“Being a good teacher is exactly like being a good Dungeon Master, but with far more pressure,” said Kade Wells, who uses Dungeons & Dragons with his high school students. As a preservice teacher he was struck by how much lesson planning felt like preparing for a D&D campaign and, ever since, he’s plotted his classes with a Dungeon Master’s cunning.
The Dungeon Master (DM) is the popular role-playing game’s chief storyteller and referee. A DM designs and administers the medieval fantasy world where a party of player-adventurers quest for loot and glory. It’s a big job: they plan and narrate the story, enforce rules, settle disputes, draft floor plans and accommodate players’ whims. Like teachers, DMs aim to guide, challenge and engage.
This series has looked at how Dungeons & Dragons and similar role-playing games (RPGs) have been used for learning. Be it in classrooms or afterschool clubs, D&D has been used to support literacy, social emotional development, interdisciplinary studies and to inspire teachers to structure their classes as games. In all of these cases, teachers and professors channeled their inner Dungeon Master to reimagine how learning takes place in their classes and schools.
But what, specifically, are the Dungeon Master skills that can lead to fruitful implementations in education?
What follows are five DM practices that are compatible with teaching and learning objectives. Their application, whether with games or otherwise, can help make classes more fun, challenging, socially cohesive, personalized and, yes, epic.
1. DESIGN FOR EXPERIENCE
When it comes to preparing a successful class or planning a good game, design is king. A Dungeon Master’s focus on player-centred experiences can yield big learning dividends when applied to instructional design, which is why many educators who integrate RPGs in their practice plunder the DM’s bag of tricks for inspiration and ideas to power-up their lessons.
Sarah Roman, who uses D&D with high school English students, draws parallels between the work of DMs and teachers.
“You essentially progress with the same practices and ideas for getting a group of people to come together to work towards a common goal,” said Roman. “You set aside time to craft a campaign (lessons), put in roadblocks and problems (individual lessons), craft puzzles and dungeons that scale in difficulty (tests), all while making sure to understand the people with whom you’re working. In both cases, you become the leader and entryway to a world that they’ve never experienced.”
Michael Matera, who runs his middle-school social studies classes as games synthesizes lesson planning with game design.
“When you think about the central points to building a good game, they share many with the core strategies for building successful instruction,” said Matera. “By creating an experience, we as the game designers for our classroom worlds venture into their worlds as students. Our efforts to design a great game are well returned by students who will work hard within the game environment.”
Matera designs for experience, an approach that aligns with constructivist learning theories that maintain that students learn better by doing rather than as passive recipients of information. Dungeon Masters only design for experience, and educators who want to do the same can tap into their extensive resource toolbox for ideas and inspiration. There are virtually endless guides, manuals, sheets and tables, blogs, apps, commandments, websites and even a support group to help DMs produce exciting experiences.
University of Connecticut assistant professor Stephen Slota encourages teachers to not only pick and glean from DMs, but from the wider design universe at large, whether video games, gardening or architecture. “Don’t reinvent the wheel,” said Slota. “If a design strategy exists and has been used in another realm but not yours, repurpose it – with appropriate attribution, of course. No one will worry that it’s been done before as long as the design works.”
2. WRAP IT IN A STORY
Stories shape our self-perception, help us organize knowledge and make sense of a chaotic world. From the tribal campfire to Netflix binges, stories and storytelling are intimately bound with human culture and society. A story’s narrative patterns and ability to arouse emotions make them ideal memory aids, which is why stories and learning have been intertwined throughout human history.
A Dungeon Master conjures a living world through narratives, and teachers who follow suit can also make learning more meaningful and memorable. When using D&D or other RPGs in their classes, or investing courses with thematic narratives, teachers should not only seek to leverage the power of story, but can also recruit students in the storytelling process.
Famed Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer explains, the DM’s job is not just to tell a good story, but to lead a collaborative storytelling experience. “A Dungeon Master creates and directs a story for your friends to live and play in, and working with their ideas, collaborates with them in real time to write the next chapter together,” said Mercer, the star of Critical Role, which streams celebrity D&D campaigns. “Consider narratives that emphasize relationship and enable them to put their skills and teamwork together to surmount a challenge and really appreciate each other.”
But where do these stories come from? What if the creative well is dry?
“Steal relentlessly,” advises Kotaku’s Tim Colwill. “Steal from TV and movies. Steal from books and comics. Steal from another D&D game you watched on Twitch. I am deadly serious and it will make you a better Dungeon Master [and teacher] if you do this.”
3. OFFER CHOICE
Like classrooms, games operate with rules and constraints but, within those boundaries, they afford players interactivity and choice. In fact, The Guardian’s Keith Stuart argues that choice may be the single biggest factor producing enjoyment in video games. We like to feel like masters of our destiny, and meaningful choices produce a sense of control that increases the likelihood of becoming invested in an experience. The absence of choice, however, can lead to the opposite.
“When a DM is the only one who makes decisions, we call it railroading and it’s no fun for anyone but the DM. Games are about meaningful choices,” said Scott Price at the Connected Learning Summit in 2018 when he was the director of product at BrainPOP. He said it’s important to include agency when designing a compelling experience. “Good role-playing game experiences are player-driven, individualized, adaptive, meaningful and contextualized,” he said and stressed that the qualities that make a successful game also make a great class.
It’s not a revelation that students are engaged by choice, as it’s the magic ingredient in approaches like inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, passion projects, genius hours and learning pathways. However, to offer choice, educators must be willing to give up some control.
“When I finally started and let go of control and many of the anticipated outcomes, I quickly realized how the students can really drive the learning in a powerful and fun way,” said Steve Isaacs, who offers his middle-school game design students branching quests that allow them to choose personal learning paths. “Giving choice allowed me to step back and support students rather than ‘teach’.”
When choices and options are built into the curriculum, whether in homework, assignments, classroom roles, or even assessment, students can enjoy a more personalized and meaningful learning experience.
4. REWARD RISK AND NORMALIZE FAILURE
For a while now, the edusphere has been buzzing about the importance of inviting risks and embracing failure. In reality, many schools are competitive systems that rewards success and, especially when grades and standardized tests are involved, leave little allowance for meaningful failure.
Many games let players safely fail and try again, and encourage progression through risk-taking and iterative cycles of trial and error. Gamers naturally apply and practice a growth mindset because they must constantly adjust their play tactics in response to mistakes and setbacks.
Using games and making classes more game-like can help educators genuinely embrace risk and failure. Michael Matera, for example, found that using RPG elements cultivates a forgiving classroom culture that embraces risk-taking.
“I am constantly amazed at how they thrive in my risk-rich classroom environment. As these are not graded in the traditional sense students can take a risk, tackle new challenges and grow as a learners,” said Matera.“When we are empowered as learners, as gamers, we win. Maybe not the game, but the war over wisdom. We learn from our failures, and when we are empowered, are able to pick ourselves up to learn even more.”
It’s also important to remember that game designers don’t build risk and failure into their games to edify and educate – they just know that overcoming adversity can be a lot of fun. A prize is all the more valuable for the obstacles surpassed to attain it, so a good DM aims for the Goldilocks sweet spot between too hard and too easy, where advancement is possible but challenging. This design principle coincides with Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, thus synthesizing best practices for entertainment and learning.
But it’s not just the students who should take risks. Using a game in a class or, even more daunting, turning a class into a game also involves risk for the instructor. What if it’s boring? What if it doesn’t work? What if they hate it? It takes moxie, but educators can grow from silencing the voices of doubt and model risk taking for their students.
“Just know that the students often love you and are very willing to try new things,” said Roman. “Sometimes it won’t work or you’ll have days where it seems difficult due to timing and preparedness. They’ll see that you’re putting in effort into something new and they appreciate that regardless of the outcome.”
5. PROVOKE EMOTIONS
The social and emotional benefits of playing Dungeons & Dragons were addressed in an earlier installment in this series, but games can also produce memorable emotional moments within the safety of the magic circle of play.
Trent Hergenrader, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, describes how RPGs produce powerful emotions in his creative writing classes.
“We reach a momentous point in the story that requires a dice roll. Every time, the room goes quiet as the player shakes the dice in their hands and then release them, clattering on the table. I swear, the whole room sucks in a breath as we all lean in to see the result and, success or failure, there’s an explosion of hooting, hollering, laughing, groaning. In those moments, no one in that room would want to be anywhere else in the world, it’s that good. And of course that energy then translates into their work,” said Hergenrader.
Cheers, laughter, anticipation and surprise can all help in the absorption of knowledge and may be essential ingredients to create an experience that students will never forget.
The Benevolent Subversions of the Chaotic Good
The educators who have experimented with D&D in their practice are also players who have experienced the force of shaping and reshaping stories. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, they use the power learned in the realms of fantasy to hack an all too real educational narrative. In Dungeons & Dragons parlance, their race is Human, their class is Pedagog, and their moral alignment is clearly Chaotic Good, whose description in the Player’s Handbook is eerily suitable:
A chaotic good character does what is necessary to bring about change for the better, disdains bureaucratic organizations that get in the way of social improvement, and places a high value on personal freedom, not only for oneself, but for others as well.
Dungeons & Dragons is a salient example of an imaginative and timely intervention, but sword-and-sorcery is not for everybody. The plasticity of RPG systems allows for the implementation of any theme or setting, and students can be recruited to help design the games around a specific topic. Also, teachers are not only using RPGs in their classes, but turning their classes into role-playing games which further challenges the status quo of our education system.
Ultimately, whether using games, RPGs, or any other initiatives, teachers have an unprecedented opportunity to exercise and model creativity, passion, problem-solving and courage to re-author their personal and institutional narratives. Armed with these mildly subversive but benevolent grassroots interventions they can rewrite the story of student, teacher and school as a legendary epic for the ages, and perhaps save the world along the way.