What is Dungeons and Dragons?

Posted by Ted Cory on

What is Dungeons and Dragons (DnD5e)


So you’ve heard of Dungeons & Dragons? And you want to know what it is and how it is played? We’ll give you a complete explanation in this article. You may have heard vague answers in the past like “Oh, it’s a roleplaying game.” But you won’t get that here. We’ll explain exactly what D and D is and how you can get started playing DND games right away.


In order to best explain what DnD is, we have to start with its history.

In the early 1970’s, there were no collectible trading card games like Magic: The Gathering. And almost no one had a computer, so there certainly were no MMOs like World of Warcraft or Elder Scrolls Online.

Even worse, there was no YouTube or Twitch. So people were bored. Really bored.

Of course, you could always play board games with your friends to keep from going crazy. But most board games had simple rules, and players got tired of them pretty quickly.


One thing people did to entertain themselves was to play wargames. Wargames were like board games, but they were usually played on paper or plastic maps instead of cardboard “boards.” They also used painted miniatures, and part of the appeal of playing these games was the enjoyment of collecting and painting these miniatures.

These games also had very sophisticated rules. And they often required a referee to interpret these rules. Players would take turns serving as referee, or one player who enjoyed performing this role would take it on. Games often took more than one play session to complete, and the term campaign was used to describe the series of play sessions as a whole.

In most wargames, players took on the role of a faction in World War II or some other historical war. But there were also some wargames that had a medieval, sci-fi, or fantasy setting.

For example, in Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren’s Chainmail, players commanded medieval armies instead of modern ones. And the rulebook included rules on how to handle jousting, catapults, and primitive gunpowder weapons. It also included a fantasy supplement that allowed players to use troops resembling characters from Lord of The Rings, including Hobbits, Sprites, Orcs, and other fantasy creatures.


In 1974, Gygax and Dave Arneson released a new fantasy wargame that had many features never before seen. Instead of having players command an army, this game required each of them to play a single character. And instead of the players competing with each other, they worked together to battle through a map created by the referee.

This map was called a “dungeon.” It was filled with traps, monsters, and treasure. As players defeated the monsters and acquired treasure, their characters gained experience points. If they gained enough points, they gained experience levels and became more powerful.

The monsters in the dungeon were controlled by the referee. But the referee was not playing against the players. Instead, his role was to create a challenge for them and to have fun in the process.

Gygax and Perren called their company Tactical Rules System, Inc. (TSR). They called their first rulebook for this new game Dungeons & Dragons, Volume 1: Men and Magic. From that point on, the game was known as Dungeons & Dragons.


In the years following the release of Dungeons and Dragons, players started experimenting with different ways to play the game.

Some campaigns dispensed with maps and miniatures altogether. Instead of having player characters comb through a dungeon map, the referee, who eventually became called a dungeon master (DM), would simply describe what characters were seeing and hearing.

The dungeon master would then ask players what actions they wanted to take in response to what he had described. Depending on how the players responded, the DM would explain what happened as a result of their actions - based on ideas he had thought up beforehand.

Players were also encouraged to take on the role of their characters - to act the way their characters would in the given situation. This brought elements of interactive storytelling into the game.

In many campaigns, maps were still used in combat and other situations where being able to see the game world might be helpful. But there were also times when players would simply ad-lib their characters’ dialogue and “role-play” without using a map. As a result, Dungeons & Dragons came to be known as a role-playing game.

In later editions of the D&D rulebooks, role-playing was encouraged as an essential element of the game. And new rules were introduced to handle non-combat encounters, such as for when a character tries to persuade an NPC to give him information or to detect when he is being lied to.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the popularity of role-playing games exploded. Nearly every book store had copies of the D&D rulebooks, along with similar games such as G.U.R.P.S. (Generic Universal Role-Playing System)Marvel Super Heroes RPGVampire: The MasqueradeRobotech RPG, and others.


In the early 1990’s, Magic: The Gathering was released as the first collectible trading card game (CCG). It was published by Wizards of the Coast (WotC). It had a fantasy setting that appealed to many of the same types of players who would have otherwise played Dungeons & Dragons.

In addition, computers started to become more widespread because of the World Wide Web. Gamers started focusing more on computer games and CCGs rather than role-playing games. And soon, sales of D&D books started to decline.

TSR ran into financial trouble and was soon threatened with bankruptcy. But they were saved when Wizards of the Coast offered to buy them out. WotC hoped to use some of the characters from D&D in Magic: The Gathering, as well as to publish new editions of D&D that would hopefully increase its sales.


In an effort to make D&D more popular, WotC published a new edition of the core D&D rulebooks. Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition eliminated many of the non-combat rules in order to make the game simpler.

This did increase its popularity somewhat, but it also alienated many players who had been playing for years. As a result, the player base fractured. Some players embraced the new 4th Edition rules, while others continued to play 3rd Edition or went back to even older versions of the game.


In 2014, WotC tried again to revitalize interest in D&D. The new 5th Edition rulebook brought back many of the non-combat mechanics from earlier editions, made character classes more distinct, reduced the power of higher-level characters, and made a host of other changes that were meant to reunite the player base and make the game more interesting.

Then, in 2016, a new show on Twitch called Critical Role began to be streamed each week. This show featured professional voice actors such as Matthew Mercer, Ashley Johnson, Laura Bailey, Sam Reigal, and others playing Dungeons & Dragons. Because the players were character voice actors, they were especially good at role-playing, and many Twitch viewers found this show to be extremely entertaining.

Many viewers of Critical Role had never played Dungeon and Dragons and did not even know how it was played. Seeing others playing it for the first time made them realize how much fun it might be to meet with friends face-to-face and participate in a fantasy adventure - without having to sit behind a computer screen.

Since the release of 5th Edition and Critical Role, sales of D&D rulebooks have been growing by double digits each year according to CNBC. The game is experiencing a huge comeback.


So how can you get started playing Dungeons and Dragons? Here is a list of the things you’ll need.


The first thing you’ll need is a dungeon master. If you are the one starting the campaign, you will probably be the one to take on this role. Or if you know someone who has ideas for adventures and wants to be the DM, you can let this person do it instead.


The second thing you’ll need is some players. You can play D&D with just one or two players and a DM, but most campaigns have 3-7 players. If there are less than three, it may result in less collaboration and discussion. This could make the game less interesting. On the other hand, a campaign with more than seven players may become difficult for the DM to manage.

This is just a rule of thumb though. If you like making solo adventures for your best friend to play through, or if you want to have a campaign with 50 people, go for it.


You can play D&D without rulebooks. Let’s say that player A wants to slash the orc with his axe and cut off the orc’s foot. You can rule as the DM whether he succeeds or not. However, this can lead to player frustration - since the player probably doesn’t understand what criteria you use to decide whether he succeeds or fails.

The rules create objectivity and help to make the game world seem real to the players. So using some form of the rules is recommended.

If you’re just beginning, you can download the basic D&D rules for free (this it legal, the owners of D&D have these published on their site on purpose) This provides all four of the “classic” character classes: fighter, rogue, wizard, and cleric, as well as a list of spells, combat mechanics, and other essential rules.

It has all of the rules you need to get started. You could even potentially play for years using just this one book.

If you play through a few adventures and find that you want more options for your campaign, you may want to invest in the core rulebooks: The Player’s HandbookDungeon Master’s Guidebook, and Monster Manual. These books contain the rules for more character classes, including druid, ranger, barbarian, bard, monk, paladin, sorcerer, and warlock.

These books also contain more subclasses, spells, backgrounds, feats, and many other features that flesh out the game’s rules and allow for more sophisticated characters and encounters.


Once you’ve got a DM, players, and a set of rules, the next step is to find some dice. Dnd 5e uses polyhedral dice that allow you to roll random numbers from many different ranges. For example, some actions may require you to roll a four-sided die or a 20-sided one.

In the early days of Dungeons Dragons, there was no way to roll these random numbers except with a complete set of dice. Today, there are phone apps that will also perform the same function. However, most D&D players still use polyhedral dice because they find that rolling them is more fun than using an app.

There are also many different varieties of dice, and D&D players often collect them the same way others might collect comic books or trading cards.

If you’re interested in buying your first set of polyhedral dice, you may want to go with an inexpensive blind bag or just browse until you find exactly the kind you like the most.


Once you’ve got a DM, players, rules, and dice, it’s time to create your first adventure. If you’re the DM, you can think up the entire adventure yourself. Or you can use one of the many adventure modules found on the Internet for purchase or for free.

Still not sure how to play DND? Watch this episode of Critical Role, beginning at around the 15-minute mark.

Still aren’t sure how to play DND? Watch this episode of Critical Role, beginning at around the 15-minute mark.

Remember, these players are professional voice actors. You and your friends don’t have to be this good at roleplaying. But in essence, this is how Dungeons & Dragons is played.


So what is Dungeons Dragons? It’s a roleplaying game. But hopefully, you now know what that means.

Dungeons and Dragons started off as a miniature wargame with unique features such as a fantasy background, single-character play, experience points, experience levels, and ‘dungeons.” It later evolved into a form of interactive storytelling between a dungeon master and players.

To play the game, you’ll need a DM, players, rules, and dice. Now have fun :)

Enjoy this Guide? You May Also Like:

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New to find a D&D Group? Check out our guide on How to Find a D&D Group.


Last updated: January 27, 2019

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