Dungeons and Distance

COVID-19, week seven: the one where I learn how to be a Dungeon Master for my kids’ first game of D&D.

I’ll start with the acknowledgement that I am very, very fortunate to be sheltering at home during this time of global pandemic with people I like (and love). I get to continue to do my job (albeit in a way I haven’t before), and I even have a dog to walk. Which is awesome. While I don’t like not being able to visit my parents or browse Powell’s, technology allows me to Facetime with my folks and I have more than enough books here on my shelf.

I’m happy that one of those books is The Lord of the Rings (well, three books, but you know what I mean). It has been serving as inspiration not only in this time of pandemic, but more specifically for my attempt at the collaborative storytelling of Dungeons & Dragons.

IMG_4644We picked up the “Starter Set” of D&D for $20 at Target earlier in the week, our jigsaw puzzles and some of our well worn board games having exhausted their best efforts. It seemed like a natural place to begin. Then, with a spring rain filling the gutters and encouraging us to stay inside, we gathered around the kitchen table on a wet Saturday, mugs of tea at our elbows, and started down the road together toward the Lost Mine of Phandelver. We were a merry fellowship, making up in creativity and curiosity what we lacked in experience.

I’d read about D&D and the positive impact it can have for kids at school, first in an article in which one ninth grade teacher in Texas summed it up this way: “Participation in narrative role play can open up interests in topics such as mathematics, science, history, culture, ethics, critical reading, and media production. When D&D and its cousins are played in an inviting, encouraging, compassionate, and intellectually engaged environment, play opens the door to truly amazing possibilities for learning.”

We weren’t doing anything quite so grand at our kitchen table on Saturday; the three of us were simply trying to encourage some sanity on a rainy day of COVID-19 sheltering at home. But I could see what that teacher was talking about. The best parts of our game came when impromptu inspiration (that long haired orc with a broken nose who lost an arm to my son’s fighter’s broadsword) and collective decision making brought my kids together and inspired a laugh or two.

I was the Dungeon Master in that D&D epic, and because I’m a bit dorky and don’t like to do things poorly, I prepared for the role by reading more than a few words of wisdom online. There are lots of D&D sites that have advice for novice “DMs” and I was struck by where the list of DM tips overlapped with what I do for a living: Be prepared, make things fun, err on the side of the players, improvise, tell a collective story. And I thought…

Being a DM is a lot like being a principal. 

In the best of times the preparation we put in (over the summer, on evenings and weekends, and behind the scenes every day) helps to nurture an environment that is positive for students, teachers, and families. We can tell when things are going well by the laughter in the hallways and in the classrooms. At our best, we show mercy and understanding to everyone in our school community, and we always do our best to put kids first. Improvisation is a part of every school, and when we do it in concert with the people around us the collective story we tell can be amazing.

In “5 DM Tips for Running Your First Game” an experienced Dungeon Master advises: 

Carefully listen to your players. Yes, you should hear them when they tell you what their characters would like to do. Yes, you should pay attention to the intent of what they are describing their character doing. But your players communicate with you in a number of other ways.

It’s easy to tell when your players are having fun and engaging with your story. People having fun will smile. People having fun will exclaim! People having fun will argue with passion. That means that what you are doing in your game is working and you should note that and do more of that thing.

Communicating your expectations and thoughts and perceptions of your game to your players is also very beneficial. Let them know what you think is working and what you see could be improved. They may agree with you, but even more likely they will offer you a point of view on your game that you had not considered. That is invaluable data for planning your game moving forward.”

He could easily be writing about school administration. Students at school should be having fun and engaging with the stories of their lives. They are helped most when we listen to them, engage with them, and can see that “people having fun will smile. People having fun will exclaim! People having fun will argue with passion.” We want that in our young adults, and don’t have to be facing a pack of orcs to see it happen.

Back to that article on D&D in schools, the author, educator Paul Darvasi, invites us to wonder: “These intriguing case studies point to what a comprehensive learning program might look like if subjects and skills were not taught in isolation from each other, but integrated into a single cohesive system where students are intrinsically motivated to participate.”

It is so easy to be so siloed in a middle or high school, and this grand experiment in remote learning that every school in our state is struggling with has exacerbated that separation even more. I’m fortunate that a few creative pockets at my school have actively worked to collaborate, but it’s harder to do online than fending off a stone giant.

ACMA has an active D&D club, and when we went into sheltering at home a few reached out to me to see if they could come to campus to pick up items so they could keep playing online. Like so many of our students these intrepid adventurers find themselves in a situation no roll of the dice can overcome. They’re working out ways to play from home, connecting with their community, or at least a part of it, and working together to accomplish a goal. There’s a lesson there for all of us.

And… at some point in the not too distant future we’ll go back to school. Those D&D Club members will roll dice together on campus. The teachers will be able to step out of their classrooms and see familiar faces and possibilities for connection. All of us, students and teachers alike, will return from this experience and have the opportunity to write our own story. 

Will we be different, more inclined to connect, more appreciative of the community we get to be a part of? Trying adventures do change people (and elves and wizards). I’m hopeful that with every experience we learn and grow, and that when we are done sheltering at home we can all go back to the people and places we had to separate from and engage again, like travelers coming home from the Lost Mine of Phandelver.