Tabletop Summer Camp at Home!
Camps are a great way to experience new things. As a kid, you are thrown out of your comfort zone and sent off into the world without your parents. It can be, at the least, intimidating and a little nerve wracking at first. Soon you realize that everyone else is in the same boat and you find yourself quickly making new friends and having the greatest summer vacation ever. As an adult, being a summer camp counsellor is a challenging experience as well, for very different reasons!
Despite the setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic or maybe because of them, I felt I needed to do something to make my kids’ long summer vacation a little more memorable. Sure, we are trying to take day trips within our province now that restrictions are slowly easing but nothing is really open as far as open air museums or events. So we look for sights to see and visit, in the smartest and safest ways possible while respecting others because, well, we are all in this together!
A simple idea
Three weeks ago, as I was recalling the summers of my youth, I was trying to think of things for the kids to do during what is an unusually long vacation. How about sending the kids to camp? But at home! It seemed like such an obvious thing to do and after months of being mostly confined at home, I definitely needed something a little crazy to spice up these odd new times we now live in!
What follows here is the tale of how it all unfolded and why I think you should do something similar, with your kids, your friends or other family members!
Summer 2020 is certainly proving to be very different for many of us. Regardless of where you live, there’s no going around the fact that, for the time being, everyday life is not going to get back to what it was for quite a bit longer. Solutions to eradicate the virus will come. In the meantime, it is always useful to think of personal solutions that make our lives better within the constraints of what we do for the safety and benefit of all.
Since we could not travel to a summertime escape, our vacation destination was going to come to us. And what better way to get a change of scenery than adventuring a mythical medieval fantasy setting and learning more about the many facets of the tabletop gaming hobby!
"This camp can be adapted to any kind of tabletop pastime: board games, roleplaying games or war games, and of any genre you prefer. Applying a theme to the event will also give it an additional appeal and the allures of a proper happening!"
The week preceding the camp, my wife and I called the kids for a family meeting, which is always the best way to hint that something strange is afoot. As they heard the words “summer camp”, their immediate reaction was along the lines of: “No! No, no, no, you’re not sending us away to one of those weird things like in the movies!”
To be clear, neither one had ever been to a camp (except for the few 3-day camps they attended in elementary school in The Netherlands). After a few seconds of staring at us, they wondered if we were pulling their leg and one of them said: “Wait a minute, I thought there were no camps going on because of the Corona Virus?”. This is when I handed them their registration package which included the following information.
This introduction shortly describes the camp and what participants will be doing for its duration. The text is semi-formal, in an effort to make it look and sound as official as possible. The goal is not to be pompous or pretentious but rather to convey that a certain level of commitment is required, if the camp is to take place at all. This is further reinforced with the next two sheets of the application package.
A slightly more formal write-up as it serves as the binding contract between participants and organizers. This is your chance to clear up any grey areas. What it really is, is another storytelling device to get campers excited about the adventure that they are agreeing to embark on! It’s a good way to lay down some simple effective ground rules, such as the breakfast serving window and the limited use of mobile devices.
At first, you’d be inclined to think that enforcing a schedule is an awful thing, especially during a vacation. It is, however, another defining aspect of the summer camp experience. The kids are to become part of something bigger than just playing around all day. You are here to provide them with an experience and one way of making sure they commit to everything they are going to take part in, is to impose a schedule. Yes, it will of course be flexible to accommodate any changes.
If you’re struggling to get your kids up in the morning, the clear (and loud) sound of a bugle wake up call might do the trick but the prospect of a fun day with cool activities to look forward to will probably prove way more efficient. Tapping into hobbies and activities that truly appeal to your campers is the key! The general theme of the camp has to be something that will hook them. The one big daily activity that defines that theme will drive them to stick to the schedule and thus be more receptive to other sessions which they might be apprehensive about.
As a welcome gift, I prepared an adventuring kit for each one of them. It consisted of the following items:
- an unpainted tabletop miniature representing their character from our latest D&D campaign,
- a new set of polyhedral dice,
- a tabletop role-playing journal with ruled, graph and hex sheets for notes, tracking, mapping and terrain plans.
These are simple little things that don’t break the bank, they add to the experience and definitely heighten the anticipation. Now that our campers are signed up and all geared up, let me tell you how our week went.
Despite my absolutely terrible selfie staking skills, our afternoon gaming session were epic!
As you probably know by now, my kids and I have been into tabletop role-playing games for a while now. I discovered the hobby back in the day, when I was 12, and played for a number of years with a group of my best friends growing up. After moving around a lot and a hiatus of a few decades, I rediscovered it all and introduced it to my young and eager adventurers! Since we had been struggling lately to play on a weekly basis, the prospect of playing solid 3 to 4 hour sessions for 5 days straight was going to be an easy sell. So the theme of our camp was all about playing Dungeons and Dragons and maybe some other games. I was planning on doing a Tales from the Loop session one day and maybe a one shot Ghostbusters RPG adventure on the last day. That was the plan, and as we all know, nothing ever goes according to plan!
As stated in the schedule, mornings consisted of two workshops: one focusing on game rules and strategy while the other would give them the opportunity to paint new miniatures. We spent the first day expanding on basic combat rules in D&D and I gave them a full rundown on more advanced strategy. All this was done using a battle grid and miniatures which created a nice primer for the second workshop.
This was not the first time we were painting minis so they were familiar with the basics. For the occasion, I had purchased new miniatures that were a close match to the characters they created for our current D&D campaign. While we unpacked, cleaned and prepared them for priming, I introduced them to an entertaining and yet informative series called Painters Guild. It was a nice change for them to hear proper advice and directions from professional painters, rather than have to take their dad’s word for it!
Having the videos play in the background was also a great concentration means. It gave them the chance to really focus on their painting while listening to valuable tips. Their level of dedication soared to new heights and on the second day, they were so anxious to paint that I decided to alter the formula of the morning workshops. We painted for two hours while first listening to insightful videos by the Dungeon Dudes and fun tips from Guy Sclanders of How to be a Great GM, then watching more of Painters Guild for the remainder of the painting session. Since they were now familiar with the rules of D&D, hearing others give their take on aspects of a game that can be played in so many different ways can make you roll your eyes or open them wide. This gave us all food for thought while painting and it fuelled some fun conversations!
Breaks and fresh air
Despite them wanting to carry on with their minis, I gave them a 10 minute device break before sending them outside for recess: 45 minutes to play badminton or whatever they felt like indulging in, as long as it was a physical activity of some sort. With their heads cleared up they came back for a lunch break and some free time until the main event of the day.
I have chronicled our initial tabletop journeys before and if you are new to this hobby I suggest you read these posts to help you get started. Without getting into too much detail here, the afternoons were spent playing D&D. I had gotten them started with a new home brew adventure a couple of weeks back and had spent some time the week prior to camp preparing the next couple of play sessions. We were off to the races in no time and before they knew it, the clock rang 16:30!
One thing that did transpire from our five afternoon gaming sessions is that the kids could not get enough of it! The adventure became so involving and immersive that we kept playing it all the way to Friday. This is a perfect example of when to be flexible and adapt to the situation as the organizer and as the Game Master. My thoughts had initially been to play at least three different games (Dungeons & Dragons, Tales from the Loop and Ghostbusters) taking place in three completely different settings. I aimed to counter any risk of boredom and prevent them from losing interest. In the end, the opposite happened and even though I asked them mid week and again on Friday, they were too desperate to find out how the events of that one adventure would unfold to even want to bother with another one. Adaptability is definitely one of the prime qualities of a good Game Master. What it did mean is that I spent an hour or two every evening preparing for the next afternoon session!
Food is often a highlight during summer camps, and not always for the best reasons. Since both my wife and I really enjoy cooking, we often spend a fair bit of time preparing meals. We figured cooking simple things that the kids would enjoy foremost for an entire week would be a nice break for us. It was also a good way to keep it manageable. Running this full time event for a week by myself did not have to be an impossible task. Saving time and energy in the right places was the key to keeping everyone’s stress levels at a minimum!
Sticking to tested easy favourites will prevent you from adding more to your load of camp duties. That said, getting everyone involved in cooking evening meals can make for a whole camp activity in itself!
Winding down and relaxing is what a summer evening should be all about, be it by playing a board game, cards, a multiplayer video game, watching a movie or having a camp fire. For us, the weather took at turn for the worse and put a damper on outside activities, so we had to wait until the weekend to sit around the fire and enjoy some s’mores.
Opening the choice of activities to popular vote is a good way to make your campers happy, but often it really comes down to feeling the mood and the impact the day has had on everyone. Furthermore, a short but sweet evening will often have a more positive impact and will ensure that your campers are out of bed on time in the morning for another set of awesome activities!
Over in a flash
Our five day adventure filled camp was over before we knew it. It probably went by faster for the kids than it did for me but seriously, I was amazed at how much fun we all had. When I woke up on Saturday morning, it really felt as though I had just come back from being away. Mentally, I was drained, mostly because running a tabletop role-playing game as a GM is creatively quite demanding. Having to do it 5 days in a row, was definitely more than I was used to. Preparing sessions once all were asleep in their beds also took some effort, but was easier creatively speaking than having to prep a single weekly or monthly session. Most of all, I didn’t realize how intense the week was until it was over. I just got caught up in the fun! The kids? Well they wanted to know if they could go to Tabletop Summer Camp at Home again in the near future. Our 11 year old was ready to start all over the following Monday!
A simple souvenir is a great reminder of the whole experience.
The Secret of my Success
Nothing I did was that difficult and I stuck to what I know. I used online videos during the morning workshops to support what I was doing, instead of letting it do the job for me. Finding activities where you, the organizer, are simply participating with the campers turns the day into something very different than a set of scripted and organized events. The goal is primarily to provide an escape, much in the same way a real vacation would. All you need is a little imagination and positivity!
Below, you will find PDF files of the Application Package I created (it also includes a link to a Goggle Doc template to create your own), as well as a PDF of my True Adventurer Certificate, which were presented to campers as a little souvenir.
Remember that the theme can be whatever you want and that instead of playing tabletop RPGs, you could simply turn it into a board game camp, or a crafting camp. Mix it up but make sure you know your audience, be it your kids, other family members or your friends. You could organize it around a camping trip, having game sessions in the evening, be creative but make sure you involve your participants and tap into a pastime that will get them excited. Do that and they will be thrilled to try a different kind of vacation! I hope that my own experience will inspire you a little or that it can help you keep busy in creative and fun ways.
Be safe and take care!