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Western Kentucky non-profit teaches inclusion and real-life skills with tabletop games

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It’s two days before the big Greengrass Festival which welcomes in the spring time for the people of Neverwinter. The royal cook has been tasked with preparing a banquet, but they need help collecting the last few ingredients required for the main dish. You are a brave adventurer who has been tasked with traveling into the nearby woods which are filled with goblins, bandits, and other fiends to collect the ingredients needed to finish the Greengrass Festival banquet. 

This is just an example of the type of story Cory Toon weaves for the students who participate in his after-school Dungeons & Dragons program at Mayfield High school. It’s one of the multiple activities he leads through his nonprofit organization the Dice Alliance.

Toon describes the Dice Alliance as being dedicated to helping teens and young adults build social and critical thinking skills through tabletop gaming. He said, for him and other volunteers, playing games growing up was a tool in their life for developing much needed skills.

“At some point, someone took interest in us, and played board games with us. And through those board games,” Toon said. “We learned a lot of lessons we were able to apply later in life. It mattered to us. And, we found that it really helped us, and we grew to open our minds to solve a lot of different problems.”

The Dice Alliance Founder said modern forms of entertainment like video games and social media don’t require the use of face-to-face social interaction, which are a big part of tabletop gaming. This keeps kids from developing skills vital to social interaction like reading body language or being empathetic.

“We founded the Dice Alliance to help bridge that gap.” Toon said. “To bring people back around together at a table to learn that just because someone looks different or has a different philosophy than you, you can still sit down around a table to enjoy a meal or an activity.”

The Dice Alliance started by offering after-school Dungeons and Dragons sessions to students at Mayfield High School and Middle School. This started a few months before the pandemic, but quickly stalled with the spread of COVID-19 as virtual meetings proved difficult.

Now, as COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift, Toon is able to do more for students and expand the operation.

Toon recently signed a deal with The Zone in Paducah, a branch of Four Rivers Behavioral Health, to host monthly game days open to anyone in the public. In tandem with the game days, Four Rivers has also agreed to offer free mental health services to any member of the Dice Alliance under age 25.

In February, the Dice Alliance held a Dungeons and Dragons cooking class at The Zone where players would search for ingredients throughout the course of their session to make a dish, and, at the end of the game, they used those ingredients to cook a meal in real life.

“And that way, you’re building skills inside the game. You’re learning inside the game, and don’t even realize you’re doing it.” Toon said. “And then at the end, we take those things that we learned and apply them.”

Toon said that the program tries to adapt to the needs of members. For the cooking class, Toon said the goal was to provide students with a real meal they could cook at home. This is combined with teaching cooperation with other people who they might not get to interact with on a normal basis.

Toon said he’s constantly looking for other ways to provide students and members with activities that they would enjoy doing. He categorizes all the different programs into “Archetypes” which is a term coined from Dungeons and Dragons to describe what class a player has selected for their character. He said having these archetypes and drawing the parallels with the games they play provides members with a model to which they can inspire to be.

For instance, one of the archetypes Toon has created for the Dice Alliance is the “Bard” program. These are activities for students who show a big interest in areas like music and the arts. Toon works with community organizations and specialized individuals to then create an event which kids can attend for free.

One of the first major events Toon organized is a panel discussion with creative media professionals which will be held at Crash Comics in Paducah Saturday at 11 a.m. The event is organized in conjunction with the Paducah School of Art and Design, and creative media professionals will include comic book writers, filmmakers and artists.

“I want them to be able to talk to those people that can tell them ‘Hey, a lot of people are going to tell you you’re being silly, a lot of people are going to tell you it’s not a real job, or you can’t make it. It’s one in a million, but you can make it. It’s not silly, and I value what you’re doing. And, you should value what you’re doing.’”

Zacharie Lamb is a music major at Murray State University and is a Graves County native.
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