This is the first of what likely will be many more posts on my musings while being the adult “Grandmaster” of a successful middle-school Pathfinder RPG club (now 18 students strong!) that the kids and I affectionately call “The Guild.” These posts likely will interest others who are introducing tabletop RPGs to young people. Read, comment, and enjoy!
I was inspired to start writing about my middle-school Pathfinder RPG club by posters at the Paizo forums who wanted to know how I managed to make it succeed. It would seem that a good place to start is how I was able to find the group’s members. But first it behooves me to give a little background as to how I got in this insanely lucky predicament in the first place.
I am a lawyer. My other job is teaching kids to play tabletop roleplaying games.
The kind of law I do does not pay the bills. Literally. I know of others who are buried in law-school debt and who work for nonprofits, but I differ from them in that I work for a civil rights organization that is highly rewarding, but where I often do not get paid at all.
Enter the Berkeley Unified School District. They have an excellent afterschool enrichment program that pays members of the community to engage kids in rewarding activities of all kinds (sports, music, art, etc.). It is funded by a combination of California’s state-afterschool-programs fund and the contribution of parents who participate in the program. Although the program offers a sliding scale for low-income parents, the relatively affluent and liberal community of Berkeley is able to contribute a good deal and is highly supportive of educational programs that foster young people’s inherent leadership ability and imagination.
(And so I am afraid that my first key to success was to be Pretty Damn Lucky. Not helpful to others, maybe, but perhaps it can be inspiration for you to get your school or district to establish something of its own.)
O, Woe Is Me.
In the meantime, I had hardly played tabletop RPGs my entire life. Another topic for another day, but suffice it for now to say that I got the original D&D Red Box in 1986 when I was nine years old, read it enthusiastically, collected other D&D and AD&D books, but failed at convincing my sister to play it with me. Not sensing interest among by childhood contemporaries (with whom I instead shared my enthusiasm for Nintendo and computer games), my momentary obsession about the hobby languished. My interest in RPGs generally found a place in computer RPGs, but I had always been interested in the more personal, creative, spontaneous, and unpredictable medium that is tabletop roleplaying.
Three years ago, I caught the bug and started trying to “convert” many of my friends in my civil rights group to join me, much to their amusement. While I found some fellow enthusiasts, the reality of our hectic schedules and my obligations to serve the real-life greater good — which also involved touring high schools and speaking to young people to believe in their talents and become active in the fight for social justice — made forming a regular gaming group impossible. To make things worse, personal circumstances forced me to move back to the San Francisco Bay Area away from the gaming group I had cobbled together.
Okay, so like I was saying — my aforementioned poverty. I lamented my condition before a good friend.
“Why don’t you approach the school and teach that monsters-and-dragons game of yours to the kids?” she said.
The idea struck me like a bolt of lightning. All my diverging interests — inspiring young people, tabletop roleplaying games, eating — found a shared outlet. The scattered and turbulent tributaries that were my life flowed into a wide river of Making Sense.
Founding the Guild
Kids, once inspired, are unstoppable. However, for a club to thrive in a school setting, one must first get approval (explicit or tacit) from the relevant school and parental authorities.
The idea for the club/class was an easy sell to the director of the afterschool program. (Here is my proposal — feel free to copy or adapt it for your own purposes… I myself copied much of it from another poster on the Paizo forums!) I emphasized the imagination and mathematics involved in the game, that it would stimulate interest in fantasy literature, that some students would learn leadership by being Game Masters, and that I would incorporate an XP system in the class by which students would be rewarded for creative projects.
He was enthusiastic immediately, and even contributed program money and approved the supplies budget I had prepared: 3 Pathfinder Beginner Boxes, a Pound O’ Dice, Bestiary Pawns, battlemats, and some money for copies (some copies would be done directly by the district).
The school then distributed a “course catalog” of sorts to all the parents whose children were paying into the afterschool program.
The majority of kids who participate are sixth graders, who are engrossed in the challenge of adjusting to a new school and finding circles of friends, who have not yet found their own afterschool activities, and whose parents need to occupy for one to three more hours after school. For a child to participate, his or her parent must sign up for the class.
Keeping all the above in mind, I wrote the following description for the class:
Tabletop Roleplaying Games
Do you love tales of heroic fantasy like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings? Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (similar to D&D) lets you create your own hero and enter perilous worlds fraught with monsters and magic. What better way to make friends than to cooperate to escape a trap-filled dungeon, or foil the evil wizard’s elaborate plan? Roll dice, fight monsters—play out your own thrilling story. Ambitious students can be “game masters,” crafting the worlds and devious traps and villains the heroes have to overcome. You’ll be having too much fun to realize you’re learning creativity, logic, problem-solving, probability, and teamwork. Join “The Guild” today!
As D-Day approached, I was told enthusiastically by the afterschool program coordinators that there was great interest in the program. (When I pitched the class to the director, I was actually asked if I could handle a class size of over twenty students.) And so I braced myself for that first day, with a detailed lesson plan — complete with PowerPoint presentation — to introduce a gaggle of kids to the wonderful world of fantasy roleplaying.
What I got instead on that first day was a small group of six boys, almost all of whom had had previous experience with tabletop RPGs. Two of them had been exposed to the Pathfinder Beginner Box over the summer. One of them said he had GMed before, and shot off names of other tabletop RPGs I had never even heard of. I quickly abandoned my elaborate lesson plan that had created for an entirely different audience.
And so goes the first Plot Twist of my tale: what I had done did not grab the dozens of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fans, or Skyrim fans that I knew were out there in the school. I had a very self-selected group of students who already had had an interest in the tabletop RPG hobby, and whose interest very likely had already been known by (if not enthusiastically fostered) by their parents. And — like it or not — tabletop RPGs were and continue to be perceived as a niche hobby.
But I would not be satisfied until our Guild grew and engulfed the school (and heck the entire young generation!) with TABLETOP MANIA!
Or at least that’s how I played it out in my head.
What has happened, instead, has not exactly been Pathfindermonium. But it HAS been quite successful. I will try to share what I have learned in future articles.
Stay tuned and follow my “Grandmaster’s Guide” articles! I will post on whatever inspires me, which will range from general topics (e.g., middle-school students vs. high-school students) to lessons I learned from specific experiences (such as that First Day!). Also, more surprises are to come, such as having to deal with mature topics. It amuses me, reading my original postings on the Paizo thread that gave birth to this series of articles, that I had a VERY different idea of how the class would play out, from what eventually would evolve out of the unpredictable insanity that would follow.