Monday, February 25, 2013

D&D With Middle Schoolers

Not as exciting as certain other "D&D With..." projects, but a lot less likely to create Internet uproar. Also, less likely to win me hundreds of followers, but with lesser risk comes lesser rewards. Also, I don't spend all day hanging out with pornstars.

So, I have decided to start a D&D game for some of the kids I teach. I figure this is as good a place as any to write about how it goes, and heck - we may all learn something from the experience.

Now, I hardly need to note this, given my readership, but I'm going to do it anyway. I think D&D has the potential to teach these - or, in fact, any - kids a lot. We've got social skills (following rules, taking turns, cooperating towards a mutual goal), math, storytelling, reading, writing, and critical thinking. We've got the opportunity for me to build closer relationships with some of my students. We've got a chance for me to teach all this in an environment where I only have to deal with kids who have already bought in to the setting. And we've got a chance to let off steam by killing gribbly critters - a therapeutic practice entirely on its own.

Let's start by talking about the basic premises, assumptions, and foundational choices made by myself and my players.

I know that this is going to be a controversial decision, but I decided to go with 4th Edition D&D. Specifically, I decided to go with Essentials. Why? Three reasons.

Firstly, 4th Edition D&D does an extremely good job of maximizing the fun factor. In my experience, there is always something fun a character to do, no matter what. This is intrinsically true of the fight scenes, but the free-wheeling, lightly detailed fantasy setting makes it easier for a clever DM (yours, truly) to ensure the same for the non-combat scenes as well.

3rd Edition and even 3.5 don't do nearly as good a job of maximizing fun. The attempt at a coherent system - in which things like magic and theurgy are treated as exceptions - creates a situation in which characters are frequently left with nothing to do. Cast all your spells? Bring a sword to a mage fight? Hopefully you brought a book. Sure, it's a consistent and flavorful nod to D&D's Vancian roots, but is it fun? I'm told that Pathfinder fixes some of these problems - of course, I've been told by Pathfinder fans that it's the best thing since sliced kobolds, and will also fix your receding hairline and relationship with your mother-in-law - but I don't already own Pathfinder. And I'm somewhat cynical about those claims, as I'm sure you've inferred.

Secondly, Essentials takes this one step further, and simplifies it as well. By reducing the number of powers the average character needs to juggle, making sure that low-level powers remain relevant throughout the game's progression, and making sure the powers are straightforward and flavorful, Essentials makes D&D much more accessible, and not just to middle schoolers.

Finally, I am a busy man. There is a huge wealth of material available for 4th Edition D&D. I can run my kids through Keep on the Shadowfell, then use the Cairn of the Winter King, then see what the kids are into. Whatever they want to do - take on zombies, fight pirates, explore caves - I can find a module that will let me do it with minimal work on my part.

And isn't that what we all want? To fight zombies with minimal work on my part?

Regarding the kids, I have four of them, with a possible fifth and sixth joining in if they can get their shit together to come in and make characters. I'm going to go ahead and use the kids' first names, but not last names. I'm not actually under any confidentiality agreement, and I really don't think that anyone is going to try - or be particularly enabled - to kidnap a kid because they know is name is "Cameron" and he plays D&D.


My four players are two girls (Jada and Cassandra) and two boys (Ismael and Abdiel). Despite my best efforts, my two girls are both playing sneaky/support characters (thief and warpriest, respectively) and my two boys are playing in-your-face fighter types (knight and slayer, respectively). It took only minimal nudging, but I managed to convince the kids to play a pretty balanced party: so far, we have two melee strikers, one defender, and one leader. If I get another two players, I will nudge them towards the controller and ranged striker roles. I find that the average party really only needs one defender.

That said, the system really is flexible enough that the kids can play whatever they like. Once a party has the basics - one leader, one defender, one striker - everything else is gravy.

Now that characters are made, we will have our first proper session on Thursday, I believe. Possibly not. I may have a meeting. I can't be bothered to check my calendar right now. Either way, I'm excited, and there's more to come soon!


Tavis said...

How long are your play sessions? We started out using a further-boiled-down Essentials-type approach to 4E in my afterschool class for kids 8-12, but because the class was only 80 minutes long the at-will/encounter/daily power structure didn't work for us, there just wasn't enough time for the number of combat rounds per week that would make it meaningful.

Mark Stone said...

I'm going to get to play for about 75 to 90 minutes a week. However, I think it can work - D&D Encounters works with a similar time frame, or less. We'll see how it shakes out.

Tavis said...

Your kids are older and might be able to maintain continuity between sessions better than mine - for us it made sense to treat each week's class as a separate adventure.