Designing a D&D Campaign for Middle Schoolers – The Tutorial Section

Running a D&D Campaign for Middle Schoolers – the Tutorial and Learning to Play

As I mentioned in an earlier article, I’ve been running a D&D club for middle schoolers at a local school. I had more interest than slots, and decided to run the club just one day a week to maintain my sanity. Let’s quickly review what I said I would do…

  • Have a Session Zero – did that, but it took longer than expected with a group of 12 year olds, which meant it occupied one afternoon session and perhaps half a dozen lunch sessions with smaller groups.
  • The World – I definitely got carried away with this, (The campaign bible alone is nearly 55 pages now and growing) but it links to Temerrit and the modules I’ve already designed there, which means that some of the work was already done. But I realized that, to slim down the options available to students, I had to slim down other things, such as backgrounds, backstories, pantheon, etc. That took a while, but it did help in the design phase.
  • Character Sheets – I probably should have found a more basic one, or pre-generating characters but I ended up going with the regular version here. It added work on the front end, but I think it will be benefit all the PCs and me in the long run.

So now what? I’ve finally gotten a group of brand new and “veteran” players, I need to find a way to build their skills as players while also keeping them on the straight and narrow. As I said earlier, this is a good campaign for good PCs to help save the world (regardless of what some of my desperate to be chaotic evil PCs want it to be). I’ve got less than two hours each week to work with them, we don’t really have time for such complications. What we need is a tutorial!

Taking inspiration from several other D&D bloggers, and rereading a handful of the D&D official starter modules (which, lets be honest, aren’t the best at fully introducing new players so much as they are a set up for a broader campaign), I designed a tutorial set of missions for this campaign, which I’ve called “The Ties that Bind Us”. The goal of this tutorial campaign is to build my newest (and veteran alike) PC ability to…

  • Interact with other PCs
  • Evaluate a situation
  • Use all components of their character sheet
  • develop and expand their role playing ability.

The tutorial campaign, much like a video game’s tutorial, takes place with an NPC escort – Garjean, an itinerant peddler who is traveling the Loop Road, has known the PCs in some capacity for quite some time, and is looking for an escort for the six day journey. This gives the GM a way to be like “hey, you’re not doing what I’m *paying* you to do” as well as keep the PCs connected to a specific task. The mission structure looks something like this…

  1. Day 1 – Engaging in conversation (Or how to negotiate, communicate, and describe a situation with each other and with NPCs)
  2. Day 2 – The Spooked Horses (Or how to interact with an NPC and use various skills)
  3. Day 3 & 4 – The Rainstorm & The Farm (Or how to interact with your environment and work together – advantage, disadvantage, countdown)
  4. Day 5 (night) – Blight Night (taking watch, combat tutorial)
  5. Day 6 – Arrival in the next town (summary lesson, putting it all together).

Is the campaign a railroad? Yes, absolutely, and the reason there is an NPC to escort is to help keep it on the rails. Anyone who has ever tried to keep a conversation with a group of middle schoolers focused on one thing knows perfectly well how challenging it is. In Campaign day 1, the party managed to actually get on the road, right to the cusp of day 2. While I would have hoped for more, I was actually pleasantly surprised that we managed to get that far!

One thing that is critical for all of these situations is the use of either initiative order or table position order. You always have several more outgoing people at the table, so ensuring that everyone, especially new people, have their opportunity to think, act, and roll without the influence of other PCs is critical. With 7 PCs, making sure that everyone is always thinking about ‘what they’re about to do’ and if they don’t, providing a non-harmful consequence. “You, Borogon, Human Fighter are frozen in surprise as the bridge begins to collapse… Lillian, what does Elendil, the Pixie Ranger do seeing that her friend is too surprised to move?” Limiting down time keeps the game going, builds suspense, and keeps all players invested. Obviously, how I respond to a brand new player is different from my more veteran ones, but expecting them to be thinking about their turn and actions is an expected part of Dungeons and Dragons.

Another key thing is to keep the sense of both concern and urgency behind the GM’s curtain. Rolling dice, making faces, and describing the situation as slowly getting worse while also providing clues on how to help the situation, without making that the final solution. “Looks like the farmer’s losing a lot of blood as they are pinned under this beam, surely one of you could use some medicine or healing skills to help her out.” A cleric or paladin could use a healing spell, which might slow the problem, but the farmer still being trapped under a beam means that they have to do a different action to solve this problem.

Finally, the tutorial contains a variety of encounters, but is focused primarily on non-combat encounters. Combat is fun and what everyone (especially middle schoolers) thinks of when they think of D&D, but many of the key components of D&D are hidden in NPC & PC interactions within the world. This tutorial aims to build PC abilities to do that. Of the seven ‘events’ only two are combat, while three are ‘urgent situations’ that involve initiative / order. The other two are communication / environmental interaction events. This spreads teh burden among a variety of skills and ensures everyone has a chance to shine.

I’ll be posting the full tutorial later on DM’s Guild after I clean it up somewhat, but I’m truly excited to be running this campaign. It’s definitely stretching my skills as both a teacher and a game master.

Anything you think I need to add? If so, let me know in the comments below and I can make it happen! While you’re here, check out my other DM’s Guild products here!


Author: Daniel Ottalini

Author of the Award-Winning Steam Empire Chronicles Series

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