D&D Chronicles: Explaining the basics

Our most recent session of Dungeons and Dragons was fun . . . but in the end not much ‘happened’. We spent the entire evening (about 6 hours) on reconnaissance — as just about every route we attempted to take proved a no go.

Now, I’ve had various questions through the life of this series — which has been going for over a year now (I know!) — from those of you who have never played D&D or similar before, aboutย how the game works. I thought therefore this might be a good opportunity to outline some of the game mechanics. (After a year, I’ve almost got the hang of it, although I still feel like a novice myself!)

How, you might wonder, could we play for 6 hours with ‘nothing happening’ and still have fun?

The setting

Six of us sit around a dining table. There’s wine and nibbles in the centre, but then we clear some space for various hand-drawn maps used to show the lay of the land we are adventuring in. (The maps are drawn as needed by the dungeon master (DM) aka game master (GM) who sits at the head of the table, hiding behind a barrier so we cannot see what he is doing behind there… hmmm.)

The characters

The five of us who are ‘playing’ also have our miniatures out on the table. They are to represent our characters and these are generally only used when we get into a skirmish. (More on that later.)

Character DNA
Character DNA (that’s my Ash figure at the top!)

Meanwhile, our all-important character sheets are like our DNA. Just about everything stems from the six “ability” scores (strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, charisma) and the traits specific to our ‘class’ (ie ranger, cleric, rogue etc). The character sheet therefore gives weightings to every dice-roll, depending on what action is being attempted.

It also tells you how resistant the character is to getting hit by enemies (armour class), and how many hits it can take before getting knocked out (hit points).

I know it looks complicated — and I guess it is at first, particularly when things keeps changing as you get magic rings and swords and stuff… But after a while it starts to make sense.


Oh, yeah, and we have DICE out on the table. The game uses various different polyhedral dice, but in version 3.5 which we’re playing, the main one is a d20. This is rolled frequently to determine how effective an action is, based on a par score set by the DM (with weightings added based on a character’s specific abilities).

I should mention I have several d20s so I can swap one out that isn’t working. They’re all so pretty, sometimes it’s hard to decide which one to use! The new d20 I used on Saturday (the green and purple one) proved most satisfactory, rolling reasonably high all night.

The other die I use the most is a d8 to determine how much damage I do with my longsword, once I’ve managed a hit.


To get the game going, the DM asks us what we’re going to do. The five of us have a discussion (in character if we’re brave) and decide to, say… explore a cavern. This may pan out as follows:

  • The mage casts a spell to provide light (using up a certain number of ‘spell points’ which lasts for a set time). Alternatively, we may light one of the torches we’re carrying.
  • The rogue is designated to search the cavern, because she has special skills in detecting traps and the like. She rolls her d20 (and adds her weighting factor) to see how effective her search is. If she manages a high roll (say >20) she might find something interesting, like a hidden door. If she rolls badly (say <10) she probably won’t find anything.
  • The ranger might also decide (if the DM permits) to see whether she can pick up any tracks in the cavern floor. She rolls the d20 and adds the appropriate modifier to see how effective this attempt is. Even if she rolls high, there may be nothing to find.
  • The DM might then suddenly say “someone roll a listen check” and the ranger (who has the best modifier for this in our party) rolls the d20 again. If she rolls high enough, she will hear the oncoming menace (how effectively will depend on how high the roll is). If the roll is too low, the party may very well be ambushed…
  • At this point, the paladin might decide to ‘detect evil’ (one of his special abilities) to see if he can get warning of what might be coming to get us.

And so it goes on… One decision and action after another, one dice roll after another to determine how it turns out.

Recent adventures

As I mentioned, not a lot happened in our recent session, although we did cover a LOT of ground:

  • There was the tunnel near the eyrie which proved too unstable for us to risk travelling down (after our previous cave-in experience). [The rogue rolled against ‘knowledge engineering’ to obtain this information.]
  • There was ย the valley which proved to be blocked by a massive stone wall manned by humanoids (probably goblins). We decided we were too outnumbered… [We walked far enough to ‘see’ the wall, although I seem to remember Ash rolled a ‘1’ against ‘spot’ which is a disaster roll and meant it was far too misty for her to see anything until we were quite close.]
  • There was the river that churned through an impassable chasm. We didn’t have a boat.
  • In the mountains on the far side of the valley from the dual staircases and eyrie, there was the small chamber being used as a goblin forge, which we liberated in one of three minor skirmishes (carried out by Intan, our Paladin). Huzzah!
  • Further on from the forge, there was the secondary tunnel that possibly contained a deathly gelatinous cube. [Ash did some tracking and found some mysteriously erased or disappeared tracks…]
  • There was the secret tunnel we couldn’t find… [Here the dice roll wasn’t high enough for the rogue to detect anything.]
  • There was the elevated ‘goat track’ deemed too high and precarious for most of our party to navigate without dying. [To traverse it would have meant ‘climb’ rolls from everyone, and some of the party have negative modifiers!]
  • Which left us with the valley on the far side of this new network of tunnels, blocked by the rotting carcass of some massive animal, covered in spider webs. Intan and Ash took out the spiders (see below), so we could pass down this new valley.
  • At the far end of this valley, there was yet another stone staircase leading upwards, which took us to a path and a cave under a waterfall. There our rogue, Saffir, did battle with another creature. Again this route was deemed a bad option due to the creature and the extreme slipperiness.
  • Which left us with a locked door near the top of this most recent staircase, which is where we camped and called it a night. [The initial ‘unlock door’ roll failed, so now we have to come up with another solution.]

For five days (in game time) we trekked back and forth across all this territory, passing through the forge at least four times (and camping overnight there twice). It was most inefficient and not a little frustrating — although still fun! In truth, we probably had too many options.

Skirmish with the giant spiders

To illustrate a skirmish, I’ll describe our defeat of the giant four-foot spiders — and this was only a very small battle.

First, the DM describes the scene and draws it on a grid made up of 5cm squares. We assemble our miniatures on this grid so we have a spatial idea of what is happening where.

We send Intan (paladin) forward with a torch, while Ash (ranger) and Saffir (rogue) cover with bows. However, the spiders move too fast and leap onto Intan before we can get any shots off.

At this point we roll the d20 to obtain ‘initiative’, which determines in what order we take action during a ‘real-time’ melee. The enemy (giant four-foot spiders) have their initiative as part of this. I can’t remember what order we went in, but it might have gone something like this:

  • Intan attacks spider #1 (rolls d20 to determine whether it’s a hit… rolls a d6 to determine the damage done by the short sword)
  • Spiders #1 and #2 attack Intan (DM rolls to determine whether they hit… They DO and so Intan takes some points of damage and…)
  • Intan rolls a ‘fortitude saving throw’ to see whether he gets poisoned by the spider bite. (He rolls high enough to not be affected – yay!)
  • Saffir’s turn — she waits with her bow, but it’s not safe to shoot the spiders while they’re on top of Intan.
  • Ash’s turn — She drops her bow and draws her longsword to attack one of the spiders. (Rolls a d20 to see whether she hits, rolls a d8 to see how much damage…)

And so it goes on, each player and the spiders taking their turn, attacking where possible or waiting for an opportunity… Until the spiders are defeated.

[NOTE: I have updated to reflect correct nomenclature for the dice! It’s d20 not D20 apparently…]


All right, if you’ve made it to the end of this massive post, I hope it’s shed some light on the mechanics of how Dungeons and Dragons is played (version 3.5 anyway). Now perhaps subsequent posts may make a little more sense.

As I’m sure I’ve said before I’m loving it for several reasons: it gets me away from the desk, socialising with friends, exercising my brain (there’s actually a lot of thinking and planning that goes on!), and having adventures!

Let me know your thoughts!

18 thoughts on “D&D Chronicles: Explaining the basics

  1. My husband picked up an old game of D&D and tried to explain it to me, but we didn’t have a group of people and the kids were distracting, so I didn’t quite get it.
    Your post makes me feel like I’m in a movie of sorts and sounds like a lot of fun! It seems that you have different adventures all the time and the game just keeps going where you don’t know what’s going to happen next.


    Is there an end to the game or does it just keep going indefinitely?


    1. Well, I hope this helps a little with the understanding ~ and it’s exactly like living a movie! As to when/if the campaign ever finishes… I have no idea! Every time a character gets killed permanently we replace them, and there doesn’t appear to be a finite quest. I think it just keeps going until we get bored… Which might not happen ever! Or until the DM bails maybe.


  2. So how does one get to be the DM? Is that a role that rotates through the group, or did you elect one member to take that position when you first started playing together? And if your DM sucks, can you vote him/her off the island?
    Glad you tagged the spiders, btw…


    1. I think you ascend to being a DM once you have enough experience. There’s no way I could do it at this stage. And if he sucks… You keep quiet, because if you’re mean to him he can get nasty and then you’re dead. ๐Ÿ˜‰


    2. Different groups handle the responsibilities of DM in different ways. Some groups might DMs after each adventure or campaign. Being a DM is more effort than being a player, so more often than not, he or she who wants to handle running a game and gathering a group of players can just go for it.

      If a group of players wants to try the game and none of them have experience being a DM, it’s okay for someone to take the role while everyone else rolls characters and give it a try. Mistakes will be made, but as long as everyone is having fun, they’re playing the game correctly. Admittedly, most people get introduced to RPGs by someone who already knows how to play, but there are introductory products available that are aimed at beginners.


      1. Thanks – a much more knowledgeable and accurate answer!

        Our campaign just keeps going so I don’t know when we’d swap DMs, but maybe it’s because we’re cautious novices (most of us).

        It’s good to know there are products for total beginners, but I do think that would be quite a frustrating way to start. I don’t think I’d like to be the one trying to make sense of the rules, which are rather overwhelming at first!


        1. Yeah, I probably wouldn’t recommend D&D 3.5 to a group that’s never played an rpg before, as it’s pretty heavy mechanically. But the cool thing is that there’s tons of games out there of varying complexity and in different genres, so a wide variety of tastes and styles are catered to.


          1. That’s definitely part of the fun ๐Ÿ™‚ I actually haven’t gamed myself in a very long time, but I keep up with what’s out there and read game books for fun. One of these days I might even play something again.


          2. I imagine a lot of the enjoyment is to do with the people you play with. So I guess assembling the right group is important. As we get older and busier the stars kind of need to align to make it all happen…


          3. Yeah, I had a group of really good friends that I used to play with. It was a pretty great way for us to spend some of our wayward youth ๐Ÿ™‚

            Nowadays it does seem like it can be more difficult to assemble enough interested people for a game. That’s why I’ve been looking at virtual tabletop software to open up the possibilities if it looks like I can fit an RPG into my schedule.


  3. Ellen, you may or may not find this article entertaining. It’s a piece of satire about RPG dice and the superstitions some gamers have regarding them that appeared as a chapter in a game called HackMaster. Parts of it are kinda funny because they remind me of people I used to game with:

    Click to access On_Dice.pdf


    1. Ha – love it! I’m not even halfway through and I’ve learnt some things. I never knew I was supposed to PRIME my dice?! And I’m afraid we may on occasion handle each other’s dice. (One of our party grabbed one of my d20s without even asking the other night, hmmm.) And it appears my nomenclature is wrong… I used capital Ds – oops!


      1. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. Like I said, it’s satire so the author embellished quite a lot, but it definitely has its roots in real gamer behavior, in my opinion. And yeah, it’s a little d…no worries, though ๐Ÿ™‚


        1. Maybe I should edit the post… hmm.
          You know, I never thought about using specific die for specific types of rolls before. Like a hierarchy system. Food for thought…


      2. But you had them all out on display “ooh, look at all my pretty d20’s” and you know my d20 sucks. Your cleric apologizes. Look, you can grab my d20 any time you want, seeing as how it rolls so high ‘n all…


        1. Hahaha – well, I didn’t know then it was bad form to handle someone else’s dice… now that I do – beware! Clearly you should get some new d20s so you can have a choice too. (But don’t forget to prime them!)


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