Locked Down and Distanced

Red Dead Redemption 2 – Saint Denis

Writing this post feels a little bit like unfurling my wings after being in a cage that was slightly too small. My physical situation hasn’t changed much, but my mindset has been adjusted. This is Week 2 of a much deserved summer holiday and now I feel as if I can start to decompress and focus on actually relaxing!

We started lockdown for Covid 19 here on March 17th, 134 days ago. Since that day, I have been into work 4 days, socialised with friends 4 times, been out to the physical shops 2 or 3 times, and been out to the local park. For the rest of it, I’ve been inside. As someone who is introverted with indoor hobbies, this wouldn’t normally be much different from the regular plan, yeah? As it turns out, it’s quite hard to relax with a global pandemic, protests and the pressure of unplanned working from home.

I’m a primary school teacher, so converting what I do into an online format was tricky, but not impossible. I do maintain, though, that what I was teaching was emergency distanced learning, not proper online schooling. Even though I consider myself very tech savvy, I had no experience in recording lessons for the format we now had to work in. My colleagues and I had no Easter holidays, as we were urgently trying to convert our existing material into the online format, or even just straight-up rewriting curriculum from scratch to adjust to the ever-changing guidelines. I admit to sending one or two frustrated emails to our tech lead during this time, as I (what felt like) endlessly re-recorded lessons as the tech (or the user?) failed again and again. I am very grateful to have had my personal desktop to work from, as well as a work iPad to test material on.

The number one thing that I found hard about emergency remote teaching was communication and connection. In the before times, I would work at school alongside other teachers all day. We would discuss news and plans, compare notes and schedules, and figure out how things were running in our busy school. In this way, the regular work grumbles could be mitigated, by finding out how colleagues would be dealing with a problem, and the issue would often resolve by finding out more information. Remotely, I felt as if I was annoying people by asking for clarity (though I admit this is most likely my own perception, not the reality!), and often felt quite alone in the grand mechanisms of school. Despite regular work emails, I felt information-starved and anxious because a more detailed plan could not, due to the situation, be laid out. Luckily, I had a great support network in the form of my department and other work friends, even though it was via my phone and not in person.

Red Dead Redemption 2- Lannahechee River

Things that got me through:

  • Great British Bake Off: Professionals – thank you Channel 4 for having this lined up
  • Hamilton – so great to watch it up close!
  • Life on Mars – one of my favourite tropes is time travel/alternate realities, so I really enjoyed this quirky cop procedural
  • There was a new Queer Eye Season, that I binged so hard I can barely remember it.
  • Indulging myself by buying new lounge/pajamas early on was definitely one of the best decisions I made!
  • Joe Wicks helped me try some exercise, replaced by the super Ring Fit Adventure. Fitness is not usually my focus, but Ring Fit is the most fun I’ve ever had while exercising.
  • Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. I didn’t think I was an ice-cream person until lockdown. Wow.
  • FINALLY started therapy again, it’s early days but I wanted to put it out there.
  • Video Games! Red Dead Redemption 2 was an amazing experience. I’ve put a heck of a lot of time into Rimworld, Hitman 2 and Skyrim, as well as fooled around with some great games from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality.
Red Dead Redemption 2 – Braithwaite Manor

Letting go of extra.

Regretably, my RPG work with children became extra. With the added pressure that online school put on me, as well as them, I found that it was just too hard to maintain the work required to keep sustained interest in the club. The status of the club, itself, became ambigious, we certainly were not required to keep clubs alive during remote, no other clubs were running and club registration had not happened during lockdown. Regardless, I floated a few ideas to keep the RPG club children engaged during the online term time, listed here in the most effective in terms of student-engagement:

  • Online narrative RP in a shared Google Doc
  • Recorded choose-your-own-adventure stories, where children voted to make decisions
  • Discussion about RPG topics in Google Classroom

A good handful of kids engaged well with the narrative RP, it was closest to what they were familiar with (regular face-to-face D&D). I found it too hard to maintain on the hectic work schedule, so dialed it down. I did hear that a few kids have been playing D&D online via Zoom, which made my heart happy.

I had planned out an online RPG summer camp offering, with even a mocked-up timetable and pitch website, but let that go quietly as well. It was just using up too many spoons of energy to grow, and in hindsight I’m glad I was able to let it go before I did pitch it to management. Although the kids would have loved it, and I know I would have got enough parents buying in, I would have had to be working flat out during this holiday time. It felt quite selfish to put my own needs ahead of the RPG work, as I have been working so hard to establish the club at this school and had been bigger than ever prior to lockdown, but I genuinely could not maintain it with the right level of enthusiasm.

When I was approached by school for club offerings for September 2020, I regretably did not offer Quest Club. I did get a few sad emails from parents and children checking why it was not on the club list. As things stand, I cannot see regular school returning to normal by September, and even if it is, we will be in a new state of worry and work as we try to adjust to the new normal. Even without Covid, my school plans to trial a drastically adjusted timetable next year and, while I think it’s a good change, the shape of the day will be quite different. Additionally, the other member of staff who was involved in Quest Club has now left the school, so I would have to re-adjust how the structure of the club runs.

I felt really torn and uneasy about not continuing to offer the club, but I hope to take the term off as a chance to charge my own batteries a bit more, and then come back January 2021 with the RPG club back on the table. I might be able to bring a new system, and see if I can wean the kids off of D&D!

Red Dead Redemption 2 – Clemens Point

Top Tips on D&D in a Club Setting

Most recently inspired by a question by Ethan Gilsdorf which prompted a fantastic thread of discussion, as well as Erisaurus’s thread here, this is my own general top tips and advice on running RPGs in an after-school club setting:

A map from our latest after-school D&D game.

Pre-generated characters: Save time by having a bunch of pre-generated characters available for your players to chose from. Don’t be afraid to limit options – there is a reason that the D&D Basic Rules only covers the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard. Your new players can wait until they are more confident until they try a more complicated class, don’t overwhelm them with choices straight out of the gate. I collect a large folder of level 1 pre-gens for this reason. If someone shows up without a character, whip out the pre-gen folder and let them play a fighter for today.

Teach only the basics: On Day 1, I have a brief slideshow which I use to go through the following points.

  • We make up heroes and go on adventures in a story
  • Different heroes are stronger or weaker at different skills
  • The DM tells the story and plays the other people
  • When we do something risky, we roll dice and add special numbers
  • The dice is usually a d20 but other dice used sometimes

Everything else they learn on the fly, with more experienced players helping out the newer ones.

Let your players add their own flavour: Leave space for players to invent a character name, appearance, and personality (traits, ideals, bonds and flaws). You can provide a list of names to spark their creativity, if you’d like. This allows even new players to feel an attachment and ownership over their pre-generated character.

Pacing: This is the primary constraint for my club. When working with a group, you are always going to need time to set up and pack away, especially if you are coming straight from the end of a school day. Most clubs are restricted to a set amount of time, not a few hours as a group of adults might have. Due to this, a one-shot module could last several club sessions. Have realistic expectations for what you expect to cover in a session, your group might not be ready for a full campaign adventure.

Be the Judge: As time is precious, don’t be afraid to make a rules judgement on the spot. I tend to make a call and then, if the player wants to check the rules, they can do that in their downtime. Often, the kids just want to play and don’t mind a bit of rules fudging. If I find out that a mistake was made, I retcon or, more rarely, award inspiration to the player if they feel like compensation is needed.

Using your (human) resources: Some kids might become hooked. You can identify these ones by them showing up at the table with their own dice, by cornering you at non-club times to talk about games, and by the fanatical gleam in their eye. If you have cultivated these kinds of players – use them! Use their willingness and train them up as assistant DMs. I let children track and run initative order, look up spells, help others with their character sheets, declare party decisions, draw the maps, keep notes… the list goes on.

Speed up combat: Combat in D&D can already take an age. Get a helper to run initative to keep it moving quickly. Encourage players to think about their turn before it happens so they know what they want to do. Use a timer if you feel it helps your group. I am considering running combat initiative in groups of players/enemies to see if this makes it faster. Expect a combat to last a whole club session, depending on the time you have. If the group aren’t enthusiastic about a combat, end it by the losing side surrendering or running away – enemies would fight to the death.

Encourage them: If your players are showing an interest in a particular element of D&D, embrace it. Provide ‘homework’ for those that want more, I have used Google Classroom to post after-game discussion topics and for players to ask questions. Let them write up character backstories or crunch numbers to create new characters. D&D Beyond has made character creation very assessible to kids, even 9 or 10 year olds.

How to Start a School RPG Club

This is a writeup of my first few months of running Quest Club at my school. I hope this post serves as a guide for other teachers and adults who want to implement a roleplaying games club. I also hope it helps people avoid making the same mistakes that I did in the process! There is nothing like sharing your passion with kids and teaching them one of the best ways to explore a story, not to mention that a club setting is so vital for certain children.

Quest Club is the school name for an after-school roleplaying club that I started in 2019, aimed at children in older classes in my primary school: ages 9 – 13. I’ve run roleplaying clubs before at previous schools with a younger age bracket, using Hero Kids (which is brilliant), but this is the first time I have aimed Dungeons & Dragons at kids. I could write a whole other post about why I chose D&D, but that’s for another day.

Round 1: Critical Failure

Firstly, I want to be honest and tell you that my first try at starting a roleplaying club at this school failed. Here’s why:

  • I signed up to run a roleplaying club within the school’s existing after-school club system, and called it ‘Roleplaying Club’.
  • I didn’t reach out to any children about the idea or promote the club concept in any way.
  • I found out that the parents mostly sign their kids up for clubs without consulting their kids The children didn’t know about it, so didn’t bring the message home – the parents weren’t aware, so they just skipped it.

A few weeks later, the club co-ordinator came by and told me that zero children had signed up for my club. It was frustrating, but I learned a massive amount about how to approach it the next time. I gave myself a term off to work on how I was going to draw these children in to the idea of RPGs.

Round 2: Critical Success

When I tried again, I launched the idea of Quest Club way before the term even started. I approached Twitter. I learned a bunch from Scriv the Bard, Ethan Schoonover, Detentions & Dragons, HHS Librarians and Rich Oxenham. I was incredibly grateful to the community, who chatted to me, sent me resources and promoted my attempts!

Here are some of the strategies I tried:

  • I deliberately picked a catchy name that would appeal to parents and kids, and that sounded inviting/fun.
  • I designed and put up some posters and blurbs advertising the club and Dungeons & Dragons.
  • I spoke about my club idea with colleagues, and specifically asked them for children that might be suitable. This helped me reach children in year groups I don’t teach.
  • I approached specific children that I thought might be attracted to the idea.
  • I held improvised chat sessions at break-times, where I showed interested kids the dice, some D&D books and pitched my heart out.
  • I handed out flyers to take home to parents, explaining the concept of the club and targeted kids who enjoy video games, writing and fantasy readers in my marketing.

I signed up on the school’s system with the name Quest Club, having laid the groundwork better this time. I requested a maximum of 12 children, hoping that we would end up with a ‘big’ group of ‘only’ 6 to start the club. What happened was that the club co-ordinator contacted me, this time saying that the club was full, forwarding emails from parents asking for more spaces in the club, to be put on a waiting list, for a second session to get their child a chance to play. In the end, I agreed to running two afternoons in order to give more children an opportunity to join.

I was elated that the club was so popular this time around, but immediately daunted by the large group sizes, compared to the stereotypical RPG group of 4-6 players. I can write more about large kid groups, which is always a challenge, but I’ve already signed myself up for a group of 10 when school starts again in September.

The first round of Quest Club ran from April – July, with 7 attending on Mondays and 11 on Tuesdays after school. Attendance fluxuated slightly at the end as it was the end of the school year, so many children were on school trips. We had a great time, and I am super proud of the fact that 18 children have been introduced to Dungeons & Dragons. Some are definitely hooked, some maybe not, but I’m happy that I have been able to share such a beneficial hobby that I love with them.

Resources

When I was starting out this time around, I would have loved a collated list of resources to give me inspiration for organising my club plans. Here’s a small list of things that I found helpful in the actual setting up of the club or more generally giving me motivation to run with children. Please contact me and share more!