A Simple Guide to Roleplaying Game Basics
As a companion piece to “Getting Into D&D”, this article is here to explain the basics of how tabletop roleplaying games work. When I need to use a specific example, I’ll probably be using D&D 5th Edition rules (again, we call this “5e”), because that’s the rule set I currently use myself. So, here we go: the other article told you about the logistics of getting started, but this one will be all about the knowledge to succeed early.
Talking About Dice
Let’s start with some dice terminology, and get it out of the way early. The last article mentioned that D&D doesn’t use just the usual six-sided cube-shaped dice that you find in almost all board games that use dice. We have all kinds of crazy dice with unusual numbers of sides. If you’ve already bought that polyhedral dice set, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Fortunately, there are really only six types of dice in a poly-set, and we have a way of talking about them so you always know which one to use, and how many.
A polyhedral die is identified by the letter “d” followed by the number of sides of the die. So, that normal cube-shaped die is called a “d6” by D&D players. Your poly-set also includes a d4, a d8, a d10, a d12, and a d20. It actually contains an extra d10 as well, but try not to think about that one for right now. I promise I’ll explain it later.
So, if you need to roll a 12-sided die, we would say “roll d12”. We also have an extension of this to talk about rolling more than one die of a type: if you needed to roll 3 twelve-sided dice and add the results together, we would call that “rolling 3d12”. Pretty simple, right?
Who’s at the Table?
Before we get into how to play the game, we need to talk about the people involved in a game of D&D. Everyone sitting around that table has a job to do that makes the game happen. You’ll probably be starting out as a member of a group, which we’ll call “the players”. The players are each in control of a character in the game: one of those hero protagonists that are the stars of the fantasy story being told. We generally call these characters “PC’s”, which just stands for “player characters”, and a normal game usually has between 3 and 5 of them.
There’s also another player, who is actually not really a player at all. That person is called the Dungeon Master (or “DM”), and is responsible for everything else in the world that isn’t a PC. When the players interact with the game world through their characters, it’s the DM who provides them with the feedback about how the world responds. How this happens relies on two really important concepts: the “RPG Conversation” and the “d20 System”. And those will be the two things that I’ll be explaining in this article. If you get those, you get D&D.
The RPG Conversation
I’d like to introduce you, right now, to the most basic mechanic that makes tabletop roleplaying games work. (By the way, I’ll use “RPG” for “roleplaying game” from here on in.) We call this mechanic “the RPG conversation”, and it works like this:
- The Dungeon Master describes the situation.
- The players tell the Dungeon Master what they want to do.
- The Dungeon Master describes the results.
And then you go back to Step 1. Rinse and repeat indefinitely, and you have an RPG. It’s just players interacting with the imaginary world through their characters’ decisions, finding out how those decisions and actions changed the world, and then deciding what their next interaction with the world will be. Simple, right?
Yes. Yes, it is simple.
A World of Uncertainty: the “d20 System”
The RPG Conversation gives the essential structure for a game of D&D, but we need one more thing to make it all work: we need a set of rules. Just as in the real world, not everything is possible in the fantasy world of D&D, and the characters aren’t guaranteed to succeed at everything they attempt. Rules provide a framework for the DM to figure out uncertain outcomes based on the actions the PC’s take. In terms of the RPG Conversation, this is what happens between Step 2 and Step 3. The DM can’t describe the new state of the world without figuring out how the PC’s actions turned out. This is where those dice come in, and the King of All Dice is the d20. Remember when I mentioned the “d20 System” in the last article and how it’s so important? Now I’ll tell you how it works, and how it drives the rules of D&D in a simple and elegant way.
Let’s suppose that you want your character to attempt an action in your D&D game. Not an action like walking across the tavern to the bar for a drink, either. We’re talking about an action which can succeed or fail, and for which success is not a certainty. We’ll use climbing a cliff as our example: it’s certainly possible to climb cliffs, but there’s also the possibility that you won’t make it all the way to the top without any difficulty. In D&D, we would use something called an “ability check” to figure out whether your character can climb that cliff or not. Ability checks are the primary way of deciding what works and what doesn’t, and each one begins with a d20 roll.
You can think about that d20 roll as the element of luck. When you attempt to climb the cliff, fortune might go your way, or it might go against you. Maybe you’ll find a lot of good hand-holds. Maybe there will be some slippery moss that makes your foot slip off a rock. There are all kinds of circumstances beyond your control that affect the success or failure of the climb, and the d20 roll represents how those circumstances work for or against you.
But, luck isn’t everything. We also have to consider how good your character is at climbing cliffs. Maybe your character is very muscular, a trained athlete, and has brought along a lot of useful climbing gear. In the d20 System, we add a number to the d20 roll to represent these kinds of advantages. We call that added number a “modifier”, and the game rules tell us how to calculate it based on your individual character’s abilities. You might even find it easier to think of the modifier as a “bonus”. So, the roll represents the unpredictability of the situation, and the modifier represents your character’s ability to overcome adversity in that situation. Add the two together, and you get a number that represents how well your character did overall on the attempt.
What’s left, then? We need to account for how difficult the task itself is. How hard is that cliff to climb, anyway? It could be a lumpy cliff with lots of handholds. It could be a sheer rock face with no handholds at all. In D&D, we assign a number called a “difficulty class”, or DC, to a task or challenge. The DC varies according to the circumstances, and it provides a numerical measure of how hard it is to accomplish the attempted action. And we need to express that difficulty as a number, because it’s the last piece of the puzzle that makes the d20 System work.
To figure out whether your character was successful or not, we compare the DC to the sum of the d20 roll and the character’s modifier for the attempt. If the roll plus the modifier is greater than the DC, the attempt is a success. If the DC is greater, the attempt fails. And it’s as simple as that. That’s the way we can decide the outcome of almost anything you can think to try, and that’s the d20 System.
Putting It All to Work
Combine that d20 System mechanic with the RPG Conversation, and you have the basis of a game of D&D. Everything else is just a matter of using the rules to decide on the right bonuses and DC’s. Even combat, which has a lot of rules, basically works in just the same way: we just call the Difficulty Class that tells us how hard it is to hit an enemy the “Armor Class” instead.
And, if this all still seems complicated and intimidating, remember that as a player you don’t really have to worry about all of these numbers. Just tell the DM what your character is going to do: it’s the DM’s job to figure out dice rolls and DC’s and all the rest. That’s why we get to sit behind the screen and make the big bucks. Or, in my case, get free sodas to drink while I run the game.
Don’t stress over knowing all of your bonuses, either. When you create your character (a process that is thoroughly covered in the rules), you’ll get a sense of what kinds of things your character does well or poorly. Use that sensibility to decide what actions you should choose. If you’re strong, try to break down the door. If you’re sneaky, get around behind that enemy before you attack. Remember that “roleplaying” just means doing the things that your character would do. Play your role based on actions instead of numbers, and you’ll do great.
Free hint: a lot of DM’s really hate it when players bring up numbers and skills and bonuses during the game. I’m one of those DM’s, by the way. I want players to tell me what they want to do. I’ll figure out what dice to roll. That’s my job.
Go Forth and Conquer!
So, between this article and the last one, you should be armed with the knowledge you need to get ready to play, find a group to play with, and understand the fundamentals of what’s going on during the game session. You can, and should, pick up the details as you go along. Nobody expects you to memorize the rulebook, and as long as you understand the RPG Conversation and how to use the d20 System to figure out success and failure, you will be way ahead of the learning curve.
And that concludes your crash course in how to play D&D. If it sounds confusing, don’t worry. Let other people, like your DM, figure out the confusing parts. Eventually you’ll pick up more specific knowledge just through experience playing. And to get experience playing… the best way is to get out there and play!
And No, I Didn’t Forget That Promise
That extra d10 that came with your polyhedral dice set is what we call a “percentile die”, and it’s something that players hardly ever use. I don’t even know why companies that make dice insist on including them in every set. If they wanted to add an extra die, a d20 would be a much better choice.
What the percentile die is for is making it possible to roll the equivalent of d100, which is something that DM’s have to do from time to time. You roll your regular d10 and your percentile die at the same time, and you add up the results to get your d100 roll amount. So if you get a 20 and a 3, that’s a 23. The only really tricky bit is to remember that if you get a 00 and a 0, then that’s 100.
Go ahead and forget about all of that, but at least now you don’t have to be curious as to what that extra weirdo d10 is doing there. Just leave it in the box or bag or whatever you keep your dice in. Maybe one day you’ll be a DM, and you’ll be glad you kept it around.