How Do You Make RPGs School-Safe?

An RPT reader wrote in with a question about how to make sure the content in RPG materials used in a school club align with school policy. That is a tricky question I was not qualified to answer. So, I brought in the big guns – Katrina Middelburg – who wrote two articles for me in the past – Role-Playing Games and Kids and Starting and Running a Role-Playing Games Club.

Here is Katrina’s response. (I’ve changed the quester’s name in case her principal is reading this :).

Hi Sara,

John passed your question on to me about appropriate content with RPG groups in middle school. I’m Katrina Middelburg, the one who wrote the article for Role Playing Tips about starting up a school club. I’m glad to hear you’re interested in starting one too! We have had such positive experiences here…our forty-member club is now in its 10th year and the latest development is that we’re gaining teacher and staff players as well! Almost every group here now has an adult playing or DMing, which is just great. 🙂

To answer your question, I am very strict about systems and content, exactly for the reasons you’ve stated in your email. We limit the games that can be played. Right now, we only have D&D and Villains and Vigilantes, an old superhero RPG.

If players want to start a new game, they have to give me the rule books and I vet them carefully.

We’ve turned down Vampire, for example. It’s just too close to the line. I have also allowed some students to play Shadowrun, but only high school players, as the story lines it suggests can also become a bit edgy.

Generally, kids seem to understand. I always just say, “Thanks for showing me the game. If you want to play this, you’ll have to do it outside of school – it’s just not appropriate for a school club.” And that is (pretty much) that.

The reality is, though, you cannot vet every single thing. Especially if you are working with student DMs who are creating their own campaigns. My advice is to send them in safe directions to begin with . For example, the prepared adventures provided by the WotC website are pretty good. Then, ask them to keep the content level similar to this.

I also talk with the DMs about content at the beginning of the year. It works well for us, since our groups are age-mixed, to explain that since they have much younger players in their groups, it’s their responsibility to make sure things stay clean and appropriate.

We now end each game session with a five minute DM meeting where the DMs can discuss how the session went and come with problems or issues. That’s a place where we help them judge how they can use their authority to help keep the club school-appropriate. (We have had so many people want to be DMs that we’ve started interviewing and auditioning them, so that is also a question we pose during their interview as well.)

Choosing the right DMs is very important; and making sure they are people you can trust, even more so. However – and this is key to point out to all your group members – the club as a whole can only exist as long as it has a positive reputation. It’s up to every member of that group to keep the reputation positive. Once they get that, they really get on your side on this – and any other – issue that might threaten the group’s reputation.

For example, our group members jump up to invite anyone, teacher or student, who comes into the library (where we now play) to come to a table and join them. They gleefully explain what’s going on, how it works. They hand them a twenty-sider and get them to play, if the person is interested. (I make sure all the DMs have a pre-fab character ready so that every group is always ready for someone to just drop in.) We’ve talked about it and they understand that it’s important for them to make a good impression. And it works!

I must say, however, that in the 10 years the club has existed, we have never once had a complaint from a parent. But if I did, I’d take it very seriously. I’d talk with the players and DM about what happened, make a plan about how we were going to change things, and bring the parent into the loop through the entire procedure.

Along those lines, making sure you have all your ducks in a row first, as I suggest in the article, will help you so much. Talking to the principal, setting the club up according to your school’s rules for clubs, and especially using the permission slip so you have a parent signature for each player in the group are all steps that will help your group get off on the right foot.

All right, I hope this helps – let me know if you have any other questions and good luck with setting up your club!

After Katrina sent this email, Sara replied:

Hey, Katrina,

Thanks for your quick response. I teach in a conservative community, so I’m trying to be exceptionally careful. I played D&D as a kid, but all of the moms in my neighborhood got together and banned their children from the “devil-worshipping” we were involved in! Haha!

I had another question. I will be starting the club from scratch and will to be asking the faculty for volunteers to help DM once I get the green light. However, I’m worried I might be the only one available and willing. I could have 20 or 30 kids show up and I’m the only DM.

I can only take 5 or 6 DMs, tops, and I don’t think it would be a positive start to turn away 80% of the students who show interest.

I read how your club began, more as you doing a favor for the few kids who figured out that you play. What would you do as the only advisor, with no experienced kids to help DM?

Hi Sara,

I suspected you might be having a bit more resistance when I saw where you were writing from. 😉 I was lucky enough to start my club at a school in the Netherlands – the more liberal bent of the community probably gave me pretty smooth sailing, to begin with.

I’ve been thinking about what you can do about that. Another resource (not sure if I’ve mentioned it) that could be very helpful to you would be the website of The Escapist.

He has great information there that explains in detail where the prejudices come from and why they are misguided. There is even a ready-to-print PDF document that you could use now to (perhaps) help pull your principal over the line. (I have a few of those printed in my RPG folder, just in case I ever need to give it to a parent. I never have…but it is best to be prepared.)

The trick is to emphasize the positives. Role-playing has a much more positive aura now than it did in the 80’s and 90’s. You can bank on that!

The other trick is openness. If you need to make promises to your principal about what your group will and will not do, go for it. Lay it all down in writing and share it with your players. The students will want the group so badly that they will work with you to keep everyone on the safe side of the line.

As far as the other question, I’ve been thinking about it, and I have an idea (along the lines of “it’s crazy, but it just might work.”) What do you think? I’m also sending this message to Johnn – have you ever tried something like this? Do you have any experience or ideas that might help?

As I see it, the problem is that you have perhaps up to 25 to 30 players, none of whom know what they’re doing, and one DM. Also, you want to train this first group of players carefully, as the mores, patterns, and habits you they learn now are the ones they’ll play with for the rest of their gaming career.

So what about this? You choose an appropriate campaign. There will be 6 characters. You divide the group up into 6 groups, with 4 to 6 players in each group. Now, each group is responsible for creating one character, which they will share.

You can spend two or three sessions on character creation. Teach it like a real class. The whole group works on the same section at once. You can use a beamer or Smart Board to bring them bit by bit through the process. Give the groups time to argue and discuss what they want. Nevertheless, each little group is creating the character together.

OK, you’ve got the characters finished, and, added bonus, your players know how to create a character and have debated or weighed the different options together. That means they didn’t skip or skim through anything important; they talked it all out.

So, everyone knows what skill bonuses are, and how they work. They know how the powers of the characters work, and why they chose one over another. (In D&D 4.0, that is. Not sure which version you were planning on running.)

Now you sit down to play. During each session, one player controls the character. The other players in their group sit behind the player, observe, and take notes. They may not interfere. Each playing player is allowed to confer with their team once or twice during the session (agree on the number of conferences beforehand). This is like calling out during Who Wants to Be A Millionaire.

Finish the game a few minutes early and give the groups a few minutes to debrief. Then, talk to them as a whole. Ask each group to give a plus and minus to the session as a whole.

  • When did the character act in a helpful, good, or otherwise awesome way?
  • When did they want to see things go differently?
  • What were their observations of the group?
  • Were there things that would have made the session go better? Combat go faster? Have players more in character?

If you guide these discussions well, the entire group will be actively learning about good roleplaying; about what they like and dislike about the different styles of playing.

Also, each player will feel the responsibility of carrying the character. They will be less likely to do something stupid and dangerous, because they know they’re going to have to hand their character over to someone else next week. If they risk the character, they’re risking for the whole group, not just for themselves.

Then, I’d award XP not just for good playing, but also for keen observations. Anyone who gets XP for an observation has earned that XP for their group’s character. (This makes the back-benchers as important as the person holding the dice each session.)

Then, the next week, you rotate players and continue in the same vein.

By the end of the school year, each person would have run the character maybe three or four times, but they would have been actively involved in every session. All the players will have learned the rules well.

They will also have learned some helpful and useful things about self-control. Not to mention, being so actively observant for so many sessions will have given the whole group a lot of information about what’s good roleplaying, and what isn’t; and about what helps the group move forward, and what doesn’t.

Plus, (and maybe most important of all) you are strengthening the characteristic of teamwork, which I’ve found to be the one absolutely necessary characteristic in a good RPG group. If they’ve got that, they’ll play well together; if they don’t, it’s going to be frustration all the way.

You can also use the year to select a few players who can be good DMs the year following. Then I’d also suggest choosing one published adventure for next year (one that you pick) and having all the groups run the same adventure, including your group.

This will help you control content better, and also it will be nice for the new, inexperienced DMs to plan for sessions together. You could sit down with all three of them and run through the upcoming combat before the session, and then check in with them afterwards and see how everyone’s sessions were different! 🙂

All right. I hope that helps. Please feel free to respond with your thoughts, ideas, comments. I’m very interested to hear whether this idea seems plausible to you, and also how the group works out!

– Katrina

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