After nearly two weeks of my students begging me shamelessly, I have decided to start a D&D club before school for my seventh graders. While working through the trials and tribulations of starting a D&D campaign with seven 13 year olds who have never played, I figured I would write up a short series of advice on how to start a similar club at any school based on my experiences.
For today’s post, I am going to focus on my session zero, which took place on Thursday morning.. Before I get into the topic based advice though, I will give some background on how this all started.
A few weeks ago, I shared with my students a kraken I had finished painting for my home campaign. My students are aware of my board gaming hobby and a few connected that I would be the best person in the school to teach them D&D. They immediately began to beg me to start up a D&D game for them before school. I initially hesitated because it would mean giving up my final day when I did not have any meetings or clubs to run. However, they know I am a sucker for seeing them happy and sharing my passions. I told the two students asking if they could find at least four people to play, I would gladly run a game for them in the morning.
I created a Google Classroom for the club and put the information and class code on my board. I quickly had five students interested, so I set my session zero date for Thursday and began to prepare to run Lost Mines of Phandelver. When students came in on Thursday, I made sure to have a variety of source books available and character sheets and spell sheets for each student.
I realized quickly that there was a wide variety of experience within my group. One of my students had played a single homebrew session, one of my students had watched every episode of Critical Role but had never played, two of my students knew what D&D was but had no idea how to play, and one of my students just wanted to come hang out with me in the morning, so she figured D&D must be a good way to do so. This makes for a difficult session zero, as it means I am trying to explain D&D on it’s most basic level and trying to help them create characters.
This leads me to my advice that I learned from running my first session which I will break down into a couple different categories.
Before even uttering anything about the game itself, I sat down all of my kids and had a discussion about respect. We talked about three different types of respect. First, I spoke about respecting one another. I explained that the students were making up characters that would not always represent their own feelings on something. Sometimes because of that, conflict might arise within a party. While I am okay with students having conflict within a party, that conflict must never become personal attacks. I also discussed respecting personal boundaries and being kind to your party members even when they make mistakes.
Second, I discussed respecting the Dungeon Master. I explained to the students that I would be narrating the game for them. Then putting on my English teacher hat, I asked that what all good stories must have. They were able to answer conflict (which made my teacher heart happy) and I reminded them that sometimes I would put them in situations that would cause tension and conflict. That did not mean that I was purposely trying to kill one of them or hurt their feelings, but that we would need conflict to have a good story. I reminded them that even if they were frustrated with a turn of events, I would not allow them to be disrespectful to me.
Third, we discussed respecting materials. The students are using my materials from home to play the game. This includes my books, my dice, my miniatures and anything else we might need. I reminded them that these are cherished possessions at home and if they borrow something to treat it with care. While I know that accidents happen, I think that reminding students that they have the privilege of burrowing something important to you does make them more aware of their actions.
I will remind my students of those three points at the beginning of each session because I do think it is the most important part to a successful campaign.
Before creating characters, I also spoke to my students about dice rolls and cheating. I explained to my students that I would be using a DM screen to hide my rolls and some information from them. This was so that I could help the story move along in a way that will create a strong narrative for them. It also helps me keep track of a variety of information such as initiative and stat blocks.
Then I explained to them that I would always like them to roll into the center of the table so that everyone could see their results. I told them that sometimes the dice would not work in their favor, but that was okay. I would make sure that everyone would have their shining star moment. However, if one person was lying about their dice rolls, then it could make other people feel as though their characters did not have any worth because their rolls were always lower.
Also, by having students roll in the middle, it makes it easier for me to help them. I keep a scan of each of their character sheets on Google Classroom, so I have their stats on my computer, so I can easily help them when they get stuck. This also helps keep students from losing their character sheet between sessions.
Creating a Character
Students creating characters took a surprising amount of time throughout my day. Due to the wide variety of experience levels, I decided create characters one on one with the students. For my more experienced students, I asked them what class they were interested in and most of them had a pretty good idea. From there, I asked them if they had a race in mind, or if they wanted me to share the races that would benefit their class the most. For each student I explained some options of racial stats that would support their classes, but I also introduced some classes they had never seen from Volos. I gave them the option to flip through the book to decide.
Then I turned to my students who had no idea what a D&D class was, and I asked them to explain to me if they could create any kind of hero, what would they want that hero to act like. I helped them create a character based on their description. For instance, one of my students explained that she would want her hero to be nice and help people. We ended up creating a druid for her, that would focus on healing. For her background, we made her a Faction Agent who is traveling to help the Emerald Enclave connect the land together. I picked three races to explain to her, and she ended up choosing to be human.
I choose to simplify how I explained classes to these students because it can be completely overwhelming to a student to try to work through all the different classes and races when they have never seen the game played before. By building on the idea of whom she wanted her character to be, I could narrow down the choices to a point where she wouldn’t be completely overwhelmed.
Once all students had a class and race, I worked individually with them to fill out their character sheet. I introduced them to the Fifth Edition App on phones and D&D Beyond to help them build characters in the future. Unfortunately, D&D Beyond is blocked by our school system, but I showed them how to do it at home if they wanted to play around with it. I find that introducing them to these systems helps them not get overwhelmed by flipping through the pages, and also helps expedite getting everyone’s characters finished.
While I explained stats to them and helped them create characters that would be successful in their chosen class. I reminded them that average in D&D is most often bad, and that they would have some stats they would be bad at. Just like in real life, we are all bad at something, but that is okay because the people around us help make up for that. We used the point buy system to keep things even for all students involved.
I think one of the things that shocked me the most about running this session zero was just how long it took to get all of my students’ character sheets completed. I ended up meeting with students one on one for about three hours that day to work through everything. I was lucky that I had already set up the Google Classroom, so I created a “unit” for each student’s sheet. Once we completed the character on the Fifth Edition App, I uploaded the pictures from the app so that they could independently fill out their features and equipment. This helped to move things along.
That being said, I still need to work on spell sheets with my spell casters. We had two more girls join on Thursday afternoon, so I will need to meet with them separately to go over all of this information and help them create characters. All in all, I would say triple the amount of time you think you will need to get everyone started, and you will be in good shape.
End on a Cliffhanger
Before letting the kids go on Thursday, I introduced the background of the story. I wanted to leave them thinking about the beginning of their journey. This also allowed me to remind them of their homework, which was to complete their background stories and figure out why they would be in Phandalin. They walked out of my room in full conversation about how their characters knew one another and wondering about Goblins and Black Spider. This excitement will hopefully last until next Thursday when we begin.
In order to help my students to be successful, I thought very carefully about the supplies I would be using for the campaign. I choose to have students work off of a physical character sheet only because D&D Beyond is blocked by our school. However, if students are able to use D&D Beyond, I would highly suggest running a campaign through there. I will still be using D&D Beyond for my campaign planning, because it helps me not have to lug a bunch of books back and fourth.
I do highly suggest having a dedicated D&D Google Classroom. This allows me to post reminders such as when we are meeting, short recaps of the adventure and also gives students an area to ask questions. Students are also using this to talk to one another about their backstories and share information about their characters.
I debated using miniatures or not during my campaign with them. I ended up deciding that I will use them for major encounters even though it is likely going to slow things down. I like miniatures because students are very visual by nature. The miniatures will help them keep track of what is going on during the battle. Plus, they were already excited to try and find a miniature for their character. I think miniatures help bring the game to life some.
I am also letting students to use my excess dice. I have enough to support all of my students, but if you do not, I suggest picking up a pound of dice. They are relatively cheap and should provide enough for students to be able to play.
Finally, I choose Lost Mines of Phandelver as my starting adventure. I decided this because the adventure is relatively short and we are starting in the last half of the school year. I would like to be able to finish the adventure before we go on summer break. Additionally, I like Lost Mines of Phandelver for students who have never played because it is a linear adventure. It helps move students along the plotline without giving them the sandbox feeling of Curse of Strahd or Tomb of Annihaliation. If I had a longer period of time, I might consider running Princes of the Apocolypse or Storm King’s Thunder though.
All in all, I am really excited to begin running some D&D consistently for students. Now I have a full table of four boys and three girls, which was more than I was expecting when students started asking. I will continue to share tidbits of information as we get into our campaign, so look forward to future advice if starting a D&D club is something you are considering as an educator!