Using Dungeons & Dragons in the Classroom

This post is for teachers who are interested in using Dungeons & Dragons in the classroom. This is not to convince you that doing so is a good thing. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of articles on the web to persuade you of the educational value of roleplaying games; we don’t need one more of them.

But we do seem to need an article where a teacher takes the time to explain how he actually uses Dungeons & Dragons in the classroom — not the why, but the how.

I’ve been using Dungeons & Dragons as an educator for three years now, but until I started using it in the classroom, I had never played a single game. Two of my co-teachers used it one quarter, and I was lucky enough to share a corner of their classroom at the time. Through observation, I was able to learn the dynamics of the game without having to play the game.

The following quarter, I took over as Dungeon Master. It would be my first time at the table.

What I learned during my observation period was that Dungeons & Dragons is based on storytelling. It doesn’t really matter if you know the rules because there are plenty of ways to look them up, but it does matter that you understand the rules of storytelling.

For the past three years, instead of asking my students to learn about storytelling from reading works of literature, I’ve embedded them in the very fabric of it, asking them to make their own heroic decisions instead of reflecting on the heroic decisions of some third-party character. Through the effects of their actions on the story, they’ve experienced when narrative tension is working and when it is not; they’ve experienced the way a character’s motivations bring them into conflict with other people; and they’ve developed an appreciation for imaginative details, sensing when too much is too much and when too little is not enough.

In addition, playing the game increased their sense of self-worth. When their characters succeeded in the fantasy world, they received the same flood of accomplishment as their characters, which provided them with a visceral understanding of narrative catharsis and the chemical reward that comes from fulfilling a goal.

I didn’t do anything special during these first three years; all I did was play the game. I didn’t attach the game to any academic standard or break it down into a series of lessons. At the start of each course, I didn’t waste time explaining to the students why we were doing this. I greeted them as they walked in the door, opened our two copies of The Players Handbook (5th Edition), and asked them to follow the steps outlined in the book to create their first character. I didn’t ask if they knew how to play the game. I just told them to get started.

The first few times I ran a campaign, I found pre-designed quests on the Internet. I didn’t know much about campaigns, but I learned that there’s something called The Adventurer’s League, an official venue of Dungeons & Dragons. Restraining my search to campaigns that carried the seal of the league, I found enough (free) campaigns to get us started.

(The company behind Dungeons & Dragons recently launched a website called The Dungeon Master’s Guild, where players from around the world can share campaigns and resources, review each other’s work, and earn their reputation as DMs; you can think of it as an App Store for D&D — and it makes it a heck of a lot easier to find pre-designed campaigns nowadays).

After our first few campaigns, one of my students asked if he could be the Dungeon Master for our next game. I immediately agreed, told him how to find a campaign on the Internet, and a week later, off we went. This would be my first time playing Dungeons & Dragons from the characters’ side of the table. It was great. I didn’t push an agenda on either the DM or the other players. I simply sat with them as a peer and played the game.

A few months later, when I returned to the Dungeon Master’s chair, I didn’t want to use a pre-generated campaign. I had played enough times, I’d decided, to attempt a campaign of my own. I did not bring an educational agenda to this process. I imagined something I thought would be fun, and then I set out to create it.

At the time, I was reading several books on the French Revolution, and I decided to create a campaign where the player-characters would assist in a political revolution. I dressed the story in the obligatory accoutrements of medieval fantasy (instead of the peasants rising up against their king, a town of dwarves would rise up against their human overlords, the highest of whom would be a ). I then developed major plot points for the story and prepared a few battle encounters that I suspected the player-characters would want to engage in.

After about five or six hours of solid preparation, I was ready to lead what became a six-month long adventure. While the students didn’t have any homework, I found that I did. To stay at least a few steps ahead of them, narrative wise, I spent about an hour each week crafting the next few days’ worth of adventures. It was a creative prep for me, however, so it didn’t feel much like work — I wasn’t planning a lesson as much as writing a story. Prepping for class took time, yes, but the time it took was fun.

Last year, I taught two sections of Dungeons & Dragons. The first group had played together for a while, but the second included students who had never played before. To reduce my prep load, I taught my advanced students how to design campaigns on their own, showing them various topics in the Dungeon Masters Guide, advising them to consider the motivations of their non-player characters, and asking them to reconsider various details of their worlds, but mostly, I taught them how to be efficient with informational texts and how to stay a few steps ahead of their characters.

One student didn’t get to finish his campaign. Unfortunately, I’m only running one section this quarter and some of the players haven’t developed the social-emotional skills to be led by another student. So instead of letting him lead a campaign of his own, I am working with him on an independent project where he will prepare a campaign for publication on The DMs Guild. This student is a graduating senior, and I’m trying to show him how he can make a little bit of money if he’s willing to follow his passion.

The other section is a mix of experienced players and beginners, and because of that mix, I’ve decided to switch things up a bit. Instead of having the students spend the first few days with their heads in The Players Handbook (a necessary stage when creating a character), I’m going to have them play the experience of creating their characters.

I’m not going to tell them about any of the races or classes. I want them to birth their characters with their imaginations. If they imagine a crocodile with wings who can also weave magic, I want to honor that personification and ask them to honor it as well. We’re going to dramatize the process of developing proficiencies and skills, gaining gold and equipment, and earning the power of magic. They’re going live the experience of their backstories, and through that, they’ll learn how to develop themselves and their characters into daring adventurers. My students are rural and mostly poverty-stricken, but they’re going to experience, if only in their fantasies, the process a person must go through if they want something more out of life.

If you’re a teacher who is already persuaded to try roleplaying games in your classroom and you’re wondering how to do it, this is what worked for me: I simply sat down with the students and played.

Now, a little caveat. I teach at an independent school in Vermont, so I’m not accountable to the strict array of standards that apply to most public schools. My school’s standards include a large variety of social-emotional skills — e.g., cooperation, creative problem-solving, leadership, ethical decision making, the ability to empathize, etc. — and almost all of them can be satisfied by playing a standard game of Dungeons & Dragons. Thankfully, I don’t have a curriculum coordinator breathing down my neck.

But I imagine with just a hint of ingenuity that a motivated public school teacher could connect Dungeons & Dragons to whatever standards they are required to follow.

If you’re an English Language Arts teacher, I’ve asked my students keep a journal of their character’s adventures. I’ve asked them to write original backstories for their characters. I’ve quizzed them on their ability to find, read, and comprehend the sometimes-complex information in the text of their Handbooks. Dungeons & Dragons is a communications-based game; there’s enough in for the English Language Arts.

This year, as part of the experience of playing their backstory, I am going to ask each player to consider the social contexts of their hometown. They’ll decide on a governing structure for their town, detail its economy, and populate it with a greater or lesser sense of political diversity. Instead of analyzing existing societies, the students will create ones of their own.

My idea is to expand the range of skills the students develop by including a deeper connection to the social sphere. This will have the added benefit of increasing the academic value of the course because I’m targeting some of the standards my school has for Social Studies (most of which apply to any school’s standards for Social Studies).

The difficulty will be in integrating one character’s sphere with another and all the characters’ spheres with each other, but it’s necessary if they’re to experience the narrative catharsis previous students experienced. School starts tomorrow and I haven’t quite solved this one yet, but I trust the solution will come before its absence becomes a challenge (teaching, after all, does include a bit of faith).

But in the meantime, I’m just excited to get started.

I hope, sometime in the future, you will be to.