For those uninitiated in the mystical ways of Dungeons and Dragons, we welcome you to listen to this bonus episode. Scott the Dungeon Master will walk you through the bare bones minimum rules and highlight common terminology. Later, Stephanie joins us to help showcase these rules with a short Gunny-centric encounter. Skip this one if you're well-versed in D&D speak.
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The following is a portion of the transcripts for this episode. The remainder of the transcripts are on the way. Thank you for your patience!
Hello, I’m Scott the Dungeon Master and today we’re talking about how to play Dungeons and Dragons. We received some feedback form a handful of listeners that haven’t played D&D before, so we created this episode to help get them up to speed so they can start enjoying all the Shocking Gasps. If you’re already familiar with D&D, you can feel free to skip this one. But if you haven’t played before or are shaky on lingo, stick around.
Ok, first up, what is Dungeons and Dragons? At its core, D&D is a cooperative storytelling game. The game consists of players who control Player Characters, called PCs for short. The players are reacting to events laid out by the Dungeon Master, also called the DM. To play the game, a player needs only the Player’s Handbook, called the PHB for short. A DM typically needs the PHB along with the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) and Monster Manual. Nobody shortens Monster Manual because MM sounds kinda dumb. As you may have guessed, the PBH details rules for players, the DMG details rules for dungeon masters, and the Monster Manual contains statistics for monsters the DM can use in combat. Other supplemental books exist to add variant and expanded rules.
Gameplay consists of the DM describing a situation. I get asked “Where does the story come from and how does it end” a lot. In some cases, the DM is pulling the details from a pre-made campaign module. Everything is written down for the story to follow. This is easier for the DM since it requires little planning, but also restrictive because the DM must keep the PCs on track. A more freeform method is for the DM to create a unique story, which is what I do for Shocking Gasp. In this way, I can tailor the story to suit what decisions the PCs have made. It’s a bit more work, but much more open ended. As for when it ends, well, all I can say is a campaign ends at the same time as any other story: when it’s over. No sooner, and preferably no later. Remember, D&D isn’t like Monopoly – there is no final winning goal to obtain. This is first and foremost a story telling game, and the game ends when the story is told.
Alright, the DM has just described a situation. Then what? Now the players describe their character’s response. Typically, a die is rolled to determine the response’s degree of success. Higher results are generally preferable to lower results. This continues along with each player stating the PCs actions, a die roll determining the result, and the DM using that result to tell the story until the next PC action is required.
The most common die is called a d20, but there are several others. Namely the d12, d10, d8, d6, and d4. There is also a d100 that’s commonly called a percentile. The number designates how many sides are on that die – or more plainly how many unique outcomes there are. The d20 is special in that it can result in Critical Successes or Critical Failures. A critical success, also referred to as a crit, critical, natural 20, or natty 20, is when the rolled result is a 20. This usually means automatic success. On an attack roll, a natural 20 also means the damage is doubled since the attack hit a particularly vital location. A critical failure, sometimes called a fumble, natural 1, or sonofabitch, is when the rolled result is a 1. This usually means an automatic failure, or a miss on an attack roll. Rolls can also be made with Advantage or Disadvantage. In both cases, the roll is made twice. With Advantage, the highest result is used, and with Disadvantage, the lowest result is used.
Each die roll has a modifier that can adjust the outcome. These modifiers are based on ability scores and additional training called Proficiency. Every creature has a set of six abilities:
A character also has a Proficiency modifier, which represents dedicated training. The Proficiency modifier increases as the PC gains levels, which reflects additional training and expertise. The PCs class, race, and background determine which actions or skills gain proficiency. Classes are essentially like professions such as fighter, wizard, rogue, or barbarian. Each class gains a set of special abilities at each level, but we will address those on the show as we go. Class levels are gained by accumulating Experience Points, or XP. PCs will gain XP by defeating monsters and completing challenges. D&D features a variety of races ranging from the classic elf, dwarf, and halfling (read: hobbit) to the exotic such as the draconic dragonborn, demonic tiefling, and angelic aasimar. And finally, backgrounds reveal what that character did before adventuring. For example, Gunny was a jeweler and Amos was a sailor.
Let’s get back to those responses a PC can take. Each PC is limited to four actions: the capital-A Action, a Movement, a Bonus Action, and a Reaction. All except the capital-a Action, which I’ll refer to only as Action from here on, are generally only used in combat. There are three general types of Actions: Attack rolls, Ability Checks, and Ability Save. An attack roll is simply when a character tries to hit something with either a melee, ranged, or spell attack. Fighter types are better at this than others. An Ability Check is when the DM needs to see if a character can pull something off. Lifting an iron portcullis may require a character to make a Strength Ability Check. Skills, such as Perception, Investigate, Deception, and Survival, are subsets of Ability checks. Ability Saves are very similar to an Ability Check with one major difference: a Check is made voluntarily by the PC and failure means nothing happens whereas a Save is a forced reaction when failure means the PC will suffer harm in some way.
On more note on Skill Ability checks. Each skill is tied to a specific ability. For example, Intimidation is tied to Charisma. When a character makes an Intimidation check, he or she may add the Charisma modifier to the roll. But sometimes the DM can decide to use another ability score. For example, a brawny character may be allowed to add Strength instead of Charisma to an Intimidation roll. This represents that character flexing their muscles and standing in an imposing manner. Because of this flexibility in ability score used, you may hear people state the ability followed by the skill. In the above example, the DM may request the player make a Strength (Intimidation) check. When the relevant ability is unchanged from normal, only the skill is named.
Ok, so we’re making these rolls, but how does a DM determine success or failure? This is done by using a Difficulty Class, or a DC. Difficulty ranges from a very easy DC of 5 to a nearly impossible DC of 30. When a player describes a character’s actions, the DM determines difficulty. This sets the numerical bar that the PCs roll must beat for success. The DM is subjectively determining difficulty, so some variation may exist. It takes a lot of time and practice for a DM to accurately judge DCs. It’s not uncommon for a DM to set the DC too high and then “fudge” the result, allowing a PC to succeed when the roll would otherwise have failed. For my part, I usually set my DCs low and always follow the dice results. I want my PCs to succeed, but when they fail we have to address it head on.
In addition to DM-set difficulties, we sometimes also use contested rolls. A contested roll is when the Player and the DM both roll a die, and whoever is higher wins. This usually comes into play with Skill Ability Checks. Several skills stand opposite each other, such a Deception vs. Insight or Perception vs. Stealth. If an NPC is trying to lie to a PC, the DM will roll Deception to determine how well the lie is told. The Player will then roll an Insight to see if the PC saw through the lie.
In combat, each creature makes an Initiative roll. Whoever has the highest Initiative goes first, and we proceed down the list until all creatures have had a turn. This is called a Round. There are ten Rounds in a minute. On their turn, a creature can choose to use an Action, Bonus Action, and a Movement. Each ability a creature has states how long it takes to complete, which decides if it is an Action or Bonus Action. For example, a Fighter can use an ability called Second Wind to heal, which requires a Bonus Action. That fighter could then use Movement to approach a foe and her Action to attack. Races determine base movement speed, commonly 30 feet per round, but other factors such as class can modify that. A Reaction can only be taken on another creatures turn when a specific triggering event happens. Let’s say an ogre pushes a mage off a cliff. Instead of falling, the mage can cast Feather Fall as a Reaction, if he knows the spell, and land softly on the ground. This happens outside of the mage’s normal turn.
When attacking someone, the difficulty is called an Armor Class, or AC. The Armor Class is typically based on a creature’s Dexterity and armor. More armor means more defense, which in turn means higher AC. To hit another creature, an Attack roll is made. If the attack roll hits, the attacker can roll damage. Each weapon has a damage die, which is where the d12 through d4 see most of their action, and a damage type. Damage type for weapons are bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing, but magical effects can also have the acid, cold, fire, force, lightning, necrotic, poison, psychic, radiant, or thunder damage types. Some creatures may have resistance or immunity to one or more types, which means they receive less or no damage from attacks of that type. Other creatures may be vulnerable, which means they take more damage from that type.
When a creature is hit, the damage received reduces their Hit Points. Hit Points, also called HP, are a measure of the character’s overall health. HP increases with higher Constitution and at each new level. When a creature is reduced to 0 HP, they are dying. Once dying, they must begin to make a Death Saving Throw each round. The creature is stabilized and no longer dying if they succeed on three saves and dies if they fail three saves. These results are not consecutive, so a character could succeed in round 1 & 2 and then fail in rounds 3, 4, and 5 and die. The Death Save DC is fixed at 10. By the book, this is a straight d20 roll, but at my table I allow PCs to add their Constitution modifier, if positive. Again, I want them to succeed, so I help where I can. Mechanically, I explain this as a healthier individual who can stave off death longer. Clever listeners will note that the dying state is always resolved within five rounds, because at that point there must be 3 success or 3 failures. Players are encouraged to keep this in mind during combat, as PCs are able to rush over and stabilize a dying ally with a DC 10 Medicine Skill Ability Check.
Spellcasting is a whole other topic altogether. Spellcasting alone accounts for two chapters in the Player’s Handbook, more than any other topic. It’s a fairly complex mechanic and not generally recommended for novice players, even though it’s super cool and everyone want to be a wizard, Harry. To abbreviate spellcasting, mages are either prepared or spontaneous casters. A prepared caster generally knows a lot of spells but must prepare a set number of spells per day. Didn’t prepare that one spell that’s perfect for this situation? Too bad, you cannot cast it. Spontaneous casters know a smaller number of spells but can cast them whenever they want in any order they want and generally all willy nilly. Each spellcasting class has a specific spell list, which contains all the possible spells that caster can learn. Some spells are available on multiple spellcasting spell lists, some are not. Because spellcasters get a limited number of spells per day, they often have to face resource management dilemmas. Is this bag guy worth spending my most powerful spell, or should I save it for later just in case? This is why we see Tilly using his daggers so much, even though he is a spellcaster; he’s saving those spells for just the right situation.
Shocking Gasp is a serialized actual play D&D 5e podcast. When an enigmatic being falls from the sky, four strangers investigate and find themselves on the run from a superhuman force. Now they must fight for their survival while attempting to unravel the mystery of who the being was and why they’re being hunted. New episodes released every other week on Tuesday at 6am EST. First time listeners advised to start at Episode 1 - Livin’ On a Prayer