How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love D&D (or, How I Unintentionally Brought Dungeons & Dragons to my Middle School)

Come with me on this journey of discovery and fun. This is a long one, but maybe you’ll get something out of it. Permit yourself to have a good time being a kid. It’ll end well.

– – –

At my school, teachers have many avenues to bring their passions to bear with students and with the community at large. One of those ways for us to share what we love is to run after-school activities for kids. When I joined the faculty, it was only a few months before I was searching for the thing I could share with students.

My first ideas were duds, probably. Actually, all of my ideas were duds. That happens sometimes. So I went to the audience directly and asked the kids. “Let’s play Diplomacy,” they said at first. (Diplomacy is a now-old, rarely played, Risk-on-steroids exploration of human interaction… and it’s a glorious game that I hope someday to use in GBL – but relatively very few play it.) I considered this suggestion. It appealed to the foreign-policy, armchair-negotiator geek in me. Not sustainable, though. How many kids are going to want to sit around playing a game that takes twice as long as the longest game they can think of playing and that requires seven players to run? Some would go for it – til the novelty wore off. Diplomacy Club? No.

The thought was broadened when I sat down with what became a focus group of kids and asked them to name every game they’d like to play but don’t have the chance to play. They named quite a few board games, citing a problem getting lots of kids together in groups to play games – play dates usually work well in the lower grades, but their luster is a bit worn by the time students become middle-school aged. I transcribed everything on the whiteboard in my classroom.

Board games, I thought. There are so many games – mostly but not exclusively released over the last dozen years or so – that go well beyond the games I grew up playing. They’re more engaging and more exciting than Monopoly or The Game of Life ever will be. Dice rolls don’t determine every outcome – that’s my big complaint about those older games.

Best I can tell, there are a few levels of game-playing grownup. (I should warn you that these categories are established almost exclusively from my own experience, which I will tell you right now I treat as 100% representative, fair or not.)

First, there are grownups who “play board games.” These Level-1 Gamers are grown people who will determine it’s in their best social interest to schedule a game night with their grownup friends. They’ll drink wine, eat cased meats or cheeses, and play Scattergories or – gasp! – Cards Against Humanity. Those nights are fun, and they always leave the house saying, “We should definitely do this again soon!” And they either do this monthly or do not host game night again. Probably not.

At Level 2, roommates or friends really do have regular game sessions. They’ll play Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride. Maybe Dominion. These are people with plenty of time on their hands (compared with where they’ll be in a few years), despite the fact that they’re probably in law school.

Level 3 adult gamers are beyond the pale for typically acceptable grownup behavior, but they’re my favorite category of grownup game players. These are folks who have regularly scheduled gaming groups and who have dedicated some portion of their lives (and probably their closets) to collecting one sort of game or another. These are grown people who will skip out on kids’ events to get together with their gaming group to play some of the same games Level 2 gamers play, but they’ll refer to their hobby as “tabletop gaming,” and here’s where things go beyond the casual player. These people will absolutely dedicate entire days to games like Diplomacy or tournaments of Dominion at their local gaming store. They’ll spend hundreds (or thousands) on miniature figures for their war games. They’ll play in a regularly scheduled Dungeons & Dragons play group.

If you’re detecting a hint of derision in my characterization of these levels of adult gamers, you’re not wrong. I’ve always struggled to come to terms with the cold facts of my nerddom. I was the aloof academic. I played Catan and Dominion with my graduate-school pals, but Dungeons & Dragons? No, sir. That was not for me. That was for dorks. (Cognitive dissonance is a magical power I’ve had for most of my life: I can maintain two completely contradictory views of myself simultaneously and rationalize the view that they’re not in tension. I was fully eleven years into higher education and still considered myself to be too cool to play a role-playing game.) There was more than a small part of me that was curious what some of my nerdier grad school friends were going on about when they described being involved in “three-year campaigns” in D&D, but I was not open to trying the game.

So, let’s get back to the student focus group. While we were sitting around having our “There are no bad ideas!” discussion with me playing scribe, at one point one of them said, “Dungeons & Dragons!” I breathed a sigh of relief and jotted it on the board.

I embraced this idea of playing D&D as I had with all of the other ideas, and I did so with no hesitation. I was getting permission to try something that I had been denying myself for years. I dove in.

Over the next two months (and again after another focus group), I learned what Dungeons & Dragons was, read a book about the game’s history, listened to a few dozen hours of live-play podcasts, watched an hour or two’s worth of videos about how to play the game and how to run the game… In short, I did what I do when I find a new thing, obsessive that I am.

And when I had built some hype among the student body and learned all I could about how to play the game, I chose a name for the group and went shopping. I picked up Memoir `44, of DiplomacySettlers of Catan, and I brought in one of my copies of Dominion from my very-full game closet. I was ready.

“Nerd Hour” began in the spring of 2018, and I was worried I’d only get five or six students, despite the fact that many kids had shown a lot of interest. As it turned out, two dozen kids signed up. I quickly realized that I would not be running any campaigns of D&D. I was destined be a manager of excited middle schoolers. My job would be like I imagine a casino’s maitre d (they have those, right?): ensure everyone is having a good time. Establish the culture of the place.

I considered the audience: these are mostly (but not entirely) kids who formerly hadn’t had anything to do after school. Many of them stayed after school in after-school care, but this was out of necessity. They had fun at our after-care program, but it wasn’t fun that was always on-brand for these particular kids. They’d rather be at home playing video games, mostly. This characterization isn’t true of all of them, but many of them didn’t really have a spot where they could play the games they wanted to play with other kids who wanted to play those same games. These were, largely, the “indoor kids.” Like me.

This is a place where meanness will not be tolerated, and conflict will be resolved aloud and peaceably. It’s every nerd’s job to make the other kids feel welcomed, to teach the other kids how to play the games they don’t yet know how to play, and to invite kids they haven’t yet played with to play a game. I was explicit and clear on my boundaries: this was a one-shot situation. If you bully any person even one time, you are not welcomed to play with us. We didn’t have any problems.

Now in its second year, Nerd Hour is still going strong. The kids have given me permission to love a game that I didn’t know I’d love. I am on month sixteen of a home-brewed campaign I run at a local bookshop. We play bi-monthly. I don’t own any mini-figures yet, but I do have a stack of D&D books and a special dice-carrying snap case for my collection of polyhedral dice. I’ve run two eight-hour campaigns to raise money for the school, and I think it’s helped me to give something back to the school that freed me to do something after school that would be so downright good for me and for the students. That charity game is the only game of the year I run for the students, and it’s a good way to give the kids a big Saturday event to attend together, to meet kids they wouldn’t otherwise hang with, to share their enthusiasm for games, and to be kind to one another.

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About Steve Capone

Interested in Domestic and Foreign Policy, Ethics, and Political Thought. One-time adjunct instructor and current full-time educator of small humans. Europhile, historophile, & bibliophile. M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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1 Response to How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love D&D (or, How I Unintentionally Brought Dungeons & Dragons to my Middle School)

  1. Pingback: Students Learning From Gaming | Mr. Capone on Teaching, Travel, and Games

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