Bring Tabletop Role-Playing Games Into the Library and Classroom for Educational Opportunities Across Curricula

With educational intent, role-playing games can provide a narrative that holds students' attention and be customized to teach specific lessons.

Every story a child reads, every show he watches, every game she plays, they all have a continuous narrative that builds from one event to the next. Yet in many areas of education, curricula have largely done away with the narrative. Educators isolate tiny, uninteresting fragments and expect the same amount of excitement or, at least, engagement. There is a reason why kids can list hundreds of Pokémon and their corresponding statistics from battles and adventures, but stare blankly when asked to name five states on the eastern seaboard.

Think about those dreaded word problems. Jenny packs eight widgets into each of 24 bags. How many widgets does Jenny have in total? As a student, I may ask myself, “Why do I care about Jenny? What’s a widget?” There is no investment in the narrative, so the outcome is tedium.

But there can be a solution to this problem, and it’s found in your nerdiest middle school memories and the murky depths of your parents’ basement and episodes of Stranger Things: Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). In truth, gamers of all ages have been playing D&D for years. It’s time to bring this decades-old favorite—and other Tabletop Roleplaying Games (TTRPG)—into the classroom and school library.

D&D is just the most recognizable title of the TTRPG genre. While it is true that fantasy settings are more common in the tabletop games, other genres exist, including science fiction, detective stories, teen dramas, urban fantasy, historical, Western, and more. So what are these games and what differentiates them from any other type of gaming platform out there? Most importantly, how can they function as an educational tool?

TTRPGs are often played in a group setting and typically share common traits. One player usually functions as the Game Master (GM). These players often weave a story with the players, who take on characters within that story. The GM will provide narration, describing environments and situations which the characters have to respond to. They also take on the role of any character who isn't played by one of the participants, whether friendly townsfolk or ravenous beasts. Then a mechanic is put into place, often with the use of dice rolls, to determine the outcome of their efforts. And then, more often than not, the players progress in their abilities, increasing mathematical advantages while encountering more difficult obstacles.

Even when these games are played without the goal of learning, they still provide educational value. When a player bargains with a town elder over the cost of slaying a dragon, they learn debate skills and financial management. When they solve puzzles to unlock doors on derelict spaceships, that’s analytical problem solving. When the team maximizes their characters’ unique skills in harmony to solve the mystery of a haunted mansion, they are team building and developing research skills.

In all of these environments, you’ll find players engaging in storytelling, discovering history, problem-solving, managing finances, using simple-to-complex mathematics, team building, public speaking, discussing morality and ethics, and becoming aware of emotional intelligence—all wrapped into an engaging and ongoing narrative. Players can even grow emotionally by actively playing out roles that they might not feel comfortable discussing as themselves, but are willing to put into words when played through an avatar.

The benefits only multiply if you approach roleplaying games with educational intent. You might use Dungeons & Dragons or Dungeon World to explore the environmental impact that the loss of dragons has had on a valley. In doing so, you could mimic the benefits found by scientists reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone.

You could use games like Stars Without Number or Star Trek Adventures to save a planet on the brink of complete desertification, and research current day applications of prevention and restoration.

You could customize scenarios in games like Kids on Bikes or Tales From the Loop to allow students to work out interpersonal relationships by solving a mystery plaguing their school, while at the same time dealing with family problems at home.

Bring out circuitry in a STEM lab, and story has students create a circuit for a motion detector in order to protect a safe house as part of a heist in games like Fiasco or Honey Heist.

Relate historic events to in-game storylines with games like Delta Green, or act out a scene from Macbeth with Forsooth!

You can tailor a roleplaying game to the Vietnam War, and allow students to discuss a complex political dilemma through the eyes of imagined participants. You can set your math problems as the riddle of the sphinx that bars entry to the treasure keep. You can educate students on reading elevation maps in order to discover where enemy aliens who prefer specific elevations might ambush from. Educators and students can discuss the emotional needs of the characters, and roleplay the potential outcomes of those characters’ reactions to those feelings.

Not every game has to come from a large publishing house. Small developers are constantly working on short, easy, entertaining roleplaying games across all genres, on varied topics, with unique mechanics. Websites such as rpggeek.com, itch.io, and drivethrurpg.com are great marketplaces for every game imaginable. Social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit have full communities dedicated (almost endlessly) to the pros and cons of various roleplaying games.

So start searching for a roleplaying game or setting that matches the needs of your classroom. The possibilities for rewarding educational entertainment are no longer the purview of D&D–playing nerds alone.


Bebarce El-Tayib is the chief technology officer for the Rockaway Township (NJ) Board of Education and the creator of Power Outage, a tabletop role-playing game.

 

 

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