Dice, dragons and dinosaurs bring Salem kids together after school

Highland Elementary fifth-grader Emma Donecker, center, shows off new Dungeons and Dragons manuals for the school’s roleplaying game club, now in its second year (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Last school year Emma Donecker and Aly Mason fought a dragon, talked to a moon goddess, adopted a dinosaur and saved a small town.

Now, they’re getting ready to do it again.

The fifth-graders are members of Highland Elementary School’s roleplaying club, started in the spring by two teachers looking for a way to engage kids after school.

“Right away I was super interested because my parents play Dungeons and Dragons,” Donecker said. She was among about 25 students who signed up for an eight-week game, played in one-hour increments Fridays after school.

“It was super interesting, like nothing I’ve ever played before,” she said of the game.

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Role-playing games are a form of guided, collaborative storytelling that can take many forms.

Dungeons and Dragons, perhaps the best-known, and Pathfinder, a spinoff with similar rules, are fantasy-based. Players create a character, who may be human, dwarf, elf or another race, and give that character a fantasy role like wizard, bard, fighter or monk.

Each character has skills that may come in handy while adventuring, like intelligence, diplomacy, perception, healing and survival.

Leaders, called dungeon masters, guide players through an adventure which has a semi-prewritten narrative that leaves room for improvisation and chance as characters test their skills, often by rolling dice to determine the outcome of a spell cast or attack on a foe.

Guided by teachers and other adults who volunteered to help, the Highland students worked together to rescue artifacts and fight spiders, magical bulls and other creatures in a Pathfinder game.

Sarah Dixon, a speech pathologist at Highland, started the club almost by accident after a joke at a school staff meeting.

Sarah Dixon, a Highland Elementary School speech pathologist, started the school’s roleplaying club with teacher Mitchell Daily in the spring of 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Highland has an after-school running club for students, led by volunteer teachers, and Dixon said they’d have to start an indoor club to balance it out, perhaps focused on gaming.

“Everybody knows I’m like, allergic to exercise,” Dixon said.

About a week later, special education teacher Mitchell Daily asked Dixon if she’d been serious. They got the club going soon after, making presentations in fourth and fifth-grade classrooms to get kids interested.

The teachers said some students lost interest when they learned it wasn’t a video gaming club. But many were intrigued by the collaborative aspect.

“The idea of having something like that be collaborative not competitive is somewhat novel for a lot of them,” Daily said.

Mason had mostly played video roleplaying games, never anything like Dungeons and Dragons. But she stepped in with aplomb, bringing in rulebooks to help the group.

“I raised my hand immediately,” Mason said.

She played as a druid cat person with a pet dinosaur named “Chompy.” She intends to create a new character for this year’s club, but her companion will remain.

“I’m keeping Chompy!” she said.

Donecker was a cleric tiefling, a human-like race with tails and horns.

Both said as fourth-graders, the club helped them meet older classmates they might not have interacted with otherwise.

“It helps people learn. It helps people work together,” Donecker said.

Aly Mason, a Highland Elementary School fifth-grader, looks through a Dungeons and Dragons book for the school’s roleplaying game club (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

It also made them look forward to going to school on Fridays, when the club met.

Donecker said she liked spending time with students who have the same interests she does.

“Everybody in there is a nerd,” she said approvingly.

Dixon and Daily are seeking adult volunteers to help the club in its second season, which will meet after school on Thursdays once students return from winter break.

They’re also looking for donations of figurines or other fantasy gaming pieces that will help bring the game to life for students as they play.

Ginger McCall, Oregon’s former public records advocate, volunteered with the club several times last spring and said it was a highlight of her last year in the state.

“It was just really fun to spend time with the kids and see how enthusiastic they are,” she said.

McCall had previous experience as a dungeon master, but said the rulebooks and outlines provided by Highland teachers made it simple, even for an adult with no prior experience.

“Anyone can run a game,” she said.

Some of the role-playing club students who have gone on to middle school are planning to come back this spring and help out, Dixon said.

She got battle maps, new dice and books from donors on crowdfunding website this fall to make the second season of RPG club more interactive.

Mason and Donecker are already making plans for their new characters.

“Every campaign has a new adventure,” said Donecker.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.