Someone on Google Plus recently was asking for help on how to get started with D&D. They were daunted by the size of the basic rules. 114 pages for the 0.3 revision of the player rules (5e)! So I kind of wrote a walkthrough for the rules themselves. It might be useful for other people too, so here goes:
If you’ve never played before, I highly recommend either finding finding 3 or more other friends (one of you would DM) and going through Lost Mines of Phandelver adventure in the starter set: http://www.amazon.com/Dungeons-Dragons-Starter-Set-Roleplaying/dp/0786965592/ — it comes with pre-made characters starting at level 1 and an abbreviated set of rules that covers the real basics. It also walks the dungeon master through what they need to know.
If you don’t have friends who’d be interested in playing, there are a few options. You may have a game store nearby that runs events like D&D Encounters. Check out wizard’s site for this: http://dnd.wizards.com/playevents/organized-play
Basic flow of the game
Before getting into the rules themselves, what’s the game like? Many folks have tackled this, but essentially the players in the game are describing what their characters do in the game world. The DM (Dungeon Master) describes the setting and how the rest of the world reacts to what the characters do. The general flow is the DM describes what’s happening (or, happened), the players choose how to react and tell the DM, then the DM responds. Through this back and forth the group develops a story centered around the PCs (player characters) with a cast of NPCs (non-player characters) who inhabit the world the DM is responsible for.
PCs don’t automatically succeed at everything. When they take an action that has a chance of failure, the DM will ask them to make some sort of check. Checks are resolved by rolling a d20 (twenty sided die), adding a number, and comparing it to the threshold. For instance, a DM might ask for a persuasion check if a player says their character tells the person chasing them “the guy you’re chasing ran that way!”. The DM decides the target number (typically in secret) and asks the player to roll the check for their character. If the player just says their character stops there and points, this would probably be a REALLY hard check. If the player instead has their character round a corner, ditches their cloak behind a crate, and tries to look sullen, the DM would probably make the check a bit easier, since they’ve done interesting and useful set up. Almost every interaction in the game falls into this basic flow.
Walk through for the rules
Okay, time to go through the rules! It’s some combination of guide and reference, so I’ll try to make it more guide like. Page numbers refer to pages in http://media.wizards.com/2015/downloads/dnd/BasicRules_Playerv3.4.pdf
Page 3: “Using these rules” gives a good break down of the guide. That same page covers the basic flow of play in “How to play”.
Page 6: Part 1 – creating a character — we’ll skip most of this for now. That said, check out page 20, the overview for the classes. The table there gives you a sense of the differences between the classes. When it’s time to create a character, that’s the good starting point for figuring out how you want to build your character. I think class should generally be picked before race, so I always start there, then apply the racial template afterwards. Anyway, we’ll come back to character creation.
Page 57: Playing the game. If Part 1 is the “what”, Part 2 is the “why”. Chapter 7 is all about using ability scores — Why do ability scores matter, why does proficiency matter, what are skills and saving throws? This chapter is the support behind figuring out if you’re successful when you try to do something. You don’t need to know every detail here but knowing what different abilities and skills are used for informs how you build your character. Everything described here is about what you add to your d20 roll under different circumstances. The DM should know this well to keep things moving, the players should at least have a general understanding of this chapter but better understanding here helps move things forward.
Page 63: Chapter 8 is all about the general things you do throughout the game. Exploration & travel, resting, interacting, — the headings you probably want to focus on from the beginning are Activity while traveling (p64), Social Interaction (p66), Resting (p67). The rest is useful but I find the content under those three comes up most often.
Page 69: Chapter 9 is all about combat. Combat would be part of chapter 8, except it’s a whole mini-game unto itself and most groups use that more often than everything else. The Combat Step by Step break out gives the best overview. You probably want to read basically everything with a couple exceptions. In my games, the most overlooked actions are Dash and Dodge — good utility for the action if you need to stay up or get out of dodge. Feel free to put off a deep reading of Flying Movement (p71), Creature Size (p71) Damage Resistance & Vunerability (p75), Dropping to 0 hit points (p75), Mounted Combat (p76), Underwater Combat (p77).
The bits of combat that always come up is what you can do during your turn. Your turn takes 6 seconds of in-game time and you get 3 potential actions. An action, a move, and a bonus action (only usable if your character has something that specifically says it takes a bonus action — some spells, some stuff with rogues).
Page 78: MAGIC! If you have a character who can cast spells, the whole thing is notable to read. The actual spells begin to be listed on page 82.
There’s a couple cases with magic that are easy to forget or overlook. First, magic isn’t exclusively limited to combat. You can use it out of combat too. Healing (ex: Cure Wounds, p86), or burning things (ex: Burning Hands, p85), or plunging an area into darkness (ex: Darkness, p86), or making the ground rumble when trying to intimidate someone with your magical power (ex: Thaumaturgy, p103 which is my favorite spell), or making everything quiet so people can stealth more easily (ex: Silence, p100, my second favorite spell after Thaumaturgy). Be creative!
The next gotcha is that every spell requires components (p79) that are some combination of verbal, somatic (hand gestures) and material components. Most material components are nice flavor bits but some require spending gold or an equivalent per casting (ex: Raise Dead, p99). If your hands are bound, you usually can’t cast spells requiring a somatic component. If you’re gagged or in a zone of silence, you can’t cast spells that require a verbal component (almost every single spell, Minor Illusion, p97 is the only one that comes to mind that doesn’t require it).
Page 105: Appendix A lists conditions that can come up. Unconscious and prone come up the most often, this is mostly reference.
Page 106: Appendix B lists gods of the forgotten realms setting. Not required but fun reading. Especially good if you’re a cleric, but the DM of the group really figured out how big of a role this plays.
Page 107: Appendix C — these are factions which appear a lot in the published adventures so far. Again, the group’s DM should say if this applies or not.
Okay, back to characters!If you don’t want to build your own character, the starter set comes with pregens which are available on Wizard’s site. If you do want to build your own character, lets go back to page 6 again. At this point, you should have some idea of what abilities and skills do and how to build your character.
Page 6 part 2: I don’t usually follow the order they lay stuff out in. For me, class is a bigger focus than race so I pick that first, but the step by step guide starting on p6 will get you though it. This is the most annoying part as there’s a lot of flipping back and forth to put your character together. For your first character or two I suggest following the “Quick Build” section in the class you want to play. That should guide you through pretty well.