People are often fascinated to hear we have a 65+ participant middle school DnD Club. In many ways it is both harder and much easier than you might think. The most important thing to keep in mind, as always, is that we are all here to have fun and empower the participants to be able to play RPGs in a healthy table setting on their own. Our Heroes’ Hall is currently divided into nine tables, eight of which are run by student peers and one of which is run by an adult volunteer. How can I, as the beneficent adult overlord, both create the culture that I want in my club, and yet empower kids to do what they see fit? How do we make it fun and keep the fun going? Here are our three pillars.
The first important thing we do is communicate constantly. We embed our table norms in all of the things we do as a club. We review them at the start of every session, and talk about what they look like with the DMs in our Dungeon Masters’ Guild meetings. A big part of what we do in DM’s Guild is brainstorming and roleplaying how to deal with concerns DMs bring up about their tables. It’s a crash course in peer leadership and how to be authoritative without being authoritarian. We celebrate successes and acknowledge missteps. We’re all in it together!
Middle schoolers tell you a lot by their behavior. Most of the time when they misbehave, it is some kind of clue about their internal life. This goes for players and DMs, alike. I have to be a detective to figure out how to best communicate with the DMs and players, by asking questions and not making assumptions. One DM had started skipping DM’s Guild to go to PE class. By following up with him, I was able to discover that he did not really understand how combat magic worked, and was feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being a Dungeon Master. Another table was exceptionally wiggly and unfocused one week. By doing a little investigating, I was able to discover that their DM was unprepared and their behavior was in response to the lack of purpose.
My other job is being a combination of peacemaker and bad cop who comes in and supports my DMs. Each week I check in with every DM and make sure that they are feeling like their tables are supportive and engaged. When there is a player who seems to have a different agenda than the group, or is just being extremely oppositional and chaotic, I am there to be The Heavy. I will often talk to those players outside of Heroes’ Hall time and figure out what is going on. I will remind players of our norms and help them understand what they are doing that is violating those norms. Occasionally I do invite players to leave Heroes’ Hall. It doesn’t happen very often. But our norms are ironclad, and if they cannot be followed by a player, then that player must find a different group to play with.
If the entire table seems to have different agendas, sometimes that means I need to reestablish norms, find out what players want out of the game, or reshuffle the tables a little bit to help groups that have similar goals come together. The DMs and players both are more willing to take risks to be vulnerable and grow if they know I have their backs. They are still really young and all of this is new learning well beyond how many spell slots someone has left!
Lastly, we make time for traditions. Beyond game play, and the bonding that comes from the shared fictional history and inside jokes of being at the same RPG table, I want this entire group to feel like they are in it together. To this end, we have a Diceing Ceremony where DMs give a d20 to each one of their players when they complete their first adventure. We have Epic Storytelling, when someone can recount an amazing tale someone else did at their table to an audience. And we have parties.
We love to party as much as we like to adventure! Our Darkest Night Party is our winter solstice extravaganza. We break up into adventuring parties and have different activities. One station is eating D20 shaped waffles with toppings. ( I couldn’t find our amazing waffle makers for sale anymore, but here is a link to a fun adventurer mini waffle maker!) The second station is learning how to boffer style LARP fight with some local LARPers and friends of the club. The last station is a cakewalk style game to win DnD/Fantasy type door prizes. At the end of the year, we will have a Longest Day party to celebrate the end of the year, the graduation of our 8th grade players and a great year of adventuring.
Although this is what we do specifically for our DnD group, this is generally the rule of thumb I use for all the groups I help run, or participate in. Communication, Support, Celebration. Having clearly established norms, goals and expectations help everyone start out on the same page. Frequent conversation and communication allows us to catch potential problems early and head them off. Supporting my developing leaders and their followers allows me to delegate responsibility to them, but also take some of the pressures of leadership off of them as they learn to navigate peer relationships. And lastly, taking the time to celebrate and create traditions allows us to step back and make different kinds of fun memories together.
I’d love to hear other ways that clubs communicate, celebrate and solve problems. The more we can help these young players learn to have a healthy table, the more they’ll be able to go out into the big world and adventure successfully on their own.