyhedral dice, here are my personal D&D product recommendations that I believe will make your gaming experience much better. 

RPG Battle Grid Game Mat

  • These double-sided battle grid maps are very affordable and long-lasting.
  • They are made with the highest grade materials and have a special UV coating for easy dry erase.
  • It’s waterproof, portable, UV safe, and tear-resistant, making them extremely reliable.
  • It comes with a 7-piece black marble polyhedral dice set and 4 free dry-erase markers.

D&D Starter Set

  • Probably the best product for anyone starting out or curious about D&D and how it’s played. 
  • It has a 64-page adventure book with everything the Dungeon Master needs to get started. Plus a 32-page rulebook for playing characters level 1-5, which has 5 pre-generated characters, with character sheets, and 6 dice.

Dungeon Master’s Screen 

  • The Dungeon Master’s screen is absolutely worth it for multiple reasons. It will make your gaming experience ten times better as a Dungeon Master. 
  • However, the biggest perk of having a Dungeon Master’s screen is secrecy. If you want to have something important in front of you to see, while at the same time don’t want the players to see it, this is the solution. 

D&D 5th Edition Player’s Handbook

  • As we said earlier, the free “Basic Rule Set” is great for starting. However, if you’re at an advanced level or want to experience the game’s full potential, buy the D&D 5th Edition Player’s Handbook.
  • It contains rules for character creation and advancement, backgrounds and skills, exploration and combat, equipment, spells, and everything else you need. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Can I play DnD online?

Answer: Yes, there are various ways to play D&D online with your friends. However, ROLL20 is probably the best website for playing D&D online. 

Question: How do I paint miniatures?

Answer: Painting miniatures is an art in itself, and it requires quite a bit of skill and precision, as well as the right equipment. Some people make really amazing miniatures, but no doubt, they started out as beginners like yourself. If you’re just starting out, this video is really great to teach you the basics of painting miniatures.

Question: How do I write an adventure?

Answer: Once again, this is a separate topic that requires its own guide, but here is a really helpful post by a Reddit user. The short version of it, though, is that it takes more than a little bit of creativity and imagination. 

Not only do you need to have a general idea for a plot, but you also need to know about the different side quests and plots you want to throw in. Of course, the biggest rule is to have fun while doing so, and keep an open mind, as pretty much anything can happen during a game!

Question: Which edition should I play?

Answer: It largely depends on your previous experience with the game and what you’re looking for. However, if you’re just starting out, as we said, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is what’s best for you. 

Our Final Thoughts

From a basement project to selling millions of copies, Dungeons & Dragons have come a long way. Of course, there were some hiccups along the way, like the whole satanic controversy, the internal boardroom conflict, and the downfall of TSR, but compared to all the successes D&D have achieved, it’s nothing. 

Dungeons & Dragons influenced many other tabletop role-playing games, some of which you might even have played. And if you have, you’ll really enjoy exploring and playing the older versions of the D&D to see its evolution and how it all started. 

Of all of the editions of D&D, if we had to choose just one that is our favorite, we’d have to go with D&D 5e. The most user-friendly version, it just has the most appeal to both beginner and advanced players.

Nonetheless, we just wanna leave you by saying that the gameplay of D&D is one of the best. It’s unpredictable, fun, exciting, and most importantly, it’s more of a social activity that brings you closer to your friends than a game.

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