This article was first broadcast in Episode Seventy Four on 29th May 2019.
Ryu: Yeah, HR said they want to “have a word with” KayDee about how we can’t farm new employees for kidneys.
Ostron: I’m sorry, what?
Lennon: Doesn’t matter. Speaking of new employees, can you guys look over what I’ve got so far?
Sitting down for your first ever session of D&D can be a daunting prospect for a lot of people. Assuming you looked through the basic rules or player’s handbook (which, hint, you should have done) you know there’s a lot of information and rules involved with this, and it’s very easy to get overwhelmed.
First of all, breathe. It’s not that big of a deal. Even if there are other players who’ve got more experience than you, everyone will know you’re new at this and they’ll understand if you don’t have everything ready to go on your first game. Still, it always helps to be prepared.
I’m sure some of you long time listeners are already taking bets on when we’re going to say “talk to your DM”, so here it is: “talk to your DM”. Though, in this case, it helps to know what questions to ask. Also, make sure to talk to them as early as possible, because some of these questions have longer-term consequences that won’t be good to find out an hour before game time.
To start, ask if you need to make a character. That may seem like an odd question to some, but there are adventure modules that have pre-built characters for the players to use. Some DMs will introduce you to the game by getting you to play what would normally be an NPC, and so will have a character sheet for you already. Alternatively, the DM may offer to make (or assist you in making) the character, particularly if they have special rules for them that might confuse you, such as if their game is introducing the optional “Sanity” ability score.
If the DM says character creation is on you, ask them if you need to have it ready for the first session. If the DM is doing what is commonly called “Session 0” (that is, an informal session that happens before the game actually starts), they’ll probably allocate time for character creation, and the other players may want to be involved in discussion of who should play what. In that case, you may want to have an idea of what kind of character you’d prefer, but you don’t need to have a full sheet filled out unless it’s something you want to try.
If the DM says you *do* need to have a character ready next session, follow up and ask if there are any special restrictions like race, class, or background limits, as well as how they’re doing the ability scores, which is usually either standard array, point-buy, or rolling. That should give you enough to go on, but don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re still lost.
In addition to character info, if it’s an in-person game ask the DM what kind of table they’re going to run, specifically their stance on technology. If you go find a nice app to make your character sheet on and bring your tablet along to the game only to find out the DM is making everyone use paper, that’ll be a bit awkward. If it’s a virtual game, obviously figure out what the communication and virtual tabletop solutions are going to be, if any.
We would also recommend picking up at least one set of polyhedral dice, and a notepad. Even if you’re playing virtually and all the rolling is being done with online tools, dice are nice things to fiddle with without completely taking your attention away from the game — and a notepad should be self explanatory. Your Friendly Local Gaming Store probably has a few different colors and styles of dice available, but you can also find plenty of sets on Amazon. Oh, and pro-tip: those fancy Elvish-looking dice in transparent acrylic with mint-green numbers that look like Elvish runes do look amazing, but you will need something that’s legible at the table. No harm in picking up an additional set of plain dice though — after all two d20s come in handy for rolling advantage and disadvantage. Oh, and then there’s the set with dragons on them — *gasp* and a metal set, those are super-cool! Wait, what was I saying? Oh yeah! Another pro-tip: dice collecting is addictive. Many can find that they can never quite have enough sets of dice, so don’t feel you have to find your perfect set from the get-go.
Another table-specific thing you may want to ask about is their approach to roleplaying. That should give you an idea of whether you’ll need to be voice-acting your character most of the time, or if it’s just going to be a case of “my character greets the guards” in your normal voice. It is probably a good idea to ask how the DM is going to approach such things as well. If you’ve spent a lot of time watching Critical Role, Acquisitions Incorporated, or other live-play shows and are expecting that kind of gameplay experience only to find out your DM doesn’t even change their voice for NPCs, it’s better to find that out early rather than committing to a game that won’t meet your expectations.
In the same vein, though, make sure you have realistic expectations. The Critical Role and Acquisitions Inc. people are professional actors or very experienced D&D players. Unless you live in California, New York, or possibly Bombay, India, it’s unlikely you’ll find a lot of actors at your FLGS. And this goes both ways: you shouldn’t expect your DM to be Matt Mercer, but then you won’t be Laura Bailey either — and that’s OK! Critical Role and Acquisitions Inc are the D&D professionals that many (though not all) aspire to. That said, it’s certainly possible you’ll find an enthusiastic group of roleplayers if that’s what you’re looking for.
Also make sure you figure out meeting times. Ask the DM when they hope to start playing and, if it’s an in-person game, ask whoever’s hosting the game what their expectations are for people showing up. In most cases the DM’s start time should be treated as absolute; it’s not going to be like a houseparty where it starts at 7 but people won’t really be showing up until 8 or 8:30; the DM is probably hoping and expecting to get down to business more-or-less exactly when they say.
As far as studying goes, no one is going to expect you to know all of the rules when you get there. However, you should definitely be familiar with the following topics:
- How to make skill checks and what “DC” means
- What Initiative is in combat
- and the way Move, Action, and Bonus Action works in combat (note: you don’t need to have memorised which skills have what casting time, simply how each of the actions mentioned works)
There are a number of helpful quick reference sheets people have made online that can be used for the above, or, of course, you can make your own to highlight specific topics you’re having trouble with — and absolutely nobody will mind if you show up to the table with lots of notes. In fact, most people will see it as a good thing as it shows you’re serious about getting up to speed on the intricacies of D&D.
In terms of your character, if you’re designing one in advance, you should be able to quickly find your character’s AC, ability modifiers, and skill modifiers on your character sheet or app. If you aren’t designing a character, at least look at the format of a standard character sheet to find where all of those values will appear. And if you have a character designed or in mind, figure out what their special abilities are, even if you don’t completely understand the mechanics behind what they do, yet.
If you are or want to play a spellcaster, you have some extra work to do for that last bit. You don’t have to memorize all your spells, but at least have a good idea of what a couple of your cantrips do. If you’re playing a class that has spells but doesn’t use cantrips, like a Paladin, don’t worry about the spells right away.
Finally, if you’re gearing up to play in a longer campaign, it’s possible your DM will ask you to look over some materials prior to the game. These will usually give you an idea of the campaign’s setting and the eventual storyline you’ll be dealing with. Again, you probably don’t have to memorize these, but having read or skimmed them at least once prior to the first session is a good idea.
Ryu: I think that covers most of the basics. Good job.
Lennon: Thanks. Nice to know I can handle the easy stuff at least.
Ostron: Sorry, can we go back to the part where the Oblex in HR wants to reprimand the Killer DM?
Ryu: Not right now; we have to go over to the scrying pool to see what the listeners have to say.
Ostron: And I’m going to reinforce the guild house’s structural integrity spells.