By: Michael McConnell
Over the last 3 years, Collaborative Storytelling Club has become one of Horizon Academy’s most popular clubs with sessions every quarter even during our online 4th quarter last year. If you have or have had a child enrolled in this club, you may have heard them come home telling some truly bizarre stories about what they did at school that day. “Well, we needed to get the DJ dragon to play at the party.” “I befriended a stalactite tentacle monster.” “I jumped off the Hoover Dam, but I didn’t reach the water.” These are all things students might say about some real moments from our games. All these strange stories may leave many parents wondering what happens in this club and why do we do it?
Collaborative Storytelling Club is a club for role-playing games. We’ve used a variety of systems, but they all have similar basic features. Players create characters that are described with numerical stats. Players describe what their characters do during the story. A character can try to do anything, but it might not work. If a character is attempting something they could do easily, we assume that they succeeded. However, if they are trying something difficult that might not work, then we roll dice and add bonuses from their numbered stats to decide if the character succeeded or failed. Sometimes the things that happen when a character fails are even more fun than what they had meant to do in the first place.
One player, the Game Master (GM) or dungeon master, describes the setting and the actions of people and monsters that the players meet. As a Game Master, it isn’t the goal to defeat the players - that wouldn’t be fun. The GM is trying to make exciting adventures with fun challenges and cool things to explore. This is a key feature that makes role-playing games different from many other games. It is cooperative, not competitive. The players are working together against the challenges of the Game Master, but the Game Master also wants them to succeed. In this club, teachers and TA’s are the Game Masters, but kids definitely can be Game Masters in RPGs. We sometimes use gridded maps or sketch out scenes on the whiteboard, but most of the scenes are played out in the player’s shared imaginations.
Role-Playing games like these have numerous benefits for students. These games require using math and language skills. Students who might have anxiety about math in class seem much more eager to use math for adding a +5 bonus to their climb check or doubling damage on a critical kit. By imagining being someone else, students develop empathy. In the safe world of imagination, students can try things they wouldn’t do or can’t do in the real world and imagine the consequences. I always tell my players that they are allowed to attempt anything, but their character will face real consequences. If they try to rob a store, authorities will show up. If they betray an ally, the ally probably won’t help them again. If they leap into a pit, it will hurt when they reach the bottom. And yes, all of those have happened in our games. The challenges in RPGs encourage creative problem solving. Lastly, characters have to work as a team: communicating, imagining, planning, and solving problems. This can help develop executive functioning skills.
So, if you have kids come home with crazy tales from Collaborative Storytelling Club, I hope you now better understand what they are up to. If you are considering signing your child up for the club, I hope that I helped you see some of the benefits. If you’d like to try role-playing with your family, it is a booming hobby with many new systems to play. Some of these new systems, like Mouse Guard or No Thank You, Evil!, are directed at young children.