Starting a Dungeons & Dragons Afterschool Program

Following on the successful auction of my D&D kids’ birthday party, which will hopefully this weekend become a successful actual play experience, I just submitted an course to my son’s after-school program:

Dungeons & Dragons with Tavis Allison

Grades 3-6

Come explore this imaginative role-playing game of group cooperation and problem-solving with professional D&D writer Tavis Allison! Students will learn to play or acquire new skills if they’re already experienced players, including making maps, designing adventures, and handling group dynamics.

Putting the instructor’s name in the title and mentioning it again in the body is standard procedure for the other course listings, not rank egotism on my part.

I am following in the footsteps of:

Becky Thomas’s Abantey Roleplay Workshop, the longest-running and most successful I know about.  Becky told me once that she thinks she’s been able to have more positive impact on kids’ lives, especially the emotionally and behaviorally disturbed kids she integrates into the workshop, than she ever did as a teacher. Because she’s been doing this for 19 years, and it’s been her full-time job for many of them, I suspect she has logged more hours playing roleplaying games than anyone in history.


The first thing we'll do is give kids one of those awesome '80s haircuts.


Shippenberg College D&D Camp, pictured above, is a famous example from the ’80s, but there were many more that weren’t as well documented. Whether or not Frank Mentzer also visited those other ones is yet to be determined.

Todd Academy in Indianapolis currently offers D&D Camp Beginner, Advanced, and Dungeon Masters. I don’t know anything more about it than that link, but will try to check it out when I’m out that way for Gen Con.

Some things I haven’t figured out yet:

  • Do I use Moldvay Red Box (dear to my heart), Mentzer (even clearer for teaching purposes), or 4E (which some of the students I know will sign up are already invested in)? Getting the requisite number of sets of either could be a pain, unless I solicit donations. Another option would be to use Labyrinth Lord, and have students draw a new cover for it to avoid “You said D&D, what’s this L&L business?”
  • How much do I try to steer clear of killing sentients and looting their corpses? When I was thinking of doing an afterschool RPG program before, the project foundered on this issue (and the related idea of designing a new system accordingly). I thought of using Mouse Guard to de-centralize the more antisocial D&D tropes, but wound up deciding that buy-in to D&D is too strong to pass up. Besides, the group dynamics of D&D make it inherently pro-social IMO even if you’re roleplaying a gang of insanely greedy, stupid, merciless cowards.
  • Can I find someone to co-teach the class? If not, then there are probably more kids wanting to play than the six I could conceivably wrangle by myself.
  • Will we just spend the hour-or-so playing, or should I try to work in other activities like designing an adventure or making a map – maybe by having a co-teacher lead one group in doing that while another games?

25 Responses to “Starting a Dungeons & Dragons Afterschool Program”

  1. May 26, 2010 at 3:01 am

    Tavis, I’m down if the schedule permits.

    I think the best way to handle the violence and thievery of the game would be like this:

    * Few if any humanoid monsters. If you can put together an encounter without using humanoids, go for it.

    * Those humanoid monsters don’t have wives, or children, or any discernible social structure. They’re not like people.

    * Their attitude toward people is totally inimical, up-front, and simple. They like to eat people. Or, at best, they like to take slaves and then eat them.

    * The real problem is that as soon as you do a “social” encounter with monsters, you’ve personified them which means killing them is ethically problematic.

    Your best bet, then, for minions and bad guys are the Undead. Killing them isn’t murder; even if you end up talking your way out of trouble you still can’t regard them as reg’lar folks; and it’s pretty clear that their very existence is blasphemous and morally wrong. If you need humans, I’d include Bandits and Berserkers, because everyone can agree that those guys are bad news. Maybe an occasional Doppelganger spy in town, selling people out to the Undead.

    I’d look at the Chronicles of Prydain books: the Cauldron-Born are pretty scary, and the Huntsmen of Annuvin are human but pretty despicable.

  2. May 26, 2010 at 3:11 am

    This is such an awesome idea!

    When I was a child I went to a special school for those of us who needed it. We had a 1x/week, 4 hour D&D class. The teacher/student ratio was about 12:1 and the average age was around 10. That was 1978, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Through D&D I’ve learned a tremendous amount of knowledge and skills that have helped me be successful later in life.

    Now I’m psyched to find something locally. Thank you.

  3. 3 Greengoat
    May 26, 2010 at 4:06 am

    Hmmm, I could spout quite a bit about after-school situations and attention-spans of kids those ages but I will try and resist and keep it to bullet points.

    Killing stuff is problematic, “defeating” or “subduing” seems more in line with post-Brothers Grimm children’s fantasy. It will seem like the A-team or the G.I. Joe cartoon with all the baddies surviving but running away and leaving their loot.

    Attention-span for kids is tight, I would develop the sessions to gradually introduce new rules in each afternoon. The more time that they are “doing” and the less time they are being “talked to” in a group the better.

    Size of the class really determines how many adults need to be there.

    Have different things to appeal to the different intelligence types: map-making and dungeon construction for the spacial, character and monster portraits for the visual, etc,

  4. May 26, 2010 at 4:34 am

    A note on possible funding for getting the materials:
    You may want to look into http://www.kickstarter.com/ It seems to be a good resource.

  5. May 26, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Isn’t the ethical question something interesting for kids to explore now and then? It’s part of growing up. As young teenagers we might never have encountered orc women and children, but we certainly encountered many humanoids and humans, and sometimes they tried to surrender or flee or promised reform, and sometimes they meant it and sometimes they didn’t. It was a good learning experience.

  6. May 26, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Re: ethics, I think I like the idea that goblins and ogres spontaneously generate from everything bad – when you kill them, they break down into trash and flies, and they don’t have kids – but that you could negotiate with them, decide whether or not to keep your word to them, make alliances against their enemies, and the other fun stuff an OD&D reaction roll enables.

    Re: Monster Hunters, I support the idea but folks have been critical of the execution; haven’t seen it myself. Check out [this cool-looking game John Harper developed in response at storygames].

    Re: different things for different kids to do, do you think there should be multiple different activity stations – so that you could get into or out of the ongoing game, wander over to the mapping area, the character-sketch-drawing area, etc.? I’m also thinking that it might be cool to have some kid-run games, either as part of the main focus or as one of the stations.

    Eric, that’s awesome, I’d love to hear more details about that – what school district, if you remember the names of any of the teachers, etc.!

    James, it would be so awesome to do this together; it’d be ~3 to 4:30 on the Upper East Side.

  7. 8 Greengoat
    May 26, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    Re: different things for different kids to do, do you think there should be multiple different activity stations – so that you could get into or out of the ongoing game, wander over to the mapping area, the character-sketch-drawing area, etc.? I’m also thinking that it might be cool to have some kid-run games, either as part of the main focus or as one of the stations.

    I think it is always good to have backup options for kids to participate in the experience even though it may not be at the table “playing” with the group. Sometimes kids just come out at the end of the school day needing to activate a different part of their brain.

    I think it is good to emphasize the commitment when they choose one activity: “You can do character sketches for as long as you want Jimmy but if you want to play with us at the table you will have to wait halfway for a chance for your character to walk into the dungeon.” Once they are in the dungeon their party will need their attention.

    This self-commitment will build the structure of the activity and make sure the kids aren’t running around when they get instantly “bored” at any one thing.

    Kid run games seem perfectly fine. The power of a kid DM over the other kids may or may not cause issues, hard to tell. Emphasizing the responsibility of the DM to make sure everyone has fun and participates would help.

  8. 9 N.
    May 26, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    “Tavis Allison’s Dungeons & Dragons with Tavis Allison” sounds better.

  9. May 26, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    With regard to monsters, I believe the traditional choice involves robots. Or perhaps an old man in a rubber mask. (He would have gotten away with it if not for those meddling adventurers!)

  10. May 26, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    @Alex Schroeder,

    Oh, definitely: ethical reasoning ought to be part of every kid’s formal education. I’m just not sure that D&D is the best vehicle for exploring those issues in an educational setting, since the game pretty much rewards players for committing genocide. The issue can be confronted or finessed, but it does exist and is something to be mindful of.

    How often?

  11. May 26, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    Once a week, likely Wed.

  12. May 26, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    I really like the idea of not just playing D&D but teaching the kids how to make their own adventures and play through them. World mapping, dungeon mapping, designing monsters and treasure items– I loved that stuff as a kid, and to think I could have gone somewhere to do it with other kids, that would have been awesome.

    Templates and simplicity could help here, like the one page dungeon, or a random monster part table that they roll on then have to name, describe, and draw.

    As far as opponents, you can go a long way without encountering anything sentient, giant bugs, rats, slimes, traps, tricky terrain. Humanoids are overplayed.

  13. May 26, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    Tavis, other thoughts:

    1. Standard D&D is pretty seriously eurocentric. NYC is the most culturally diverse city in the United States if not the world. Addressing normativity probably shouldn’t be anywhere near a top concern, but it’s something to think about.

    2. In 3rd grade our class did a whole big unit on castles. Other grades might be doing a historical unit on Ancient Rome, or the Middle Ages, or China or something. If so, that might suggest a setting.

    3. I think we’d need to figure out very early on, what age range we’re looking at, and what tasks they’re able to reliably perform. Things that seem trivial to us, like negative numbers, multiplication, taking turns, and so on, might be surprisingly difficult. (I guess this includes social awareness skills as well as math and communication.) I’m sure there’s a wealth of academic material on this; I just don’t know what it is.

    4. What, specifically, is the goal of the program?

  14. May 26, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    James, going backward:
    4) Goal is for kids and thus their parents to end the semester satisfied. Ideally this will involve doing the things the course description says, but who’s counting? Other afterschool programs my son does include African Drumming, Swimming, Lego Robotics, and “Socks & Gloves” aka Independent Art.

    3) Age range is 8 to 13: school selects for kids who did well on a standardized test at age 4, and they or their parents are now selecting this ’cause they’re geeky. I have first-hand experience that kids at both ranges can DM D&D (OD&D at the young end, 4E at the older). I feel ready to learn the rest by doing!

    2) Good call, but since we’ll have kids from all those grades we’ll have to let them bring that.

    1) I think that the setting is mostly a place where there are fighters and magic-users. The 4E books do a marginally better job of being ethnographically representative, or we could reskin LL with our own more-diverse art, but other than that I think that as native New Yorkers these kids know more about diversity than I can teach.

  15. May 26, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    Tavis, have you considered contacting WotC for free or discounted rulebooks? I have a friend who works there, so if you’d like I can pursue that angle.

    Also, kids 8-13 are very well versed in the pretend killing of enemies. I don’t think it ought to be controversial at all. The 3-5 year-olds at my daughter’s day care already talk about cutting off heads, cutting necks and killing things like spiders. It’d be way less disturbing if it was in the context of a game.

  16. 17 Scott LeMien
    May 28, 2010 at 12:31 am

    Wildlings does seem very awesome. Using adverbs as a mechanic could work very well as a bridge to hide some of the self-consciousness behind roleplaying. At least, I’m guessing it could.

    Oh, and 4e is my vote. Play to what they’re more familiar with.

  17. May 28, 2010 at 12:53 am

    Yes, I think that it would be awesome to have characters with a 15 Strength do everything mightily, or skillfully if they have a high Dex!

    I’ll be running 4E for the birthday party, which I reckon will give me a good feel for what that’s like.

  18. 19 Invincible Overlord
    May 30, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    I’d say have as simple a structure as possible — essentially, you behind the screen. As each session begins, overtly discuss the possibility of character death and DM impartiality, then shake hands with each participant, wish them luck, then let the dungeon try to kill them.

    4E is not good enough for children. It may occupy them, but they deserve a more unique, free form, smarter game. I’d say reskin Labyrinth Lord+AEC (I’m making it into booklets now and can leave out the frazetta nudes for your version, or there’s http://www.printme1.com) to emphasize the DIY.

    Steer clear of humanoid baddies, especially at first, but remember that kids will have a wider range of responses than indoctrinated gamers. Showing everyone the reaction roll table may help.

    Be mechanically transparent. Get TheBauhausCure in on this.

    Nice work!

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  20. October 16, 2014 at 2:09 pm

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Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2010

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