What is Dungeons and Dragons?

Dungeons and Dragons is perhaps the least known famous game.

In other words, everyone seems to know the name “Dungeons and Dragons” and picture something in mind at its mention, but few people seem to know what the game actually is. “Math geek boys dress up to play a Medieval board game that makes them forget about how crappy their lives are” is usually what I hear.

Well, just as Luke Skywalker said: “Impressive…every word in that sentence was wrong.”

What D&D is not:

I’m sure I won’t be able to cover every misconception here, because I’ve even heard stories of people who think that Dungeons & Dragons involves killing people or worshiping Satan. Instead, let’s just pick apart the guess two paragraphs previous:

A board game:

D&D is not a board game. There is no board. There are no pieces. There is no need for a box. It can be played on pretty much any flat surface. It’s sometimes quite useful to sketch out a quick map, but by nature, D&D cannot have any kind of standardized board sold in a box, such as with Life or Monopoly. And most of the time, my friends and I are too lazy to draw anything out. We usually have no visuals unless we’re playing over Skype and use a pre-made adventure website.

If you want to spend the money on it (we’re college students, so we don’t), you could buy figurines of your characters to move around on your crudely-sketched map. But I find this restrictive: D&D allows you to create any character your heart can imagine, and no (reasonably priced) figurine set will ever cover that range.

For boys:

I’ve played with three different groups and know of at least two more. Not a single one of them is boys-only. My main group is 50% girls, more if you don’t count our DM (discussed later in the article under “How to play”).

Lots of math:

There are many ways to play D&D. If you play the way my friends and I do, then you will only ever have to do basic addition and subtraction (such as 13 + 4 or 54 – 17). I’ve had more complicated math in a game of Life. It’s a bit of homework to originally create your character, but there are plenty of online generators that will do it for you.

If you are a math nerd, then you can probably work in more complicated stuff. Once, I felt like Einstein when I figured out that rolling two six-sided dice always gives better odds than rolling one twelve-sided die, even if the maximum number is 12 in both cases (because the minimum of two dice is always 2, and the minimum of one die is always 1). That’s…about the most “math” I can think of doing in a game of D&D.

Dressing up:

You do not have to dress up. Once, a person in our group wore a cape, and we mocked him endlessly for it.

Wish fulfillment:

This is more varied, so it’s sometimes true. I’ve had some friends who make their characters as strong, handsome, and Gary Sue as possible. However, the other half of our group (including me) finds it far, far more interesting when characters are a) horrible people b) have ridiculous flaws or c) do the least useful things possible.

For instance, I play with a girl whose character kept a necklace of the toes of everyone/everything she killed in the game. Her boyfriend, also in our group, is more wish-fulfilling: he enjoys playing as a dragon person, tries to seduce the female characters in the game, and loves his in-game pet wolf, Wraith.

As another example, my latest character is a sentient horse who wants to be a hero, like the white stallions of the knights of yore. But, being a horse, no one can understand him. Except for a horse whisperer, who the horse cajoled into being his knight so that they could go on adventures. I also previously played as Hippolyta Sterling (Hip Ster for short), who was a pacifist vegan who lectured people for being too mainstream.


Again, this varies from case to case. The official Dungeons and Dragons, which you can buy in stores and find lots of information about online, is Medieval-themed.

But it is 100% possible and surprisingly easy to theme it any other way. It can be scifi. You could all be dolphins. Or perfectly normal humans living in Beverly Hills. Heck, it could be you all impersonating your future selves in the very same neighborhood you’re currently living in. There is no limit to setting.


Just kidding it’s totally nerdy.

What D&D is:

My friends and I have been playing D&D for years, and I can honestly say that it’s one of my favorite games (pretty much tied with Cards Against Humanity).

Why? Well, I can answer that question with some more questions:

You remember when you used to play Jedi or Hogwarts or Animals on the playground as kids? And you could be literally anything you wanted to be, and go anywhere you wanted to go, because it was entirely powered by your imagination?

Remember how there was always that one jerk kid who would point a finger gun at you and say, “Bam! You’re dead. I win!”? And then you would get into a fight because you both imagined different things? And gosh darn it, Charlie, tigers don’t carry guns with them!!!

Well, now imagine you assigned a referee to that game to settle such disputes. Imagine that you designated ahead of time what your skills, powers, and weapons were and wrote it down so that there would be no shenanigans.

Well, then you have a pretty good idea of what Dungeons and Dragons is. That’s why it’s so flexible: because it’s all made up by those who play. If it fits into the setting you and your friends have established, then you can absolutely be a gun-slinging tiger. My dad once played as a sentient piston. One of my friends played as a talking, seductive goat. When I say there are no limits, I mean that there are no limits. Except, of course, common sense rules imposed by the referee.

What about those dice, you may ask? Well, the dice are there to add some random chance to things (and trust me, the dice make it loads more fun). If your gun-slinging tiger wants to do a backflip, then you need to roll for it. If you roll high, you succeed. If you roll low, you land on your face. Or worse: if you roll REALLY low, you’ll likely fall on your gun and shoot yourself. If instead you roll really HIGH, you’ll probably blow the crowd a few kisses while you’re doing a triple-spin Olympic aerial somersault.

If you think I’m joking about any of the above scenarios, you are mistaken.

How to play D&D:

Super basic D&D:

Dungeons and Dragons is highly customizable. Every single group of players will pick and choose which rules that want to follow, how strictly they want to stick with the Manual, whether or not they’ll allow “home-brewed” character types, etc. There are probably some hard-core D&D players out there who think my friends and I don’t play “real” D&D because we skip over the weight and food rules in the Manual. But in my opinion, D&D is D&D as long as you have the following:

Grab a friend.

D&D requires at least 2 plays at all times. One to play, and one to referee. You can add on as many players as you want (or rather, as many players as the referee can handle), and even add on another referee if it’ll make the first one’s life easier.

Your referee is called your DM or GM, for “Dungeon Master” or “Game Master,” just depending on what you prefer to say. The DM has the hardest job. All a player does is control his or her character: for instance, the actions, thoughts, and speech of that gun-slinging tiger named Charlie Graybeard. The DM, however, controls everything else: the imaginary people you meet on your journey (shop-keepers, bad guys, etc.), the scenery, the innocent animals you kill for supper (or fun), the weather, and basically everything that normally exists outside of your conscious control. The DM is your god. The DM also gets headaches very easily, and will most likely become a dice aficionado in the near future (note the blue and orange dice in the lead image).

Grab a die.

D&D is not D&D without a little random chance. You don’t have to roll for “I want to walk over to that lamp post,” but you do have to roll for “I want to rip the lamp post out of the ground with my bare hands.”

Your conventional die is a six-sided cube. Dungeons and Dragons, however, is very famous for having dice made of many different polyhedrons. A conventional D&D dice set has dice with 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 20 sides. Your dice-obsessed DM may even buy special 3-sided dice, or 120-sided dice (yes, our DM has both of these, and more). This is useful when you get really into having specific weapons or traits, but if you’re just bored in the back of a car on your way to college one weekend, you’ll really only need one.

Example gameplay:

DM: You walk out of your apartment building and enter onto an empty street. The clouds are covering the stars, and there is a light drizzle. Luckily, you can still see well because of the street lamps along the sidewalk and the lights coming from other apartment windows. Do you go left or right?

Charlie: Neither. I want to climb the nearest lamp post.

DM: What? Why?

Charlie: To get a better view.

DM: … Of what?

Charlie: I want to peep into someone’s apartment.

DM: (Sighing) Roll for lamp-climbing.

Charlie rolls a 5 on a six-sided die. A high number.

DM: You climb the lamp post to the very top and peer into an apartment. There is a lonely middle-aged man inside. He isn’t wearing a shirt, but he’s watching Toy Story 3 and sobbing into a bowl of ramen. 

For more example gameplay, you can check out a show called HarmonQuest.

Normal D&D:

A higher-level Dungeons and Dragons adds on more rules for a bit more structure. There are specific spells, weapons, creatures you can play as (called “races”), and occupations you can choose (called “classes”), all of which affect your character statistics (strength, intelligence, dexterity, charisma, etc.). If you’ve ever played an RPG before, you’re likely very familiar with all of this.

You’ll design a character with specific traits, clothes, and items. This is relatively simple, if you start at level 1. At level 1, you’ll only have a few spells, weapons, and abilities to keep track of.

You’ll also have a wide array of dice allowing for a little more nuance in your chance rolling. So your character is now a level 1 rogue dwarf with a tragic backstory involving a taco. Your favorite weapon is an axe that does an amount of damage equal to whatever you roll on a four-sided die (because rolling the twnty-sided die would be waaaay too powerful for an axe). And you’re now playing with five other people, each taking turns exploiting a world in which there are no consequences.

Example gameplay:

DM: You walk out of your apartment building and enter onto an empty street. The clouds are covering the stars, and there is a light drizzle. Luckily, you can still see well because of the street lamps along the sidewalk and the lights coming from other apartment windows. 

Charlie: I want to rip the lamp post out of the ground with my bare hands.

DM: What? Why?

Charlie: I want to use it as a battering ram.

DM: … 

Charlie: I have a +5 in strength.

DM: (Sighing) Roll for strength.

Charlie rolls a 1, the lowest possible number. The +5 can’t help her now.

DM: Not only do you fail to rip out the lamp post, but your hands magically sink down into the concrete, trapping you there. From the heavens, you hear God laughing at your misery.

Charlie: I want talk to the post and convince it to help me out..

DM: Why can’t I have normal players? Roll for… I guess that would be persuasion.

Charlie rolls an 18, but has a Charisma (used for things like persuasion) of +2, so she gets a 20.

DM: The lamp post says, “C’mon, boys! Let’s help her out!” All the lamp posts on the street sprout out of the ground, wobble over to you, and pull out you of the concrete. They are all extremely grateful that you have added a little bit of excitement to their otherwise dull, lamp lives…. and you lose 3 HP from the trauma of having your hands tugged out of solid ground. 

Charlie: Great. I want to make out with the lamp.

DM: The lamp has an STD and now so do you. Now please go find the plot. 

How to homebrew:

Homebrewing is a bit more work added onto your character building (if you’re a player), but (if you’re a DM) the world-building is essentially the same. I know of three ways to homebrew:

  1. Do all the work yourself, calculate the pros and cons of a completely made-up class, and repeatedly test-play it to make sure that it’s not too weak or powerful. Aka: the hard way.
  2. Look up homebrews that someone else went to the effort of making and posted online.
  3. Do what I do and just use one of the normal races/classes in the Manual and then change the name. For instance, I once DMed a Willy Wonka world. I looked up the statistics for your run-of-the-mill hobgoblin, called it an Oompa-Loompa, and then had them attack my players. So if, for instance, you want to play as a water-bender, you would probably just look up the character information for a Wizard or Cleric or Monk or whatever, call yourself an water-bender, and change some spell descriptions from “roots grow out of the ground and trap your foe” to “you bend water out of your pouch to trap your foe.” Or the normal “spell slots” or “ki points” (like mana: it restricts how often you can use spells) could just be how tired you get, or how much water you have left to bend or something.

Hardcore D&D:

But in real life, you can’t just carry all those weapons around with you! You can only carry a maximum of 45 pounds, less if you’re running. Oh, but you can’t run anyway, because your character hasn’t slept or eaten anything in the past 48 in-game hours. I would tell you to get some food and rest in the nearby inn, but there’s no way your character has enough money for that!

Yeah, as you can tell, I’m not a huge fan of tedious things like the laws of physics or homeostasis. If I want to carry around 12 broad swords with me and go three days without eating, then by God I’m going to do it.



I hope that this has been an enlightening experience for you. Dungeons and Dragons and Cards Against Humanity (namely the create-your-own cards) are my favorite games because they offer a basic game play structure that you can do pretty much anything with. Any solution you can think of to a problem, you can use it. Anything you want to say to an in-game character, you can say it.

If you want to be serious, you can be serious. If you want to be funny or silly or bawdy, then you can be that. You can play at Hogwarts, the White House, an alternate dimension where horses ride people, or anywhere your heart desires (and you and your friends agree upon…).

Or you can fight a dragon in a dungeon.


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