D&D: Tips for New Players

Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to any artwork from Dungeons & Dragons depicted in this post. Dungeons & Dragons is the property of © Wizards of the Coast 1995-2016. Please support the official release.

We can't have one without the other, can we? Mind you, this one was a little harder to write because at least with DMs you can discuss things on a mechanical level, whereas players are there to enjoy the game. People gain enjoyment through a variety of means within D&D. For some it's the roleplaying and getting into their character's persona, for others its the interactions of their skills and equipment in combat, and for some its the simple pleasure of getting together with friends for a couple of hours. I'm not here to tell you how you should be enjoying the game. I'm just going to talk about things I do and have seen that I believe improve player experience.

To begin, I'm going to swan-dive into my nerdiest behaviour to get it out of the way. Here we go.

Character Sheet Management

I'm a pretty anal person so keeping my character sheets ordered and clean is paramount. Every time I see someone pull out a crinkled/ripped one from their pocket and unfold it a little part of me shrivels up in distaste. That's a person you're stuffing into the back pocket of your pants! Show some respect! But seriously, keeping an orderly character sheet is really useful. If you know where everything is and it's all written down in a tidy manner, when the DM asks the party "does anyone have x" you can be all "right here my man/woman." It speeds up play and knowing your character's gear inside-out helps with getting into character.

A trick I run for keeping my gear organised is to use colour coding for certain effects (e.g. armour and weapon enchantment bonuses are red, stat improvement items are blue, save bonuses are purple etc.). Making this universal across all characters I play makes it very easy to find what items are providing what bonuses and makes keeping track of how many equipment slots I have left easier. As an added feature I do little sketches of each item next to it to help identify more obscure ones. This originally came from my love of drawing but then I realised how useful it was.

On the note of keeping track of gear, as a DM I allow six potions in small vials, five wands and ten scrolls on PCs' belts for 'quick access.' This means they are available to be quickdrawn or drawn as a move-equivalent action. Any excess have to be stored in a backpack and require a full round to retrieve. This means on each of my character sheets is a permanent list of six bullet points for potions, and the equivalent for wands and scrolls for those characters that use them.

A trick for keeping your character sheet from looking like a kid's math homework is to create a scrap sheet double for missions. A humble sheet of refill does the trick. Generally I use the double to record all consumables, charged items and abilities, and hitpoints. Anything that has a value that fluctuates - even spells per day. You can scribble all over this sheet throughout the mission and at the end update all your character sheet values accordingly. The scrap sheet also gives you space to record items you find or key information.

Player's Handbook - By Wayne Reynolds (waynereynolds.com)

Characters

Do your homework. By this, I mean read up on what your character's abilities do and learn how to use them properly. There are enough rules for the DM to learn without having to manage every other players' character growth as well. It's a good idea to read ahead on where your character's class might take them. You might find a particular feat or ability that has prerequisites that take a while to obtain. Forward planning where you invest your skill and ability points will help make your character more effective at what they do.

There are a number of additional sources for feats, classes and skills that can take your character in a more defined direction. There is even a massive range of homebrew content online (be wary though - some of it is as balanced as half a set of scales). Be sure to discuss these with your DM before you commit to them as they may not be appropriate for the campaign you are in.

Take notes! If I had to cut this entire post down to one point, it would be this. Take notes on experiences your character has. Even things as simple as "gang-bashed a bugbear with Annilla and Valanthe @ level 2" will be enough to stir the memory of the event. D&D is a game you commit to over a long time. A lot will happen and taking regular notes on the experiences your character has will help you get the most out of the game. I wish I had been doing this from the beginning with my first characters. I do with my current ones and their stories feel a lot more fleshed out because I remember more of it. Scarlet Hughes is the extreme of this.

In the world of Dungeons & Dragons adventurers are considered elites. Your characters are the creme of the crop; they're designed to be the heroes. If there were better people for the DM's campaign, it would be happening to them instead. So something you should spend some time on is the 'whys' of your character. Why are they in the land of the campaign? Why are they the class you chose? Why is their alignment what it is? Why are they even adventuring in the first place? Get some backstory going.

Think about what your character does outside of adventuring. It's fun discussing with other players what their characters do on their day off. Where do they live? Do they have a day job? Are they friends with their adventuring party outside of the dungeon? These sort of questions, although very minor on the scheme of things, help make your character feel more like a person and less like a class with a name. Every party needs a fighting class, but not every party gets a Brutus. Hell, Andrinor's personality is one of the only reasons he still gets to come along on missions.

One thing 5th Edition did really well for character creation was putting emphasis on trinkets. Simple items that hold no practical use but are full of emotional significance to your character are a great way of expressing their personality. What sort of character carries around an old WANTED poster of a long forgotten criminal? Who is the person who collects teeth from every enemy they slay themselves? What does it say about someone who has a stuffed doll's head with them wherever they go? Trinkets can say a lot about a character with very few words.

Elven Chain - By Todd Lockwood (toddlockwood.com)

Equipment

I get excited over shopping for mundane fantasy gear the way my partner Elizabeth gets excited over shopping for books. There are some things every adventurer should have. Clothes is one. Don't forget clothes. Other necessities include the following:

  • Backpack (shouldn't need explaining)
  • Bedroll (you never know when you'll need to make camp - being fatigued sucks)
  • Belt pouch (see backpack)
  • Blankets (combos with bedroll for those cold nights when nobody wants to spoon because you made Charisma your dump stat)
  • Flint and steel (you don't need to be a mage to make fire)
  • Light source (candles, lamps, lanterns, sunrods, torches - whatever floats your boat)
  • Pitons (half the situations a rope is useful for require these little spikes)
  • Rope (preferably silk but hemp will do if you rolled bad for money or chose to be a monk)
  • Waterskin (because dehydration sucks - wineskin if you're a dwarf or alcoholic also works)
  • Whetstone (keeps your stuff sharp and pointy)

These items should be with every adventurer for their utility and passive uses. The next list is more circumstantial and should only be obtained if you can afford it. Regardless, between everyone in the party you should try to have as many of these as you can.

  • Acid (usable as a weapon, a solvent for weak materials and a cure for boils)
  • Adhesive (you never know...)
  • Bell (gets attention in a gentle way - combines with twine and pitons to make a 'lazy doorman')
  • Caltrops, chained (lets you know if you're being followed - like standard caltrops but linked together by a fine chain that makes packing them up in a hurry significantly easier - be sure to blacken the metal to make it harder to see)
  • Chalk (good for rogues marking out trap triggers or keeping track of where you've been)
  • Crowbar (the fighter's skeleton key)
  • Empty flask (good for storing fluid - maybe you'll find a fountain of healing or a sample of poison as evidence)
  • Entertainment (not every party has a bard or a gnome to pick on - having dice, knucklebones or cards helps pass the time when camping out and are good for making friends with NPCs)
  • Gloves (some mold in dungeons behaves like contact poison; gloves might save you a Fort save)
  • Hammer (or a small mallet for banging pitons into place)
  • Healer's kit (what are you going to do if the cleric starts bleeding out?)
  • Holy water (refreshing and helps detect undead and evil outsiders)
  • Hourglass (for when knowing your exact spell duration is crucial)
  • Ink, parchment and pen (you can't write notes or draw maps in-game unless you have these)
  • Lock (can be improved as you earn more money - can lock a door to an area you haven't explored yet while you investigate the rest of the dungeon you're in)
  • Mirror (on twine if you can - good for inconspicuously checking around corners, dealing with basilisks or medusa and keeping your heroic good looks in check)
  • Oil, fuel (for when you meet a troll or caught a witch)
  • Oil, scented (for when you need to leave an invisible mark on something)
  • Sack (for swag hauls when you don't have bags of holding yet)
  • Scrollcase, watertight (for when you have important documents that need protecting)
  • Smokesticks, coloured (green for 'good', red for 'help', black for 'retreat')
  • Tweezers (good for dealing with fine objects and removing splinters after fighting tendriculos)
  • Twine, blackened (key for making tripwires for nefarious devices - classic used is a lazy doorman: twine tying a bell to a piton above a doorway to alert you if you have visitors in the night)
  • Wax (versatile - good of making soft seals and impromptu nose/earplugs)
  • Whistle (for when you need attention quickly)

The next few items require a little bit of craft or alchemy and unless a character is bothering to put ranks into the appropriate skills, you can discuss these with you DM to see how much the components and manufacturing would cost.

  • Ash bomb (a simple clay flask full of white ash - easy to make and useful for marking things at range, dazing single opponents or revealing hidden creatures/objects)
  • Firecracker (a chemical thunderstone with a short fuse - bigger ones may even deal damage)
  • Flashbang (area burst of bright light on a short fuse - may function as a flare, daze or stun depending on the quality of the flashbang)
  • Molotov cocktail (more reliable than standard oil and parchment if properly crafted - good damage at low level with small area of effect)
  • Rust grease (rustproof grease that can be applied to a weapon on a daily basis - has x uses depending on the quantity made/size of weapon)
  • Smoke bomb (good for creating instant concealment that dissipates after a couple of rounds - density of the cloud depends on the quality)
  • Tar bomb (a dual flask with sticky flammable tar and burning oil - once ignited is very hard to remove and burns for a long time - particularly effective on creatures with lots of hair/fur)

These are but a few examples. The prices and DCs for resisting their effects change according to the quality of their make. For characters investing in craft skills for making such items, talk with your DM to come up with a scheme for how effective you can make such items at what cost, and how it scales with your increase in ranks. If you come up with something new, be sure to talk it over with your DM. It may be that certain resources are harder to come by than others and some items may not be possible to make or more expensive. Alternatively the DM might have an NPC you can strike a deal with or do favours for who pays you back by making such items. It really depends on what's going on in your game world.

Dungeon Delve - By Wayne Reynolds (waynereynolds.com)

Metagame

D&D at its core is a social game. Beneath the truckload of mechanics is a game that revolves around spending an evening (or an entire day if it's the school holidays and you're staying at your cousins who brought his mates around for it) with friends going on an adventure together. The best part about it is that D&D is a game that takes a long time to play, so you'll end up spending a long time with the same people. If the party has a good dynamic it can be incredible. If things mesh a bit less fluidly then it can become quite tedious.

For that reason, if you are just starting up with the game, I would recommend you put together a party of people who aren't going to get sick of each other after a couple of sessions. I've witnessed campaigns go bad and it can result in a total train-wreck. Because of the investment of time and emotion in the game, it's easy to understand how people can get so upset if things go wrong.

Things that help boost group moral is making an event of it when you play. If you play in the evening, starting early and breaking for a communal dinner can be a great way to keep people engaged with one another. Bring along snacks or drinks like any other game night is always nice. As a DM, if I am running a written mission I like to have a bag of lollies which I give handouts from if the party wins a fight, solves a puzzle and delivers some quality banter. From a game design perspective this is to reinforce the group mentality by rewarding everyone when they work together. From the player's perspective it just means they get candy when they do well, which is hardly a bad thing.

For the purpose of immersion, speaking in character is a good thing to do. You don't have to use a special voice (though I applaud those who commit to a full accent for their character) but referring to each other by their character's name and saying things like "I do this" versus "My character does this" can help keep you in a fantasy headspace. This also helps when you want to speak to each other metagame. Even things like describing the way you perform actions in a means that suits your character can boost this effect. If your character is a fast-talking duelist, rattling off crappy one-liners every time you strike adds entertainment value. Perhaps your rogue has a bad habit of throwing shade in inappropriate situations? Or maybe your sorcerer has a flair for showmanship and shapes his spells in a spectacular manner? Consider what your character contributes to the party and how they interact with those around them.


These tips only count for so much, of course. The best way to learn the game is simply to play it. And as you play you may find things that make you think 'oh that's cool, I think I'm going to try that.' That's more or less what this post is all about. People I've played with have come up with some pretty excellent things. One of my favourites is my friend Kitkat who kept her wizard's spells in a separate notebook so she had a legitimate spellbook to flick through. These sort of things add to the game experience so I encourage everyone to bring their own personal touches to the way they play. If you have any tips or tricks of your own, please don't hesitate to bang out a comment below. I'd love to hear what you think.