When I was just starting Junior High I was on the cusp of truly beginning my path into tabletop gaming. I had already been introduced, thanks to my good buddy Nick, to Dungeons and Dragons. We barely knew how to actually play that game though and it wasn’t until a few years later that we’d really get into it. However, we had also discovered Magic the Gathering, and the barrier to entry for the trading card game was quite a bit lower. Assuming you had a place to play, and people to play with.
Our town didn’t have a game shop. I had to beg my parents to drive me to one that was roughly 30 mins away, and it would only be to buy things I could certainly never expect them to wait around while I played with other kids. I mean, my mother had lived through the days when games like D&D and Magic the Gathering were considered anti-christian so she had reservations about the whole business anyway (To her credit, she and I had a long conversation about it and she opted to trust my judgment over simply putting the kibosh on it). Needless to say, finding a place to play Magic the Gathering was tough. Enter Mr. Reeb. He was an art teacher at my Junior High School who, to my knowledge, knew nothing about Magic the Gathering beyond that it was a card game a few of us enjoyed, but he was willing to sacrifice his time every Thursday after school to let us play. Due to his volunteering spirit we had a much larger pool of fellow players, and it was during this time I really got to meet a larger swathe of kids who loved the same games I did. Of the many moments that led to me really loving tabletop games, Mr. Reeb’s MtG Thursdays can easily vie for top spot. It made for some really good times, I even got to know my first true Dungeon Master at those games (Shout out to Mike “The Meatfist” Bortz!).
I’m well over a decade removed from those days but the memories have obviously held a little permanency within me so last year I started thinking of a way I could “Pay Forward” the good deed done unto me by Mr. Reeb, even though he may not even know what it meant to me (Looking forward to Thursdays helped me get over much of the drudgery associated with Junior High). It’s obvious I hold a candle for this type of gaming, and how it’s helped me over the years, so when I looked into doing something for the youth of my city I knew it would involve tabletop gaming of some sort, I just didn’t know what it would be. So I made a move to do so, and it has been really succesful thus far. I’ve mentioned it a bit on the blog but didn’t want to come across braggadocious, or make it look like I wanted some claps on the back, so I’ve largely held what I’ve done close to the chest. Recently though I had a friend tell me that I should talk about it, not to garner praise (as I’m not interested in touting myself) but just in case it inspires others to try what I’ve done and my experiences starting the program could help them do so. So, let me tell you how I’ve been going about “Playing it Forward”!
Last year I reached out to my local library with an idea to start a club that met either once monthly or bi-monthly to create a safe place where kids could come and play games. Not that game shops are unsafe mind you, but I recall being intimidated by the adults who played there when i was younger and felt other kids may feel the same. It was as simple as that, I imagined they could come and play trading card games, use my board games or bring their own, or use my various roleplaying books to learn and play Tabletop RPG. I heard back a bit later from the Teen Outreach leader, Maggie, who told me that my timing was impeccable. It just so happened that in a month
or two they would be holding their 1st (hopefully annual) Teen Fandom Convention. It was her idea, and you have seen me write about this, for me to come and do a panel on tabletop gaming. This way we could see what sort of interest was out there. The panel was a hit, as was the con actually, and we started making plans to start the club I’d initially envisioned.
Neither Maggie or I were sure what to expect initially. In fact Maggie, despite displaying a strong nerdy slant herself, had never dabbled too much into tabletop gaming beyond some board games. So this was mostly an experiment. Day one arrived and I only had a few signed up, I didn’t know what they wanted to play so I brought most everything I owned. That was the day I first met Kaleab and Kya, two kids who would become the backbone of the group. I pitched everything I had brought to the group just to see what they would be interested in and it was soon apparent they wanted to try out Dungeons and Dragons, they’d heard the name before but knew nothing about it. I was ecstatic, I love D&D obviously and they wanted to play. Honestly I was thankful for the small group because it meant I could just open the 5th Edition Starter Set, containing the adventure “The Lost Mine of Phandelver”, and get right down to business. To my great joy they were smitten.
For the next year I continued to run the adventure, the kids battled the goblins who’d been marauding along the road, they removed the scourge of the Red Cloak gang in the town of Phandalin, and they even gathered information from the likes of Banshees and Necromancers to help find their missing dwarven friend. Kya and Kaleab were always there, and there were occasionally a few other kids who would show. A girl named Deva had become a regular by December as well. For Christmas I got three sets of dice for my three regulars, I wanted to buy them all Player’s Handbooks but it just wasn’t something I could afford to do. However, gifted dice are always the best dice as I’ve been told.
During the last year my little group inspired another branch to open their doors to gamers, this time specifically with tabletop roleplaying in mind, and not limited to teens. I attended the first session just to say hi to some fellow gamers I’d never met and I left it at that and simply advised a bit through email with the library employee in charge of that one, Melissa. soon it became apparent that there was more interest than there were Game Masters so Melissa asked me if I’d come be a GM for a session or two. Months later, I’m still sitting in! To my delight I found out that Kya and Kaleab were some of the new attendees that drove up the numbers. Add to that some adults named Gary and Bill would become regulars as well. We are now four sessions into a story I came up with on my own and Kaleab has even told me he likes my adventure more than Lost Mine (sorry Wizards of the Coast ;P!).
Last month Kaleab, Kya, and Deva lost their PCs in The Lost Mine of Phandelver to a TPK (Total Party Kill). I didn’t want it to happen any more than they did, but sometimes the dice fall where they fall. I did let them know that this wasn’t all bad though, it just meant we got to make new characters and start a brand new adventure! Trouble is, they wanted to make their own this time and with only two hours a month to play I knew it might take a while to make three characters, with three newish players, using one Player’s Handbook. So I did what any social media addict would do, I put my lament on Twitter. I received a lot of good advice, most of which I already knew, regarding the free rules out there that WotC was kind enough to give us but I knew that wasn’t enough. They’d had a taste of the full spectrum of options and the characters they wanted to play were simply not available in the free set of rules. Out of nowhere I was sent a Direct Message from my friend Jerry Behrendt (@Dungeonleft), he dismissed all pleasantries and simply said “what’s your address, I’m buying and mailing you a Player’s Handbook”. I was floored by his kind offer and quickly took him up on it. I gave him praise on Twitter and, not to be outdone, @TheAngryGM himself, Scott Rehm, immediately asked if he could also supply a book. I was once again touched by the generosity of our community. I realized that though I couldn’t afford to buy three books I could certainly afford one so I bought the remaining PHB and completed the set.
I received the books in the mail. The Angry GM even supplied three sets of dice, mirroring my own belief that gifted dice are special things. Inside the cover of Scott’s book he’d even written a very un-Angry message to the kids, though don’t spread that around too much, the man does have a reputation to uphold.
I was all set to present the books to the kids yesterday. I was honestly giddy about it and, admittedly, a bit misty eyed (I’m a big softy). Turns out though, I didn’t just have my three regulars, I had in attendance for the first time EIGHT KIDS! Turns out when school lets out kids and their parents tend to look for things to do, I hadn’t even considered I’d see an uptick like this. I was… well, I was a bit unprepared. I didn’t have time to generate pre-mades, or even use the ones already out there, plus I didn’t even know what game(s) they would want to play. There came a moment when all eight pairs of eyes were on me that I actually got a bit nervous, a rare thing for this ex Theater guy, what kind of games were they expecting from me? Once again, like I had roughly a year ago, I’d brought everything. Board games, all my RPGs, even some card protectors in case there were some trading card lovers in attendance. I knew Kaleab and Kya still wanted to play D&D (Deva couldn’t make it), and we’d picked up another player from Saturday named Aaron but I wanted to let the other kids know that they could play whatever they wanted. Well, one kid saw Kya’s character sheet and asked what they were getting ready to play. I told him about D&D, his eyes lit and he simply said “I want to play that!” Just like that I had eight kids, four PHBs and a lot of explaining to do.
Mostly I’m going to just finish up the kids’ characters for them, with the exception of a few who know a bit more about what they are doing, and we are going to play next month. I’ve toyed with the idea of bringing Topher along with me so we run two games, he’s expressed plenty of interest in helping, but figure I’d see if the new kids stick around first. I’ll also have the added benefit of seeing most of them next Saturday at the 2nd annual Teen Fandom Con, hopefully it helps keep their interest sparked!
I want this to grow, I’d love to see it grow. One day I’d love to see a huge group of kids playing games, and even see the older kids running games for the new batches coming in. As much as I adore running the games myself the next step is seeing it all become self-sufficient. If that means I become more like my inspiration, Mr. Reeb, where I simply hang back to act as a mentor and overseer of the whole deal I am more than willing to step away from the actual table. I’ll never forget the early days running games for just Kaleab and Kya though, or the generosity of those first two donated books (I’ll get mine to Deva eventually I hope, or it may find itself in the hands of another young recruit). If I can help even one kid have something cool to look forward to the first Thursday of every month that helps them forget some of the struggles they face, I feel like I’ve done enough. Plus, my favorite hobby gets to grow, and I love that!
Good gaming to you all – Melvs
P.S. If you have any desire to mirror in your community what I’m doing here and think I could help you do that in some way, please let me know. I will help in any way I can!