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The Portalist’s Guide to "Dungeons & Dragons"

Get to know one of the best games ever created.


One Saturday back in middle school, I sat on a trampoline with my friends looking over the Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition start set. As we gazed at the eerie grid maps, monster tokens, and thick, glossy rulebooks, we all knew we were getting into something that would change the way we looked at gaming forever. We weren’t wrong.   

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As one of the cornerstones of contemporary roleplaying, D&D can feel somewhat intimidating to those who haven’t played; its myriad rulebooks are extensive, often complex, and not exactly the cheapest titles at your local game shop. And that’s before you get into the difficulties of organizing and maintaining a regular group. But those nerds who put in some time and effort will see their labor rewarded tenfold by the sheer storytelling power of one of the best fantasy role playing games (RPGs) ever created.  

The History of D&D

Before Dungeons & Dragons creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson revolutionized the industry, tabletop gaming was dominated by wargames, in which players fielded armies of their own design against one another in tactical contests. But in 1974, Gygax and Arneson—both keen wargamers in their own right—published the first edition of D&D through Tactical Studies Rules, or TSR. Instead of armies, players crafted a single character, and joined with other players to tackle a perilous adventure crafted by the all-knowing Dungeon Master (DM).    

In over three decades since its inception, D&D has gone through six different major editions honing and redefining its particular rules; the past four have been published by Wizards of the Coast, beginning with the controversial release of D&D 3.0 in 2000. Although longtime fans were initially dismissive of WotC’s efforts to revitalize the brand in the face of competition from dozens of other alternate RPG systems, subsequent editions have been hailed around the world and driven hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the company (including sales of books and video games which add to the mythos).   

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What to Know Before You Roll

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  • Still of Lucas, Will, and Dustin playing Dungeons and Dragons in Stranger Things.

    Photo Credit: Netflix

Total RPG newbies will want to head straight to their local game shop and ask to see what D&D rulebooks and sourcebooks are in stock. Players need three essential resources from any given edition: the Players’ Handbook (which details most of the game’s core rules); the Dungeon Master’s Guide (which explains how to properly run and adjudicate a game); and the Monster Manual (which provides details about various monsters and adversaries for the DM’s use).    

If you’re not sure about investing in D&D just yet, grab the Fifth Edition Starter Set. For $20 USD, you’ll get an abridged version of the rules, five premade characters, and a smattering of dice—just enough to whet your appetite.

If you don’t mind playing a slightly older version or using dogeared texts, you can also check if your local game shop has a used book section. No edition of D&D is without its critics, but 3.5 is relatively easy to pick up and begin playing in short order, and its books can be found cheaply 13 years after its release. You can also order from used booksellers online. (Remember, D&D also requires dice to play, so either grab a full assortment from your local gaming store's dice bin or buy a prebagged set.)  

Game stores are great for finding groups, but veteran RPers can be somewhat cliquey to newbies on occasion, and that’s awkward to deal with IRL. Luckily, there’s no need to play in person anymore—whether you’re alone or have a group of friends in mind already, you can set up a play session through Roll20, an intuitive virtual “tabletop” that lets people play with one another anywhere in the world.   

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Advanced Study 

D&D lore is vast, and it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole, since there have been more officially-licensed settings over the decades than you can shake a Wand of Magic Missile at. Die-hard fans will sometimes recommend Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance novels, but I’ve always found them to be terribly stale. If classical fantasy is your thing, check out the Ravenloft and Forgotten Realms books of years past; the latter setting was also home to the Baldur’s Gate series of video games, which are still a blast to play (and can be purchased for mobile devices). Steampunk and noir fans may also want to dip their beaks in the Eberron novels and sourcebooks, which are my personal favorites. 

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  • Cover of Dungeons & Dragons' Ravenloft

One of the most interesting aspects of D&D’s history is the role it played (heh heh) in the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s. Along with heavy metal and punk/goth fashions, D&D was blamed for the rise of violent, spellcasting Satanic cults around the United States (cults which didn’t actually exist but became sociopolitical scapegoats anyway). Check out Jack Chick’s oft-lampooned comic “Dark Dungeons” or watch the bizarre 1982 Tom Hanks flick Mazes and Monsters for some of the era’s choicest nonsense.   

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For more contemporary, unironic entertainment, listen to The Adventure Zone—one of the best, most inclusive roleplaying podcasts on the web—and visit Out of Context D&D for bite-sized chunks of roleplaying hilarity.  

Got a D&D story to tell or recommendation to make? Leave us a comment below!

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Feature image via Susan Morrissey.