One of the things I did to prepare for the Seaward! campaign was whip up a quick Dungeons & Dragons reference guide for my mostly-new players.
The cheat sheet summarizes the core mechanics of D&D, runs through a basic Turn in Combat, describes the Actions available during a typical Combat Turn, and slams through a quick glossary of D&D’s most-used terms and abbreviations. If that sounds like something you might want to bring to your table (or if you’d like a little more insight into my DM style), keep reading!
How does D&D actually work? What’s the short version?
The Dungeon Master describes the situation you and the other Player Characters are in. When the scene is set you and the other Player Characters describe the actions you want to take! Then the Dungeon Master resolves those actions and describes how the scene evolves. DM describes the new/updated scene, Players take action, wash, rinse, repeat until the Party has successfully framed Galactus for tax evasion or whatever.
So what if you want to do something that isn’t guaranteed to be a success? 9 times out of 10, you’ll roll a 20-sided die (d20), add any relevant bonuses, then see if that total meets or beats the target number (aka Difficulty Class or DC) that the DM sets. Easy cheesy! Dirty little secret: that’s kind of the whole entire game.
Breakdown of a Combat Turn
The short(est) version: Move up to your Speed, take one Action. You’ll know if you have a Reaction or Bonus Action to use.
Move–Just what it sounds like, Move a distance up to your Speed. You can Move then take an Action, take an Action then Move, or even split up your Move before and after your Action!
Action–Do a thing! Main examples: Attack, Cast Spell, Dash, Help, Disengage, Use Object, Ready an Action, Dodge, Hide, Search. These are explained in a little more detail in the next section.
Reaction–An optional/situational Reaction, just like it sounds like. You only get one per Round. Examples: Opportunity Attack, Readied Action, Cast Spell (if Spell has “Reaction” for its Casting Time), use applicable Class Feature.
Bonus Action–An optional/situational Bonus Action, also like it sounds like! You also only get one of these per Round. Examples: Attack with off-hand (if you are using Two-Weapon Fighting), Cast Spell (if Spell has “Bonus Action” for its Casting Time), use applicable Class Feature.
Actions During a Combat Turn
The most common ones, at least.
Attack–Swing a sword, shoot an arrow, punch a fucker! Make an Attack Roll and see if you get to go apeshit on somebody.
Cast Spell–Weave some magic, baby! Assuming the Spell’s Casting Time is “Action”, that is. Casting Spells that do Damage do not count as Attacks, even though they sound like the same thing (it’s a game balance/fairness thing with later Class Features).
Dash–Sometimes you gotta close the gap! Take the Move Action again!
Help–You can use your Action to give an ally Advantage on their next Ability Check or Attack Roll! Teamwork makes the dream work!
Disengage–Taking this action allows you to Move out of an enemy’s Melee Reach without provoking Opportunity Attacks. Nice!
Use Object–Using any object that requires your Action for its operation. Drinking a potion is a great example.
Ready an Action–Choose to use your Action to ready a Reaction. Talk to the DM about what will trigger the Reaction, and what that Reaction will entail. Example: “If the Goblin moves towards my Ally, I will Attack by shooting an arrow.” This only lasts until the beginning of your next Turn (since you only get one Reaction per Round), so be warned! A Readied Action could be a wasted one (if the triggering event does not occur–maybe that Goblin won’t move toward your Ally!).
Dodge–Use your action to focus on your defense! Until the end of your next turn, Attacks directed at you are made with Disadvantage and/or you get to make Dexterity Saving Throws with Advantage. You cannot use the Dodge Action if your Speed or HP has been reduced to 0. If you’re stuck in a weird combat situation where you don’t seem to have any great options, surprise! Dodge is always a great option!
Hide–Make a Dexterity (Stealth) check to see if you can successfully Hide. If you succeed, you gain the benefits of being Hidden.
Search–Focus your attention on finding something, usually by making a successful Wisdom (Perception) Check or an Intelligence (Investigation) Check.
I know, vocab, ew! I swear it’s not as bad as it sounds! D&D works a little like computer code, where specific terms and phrases have super specific gameplay definitions. You’ll pick up most of these super fast, and they’re almost self-explanatory. D&D Advantage is different from just the general concept of “an advantage”, for example.
Ability Check–Ability checks are maybe the biggest cornerstone of D&D (Attacks are basically violent Ability Checks). Want to do something that has a chance of failing? Roll a d20, add your Ability Score Modifier and (if applicable) your Skill Proficiency Bonus, and see if it meets or beats the Difficulty Class (DC) set by your DM. A total lower than the DC will be a failure, but don’t worry! Everybody fails in D&D, and it usually makes the story funnier and/or more exciting.
Ability Score/Modifier–Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma! These are the 6 Abilities that define what your character excels at, is okay at, and isn’t so great at. These are listed on the upper left side of the Character Sheet. For now, focus on the bigger (as in font size) + or – number. Those are your Ability Modifiers, and those bonuses (or negatives) will be added to your d20 rolls when you are asked to make an Ability Check.
AC–Short for Armor Class. This is what you’ll have to meet or beat to land a hit on an enemy, and what enemies have to meet or beat to land a hit on you!
Action–Other than Move, this is the main part of your Turn in Combat. The most common actions are Attack, Cast Spell, Dash, Disengage, Help, Use Object, Ready an Action, Dodge, Hide, and Search. More on Actions in “Actions During a Combat Turn.”
Advantage–I won’t try to name all the different ways you can earn Advantage since it’s so situational, but just know that when you get to make a roll with Advantage, you get to roll 2 d20s and keep whatever result is better.
Attack Roll–This is the roll you make to see if your Attack connects with your target. You have to succeed at this roll in order to actually deal Damage. Kinda sucks, but on the upside, bad guys have to do this too!
Background–Not as important as Class or Race, but still a defining element of your Character and their history. Comes with some equipment, some professional skills/experience, and maybe even a bit of personal history. Cool!
Bonus Action–Also what it sounds like! Like Reactions, you’ll know if a Spell or Class Feature is something you get to do as a Bonus Action.
Class–What type of adventurer your Character is! Different Classes excel at different parts of adventuring and come with different cool Features and Proficiencies!
d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, percentile die.–These are the not-main dice, and they don’t get used as much. Pretty much just for Damage Rolls, certain Spells, and a few other random situations.
d20–The 20-sided die, which is the one you’ll be using for pretty much everything except Damage Rolls.
Damage Roll–Yeah, now we’re talking! After you succeed at an Attack Roll, you get to see how hard you hit! …But the bad guys also get to do this when they succeed at Attacking you!
DC–Short for Difficulty Class. This is like AC, but it applies to… like everything else. Want to walk a tightrope? You’ll have to make a Dexterity check that meets or beats the DC set by the DM. Want to convince an NPC to do you a favor? Make a Charisma (Persuasion) check, with a DC based on what kind of mood the NPC is in and your relationship with them, etc.
Disadvantage–Advantage’s evil twin! Roll 2 d20s and you have to keep the worse result! BOO!
Dungeon Master (DM)–The Dungeon Master has several roles: World Architect, Story-teller, Actor, and Referee. The DM plays on behalf of all the NPCs and relays the observable truth/reality of the fantasy world you’re all playing in. It’s important to remember that the DM isn’t playing against the Players or trying to bamboozle them, but is dishing out exciting and dangerous challenges for the Players to overcome like the bad-asses they are. If the DM says you can’t do this or that, they’re not trying to be an asshole or crush your fun idea, they’re just reminding you of how the world you’re playing in functions AND working to keep the game fun and fair for all the Players.
Hit Dice–These are a resource you can spend during a Short Rest to get Hit Points back.
Hit Points–Your health! If your Hit Points reach 0, don’t freak! You ain’t dead yet, just knocked out!
Inspiration–Inspiration is a special bonus your DM may grant you for playing true to your character’s personality or for just doing something that kicks fuckin’ ass. You can only have a maximum of one Inspiration, so don’t bother trying to save it up! When you use your Inspiration you give yourself Advantage on an Attack Roll, Ability Check, or Saving Throw. Alternatively, you can also give your Advantage to another player!
Long and Short Rest–You’re gonna lose Hit Points, just make peace with that! You also may have Spell Slots or other Features that replenish with a Short and/or Long Rest. Short Rests are at minimum an hour long and Long Rests are at minimum 8 hours long. During a Rest PCs can only nap, eat or drink, tend to wounds, and other similar restful downtime activities.
At the end of a Short Rest, PCs may spend Hit Dice to replenish their Hit Points. Once spent, Hit Dice are regained after completing a Long Rest.
At the end of a Long Rest, PCs get back all lost Hit Points and regain spent Hit Dice, up to half their total (minimum 1). PCs can only get the benefits of one Long Rest per day, and must have at least one Hit Point when entering Long Rest.
Non-player Character (NPC)–Everybody that’s not a Player Character! Townsfolk! Bad guys! Talking animals! Random ding-dongs! Galactus doing time in federal prison for tax fraud. You get it. The DM controls/plays as these nerds. They’ll all have different attitudes, goals, and personalities–you’ll probably have to deal with some real jerks and maybe even the occasional devious liar/manipulator. (In my games I try to keep run-ins with devious liars to a minimum, I don’t want to make my players MORE paranoid!)
Opportunity Attack–One of the most common Reactions, because almost anyone can find themselves in this situation. If a hostile Creature voluntarily Moves out of your melee reach (but doesn’t use the Disengage Action), you can use your Reaction (if you haven’t used it this turn already) to get a “free” single Attack on them! Sick!! Just keep in mind the baddies can do the same to you!
The Party–You and your fellow PC’s, plus any friendly NPCs that may be travelling with you.
Player Character (PC)–You! Your guy! The DM handles the fantasy world and all the NPCs in it, whereas you get to laser focus in on your cool-ass character! Think about how your character looks, talks, moves, where they’re from, what they’ve been through, what they want out of the adventuring life, what their clothes and weapons look like, how they fight! It’s whatever you want it to be! (That said, I don’t grill my players on all these details all at once, especially since a lot of them appear, develop, and even change as we play.)
Proficiency Bonus–This bonus is factored into all the stuff your Character is Proficient at!
Race–You a Dwarf? Human? Elf? Race isn’t as important as Class, but it comes with Ability Score Bonuses and cool Features.
Reaction–This is just what it sounds like, a reactive part of your Turn in Combat. This is situational, you’ll most likely know if you have Reactions you can use.
Saving Throws–Saving Throws are almost exclusively tied to reacting to Traps (or trap-like events, like a roof collapsing on you), reacting to Spells, and seeing if you stabilize or die when your Hit Points have dropped to 0. Saving Throw bonuses are based on your Ability Scores & Class bonuses and have their own separate little box in the upper left corner of your Character Sheet.
Skills–Skills are like a specialty stemming from a broader Ability Score. For example, Persuasion comes from Charisma, Athletics form Strength, Sleight of Hand from Dexterity and so on. Your character may be charming or strong generally, but Skill Proficiencies mean they’ve specialized in Persuasion, Athletics, or Sleight of Hand, making them even awesomer in those specific situations.
Turn in Combat–Your Turn in Combat will usually consist of a Move and an Action. You may have Spells or Class Features that let you use a Reaction or Bonus Action, but those are situational and optional, whereas you’ll always get to Move and take an Action. Combat also sort of happens in slow-mo or Matrix-style bullet time, giving you time to think about what you want to do–but in game, only about 6 seconds pass. Keep that in mind, you only have one Vine’s worth of time per Turn.
That’s my lil quickie guide to playing D&D! Maybe it’ll be helpful at your table? If I fucked up big-time, lemme know. Like I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not like, the King of D&D or anything. I just like it a lot and I like sharing it with people. Happy Goblin-Stabbing!