What are role-playing games (RPGs)?

At Swords & Stationery, one activity that we use to help our students (particularly those with dyslexia and ADHD) is the Role-Playing Game (RPG). It is an actual game that is played by millions around the world, although we’re the first and only organisation that uses it extensively for academic purposes (for instance, to write compositions and essays). What exactly is this game about, and how is it played?

A brief history of RPGs

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 games would be released on to the market. These newer games offered different genres and rules, appealing to different crowds, but all of them had one thing in common: they very strongly emphasised theatre of the mind and lateral thinking skills.

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How RPGs are played

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 heroes of the game. The GM is responsible for telling the story, and may use props to represent a scene. He/she will also be the one presenting players with challenges. On the other end, players will describe how they’ll resolve these challenges. This is usually done by rolling dice (though some games use cards instead).

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What qualities do RPGs have?

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. In a way, RPGs are like highly interactive films. Players are the characters, and their actions can shape the game’s world.

Furthermore, RPGs do not have the limitations that video games do. They can foster positive social interactions, encourage creative solutions to problems, and give players the freedom to do what they want. No two RPG sessions are ever the exact same.

How RPGs facilitate learning

At Swords & Stationery, we use RPGs for three main purposes: to engage, explain and enrich.

Using RPGs to engage learners

All of my learners have enjoyed 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.

Students with behavioural learning difficulties (like ADHD and ODD) 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 also helps greatly that they’re having fun while learning.

Using RPGs to explain concepts

Writing can be one of the hardest things to teach, but it’s one of our pedagogy’s strengths. By using RPGs to teach writing, I always make it look simple for my students, especially for those with dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and ADHD. RPGs stimulate the imagination, which is perfect for students who drift off easily or who cannot internalise technical concepts.

I recall one of my ex-students who could not pass her Continuous Writing for months (she was 11 years old at the time). After we sat down for an RPG session and went through several lessons of writing frameworks, she not only passed her subsequent composition test, but did so with a good grade. It was heartening news indeed.

Using RPGs to enrich with 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 bigger picture, encouraging both lateral AND critical thinking. Furthermore, I use RPGs to teach soft skills, including the reading of social cues and effective communication. Many of my students have improved in their behaviours, simply by participating in one or two RPG sessions and going through an After-Session Review.

“Will RPGs help my child?”

I’ve had a 100% 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. Finally, follow Swords & Stationery on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date on our latest learning tips, strategies and discussions.


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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Your personal information is safe with us. Swords & Stationery will never use it for anything else, other than to keep you informed on our latest news, tips, and strategies.