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ACPL's Dungeons & Dragons helps teach teens collaboration, problem-solving

A player in Banks' space campaign has his set of multicolored dice laid out on his character sheet during the game on Tuesday, March 21, 2022. The character sheet keeps track of a player's health, skills, special abilities, magic and any other traits or knowledge that could help them throughout their journey.
Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
A player in Bengs' space campaign has his set of multicolored dice laid out on his character sheet during the game on Tuesday, March 21, 2022. The character sheet keeps track of a player's health, skills, special abilities, magic and any other traits or knowledge that could help them throughout their journey.

Due to an error, the long-form audio linked had Alan Bengs' name incorrect.

The fantasy roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons has grown in popularity the past decade. Now the game is being used as a tool to help kids learn social skills, problem solving and collaboration.

If you’ve watched Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ or gone to see a movie in the past several months, you’ve probably heard of Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D.

The tabletop roleplaying game came out in the 70’s and, while the game itself was once considered controversial and played mostly by fantasy geeks, now finding a group to play with is easier than ever.

Teachers are bringing the game into the classroom as a means of teaching Social-Emotional Skills and some mental health professionals are even using D&D as a form of group therapy for youths.

The concept of using games as a learning tool isn’t a new one. Teachers and therapists have been using puzzles, coloring and other toys as a means of connecting with children for a while. So, what makes D&D different?

The Allen County Public Library hosts a weekly D&D game for teens, where those skills are put into practice.

Alan Bengs, who works in Access Television for the library, and teen librarian Jenny Gerardot run the Dungeons & Dragons program for teens at the library. And, if you’re wondering about their qualifications for that…

“I have been playing Dungeons & Dragons since the dawn of time,” Bengs said.

One player celebrates a win in combat while Alan Banks leads his players through a space adventure campaign in the Globe Room of the Allen County Public Library. Banks serves as Dungeon Master for the campaign, narrating the adventure and giving his players both helpful information and deadly obstacles.
Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
One player celebrates a win in combat while Alan Bengs leads his players through a space adventure campaign in the Globe Room of the Allen County Public Library. Banks serves as Dungeon Master for the campaign, narrating the adventure and giving his players both helpful information and deadly obstacles.

Bengs has been playing the game since he was a kid, when his dad received a D&D game and didn’t show much interest in it. Banks and his friend did, though, and he said he’s been playing ever since. He still maintains a group of friends who get together periodically to play the game.

In contrast, Gerardot hasn’t been playing D&D for nearly as long. She began supervising the game at the Boys and Girls Club. When the librarian who had been running the game before left, Gerardot was recruited to oversee it.

Bengs had read about the benefits D&D could offer kids and brought up the idea of hosting a game at the library to his boss.

“And he said ‘I think the teen department is already doing that,’" Bengs said. "So, I reached out to Jenny’s department and they were able to find a way for me to participate.”

The program has been around for a long time at the library, but after COVID, they had to rebuild their player community. Now, they have a fairly large group of regular players who come in every Tuesday evening for an hour long session.

They have two simultaneous campaigns running to make room for all the players, as well as any new kids who join in the middle. In Dungeons & Dragons, a campaign is a longer ongoing story that players navigate their way through. Bengs and Gerardot act as the Dungeon Masters, or DMs, for these campaigns.

“A Dungeon Master is kind of the storyteller of the game," Bengs said. "So, think of Dungeons & Dragons as an interactive storytelling experience. All of the players are playing characters in this world like wizards or knights and the Dungeon Master presents a scenario to them and they interact with the people in that scenario and in that setting and have adventures.”

Players design, or in some cases are given, a character to play. Characters run the gamut in terms of species, skills and magical abilities – all of which players can keep track of on their character sheets.

On the other side of the room from Banks' space campaign, Geradot narrates a more traditional Dungeons & Dragons campaign called 'The Wild Beyond the Witchlight.' Geradot's campaign has room for more players and also offers a game for newcomers to join.
Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
On the other side of the room from Bengs' space campaign, Geradot narrates a more traditional Dungeons & Dragons campaign called 'The Wild Beyond the Witchlight.' Geradot's campaign has room for more players and also offers a game for newcomers to join.

While the DM weaves a story and places obstacles and enemies in their way, players have to work together to problem solve, defeat enemies and reach whatever their shared goal at the end of the story is.

At one table, Gerardot narrates a traditional fantasy game. Her table is filled with kids, who call out ideas and speak over each other, but ultimately work together throughout the evening to climb down from a bridge, dig through the mud and fix and board a hot air balloon.

Bengs leads students through a space adventure, not entirely unlike a Star Wars epic. Characters and their abilities are tailored to better fit the theme, while still maintaining the charm of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

That’s what makes D&D different from other tabletop games. The goal isn’t to follow spaces on a board from point-A to point-B and players aren’t competing to “win” in the traditional sense. The game steps are entirely decided by how the players want to move around their environment.
Azreal is 13. He’s a part of Geradot’s campaign and got into the game because his parents play.

"With D&D, you don’t have to go by the guidebooks that it says," he said. "Like, with my current campaign, I make up half the stuff I’m doing in it.”

Kids have to think creatively to work their way around problems and engage in combat. They don’t just strike out and attempt to hit, but they have to describe what they’re doing and how they’re trying to make it work.

In Bengs’ space campaign, two characters attempted to take down a robot by making a bomb out of soap and exposed wires.

Banks 3D prints character models for each of his players, which then move around the drawn map. Here, Banks' players come face-to-face with a robot they must defeat before they can move forward.
Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
Bengs 3D prints character models for each of his players, which then move around the drawn map. Here, Bengs' players come face-to-face with a robot they must defeat before they can move forward.

But ultimately, players are at the mercy of the roll of the dice.

While characters have special abilities and things called “skill modifiers” – a modification to a specific skill that they have proficiency in – before a player can do almost anything in the game, they have to roll their dice.

D&D players need a set of specialized dice – four-, six-, eight-, 10-, and 20-sided dice. Many choices in the game are decided by the 20-sided die. Players can tell the DM they’d like to try something and the DM may require them to roll for a “skill check.” Which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – the number on the die decides how strong their skill is.

On their character sheet, players also have to keep track of things like their health, their magic use and those skill modifiers. Every time they take a hit, roll a die or use their powers, they may have to do some simple addition and subtraction math.

Bengs’ and Geradots’ jobs isn’t to tell the story, though, or lead the players down a desired path. Their job is to give information and add obstacles, while following the players down any paths they wish to pursue.

Like attempting to make a soap bomb or using underpants as a white flag of peace.

Toby, 14, who is working through Banks’ space campaign said that’s the best part about the game for him.

“I think that moments like those that like people have their own fun ideas and the Dungeon Master always will pursue them," he said. "That’s my favorite part of D&D.”

When plans fail or die rolls come out different than how a player would like, the game can get a little frustrating. But that’s where that problem solving skill comes in. Players have to work together to pull themselves out of the mud or defeat space robots, and that means persevering.

Another of Banks' 3D printed creations, he designed this as a way to roll the dice while also storing his different sets in the bottom. Banks said 3D printing items to supplement the game can also encourage the kids interest in that process and help them learn a new skill.
Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
Another of Bengs' 3D printed creations, he designed this as a way to roll the dice while also storing his different sets in the bottom. Bengs said 3D printing items to supplement the game can also encourage the kids interest in that process and help them learn a new skill.

Jane is 13 and she hasn’t been playing Dungeons & Dragons long, having just joined Geradot’s campaign recently. But she already knows the satisfaction that comes with solving a challenge.

“And I love when people have that ‘aha’ moment," she said. "Where like they keep trying to figure out a problem and then they find the most creative, weird solution out there. It’s just fun to see people get that aha moment.”

The game combines creativity and collaboration with a little bit of luck, giving players a feeling of control over their environment and a place in their team, without making it too easy on them.

But ultimately…

“Anything can happen if someone rolls good dice,” Toby said.

The library hosts a Dungeons & Dragons night for elementary and high school kids every Tuesday at 6 p.m., and a separate group for adult players every other Saturday afternoon.

Ella Abbott is a multimedia reporter for 89.1 WBOI. She is a strong believer in the ways audio storytelling can engage an audience and create a sensory experience.
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