First things first - go to the RAID wiki
and have a look around. Scroll down to get their take on fake-raid (agrees with @jefro).
All major distros will have RAID as an install option. Be aware that some may also offer encryption - these are separate and you shouldn't need to do both if you don't want to.
- I use 2G as a default swap on all machines; more can easily be added later if disk space is available.
- don't use all your disk space - see above
- you can leave your NTFS partitions alone unless you need to reduce their size.
- RAIDing the boot code is not trivial. Linux uses some pre-boot code (initrd/initramfs) to load drivers for features such as this. Sometimes it won't boot if a disk fails (it should BTW). A liveCD as your mate suggested is an excellent option.
- as a new user stick with traditional filesystems (say ext4) rather than zfs or btrfs; both have a steep learning curve in addition to learning Linux. I'm a big fan of btrfs, but it's overkill for a new user. I avoid XFS as it can't be easily shrunk - fine for enterprise, but gets in my way.