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Roll for initiative: bringing character to your lessons

Tabletop role-playing games can create immersive lessons that build confidence

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Tabletop role-playing games can create immersive lessons that build confidence

Sometimes I trick my English classes into playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). I’ve long admired the ability of tabletop games to break through barriers to literacy and numeracy, but roleplaying games also stretch imagination, develop verbal communication and confidence, and do a whole lot more that’s important to both English and to life.

The last decade has been a renaissance for geekery and the recent success of Stranger Things has almost made it cool to gather around a table with pen and paper and hunt a demogorgon. Almost.

It still takes a little bit of level-20 teacher wizardry to make it work in the classroom. The great privilege of being an English teacher, though, is that it is my job to share stories with young people and there is no more immersive way to do that than with a tabletop role-playing game (RPG).

I’m lazily using D&D as a blanket term for what is now a field of hundreds of games, ranging from the predictable zombie-survival scenario to My Little Pony: Tails from Equestria. The original D&D is problematic for me: numbers often matter more than narrative. Counting combinations of polygonal dice against statistics is great for budding mathematicians, but it impedes the storytelling and character interactions I think are much more valuable.

Fantasy is also a bit of a Marmite genre, which is a barrier. The biggest turn-off for me is that D&D requires quite a financial outlay to play and I don’t want to introduce my students to something that they can’t go away and pursue.

Horror RPG Dread, on the other hand, barely requires a rulebook and is supported with free online material, although some common-sense sanitising will be necessary.

Students enter a classroom with a Jenga tower centrally placed in the room. Individual questionnaires scaffold the creation of diverse characters. Maybe play some sort of “horror loop” soundtrack in the background, but be prepared for strange looks from the colleague who will inevitably come in just at that time to borrow a board pen.

Then you, as the gamemaster (GM), will guide them through a scenario: haunted house, sinister forest, misty moor…Every action they take, instead of rolling dice, requires a pull from the tower. If it collapses, their character is out.

Anna/‘Velma’: I carefully run my hand along the shelves, checking behind the books.

GM: OK, pull a brick.

[Anna pulls a Jenga brick from the bottom of the tower, very very slowly. The whole class gasps when it’s clear.]

GM: You hear a clatter and dodge out of the way as a heavy vase falls from the top shelf. It smashes on the floor where you were standing.

Velma: What? That can’t have just fallen from me touching the books. Is someone there?

There are so many skills at work here: Anna is demonstrating understanding of genre. She is narrating her actions, listening and responding, and making inferences, while trying to outwit the GM. She is doing all of this verbally, in front of her peers.

Anna was previously a low-attaining, GCSE-resit student. She would never have knowingly played D&D – she wasn’t exactly wild about creative writing, either. She saw it as a chore and something she had already “failed” at. She would struggle to get words on the page, which is crippling when the task accounts for a quarter of the GCSE.

At points in Dread, she was falling off her seat with the excitement and tension. It showed her she could communicate the character, setting, and events of a story under pressure and be exhilarated by it. When I told her there were clubs she could join to play games like this, she was falling off her seat again, but with laughter.

I ran a successful RPG club last year, using the award-winning Tales from the Loop. Riding on the back of Stranger Things’ blend of vintage Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Hughes, it puts the players’ characters – an oddball collection of children – in an alternative vision of the 1980s. For this, it’s time for Jean-Michel Jarre on loop!

What’s especially fitting about using this game is that, between battles with spider-robots and outwitting mad scientists, the child characters have to deal with scenes of everyday life: the school bullies, distant parents, revising for an exam. This enables young people to explore issues vicariously, build empathy and practise a range of social interactions.

The game is also an opportunity for students who might otherwise struggle to make close connections in a college to bond with others, through shared experiences far more memorable than the typical extra-curricular fare. Sprinting through a cornfield to the shelter of a mile-high cooling tower, while under fire from a wasp-like assassin drone, tends to bring you together.

Roleplaying alone cannot deliver a curriculum. I’m not suggesting it to be more than a rare visitor to your classroom, but it is a crucible in which many vital English skills can emerge and be honed while the students have a great time. Think of it as an enrichment trip you hope they’ll revisit one day without you. Meanwhile, like a good teacher, a good GM can help learners “level up”.

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college


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