In an unassuming red-brick building between Capitol Hill and the Central District, a pirate thief named Scarlet is plotting to overthrow the king and queen.
Hired by a humble elf to end the plutocratic reign of the twin regents, Scarlet and a band of adventurers infiltrated a castle last month, passed themselves off as royals from abroad, and had begun plotting a surprise attack when their parents arrived to pick them up.
In our world, Scarlet is Stella McDaniel, a sixth grader at Lake Washington Girls Middle School. But every Friday afternoon, she becomes a rogue in a game of Dungeons & Dragons that has captured the imagination of the student body and, even more impressively, has prompted dozens of students to remain after school for hours.
Though described as quiet by her parents and teachers, Stella lights up when describing her group's adventures, and she acknowledges that the game has changed her over the last few months. "I guess I'm more confident," she said after effusively recounting Scarlet's exploits. "There's a lot of decision making in D&D, and even if you make mistakes, you can usually fix them."
She paused, then added in a brash tone that one might expect from a pirate thief, "Unless you die."
After listening to my conversation with her normally reserved child, Stella's mom, Mandy Levenberg, texted me: "Wow. My kid just blew me away."
Stella isn't alone in her newfound enthusiasm for tabletop role-playing games. In the last year, about a third of the school's students have started playing Dungeons & Dragons. A game stereotypically enjoyed by nerdy boys has become the latest pastime for local girls ages 11 to 13.
That's thanks in large part to Ethan "Mr. E" Schoonover, the school's technology director, who started the D&D club with only a few students. Over the last year, he's watched as the game helped formerly shy girls emerge from their shells, learn leadership skills, and unleash their imagination with a confidence they never knew they had.
Though it was a hard sell at first, Schoonover knew how to win over parents and colleagues. "I emphasize that there's face-to-face interaction—and no screens involved," he said.
An average session of D&D consists of a small group of people collaboratively describing a fantasy adventure that exists in their shared imagination, not unlike a drama club improv game. The rules are simple—essentially, all a player needs to know to begin is that they determine what their character does, and then they roll a special set of dice to find out whether their character succeeds. Players can customize characters to excel at certain skills, allowing them to boost the result of dice rolls—and so the game simultaneously hones inquisitive storytelling skills and strategic planning.
But that explanation doesn't capture what actually happens at the table—laughter, tension, seat-of-your-pants fantasy adventures in settings as varied as medieval hamlets, vampire castles, and outer space. The game is a reason to socialize, to relax, to challenge yourself, and to tell a story as a group.
There are three separate D&D programs at Lake Washington Girls Middle School. The Friday afternoon club has been happening for a little over a year and includes about 30 members. There's also a summer camp between school years and an elective class that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the semester.
Schoonover grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons in rural Wisconsin in the late-1970s and early-'80s, à la the boys of Stranger Things. "It was a game marketed toward people like me," he said. "I've had a sense of ownership of the game and never thought twice about it."
Schoonover spent the first half of his career working in tech for multinational advertising firms. A few years ago, feeling like something was missing, both he and his wife (a former hedge fund analyst) decided to leave their old jobs behind and pursue more meaningful work as educators.
He immediately noted that young women and girls didn't feel as though D&D was for them—ironic, given that the team that originally developed the game included women like Jean Wells, Penny Williams, and Rose Estes.
"There were almost no girls here who knew anything about D&D," he said. "One of the girls brought up Stranger Things, and we talked about starting the club." He explained that he wanted to foster the same sense of D&D ownership that he experienced in his youth.
The club started with six students and gradually grew to around 30. It might have remained an extracurricular activity if it hadn't caught the attention of Lindsey Mutschler, a seventh grade humanities teacher and dean of teaching and learning. Mutschler works with faculty to write curricula and align study between classes, and her interest was piqued by the sight of students spending hours engaged in self- directed storytelling, art, and math.
"I had never played D&D," she said. "I knew what it was, but I'd never seen it in action. And it was a combination of storytelling and play and drama and math and statistics—there were clear curricular connections that we could put in action, formalize, and name."
Mutschler approached Schoonover about turning the club into a class, and they came up with the name "Swords, Stories, and Statistics."
"We've always been pretty playful with our electives," said Mutschler, who also teaches a graphic novel class. In this case, "It just took off. I would hear them talking about story lines between classes. It lives beyond the walls of the club, and it was really cool to see an imaginary world that they'd created."
There was some initial skepticism. "I heard the question 'Isn't that devil worship?'" Schoonover recalled. That's a holdover from the "satanic panic" of the 1980s, during which religious fundamentalists convinced large swaths of the country that literal devils lurked behind everyday activities. In truth, Dungeons & Dragons is as connected to devil worship as a game of Parcheesi, though the stigma lingers. "I hear all the time from educators in the southern United States that it's a huge issue to overcome," Schoonover said.
There was also the somewhat more germane question of educational relevance. "I was skeptical at first," Mutschler admitted, but said she changed her mind after she eavesdropped on the club. "There is clear story structure here, there's definitely math, and those connections became clear."
And there's another benefit: The class has sparked obvious excitement in learning, even among students who didn't initially think they'd be interested.
When parent Jason Leong helped his daughter Hi'ilei choose her classes for the current semester, he noticed that "Swords, Sorcery, and Statistics" was actually all about D&D. Once Hi'ilei realized what she was in for, she wanted to back out, but he encouraged her to give it a try.
"After the first session, she just couldn't stop gushing about how much she loved it," he said. "As a parent, I really enjoyed seeing her try something new... It became her passion."
As the game's popularity grew, Schoonover invited guests to visit, including designers from Renton-based Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro-owned publisher of D&D, and local independent creators.
One of those guest speakers was Jen Vaughn. An artist and performer, Vaughn created the cover of this issue of The Stranger, illustrates and writes for the monthly role-playing periodical Rolled & Told, and also appears on the D&D podcast d20 Dames. (Full disclosure: I myself host a D&D podcast called Queens of Adventure, and I've collaborated with Vaughn on crossover projects.)
On her first visit to the school, "I created a bunch of humanoid, gnome, dwarf, and tiefling bases—basically paper dolls, but not gendering them," Vaughn said, and showed the students various illustration techniques. She recently returned to do the same with mounted steeds.
"That's one of my favorite things to draw, and it's the bane of many cartoonists," she said. "So I was like, 'I'm going to start the kids off young.' And one of them was like, 'Now I can draw one thing!'"
But these lessons are about more than just drawing horses. "It's showing them the creativity within borders," Vaughn said. "A lot of times if you give a kid a piece of paper, it's intimidating. Provide them with a little structure, and they go bananas."
Minimal though the requirements are, the game's framework provides a lattice for student creativity. Vaughn helped one student design a costume that doubled as a giant bagpipe and also a floatation device that could come in handy during a water landing. Another student wanted a giant hedgehog mount, and so they worked out what kind of saddle it would require.
"It's more than a game," she explained. "They're working on world-building together. They're working on creative problem solving. And because it's so open-ended, there's the impetus to not just reach for a weapon."
As is the case for many women, Vaughn felt for years like she wasn't welcome in geek culture, despite her enthusiasm. An occasional renfaire performer, "I grew up reading fantasy books from the library, and I would put myself in the male character," she said.
She gave Piers Anthony's classic Xanth fantasy novels a shot, but was disappointed to find hacky sexism: "All women are the same inside. They differ only in appearance and talent. They all use men," reads a line in the first book of the series, 1977's A Spell for Chameleon.
"It was like someone handing me a sword, and I'm like, 'Cool sword!' But it's also stabbing me at the same time," she recalled. "Someone once said, 'Being a woman is realizing all the things you loved as a kid hate you.'"
Her experience isn't unique. When I asked Mutschler if she'd ever played, she sounded apologetic. "You know, I always wanted to in high school and college, and I never got up the nerve," she said. "I thought, 'It's a boy's game. I'm going to make a fool of myself.'"
"When I was younger, it was not really open to me," said Mandy Levenberg, Stella's mother. "My brother and his friends would go in the basement and play these endless sessions of D&D, and I never once got invited. I didn't have any girlfriends who were peers who were playing D&D."
Now, watching the impact of the game on her daughter, she notes: "The aperture has opened on a game that was largely male... She is just enamored. Most kids want to be done with their day, and she looks forward to it every week... We've found her to be her most extroverted self in the context of D&D at school."
"She's a little bit of an introvert and a little bit of a rural kid," said Stella's father, Clay McDaniel. "I think the imagination and the storytelling that a multiday, multilayered campaign brings out of everyone who plays has caused her to make worlds. And then she wants to share them with us... That excitement is more than we normally get from her."
"It's the right place for her," said Levenberg. "Removing stigma from things that, at that age, could have stigma attached to them."
Schoonover has observed similar effects with other students. "I see girls who didn't know each other, didn't know each other's names, girls across grades who hang out and talk in the halls, eating lunch together. Friendships have been forged."
He said parents have commented in wonder that their kids are excited to come to school on the days they get to play D&D. When classes were canceled during February's snowpocalypse, Schoonover got an e-mail about a group of girls who'd gathered at a parent's house to continue their adventure, and had recruited a neighbor boy who was new to the game.
"It's a perfect inversion of my experience in the '80s," Schoonover said.
This isn't the first time that experts have noted the developmental benefits of role-play. Kirkland-based nonprofit Game to Grow uses D&D in a therapeutic context, with game sessions run by licensed therapists.
Schoonover has picked up some pointers from the organization, like the observation that player-generated characters may be aspirational or de-aspirational. "So I try to be aware of the type of character the student is playing," he said. "Are they playing a character that reflects their anxieties?... That can shape the questions I ask them: 'How can your character come out, they're feeling really shy, what can they do for themselves to make themselves more comfortable talking to the guard at the gate?'"
Schoonover is currently working on resources for teachers who want to introduce D&D into their classrooms, and he invites other educators to get in touch through his website or Twitter. His advice? "Try to identify a couple of students that can be your enthusiastic supporters, who really want to play. And try to be really present." A little adult supervision, he found, goes a long way in setting up students for success and giving them the nudge they need to become leaders.
"Some people might think it's nerdy," said Stella. "It's much more fun, you use your imagination a lot. I think people who play D&D are super cool."