You’ve probably heard of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), but may be mystified. What is this tabletop game with no board and so many strange dice? From its basement origins in the 1970s, Dungeons and Dragons has now firmly cemented itself as a beloved staple of geek culture. It works by collaborative storytelling. In this role-playing game, one person (the Dungeon Master) creates a fantastical world and adventure for players. The players help create this world by pretending to be characters and solving the challenges the Dungeon Master throws at them. In this way, D&D encourages collaboration, teamwork, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. It has also been used for education and even therapy! Best of all, the game can easily be done virtually, helping teens connect and socialize in these trying times. I just finished running an amazing D&D campaign for teen girls, and I’m excited to share my tips and tricks with you!
Learning the Ropes
As I said, D&D can be daunting with its dice, jargon, and rules, but the principles are very simple. Plus, you can improvise and adjust to your needs. There are no refs watching over your shoulder. Basically, when a character wants to do something, the player must roll a twenty-sided dice (called a “d20”). This brings an element of chance into the game. You, as the Dungeon Master, get to decide how difficult the task is and assign it a number. A player might only have to roll a 5 or above for an easy task (for example, noticing a very obvious trap in a dungeon). However, a harder task, like breaking down a door, might require a 15 or above. This forms the basis of the game’s mechanics: the higher the dice roll the better the outcome.
You can find tons of great videos on YouTube explaining the rules, but the easiest way to learn is to watch people play. I recommend Deborah Ann Woll’s fun and feminist game, Relics and Rarities, on YouTube or the McElroy Brothers’ popular and hilarious podcast, The Adventure Zone.
A Fantastical World
Creating a world from scratch can be daunting. Fortunately, you can find pre-made adventures online for free or for sale. However, writing your own adventure can be so rewarding and allow you to more easily tailor your game for your players. I began by looking at forums for ideas, until I saw someone joke: “Slay the princess, rescue the dragon.” I loved the subversion of the sexist damsel-in-distress trope. So, I came up with the idea of a benevolent dragon who protects a city until kidnapped by an evil, undead princess-sorceress.
From there, I broke the story down to mini adventures that could be played in hour-long sessions. An army of undead attack the unprotected city so the adventurers must escape through the catacombs. Next time, they had to travel up a wizard’s tower to ask her for help finding the dragon. Et cetera. Though D&D has roots in classic fantasy literature, like Lord of the Rings, don’t feel limited to that style. My world, for example, included robots, pirates, and a grumpy capybara with a Russian accent.
In Dungeons & Dragons, characters have their own races and classes. Race here refers to humans, orcs, elves, etc., while class means a type of job: fighter, wizard, rogue, etc. Both race and class determine what a character will be good and what abilities they have. For example, dwarves can see in the dark and bards can sing songs to inspire their teammates. Each player has a “character sheet” to help them keep track of their skills and abilities. These have numeric values (again, the higher the number, the better the outcome). Lots of websites offer tools to help you make a character or give you one randomly.
Creating a character can be the funnest part of D&D, but also the most intimidating. Especially for first-time players who are unfamiliar with the game. So I made characters ahead of time for my players. I worried they wouldn’t like this, but they embraced their characters whole-heartedly, making them their own.
Players enjoy different elements of D&D. Some like the combat. Others, solving puzzles. Still others, enjoy role-playing or exploring a fictional world. It’s important to balance all these elements to engage everyone. I always tried to leave multiple ways to solve a puzzle. For example, in one puzzle included a riddle written on a locked door: “Show me a bow that cannot be tied.” Players could either solve it (“a rainbow”) or they could explore the room until they found a lantern that fit on the hands of a statue behind a waterfall, which then projected a rainbow onto the door. Other times, I just gave them space to role-play, by asking how their characters react to situations, like getting captured by pirates. One girl tried to reason with them, another flirted with them, and another asked to join them!
Lots of great puzzles can be found online and adapted for your use. I stole some from some of my favorite video games, like The Longest Journey. Just remember to factor in ways to change the difficulty if needed. For other elements of the game, like locations to visit or monsters to fight, I drew inspiration from fantasy art and cool real world locations. For example, my catacombs were based on this incredible salt mine in Poland. While my wizard’s tower resembled this beautiful drawing:
Thinking on Your Feet
The best laid plans of mice and men… No matter how well you plan, your players will find a way to surprise you. For example, I laid a devious trap for my players where they had to activate a steam-powered mechanism to open a door. But when they did that, the steam rehydrated some dried mushrooms on the ceiling which turned into mushroom monsters. Rather than fighting or running away, as I intended, one of my teens tried to rehydrate a glowing mushroom she had stolen earlier. I had only mentioned these glowing mushrooms as a way to provide light for my players in the catacombs. Suddenly, I needed to decide whether or not to let the players make their own mushroom monsters. I did, of course, and it turned out to be one of the best parts of the game.
If these tips and tricks helped, stay tuned! We will soon be offering a PDF of my five-session Dungeons & Dragons campaign for teen girls for sale.