Despite distance, Brenden Sparks brings HighEdWebbers together in adventure

Imagine: You’re walking down a cold, dark hallway. All you can hear are the sounds of footsteps from the others slowly making their way forward with you. You don’t know what’s at the end of the corridor – but whatever it is – you know it’s going to put up a fight. Suddenly, you hear it – a deafening roar. Before you know it, you feel the heat of a magic ball of fire being created by the adventurer next to you.

This is the type of adventure that Brenden Sparks, front-end web designer at San Jose State University, has organized to bring HighEdWeb members together – a number of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) games for players of all experience levels.

Brenden Sparks

Brenden Sparks, Front-End Web Designer, San Jose State University

Sparks was first introduced to the well-known tabletop role-playing game in the late 1980’s. “Back then, I loved playing because I really wanted to play with my older brother,” Sparks recalled, “but as an aspiring geek, I was just starved for good genre content. D&D and other tabletop games were ways to keep adventuring beyond what was in the pre-written stories I could get my hands on.”

He began playing on a more regular basis in the late 2010s, volunteering to run an adventure (or “campaign”) for a group of players. The group held its 91st session earlier this year. Each session builds on the last, with the group of adventurers working together to take on challenges, puzzles and magical mysteries as a team.

The HighEdWeb Adventurer’s Society

In an effort to recreate the in-person networking opportunities over common interests at the HighEdWeb annual conference, Sparks sent a message to association members on Slack to see who would be interested in participating in a Dungeons & Dragons one-shot game (a self-contained adventure that lasts only one session).  “While the annual conference is an amazing opportunity to learn and network with other HighEdWeb nerds, it’s not a conducive environment for long-form geeking out with them. I figured I’d throw open the metaphorical doors and invite some folks to play online,” Sparks explained.

Sparks was excited to receive 21 responses to the inquiry from HighEdWeb members with a range of D&D experience. To accommodate all players, Sparks created four independent one-shot games: some “introductory” and others “advanced,” each with a unique storyline for players to participate in. Players began the creative experience by developing their own character from head to toe – choosing simple characteristics like hair and eye color, as well as more complex features, including race (such as wizard, bard, sorcerer or fighter) and class (such as elf, gnome or halfling). These character choices shape the adventure, thanks to the unique skills and proficiencies each player brings to the group – a lot like the teams members are part of professionally (but…without magical powers).

A digital map used for D&D. The map outlines a room and uses circles with images to represent characters

Sparks uses digital tools to help players visualize adventures

Creating the adventure

“As the dungeon master, I set the table, but I have no idea what happens after my players sit down,” Sparks explained. He “sets the table” by developing a basic story outline with trusted confidants and villains, but it’s ultimately the players’ decisions that move the adventure forward.

While players react to the scene that Sparks creates as the dungeon master, he is also forced to think on his feet based on players’ actions. “What would have been a dangerous encounter with some bodyguards and train conductors was reversed quickly after a decisive takedown was followed up with a growly threat by Kaliko the half-orc, played by Jeff Stevens,” Sparks recalled of one adventure.

Choices by the dungeon master and players aren’t the only way the story can change. “Sometimes, even the coolest moves get sidetracked by an unlucky roll of the die,” Sparks explained. “When Osma the thief, played by the nonplussed Nikki Massaro Kauffman, slipped and fell off a tower and plummeted to some rooftops below while attempting some heroic acrobatics. Then Neira, Janice Cheng-McConnell’s sassy warlock, then had to make a tactical decision about whether to help Osma get back into the fight or to take a shot at a weakened brigand that was blasting her friends with magic. Part of the fun of the game is reacting to its unpredictability,” Sparks said.

Finding a new community

For Sparks, this has been an exciting and unique way to bring people together, despite the restrictions of COVID-19 as well as HighEdWeb’s nationwide membership. “Some folks I’d previously shared a meal or conversation with, some I would have already considered friends, and some I met for the first time,” Sparks said.

For the adventurers – aside from conquering evil and successfully achieving their goal – these sessions gave many the opportunity to learn D&D in a safe community, revisit the game after years off, or simply participate in a fun, creative adventure.  A number of these adventures have extended into additional sessions, according to Sparks, and he plans to create more one-shot games in the future for HighEdWeb members who are interested in participating.

“I was hoping for an opportunity to get to know some HighEdWeb members a little better, and maybe teach some folks how to play D&D,” Sparks said. “That plan worked out perfectly.”