Last Updated on February 1, 2023
If you want to get started playing Dungeons & Dragons 5e, all you need is some paper, pens, a way to roll dice, and this pdf of the game’s Basic Rules.
The D&D 5e Basic Rules contain everything you need to start playing the game, including…
- Rules for creating characters, including four player races (Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human) and four classes (Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard).
- Rules for playing the game, including using your ability scores, adventuring, and combat.
- Rules for magic and spellcasting, including spells for wizards and clerics.
- Tools for Dungeon Masters, including monster stat blocks, creating combat encounters, and magic items.
Why Should I Pick Up the DnD 5e Basic Rules?
If you want to play D&D today, for free, this is everything you need to get started.
If you’re looking to dip your toes into the wide, wonderful world of Dungeons & Dragons — whether you were inspired by Stranger Things, The Adventure Zone, or Critical Role — this is a great way to get started without spending close to $30 on core rulebooks (or try $100 if you’re thinking about DM-ing).
D&D is a hobby, and like just about every other hobby, there’s virtually no upper limit to how much money you can spend on it — from custom miniatures and exquisitely crafted terrain to expensive special edition books and entire gaming rooms. Downloading, reading, and running/playing D&D using the free basic rules pdf is just about the easiest, lowest buy-in option for anyone who might not want to invest their life savings into a million different sets of sparkly dice (just yet).
If you’re thinking about trying dungeon mastering, you can read our 7 tips for a beginner DM here, but the number one piece of advice I can offer is: download and read the Basic Rules.
The Basic Rules clearly and quickly lay out the core rules of D&D 5e without all the fluff and additional rules that can make cracking open the Player’s Handbook or Dungeon Master’s Guide so daunting. Yes, players will have fewer options in terms of the characters they play, but I’ve found that limiting some player choices can help prevent new players from feeling overwhelmed. No one gets confused about Elf Wizards, Human Fighters, Dwarf Clerics, and Halfling Rogues.
What’s Included in the DnD 5e Basic Rules?
The D&D 5e Basic Rules document is a 180-page document containing the core rules for playing Dungeons & Dragons 5e with a smaller selection of player races, classes, and other options. The Basic Rules are included inside the D&D Starter Set and Essentials Kit and are available for free online.
Intro — What Is D&D?
The introduction to the Basic Rules does a good job of explaining the core mechanics of D&D 5e as well as key rules like Advantage/Disadvantage, different types of dice, and general guiding principles like “Specific Rules always overrule general rules” and “always round down.”
More importantly, however, the Introduction does a great job of talking a new player of DM through the core “loop” of D&D. You know, “the DM describes something, the players ask questions or act, the DM reacts and describes what happens next, and sometimes dice are rolled.” Setting up that central idea of a conversation with infinite options is a very good selling point for the game as a whole.
Part Two of the Basic Rules tackles how to build a character in a step-by-step guide.
The four playable classes are limited to the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard (the same classes included in the earliest edition of the D&D Basic set released in the late 1970s) and limit the number of subclasses available to a single option.
These options are arguably the most archetypical version of the core class and are often the simplest to play. The Cleric is limited to the Life Domain, the Fighter must choose the Champion Martial Archetype, the Rogue must select the Thief Roguish Archetype, and the Wizard must embrace the College of Evocation. These options are limited, but I think that can help capture the classic “sword and sorcery” tone that the game tries to emulate.
The character creation section also provides information on Starting Equipment, Personality, and Backgrounds and touches on the concept of Multiclassing and Feats — although it omits any usable information, directing you instead to the Player’s Handbook.
Playing the Game
Part Three contains three chapters: Using Ability Scores, Adventuring, and Combat.
The chapter on Using Ability Scores might be the most important five pages in all of 5e’s many rulebooks. It details rules like advantage and disadvantage, skills, what different ability scores are for, how proficiency bonuses work, and how to roll both checks and saving throws. Understand this chapter, and you’re 75% of the way to completely understanding D&D 5e.
The chapter on adventuring deals mostly with tracking time, movement (in dungeons and the wilderness), consumables like food and torches, different approaches to roleplaying in social encounters (including some great advice about describing vs. acting that does a lot to set a nervous new player at ease), resting, and what to do during downtime between adventures.
Lastly, there’s a whole section on Combat, including time tracking, initiative, different types of action (like Action, Bonus Action, Reaction, Movement, and Free Action), attack rolls, damage, hit points, death saves, dying, healing, and rules for mounted and underwater combat.
Rules of Magic
Part Four of the Basic Rules contains the rules for magic and spellcasting as well as the spell lists for the Cleric and Wizard classes. It explains the various elements of a spell including casting time, components, and the different schools of magic.
Dungeon Master’s Tools (and Appendices)
Lastly, we have Part Five, which aims to give Dungeon Masters the tools they need to run adventures in D&D 5e and is, in my opinion, the weakest part of this document by miles. While the rest of the Basic Rules go to great lengths to give good advice not only on rules but how to approach, think about, and play the game, it gives absolutely no good guidance for new dungeon masters picking up the game for the first time.
I wish there was advice on setting up and running an adventure or at least tips for how to manage the flow of information or create a story, but it just sort of shrugs and gives you How to Read a Monster Stat Block, a bunch of Monster Stats, some NPC stat blocks (no advice on roleplaying or running them outside combat, of course), and how to build a “balanced” combat encounter, which is easily the least helpful and interesting approach to this process.
Then there’s a big list of magic items and treasure and appendices covering the different Conditions (like restrained, stunned, blinded, and prone), different deities of the multiverse, factions in the Forgotten Realms, and a blank character sheet.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.