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Exploring Life & Business with Scott Stevens of The Hero Workshop

Today we’d like to introduce you to Scott Stevens.

Hi Scott, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
Hello! As mentioned, my name is Scott Stevens and I am the Founder and Director for The Hero Workshop. The Hero Workshop is a non-profit organization whose focus is organizing table top role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons for kids.

The Hero Workshop started a little over four years ago. My family had just moved to Culver City from the Bay Area, and the move was especially hard on our eight years old son who had to move away from his group of friends. About three weeks after we moved here, he broke his arm which meant that he couldn’t play during recess with the other kids. I was worried about him being able to make friends at his new school. So I made up a few fliers issuing a Call to Adventure that he could use to invite some kids from his new school to play Dungeons and Dragons. The first day we had about five kids show up to play. The next time we played 11 kids showed up, and there were so many kids that wanted to play I had to start a waiting list. They were talking about their adventures at school, and their 3rd grade teacher overheard and start integrating some of the themes she heard them talking about into story problems they were doing in the classroom. She met me at pickup one day and asked about Dungeons and Dragons, and eventually ended up joining one of my tables as a player (she played a half-elven Ranger). Interest was growing so much that one of the kids’ mothers suggested I start an afterschool program.

I got the time off work (at the time, I was working as a Lead Game Designer for a mobile game company) and went through the process to get cleared as a volunteer for the elementary school. We met at the school once a week for an hour, and interest kept growing.

I started to find that an hour was not really enough time to deliver the sort of fully immersive high adventure that I love about Dungeons and Dragons. It always felt that just as we were really getting involved in our story, it was time to wrap up and leave. So I wanted to expand our program from one hour to two hours, but unfortunately the afterschool format didn’t really allow for longer sessions. The woman who ran the afterschool program recommended that I start something off campus if I wanted to offer longer sessions. So I did.

At first, we were doing one class a week, but the class became overfull so we added a second class. Some of the kids that were in the original afterschool program had moved on to middle school, but they still wanted to play so I started a third group for middle school heroes. I changed jobs and my new position required that I travel to China, so I hired someone to run the classes for me while I was away. That worked out so well that I ended up bringing on our first employee to run some of the classes.

We had four classes a week going when the stay at home orders due to COVID-19 were issued. It took us a week to change our program to be fully online, and once we did enrollment actually started to increase as people were looking for fun activities for their children to do while in quarantine. This period actually saw a lot of growth for The Hero Workshop, and we started reaching out farther than just our local area. We now have heroes in New Zealand, London, an entire group from New Jersey and a Bay Area group who play online.

Today, we have three professional Dungeon Masters in addition to myself running 16 games a week – mostly in person but a few are still fully online. We are active in four schools’ afterschool programs and counting, and we run a Winter Camp, Spring Camp, and six weeks of Summer Camp.

Starting in 2022, we will be expanding our program to include Adventures in Writing, Dungeon Master Workshops, and new campaign types such as The Greatest Campaign (a WW2 themed “historic fiction” campaign). We are actively looking for the perfect location for a permanent “brick and mortar” home. I envision the space as a sort of community center for tabletop role playing gamers to gather and play that will include some retail and a light cafe. I imagine a place where parents can bring their young heroes to play, and while their kids are on their adventures, they can enjoy a nice cup of coffee and a treat and hang out with the parents of the other heroes.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
There have been some challenges along the way, but honestly nothing too bad.

The trickiest thing with The Hero Workshop is the same struggles that anyone who gathers a group of friends together to play Dungeons and Dragons will have – scheduling. Scheduling is often referred to as “the real Final Boss” of many a DnD campaign, as struggles with coordinating everyone’s schedules have ended more campaigns than any dragon or lich ever has. Whenever the school schedules change or a new sport starts up or schools go on summer break, it has a real impact on many of our heroes. Many of our heroes want to continue their adventures with their friends they have made at the table, so when they want to move to a new time we struggle with making sure we have a Dungeon Master available, a space where they can play, and a table that can accept 2, 3 or sometimes four new heroes.

I recognize that this is a good problem to have – people want to play! And while this can be a struggle at times, it is really rewarding when we find a solution and can accommodate everyone’s gaming needs.

The other aspect that I personally struggle with is marketing. The vast majority of our heroes are finding out about us via word of mouth. I’ve tried some online marketing but it hasn’t really had much of an impact. I know we offer a great program, and our retention is very, very good – our yearly retention is over 90%. We just need to get the word out so that more people know we are here, offering a weekly appointment with adventure!

Finally, our financial margins are super thin. It is very important to me to pay a fair wage to our employees – I know that the wonderful people who work for The Hero Workshop are awesome. They could get a job anywhere they want to, and I am grateful that they are spending their time and effort to make The Hero Workshop the amazing place that it is. So it is important to value their input with commensurate financial compensation.

It is also very important to me that we offer a great value to our customers. I have had to raise prices as we transitioned from online games to in person games to cover some of the extra costs, but it would be my preference to offer our program for free or greatly reduced cost for all of our heroes.

The third financial obstacle is the group size for each table. A game of Dungeons and Dragons has a sort of built-in limit to how many heroes make for a quality experience. I find the ideal group size to be between 5 and 7 heroes, with eight being okay but a large group. Each hero wants to feel important, so if there are two wizards or two healers then it can be a struggle for each hero to find their role in the party.

So obviously, the combination of paying our employees as fairly as we can while also offering as good a value as we can to our customers and limiting group sizes puts pressure on the finances of the organization. My hope is that we can relieve this pressure with scale, adding more heroes to the program and making sure that our tables are full. Also, diversifying our sources of revenue will help – opening a community center that includes some retail and a cafe will help take some of the pressure off of the classes themselves from a financial perspective.

We’ve been impressed with The Hero Workshop, but for folks who might not be as familiar, what can you share with them about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
The Hero Workshop is an interactive storytelling workshop for heroes of all ages. Heroes join a group for a weekly appointment with adventure. One of our professional narrators (called a Dungeon Master) will present a scene to the table, and together they decide what happens next in the story. They roll dice, and do a little math, to determine success.

It’s fun, a great way to ignite the imagination, and we will touch on many educational aspects as part of our adventures including basic math, algebra, puzzle-solving, teamwork and collaboration, and of course storytelling.

What I like most about playing Dungeons and Dragons is how active your imagination becomes when you are immersed in a campaign. It’s like reading a book where you take on the role of a hero in the story, and what happens next happens because of choices that you have made. It’s like writing a story and reading it at the same time.

What I am most proud of with The Hero Workshop is seeing the positive impact that we have had on the heroes in our program. Especially during the pandemic, when for many of the heroes in our program their weekly appointment with adventure was the only time they were able to connect with other kids that wasn’t school. I’ve seen painfully shy kids open up to an adventure and lead their party, I’ve seen heroes that “hate” reading and writing deliver full-page backstories for their characters, and I’ve seen grumpy kids smile when their barbarian delivers the final blow against a dragon. I love seeing a group of heroes come together to solve problems and puzzles, working together in a cooperative way to move the story forward, and make new friends along the way.

What I want readers to know about The Hero Workshop is that we are here! We offer two hour classes Monday through Saturday, both online and in person. Join our Facebook group and check out our website for updates on new campaigns starting, and of course stay tuned to discover when we will be opening our community center.

I am also on a constant lookout for more Dungeon Masters. If you are a GREAT Dungeon Master and you have experience working with kids, we want to hear from you!

If we knew you growing up, how would we have described you?
I was an adventurous, hillbilly nerd growing up.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. My family moved to Washington State on the day Mt. St. Helens erupted. We lived in a Prowler (basically an RV) while my Dad built our house, starting from cutting down trees and clearing the land. So we were basically camping for that first year, and I grew up on the construction site that was our home until the house was basically finished around the time that I went to high school. My interests growing up were varied; I was involved in the Boy Scouts, went fishing almost every day in the lake that we lived by in a raft that I bought with money that I made mowing lawns, and my father and I would go archery hunting every year for deer and elk. I was an artist and loved writing stories, and I read everything that I could get my hands on. I started playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was seven years old, I was introduced to the game by my Uncle who was kind enough to let me play with his friends and brother.

It was my interest in the arts that set my life upon the path I chose. I got involved with a community theater company doing musical theater and stuck with it all through middle school. By the time I was in high school, I had noticed that I wasn’t getting cast as often as I was used to, and I talked to the director about it. He mentioned that at my age, if I didn’t know how to dance there were fewer roles in musical theater that I could do. So I started taking tap classes at a local dance studio. Tap led to jazz, and at some point a production of Snow White was coming up with the local ballet company and they asked me to try out for the role of Prince Charming. No one else showed up for the part, so I got it!

I ended up loving the art of ballet, and to make a long story short I became a professional ballet dancer for a great ten years career. I traveled a lot as a dancer, literally dancing my way across the country starting with my first contract at the Louisville Ballet in Kentucky, doing a brief stint at the Washington Ballet in Washington, DC and the Ohio Ballet before coming to the Bay Area and joining the Oakland Ballet. While a professional dancer, I started up a few games of Dungeons and Dragons with my fellow dancers – we’d play one night a week after a day of rehearsals and even played on tour in our hotel rooms.

After age and injuries forced me into retirement from ballet, I went back to school to study video game design in San Francisco. There was so much opportunity in the Bay Area at that time that I was able to start my career in game design before I had graduated from college. I met my wife Janet in San Francisco working at a startup, and a few years later, we had started a family. I continued to travel the world as a Game Designer working for Zynga, KIXEYE, Disney Interactive, Scopely, and Firefly Games; working in Munich, China, and eventually – Los Angeles.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to let people know about The Hero Workshop! And, as always;

Thank you for being a Hero!

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