Scaling vertical cliffs, slaying giant beasts, and exploring gleaming new cities with a group of best friends – is there any better way to unwind after a long day at school?
These adventures and more are a weekly occurrence for the members of Wiscasset Middle High School’s Dungeons & Dragons club. For a couple hours each week, club members congregate in the library, assume alternative identities, and, together, embark on journeys and quests of mythic scales.
Club advisor and WMHS career and technical education and STEM teacher Stephan Puff described the club as a mixture of “creativity and chaos” on Jan. 8. As advisor, Puff doesn’t miss out on the action. That afternoon, he had joined forces with the middle school players under the guise of Morgra Guttersnipe, a young, 2-foot, 8-inch tall hobgoblin, to accompany them on their quest.
“He’s small and naïve, but a crack shot with his whip,” Puff said.
For the uninitiated and possibly mystified, Dungeons & Dragons, commonly shortened to D&D, is what’s known as a fantasy role-playing game – or, for those really in the know, an RPG. Players receive or create character sheets at the beginning of the game with information about the persona they will assume, including such details as special powers, possessions, and background.
Another player shapes the trajectory of the game, facilitating adventure by guiding the group through an imagined world. This is the dungeon master, or DM; on Jan. 8, this role was filled by middle schooler Kai Morse and high schooler Daniel Dotson.
A measure of randomness is introduced to the game’s plot by the last necessary component: a set of many-sided dice, tosses of which can determine the outcome of players’ actions.
The result of this fairly loose structure is that the game becomes “a world of pure imagination,” as WMHS senior Damon Lincoln put it.
“The game itself is very fun … and the social aspects of it I enjoy,” he said.
On the afternoon of Jan. 8, the WMHS library was filled with the boisterous laughter and excitement of 11 students as both middle and high schoolers immersed themselves in imagined worlds.
Middle school and high school students play separate games, Puff said, to accommodate the wide range in ages represented among the club’s members. The older students, for example, get a kick out of having their characters stop in at a pub or bar. For middle schoolers, though, he said, such a venue – make-believe or not – is off the table.
The club’s younger members still manage to get themselves into some remarkable, fictional scrapes. Within a short window on Jan. 8, the students slayed and skinned a fanged monster and several other enemies in rapid succession before striking a deal to locate a mysterious stranger’s lost, beloved pet.
At an adjacent table, meanwhile, the older students’ game progressed a bit more slowly as the players put shrewd consideration into their moves and carefully thought through strategies. On Jan. 8, these players approached a gleaming city and met its inhabitants; they also continually joked with and ragged on one another, provoking laughter that spilled out of the library and through the emptying halls of the school.
D&D at WMHS began in the late 2010s in the alternative-education program at the school. Puff, who at the time was an educational technician, facilitated games when time allowed during the school day, and noticed that it was a great way to connect with the kids and encourage them to stretch their imaginations.
Though the club disbanded during the COVID-19 pandemic, it had a resurgence last year, with more than 10 regular members in the 2022-23 school year.
“We have more students than some of the sports teams,” Puff laughed.
Last year, students raised money for the club by designing fantastical packaging for vending-machine snacks – such as, for example, Fantastical Fruits rock candy. They used the funds to attend a screening of a D&D movie – “Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” – in Topsham, with 15 students in attendance.
Students said that what they like about the club is the opportunity to be imaginative with others in the unique way that D&D allows.
“It’s really funny to hear everyone’s jokes in the game,” said sophomore Erik Dube, who joined the club this year after being intrigued by posters around school. Dube called D&D “entertainment that I want to keep coming back to.”
The existence of the D&D club also provides an opportunity for like-minded students to unite and enjoy a niche interest that requires community in order to exist.
“I had wanted to play D&D for a while and when I heard there was a club here, ‘Perfect,’ I thought,” said Lincoln. “I didn’t have anyone to play with before.”
Now, Lincoln and D&D club’s other members have a group to explore, imagine, and laugh with every week.
The joy of D&D is owed largely, said Puff, to how it brings players together for a shared experience. Dungeon masters might use computers to keep track of details, and players occasionally may look up details about monsters on a D&D database, but on Jan. 8, most players referenced only their intricately drawn character sheets and were thoroughly engrossed in the game. As the afternoon wore on, the game only increased in drama and high stakes, informed by the richness of the students’ imaginations.
“The fun of D&D is that it’s face-to-face,” Puff said. “Having them laughing and being silly – like this.”