Starting and Running a Role-Playing Games Club
By Katrina Middelburg-Creswell
Part One: The Birth Of A Club And Some Bumps Along The Way
I’m a Middle School teacher who is a long-time gamer. So when some of my 7th grade students discovered my hobby “Hey – is that an R.A. Salvatore book on her desk? She plays D&D! No way! Cool!” it was a natural step to set up a game for those boys as an after-school activity.
I didn’t realize what I was starting the day I sat down behind my desk to GM those four 7th grade students. Today, five years later, our RPG Club has three faculty advisors, and both Middle and High School students playing. Students carrying dice bags and Player’s Handbooks have become a normal sight in the hallways. We average between 30-40 members each year, have our own website, mini-library of gaming materials, and a page in the yearbook. One parent GM gleefully put it this way: “We’re bigger than the basketball team!”
Along the way I’ve learned a few lessons about setting up not just one gaming group, but an entire club, with 4 or more different campaigns going on at once. Johnn has also helped me out with some of the club’s start-up problems with some sage advice. I’m going to try to cram all this information into a set of tips for anyone out there interested in setting up a gaming club. My tips will focus on advice for setting up a group for younger players, since our members’ age range is 12-18. But I’m sure some of these ideas can be tweaked for working with adults as well.
Before you begin: Get permission. This might sound stupid, but it helps to ensure that your group lasts longer than just one year. Make sure anyone whose facilities you might be using knows that you’re planning the group and that they support you. When I started the RPG club, I went to my principal with the Core Rulebooks and a set of dice, explained the game and got her permission to set up the club.
Before they begin: Get permission. Have your players sign permission slips. In some families, role-playing, especially Dungeons and Dragons, has a very bad name. (Ah, the joys of urban legends.) Having signed permission slips from each player helps protect the club – and you.
Yes, charge them! We ask for a small amount of dues for a yearly membership. It’s about $10. But if we had to rent our own space, that amount would be much higher. That money goes for club supplies (dice, books, pencils, munchies for all-day conventions, prizes when necessary). Also, it helps cut down on absenteeism…if someone’s a paid member, they’re more likely to take it seriously and keep showing up.
Location, location, location. Finding a good place to play is important. We started out in classrooms, but as the club grew, we needed more room. The RPG club now meets in the cafeteria. Everyone is in one space, we wheel the books and supplies in on a cart (saved from the AV discard pile) and snacks and drinks are close at hand from the nearby vending machines.
Everyone playing in the same location is crucial. It helps the students feel like they are part of the larger club, not just their own gaming group. Kids often eavesdrop on other campaigns when they have a few minutes. A powerful, intense battle in one group can draw spectators from around the room. And nothing raises the hairs on the back of your neck (and makes you breathe a sigh of relief) like hearing “Doooooooom!” ring out fromsomebody else’s GM.
A side benefit of playing in a very public space is that the club has become well-known and accepted at school. Parents, teachers and students often pass through the cafeteria and see the group at work. Sometimes people drop in and watch for a while. That’s great advertising – and it helps keep the club’s reputation positive.
Club expectations are important! Make sure everyone involved knows what the rules of the club are. This can be simple stuff like showing up on time, or letting your GM know if you are going to miss a session. But it also involves those more nebulous rules like not hogging the spotlight or willfully messing up your GM’s plans. Our group actually uses the 5 Do’s and Don’ts from Dungeons and Dragons for Dummies (Bill Slavicsek & Richard W. Baker, 2005) as a guideline. And we have the students sign a contract before they get started. That way nobody can use the excuse “But I didn’t know I couldn’t do that!”
Players helping players. Once your group gains a little size, you can start using experienced players as question answerer, character builders, and eventually Game Masters for other groups. We use a tiered system. Only High School students with more than 1 year of experience are allowed to GM. The GMs help with training up new players and have access to their own, private, section of the website where they can ask each other questions and share tips and ideas. We would like to set up a system in which the GMs receive more rewards for the hard work they do, but we aren’t there yet.
By the way, a great way to encourage players to take a leadership role in the group is to link up with anyone at your organization who sets up community service programs. Some of our GMs are fulfilling high school community service graduation requirements by Game Mastering a group each week!
What about newbies? Our biggest problem was the massive influx of newbies at the beginning of each school year. The GMs were so frustrated with the typical newbie stunts – attacking NPC’s, trying to hoard all the loot for themselves, and rules lawyering (or not learning the rules at all, then arguing about the GM’s decisions.) Worst of all, by the time the GMs had gotten their players in line, the school year was nearly over – and a new school year brought in a whole new set of newbies, starting the process all over again.
I emailed Johnn with this problem and asked for his advice. He suggested that we start out the year with a mini-convention in which the new players were mixed in with different GMs and experienced players. This was a great suggestion, and the convention plan we developed has helped us teach good role-playing — fast. (I’ll explain more about setting up a “Learn-to-Play” convention in the second half of this article.)
Other things that have helped with newbies: handing out prizes for great role-playing, strategy and teamwork; giving them pre-made characters until they are able to create their own; putting them in groups with two or more experienced players who can model good role-playing; and having a club library where players can borrow gaming books like the Hero Builder’s Guidebook, Dungeon Master for Dummies, and other great books that help new players get a grip on good role-playing habits.
How do you set up the groups? I wrestled with this one for a long time. After all, the point of the club is to give kids a chance to hang out with their friends and role-play, right? But allowing the kids complete freedom in choosing their own groups kept leading to problems. Sometimes friends aren’t the best match as players. Also, groups kept breaking up and re-forming…which frustrated the GMs as well.
Now we (the “über-GMs”, as we have become known) choose the groups. We ask each player to fill in a survey form at the end of the Learn-to-Play convention and on the basis of these forms (plus the input of the GMs), we set up the groups. We try to put friends together but also keep a good balance of different ages, experienced players + new players, and matching players’ styles with GMs campaign styles. We allow massive switching once during the year, just after the winter holiday break. Often the holiday break comes, and no one wants to switch groups! Now our games are much more consistent and both the GMs and players are having more fun.
XP as more than just an in-game benefit. As the club grew, it became more and more difficult for me to keep close tabs on the adventures of all the groups. With adults, that’s not such a big deal…but because students need to be kept on a bit of a shorter leash, it was more important. One of our new faculty advisors set up a website for the club usinghttp://www.euromoodle.org which only club members have access to. Then, we started using bribes. No, really! Any player who posts a recap of the session’s events can earn a small amount of XP. We also award small XP bonuses for any players who post their character’s history. The result = regular reports of group activity, plus lots of fun for all club members, as they get to read about their friends’ successes and show off their own amazing moments.
Get help! Once the club really took off, it was soon clear that I couldn’t do everything myself. I was lucky enough to find two fellow teachers who are also gamers. Now the three of us share responsibilities for the group pretty equally, GMing, keeping the website up and running, keeping tabs on finances, membership lists and paperwork, and the library. We also keep our classrooms open at lunch for kids to come in, hang out, work on characters or brag about last week’s session. It’s great for me to have that kind of support for the club…and great for the students too, to see that different teachers have role-playing as a hobby.
The bottom line. What started out 5 years ago as a favor for a few students has turned into a full-fledged after-school activity for dozens of kids! Even though it takes a lot of energy and organization, it’s definitely worth it. It’s been amazing to see how much the kids enjoy the club and fun for me to watch the next generation of role-players develop. It’s also cool that there is a place at our school now for those fantasy-loving kids who don’t always fit into the traditional after-school activities like sports or drama.
My advice: if you’re in the position to set up a similar club, don’t be afraid and take the plunge. It’s great fun!
Part II: Setting Up A Learn-To-Play Convention
Here are some tips for setting up a learn-to-play convention.
Advertising. Get the word out. We use posters, ads in the school newspapers and website, as well as just telling people who we feel are interested. Make sure prospective players know they can come with no experience and still have a good time!
Fees. You may want to charge a minimal fee to cover the cost of prizes. We ask for about 5 bucks. That takes care of prizes and lunch. If you need to rent a space, you’ll have to ask more.
Displays. Give the players something to look at when they’re not playing. We laid out a table full of different gaming books, character sheets, dice, and other gaming supplies.
Encounters & PCs. These are the backbone of the day. Each GM is responsible for creating a 1-hour encounter. We set ours up so that each encounter showcased a different kind of game style or hazard: dungeon crawl, tactics, hack-and-slash, negotiation, magic use…etc. Each GM creates 6 PCs for their adventure. We advise them to use a simplified character sheet and/or to highlight important numbers (like HP, AC and Attack Bonuses.)
Figure 4 players to a GM when you calculate the amount of encounters you need. Even if you have more encounters than game sessions, that’s okay. Not every player needs to experience every encounter.
Plants. Match experienced players with GMs. We “planted” experienced players with the GMs to model good role-playing and help newbies along if they got stuck. You can also allow experienced players to rotate too…then you work without the “plants”.
Schedule. Start with an introduction explaining the day and get right down to playing. Each new player rotates to a different group every session. Between sessions, the GMs fill in their cards. Remember to schedule something for lunch! The afternoon is two more sessions, and then a few minutes break (or club explanation) while the winners are being calculated. View sample schedule (Word doc).
Materials. This might be a no-brainer, but make sure there are enough dice, pencils and scrap paper at each table.
GM Cards. The GMs fill out quick cards at the end of each encounter, grading each player on teamwork, strategy and role-playing. View example GM card (Word doc).
Prizes. We handed out dice sets for best teamwork, best role-playing and best strategy. The highest scorer in all three areas got a Player’s Handbook. The highest scorer for the returning players gets a free club membership!
Survey. It’s a good idea to have the new players fill out a survey of the day, with preferences for their ideal group and GM. We use these surveys to review the conference and set up the club’s groups for the year. View sample survey (Word doc).
Future Sessions. Make sure the players leave with all the information they need to join the club or otherwise continue gaming. We handed out permission slips and club information letters.
These mini-conventions have been a raging success. The students love them, the GMs love getting a glimpse of their players to come, and best of all, by the end of the day, most of the new players have a good idea of what RPGs are about, and what good role-playing is – and isn’t!