I recently brought up the fact that I play D&D to a friend, and a few days later he came back to me and said that he wanted to play. I was excited at the idea and said that I would be willing to run a one-off session for him and some other friends. The first friend used to play somewhere around 15-20 years ago (certainly before 5e), but the other people have never played.

RPGs are fun to me because of the idea of being able to go anywhere and do anything. I don't want to make a group of people read the entire PHB before they play for the first time, especially before a one shot game. Even further than that, I will be making their character sheets for them so new players don't get bored by filling out sheets of paper.

Now I am presented with a challenge: I am new to GMing, and relatively new to RPGs in general. How do I explain the rules of D&D to new players? What should I explain before we play so that they understand that they can do whatever they want, but are still constrained by rules and rolls of the dice?


5 Answers 5


How to explain D&D to new players?

I like easy questions: don't.

Set up a session where you can show them the concepts and be explicit about what you are doing:

This is a short session to show you what D&D is like, to see if you like it and want to play more. We will have four encounters and to make it easy for you I'm going to tell you now that you deal with them this way: role-playing, combat, exploration and combat. These are the character sheets, don't worry about what the numbers mean: I'll tell you when you get to them. I will also show you how taking a "short rest" works just before the last combat.

You then run a session where a guy gives them a job (role-playing) to track down the goblins (combat) who are in a small cave complex (with a trap or two) (exploration) and at then end of that is, I don't know, some skeletons because its a tomb (combat). Make sure you ham up the role-playing part.

You then show them how each of these parts work - emphasising the flow of the game (DM narrates -> Players decide what they want to do -> DM tells results). Suggest options as to what they could do:

Jim, you are playing a big strong barbarian - you are best when you get in close and hit things with your axe. You can do this thing called "raging" but only once a day which allows you to hit harder and take less damage when you get hit. Remember, I gave you a heads up that there will only be two combats today so you can do it now or later but not both. Normally you wouldn't know that. Do you want to rage now?

When you call for a die roll from the players or make one yourself explain what you are doing and how the mechanics work:

This goblin is shooting at your rogue with his bow. The range is 70 feet which is further than short range for a short bow so he makes the shot with disadvantage so I will roll 2 dice and take the worst [roll]: a 7 and a 16 so we take the 7. The goblin's attack bonus is +4 so the 7 becomes an 11. Your armour class here [point] is 14 so that is a miss: the arrow falls short hitting the ground at your feet: if you had been closer it would have hit you in the chest because 16+4 is 20 which is more than your AC.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ This is a great answer, to which I add one additional thought: Think of the initial introduction adventure in much the same way as a computer RPG might present its tutorial. Meaning, think about the order in which you introduce things, think about what builds off of what, think of how much 'practice' is needed, etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    May 25, 2016 at 17:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ The $20 starter set is perfect for this. It has everything you need to play, including dice and an abridged version of the rulebook with just the basics. The first part of the quest follows the sample path you layed out above almost perfectly, and then continues on. Additionally, the reduced complexity of low level pre-generated characters with the basic loadouts makes things run much more smoothly for a new group. If they like it, then you can invest in the full books. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ethan
    May 25, 2016 at 22:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ One of the nice tricks for getting people really into the roleplaying aspects, as mentioned by Dungeon World, is to "Address the characters, not the players." In other words, instead of saying "your rogue", you say "you". I think getting players used to this from the very beginning would be a good idea. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 23, 2017 at 16:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SouthpawHare if you care, sure. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Mar 24, 2017 at 21:14

Don't explain, just play.

ExTSR's shock treatment for a "rules light" approach to D&D is explained here. I've used it without knowing what it was, and it works.

The play's the thing.

As told by Rob Kuntz and others who first began playing with Gary Gygax in the game's formative years, it was common to have very few rules, and a group of players around the table in Gary's office where only his voice was heard. He'd describe the scene and the players would tell what they were doing. He'd be hiding behind his file cabinets and describing either what they saw or what happened.

While there's no need to go to that extreme, a good approach is to do the first few sessions in the Theater of the Mind.
No maps.
No figures.

Just the three basics of the game (Basic Rules, 5e, page 3)
1. The DM describes the environment.
2. The players describe what they want to do.
3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions.

Rinse and repeat.

Objective: have fun.
When in doubt, the dice be damned and apply the rule of cool. If it's fun or funny, roll with it.


Some initial explanation is needed, but not much.

I have introduced several new players to RPGs, most of them have some idea of what they were getting into, but not always, my basic intro speech is something like:

"This is a role playing game, which means you will be playing a single character in a world, I am the Game Master, which means I am essentially the narrator. I will be telling you what your characters are seeing, and the people they interact with, you tell me what you would like to do and you will roll dice to determine if you are successful, and that impacts how the story progresses."

I would recommend getting some feed back on characters they like in other fictional stories so you can tailor their characters a bit more to you think they will enjoy.

But otherwise, just start playing, it's really the best way to learn.


Assuming some of these friends of your friend do not have any roleplaying experience...

I start with a "Don't Panic" notice, explaining not to worry if they don't get anything that is to follow. It will become clear after they play.

I then give the definition of a cooperative game (one in which all the players work together towards a common goal). Many individuals have only been introduced to competitive games and this may be a new concept. If possible, I send out general information in email before the game to the group explaining cooperative games, and that they will be each assigned a character which I have created (you can introduce the characters if you have them).

I then explain what they need to know about their characters, what makes a mage a mage, a ranger a ranger, etc. I would only include a sentence or two about each (that is relevant to your game).

Explain only the terms you know they will hear: "Armour class, hit points, spell throwing, combat," and "turn" come to mind. On Game Day, show them where specific numbers are on their sheets so that when you ask for them, they know where to find them.

Next I will send an email with some world or adventure background that is designed to entice them and draw them in.

On Game Day, you also want to explain how you will be running the game. If you expect people to be in character 80% of the time, this is important. If you play with more of a social gathering type atmosphere, that's important too. While it is true that you will be running 90% of the game mechanics, the actual flow of the game should be similar to the way you want to GM a game. Having a group of newbies may be ideal for this as they are coming in without preconceived ideas.

While the game is in progress, explain why you are rolling, how you are modifying the rolls and why the outcome is what it is.

Encourage everyone to have fun and that there is no real right way or wrong way to roleplay a character (well, within reason anyway).


My explanation of RPGs to "strangers to the idea":

When you watch a movie or read a book you sometimes have the idea that the personalities are behaving in a stupid way ("don't do that...!").

In an RPG you play a personality (most often a Hero) and decide its actions in a story thought up by the Storyteller/GM/DM.

There are some rules about what is allowed and/or possible (no laser guns in a Tolkien story) but the Storyteller will explain that. You only have to choose a Hero and tell the Storyteller how your Hero reacts to the story that (s)he tells you.

Since you are often playing in a group, you play together and not against each other. Just like in a movie where a group of Heroes work together for a common goal.

The idea is having fun together (like in any game you play) and you will be helped learning this game while playing it.

Here you can give a reference to a movie/series that person likes: The Fantastic Four; Tolkien; X-files; CSI; Pride and Prejudice; …


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