(VERY) BASIC (5E) DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: All You Need To Know To Get Playing, Plus A Few Tricks

A few Christmas holidays ago I gave my best friend's oldest kid Basic Fantasy (and dice) as an intro to Dungeons & Dragons. While I wish I had given a copy of Old School Essentials, I didn't want to overdo it because I didn't know if the kids would take to it or not.

Well, it was pretty much a smashing success. All 4 kids ages 12 to 6 were very into it after I ran a game. And so their dad went out and bought the 5e Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit. Which by most reports is better than the Starter Set. However, my friend still just could not get running Dungeons and Dragons like he saw me do in our initial game. He understood the rules, sorta, but still didn't quite get how to put it all together. 

So I decided to create a ~10 slide deck in PowerPoint outlining how to play 5e D&D with some old-school tricks and advice thrown in to help cover what I think are gaps in the Essentials rules. I also tried to keep the deck to a minimum so my friend would actually read it and could use it as a reference. But also so his kids could use it as a reference too.

I think two of the most important slides are at the end. In the first, I also linked and summarized Ben Milton's observations from watching a game DM'ed by a kid for her classmates-- important. The second is word dense, but I try to distill some of my tricks for running games on the fly into 6 pieces of advice. 

Neither is supposed to be comprehensive but merely to allow for an adult roped into being a DM to understand some quick tricks that can be applied and remind them that kids don't want things dumbed down. I think in part that's why they like "mature" video games- they are dangerous, violent, but importantly don't assume they are 8 years old. This is what Ben emphasizes.

In the Notes from Play slide, I also link two "starter" dungeons: Tomb of the Serpent Kings and Prison of the Hated Pretender. Both use an old-school philosophy in their design but have 5e conversions. So easy for a new DM to run in 5e. But also both have good DM advice built-in. So, as a new DM reads these adventures they are also getting additional advice and the context where it should be applied-- 2-for-1.

In the end, I still think Old-School Essentials or any BX D&D ruleset is a better fit for kids than 5e. They really enjoy play, but the amount of stuff 5e requires is just not something the kids remember once play starts. They are more excited by engaging NPCs, rolling dice, and doing clever and not-so-clever things. They find always attacking with 1d6 hand-axe.

LINK TO PDF: TheVeryBasicsof5eDnD

FUN PICTURES: Shuffling Through Old Folders

 These were a set of pictures I was making to accompany some text on D&D thought. I've always liked them. Especially the one with Mr. Apples. Cut and paste butcher here for low effort.

PRACTICAL MAGIC: Or what to do now that your 1st level Magic-User has cast their one spell

Erol Otus

Currently playing in Miranda Van Elkin's Nightwick Abbey It has been great so far to be on the player side of the BX system and see how it feels to be on the receiving end of a BX DM in a megadungeon. 

In BX fashion my 1st level Frogling met a bifurcated end in the first session, but the Magic-User I rolled up, Mayfly, so far as survived 3 sessions. Here he is below:

MAYFLY 1st level MU
Spells: Light, Protection from Evil, Read Magic
STR 07 (-1) INT 15 (+1) WIS 08 (-1) DEX 16 (+2) CON 16 (+2) CHA 08 (-1)

A pretty great spread of stats for a Magic-User. The 15 INT gets me a 5% XP bonus. And the 16 DEX makes throwing daggers +2 to hit as well as the adjusted unarmored AC a 12. The biggest boon might be the 16 CON which effectively makes my Magic-User HD on par with Fighter HD. But the question I am faced with is a perennial one: 

What to do when I've cast my 1 spell (or even 2nd spell if I am higher level)? 

While not insanely novel, I think below are six suggestions that can put you on the right track:

1 | Use Hirelings: Far from being a dump stat, CHA represents a solid force multiplier in D&D. Even if your MU's CHA incurs a -1 bonus, still consider hirelings. Two or three hirelings armed with spears (3 people are allowed in a 10' space), can create a formidable 2nd rank behind Clerics, Dwarves, & Fighters.  Another variation would be to arm them with short bows. If the DM is a stickler for space, then try crossbows firing alternately to keep up the pressure.

And if your CHA is low, well, speak with a silver tongue, and by that I mean, pay cash upfront for loyalty.

2 | Daggers are a ranged weapon: While 1d4 damage might not seem exciting, there is still a 50% chance you will roll a 3 or 4 which is enough to down a 1 HD opponent with an average HP (~4). Or shave off enough to ensure follow-up hits kill them. It's also worth noting that ranged weapons get a +1 to-hit at short range. 

So Mayfly there gets a +3 to-hit with throwing daggers and I've made sure to equip him with 5 to last most combats.

3 | Oil flasks are ranged weapons: This requires a 1-2 combination, but opponents or a square can be covered in oil. Then when flame is applied, its 1d8 damage for 2 rounds to things covered in that oil. So a total potential 2d8 damage, which is pretty hefty. 

Also worth noting that torches can be used as weapons (1d4 dmg).

4 | Scrolls are paper spell slots: Yes, this might be a little obvious, but I think it is under-discussed how scrolls can help enhance party success. The 100 gp/level seems expensive, but if an extra Hold Portal prevents the lizardfolk patrol from getting through a door after you've absconded with two 500 gp ruby eyes then it was worth it. Knowing that Protection from Evil allows you to walk into a room with an iron golem and walk out unmolested, gold chalice in hand is amazing value at 100 gp.

5 | Bring equipment: Most Magic-Users are really not carrying much except a spell books, scroll, and 5 daggers. This leaves plenty of room for useful dungeon equipment like torches, oil, and 50' rope. But also less obvious stuff like a:
  • stinky wheel of cheese to pay off the goblins
  • water skin of wine to pay off the orcs
  • bag of rats to test strange liquids on or throw to giant spiders or toads
  • chalk to mark or crush and throw in an opponents eyes or mark the invisible beast with no eyes
  • shovel to fetch coins from weird pools you forgot to bring rats for
  • crowbar for stuck doors or heavy crypts
  • candles for light or to stick in your ears (harpies)
  • paper for rubbings of important information
  • sacks for anything of interest you can turn into a spell component
  • pitchfork so you can pin things you don't want to touch
  • spikes to foul traps or wedge doors
Seems like a silly list, but these items are the fuel for crazy OSR high jinks and safe dungeon exploration!

6 | Be a thoughtful player: Just because you don't have an immediately useful spell or any spell to cast doesn't mean you are out of the game or can provide nothing. Your Magic-User is still can perform an action or undertake observations in a dungeon turn. Meaning that a more thorough exploration of the space is performed in a shorter amount of time.

Only on the third session of Nightwick Abbey did Mayfly actually cast a spell from a scroll. Prior to that he participated in no combat (only as an observer), but did marshal his hirelings in the 2nd rank. He wedges doors open/shut. Got eight 1/2 HD creatures to fight to the death over rations. Paid off goblins and made a rope ladder for a quick exit.

NIGHTWICK ABBEY: The Purple Eater of People, Session 4


Art by Chris Huth


The Party

Blossom (Rogue 1) Our only surviving PC of the first delve
Bertol (Rogue 1) Upgraded from hireling to PC
Dominic (Cleric 1)
Mayfly (Magic-User 1)
Virzin (Magic-User 1)

At the Medusa's Head...

November 11th, 1390: The party gathered with a new member, a sharp magician named Virizin (INT 18! and Sleep) who was undeterred by horrid stories of the Abbey. With hirelings paid for, equipment replaced (rope, spikes, never enough crowbars), the PCs set off for Nightwick Abbey.

The session was a split delve: Main push (left),
Some exploration (right)

RIGHT TOWER: After considering the graveyard, the party dropped back into familiar territory. A quick push south, another warning from the goblins ("Maybe their warnings mean they have something worth taking?"), and across the pool the PCs reach the south door. And hearing something behind it...kick it open!

THE CULT OF THE LADY: Dark-robed figures, blades drawn, spring forward. Bertol, crossbow cocked, fires into the on-rush! Curly and Red move to the second rank to support Kunrat and Dominic the Cleric. Melee ensued! Dominic crushed the skull of the first cultist with a blow to the head. While Red and Curly, from the second rank, perforated a second with their spears. But these dark figures driven by fevered devotion struck back felling the faithful Dominic! Bertol, with expert aim, made the group pay for that transgression with another crossbow bolt. Still refusing to break, Kunrat laid low another one. Blossom, Virzin, and Mayfly (mainly cowering) cheer and jeer from behind.

Once the PCs made it into the room, they found it empty save for lurid depictions of The Lady --founder of the Church of Law. Blood motifs abound even on the cultists' cloaks and the silver necklaces from their necks (400 SP!). The choice for the party now is the door west, south, or east. Blossom hears nothing at each door. Mayfly is worried the west door will take the party to the "slow dance of sword fighters" witnessed earlier. After a group vote, the party heads west and since neither Mayfly, Curly, or Red can open the door, Blossom steps up with a crowbar to crack it open.

THE DINNER PARTY: The stench of rot hits the party first. Then eleven emaciated faces turn to face the party and a beat later rise from their seats.

 A small crop of the larger fantastic art by Chris Huth

Not what the party wanted to see, especially when their skeletal faces reminded the party what was lost with the slaying of Dominic, not moments earlier. Red and Curly dared not enter the room but held the line as the things tried to push through the door. But horror! Their spears do nothing, but slide easily through these foul things!

With the initiative in the party's favor, Mayfly steps forward to read the scroll containing instruction on the manifestation of astral flame upon the earth (i.e. Fireball). A searing heat tears from the center of the dining table engulfing all the hooded figures (22 dmg!) and just burning the eyebrows off Curly and Red.

With the room smoldering in flame, but plenty of pristine silverware on the table, it is Bertol who picks up a hoe and starts knocking the loot out of the flame and onto the floor (500 SP!). Avoiding (mostly) the clutches of death twice, the party decides to head back to Nightwick village.

A week later...

November 11th, 1390: Flush with an exuberance for life, Bertol decided to drink and drink and somewhere in all the carousing was separated from his money by a gentleman aptly named Deceivios of Xenopolita. Something about art depicting the monkey saint. So needing the extra coin, Bertol convinced his friends, whose purses were full of silver and hearts of blood, to see if loot could be had to form the graveyard of Nightwick Abbey.

The target is the two Mosoleum entrances. Bertol creeps down the first but returns quickly with stories of a large sword welding statue. Mayfly, thinking, surrounds himself with protective energies (Protection from Evil which also prevents constructs from attacking in melee) and walks down the second entrance. A similar statue confronts him and swings a huge sword. Energy crackles about and the blow is deflected!

With shaky knees, Mayfly makes a quick survey of the immediate rooms. And returns to the party, outlining that 1-2 months of making protection scrolls would allow the whole party to move without fear of the statues. But that's a lot of time & resources. And so the party returns to Nightwick village.

Money recovered (left) and lost (right)

Current accounting of the living & dead

NIGHTWICK ABBEY: The Purple Eater of People, Session 3


The party

Warf (Dwarf 1)
Dominic (Cleric 1)
Mayfly (MU 1)
Osbert (Fighter 1)
Bertol the Fighter
Austine the Man-at-arms
"Red" the peasant (tongue cut out)
"Curly" the woodsman (tongue cut out)

At the Medusa's Head

Knowing what dangerous beasts lurk the party pools coin to pay for extra help. And back again they return to Nightwick Abbey. No misfortune on the way there, so the walk was a chance to get reacquainted with how creepy the place is.

Honest, I find mapping fun.
It makes me think constantly about what is next

RIGHT TOWER: With the trap door still being spiked open, the party descended down into the bottom. Mayfly stayed up top to tie off a secure rope in case escape needed to no be one at a time.

MAGGOT-EYED STATUE: The bag still covering its head, but now wet dark spots appeared where the eyes were. The party moved toward the NE door in this room. And when no sound was heard, Warf carefully opened the door and spied a group of goblins milling about. A fight felt like a bad way to start off, so Warf gently closed the door.

The party turned their attention toward the SE door in the room. Warf again listened but heard nothing. Osbert stepped forward and opened the door... and was met with a nasty ax swing from some foe unseen. A stunned party falls back as deermen rush to attack!

Melee ensues. Blows are exchanged by both parties, but few strike home until "Curly" drops the first deerman. But the deermen quickly recover, more push in,  and with this fresh push "Curly" is sent back to the loving embrace of his god. As sweat mixes with horrid bleating, Osbert falls, head split open by a vicious strike (NB: The player just started to play the hireling Bertol). For their murder, the deermen suffer more casualties to the enraged party and break! Running back from where they came!

SOUTHEASTERN DOOR: Osbert's body is carefully tended to with Dominic saying last rites. Then while Mayfly spikes shut the door to the NE, Warf carefully looks past the door into the gloom. Nothing. The party proceeds forward. They spy an archway to the east and a door to the south.

GOBLIN NEGOTIATIONS: The party went east, but it was Warf's scouting that brought, what appears to be a goblin lair, to the party's attention. Mayfly negotiated a toll with them of 10 sp and a promise to not come within 10 ft. of their home. Easily done and the party turned to the south door. During all this, Warf hide under Mayfly's cloak so as not to be noticed by the goblins.

THE SHINING POOL: Nothing heard at the door again. The PCs push open the door to find the beady eyes of dregs staring back. Mayfly remembered some hazy lectures about how dregs, like maggots, can spontaneously generate in wretched environs. Figuring they are like animals, the party threw rations to distract them touching off vicious in-fighting among the creatures.

Once dispatched, with only Bertol suffering a particularly nasty poke, the party evaluated the hundreds of shiny silver (Warf verified) in the mucky pool. How to get to it was going to be an issue, until Bertol jumped right in! Tense minutes ticked by with no incident save for the gain of 375 SP!

While there was talk of pushing further, the party cut their losses and not their throats by ascending with the body of poor Osbert for proper burial.

Live to fight another day!