I have been playing "Old School" style Dungeons and Dragons for half a year now and I still have no idea how to play "Old School" Dungeons and Dragons. However, I do run a game for a bunch of old friends over the internet every Monday night and they appear to be having a great time. They have not yet figured out that I have no idea where to put the health potions, how to properly balance encounters, describe intricate traps properly, make buying starting equipment interesting, or do any other essential Dungeon Master tasks easily and correctly.
There's plenty of excellent How-To-Play-DnDs from people who actually know what they're talking about but I suspect that many of them don't actually remember what it's like to not DM DnD (It can be kind of all-consuming like that). Myself, I still find playing DnD difficult, stressful and strange. It's also incredibly rewarding. I love it.
I want to write out instructions for how to start playing DnD when that's something that you'd like to do but have absolutely no idea how, both as potentially useful information for someone someday, as well as a record of where I'm at with the hobby now.
- Read some blogs. Good ones. I did False Machine and DnD With Pornstars. I read those two for years before even thinking about running my own games. There's plenty of other great ones as well. Even today most stuff that I read online has absolutely nothing to do with my game, but it can often be great reading anyway.
- Slowly realise that what you're reading is only one half of a conversation. YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE THE OTHER HALF.
- Scrape together some friends that don't want to play DnD and tell them that they want to play DnD. Draw inspiration from the indomitable Mr. Raggi if necessary.
- Find a set of rules and read them. Yes, this can come after point 3. The rules are shitty but necessary. Avoid explaining the rules to the people you are going to be playing with at all costs - guard that shit like the Davinci Code. I like Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Rules should be free.
- Pick an adventure to play. There are lots of nice free ones. You can also pay 10 bucks for a pdf on rpgnow or lulu or something. Maybe you should do this before you choose a rule set even. I don't know. Try to avoid anything that is the wrong system, isn't for first level characters, or is a "kit" instead of an adventure. I made one of these mistakes in each of the three adventures I have ever run. Maybe one day I'll do my job properly.
- Read the things I have linked for you here. Ignore anything you feel like ignoring, try what you want to try. Maybe come back later and realise how the thing you ignored earlier was actually sagacious.
- Play the thing. Just lay it out straight. Tell your players "Look, I don't know what the hell I'm doing but I'm kind of lonely living in a new city and everything and I have it under authority that this is somehow fun. You've chosen to be a fighter, and the rest of you all wanted be wizards and you're on a mountain, it's snowing fucking sideways and you had a dream there was treasure in the mountain. Maybe? What do you want to do?"
- Watch the weird thing that happens when a whole room full of people imagine the same thing together with such clarity that they can discuss its buttons and nobs for hours before actually doing anything about them. Resist the urge to scream I HAVE GIVEN YOU ALL THESE BUTTONS JUST PUSH ONE because you're not allowed to tell the players what to do.
- Discover that keeping track of torches, time, rations and weight soothes the soul in ways that keeping track of hit points never could.
- Realise that whoever wrote the adventure you are running (whichever adventure) must have suffered a serious head injury during its production. Bits are missing while other bits are there but not thought out at all. Many sections are completely wrong for your group.
- Tear it apart. Rebuild it. Try stupid things. Give the witch the ability to implant small cities into her victims with her claw attacks. Take the dragons legs off and hang him from the ceiling. He is now a dragon-stalactite. Accidentally overpower your players, then under power them, then do it again.
- From these humble beginnings, start writing your own stuff. Guard this closer than the rules. Think up an awesome room then hide it in a way that it cannot possibly be found. Draw up an amazing world map and charge your PCs a thousand gold for it.
- Think about DnD. What it is (or at least what your weird mutant version is) and what it means to you. Start a blog. Share your best rooms and world maps with strangers on the Internet like you never would with your players. Read some more stuff. Maybe this stuff:
- Maybe actually read one of the original rule sets (ODnD, B/X DnD, ADnD). They are both terrible and amazing. The sections on stocking dungeons are often great.
- Basic Rd
- Raggi on adventure writing
- Just keep on playing DnD.