What Are Role-Playing Games (RPGs) And How Can They Be Used In Education

At Swords & Stationery, one activity that we use to help our students is the tabletop Role-Playing Game (RPG). It is an actual tabletop game that is played by millions around the world. Using tabletop RPGs, we use it extensively to help our students improve academically (for instance, to write compositions). What exactly is this game about, and how is it played?

A brief history of RPGs

Dungeons And Dragons Red Box 1983
The Red Box set of Dungeons & Dragons, released by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) in 1983

In 1974, the first RPG was conceived. It was called Dungeons & Dragons (D&D).

Designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, D&D was published by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) as a series of three booklets containing the rules to the game. It was the first published game to cast players as adventurers, allowing them to dive into dungeons, slay monsters, collect loot, and overcome obstacles in creative ways.

Over time, the hobby grew in popularity and more RPGs were released on to the market. These newer games offered different genres and rules, and appealed to different crowds. However, all of them had one thing in common: they  strongly emphasised theatre of the mind and lateral thinking skills.

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How RPGs are played

A table showing dungeons and dragons character sheet and polyhedral dice

RPGs are usually played at a table with 4-5 people. One person is the Dungeon Master / Game Master (GM), while the rest are the players, AKA the heroes of the game.

The GM is responsible for telling the story, and may use props like miniature figurines and terrain to represent a scene. He will present players with challenges, and controls monsters and side characters (also known as Non-Playable Characters, or NPCs).

On the other end of the table are the players who control their respective characters (also known as Player Characters, or PCs). Their abilities, skills, and backgrounds are written on what is called a “character sheet”.

In a regular RPG session, the GM narrates what happens to Player Characters. Players then describe what their characters do next. In dangerous situations, they must determine if they succeed or fail by rolling some dice or drawing some cards.

Of course, this is a simplified explanation as different games have different rules. However, RPGs tend to gravitate towards a few core principles:

  • Players visualise the story in their heads (i.e., theatre of the mind).
  • Players must pay attention to what the GM is saying.
  • Players must participate actively.
  • Players are being told a story through both first- and third-person perspectives.
  • Stories are told in a collaborative way.
  • There are not many physical components involved. One only needs dice, pencil, paper, and simple tokens. That’s why some call them pen-and-paper (PnP) RPGs.

Bearing the above in mind, the next question is: why do people find tabletop RPGs fun?

Why people love tabletop RPGs

Tabletop RPGs can simulate different stories, genres, and settings

While the pen-and-paper RPG has its roots in fantasy gaming, it has since expanded to other genres, including sci-fi and spy thriller. There are even generic rulesets that work with any genre you can think of. The sky is the limit.

Tabletop RPGs are like highly interactive films

No two RPG sessions are ever the exact same, even if the GM were to reuse the same story. This is because tabletop RPGs do not have the limitations that video games do. Tabletop RPGs can foster positive social interactions, encourage creative solutions to problems, and give players the freedom to do what they want. In a way, they are like highly interactive films. Players are the characters. Their actions can shape the game’s world and change what happens next.

Tabletop RPGs can go on for a long time

Because players are actively involved in the progression of the story, and because the GM can be as creative as he/she wants, there is no definite end to the story unless the GM decides to have it. Many games have been known to go on for months, or even years.

Such stories are known as “campaigns”. What makes long campaigns great is that because players shape the world through their actions, there is a sense of investment in the world created. Unique friendships are formed, as are inside jokes. People don’t easily forget the stories from their pen-and-paper campaigns.

How tabletop RPGs facilitate learning and education

The majority of our kids love our RPG sessions. Beyond just being used as a fun activity, however, tabletop RPGs also play an important part in how we teach our kids. There is great educational value in them, as seen in the reasons below:

RPGs keep students engaged and excited for class

Most of our learners enjoy our RPG sessions. They’re always excited to come for class because many of the concepts taught are related to the games. As such, they’re usually engaged and focused once the lesson begins.

Engaged and Excited for RPG classStudents with behavioural learning difficulties (like ADHD) also rarely lose focus. In fact, they can remain hyperfocused in class. This is because they have been conditioned to regulate their own behaviours, AND it helps greatly that they’re having fun while learning.

Subsequently, after an RPG session, there are many things one can do with the class. Want to teach writing concepts? Go right ahead! You can even make a reading comprehension passage out of one of the fictional books from the game.

RPGs teach social skills

Picture of children socialisingIn any given RPG session, players are expected to work with one another. They may need to tap on another person’s strengths in order to overcome a difficult challenge. For instance, the Assassin character may need additional support from the Healer in case he gets wounded. Or, the Warrior may need to rely on the Spellcaster’s “Teleport” spell to take him safely across a spiked pit. These simple examples demonstrate how no one character can succeed on his or her own. Teamwork and communication are vital, just like in real life.

It also reinforces the need for good communication skills. Many times, our students squabble over the most trivial of things, like who gets the “Holy Sunsword” or “Rod of Absorption”. Tabletop RPGs provide these teachable moments for an educator to step in and guide, without making it awkward for everyone involved. After all, it’s just a game. None of it is real.


RPGs are about celebrating success and adapting to failure

Speaking of social skills, many of our students had come to us with a lot of emotional baggage. While most would defy expectations and go on to do amazing things in life, they also tended to have low self-confidence in the beginning. They would see life as a grind rather than a journey to be enjoyed.

Important to celebrate success and overcome failuresI incorporated RPGs into my lessons to empower such students. I wanted them to be able see long-term, to not get hung up on every little obstacle that came their way. More importantly, I wanted them to celebrate success and adapt to failure—a virtue that would take them far in life.

Sure enough, over the years, I began to see changes in most of my students. During our RPG sessions, students were explicitly taught that failure was part and parcel of the story. Some of their characters had suffered permanent injuries due to poor planning. Even cities had fallen because of their mistakes.

Despite these harsh setbacks, they were always taught one thing: there is always a way to rebuild and overcome losses. Failure can be overcome with time.

Our students have always taken these lessons to heart. Many have learned to see failure as a temporary setback, analysing what they could have done better. Then, when they did well, that success would spur them on to greater victories.

RPGs help students understand and appreciate themselves better

The better students understand themselves, the more likely they are to want to become better versions of themselves.

People who are new to RPGs usually create idealised versions of themselves. In other words, their characters tend to mirror who they are in real life. From observation, students who are more outspoken tend to create characters that are have charismatic traits; those who love animals will usually create druid- or ranger-type characters.

Moreover, students’ actions in-game usually echo a thought or personality trait in real life. A student who wants to rob a beggar in-game might not be inherently evil, but it may suggest that he is cheeky and impulsive.

This aspect of RPGs is great because it lets students see themselves from a “distance”. An educator or even a counsellor can help them make sense of why they behaved a certain way in-game, then tie it to their real-world personalities. I’ve seen students start off goofy and immature at the beginning of an RPG campaign, then become selfless and brave later on after learning more about themselves. The better students understand themselves, the more likely they are to want to become better versions of themselves.

RPGs help make certain academic concepts easier to understand

Children solving a puzzle

Writing can be one of the hardest things to teach, but it’s one of our pedagogy’s strengths. RPGs stimulate the imagination, which is perfect for students who drift off easily or who cannot internalise technical concepts. Furthermore, a well-crafted RPG session follows concepts like the Story Mountain closely, making such concepts easier to internalise for students.

Back in 2014, I had an 11-year old student who could not pass her Continuous Writing. Her writing was extremely disorganised. Though she had some good ideas, they were all over the place. To help her improve, I game-mastered an RPG session, then spent the next few months teaching her several writing concepts. The effort paid off, as not only did she pass her subsequent composition test, but did so with a good grade.

Role-playing games can be a powerful tool for educators. A well-planned session can provide scaffolding in a way that no other tool can.

RPGs are a way to teach students real-world knowledge

RPGs are a good way to teach current affairs and enrich students with knowledge. By controlling the story and game-world, the GM can demonstrate how politics and social entities work. This helps students to be more aware of the real world, encouraging both lateral AND critical thinking.

“Will RPGs help my child? Do they really offer educational benefits?”

Picture of a role-playing game

I’ve had a 95% success rate when it comes to using RPGs to help children and teenagers with specific learning difficulties. If you’re wondering if RPGs will help your child, the short answer is “YES!” The longer answer is “Yes”, but it depends on the educator and the child’s needs.

Here at Swords & Stationery, our techniques are developed to be used with such games. RPGs are not the only tool we use, but they play a significant role. If you’d like to find out more about our programme and how your child can benefit from it, drop us a note. We’d be more than happy to help.

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Teacher Shaun

Teacher Shaun

...is a self-professed geek and lover of all things old-school. When he's not playing Fallout or Deus Ex for the nth time, he can be found sitting in front of his laptop hacking away at his keyboard, typing blog posts like this one. He also runs a little company called Swords & Stationery.

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