Ethan Schoonover (known as Mr. E. to his students in Seattle) took to Twitter recently to describe how he started a Dungeons and Dragons club at his all-girls middle school — and how you can, too.
I must admit that before I watched his 47-minute video explainer, everything I knew about Dungeons and Dragons I learned from watching Stranger Things. But Schoonover talks about D&D and the benefits for kids who play it with such knowledge and passion that he’s got me hoping my son picks it up in a few years.
If you’ve ever thought about starting a tabletop role-playing club, you don’t necessarily have to pick Dungeons and Dragons. There are all sorts of other RPGs with a variety of non-medieval-fantasy themes. And if you’re working with primary-aged kids, you might want to try something like No Thank You, Evil instead, which has a younger, more cartoonish feel to it.
Schoonover says he chose D&D intentionally because it is the oldest and most well-known RPG and has been marketed so heavily to boys; he wanted his female students to feel ownership of it, too.
Teachers! Librarians! Parents! Youth Centers! RPG Nerds!
Thinking of running a @Wizards_DnD club in a school or similar setting? Exploring other RPGs? This video covers my own experiences running successful school D&D clubs, classes and a summer camp!https://t.co/wY6cgi9Xpj
— Ethan "Mr.E" Schoonover (@ethanschoonover) December 27, 2018
Step one: Pitching the idea
There are certain games and activities that people think of as socially acceptable for schools or youth centres: Chess clubs and photography clubs and any number of sports, to start with. But mention a role-playing club and eyebrows around you might raise.
Schoonover suggests you start the conversation by talking about the benefits, which are both social and academic. Socially, kids who play RPGs have to work cooperatively together. Academically, they’re reading, they creatively solving problems, they’re researching, and they’re even doing a little light maths when they consider the probability of the roll of the dice.
“There is one key phrase that I think you should consider using,” Schoonover says in the video. “When I would talk to parents, I would use this phrase and it was almost all I needed to say. And that phrase is: ‘No screen time.’ You just say, ‘no screen time’ and parents’ eyes light up.” Schoonover even takes it one step further and implements a cell phone ban during play.
(He also tried to give the club a catchy name — “Swords, Stories and Statistics” — but one week in, students were calling it “D&D Club” anyway, so I wouldn’t bother with that.)
Step two: Getting started
There tends to be a lot of bookkeeping and paperwork up front during what’s known as “Session Zero”, or the group’s first meeting. But Schoonover wanted to be careful not to bore the kids straight out of the gate; he wanted them to tell all their friends how super fun it was and that they should play, too.
So for the club’s first meeting, he suggests simply starting with the main stats: race (type of mystical being), name and background. (Having a list of suggested names is also key because some students will be stumped if they have to come up with their own.) He keeps the character backgrounds fairly basic and grim: Pig farmers, glass blowers, stable hands, apprentice hunters and the like.
“I had one student who recently got the background of librarian’s assistant,” Schoonover says. “And she picked dragonborn as her race, because it was such a fun idea for her of wandering around the librarian as a dragonborn, breathing fire and not being able to do that around the stacks of books.”
He gives his students two rules:
1. No evil characters.
2. Everyone works together.
Then, they dive right into play and “trouble” comes to town.
Step three: Keeping it going
Try to pick a day and time when the kids are feeling fairly fresh and rested. Schoonover runs his club on Fridays after school, which he admits is very much less than ideal. His students are at the tail end of a long week and everyone is fairly tired. But it’s the only time slot available to him, so he combats their crankiness with snacks; one at the beginning and one halfway through, which his students refer to as “second breakfast.”
Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master by Michael E. Shea, which Schoonover says offers “great sound advice on how to prepare, how to not over-prepare and how to prepare the right stuff to play D&D or any other role-playing game.”
Hamlet’s Hit Points by Robin D. Laws, which Schoonover says changed the way he ran the pacing of the game.
It’s also good to have a couple of “secret rules” that you don’t tell the players. For example, Schoonover’s students occasionally ask him whether he’s going to kill off his characters. “And of course, the proper response to that question is just to raise your eyebrow and look mysterious,” he says in the video.
“But of course, I’m probably not going to kill their characters; my rule is essentially no player character death.” Unless a student really wants to move on to a new character, he doesn’t think it adds a lot of value to kill them off, particularly because his students become very emotionally invested in their characters.
He also tries to avoid putting players into situations where they end up becoming what he calls “murdery;” i.e., where they might leap to conclusions and start murdering things for the sake of murdering, particularly where it involves humanoids.
Schoonover started with just six students in the club — a number he admits he thought would be too many for him, the “Dungeon Master”, to manage on his own. But now, he has more than 20 students in the club, a problem he has solved by training a few of the more experienced students to be Dungeon Masters themselves. The students can write their own adventures or use pre-written adventures to lessen some of the pressure and time-commitment.
“You want to be the one providing those resources and not just leaving it on their shoulders to figure out,” he says.