ROLEPLAY A Beginner's Guide to Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

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Jorick

Our knees do not bend easily.
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#1
The goal of this guide is to help folks who are totally unfamiliar with or uncertain about the game mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (D&D 5e for short), ideally to the point that after a read through they are ready to make a character and jump into a game. It's a LOT of information, because I'm basically trying to condense 200+ pages worth of material here, so I apologize in advance for the massiveness of it all. If you read this and find yourself confused or thinking that something key wasn't covered, please do comment below to let me know so I can provide an answer and edit it in to the guide.

For starters, it'll be easiest to understand a lot of this information (and make it possible to follow along and make a character as you read through) if you have a character sheet available to you. Wizards of the Coast has PDF versions available for free with permission given to print them off and use them, and that includes versions that you can type to fill out on your computer instead of needing to print anything. If you choose the Fifth Edition Character Sheets download you'll get a few different things to pick from, but there are three pages to a full sheet: the Character Sheet is the page that includes stuff like your ability scores and skills; the Character Details page is an optional page that gives you more room for writing stuff like your backstory or features that don't fit on the first page; the Spellcasting Sheet is where you'll put all your info for casting spells (if your chosen class uses any). Included in that bundle of downloads is a couple alternate versions of the Character Sheet page that looks a little different, plus a couple files (both CharacterSheet_3Pgs_Complete and DnD_5E_CharacterSheet - Form Fillable) that are redundant and both contain all three pages for the total sheet and allow you to fill in the blanks on your computer. I'm going to be using one of these to reference things in the guide, so I'd suggest opening one of those to look at while reading to make sure everything is in the places I'm noting.

The actual meat of the guide will be separated into a handful of posts to make this not just an ungodly wall of text, as listed below.

1. How Do Dice Work?
2. Ability Scores, Skills, and Saving Throws
3. Making A Character
4. Spellcasting Is Complicated
5. Combat Mechanics
6. Advanced Stuff
 

Jorick

Our knees do not bend easily.
DONATING MEMBER
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Usually aggressive, but can switch to passive if it makes sense for the character/scene.
Favorite Genres
Fantasy is my #1; I will give almost anything a chance if it has strong fantasy elements. Post apocalyptic, superhero, alternate history, science fantasy, some supernatural, romance, and a few fandoms (especially Game of Thrones) are also likely to catch my eye.
Genre You DON'T Like
Horror, western, pure slice of life.
#2
Dice & Rolls

Dice and the numbers involved with them are one of the things that makes a lot of people shy away from D&D. Luckily, it's actually pretty simple once you understand the terminology.

There are a handful of different kinds of dice used in D&D, each with a different number of sides. They're referred to in shorthand as d# where the # is the number of sides, so a common cube die would be a d6. The ones that you'll usually get in a set of D&D dice (and the ones called for most often by the rules of the game) are a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20. These six dice are the ones used for 99+% of the rolls you'll make in D&D 5e. Info on the oddball dice that may come up can be found in the spoiler below. Whenever you're asked to roll multiple dice of some kind you'll see something like #d6, and that # will be how many d6s you should roll. To figure out the result of 5d4 your can either roll five d4s and add it up, or you can roll a single d4 five times and add up the numbers rolled.

If you see something called for other than the above six dice, it's most likely going to be one of these three options. The first couple I don't think show up anywhere in D&D 5e, but I'll cover them in case I'm wrong.

A d2 is a die that exists only as a novelty. It's just a coin flip written in the same terminology as the dice. You can either pull out a coin, or just roll a d4 and say the lower two numbers count as 1 and the higher two count as 2.

A d3 is also more a novelty die than a necessity. You can make a "d3" roll by rolling a d6 and doing similar as the above: the lowest two numbers count as 1, middle two count as 2, and highest two count as 3.

A d100 is something you will see a couple places in D&D 5e. You can indeed get big 100-sided dice, but they're very unwieldy. Most dice sets for D&D and similar tabletop games will come with a special d10 for these rolls that has double digit numbers from 00 to 90 on it. The way you get a d100 roll with that is by pairing it with a normal d10 and rolling both. You follow some slightly special rules here. The normal d10 has just a 0 in place of the 10 it normally represents, but for a d100 roll you actually treat it as a 0. If you roll a 60 and a 0, your result is 60, not 70. With that in mind, you just roll the two dice and add them together. The exception to that is if you roll a 00 and a 0: that counts as 100 for these rolls. It's a bit messy, but you won't have to deal with it much unless you choose to play something that has a core mechanic built around these rolls (such as the Wild Magic archetype of the Sorcerer class).

Alternatively, you can just pull up a random number generator site (like random.org) and do the weird rolls there with the exact number called for. Whatever works for you, really.

The most important of these dice is the d20. All the other dice are mostly there for determining how much damage you do with your attacks, but the d20 is the one that will determine whether or not your attack hits in the first place. It's also used to see how successful you are in trying to accomplish a wide variety of tasks or skills, and to see if you can resist the negative effects from things like traps and spells. You'll add or subtract numbers to these rolls, and those numbers are known as modifiers, but I'll explain them a bit later. Your Dungeon Master (DM) will compared these numbers you roll to the Armor Class (AC) of your target of an attack or the Difficulty Class (DC) of whatever action you're performing to see if you were successful. AC and DC will be explained in more detail way later on in the guide.

Also, rolling a 20 is a critical success and rolling a 1 is a critical failure; each DM will interpret these things to different degrees (some make a 20 into a mega-awesome jaw dropping feat of greatness while others just take it as a normal success), but the basic rule most everyone goes by is that a 20 means your action automatically succeeds and a 1 means it automatically fails. The key thing to know for the moment is if you're asked to make an attack roll, an ability check, a skill check, or a saving throw, those are going to be made with your trusty d20. I'll explain each of those types of rolls as they become relevant later in this guide.

One thing that is unique to D&D 5e is a pair of mechanics known as advantage and disadvantage. There are a TON of ways to get either status on a roll, but for the moment here's the quick version of how it works. When you have advantage, roll two d20s and use the higher number. When you have disadvantage, roll two d20s and use the lower number. There's a mechanic calls inspiration that also deals with advantage: the DM can give you inspiration on a whim (the suggested rule is rewarding good roleplay moments), and you can use inspiration to give yourself advantage on any d20 roll.

That's really the only fancy stuff that'll come up often in dice rolls in D&D 5e, and generally you'll just be rolling and telling the DM the result so they can tell you if you succeed or fail. As long as you can remember that you've already learned how the dice work well enough to play. Congrats!

Now on to the actually complicated stuff.
 

Jorick

Our knees do not bend easily.
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Fantasy is my #1; I will give almost anything a chance if it has strong fantasy elements. Post apocalyptic, superhero, alternate history, science fantasy, some supernatural, romance, and a few fandoms (especially Game of Thrones) are also likely to catch my eye.
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#3
Ability Scores, Skills, and Saving Throws

Okay, taking a look at the character sheet, you'll see some boxes and lists of stuff off to the left side. These are all the core building blocks of the actual game mechanics, so I'm going to explain those before getting into character creation because you'll wanna know what it all does before deciding to put points into anything.

Ability Scores


Your ability scores are the numbers that, in the broadest sense, determine how good or bad your character is at doing stuff. There are six abilities: Strength (STR), Dexterity (DEX), Constitution (CON), Intelligence (INT), Wisdom (WIS), and Charisma (CHA). You'll find the boxes for these scores off on the left side of the Character Sheet; the big box under the name of the ability is for the score, and the smaller oval below is where you'll put the modifier for it (which will be explained shortly). How you actually figure out these scores will be saved for the character creation portion of the guide, so just soak in the info for now. Here's a short rundown of these abilities and what kind of stuff you'll use them for.

Strength is exactly what it sounds like. Your STR will be used to determine how well you can lift heavy things or perform athletic feats, but it's also very important for using melee weapons that don't rely on speed and grace. Barbarians and Fighters generally make the most offensive use of STR, but Paladins and Clerics also like a good STR score for bopping people with maces and such.

Dexterity is how agile your character is. You'll use it for things like sneaking around undetected or slipping out of the way of explosions. It's also the ability used for bows and for some weapons like daggers or rapiers, and it can also make you harder for enemies to hit with their weapons. Monks, Rangers, and Rogues are the classes that'll make the best offensive use of DEX for their preferred weapons, but everyone can use a bit of it to avoid getting hit.

Constitution is how hardy and sturdy your character is. A higher CON will give them more hit points and allow them to shrug off the effects of poisons and disease. It's not normally used for any offensive purposes, but it's useful for all classes because more hit points = less dying.

Intelligence is all about logic, memory, and reason. It will be used for things like seeing if your character knows things about history and religion and such, and also to determine whether or not they can unravel a mystery they're investigating. Wizards also use INT as their spellcasting ability, because they learn all their magic through studying (because they're nerds).

Wisdom is mainly about how intuitive and perceptive your character is, plus some extra flavor of how in tune with nature they are. WIS will often be used to see if your character notice details and hidden things. Clerics, Druids, and Rangers all use WIS as their spellcasting ability because they get their power from being in tune with their chosen deity or with the natural world itself.

Charisma is a measure of your character's confidence, speaking skills, and ability to charm or command people. It will come into play heavily for all sorts of social interactions, for everything from persuading someone to intimidating them. Bards, Paladins, Sorcerers, and Warlocks all use CHA as their spellcasting ability for a variety of reasons, be it the power of charm and confidence or maintaining a good relationship with the powerful entity that grants them their magical skills.

Now, about the modifiers. An ability score of 10 or 11 is basic and average, so it gets a modifier of 0. That means you won't add or subtract anything from rolls that use only this ability. From that middle point it's a sliding scale that goes both ways, with each grouping of two numbers being the same as far as modifiers go. A 12 or 13 gives you a modifier of +1, 14 or 15 gives +2, 16 or 17 gives +3, 18 or 19 gives +4, and 20 (the highest an ability can go through normal means) gives +5. On the flip side, a 9 or 8 gives a -2 modifier, and on in the same fashion to -5 if you manage to get down a 1; under normal rules you can't start with a stat lower than 8 though, so don't worry about starting off super weak.

Modifiers are a representation of your strengths or weaknesses in various areas. Sometimes you'll be asked to make an ability check for one of these things, like a Strength check to push a huge boulder, and that means you'll roll a d20 and add/subtract only the modifier tied to the score. However, for other kinds of rolls you'll often have other things that come into play, like skills.

Skills


Skills are sort of subsets or specialties of the ability scores. On the Character Sheet you'll see them all listed in a big box to the lower right of the ability scores. A quick rundown of the skills and what they do can be found in the spoiler below.

Acrobatics is the skill to perform acrobatic feats like tumbling and doing backflips, and it can come into play to land safely when you fall long distances or to wriggle out of an opponent's grasp.

Animal Handling is the skill of getting animals to do what you want.

Arcana is the skill for figuring out how magical items, magical traps, and spells work.

Athletics is the skill used for things like swimming and trying to shove or grapple your enemies.

Deception is the skill of lying and not getting caught.

History is the skill used for seeing if your character knows about all sorts of old stuff.

Insight is the skill of figuring out what other people are feeling or thinking based on what you can see in their expression and body language, and as such to figure out if they're lying to you.

Intimidation is the skill of scaring someone into doing what you want.

Investigation is the skill of taking your time to look things over and find hidden goodies or figure out what exactly happened (say at the scene of a crime).

Medicine is the skill for both treating wounds/diseases and figuring out what exactly is ailing someone.

Nature is the skill of knowing what's going on in the natural world, such as telling the weather or knowing what some plants are used for.

Perception is the skill of taking in information quickly without missing details.

Performance is the skill used by actors and musicians to, well, perform.

Persuasion is the skill of convincing someone to do what you want.

Religion is the skill for knowing about the gods and their worshippers.

Sleight of Hand is the skill of doing subtle things without being noticed, like picking pockets.

Stealth is the skill of staying unseen and unnoticed.

Survival is the skill of surviving in the wilderness, which includes everything from finding food to following tracks.

Because these skills are all related to an ability (as you can see on the default sheet by the shorthand version of the ability name after the skill name), your character's actual skill level will in large part be determined by the relevant ability score. The official books will often say things like "roll a Charisma (Persuasion) check," but most DMs and player would just call it a Persuasion check. These kinds of rolls are skill checks, and they determine success or failure in using one of these skills. Figuring out exactly what to add to a skill check can be confusing at first, but it'll make more sense after you get into making a character and see more clearly how all these numbers interact.

There's only a couple more things that should be talked about before the character making portion can begin, so let's get that out of the way.

Saving Throws and Proficiency Bonus


These are both fairly separate items, but each one is quick to explain so I'm lumping them together. They're both found to the right of ability scores on the Character Sheet, above the skills box.

Saving throws are, as you'll notice, named the exact same as your ability scores. Your character's saving throw modifiers are used to see if they can resist bad things happening to them, each one coming into play for different situations. Strength to break free of vines holding them in place, Charisma to avoid magic taking control of their mind, Dexterity to leap to safety before falling into a bottomless pit that just opened in the floor, and so on. Whatever your modifier is for the related ability score, that's also the initial modifier for those saving throws.

The proficiency bonus is the number that'll be used to show where exactly your character has specialized their talents and training. The actual number of the bonus is determined by your character's level (+2 to start, but you add 1 at levels 5, 9, 13, and 17 to a max of +6). How it works is pretty simple: if your character is proficient (meaning actually trained/experienced) in a certain skill or in using a certain weapon, you add their proficiency bonus to any roll made for using that item/skill along with any other modifiers they would get. If they are not proficient in the action, you don't add the proficiency bonus to the roll. You can have proficiency in weapons, armors, skills, saving throws, and in the use of tools (like thieves' tools for picking locks or blacksmith's tools for making a sword or various instruments).

A pretty big part of character creation is determining which things your character is actually proficient in, thus the reason for explaining all of this up front. Each class is proficient in two saving throws and gets to pick some skills to be proficient in, each background option gives you a couple proficiencies, and some races start out with extra proficiencies as well. Next to the skills and the saving throws on the Character Sheet, to the left of them, you'll notice a little circle; if your character is proficient in that thing then you fill in that circle to mark it. For tool proficiencies, you just write those down in the Other Proficiencies & Languages box below the ability scores and skills.

Putting It All Together


Now that everything has been gone over in detail, here the quickie process for figuring out all these numbers. You're going to need to read the character creation post of the guide to actually do this stuff, but this'll show you how simple the numbers on the sheet actually are.

First, figure out your ability scores. Write those in the big boxes, but don't actually write the modifiers yet.

Pick out your race, class, and background and use them to decide what you're proficient in. After you have your race and have added racial ability score bonuses, then you can fill out your ability modifiers (and you can find handy charts in the Player's Handbook or online to see clearly what modifier you get for a given score).

For all skills and saving throws, start off with the modifier of the related ability score. If you're not proficient in that skill or saving throw, that's going to be the final modifier for that skill/saving throw unless you have race or class features that gives you some other bonus. If you are proficient, add your proficiency bonus to the modifier from the related ability. Again, that'll be the final number unless you have special stuff from your race or class to add more.

And that's all there is to determining those numbers. It's just a couple rounds of simple addition, nothing crazy in the math department. Even if you're bad at math, it's just simple addition and subtraction and looking at a simple table, so you should be fine. If you're still worried about being able to handle it, grab a calculator and let's start making an actual character.
 

Jorick

Our knees do not bend easily.
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Fantasy is my #1; I will give almost anything a chance if it has strong fantasy elements. Post apocalyptic, superhero, alternate history, science fantasy, some supernatural, romance, and a few fandoms (especially Game of Thrones) are also likely to catch my eye.
Genre You DON'T Like
Horror, western, pure slice of life.
#4
Making A Character

There's no absolutely correct order to go about the different parts of making a character, but there is an easiest order. The Player's Handbook suggest something specific, but I'm going to deviate from that to explain the process I use, which I find to be cleaner than the PHB method. I won't be going over all the specific stuff offered by each race and class because holy shit that is a lot of information and this guide is already going to be thicc, but I'll give an explanation of how they're laid out and where to find the important bits. If there's some kind of demand for detailed explanations of races or classes I might end up doing a guide on those later, who knows.

Anyway, if this is your first time making a character and you're just looking to test it out, don't worry too much about figuring what's good right now, just pull up a sheet and follow along with my examples to see how it works. After you understand the process and get briefed on how combat works, it'll be a lot easier to go through on your own and make a character that'll be fun and also decent in a fight and such.

I'm going to be filling out a character sheet myself to show what a final product looks like, and I'll be explaining all my test character picks so you can do the same and hopefully end up with the same stuff on your sheet. If you end up with something different, that'll mean you missed something or did something wrong, which you can then hopefully go back and correct to understand things better.

Determine Ability Scores


The first step I always go with is figuring out my ability scores. It can help a lot if you have a general idea of the kind of character you want, so you can figure out which abilities to prioritize, but again if you're just trying things out to get used to the system don't worry about that yet.

There are a bunch of different ways to determine starting ability scores, and it'll basically be the DM's choice for how that works. You'll want to follow whatever instructions they give for that if you're making a character for an actual game. Sometimes it'll be a rolling method (which might allow you to assign the numbers as you like or might lock in numbers in the order they were rolled), sometimes it'll be a system using points to 'buy' ability scores, and sometimes they might just give you a set of numbers and say to put them in the ability score boxes as you please. The standard versions of these methods are explained in the character creation section of the Player's Handbook, so take a peek at that if you're interested.

For the sake of building a test character, let's just use the set of ability scores provided as the time saving, no randomness scores to use. Take these following numbers and throw each one into an ability score box as you desire: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8. Hold off on filling in the modifiers for juuuuuuuust a bit, because your race selection gives you a bonus to some of these scores that you'll wanna add in before writing down the modifier.

For my test character I'm going to just dump those numbers right into the ability scores in the order they appear on the sheet: 15 Strength, 14 Dexterity, and so on to end with 8 Charisma.

Pick a Race


This is where the heavy reading of the actual game books (or online versions of them) starts to be required. For the sake of this guide and making a test character, let's take a look at something readily available online: the Dwarf race page on D&D Beyond. For my test character, I'm writing in Dwarf for the race in the box in the upper right of the sheet.

Each race has a bunch of interesting information on what they're like in the general D&D lore, and that's worth reading if you what a good feel for how they typically behave and what sort of classes they might gravitate toward. A lot of races also have a selection of subraces, so keep an eye out for information about their differences. The section relevant to filling out a sheet will be down below the lore stuff under the heading of <Race Name> Traits.

Ability Score Increase is always the first item. This is a bonus that all members of this race gets to their ability scores; if it's race without subraces it'll generally give 2 to one ability and 1 to another, but ones with subraces will usually give 2 to one ability here and give 1 or 2 to another ability tied to subrace choice. For Dwarf, they increase their Constitution by 2, so for the test character we can go ahead and add 2 to our Constitution ability score.

Age explains how long these different races live, mostly useful for roleplay purposes. That info goes on the Character Details page, but I'm not bothering with that for this example, so do whatever you like for that info.

Alignment is a bit messy to explain, and it's kinda long so I'll shove it in a spoiler. TL;DR version is it's a two part explanation of a character's general outlook or philosophy on life, as well as a broad explanation on how they will usually try to solve problems or interact with people. The race info on alignments are suggestions, not hard limits, so if you want to make a Chaotic Evil Dwarf despite the Dwarvish penchant for Lawful Good alignments you can totally do it. I'm going to do exactly that and put Chaotic Evil in the Alignment field up in the top right of the sheet.

Most alignments will be written as two words, like Neutral Good or Lawful Evil. Each word indicates a specific part of what alignment is about.

The first part is their view of society and order in general. Lawful means everything from strictly following the law to holding firm to a personal code, or perhaps they stand for tradition or remain loyal to allies; whatever their specific version of it, they value order. Chaotic means generally that they care more for personal freedom and following their whims over whatever society might expect of them. Neutral is for anyone that lands too close to the middle of these opposites to pick one.

The second part is morality, represented by Good, Evil, or Neutral. While the morality scale can be played as black and white as you like, there can be a lot of nuance to these choices, especially when tied with the first part. A Good character may be opposed to harming anyone who can't defend themselves, but a Lawful Good Paladin whose duty is to eradicate all evil might see slaughtering baby monsters as a good and righteous act.

Quick note: a 'Neutral Neutral' alignment is just called Neutral or True Neutral.

Anyway, there's a lot of of room to do all sorts of interesting things with different alignments, and you're only as constrained as you want to be. Just because a character is Evil doesn't mean they're incapable of kindness, and someone who's Chaotic can totally uphold the law if it suits their purposes. Alignment should act as a general guideline, not a small box that you have to shove your character into.

Size tells you general racial heights and weights, which is nice. However, it also gives something like 'Your size is Medium' at the end of that info. This is something that'll come into play for some spells and class abilities, so it's worth noting down somewhere, but it won't have much impact on what your character can or can't do in general. Dwarf size is Medium, so mark that down for the test character; I'm putting in in the Features & Traits box (bottom right of the Character Sheet).

Speed is how fast your character can walk in one combat turn without expending some effort to run. There's a box for Speed up near the top middle of the Character Sheet, so you can mark that off and forget about it until combat time. Dwarf speed is 25, but they also get a perk of 'Your speed is not reduced by waring heavy armor'; normal walking speed is 30 and Dwarves get less because they have short legs, but they're also sturdy so they can wear heavy stuff without being slowed a ton. For the test character, throw 25 in the speed box and note in the Features & Traits box that they aren't slowed by heavy armor.

Languages is near the end of the traits list, but it's the one other thing that all races have. This'll tell you which languages members of this race start off knowing, which will always include Common (so named because literally every player character knows it by normal rules) and sometimes extra things. How important this will be depends highly on the DM, but it's probably not worth stressing over. Just jot those down in that Other Proficiencies & Lanugages box at the lower left of the sheet; for the test Dwarf, that means write down Common and Dwarvish.

All the other stuff will be different from race to race. If it's a feature that says you have proficiency with something, mark it down on your sheet (weapon and tool proficiencies go in the Other Proficiencies box). For everything else, put it into the Features & Traits box with a brief explanation of what it does. A lot of them will be passive abilities like advantage on certain rolls, and others will be active things you can use (like Dragonborn's Breath Weapon). Dwarves get a nice list of goodies, which I'd write like so (but you should add anything you need to remember how it works):

Darkvision: 60 feet
Dwarven Resilience: advantage on saving throws vs poison, resistance to poison damage
Stonecunning: for History checks on origin of stonework, you're considered proficient and add double proficiency bonus instead of normal proficiency bonus

For Dwarven Combat Training you can write those four weapons down in the Other Proficiencies box, and do the same with your selection for the Tool Proficiency feature. I'll pick brewer's supplies to play into the Dwarves love drinking trope, because why not.

If your chosen race has subraces, those will come after the basic list of traits. Those also come with an ability score increase (of 1 or 2 for an ability other than the main one the race gets) and some special traits that get written in the same places as the main racial traits. These are all things you get in addition to the basic racial stuff, so just add it on along with the rest. For my test Dwarf, I'll go with Mountain Dwarf for that nice Strength boost of 2 and some armor proficiencies and add those to my sheet.

Oh, and one thing worth noting for subraces: Humans in the core rulebooks of the game don't have any subrace but they have a thing you might confuse as a subrace. They have a variant option that allows them to do something different entirely than their basic stuff, not an option that gives extra benefits alongside that basic stuff.

Once you've finished with all the race stuff, you can fill in the modifiers for your ability scores. You don't need to do so until after you pick a class and background though, so get to it whenever.

Pick a Class


Classes are a hell of a lot more complex than races, and they each have their own different mechanics that make a much larger impact on how you'll play the character than the race selection does. I could probably write a large guide on the basics of each of them alone, honestly. For the sake of not writing an actual novel here though, I'll go over the basics of what you need to know to fill out a level 1 character sheet.

First off, there's more neat info to read to get a feel for what that class is about. If you have no idea what you want to play, reading that stuff is a great start. For test Dwarf, I'm going to go with a Fighter (click here for the D&D Beyond page on Fighter class), and since he's level 1 I'll write 'Fighter 1' in the Class & Level line at the upper right of the sheet.

Each class also has a fancy table that shows a bunch of information. Take a look at that after you finish any flavor reading you've decided to do. There are three columns that appear on the table for every class: level, proficiency bonus, and features. You can use those to see what proficiency bonus you'll have at each level (same for all classes), which features you'll start out with at level 1 on that first line, and what you'll get at higher levels on the lower lines. There are also extra bits of info there for all classes except Fighter, most of which has to do with their unique mechanics. Any class that can cast spells has a big chunk of their table dedicated to showing that, with a bunch of columns for spell slots and most of them also getting one that says Cantrips Known. Magic is a big complicated mess, so all of that's bundled off in its own separate post after the character creation basics and won't be further addressed here.

For test Dwarf, I'll go ahead now and write +2 in his Proficiency Bonus box since that's his bonus at level 1.

Somewhere around the table (or under it on the linked page), there'll be a big header that says Class Features. That's where you'll find more info to write. The Hit Points section will get some further explanation later in the guide, but for the time being just take a look at the Hit Points at 1st Level item: for Fighter it says 10 + your Constitution modifier, so I'm going to write that total into the Hit Point Maximum line (near the top middle) of my test sheet. If you're waiting until later to figure out your modifiers, just come back to this later.

The Proficiencies section gives more proficiencies, of course. Fill in the little circles next to saving throws and skills, or write tool proficiencies down in the Other Proficiencies box. For test Dwarf, the Fighter proficiencies of all armor, simple weapons, and martial weapons sort of overwrite the proficiencies in that area we get from the racial selection, so I'm going to replace those items with these broader categories (and add shields). You can find info on what is a simple and martial weapon in the Equipment section of the Player's Handbook (or probably online somewhere), but basically if you have both proficiencies then you can use all the weapons. I'll fill out the circle for the Strength and Constitution saving throws as well since Fighter gets those proficiencies, and for the skills I'll pick Athletics and Intimidation from the list.

Equipment is something you can either skip for now if you wanna make sure you get the most out of your gear choices, or just pick whatever seems most fitting for the character you have in mind. Worst case scenario is you'll end up with a character that is slightly less effective in combat than they could be until they get their hands on the right kind of gear, so it's far from the end of the world. For the test dwarf I'll pick chain mail, a longsword (the martial weapon of my choice) and shield, a light crossbow with 20 bolts, and a dungeoneer's pack (the different packs come with a bunch of stuff inside that is also explained in the Equipment section of the PHB). All of that gets listed in the Equipment box at the bottom center, and we'll do more stuff with it later on when we get to combat info.

After that you'll find the list of all the special features that the class gets. Find the ones that are on that first line of the class table (also notable because their description doesn't start by saying something like 'starting at 2nd level') and write down at least their name in your Features & Traits box. Read them over and see if you can get a good grasp of how they'll work. Odds are you won't if it's your first time looking at that stuff, but that's fine. You still haven't gotten an explanation of how combat works or how the action economy system works, and most of these are combat abilities, so being confused right now is to be expected. Just note down what you've got at 1st level for now and come back to read that stuff over again if you're confused right now.

For test Dwarf, that means we get the Fighter's features of Fighting Style and Second Wind to start. I'll choose the Defense option of Fighting Style to increase my Armor Class and make my guy harder to hit, and I'm writing both that and a brief explanation of Second Wind into my Features & Traits box like so:

Fighting Style - Defense: +1 AC while wearing armor
Second Wind: Once per turn for a bonus action heal 1d10 + Fighter level, can use once per rest

And that's all we have to do for the class info right now (unless you're making a spellcaster, which again will be covered later because it's a lot), so on to choosing a background.

Choose A Background


Chapter 4 of the Player's Handbook is all about further customizing your character in a variety of ways. The major way we care about right now is backgrounds (some of which you can easily access for free onthe D&D Beyond Backgrounds page). Go read through them and find one that fits your idea for the character you're making, or just pick one that sounds fun. Each background gives a few proficiencies and some equipment. If the one you picked gives you proficiency in a skill or tool you already selected previously, the rules as written in the book say you can instead choose one of the same type (can't use a double proficiency in thieves' tools to get a skill proficiency, it has to be another tool). They also come with a feature related to the background, which is generally going to be an interesting roleplaying thing rather than having an effect on power, so write that down too.

Each background also comes with a bunch of tables to roll on for different things, which are generally things you can use to flesh out your character's personality and history. If you don't want to get something random, you can always just pick your favorite from the list. I'm going to ignore those for the test character, but I'll grab the other bits for him.

I'll go with the Noble background, because our Chaotic Evil Fighter Dwarf feels very regal to me. That gives him History and Persuasion proficiencies, proficiency in a gaming set of your choice (info found in Equipment section of PHB, but I'll go with dragonchess because it sounds cool), and a language of your choice (which I'll make Draconic to go with the sweet chess skills). It also gives some equipment to be added to the list, and a feature to be added to the Features & Traits box.

Fill In All The Numbers


Now that we've made the three selections for things that impact our numbers, we can get all of them finalized for saving throws and skills. Make sure to fill in your ability score modifiers first if you haven't already, because you need those to fill in all the other numbers.

For saving throws, copy over the modifier onto the line for the saving throw of the same name; if you are proficient in that saving throw, also add your proficiency bonus. For the skills, take a look at what ability score it's tied to and do the same thing: put in that score's modifier, then if you're proficient also add your proficiency bonus. It's definitely possible to have negative numbers in some of these things, so make sure for all your modifiers to mark them as +X for positive numbers and -X for negatives (and 0 for no modifier).

If you've been following along with making the test Dwarf, or just want to see what a sheet would look like at this point, here's an image copy of what I've got. I was using a form-fillable PDF for this, which is why everything looks all nice and tidy. There are still some glaringly empty boxes, but for everything except the personality type stuff I'll be saving those to cover in later bits of this guide (specifically the combat portion since all of that has to do with fighting and related matters).

First though, time to tackle the beast that is spellcasting. If you're following along with test character creation, hold on to that Dwarf and we'll get back to him after I talk about Wizards and shit.
 

Jorick

Our knees do not bend easily.
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#5
Spellcasting Is Complicated

As the title says, spellcasting is complicated. It's definitely the thing that I took the longest to understand when I started playing, and it's an area that manages to confuse a lot of experienced players too. If you're not interested in playing a class that uses magic for your first outing into D&D, you can skip this entire post without missing much. A lot of people do recommend playing a non-magic class first specifically because it means you have a lot less information to juggle, but I'm a firm advocate of "do what you think is fun" over "do what's easy." I'm going to attempt to make this stuff easy to understand for even a total newbie, but we shall see how that turns out.

Three Kinds of Spellcasters


First and foremost, it's important to understand that not all spellcasters are created equal. They all use the same general rules for how their spells work, but how many they have access to and how they acquire new spells and how many they can use at any given time has a lot of differences. They can be most easily lumped into three groups.

Learn It and Use It Forever: This is the group of spellcasters that learn spells as they level and then just always have those spells available for use. Bards, Rangers, Sorcerers, and Warlocks fall into this category. Their class tables have a column called Spells Known, where the other spellcasters do not because they are limited by other factors than total known spells. If you want to play a spellcaster, these four are the easiest to learn with since you don't have to mess with preparing different spells each day.

Pick Some From A List: This group of spellcasters sorta-kinda has access to all of their class' spells from the lists found at the start of the Spells chapter of the Player's Handbook. Clerics, Druids, and Paladins fall into this group. Basically, their limitation is not on how many spells they know, but rather on how many they can prepare to use for a given day (the number of which is based on their level and the modifier of their spellcasting ability). They can change around their prepared spells whenever they take a long rest (which is basically a full night's sleep), so they have a lot of versatility in picking out the spells they think will be most useful for a particular job.

Pick Some From Your Book: This 'group' is just Wizards, because they're the only spellcasters who are book-learned nerds instead of just innately having the power or bumming it off of a god or demon or whatever. Wizards also have to select a limited number of spells to prepare each day like the group above, but they have to select from spells in their spellbook, not from anything on their class spell list. They start off with a handful of spells written into their book, and any time they level they can add a couple more, but given the fact that the total spell list for Wizards is HUGE that is not even close to enough to get access to everything. They also have a special feature of being able to take some time and money to add extra spells to their book if they've got a magic scroll or another Wizard's spellbook to copy from, and that adds yet another layer of complication onto their magic shenanigans. Oh, and you can lose your spellbook or it can get destroyed, which means you lose all the spells you didn't have prepared that day, which is just the worst. Wizards are probably the most complicated spellcaster class to play, so absolutely avoid them early on in your D&D playing if you don't feel confident in your knowledge of how magic works.

Spellcaster Stats


Spellcasters have some special stats they use for magic stuff that non-magic classes don't care about. These can be found up at the top of the Spellcasting Sheet: spellcasting ability, spell save DC, and spell attack bonus. Spell casting ability is just the ability they draw on for doing magic stuff in the same way a Barbarian uses Strength for hitting stuff harder. Bards, Paladins, Sorcerers, and Warlocks use Charisma; Clerics, Druids, and Rangers use Wisdom; Wizards use Intelligence. You can write the name of your class' spellcasting ability in that box, or just write that off to the side and put the modifier for that ability in the box.

Spell save DC requires a dip into combat info to understand. As noted in the dice and rolling info, a DC is a Difficulty Check, which is the numerical representation of how hard it is to accomplish a task. The spell save DC is the number the targets of your spells will have to beat with their saving throws to avoid or reduce the effects of your spell (ie avoid being paralyzed or take less damage from a Fireball spell). Whenever you're asked to make a saving throw against an enemy's spell, you'll be trying to roll higher than their spell save DC for the same reason. So, basically, the higher the number of your spell save DC the more effective your spells will be. Each class calculates this number the same way: 8 + your spellcasting ability modifier + your proficiency bonus.

Your spell attack bonus is also mainly for combat scenarios. It's the number you'll add to rolls for spells that are trying to hit an enemy that isn't reliant on them failing a saving throw. For these rolls, you're aiming to roll higher than their Armor Class to land a hit and damage them. Most spells that have single targets and deal damage will be based on these rolls versus AC instead of dealing with saving throws. Calculating this bonus is also the same for all classes: your spellcasting ability modifier + your proficiency bonus.

Those three modifiers will be the main things you care about when casting spells. The info for each spell that uses them will tell you to make a spell attack roll (so roll a d20 and add your spell attack bonus) or note that targets need to make a certain saving throw (so those targets roll and try to beat your spell save DC), and they'll also explain what to roll for damage on a hit or what effects occur on failed or succeeded save rolls. Once you have the numbers on hand, casting spells is as simple as following the instructions in the spell info, so that part isn't very daunting. The sort of messy part that confuses most people is spell slots.

Spell Slots


The easiest way to look at spell slots is as a representation of how much magical energy your character has to use before they need a rest to recover. It's a more complicated version of the classic mana bar of video games. A lot of people look at the big list of spell slots on class tables and their eyes sort of glaze over, which is understandable when you don't yet know what the hell it's about. It's not all that confusing at all with a little explanation.

Most spellcaster classes have a column that says Cantrips Known to the left of the spell slot info. Warlocks have very different looking info on spell slots because they work differently, so I'll ignore them for the moment. Cantrips are spells that don't need a spell slot to cast and can be used as many times as you like in a day, and as such they're all on the weak side compared to spells that need slots.

For the actual spell slots, first thing to do is take a look at the top of the table. It says Spell Slots per Spell Level, and then depending on the class it'll either list 1st through 5th (for Paladin and Ranger) or 1st through 9th (for other spellcaster classes that aren't Warlock). This shows the maximum spell level they can acquire. The level of a spell is a rough measure of its power and is separate from character level: 1st level spells do pretty minor things like a little damage or create a small illusion, but 9th level spells can do devastating damage to huge areas or trickier things like stop time for everyone but the caster for a short while.

Each line of the table shows how many spells slots for each spell level that class will get at that class level. So, for example, a level 7 Cleric has four 1st level spell slots, three 2nd level slots, three 3rd level slots, and one 4th level slot. Those slots get used up by casting spells of that level, or by casting a low level spell with a higher level spell slot for a stronger effect. For example, 1st level spell Cure Wounds heals some hit points for the target when cast with a 1st level slot, but if you choose to spend a higher level slot it'll do more healing. Spells will say in their info whether or not they have a stronger effect when cast at a higher level, and what that effect is per higher level slot used.

Every time you cast a spell, you'll need to mark down which level of spell slot you used. Once you run out of spell slots of that level, you're done, no more casting spells at that level. However, you're not totally out of luck for 1st level spells if you use all those slots: you can cast lower level spells with a higher level slot even if they don't get any bonus effect from the higher level slot. You cannot cast a higher level spell with a lower slot though, so casting a ton of 1st level spells will burn through your resources for those stronger spells. Regaining spell slots is generally done through taking a long rest, which recovers all your slots, but some classes also get features that let them get some spell slots back from a shorter rest once a day.

Warlocks get to be the special different class when it comes to slots, because I guess demons and eldritch abominations can't be bothered with that nonsense I described above. Warlocks start off with just a single spell slot and eventually get to 4 slots at higher levels. Yes, only 4 slots total. The level of their limited spell slots also goes up as they level, maxing out at 5th like Paladins and Rangers. However, they have other stuff to make up for this oddity: starting at level 11 they get a feature called Mystic Arcanum that gives them access to a single 6th level spell that they can cast once without using a spell slot, but then they need to finish a long rest to do it again; they also eventually get a single spell of each other level up to 9th. It's a bit of a weird system, but it does also have the perk of giving you a lot less to keep track of in regard to spell slots, so that's nice.

Components


Each spell will list what kind of components it needs to be cast. They use single letter notes for each type: V for Verbal, S for Somatic (AKA hand motions), and M for Material. That means if a spell has a V component, you can't use it if you can't speak. If a spell has the S component, you can't use it if your hands are bound.

For M, there are two kinds of materials that will be listed: random shit that doesn't have any specific gold cost listed and stuff with gold costs. For anything that doesn't specifically list a cost, you can use a component pouch or a spellcasting focus (ie a staff for a Wizard, a holy symbol for a Cleric, or in instrument for a Bard) to either say you have all those little bits or not need them because you have a sweet staff or whatever. Those things will not be consumed by the spell, so you can just keep on pulling out your little bits of bat shit and sulfur to cast Fireball (yes those are the actual components) each time you do it or you can just use a spellcasting focus and not bother with the materials.

Material components with a specific gold cost are a different matter. The rules as written say you need to acquire these things ahead of time and have them on your person to be able to cast the spell. Sometimes the component section will list an item worth gold and then say 'which the spell consumes.' That means exactly what it sounds like: you need to get one of those things for every time you want to cast the spell. Other spells just require you to have the specific thing worth gold but don't consume it, so you can hold onto it and use the spell again and again once you buy or find the needed material component. It's worth noting that sometimes a DM will handwave the requirement to get that stuff in advance and just tell you to take that much gold out of your inventory and pretend you bought the component in advance, but definitely talk that over with your DM before trying to do it in game.

Concentration


In the Duration line of spell info, sometimes it'll say 'Concentration, up to <time>.' This means that you need to actively concentrate on a spell to keep it active for that duration, rather than just casting it and forgetting about it. You can only concentrate on one spell at a time, and if you cast a new concentration spell the older one is immediately ended. Older versions of D&D had some things where spellcasters could just stack tons of powerful spells that lasted for a certain duration and become gods among men, so this concentration mechanic is a way of keeping that in check.

You can keep casting other, non-concentration spells while you're concentrating on one, and stuff like moving around or attacking with your weapon won't break it either. The only things that will risk breaking your concentration are being incapacitated or killed (which ends the spell immediately), taking damage, or other stuff at the DM's discretion like trying to keep your footing on a ship in a storm. For those things that don't end the spell immediately, you'll roll a Constitution saving throw to try to maintain your concentration; when taking damage the DC will be determined by the DM based on the damage you took, and for other things the DM will set a DC they feel is appropriate based on circumstance.

Ritual Casting


The final thing worth knowing before going into spellcasting that isn't immediately obvious is ritual casting. This is part of the basic spellcasting feature for Bards, Clerics, Druids, and Wizards. Spells will have a (ritual) tag on the line with their level and type if they can be cast as rituals. Each class has some differing limitations on which spells can be ritual cast: Bards just have to know it, Clerics and Druids have to have it prepared, and Wizards just need to have it in their spellbook (preparation not necessary).

Actually casting as a ritual works by taking the actual casting time (yes, I know I haven't explained actions yet, that's coming in next post), adding 10 minutes, and taking that long to cast the thing. That's a pretty damn long time, but it has the benefit of not using a spell slot when you cast this way. It also means you can't cast it at a higher level, but most ritual spells won't even give benefits for higher level casting anyway. It's just a nice option for getting some mileage out of your spells without burning spell slots, which is always nice.

Holy Shit That's A Lot Of Info


See why I shoved it all into its own post? Yeah. That glut of info is also why most people suggest newbies stay away from spellcasters until they have everything else down. I did the opposite and started with a Cleric, and it was probably a terrible choice but I had fun smiting zombies anyway.

Speaking of smiting things, time to get into combat stuff. This is also going to be a lot of info, but hopefully less than spellcasting.
 

Jorick

Our knees do not bend easily.
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#6
Combat Mechanics

So, you have a character and want to have them to hit things. Or you're following my test character thing and want to see how to fill in the rest of the info on the Character Sheet. Either way, this post will cover how to do all that stuff.

Armor and Armor Class


First let's make sure your character has protection in place. Armor Class is sort of a misnomer because it isn't just about having thick armor. It's a general measurement of how hard a character is to hurt with an attack, and that can be anything from heavy armor or hide to just being really good at dodging stuff or both. It's a general measurement of how hard someone is to hit.

Figuring that out for your class will be a bit different if you have a class feature that gives you incentive to not wear armor (like Barbarians and Monks). They have their own formulas listed in their class info to note how to calculate that AC. For everyone else, it works the same way. If you're not wearing armor, your AC is 10 + your Dexterity modifier. If you are wearing armor, the AC info for the equipment will tell you what to do: light armors have you start at a different number and add DEX, medium armors start at a different number of DEX but only up to a maximum or two from DEX, and then heavy armors just give you a straight number to use for your AC without any DEX bonus because they're too heavy to dodge around in. It's also worth noting that some armors (mostly heavy and noisy ones) also give you disadvantage on Stealth checks, and some heavy ones require a certain Strength score to be worn. On top of that, if you have a shield and are proficient in using shields, you add the shield's value to your AC as well.

So, let's get back to our Dwarf Fighter example guy. We picked up chain mail for him from his class equipment choices, and that is a heavy armor that gives a flat AC of 16 and disadvantage on Stealth checks. He also has a shield, which gives 2 more AC. That brings him to a total of 18, which I'm writing into his Armor Class box at the top middle of the Character Sheet. That means anyone who wants to hit him with a sword or targeted spell attack will need to roll their d20, add their modifiers, and get a total of 18 or higher to actually hit this Dwarf. That's a pretty solid number to start with, so our test character is looking good on the defensive side of things. Now for offense.

Weapons


For weapons, you'll have to take a look at the equipment info to see what exactly it has going on. There are a lot of special keywords used in the Player's Handbook that you'll want to check before settling on a weapon if you're looking to select the perfect weapon. You'll want to pick a weapon that's suited to your class and stats (and that you are proficient with) if you want to do any good damage with it.

Melee weapons as a default use Strength for attack and damage rolls, but if they have the finesse property you can choose to use Dexterity instead. Ranged weapons use Dexterity for their rolls. Thrown weapons use Strength, unless it has finesse (like a dagger) which allows you to use Dexterity. Anything that's thrown or is a ranged weapon will note two distances for range: the first is its ideal operating range, and the second is its maximum range. If you're firing or throwing at something beyond the ideal range, your attack roll will have disadvantage.

For all the other special properties, I'll leave you to read the book to see what they're about. The other key information is how much damage the weapon does, and what kind of damage it deals: bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing. The type is important because some creatures will resist certain types (say creatures with thick hides resisting slashing damage) or be vulnerable to them (like skeletal undead creatures being vulnerable to bludgeoning).

Our test Dwarf has two weapons: a longsword and a light crossbow. I'll be putting the information for actually using those into the Attacks & Spellcasting box in the middle of the Character Sheet. First, for the Longsword, I'll write Longsword into the name slot of that first line. The ATK Bonus column is for writing what you add to any attack roll made with the weapon. That'll be the modifier for the ability score it uses + your proficiency bonus IF you are proficient with the weapon. Test Dwarf has +3 STR and +2 proficiency bonus, so he has a +5 attack bonus. The Damage/Type column is where you put down what you'll roll to determine damage and what type it does. A Longsword used in one hand (because we have a shield) does 1d8 slashing damage, and you also add the same ability modifier you used for the attack roll; you do NOT at proficiency bonus to damage. So, for that column, I'm putting in 1d8+3 slashing.

Putting in the Light Crossbow info follows the same steps. It's a ranged weapon, so we use Dexterity instead of Strength. Test Dwarf has +2 there and is proficient with this weapon, so the attack bonus is a +4. Light crossbows deal 1d8 piercing damage, so with the ability modifier added on that makes 1d8+2 piercing damage. It also has a range note of (80/320), which means it works like normal on targets up to 80 feet away or can be fired at disadvantage at things up to 320 feet away, but that's too much to fit into the spot so I'm writing it down below in the same box.

This all fits together pretty simply. When you attack something, you make your attack roll. The DM will compare the result with the the target's AC. If your roll is lower than that AC or you roll a 1, you miss. If your roll is equal to or greater than the AC, you hit them so you do your damage roll and tell the DM how much it equals. If you roll a 20 on the d20 that's considered a critical hit, which gets extra damage: you roll your normal attack roll and add the modifier as normal, then you roll the weapon die/dice again and add that result (but not the modifier again), and that's your extra damage on a critical hit. Some DMs prefer to instead have you just double the number on the dice for the damage roll and add the modifier to that, so be sure to clarify how they want it done before you go nuts with extra rolls.

Okay, once you have your AC and weapon rolls figured out, you're almost ready for combat. Now you just need to, you know, learn how combat works.

Initiative, Turns, and Actions


Combat in D&D is done in turns, rather than everyone going at once. It can get mildly weird because it's technically supposed to be everyone going at once, it just... doesn't mechanically work that way. A single round of combat is 6 seconds long, which is good to remember for the sake of things like the duration of spells and class features. Within that 6 seconds, EVERYONE in combat does stuff at sort of the same time but not exactly, and then if fighting is still required it moves on to the next round.

Determining who goes in what order is done by rolling initiative. This is simply a d20 roll with your Dexterity modifier added to it, unless you have a feature that adds some extra bonus to it as well. All the player characters roll, the DM rolls for their NPCs, and then the DM is in charge of making a turn order list and keeping track of whose turn it is. For our test dwarf, I'm writing a +2 in the Initiative box at the top center of the Character Sheet because that's the modifier he'll get to initiative rolls with his +2 DEX modifier.

On each turn, the person/creature doing stuff has a limited number of actions they can perform, with that limit intended to represent how much they can do in 6 seconds. Yes, this will get nutty at higher levels where a class like Monk can sprint 60 feet and then punch something like 4 times all within supposedly 6 seconds, but it's fine, you're playing in a world with magic and shit so a little superhuman speed is nothing. The actions each entity has on their turn is as follows: movement, one action, one bonus action, and one interaction/free action. However, if they have a feature that allows them to bypass this limitation, the feature overrides the limits of the action economy.

Movement is exactly what it sounds like. Remember that speed stat you got from your race? That's how many feet you can move in a turn without needing to spend any of your other actions to run. You can split up your movement between other actions as much as you like, so you can run a bit, hit someone with your action, move again, use a bonus action, move again, use your interaction, and then move again if you really feel like it. It's worth noting that if your DM uses a grid/map for combat, each space on it will generally represent 5 feet of space, so moving from one square/hex/whatever to the next will cost 5 feet of movement.

Your action is the big deal of your turn, the thing that's supposed to take the most effort/time of your turn. There are a limited number of actions that are presented in the Player's Handbook as combat options: Attack is making an attack with your weapon, Cast a Spell is casting a spell with a casting time of 1 action, Dash is turning your action into more movement (equal to your speed, so doubling your speed), Disengage is letting you move without getting hit by opportunity attacks (more on that in the Reactions section), Dodge is making attackers have disadvantage when they try to hit you until your next turn, Help is helping someone else with an action or attack and giving them advantage, Hide is trying to hide by making a Stealth roll, Ready is to prepare an action to be done later with a trigger (like "I ready my bow and I'll shoot if the goblin tries to run away"), Search is to spend your turn looking at/for something, and Use an Object is for using objects that can't be done quickly (like opening a heavy door or loading a ballista). You don't really NEED to remember all of those, but those are the options. Generally you'll be attacking or casting a spell most of your turns in combat, and anything else not covered by the other kinds of actions will use your main one.

Bonus actions are quickie extra things that you don't always use. Some classes start off with nothing that is a bonus action, and that's fine. You need a spell that has a casting time of a bonus action or a feature that says you can use it as a bonus action, otherwise you can't use it. Lots of people make the mistake of thinking it's just action #2, but that is not the case. Think of the main action as something that takes like 4-5 seconds to do and the bonus action is filling that last 1-2 seconds, so definitely not enough time to squeeze in another full attack under normal circumstances. You get one bonus action at most per turn, and you can do it before or after the main action as you see fit.

The interaction or free action is for simple things that could be done super quick or as part of another action. Stuff like opening a door that isn't locked or handing an item to someone else could be done as part of your movement, or drawing your weapon could smoothly tie into making an attack. There's a nice table of options for this, titled Interacting with Objects Around You on page 190 of the Player's Handbook that provides a lot more of these small actions that you can do for free once per turn.

So, for example, for our level 1 Warrior test character, he only has one bonus action: the class feature Second Wind. All in one turn he could move somewhere, draw his sword or crossbow, attack something with it, and use Second Wind to heal a bit. That's it, nothing left to do, turn over. However, you can do some things (other than getting hit by enemies) when it's not your turn as well.

Reactions


The final component of the action economy of D&D 5e is the reaction. This is, just as it says on the tin, something you do in reaction to something else. You get one reaction per round, and then you regain your ability to react at the start of your turn.

The most common reaction is the opportunity attack. This is a game mechanic way of showing someone has lowered their guard (or done something stupid) and their enemy takes advantage of it. Opportunity attacks happen when someone tries to leave the reach of an enemy near them. To turn and walk away from an armed enemy leaves you open, so that enemy takes the opportunity to attack. Player characters get opportunity attacks, but so do all creatures and entities that can fight. That's why the Disengage action exists: if you want to run away and not get stabbed in the back, Disengage before running.

There are also a variety of spells and class features that give reactions. Wizards and Sorcerers can get the Shield spell, which costs a reaction (and spell slot) to use when they get attacked to raise their AC until their next turn (and hopefully make the attack not hit). Monks have a class feature for using their reaction to try to catch arrows and bolts fired at them. Your spells or abilities will make it very clear if something is a reaction, and if you don't have anything that explicitly says it can be done as a reaction then you just don't have a way to use your reaction (unless an enemy is stupid enough to provoke an opportunity attack).

Hit Points, Conditions, and Death


The ultimate goal of combat is to beat the baddies and not die in the process. That all revolves heavily around hit points. Hit points are your measure of health, and if your hit points drop to 0 then you fall unconscious. In D&D 5e you don't die for losing all your hit points, but it DOES make you a lot more likely to die, which I'll get into at the end of this section. I'll go over healing options briefly here.

Healing hit points only happens one of three ways: resting, being healed by a spell/feature, or using an item that heals you (like a potion of healing). The latter two are pretty obvious and are the only ways to heal in combat, but resting can be done two ways: short rests and long rest. Long resting is getting a good night's sleep, and in D&D 5e that means you heal almost all that ails you: all hit points are restored, so you could go from being on death's door to full health overnight. Sleep is powerful, clearly.

However, short rests can also heal you, but it's more limited. Back in the class selection part I told you to skip over the stuff about hit dice, but here's where they come into play. Each class gets things called hit dice for each level you have in that class, with different classes getting dice with different numbers of sides, and when you take a short rest you can choose to use some of these hit dice to heal some hit points (specifically the number rolled + your Constitution modifier for each die used). Hit dice only get restored on a long rest, and you only get back at most half of your total hit dice per long rest, so if you've got a high level character who had to used all their hit dice for healing on short rests it's going to take them a couple long rests to get them all back.

For test Dwarf, since he's a Fighter his hit dice are d10s. He's a level 1 Fighter, so he only has 1 hit dice. On the Character sheet, near the very center of it, there's a small box that says Hit Dice. I'm putting a 1 in the Total line, and a d10 to note the kind of hit dice he has. While I'm at it, I realized I also forgot to add in the Current Hit Points field up above that. He's got all his hit points because he just got a good night's rest after a long day of Chaotic Evil dragonchess playing, so I'm throwing a 12 in there.

Temporary hit points can be gained from a variety of sources. They work sort of like a shield over your normal hit points: if you take damage, you lose them from the temporary ones before your normal hit points go down. Once you lose temporary hit points they are gone forever and you'll need to get new ones from a new spell or feature or whatnot. You can't heal temporary hit points like you do with normal hit points. You also can't stack them on top of each other: whatever the highest number of temporary hit points you have from a single source is, that's all you've got. If you get 5 temporary hit points from an ally's spell and then use a class feature to gain 10, you only have the 10 temporary hit points, not 15. Test Dwarf doesn't have any way to gain temporary hit points, so I'm leaving that field blank.

Conditions are effects (usually but not always negative) that can be applied to player characters and enemies that do a wide variety of things. I'm not going to go over them all here, but you can find them in Appendix A of the Player's Handbook or probably somewhere online. Each condition has its own rules for how it works, and some quick examples are blinded (they can't see, their attack rolls have disadvantage, and attack rolls against them have advantage) and incapacitated (they can't take actions or reactions). Using these on your enemies will usually make them easier to kill, but getting hit with a condition also makes your character easier to kill, so try to roll well to avoid them!

Death in D&D 5e is a very forgiving mistress. As mentioned before, losing all your hit points doesn't equal death. You can just be instantly killed by some high level spells or if you take so much damage that it would take you down to negative hit points equal to or greater than your maximum hit points (like if our test Dwarf stumbled into an angry Ancient Red Dragon with his measly 12 hit point maximum and got blasted for more than 24 damage by its fire breath), but those are special occasions. There's another teeny part of the Character Sheet that I have not talked about at all: the Death Saves box near the hit point info. This is the thing you'll use most often to see if your character dies in a fight.

When your character drops to 0 hit points they go unconscious (which is a specific condition with special rules listed in Appendix A of the PHB). They stop being unconscious if they regain hit points, but while they remain unconscious they have to make a death saving throw every time their turn comes around in the combat rounds again. Death saves are a straight d20 roll with no modifiers (unless you have a feature or item that says otherwise), and you need to get a 10 or higher to succeed. If you succeed you mark off one of the successes circles in the Death Saves box; if you fail you mark of one of the failures. Getting a 1 on the d20 counts as two failures, but getting a 20 makes you regain 1 hit point and regain consciousness. If you take any damage while at 0 hit points it counts as a death save failure, and if it's a critical hit it counts as 2 failures (also, fun fact, part of the condition included in being unconscious is that attacks against you have advantage and any melee range attack that hits is an automatic crit, so all it takes is an extra two close range hits after you drop to kill you). Oh, and remember that bit about going to negative hit points equal to your maximum? If one hit you take while unconscious does enough damage to take you from 0 down to negative points equal to your max, you die instantly (but you don't actually keep track of negative hit points, you go back to 0 after every hit... not that it will take many to kill you if you're already unconscious anyway).

With all that fun stuff explained, the simple mechanical basis for death saves is this: if you rack up 3 failures, you die. If you rack up 3 successes, you stabilize. Being stable means you're still at 0 hit points but you stop needing to make death saves, and you regain 1 hit point after 1d4 hours (either the DM will make the roll or tell you to make it). Someone can also be stabilized with some spells, or by using an action to make a Medicine check on the unconscious person and beating a DC of 10. Oh, and just to round the subject off, it's up to the DM whether monsters and NPCs and such get death saves or just instantly die at 0 hit points, so maybe be careful if you're just trying to beat someone up to capture them alive.

You Are Now Ready To Play


And it only took reading over 13000 words to do it, at an estimated average reading time of over an hour based on some website I checked. Wow!

But for real, you have read through a condensed version of the key info that fills a couple hundred pages of the Player's Handbook (which reaches over 300 pages including the ~90 pages of spell information that I barely touched). There's going to be some stuff missing here, but you have all the information you need to dive into a game and learn hands on, which is generally the best way to learn all the gritty details. As stated previously, please do ask questions if something was confusing or you feel like something vital was missing! This guide is worth existing if it's actually useful in serving its purpose, so don't be shy in pointing out any issues.

Oh, and for anyone who was following along with the test Dwarf, let's check in on what he looks like after the additions made beyond the Making A Character post. Here's an image of the Character Sheet page. Not much different from the first look, but all this needs is a character name chosen and those personality info boxes filled out to be ready to throw into a game.

The final post of this guide is stuff that you might be interested to know but probably won't be necessary for starter games, so no need to rush into reading it unless you have a ravenous thirst for more knowledge.
 

Jorick

Our knees do not bend easily.
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Advanced Stuff

Quick disclaimer: this post will still definitely not cover all the things in the Player's Handbook. Like not even close. It's just a couple other things I'm covering because apparently I decided this guide wasn't yet long enough.

Leveling Up


The TL;DR version of leveling up a character is you look at their class table, see what new stuff you get for the next level, and add it all to the sheet. Wow, such a great guide, right?

First thing to do is add a number to your total hit dice count and to figure out what to add to your hit point maximum. Your DM will tell you whether they want you to roll for it or to just take the average (or do something different of their own devising). If they want you to roll, go ahead and roll the same kind die as you have for hit dice, take that number and add your Constitution modifier, and add the result to your max hit points.

Spellcaster classes get more spell slots and will also gain spells (more spells known or a higher limit to prepared spells), and that's maybe not clearly noted on the table. If you get more cantrips that'll be clearly noted in the appropriate column. The exact stuff for spells you get depends on the class, so take a look at their Spellcasting feature to see what it says you get from leveling up.

Aside from that... yeah you just look at the table and add any new features to your sheet. Most of them are going to just explain themselves clearly enough in their description, but there are a couple that could do with extra explanation.

If it says you get an Ability Score Advancement for the level you're reaching, read that bit in your class features and do what it says, making sure to increase any modifiers on your ability scores and then to the related saving throw and skills and relevant weapon/spell modifiers. If your Constitution modifier raises you'll add more hit points to your max equal to your level (because you gain those extra ones retroactively for all levels as if you had the higher modifier when you hit each level). If you reach a level where your proficiency bonus increases, make sure to bump up the numbers on any of your proficient saving throws and skills and your relevant weapon/spell modifiers. If your DM allows you to use Feats (a special thing that can be read about in Chapter 6 of the Player's Handbook), you can choose to skip raising any ability scores and take a Feat instead.

The other kinda complicated thing you might gain on leveling is an archetype choice.

Archetypes


Archetypes are major selections you make within the first three levels of a class, and each one offers different things as you level that class. They come with a lot of different names: Barbarians choose a Primal Path to follow, Bards choose a College to learn from, Clerics choose a Divine Domain related to their deity (at level 1), Druids choose a Circle to join, Fighters choose a Martial Archetype to pursue, Monks choose a Monastic Tradition to follow, Paladins swear a Sacred Oath, Rangers choose a Ranger Archetype to pursue, Rogues choose a Roguish Archetype to pursue, Sorcerers choose their Sorcerous Origin that is the source of their power (at level 1), Warlocks pledge themselves to an Otherworldly Patron for power (at level 1), and Wizards choose an Arcane Tradition to follow. The ones not noted to be done at level 1 come at either 2 or 3, so they all come pretty quickly.

Playing a character of one archetype can feel VERY different from playing a character of the same class with a different archetype, because these often give new core mechanics or powerful features that can change how you play the game. For example, the Druid Circle of the Land is focused on the spellcasting side of Druid skills and will make you lean toward magical solutions to combat and other problems, whereas the Druid Circle of the Moon is all about shapeshifting into stronger creatures than Land druids can use so you'll want to take advantage of that power over using spells a lot of the time.

As with any other feature, your archetype selection will tell you what fancy new stuff you get. You'll get some stuff when you select it, and then a few more times as your character levels up. Just as the level of choosing your archetype is different between classes, the number of extra archetype features you get and which levels you get them at differs from class to class. I wasn't at all joking when I said leveling up is largely look at the class table and add what it says to your sheet: it'll say when you get a new archetype feature for that class, so you just mosey on down to that page and find out what you get at that level. It's real simple.

There's one more thing with leveling to talk about: multiclassing.

Multiclassing


Multiclassing is the term for taking one of more levels in a class other than the one you started in. See Player's Handbook chapter 6 for the full info on it.

So long as you DM has not banned multiclassing, it's an option available every time you level up. See, in D&D 5e there are kind of two different levels: your character level, and your class level. One character might be character level 10 and have all of them in Fighter, but another might be character level 10 but have 5 levels in Fighter, 4 in Warlock, and 1 in Cleric. Your proficiency bonus is based on your character level, and leveling up in general is also based on character level. Pretty much everything else is tied to class level, which means multiclassing comes at the cost of locking yourself out of top level features of any given class and you might be weakening yourself overall in terms of missing out on Ability Score Improvement feature levels when others get them. However, if you're looking to be an absolute monster in combat, some of the most effective character builds are multiclass builds, so it can be worth it if you know what you're doing (or follow one of the many guides that exist online).

Being able to take a level into another class has a barrier to entry based on your ability scores: you have to have at least 13 in one or two different abilities that are important to that class before you can take a level (there's a handy list in chapter 6 of the PHB). When you take a level in a new class for the first time you don't just get all their 1st level goodies from their class page (because that would be brokenly strong). You gain one hit die of whatever kind that class uses, and if you have different kinds of hit dice in your pool you keep track of them separately. For hit points, you don't get their snazzy 1st level hit points, you follow the Hit Points at Higher Levels instructions from their class page. You immediately gain some proficiencies (also a handy list in chapter 6) as soon as you gain a level in most classes. For most other things, you just look at the class table and grab their features. There are some other special things listed in the Multiclassing section of the PHB that I'll briefly cover here.

Getting the Channel Divinity feature from two classes (which means you have levels in Paladin and Cleric if you're only playing with the core rulebooks) gives you extra options for Channel Divinity but doesn't increase the number of uses you have per day. Features that give you extra hits when you use the Attack action don't stack up, just one extra attack max (unless you have 11 or more levels in Fighter to get the improved version of Extra Attack). You can't get Unarmored Defense (which are Barbarian and Monk class features) more than once.

Getting multiple spellcasting classes is a mess, but the short version is you keep separate lists of your known/prepared spells for each class, use that class' spellcasting ability for their spell attack roll and spell save DC, but your total spell slots are determined by adding your class levels together in a fancy way (explained in Chapter 6) and using those spell slots for all your spellcasting. Because Warlocks are special and different with their spell slots, there is also a special explanation of how that works when mixed with another spellcaster class.

That's everything for multiclassing, and pretty much all you need to know for your options for leveling a character all the way up to 20. There is a bunch of stuff about playing the game that I haven't really touched on (like all the specifics of different class features/archetypes and the effects of magical items and what all the spells do and so on), so even after reading this guide you'll have TONS more things you can learn as a player. However, I know some people will be super curious about the other side of things, so I'll give the briefest and shittiest overview ever for how DMing works.

Becoming The Dungeon Master


If you thought there was a lot to learn about in this guide, check this out: this is a condensed as hell guide to the Player's Handbook. That's only one of three core books for D&D 5e. The other two are the Dungeon Master's Guide (another 300+ page beast) and the Monster Manual (about 350 pages). There is so much more information to deal with as the DM that it's not even funny.

Okay, scare tactics out of the way, it's not actually THAT awful. The MM is definitely not required reading (though it's cool for getting ideas for monsters to throw at your players) and huge sections of the DMG are made up of a giant list of magical items and then a bunch of tables you can use for rolling to randomly create NPCs and environments and such. The only thing that I would suggest is vital reading for an aspiring Dungeon Master is the Introduction of the DMG, because it does a great job of explaining what the DM's role is and how to accommodate the differing desires of different types of players. Chapter 8 of the DMG is also a great resource for a lot of ideas for how hard to enforce rules and how to go a little looser with rules for the sake of fun.

But the best news about all of this is you actually don't even need the extra books to try on the DM hat. Just the information in the Player's Handbook is enough run some low level games, thanks to the inclusion of some information for creatures in Appendix D that can be used to create enemies for your players' characters to fight. You also have fancier options: there are special books released by Wizards of the Coast called Adventures or Modules that are entirely self-contained campaigns, with all the world and plot and monster info you'll need to run a series of games. There are also fan-made creations of a similar nature that can be found for cheap or free online, which is worth checking out if don't want to spend money to try your hand at DMing. Oh, and there are of course sites that have all sorts of things like monster and magical item stats from the MM or DMG listed for anyone to see, so you could probably cobble together a campaign from those scraps of info you you're persistent.

There you go, quick and shitty explanation of how to get into DMing. There are surely thousands of hours worth of content to watch or read on the internet made by other people striving to explain exactly how to be a good Dungeon Master, so definitely look for some of that if you want to get more info.