HAMMOND -- In a world full of screens of all shapes and sizes and games of all kinds at your fingertips, one group of St. Croix Central students are going old school with a pen and paper game that has been around since 1972.
Dungeons & Dragons, also known as D&D or DnD, is a fantasy tabletop role-playing game originally designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and was derived from miniature wargames. According to Ruskin, the group has a strict no-screen policy during play sessions, which Ruskin said allows the players to focus on the game in front of them rather than looking at their phones.
“It started out as something I wanted to offer for our Club Fridays and I thought I’d just see who showed up and go from there. I was expecting maybe four or five students, but I think I got like 20,” seventh-grade math teacher Benjamin Ruskin said.
The response prompted the formation of two D&D groups —one for Club Friday and another that meets Fridays after school.
“Running these games has allowed me to build relationships with the kids outside of class, which has been nice. I get to see the kids in an environment without a lot of pressure and in a situation where the goal is to have fun,” Ruskin said. “Another fun thing has been watching the kids evolve as players. In the beginning, their first instinct was to kill everything, but now they look for other solutions to those problems.”
Almost all of the students in the D&D groups came to the Club Friday sessions without much knowledge of D&D or having played before. But once they started to get into the game, they couldn't get enough. The group wanted to keep playing with each other so badly that they set up regular sessions throughout the summer.
“I came to the group because I thought it sounded interesting. I had heard my dad talk about D&D beforehand so when I saw the club on Club Friday I figured I’d try it out,” said sixth-grader Mitchell Toske, who plays a Dragonborn barbarian named Decimator. “I’ve found that the game encourages you to imagine and think outside the box to find a solution. I’ve even created some of my own stuff to maybe use in the future.”
When last year’s eighth-graders moved to the high school this past fall, they kept coming back to the after-school sessions to continue their adventures with the friends they made over the last few months. Since none of them have driver’s licenses, the group walks from the high school to the middle school to roll dice and have fun.
“For me, one of the fun things is the mechanics of the game and how each race and class works. Designing new things and characters is really fun. And they keep coming out with new things to add to the world of D&D,” said ninth-grader Nate Kobilka, who plays a half-elf rogue/warlock. “You also have freedom to make whatever choices you want and do what you want. And there are no limits on what you can do if you can think it up.”
The groups have continued to meet for Just over a year, with a second after-school group having to be created to keep the numbers manageable for the appointed dungeon master who runs each session. The in-school group is currently made up of six to seven students, while the after school group has upwards of 10 members depending on who can make it.
“It has been a nice experience and a good place to make friends who have a common interest. This is a pretty nice group of people and we have a lot of stuff in common. I think clubs in general are a really nice way to make friends and find people with common interests,” said eighth-grader Brian Ford, who plays a human cleric named Zander. “After playing for a year or so, I think we’ve all matured in the choices we make in the game that have really made it a lot more interesting.”
During its first year of gaming sessions, the group has learned a lot about how to play in order to get the most out of every gaming session.
“At first, there were more side conversations going on during sessions rather than actually making progress. But now, we have learned it takes longer if we have side conversations and we really want to see what’s coming next in the story,” said ninth-grader Julian Juarez, who plays a dark elf ranger named Gerald.
One of the toughest parts about being a dungeon master for a larger group of students is managing combat in a way that keeps the players attention on the game even when it isn’t their turn. That is the reason Ruskin ended up splitting up the group into multiple parties.
“The game allows you to make a character that can be someone completely different than who you are. In real life, I am very socially awkward, but last session, I was able to talk out a bit more by getting into my character,” said ninth-grader Michael Hansen, who plays a human fighter named Dave the Great. “I’ve come to enjoy the game so much that my dream is to write my own D&D manual and be a dungeon master. If you have any interest in it, you should give it a try since it allows you to escape from reality for a bit without needing a screen.”
During any given session, Ruskin sets himself up in the front of the room, with the players arrayed around him to allow them to communicate with each other throughout the game. Each in-school session lasts about 50 minutes, while each after school session lasts about two hours.
“I run adventures out of different books, but the players sometimes take the game in a direction that isn’t covered by the book, so we have to improvise a little bit,” Ruskin said. “We usually try to find a good place to end the shorter sessions and then pick up from there the next session. We do the same thing for the after-school group, but those longer sessions allow us to get through more in one sitting.”
As time goes on, Ruskin would be excited to see the group grow while also seeing the current players grow in their abilities and possibly run their own campaign or session as dungeon master.
“If you have any interest in trying D&D, please come and join us," Ford said. "We have a good group of people and would enjoy to see more people come and join us."