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Role-playing games pull reluctant school kids into a supportive crowd

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Each weekday at about 2 p.m., between 15 and 35 kids ages 6 to 18 (about one-quarter of them girls) break down the front door, pour up the stairs, and burst into The Game Loft's "Great Hall." The adjacent kitchen serves up hot food, sometimes the only nutritionally sound meal kids might get all day. They grab a brownie or bowl of chicken soup, separate into small groups (usually fewer than eight players) and head to the various rooms that host the game sessions. Once settled and fed, the kids quickly get down to the business of role-playing as elves and wizards, or plotting strategy as Jedi knights and military commanders.

But an unsupervised, free-for-all role-playing game can be just as cruel as a playground game of dodgeball. That's why game moderators like Tom Foster structure "intentional games" with outcomes that reinforce the center's principles such as fair play and cooperation.

In one room, called "The Savage Room" and decorated with maps and a suit of armor, Mr. Foster, who has been playing D&D since the 1970s, ran a multiweek, modified D&D game. He schooled his 12-to-15-year-old protégés in surviving the elaborate dungeon he'd designed and stocked with traps and monsters.

But when the adventuring party – "a group of misfits," as Foster affectionately called them – stepped on a tripwire, a cage opened that unleashed a bloodthirsty rhino.

Hands shot up, offering solutions. "I'm going to hide!" one girl shouted. "I've got an epic plan!" blurted another. "I want to jump on its back!" said another, whose character, inexplicably, took his clothes off and, via magic, turned invisible.

"Hold it, everyone! Focus," Foster said. "You've got a very large animal with three horns after you and you're arguing among yourselves." Eventually, they tricked the rhino into running into a vault and slammed the door. Success.

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