Gerry: “My character’s name is Utherdark. I’m a Half-Orc Barbarian.”
Me: “Did you say Utherdork?”
Gerry: “What? No, it’s UtherDARK.”
Me: “Gotta be honest, I think you’ll have more fun going with Utherdork!”
From the smiles and laughter around the table, I’m not the only one who considers Utherdork the far superior option.
I’m sitting at a table with half a dozen staff members from My Friend’s Place. Most are fairly new to the idea of role-playing games (RPG) like Dungeons & Dragons™, but they eagerly sit down on a Thursday morning to play-test the game for a pilot project they’re launching this month. I offered to run a short, two-hour scenario so they can understand what the game is like, and it’s my first time running an RPG. I created a scenario that’s unusually short for RPGs, but I’m still anxious, as are the staff who have never played an RPG before.
Probably fair to say we’re all a mix of excitement and nervousness.
Just outside My Friend’s Place, several young people form a line on the sidewalk, clutching backpacks and bags. At first glance, they look like a generic group of high school or college kids hanging around the school yard before classes start. Instead, they’re waiting for the non-profit to officially open its doors and start providing a variety of services to Los Angeles youth experiencing homelessness.
Perched at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and the 101, My Friend’s Place will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year. For three decades, it has helped homeless youth survive on the streets by offering an entire spectrum of care: new clothes, safe shower facilities, food, medical care, new parent training, and – crucially – help with obtaining government IDs which are required for accessing public services provided by local government agencies and other care providers in the area.
This month, the organization is testing a new program offering for its clients: game-based entertainment; specifically, board games and D&D™.
Halflings and Humans and Dwarves, Oh My!
Susan: “I’m a bad ass Gnome Rogue.”
Me <smiling>: “What’s your name?”
It may sound silly, but the name is perfectly suited for the kind of fictional character Susan is playing. Gnomes are rather short (around 3 feet on average), easy-going, and love life. They’re full of energy and enjoy jokes of all kinds. “JellyBell” seems like a suitable match.
The other staff members nod in approval.
As its name implies, RPGs involve creating or assuming a persona, which can be anything from an army general to a space alien to, well, a bad ass Gnome Rogue.
The RPG industry has exploded in the last forty years or so.
Dungeons&Dragons™ is the grand-daddy for fantasy RPGs, originally launching in 1974. Several versions have been published with different rules, but that’s nothing compared to what followed. Today, there are tons of options to choose from in terms of which game to play (horror, sci-fi, fantasy, urban fantasy, military, zombie apocalypse, etc.), but all share three fundamental commonalities: a rules set, a world, and characters.
For the test run at My Friend’s Place, I picked the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons™, D&D™ 5e, as the basis for the rules set. I’m slightly tweaking them to streamline some of the gameplay, though.
Like many RPGs, D&D™ also has several worlds to choose from, each with its own maps, cultures, histories, kingdoms, deities, and monsters. The worlds were created with the intent of integrating into the D&D™ rules set. I’m using the Forgotten Realms™ world as the setting for the game scenario so I don’t have to worry about inventing an entire world from scratch.
Having picked the rules set and the world, the next step is to create characters.
Each RPG has established rules for how to create characters (you usually assign points to various attributes like strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc.), how to assign skills and ability levels (e.g., how well can you swing a sword, cast a magic spell, survive in the wilderness, repair armor, etc.), and how to determine the outcome of a fight (usually a combination of a roll of the dice and the statistics for your character).
Since the initial test run with the My Friend’s Place staff is only a couple of hours, I bring two dozen pre-generated characters for the staff to pick from.
With a rules set, a world, and characters in place, it’s up to someone – called the game master (GM) or alternatively the dungeon master (DM) – to run the players and their characters through a scenario or adventure.
The appeal of RPGs for me is the collaborative storytelling nature of the experience. Rather than just tell the other players what happens or what will happen, the GM begins by describing an initial setting. It could be the RPG equivalent of “you walk into a bar…” or it could be a situation the players are dropped into right off the bat (“you’re all riding in a caravan in the middle of a thick forest when you see several goblins charge at you from both sides of the road”).
Players pretend to be their characters, describing to the GM what their characters do: “I try to pickpocket the rich merchant standing near the fireplace” or “I jump down from the wagon, draw my sword, and attack the nearest kobold.”
And because RPGs are a group activity, players generally have their characters work together. Characters possess unique or special abilities, so surviving a fight or completing a mission often requires teamwork. Finally, recent research has indicated RPGs have therapeutic benefits, and My Friend’s Place is exploring the potential RPGs could have for its clients.
People skills, team building, and planning – these are traits employers demand from their work staff, and RPGs provide a great way to learn these skills. Perhaps best of all, a game like D&D™ provides a safe space to fail. It’s much better to make a selfish decision at the gaming table that results in the death of everyone’s character than to make a selfish decision at work that results in you being fired.
The Many Sides to Role-Playing Games
Typically, players will spend a few hours working with the GM to craft a unique character perfectly suited to the player’s preferences. For me, it’s one of the highlights of RPGs: you can spend as little or as much on this as you like.
In the past, I’ve played characters with almost no background at all, while for others, I’ve written extensive back-stories, documented all kinds of physical traits like scars, tattoos, and mannerisms, and pored over historical and fictional fashion images to decide just how my character dresses. For one spell-casting character, I worked with the GM running the game to create a new kind of magic that didn’t exist in the RPG I was playing (I wasn’t happy with the options in the game).
For this D&D™ scenario, I pre-generated several characters by choosing from a short list of races (Human, Elf, Gnome, Halfing, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, or Dwarf) and a longer list of character classes (Barbarians, Sorcerers, Rangers, Clerics, Rogues, Fighters, Warlocks, etc.).
Each character also has a short background that gives the player something to work with: the city they grew up in, sometimes a hint about their personality, what led them to take up a life of adventuring, and why they are in the town of Highmoon on a cold, winter day.
The staff pick characters they find appealing, read their backgrounds, and then we dive right in to some role playing. While not incredibly imaginative, I decide to use the “you meet at a bar” intro to get all of the characters in the same place at the same time and let the players start interacting in-character. It’s a great start for anyone new to RPGs.
Me: “You all arrive in the town of Highmoon, located in the larger region of Deepingdale. It’s a good-sized town in a thick forest and located on a heavily-used trading road. You notice what look like new fortifications being built. In fact, you can see workers constructing even more trenches, pikes, and walls around the town as you approach. These kinds of defenses are not uncommon, but the fact that the town is adding new ones raises your eyebrows. Okay, let’s start with your character, Kenda. Theodosia walks into the Blooded Boar tavern. It’s just after dusk, it’s cold outside, and the place is packed. What do you do?”
Kenda: “I find a table and start playing cards.”
Me: “Do you join a game or play solitaire?”
Kenda: “Solitaire. I sit by myself.”
Me: “You get a lot of offers to strike up a game, and several drinks find their way to your table.”
Kenda: “I accept the drinks but not the offers.”
Me: “After a half hour or so, you’re still sitting alone at the table, surrounded by goblets. The patrons in the tavern get the message, and you stop being hassled.”
Each of the players takes a turn describing what they do in the tavern. Frank’s male character tries to strike up a conversation with Heather’s female character, but she gives him the cold brush-off (even in a fantasy bar, some things never change). Meanwhile, Susan’s character, JellyBell, is down to her last few coins and eavesdrops on the conversation at the table behind her, hoping to find a paying job, possibly as a scout or guard.
My job as the GM is to realistically react to characters’s actions and tell the players what happens as a result. It sets up a back-and-forth rhythm, creating an improvisational kind of narrative through collaborative storytelling. And I do loves me some collaborative storytelling!
While many people think the goal of the game is to make your character stronger or more powerful and acquire a ton of treasure, the role-playing part of the experience is its strongest aspect. Players can create characters completely different from their own personalities and physical appearance, they can have their characters express things they may not feel comfortable doing themselves, and they can vicariously perform heroic acts with little more than some imagination, a pencil, and some dice.
- cultivating creativity
- improving social skills
- developing problem-solving skills
- depending on the game setting, a greater understanding of history
- fundamental math (the combat rules often require arithmetic calculations)
And of course, they’re a ton of fun!
“An Offer You Can’t Refuse”
Me: “Okay, Utherdark, you step inside the tavern. It’s crowded, mostly humans, a few elves and one or two half-elves. What do you do?”
Gerry: “I walk around, take chicken legs from other people’s plates, drink from their cups, and then find a seat.”
I’m immediately on board with Gerry’s role-playing. He’s playing his character in a way that matches the personality traits of his race (Half-Orc). Even better, he’s stirring up a bit of trouble, making easier for me to play off his character’s actions. If we had more time, I would explore the possibility that Utherdark’s action might cause a bar brawl. As it is, I have to move things along.
Me: “Your character is a half-orc, and while most of the townsfolk here don’t see your kind very often, they’re surprisingly friendly to you. Until you start stealing their food and drink. You get a lot of objections and some hard stares. After you sit down, a very large human comes over, introduces himself as the owner of the tavern and, with a smile, says, ‘Hello, friend. Listen, you can stay as long as you like. We got no problem with your kind here in Highmoon. But you need to stop taking food and drink from my other customers, okay?'”
Gerry: “I hand him two silver coins and a copper and tell him I’ll behave.”
Me: “He hands the coins back and tells you he’ll take your money when you order food or drink. Gerry, you can see he’s not the kind of guy to be bribed, but he’s got no problem if you just want to eat, drink, and pay.”
Gerry: “Okay, I order dinner and some drinks.”
We spend another thirty minutes or so in the Blooded Boar tavern, and, when everyone’s had a chance to stretch their role-playing legs, I kick off the adventure by having the captain of the town’s guard summon the party to a secret meeting with the town’s mayor. Turns out the mayor’s got a bit of a problem on her hands. She offers the party a sizable chunk of change if they agree to get rid of some nasty goblins holed up in a cave down the road.
The goblins have been attacking trade caravans lately, and the mayor’s afraid that if word gets out, merchants will stop shipping goods to the town. If they stop shipping goods to town, there will be less money for its citizens. Less money means unhappy citizens, and unhappy citizens means the mayor may have to answer to a higher authority in Deepingdale (yes, RPGs include elements of politics and economics!).
Matt: “My characters asks the mayor if there’s any chance of a different kind of payment.”
Me: “The mayor seems a little surprised, but she asks what you had in mind.”
Matt: “I ask if we might get something on top of the payment.”
Me: “Matt, the mayor suggests to Yegi that a gold coin per person is good compensation for the task at hand.”
Matt: “I’m thinking about something like, well, preferential treatment in town.”
Me: “The mayor says, ‘Should you accomplish this task, you’ll be publicly thanked by me. That will not go unnoticed by the townsfolk, and I’m sure it will result in discounts and possible favors by certain merchants and artisans in town.'”
Matt continues, eventually getting to his real request: “I ask if perhaps the town would be willing to offer us…protection.”
Me: “The mayor tries to hide a smile, almost successfully. You see the light bulb go off over her head, but you’re disappointed when she shakes her head and replies, ‘For a stranger just arriving into town, you’re asking for quite a lot. I have no idea who you are or what crimes you may have committed. I also don’t know what deeds in your past may bring trouble to my town. For all I know, you’re already a wanted criminal with Deepingdale or The Dale Lands. I’m sorry, I won’t promise something I can’t guarantee.'”
There’s more back and forth between the mayor and the characters, including some great role-playing by Heather. She draws on the background I wrote for her character, Elfia, who is in town to protest a land grant the mayor has given to someone. Elfia’s a druid, and they hate seeing forests cut down or fields plowed over. The person who received the land grant is clearing trees at an alarming rate, and the druid is in Highmoon to protest it.
At first, I have the mayor politely request that they take up the topic after Elfia has completed the current job of removing the goblins. But Elfia doesn’t give up and continues to press the point. Finally, both to speed the game along and to attempt to maintain some realism, I have the mayor opt for a “hot potato” political maneuver.
I have Heather roll what’s called a perception check, which means rolling a 20-sided die in an attempt to roll a number equal to or higher than Elfia’s wisdom attribute. Heather succeeds.
I tell Elfia the mayor is growing exasperated and clearly about to lose it.
Me: “The mayor grits her teeth. ‘As I said, it’s out of my hands. I was imply following orders from Deepningdale. If you’re intent on protesting the land grant, you’ll have to take it up with someone in Deepingdale who has the actual power to reverse the decision.'”
Unhappy but temporarily placated, Elfia agrees to the mission.
Minimal Hurdles, Maximum Results
The addition of new services like gaming is not unheard of at My Friend’s Place. Over its history, the non-profit has altered its model to better accommodate its clients. It experiments with changes to its operations, cutting back on what isn’t working, doubling down on what does, and repeating the process.
The non-profit currently employs a low-barrier approach to its clients: maximum access to services with minimal hurdles (e.g., no lengthy questionnaires or in-depth interviews, especially for first-time visitors). This model has yielded the best results for getting clients into the organization and making them feel comfortable returning again – and that’s critical for moving them along the spectrum from homelessness to self-sufficiency.
Until clients develop enough trust and comfort with staff, they often have a hard time accepting much more than the most basic services. Once they begin frequenting My Friend’s Place, however, some of their personal barriers start to come down, and that’s when the non-profit can bring all of its services to bear.
The challenge, of course, is getting the first-time client to come back again. How can you speed the development of trust with someone who must, for survival reasons, be slow to extend that trust?
The low-barrier model is the first piece, and the second is having more to offer beyond the basics.
One of the lessons My Friend’s Place has learned is that just providing the basics of clothes, food, and temporary shelter isn’t enough for its clients. Long-term growth and sustained self-sufficiency requires nourishing the soul as well as the body. To that end, the non-profit has found ways to do just that.
“Creating opportunities for young people to feel more like a young person than their current circumstance of homelessness is super critical for their growth and development. These kind of ‘out of the traditional box’ engagement experiences can positively shake up a young person’s hesitation to partner with staff.” – Heather Carmichael, Executive Director of My Friend’s Place
Clients have access to a wide variety of creative experiences, including improv, sewing, photography, circus arts, painting, journaling, drawing, creative writing, music, jewelry, and more. They can express themselves, pick up new skills, and find outlets for their creativity not available on the streets.
Within this existing creative program structure, the addition of board games and RPGs, especially given the benefits they offer, should hardly be a surprise.
The Deal Sours
Back in Highmoon, the entire party eventually signs on to the mayor’s secret mission, and they are led out of town in the middle of the night by the captain of the town guard. He’s taking them to a cave not far from town that’s known to be a base of operations for some goblins…and, according to the captain, something a lot more powerful. And very, very evil.
Along the way, the characters ask the captain various questions, and he reveals more about what the party is up against. Scouts and informants have discovered that whatever else is in the cave with the goblins presents an immediate threat to Highmoon. If the party can take out the entire cave, they will put a huge dent in the Storm Giant’s mobilization of forces and provide some much-needed relief to the town. Then the captain pauses.
Me: “The captain looks torn. He clearly wants to say something, but he’s struggling with whether to mention it. Finally, he says, ‘Look, I have no qualm with any of you, and you need to know things aren’t that going that well for Highmoon. Up north, Deepingdale is dealing with an invasion of dark elves named the Drow, and down here, there’s a Storm Giant that’s been demanding tribute from Highmoon in exchange for not attacking the town. We’ve requested additional troops from Deepingdale, but I’m not hopeful they can spare them.'”
The characters ask more questions, and I answer them. More of the pieces fall into place.
Me: “The captain sighs and responds, ‘The mayor has refused to pay the Storm Giant’s tribute for three years, and so far he hasn’t attacked the town. But recently the Storm Giant’s goblins have been slowly moving around our town, attacking caravans and anyone else unlucky enough to be caught wandering alone outside. Highmoon is nearly surrounded by dozens of small goblin armies, and it’s only a matter of time before the Storm Giant makes good on his threat.'”
One of the players has their character ask why the mayor simply doesn’t pay the tribute.
Me: “The captain shakes his head. ‘First of all, even if the mayor paid the ten thousand gold tribute, there’s nothing stopping the giant from attacking anyway. Second of all, while the mayor could potentially pay ten thousand a year for a while, the giant won’t stop there. Next time it will be fifteen, and then twenty, and if he hasn’t already attacked us, he’ll keep asking for more. With Deepingdale focused on the Drow elf invasion, we’re on our own.'”
The players – via their characters – finally put the pieces into place.
Highmoon is already losing money due to the attacks on caravans, but if word gets out that Highmoon can’t protect its trade routes, the losses will quickly mount up – and the Storm Giant may accelerate the timing of his attack. Meanwhile, the town’s losing guards faster than it can replace them as they try to stamp out the invasion of goblins. Finally, Deepingdale is unlikely to help out if Highmoon actually comes under attack.
It also becomes clear the mayor views the party as expendable. Moreover, she’s in a win/win situation. If the party fails, she doesn’t have to pay them anything, no one will ever find out they were killed trying to protect the town, and Highmoon hasn’t lost any guards. If the party succeeds, the mayor’s out a few gold coins in exchange for buying a lot more time to prepare for the Storm Giant’s attack.
Due to time constraints, I speed the party and the story along.
“This is No Cave…”
Me: “The captain leads you all to a cave about a mile north of the road you’ve been traveling, and after dispatching the two goblins guarding the entrance, he waves you all inside.”
The clock on the wall indicates I’m quickly running out of time, but I want to make sure the group has a chance for at least a taste of combat. I skip more content I had planned for them and get them as quickly as possible to the big, bad enemy in the goblin cave. As the group bursts into a large cavern, I describe what they see.
Me: “There’s somewhere between a dozen and twenty goblins scattered around the cavern, which is about twenty feet high, sixty feet across, and fifty feet across. Across the cavern, you see a robed, hooded humanoid figure with its back to you. It’s standing in front of an altar that’s covered in something dark and wet. Roll for initiative.”
The players each roll a 20-sided die and add a 1, 2, or 3 to their roll, depending on their dexterity attribute. The highest roll goes first, the lowest roll goes second. We determine the order for combat, and the characters wade into battle.
A few manage to hit and damage some goblins, while others miss altogether. Five minutes past our cut-off time, we reluctantly brings things to a close, with each staff member getting exactly one round of combat under their belts. I didn’t even have time for the goblins to attack back, much less have the party discover more about the hooded figure.
I discuss the experience with the staff, and even though we didn’t finish even my short adventure, the consensus is universally positive. I mentally make several notes about things I need to prepare or brush up on before the “live” session with clients before packing up my books and materials.
All in all, the session went well, and I leave My Friend’s Place with a big smile on my face. And why not? I had just completed a dream of mine: be the GM for an RPG adventure I created.
As a player, I always enjoyed the role-playing aspect of RPGs the most, but I was happy to learn it’s just as much fun – perhaps more so – as a GM.
In all fairness, my debut was humble beginnings. I was trying to cram a few hours of game content into ninety minutes, and I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I wanted to be. I struggled with keeping track of half a dozen characters and twice that during combat (as the GM, I have to roll for every goblin!).
But those are things I can easily fix the next time around, and a good thing, too. A few days later I learn the staff has green-lit the RPG experience for an official gaming session with clients the following week.
So, who was the hooded figure in the cavern? Would all of the characters have survived the combat with the goblins? Will the mayor double-cross the party or make good on her promise to pay? Will the party stick around Highmoon and continue exterminating goblins? Will they eventually take the fight the Storm Giant? Or will they collect their gold from the mayor and skip out of town at sunrise for a new adventure down the road?
Even I don’t know the answers to all of those questions, but when I re-run the scenario for some of the clients, I’m determined to give them a chance to find out!
Sharing Hope and Possibly a Smile
My Friend’s Place’s cause is super easy to get behind: who doesn’t want to help homeless young people become more self-sufficient, find employment, and ultimately get off the streets? That was certainly a big reason why I got involved over five years ago and continue to be active on its board.
Of the estimated 6,000 homeless youth in Los Angeles, My Friend’s Place serves around 1,400 of them a year. Many are dealing with multiple life challenges and several fall on the riskiest end of the homeless spectrum.
Faced with such stark realities, it’s easy to consider the situation hopeless.
But as I started working with the staff at My Friend’s Place, I realized that’s far from true. There are many things we can do to help these young people, beginning with organizations like My Friend’s Place. And supporting this particular non-profit brings its own joys.
There are no egos walking the halls at My Friend’s Place, and despite performing tasks that have high burn-out rates and require near limitless patience, I can’t think of a single instance where a staff member was anything but optimistic and positive about the work they do. The staff aren’t just doing their jobs, they’re in the service of fulfilling a mission – and they’re doing it with an inspiring level of passion and commitment.
When it comes to my relationship with My Friend’s Place, I often say I came for the cause but I stayed for the staff, and that’s still true five and half years later. I found several reasons for me to continue supporting this organization.
As the holidays rush towards us this season, I encourage you to consider supporting My Friend’s Place in some way and for your own reasons.
Want to help but don’t have the time or money? No problem.
The next time you shop at Amazon, be sure to start at http://smile.amazon.com. After you log in, select My Friend’s Place as the non-profit you want to support, and Amazon will donate a portion of their profits from your purchase directly to the non-profit.
Regardless of whether you decide to support My Friend’s Place, know that it and several other organizations around town are filled with amazing people doing amazing things. And somewhere, one of them might even be playing a bad ass Gnome Rogue. That alone should bring some hope to the holidays!