Good morning, Cougars! Do you like Stranger Things? Are you brave enough
to face a demogorgon? Then come join the new D&D club with Mr. Olvera
in room 502 today from 3 to 4pm! No experience is necessary and snacks
will be provided.
Last month, I approached the principal of the middle school where I work with a request: to set up a D&D afterschool club. They jumped at the chance, though mistakenly conflated tabletop gaming and video gaming, but hey, I still got my club.
Flash forward to this Wednesday. I’d been nervous about it all day. Hell, all week. I work as a special needs paraprofessional, so even though I'm going to school to be a teacher, I don’t have much experience instructing middle schoolers. My time at work is spent one-on-one with one of a few children to whom I am assigned, not dealing with an entire classroom. Still, I thought, what’s the worst that can happen? It’ll be, what, ten kids? And that’s where I was wrong.
As I came up to the door of the classroom where I was hosting my club, I saw a flock of students. Truly, a gaggle. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There had to be over twenty, and there were! The total came out to 24 students and, true to nerd-fashion, they applauded as I arrived. It was over the top and cheesy, but they were excited and I was excited for them.
When we got into the classroom, I took count. A whopping four of the 24 students had played Dungeons and Dragons before. To be fair, that was four more than I expected but with a group this big I was going to need a kid or two to DM alongside me after this session (which I’ll get to later). I’m not currently running the club with anyone else.
So there I was, standing at the front of a classroom full of kids, who’d mostly never played D&D in their lives, with only my wits and a 2 ½ -inch binder full of character sheets, maps, and my adventure. Surprisingly, I think pretty much all of them left with some idea of how to play the game. There is no tried and true way, but as someone who has had to teach several groups of entirely brand-new players, I have plenty of experience with what works and what doesn’t.
If you’re wondering how to get a group of players up to speed in a quick manner, here’s what I did:
1.) Give them some time with a character sheet.
I wasn’t about to break down a character sheet. There is so much content on it that I would either 1. Bore them to death or 2. Run out of time. I had an hour to teach them, so I passed out the ten pregenerated character sheets I’d printed out (which were two sets of the five pregens from the 5e Starter Kit). I gave them a few minutes to group up and just look it over while I passed the sheets and other supplies out. There isn’t a single one of them who hadn’t played a video game of sorts, so the idea of abilities and statistics weren’t foreign to them.
2.) Get them familiar with rolling the dice and adding the modifiers.
Next, I set the scene. I described a basic D&D-esque setting with a man ready to test their mettle. He’s wizened and aging, but still has his wits about him. He's been their mentor for quite some time and now it is time for them to prove themselves and head out on their own.
This brief description was enough for the students to get giddy at the idea of listening to a scene being narrated, and now they have a basis for what my role as the DM is. To set up the story. But now this veteran demands they prove themselves. Like calling on them to read in class, I call on several students to take a turn attacking and, afterwards, getting attacked. I don’t have time to do it for every single one of the kids, but I choose one kid from each huddle so that the rest around them can see what the player is doing and how he is figuring out how to attack and what stats to check when getting attacked.
For a kicker, I encouraged them to describe their attacks, giving out Inspiration points for any amount of effort they put into it, making sure to stress that they could be as brief or elaborate, as serious or silly, as they wanted. It’s about playing a game, not emulating Lord of the Rings (plus, I prefer my games to be more like Monty Python and the Holy Grail than LotR).
3.) Now that they understand attacking, it’s time for ability rolls.
Attacking is probably one of the easier things to figure out. A sheet has one or two weapons but ability rolls might be a bit more intimidating initially. There are a lot, after all! I also took this chance to let them know that they can make these rolls at any time, not just when the DM prompts them. This is something that every player struggles with. The mindset of being prompted is so ingrained in us from video games that we don’t think to do things on our own until we more experienced (and even still, seasoned players might forget to make that insight or perception check).
For this, their mentor tries to play it cool, acting like they didn’t impress him. I prompt them all to make an Insight check and the dice go clattering everywhere. Dice go flying off tables, kids are going wild. It’s chaos and in that moment I wonder why I did this to myself.
When things settle down, I tell them to find Insight on the character sheet and point to it. Most find it and those that don’t get it pointed out by those around them, and I start calling for roll numbers. A couple of kids even start asking about adding modifiers to their checks due to class features! There’s some head scratching but it doesn’t take long to explain the concept of features; like I said, they’ve played video games before.
4.) Wrapping up
Now, it’s five ‘til and they have to go at four. I feel like I haven’t done enough but I ask them if they feel comfortable with the sheet. Everyone raises their hand and several ask if they’re gonna get to kill something next week, which only causes an uproar of bloodthirsty preteens ready to kill some goblins. Lucky for them, I’ll be running “Lost Mines of Phandelver” and the first quest is a goblin cave.
The last thing I do before dismissing them (aside from asking them to tidy up and put things away) is for anyone who feels comfortable DM-ing to stay behind and talk to me. The rest leave and I’m left with two kids. One, a quiet, tiny kid with thick glasses, and the other a lanky boy who towers over the other.
“You think you can run a dungeon?” I ask them, and they both nod fervently, still hesitant to speak. “I know I’m asking a lot from you with this, but I just can’t do this by myself. Do you think you can get in front of a group and DM?” I’m weary, I’ll admit here, but don’t let them know.
Glasses nods again, with a meek, “Yeah, I really do!”
The other hesitates, then says, “You know, I’m normally quiet, but here...it’s just a bunch of nerds. I can be myself. I think I’ve got this.” I’m taken aback and now I remember: that’s why I’m doing this. Yeah, it’s loud. Yeah, it’s overwhelming, Yeah, I’m probably going to lose a lot of my dice before the school finally gets the dice they ordered for my club but I know now I can’t let that stop me, because we’re nerds, and here we can be ourselves. And that’s all that matters.
So, yes, teaching people how to play the game is cool and all, but if you’re going to set up a D&D club or even if you’re just getting a group of friends together, what is most important is to create a space of belonging. A place where nerds can be nerds.
Andrew Olvera (he/him) lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he works as a teacher for students with special needs. He is the co-founder of Lazy Adventurer Publishing and heads both press's magazines, Prismatica Magazine and Collective Realms Magazine as Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. His work can be found in the two magazines as well as Selcouth Station Press and Theta Wave Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @AndrewTOlvera