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'Kids Adventuring League' cultivates community, nurtures vital skills through Dungeons and Dragons

Mia Leonard, wearing elf ears and a floral crown, talks with other players during a recent Friday Dungeons & Dragons meetup. Gamemaster Brett Paul, on right, organizes the sessions as a means of helping the children develop. (Matthew Cupelli/WUFT News)
Mia Leonard, wearing elf ears and a floral crown, talks with other players during a recent Friday Dungeons & Dragons meetup. Gamemaster Brett Paul, on right, organizes the sessions as a means of helping the children develop. (Matthew Cupelli/WUFT News)

The group’s fate was sealed behind a 20-sided die.

For a moment, the carefree air of the gaming room shifted. Some stood up to watch the fortuitous roll with their own eyes.

“Make a deception check,” said the gamemaster Brett Paul.

The dice bounced across the table.

One. A critical failure.

The band of 12-year-old adventurers burst into hilarious panic as a horde of angry werewolves attacked, seeing through their ruse.

Each Friday, the group of seven children gathers at PunkOuter Games, 13 NW Eighth Ave. in Gainesville, to play the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Their quest is to defeat the evil vampire known as Strahd von Zarovich. The weekly sessions are something the adventurers and their parents value greatly, they said.

They were strangers before, but as player Mia Leonord said, they became friends “very, very quickly.” During one recent weekly meetup, they shared KitKats and Pringles while fighting their way out of a dangerous catacomb.

Mia said she wanted to play D&D ever since she watched “Stranger Things” on Netflix. Her mother Danielle Leonard bought her some starting materials, but they lacked an expert to run the game. Then, they met Paul.

He began the Kids Adventuring League last October. The philosophy graduate student prepares and runs their two-hour-long sessions.

Mother Elizabeth McConney said Dungeons and Dragons is the first main extracurricular that her son Orin has truly enjoyed. They’ve tried all sorts of sports, she said, but his interest has always waned. D&D is different because of its evolving nature.

“Every week is a different adventure,” she said.

D&D combines storytelling and strategy. Players assume the roles of characters and roll dice to determine the outcome of events. The performative nature of the game allows children to try on different identities — something necessary for developing young adults, Paul said.

When he was younger, Paul attended what he called an “oppressively religious” private school. D&D was his only outlet. Playing in a gaming store was “crucial in forming my sense of self and saving me from depression as a teenager,” he said.

Since then, he’s wanted to cultivate that space for others. The parents are happy he does.

Father Nick Rains said he appreciates how the Adventuring League gives his daughter a space to meaningfully socialize. Rains, who used to play in high school, said the game teaches leadership and teamwork. “I’m sad that it’s only two hours once a week,” he said.

Paul said the game develops many necessary skills. He’s watched his adventurers get better at everything from arithmetic to resource management. Players must negotiate important decisions and organize themselves, he said

After sessions, Paul checks in with parents. One thing they’ve told him they appreciate about his sessions is how they provide a safe space for those on the autism spectrum. The highly structured nature of D&D provides clear guidelines for those who may struggle with picking up social cues.

Danielle Leonard said she’s grateful her daughter has the opportunity to play consistently. Her daughter has always been quick to make friends, she said, but she feels like Mia “finally found her people.”

During each car ride home, she listens eagerly to her daughter ramble about the campaign’s developments.

“It’s the best night of her week,” Leonard said.

PunkOuter Games hosts free drop-in Dungeons & Dragons games each Saturday for anyone over the age of 16 who wants to play. Information about the Kids Adventuring Leaguecan be found on its website.

Since playing D&D, Mia has immersed herself in fantasy. In April, she wrote a completely original Dungeons & Dragons game for her family. When they played, she brought out homemade props to bring the story to life.

“These are her people,” her mother said while gesturing around the gaming store, “and this is her place.”

Matthew is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.