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Looking at the Components of a Dungeons & Dragons Game

You need three distinct components to play a Dungeons & Dragons game:

  • Players: You need players, usually two to six of them, to take on the roles of adventurers in the fantasy world. The adventurers controlled by the players are also called heroes or player characters (PCs, for short).
  • A Dungeon Master: The Dungeon Master (DM) controls all of the nonplayer characters (NPCs) — the monsters, villains, and other incidental characters that inhabit the fantasy world. The DM sets the pace of the story and referees the action as the adventure unfolds.
  • An adventure: An adventure is the activity that the player characters participate in. An adventure usually consists of a basic plot and a number of encounters. As the players (through their characters) interact with the plot and resolve the encounters, they help the DM tell a story. The cool thing is that every action the player characters perform affects the twists and turns of the plot, so that the outcome of the adventure winds up surprising everyone.

The following sections give more details about all the various parts of the D&D experience.

Players and characters

Like the protagonists of a novel or the heroes of a movie, the action revolves around the characters in a D&D game. Each player creates a character (or selects a ready-to-play character), a heroic adventurer who is part of a team that regularly delves into dungeons and battles monsters. These characters include mighty fighters, brave clerics, cunning rogues, and powerful sorcerers. You, as a player, play the game while your character takes all the risks.

Playing a D&D character is kind of like acting, except everything happens around the gaming table. You don't have to deliver lines or perform stunts. Just find a comfortable seat, explain what your character is doing, and roll some dice. The scene plays out in your imagination and in the imaginations of the other players.

The Dungeon Master

One player has a special role in a D&D game. This player, the Dungeon Master (or DM), controls the pace of the story and referees the action along the way. Every D&D game needs a Dungeon Master — you can't play the game without one.

The cool thing about Dungeon Masters is that they allow the game to be totally interactive and open-ended. Players can have their characters attempt anything they can imagine because there's a real, live person sitting in the DM's chair, coordinating the action and determining how every event adds to the story. The game rules and the dice help, but the DM must use his or her imagination to make the world unfold.

The player who decides to take on the role of the Dungeon Master becomes a member of a select group. Not everyone has the dedication and creativity to be a DM, but those that do have a great outlet in the D&D game. The DM defines the game his or her group is going to play, and a good DM results in a great game of D&D.

Some groups use multiple DMs, so that everyone gets to run a player character at some point, and everyone who wants to try their hands at DMing gets the opportunity. Other groups go for years with the same player serving as DM for every game session. It all depends on the desires of the group and the personalities involved.

The adventure

The player characters are the stars of your D&D game, just like the heroes in books or movies. They are adventurers, and adventurers need adventures. A D&D adventure features action, combat, mystery, challenges, and lots and lots of monsters. Adventures come in three forms: full-length adventures published specifically for D&D, adventure hooks in published products that DMs can turn into full-length adventures, and adventures that DMs create for themselves.

Adventures can be as simple as a basic dungeon crawl or as complex as a murder mystery. An adventure can last for a single game session or stretch out over a number of sessions of play. One adventure might take place in a haunted castle, another in a crime-ridden village, a third in the catacombs beneath an ancient graveyard. What makes D&D different from your typical board game is that each adventure is just a single tale in the continuing saga of your player characters. Adventures provide the stage upon which your player characters perform heroic deeds and resolve legendary quests. Anything is possible in a D&D game, and it is through adventures that the possibilities come alive.

Supplies you need

Players and characters, a Dungeon Master, and an adventure — these are the basic components of any Dungeons & Dragons game. However, you need a few supplies to get the most out of the experience. These things include:

  • The D&D game itself
  • Special dice
  • Character sheets
  • Miniatures and battle grids
  • Pencils and paper — lots of it

The D&D game

Beginners should pick up the D&D Basic Game, which includes the basic rules, dice, and many of the other components discussed in this section, all in one convenient box.

If you want to progress beyond the basics, you'll need the three core books, all published by Wizards of the Coast, that comprise the full D&D game:

  • Player's Handbook: Presents the rules of the game from the player's point of view and provides details on creating characters, outfitting adventurers, and playing the game.
  • Dungeon Master's Guide: Presents the rules of the game from the Dungeon Master's point of view and provides detailed advice on running games, creating adventures, sustaining campaigns, and awarding experience to player characters. It also contains a selection of magic items and a fold-out battle grid to enhance play.
  • Monster Manual:Presents hundreds of creatures to use in any D&D game. From low-level to high-level, friendly to hostile, each creature has an illustration, game tactics, and statistics for ease of use.

The DM needs all three books, but players can usually get by with just a copy of the Player's Handbook.

Dice

Dice are used to determine the outcome of actions in the game. If you want your character to try something — such as attack the ogre, disarm the trap, or search for clues — the dice are used whenever the result isn't a sure thing. The D&D game uses dice of different shapes. Each player should have his or her own set of dice with which to play the game. Players get possessive and protective of their dice, and having your own set means you can customize it (dice come in all kinds of styles and colors). Game play also proceeds more smoothly when you don't have to pass the dice around when sharing among players.

A set of dice for the D&D game includes at least the following:

  • One four-sided die (referred to as a d4)
  • Four six-sided dice (d6)
  • One eight-sided die (d8)
  • Two ten-sided dice (d10)
    When these two dice are rolled together, they can produce any digit between 01 and 100. For this reason, these two dice are often called percentile dice (d%). Some dice sets include a d90 (a die that has sides expressed in tens — 10, 20, 30, and so on) to make rolling percentile dice easier.
  • One twelve-sided die (d12)
  • One twenty-sided die (d20)

The d20 determines character success at any given action, while the other dice determine what happens if an action succeeds.

Character sheets

Your D&D character is defined by a series of key statistics, as well as by the background story you create for the character. These statistics and other key information are contained on a character sheet. As your character participates in adventures, these statistics change.

Miniatures and a battle grid

While most of the action of D&D occurs in the imaginations of the participants, it is often very helpful to display certain information where everyone can see it. Combat situations, for example, work better when the players and DM know where all the participants are (characters and monsters) in relation to one another. D&D uses a one-inch grid, called the battle grid, to represent where the action takes place. To represent the characters and monsters, the players and DM place miniatures or other markers on the battle grid.

Other play surfaces can be found in the Dungeon Master's Guide and the D&D Basic Game. Official prepainted plastic D&D miniatures can be found in the D&D Basic Game, as well as in D&D Miniatures booster packs, available wherever fine hobby games are sold.

Pencils, paper, and graph paper

You'll want a means for keeping notes and recording important information during game play, so have a lot of pencils, scrap paper, and graph paper available. Use the scrap paper for notes about the adventure (write down the names of NPCs and places, any treasure your character acquires, and any other details that you might forget or think may be important later). One player might take the role of note keeper, or each player may want to take his or her own notes. Use the graph paper to sketch a map of the area the PCs are exploring — players want to map the dungeon as they explore it, while the DM uses graph paper to design the whole dungeon before the adventurers enter it.

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