Playing Tabletop RPGs in the Classroom

I am a full-time geek. Anyone who knows me knows that comic books, video games, anime, board games, and sci-fi make up the bulk of my personality. What many of them don’t know, though, is that I play a lot of tabletop roleplaying games.

At this point, you might be wondering what, exactly, constitutes a tabletop roleplaying game. For me, it means that once a week, my friends and I get together and pretend to be members of a band of adventurers travelling around a fantasy world. We don’t dress up and run around in-character (that’s something else called LARP); we sit together and, with the guidance of one person acting as a storyteller or “Dungeon Master”, we tell a story. Very little is pre-determined in this game. When we try to accomplish things, we roll dice and see what happens.

I’ve been playing these games since I was a kid. I’ve played them in a lot of different formats – in-person, by e-mail, on Telnet serves, in IRC chat rooms, over video chat with webcams and microphones, I’ve even played in streaming games where total strangers can watch me and my friends live on camera. It’s a big thing in my life.

It’s also something I’m trying to bring into my classroom. This isn’t coming from a place of selfishness or obsession, where I just want to do my hobby all day. While I really love playing RPGs, they are a lot of work to put together and run for even just a small crew, and the logistics of implementing any kind of RPG in a classroom are… daunting. But the benefits outweigh the complications, and so here I am, slowly finding ways to bring the wonders of RPGs to my students.

Let’s talk about the benefits of D&D a little. (D&D isn’t the only tabletop RPG out there, but it’s the one most people have heard of, so I’ll roll with that system for this.) The most obvious benefit for any child is that it is a storytelling game where players have to listen, improvise, and react on the fly. The game rewards creativity and consistency of character. Players have to make choices about how their character would act in a given situation based on their past, their goals, their party’s plans. RPGs work wonders for improving the creative writing skills of their players.

It also encourages critical thinking and creative problem solving. Players are presented with all manner of obstacles every session, with a hundred possible solutions for every one. They have to listen closely to what they are told, search for clues in the narrative, and solve puzzles to survive encounters and work toward their goals. They also have to work together – as the players collaborate to tell a story, their characters collaborate to reach a common goal of some kind. The lone wolf doesn’t do well in this game.

Where this game really shines in the classroom, though, is in fostering confidence in its players. Many people will feel silly when they first start playing, some will always feel silly, but most will find themselves comfortable in their character’s personality after a few sessions. D&D provides opportunities to learn about socializing, leading, and working together in a risk-free scenario. Players can practice social skills knowing that it’s their character acting this way, not them, and that the worst outcome is that their character may die and they need to make a new one. I’ve seen the quietest, most reserved kids find their voice thanks to a D&D game where their character slowly becomes the leader of the crew. I’ve seen impulsive kids start to slow down and think their actions through in real life because when their character is rash and acts without thinking, they set off traps, or find themselves surrounded by monsters, or ruin their party’s carefully crafted plan.

The situations in these games are made up, but the skills they learn through playing transfer to real life. They can confidently take risks in the game because the only consequence is really that the story may not go the way they want. Over time, they start to take more risks in real life. They start to look at real life situations from multiple perspectives. They start to understand the interconnectedness of people, places, and things.

All of this to say… I want to do this more. Implementing games like D&D in the classroom is challenging. So far, I’ve had the most success with large-group one-session games like Werewolf, where students are given secret roles and must work together to help their team win while staying in character. I’ve also had success running small groups at recess time. Now, I want to try to find a way to bring a more in-depth, long-form game like D&D to my whole class.

Thinking about how I can adapt D&D for a class of 30 (yikes) is how I’ll be spending my summer – in between an AQ, a three-day FSL conference, multiple one-day workshops, a week in Toronto for the ETFO AGM, a week in Toronto for Fan Expo, my weekly D&D games, and oh, right, also being a spouse/mother/sister/daughter/friend/adult.

If someone out there has successfully implemented RPGs in their classroom on a consistent basis, I’m all ears. And if someone out there has no idea what I’m talking about but is intrigued, like any good tabletop player, I can talk your ear off about all the things you can check out to find out more about this crazy hobby!

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Updated: June 23, 2019 — 7:55 pm

The Author

Shawna Rothgeb-Bird

Grade 6 Middle French Immersion teacher from Ottawa. Passionate about teaching (naturally!), board games, video games, music, and roller derby. Instilling a sense of wonder, curiosity, and critical thought in students since 2011 (or 2008 if we want to include Teacher's College).

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