Ah, my first game of Dungeons & Dragons. I remember it well. The nerves. The apprehension. The profuse sweating. My husband had been playing with a regular group for about six months and I had long been wanting to get involved. We spent hours carefully crafting my character (an elf wizard – my first mistake). I looked up (and immediately forgot) as many of the rules as I could. The game took about four hours and during that time I must have uttered approximately ten words. But I thought about a lot of things. What if I say something wrong? What if I do something stupid?
My first character, Ude, lasted exactly two sessions. She was murdered by frogs after a short and uneventful existence wherein she didn’t do anything exciting at all. I loved Ude. Her time may have been brief, but she taught me three valuable lessons about how to play D&D.
Firstly – Never play your first game as a caster (with maybe the exception of a Warlock or Bard). Magic is confusing. That’s too much when your mind is already overloaded with trying to work out basic mechanics. Starting your D&D journey with a sorcerer or wizard character is like starting your sports career by joining the NFL. Following Ude’s untimely demise at the hands of evil amphibians, I took my DM’s advice and learned the ropes of playing as ranged or melee characters.
Fighters and barbarians are good, solid first-time player options. They’re also good fun. Who doesn’t want to smash things with a massive hammer? Rogues make for great learning characters too. If you must use magic, as mentioned above, you probably want to start with a Warlock. They’re like a gateway character straddling the bridge between fighter types and magic types. You’ll get a bunch of spells, but you’re going to spend 90% of every combat eldritch blasting your way through everything.
Secondly – Forget about learning ALL the rules. You’re going to constantly ask questions, google stats and look up how abilities work during the game, all the while flustered because you don’t know what everyone else clearly knows much better. It’s fine. Nobody is going to judge you. Because the truth is they probably don’t know a lot of it. D&D is made up of worlds inside worlds inside universes inside extra-terrestrial dimensions. There are monsters and lore and gods and pantheons. If you try and learn it all before playing, your cup will most certainly runneth over. No DM is going to expect you to know all the rules. Even Matt Mercer, the demi-god of DMing, frequently makes in-game checks on things during episodes of Critical Role.
D&D is all about decision-making and consequences. Trial and error. Try it and see. If you want to do something crazy or ridiculous, do something crazy or ridiculous. You’ll either fail or succeed and that’s what makes the game. Some of the best sessions of D&D I’ve ever had stemmed from terrible decisions. In the end, when it comes to the rules, all you need to start with are the basic functions of your character (speed/armour class/specific abilities) and a general idea of how combat works (movement/action/bonus action). Everything else you’ll learn along the way.
Lastly – Play the game the way you want to play it. You don’t have to be great at roleplay. You don’t need to meet lofty expectations. It takes time to find your feet. Be chaos if you want to be chaos. Be quiet if you want to be quiet. Every party needs a balance of different personalities. A good DM is going to make sure everyone gets their chance to interact and be involved. The best thing you can do as a new player is just dive in, go with the flow and let whatever happens happen.
After Ude’s tragic death, I built a new character called Jonquil Crag. I played that character for a solid year before he too, met a grisly and appropriately theatrical end. Jonquil was a Tabaxi rogue – a master of shenanigans, frequent instigator of chaos and the origin of our party’s much-used saying ‘What Would Jonquil Do?’ Unlike Ude, Jonquil’s time was filled with adventure, excitement and situations so ridiculous you couldn’t make them up. (Although technically that’s exactly what we did do.) Jonquil worked where Ude didn’t because Jonquil didn’t worry about whether he was doing things the right way or the wrong way. He just did things the Jonquil way. Oh, and he was always wary of frogs.