That one time I played a TTRPG with 50 high schoolers
About five months ago, I was approached by a high school teacher who was teaching a January term course on recreation, and had heard about the work I was doing with teens. Intrigued, she asked me to come in as a guest speaker for her class. I immediately accepted, then she told me I would be doing a four hour session with 50 kids.
I can't remember my immediate reaction, but I seem to recall actually being more excited than anything, as this sort of thing wasn't like anything I had ever done before. Chiefly, it allowed for a really interesting experiment- I would be introducing a bunch of high schoolers to the magic of TTRPGs.
Thankfully, when all was said and done, the class went wonderfully, and I was able to get about half of the class playing. Here's how it went.
After she did a 10 minute long introduction to the class, I did my intro spiel on what Dungeons and Dragtons and other tabletop RPGs were, a brief review of the history, then how people played it. The most interesting aspects I found was that none of them were very familiar with Lord of the Rings, but everybody knew Harry Potter, so that became a helpful vector for explaining fantasy concepts.
Then came the fun part. I did a character creation exercise, where the kids came up with characters- this was a freeform exercise, where the kids would describe their character on paper, including what they wore, what their job was, and their history. Most of them ended up drawing them, which was pretty great- and then we had a brief show and tell, where the kids would come up and talk about their characters. They ran the gamut from super goofy to rather creative and inspired, but the kids were well into their element at that point.
Then, I did a brief lecture about how people played RPGs, and the recreational value of it- seeing as this is a class on understanding human recreation, asked the kids what sort of parallels of other types of recreation they saw here, and they identified that it seemed like make believe, a play, or any other tabletop game.
After that, it was time to actually play, so I gathered a handful of kids interested in test driving their characters, and did a brief 30 minute one shot with a stripped down minimalist RPG, while the rest of the class took notes. The plot was fairly basic- they had been hired to help out as TAs at a magic academy, and were given various challenges such as help an alchemy professor cope with her boyfriend dumping her (The most charismatic character asked her out on a date), a kid messing up his spell and floating into the air (they lost him), and a cat getting on top of the gruel vat (They lost a player to the gruel, but rescued the cat.) They had a wonderful time, and it was an absolute hit.
After that was over, we did a discussion on the different forms of recreation we saw there and then I went over some of the basics of how to run a game. Then, I let them form up and create their own groups.
This was where it became amazing. One group had 10 kids, one had 8, and one had five girls. The 10 kid group was run by a student who was actually a D&D DM, and he set his party on a wild goose chase trying to hunt down a vampire before the sun came back up. The second was an Indiana Jones-esque pulp adventure, where all the kids but one were killed by various traps in a jungle temple.
Most entertaining was the last, the girls group, which was by far the loudest. Their plot ended up with a convoluted love triangle where they all died- There was a hidden pregnancy, a sword decapitation, a doctor showing up and shooting someone on a rooftop, and a police shootout. They were so loud the next door teacher had to tell us to keep it down.
After that, I wrapped things up, and left- but it was definitely a wonderful experience, and the biggest surprise was how quickly the kids all jumped into it. Every single one of the kids built a character, and when it came time to play, about half of the class jumped in excitedly. There were enough DMs, which meant I got to sit in on one of the groups as a PC (the Indiana Jones style one) and I was impressed with the skill of the student running the group- he had never played D&D, yet he was comfortable telling his own story, and the kids were all engaged and having a great time. I was expecting the groups to lean towards white male kids, but interestingly enough, that wasn't the case- they matched the demographics of the class, which was roughly 40% PoC, with the gender split being roughly even. The kids didn't get stuck on anything with the rules either, (The game I used was of my own design, using D6s, with a 1 being a critical failure, a 2-3 being a normal failure, a 4-5 being successful, and a 6 being a critical) but that wasn't too unexpected, given how minimalist it was.
I'm hoping to do other classes like this in the future, and want others to take not of how successful this was. Right now, the world of TTRPGs (at least in gaming stores and conventions) is full of a lot of white, straight men, and this exercise showed me that 50% of teens will happily jump into a TTRPG, so we need to do a better job of introducing people to this hobby, and letting people know that these games are for everyone.