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Level Up Your Classroom With Tabletop RPGs

In an unpublished dissertation, Alice Pitt (1995 – Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) noted that “learning about content is not the same thing as learning from it.  In other words…learning is something more than a series of encounters with knowledge; learning entails, rather, the messier and less predictable process of becoming implicated in knowledge” (p.298). As such, gaming tables are undoubtedly places where informal learning happens. The growing variety and accessibility of tabletop roleplaying games present educators with powerful tools to provide students with the agency to shape the trajectory of their learning within and outside traditional classroom settings. From traditional subjects such as mathematics, science, history, and art, to social skills and resiliency, RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons can serve as powerful tools with which to collaboratively interact with curriculum materials and the world beyond the gaming table.

“RPG Math”

Whether you realize it or not, gaming tables are informal spaces to practice math. The variable interplay between rolling dice and mathematical formulas to determine narrative outcomes results in opportunities to make math feel real and beneficial. I’ve never been good at math, but I’ve always been good at what I call RPG math. By that, I’m referring to any math that would involve dice rolling or using a character sheet (aka player spreadsheet). From the shape recognition and geometry associated with using polyhedral dice to the basic operations of arithmetic required during character creation and turn taking, there’s no denying that many popular RPGs, particularly the dice-heavy D20 or Year Zero engines, are exercises in mathematics. Let’s not forget that character sheets are essentially spreadsheets.

A few of my favourite RPGs for practicing math:

“The History & Science Books You Always Wanted”

Photo by Kiron Mukherjee

Whether it be indirectly or directly, analog games draw on the collective experiences of humanity to inform their worlds. Just take a look at the genre staple Dungeons & Dragons. From the multitude of fantastical creatures to the arms and armour players use, almost everything has a parallel in the cultural or natural history of the earth. Even the Magic: The Gathering crossover world of Amonkhet (a fantasy Egypt) demonstrates the lengths to which the most popular RPG in the world takes inspiration from reality. Some games take it even further by encouraging players to develop culturally relative perspectives of history. Two of these games immediately stand out, both for their attention to historical detail and educational intentions. Night Witches [1] by Jason Morningstar draws players into the fictional lives of real-life WWII aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment – known to the Germans as Nachthexen or Night Witches. This Powered by the Apocalypse game is particularly popular with my students at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), who enjoy continuing their education of WWII through gaming…all while playing in the museum’s galleries! The second is Thousand Arrows by James Mendez Hodes and Brennan Taylor, another Powered by the Apocalypse title which takes place during Japan’s Warring States period (the Sengoku Jidai). I myself have also endeavoured to author an RPG for educational purposes – Ross Rifles [2]. As an educator, few roleplaying games have helped me teach science like The Warren [3] by Marshall Miller. In this indie RPG, players assume the role of intelligent rabbits navigating the natural world and the dangers of being at the bottom of the food chain. The Warren is an excellent example of how science can come to life in the form of a story game. From the stellar art by Shel Kahn to the text, it so perfectly captures and communicates one aspect of the natural world. I took this a step further and co-created a rules-light RPG called Zany Zoo [4]. In Zany Zoo, players take on the roles of animals escaping captivity. Think Madagascar meets Finding Nemo/Finding Dory.

A few of my favourite games for engaging with history & science:

“Level Up” Your Social Skills

Despite all of the above, playing RPGs are first and foremost opportunities for human connection and community. Aside from the amazing human beings I’ve met playing and designing RPGs, these games have personally provided me with the opportunity to internalize and communicate my feelings, develop self-confidence, and flex my creative muscles. With both the Royal Ontario Museum and Level Up Gaming, I have nearly 7 years of experience using tabletop RPGs to facilitate opportunities of people with autism and other disabilities to develop their social skills. During this time, outlined on episode 3 of the Asians Represent! Podcast, I came to appreciate perhaps the most powerful educational aspect of the RPG hobby. The seemingly intuitive “unwritten rules of social behaviour” are naturally codified by games. A session of any tabletop RPG is a highly structured and safe social environment. There are rules of engagement, objectives, and moderation. While gaming, everyone at the table is tasked with recognizing and defining problems, exploring options, considering strategies, putting their plan into action, and reflecting on the process and outcome. Unlike multiplayer video games, those of the tabletop variety provide uniquely democratic spaces for exploration. Everyone at the table is involved to a degree that they are comfortable with, and analog games have the narrative and mechanical freedom to be tailor-made to the needs of the players. Story games provide impactful and structured opportunity for social connections where you can learn how to exchange space in conversation, communicate needs, and provide help to others when asked.

A few of my favourite RPGs to practice social skills:

From both a professional and personal perspective, games that encourage meaningful and engaging connection to the world never cease to amaze me. They enrich our lives beyond simple entertainment and make each us of better with every playthrough.

Stay curious and game on!

Daniel Kwan is an educator, media professional, and game designer based in Toronto, Canada. He is one of the co-founders of Level Up Gaming, an organization that provides individuals with autism and other disabilities opportunities to develop their social skills through group gaming experiences. His first educational RPG, Zany Zoo, was released in 2018. He is currently working on Ross Rifles, a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG about the lives and experiences of Canadian soldiers stationed on the Western Front during the First World War. Daniel has over a decade of experience using tabletop RPGs in educational contexts at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Works cited:

Pitt, A. (1995) “Subjects in tension: engaged resistance in the feminist classroom’, Unpublished Dissertation, OISE/UofT, Toronto, ON.

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2 Comments To "Level Up Your Classroom With Tabletop RPGs"

#1 Comment By Robbie On December 12, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

I’m sympathetic to these ideas, and I’ve been working to bring TTRPGs into my high school English classes. I’m having success, but the challenges are also daunting!

One of the most obvious difficulties: most classrooms at the high school level are 18-30 students, maybe even more. So there is a sizable scale issue since most TTRPGs work with a much smaller group. And when you are dealing with students who are new to TTRPGs and who are not volunteering to play them (if it’s a classroom), you can’t simply teach them rules, set them loose ,and expect things to magically take off. In my class, I have to either spend considerable time hacking a game to rescale it, or I have to design my own. And even with this careful design work, there remain difficulties.

There is a HUGE potential here that you are putting your finger on, but for us to fully realize this potential, there needs to be some focused dialogue among teachers who are also game players/designers. I’m a bit discouraged about the platforms for that dialogue. There was an Immersive Imaginative Education group that started on Google+, but that seems to be disbanding given the phasing out of that platform. Are there other places that you or others know of where this topic is getting the focused discussion it deserves?

#2 Comment By Kevin Mcilnay On August 27, 2019 @ 9:28 am

Hey there! I’m an elementary school counselor and am looking into using RPGs as a way to teach the “soft” skills in a practical way that fully engages the students. I don’t have much experience with RPGs, but I’m learning as I go. I’ve been reaching out on Facebook and Reddit with minimal interest, but I am getting some interesting ideas. I’m really focused on my 2nd grade classrooms, because if I can adapt it there, then grades 3-5 should be easy. I’m starting small with potential ideas being “Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple”, “Hero Kids”, or possibly “No Thank You Evil”. I’m also toying with the idea of letting them function in small groups, or “Guilds”, that vote on potential actions in more large scale events. Being that I’m not super familiar with the mechanics of some of these RPGs, I’m really going with trial and error here, using what works to build something from the ground up. Would love to connect and bounce some ideas off each other. Let me know!

#3 Pingback By CAR-PGa NEWSLETTER Vol. 28, No. 1 January 2019 – CAR-PGA On January 29, 2019 @ 12:37 pm

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