RPGs With Kids ... Where Do We Start?
The first in a How To series about after school DnD with middle school students.
Lesson #1 - S’Killin’ It.
I am delighted to announce that our Heroes’ Hall afterschool DnD Club is restarting in October after a 1.5 year hiatus. The folks of the Student DM’s Guild are busy imagining fantastical scenarios for their tables, learning about how to be leaders, reviewing the rules of the game and learning all about lines and veils. The creativity is flowing and we can’t wait to get started.The air is full of excitement and questions. We’re ready to chew our own arms off in anticipation!
But what do we actually DO on the first day of Heroes’ Hall? How do we start teaching new players the game?
At Heroes’ Hall, we have found that we need to get kids busy, laughing and thinking ASAP. We lose players when they feel overwhelmed or gate kept, or if it takes too long to start playing. That being said, there is a learning curve to playing an RPG like DnD, especially if you have never played one before. There is SO MUCH to learn.
The biggest bang for the buck on that first day is learning all about skill checks. It is something that players can learn easily, is intuitive and fun to act out. You may recall that the six DnD stats are - strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma. It is easy to relate these to the students’ own lives. Everyone knows someone who is street smart, or charismatic but weak, or is a work horse but isn’t very bright. You could even show some different pictures of fictional pop culture characters - Sponge Bob, Gandalf, Thanatos, Dora the Explorer, etc. and have them think about which stats would be highest for them.
Once you have established what the stats mean, I like to hand out pregenerated character sheets to look at. You can quickly make many permutations at www.fastcharacter.com and let the students pick whoever they want. They imagine their chosen character is going to jump over a puddle. This is where we break out the D20s. I explain to get over the puddle without ruining their white socks, they will have to roll at least a 12. Everyone gets a chance to do so. Then, we look at their dexterity bonus and add or subtract that. Typically, there are at least some students where the dex bonus makes the difference, but you can always manufacture that if needed. Students love to hear about how some characters end up face first in the mud!
The next thing we do is imagine a town guard blocking an archway into the castle. The players often like to name him. I’ll call him Doof. We brainstorm all the different ways you might get by poor Doof. They’ll quickly range from homicidal to very silly, to lusty to ridiculous. If the variety of answers isn’t as robust as you would like, students can look at their character’s equipment list for inspiration. Feel free to add in your own suggestions - convincing Doof he won an award and has to get it, getting a local horse to panic and run around, releasing a flock of pigeons, twerking, the possibilities are endless!
Students should look at their stats and choose 1-3 of the methods to get by Doof that are most likely to work for their chosen character. Then we try it out. Depending on the size of the group, I often let each person report what they would do and roll with the appropriate bonus. Then I will describe what happens. They like succeeding, but they LOVE the epic fails just as much!
The Epic Tale of Surpassing Doof is a great way to show students there are lots of different ways to solve problems, practice finding stat bonuses, roll dice and begin to do the roleplay we need for successful tables. You can do the same with getting an ice cream, getting a cat out of a tree, asking someone on a date, etc. Any open ended scenario will do. If the group is large, having drawing paper so that students can sketch their character, as described on the character sheet, is a good way to encourage close reading and keep waiting players occupied.
Players leave their first day with a character sheet in hand, which they are beginning to understand, and possibly a visual representation of the character. In fact, if the DMs are onboard, they could even do a small scene/task in character in groups to get the flow of gameplay. Either way, they will have a fun story to tell over dinner that night.
We love skills checks as an introduction to DnD because it is fun, accessible, creative and silly. It gets students rolling dice and interpreting the character sheets within minutes of their arrival to the group. They feel like they rolled at nat 20 on performance, and gained +2 in wisdom. Skill checks are a great way to set the tone and have some fun.
Here is a neat panel of adult DMs that work with students, and a lot of pro tips from them. Check it out : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6-0POlo_Tc&t=9042s
There are some great videos on this Youtube Channel about all sorts of dnd related topics, including how to get started. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoW2CDgztKY
The best short adventure for teaching DnD that I have ever come across: The Laureate Trials by Monique Franzsen.
If you’d like to know more about Heroes’ Hall and how it is run, check out https://www.culliopescauldron.com/heroes-hall or shoot me a tweet @Culliope or @CauldronofCulli.