By Nick Cialini
You find yourself in a large, seemingly sterile room. The room is filled with chairs and desks, but you are standing. Standing in front of a horde of villagers. They’re not zombies, but there is something lifeless about their faces, their posture. They all turn to you expectantly. You try to speak, but you stutter and stammer. In that moment you realize the buzzing lights in the room are actually dealing psychic damage to you. If you don’t come up with something to say quickly, you just might die here. What do you do?
Anyone who has ever taught has felt this way, even if it’s been a minute since you have found students to be an intimidating, zombified horde. I’ve been told by faculty training seminars and ed. courses that preparation is key to avoiding dread in the classroom. I hate admitting this, but planning isn’t exactly one of my strengths. I have tried many different strategies to be better at it, but something about them always feels foreign to me. I work best under the pressures of improvisation. Needless to say, this isn’t the best strategy for consistency as an instructor. I burned out faster and found myself unable to address certain student concerns. I searched for a way to blend the preparation I was bad at with intuition and improvisation which served me so well. To discover this elusive balance, I would need to become a nerd. Not so much become a nerd as I had been one for so many years, but rather become a bigger nerd.
I started playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) just before the pandemic hit. I played as an adventurer for a little over a year before I tried to play as a Game Master (GM). To let the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) explain it, “The [GM] is the creative force behind a D&D game. The [GM] creates a world for the other players to explore and also creates and runs adventures that drive the story.” It was a daunting task. I felt compelled to overdo it. This was after all a task that required me to be creative and improvisational and fastidious, all while crafting a story with my friends. The more I prepared for my first campaign as a GM, the more I noticed the parallels between the work I was doing to prepare for the campaign and the work I did to prepare to teach in a college classroom.
While I have been interested in incorporating role-playing games (RPGs) into my classroom for a while, I hadn’t made the connection to the planning process. Most of the guides (like those from Harvard and Northern Illinois U and even from popular education thinkers like Ed Cafe) on incorporating RPGs into the classroom focus on using role-play as an activity for students to participate in. While this can go very poorly, role-play in the classroom can foster empathy and connection with otherwise distant material. These unique learning experiences are wonderful, and I do not want to discount them. But instead I want to explore how the experience of being a GM can inform preparing for and executing a lesson.
In order to create a successful campaign, the GM must create a world for the players to explore and a narrative for them to follow in that world. There must be a balance of motivation to follow the narrative and freedom to explore and navigate the world with little restriction. The players’ choices and actions are bound up in a rules-set that guides them toward problem solving. The DMG outlines the “many hats” the GM wears when running a campaign:
- Architect — inventing the world by “placing monsters, traps, and treasures”
- Storyteller — helping “the players visualize what’s happening around them, improvising with the players’ actions”
- Actor — performing “the roles of the monsters and supporting characters”
- Referee — interpreting and adjudicating “the rules and [deciding] when to abide by them and when to change them”
Each GM handles the roles differently, but balancing these roles is crucial to running a fun campaign. I speculate that the GM is to the instructor as the player is to the student. And when we explore these roles, we will find that they formulate a potent guide for class preparation and adventuring with students.
Regardless of whether you are using a module from the rich multiverse of D&D or inventing your own, the world sets the tone for the campaign. Is magic is ordinary or extraordinary in your world? Is it a high medieval setting or gritty cyberpunk? Are all your non-player characters (NPCs) named by puns or based on the etymology of a fantastic language you built from the grammar up? Each decision in the invention of the world shifts the context and motivation of the players. In other words, players will respond in kind to the atmosphere built around them.
Often, this kind of planning — world building — is what most folks think of when they imagine planning an RPG; I think this is the same with hard planing lessons in the classroom. Many GMs enjoy building detailed locales and lore and pantheons and languages ad nauseam. This Tolkien-esque world building is a shadow all invented worlds must live in. In case it wasn’t obvious already, this isn’t how I like to fly. I respect folks who work this way, but I don’t.
At the RPG table and in the classroom alike, detailed “world building” never worked for me. Instead, my invention as a GM is driven by necessity. I only build locations and NPCs in detail that my players need to interact with for the sake of the narrative. Whatever else exists in the location, I invent it on the fly, improved from notes about the area, a table of names and puns, and the needs of the immediate campaign and players. I tried to write manuscripts of lectures; I tried outlines; I tried PowerPoints; I tried a lot of different methods. I have a friend who plans her lessons to nearly every word and action she takes in the classroom in a big binder for each course she teaches. What did end up working for me was a sketch of the class composed of bullet points and annotations. I teach mostly first year writing and literature courses; so, I deal with texts and cultural artifacts often. When I invent the class session, I scaffold the environment around the ethos of the artifact; the learning goals naturally follow the way the artifact-at-hand fits the greater context of the course. In other words, my foundational invention is driven and developed by student contribution.
RPGs are meaningful to me because they are an example of cooperative storytelling. The players and the GM together make a story. Neither is in complete control, to many a GMs’s chagrin. Rather, a well-executed story in an RPG is one that both the players and the GM contribute to. It’s become a meme that GM’s will listen to players’ speculations about future movements of the story to mine for ideas.
Beyond the movements of the story, the GM guides the imaginative eyes of the players. The GM’s descriptions communicate objects of importance, tone, and a sense of place to the players. The GM must give the players an understanding of their environment with their narrative choices. These choices will necessarily inform players’ performance and contributions.
Much like guided play styles of pedagogy, the storytelling approach to class preparation “lies midway between direct instruction and free play” (Weisberg et al. 2013). In RPGs, the goals of the narrative are guided by the choices of the players. In the classroom, the lesson goals are guided by student choices. This means that learning goals are defined by the artifact-at-hand in the context of the course, but the journey to those goals are directed by student interest and contribution. As the GM, I know where I want my players to end up, but how they arrive at that end is determined largely by them. This is how the story is told cooperatively.
For example, I am currently running a fantasy noir campaign. Mystery campaigns are notoriously tricky for GMs — I’m learning this the hard way — because they require giving players clues rather than plot hooks. I may place an important clue at a bar on the end of town where they never go. Is it my responsibility to get them to go to that bar, or are they destined to never get that piece of evidence? Neither is the correct answer. My job is to give them good reason to go to that bar or make clues that are malleable enough to exist as Schrodinger’s cat, both there and elsewhere simultaneously. The “trick” is that the clues never exist in only one place until they is discovered. Clues must be prepared in such a way as to allow players to “stumble upon” them while also being able to appear wherever they happen to stumble.
I can already hear the din of GMs telling me “better” ways of doing this. And honestly, they may be right, but that’s part of my point. There are manifold ways to guide players to clues, but all the good ones share one thing in common: they don’t railroad players to conform to the GMs plans. Railroading is forcing players into narrative scenarios or making particular choices. This is generally frowned upon in RPGs because it violates the fun of cooperative control. Though fun might not be the stated goal of the classroom, the same principle of cooperative control applies to learning. When students have control to guide their own learning, their motivation and engagement become self-sustaining. In my experience, the best classroom experiences I’ve had were sessions in which the students took the reigns of the interaction and directed our journey.
GMs perform the characters other than the players that populate the world: the NPCs. When players encounter NPCs in the invented world, someone needs to perform the lines and actions of those nonexistent characters. There are two main ways this applies to the classroom.
First, writing about the instructor’s role in guided play pedagogy, Pyle and Danniels (2016) say that students “direct their own learning within the established play contexts while teachers enhance the learning experience by playing the role of commenters, coplayers, questioners, or demonstrators of new ways to interact with the materials involved.” Sometimes the instructor must interrogate a student’s contribution. Other times they must play along with students. In other words, the instructor’s role is always changing to fit the needs of the moment. This can’t be planned for in the hard planning model. Many scripts for myriad roles can be written, but even with a litany of scripts, the instructor needs to know when to slip into each role and cannot reasonably script every scenario each role might encounter.
The second valence of the actor role is improvisation. The instructor must improvise along with students in order to maintain momentum. The traditional “yes and” formula of improv is useful though it doesn’t fully capture the improv that happens in RPGs. One student might need validation about their contribution while being slightly incorrect. This requires something like a “yes, but also” approach. Another student might be entirely wrong, but able to handle a more direct adjustment: the ever-difficult “no, and.” In the holy grail of examples, a student might actually have thought of something you didn’t think of or think to include: the rare “no, but actually yes” example as memed earlier.
Finally, the role that often gets too much attention by GMs and instructors alike: the referee. For those new to RPGs, rules-systems can be the most daunting part of the experience. Especially as a new GM — and instructor — I was terrified of adjudicating rules. I didn’t want to be the person who ran their game — or classroom — with an iron fist. There are plenty of overly-crunchy GMs and instructors out there (crunchy means that one is a stickler for the rules), but I found that the role of the referee can be just as creative of a role as architect and storyteller.
Adjudicating the rules requires both a thorough established rules-set and a willingness to bend and break from it when appropriate. In RPGs, this might be fudging the roll of a die to keep a player from dying (there’s a pun in there somewhere about dice and dying by them) or it might mean letting a player do something just beyond what the rules dictate because it is worth it for its impact on the story (or because it’s just too damn cool). In my fantasy noir campaign for example, we have a rogue who is a kitsune who lost all her tails. I have loose rules for her magical abilities when narratively necessary. This actually inspired the player to pursue a few levels of sorcerer to express her character’s growth back into her former self.
In the classroom, creative refereeing is ultimately dependent upon context: the instructor, the institution, the grade-level, and the subject matter. The rules-set for a required STEM course given to a bunch of STEM majors is a different rules-set of a gen-ed. A kindergarten classroom is different from a high school or middle school classroom. This might be obviously true for each of the roles I have laid out here, but it is increasingly true for the referee role because an instructor’s ability to craft and shift rules in their classroom greatly vary. The main lesson to learn from RPG refereeing is that rules-sets and their adjudication inscribe players’ creativity.
When a GM chooses a rules system like D&D or Monster of the Week or Kids on Brooms, they establish limits and expectations for the players. In a narrative-forward system, the players are expected to choose actions that prioritize the plot. In a mechanics-forward system, players’ actions will be motivated to make efficient and strategic choices. In other words, the rules set an instructor emphasizes in the classroom will dictate the creativity and actions they can expect from their students.
Remember the instructor and the student, like the GM and the players, are on the same team. Too many instructors treat their classrooms as combat zones in which they perform only the roles of referee and villain for their adventurers. Combat sets the GM against the players for the entire encounter. In combat, every player action must be approved and run through specific rules the GM is more motivated to follow. And performing the villain, the GM is actively filling a role to stymie their players’ success. While these moments of antagonism are occasionally necessary for interesting and complex campaigns, maintaining them for extended period makes for poor storytelling and a boring play experience. It’s pretty easy to see how this mindset makes for a disheartening and uninteresting environment for learning. Success in RPGs and in the classroom is defined by collaboration on creating and achieving established goals.
Once again, you find yourself in a large room. This time, full of students desperate for an inciting incident to interest them. You have an assortment of artifacts and quests and clues and, inexplicably, fifty-feet of rope. What are you prepared to do?
Unlike in D&D, I don’t think fifty-feet of rope will be all that useful in the classroom.
Mearls, Mike, and Jeremy Crawford. Dungeon Master’s Guide. Renton, Wa, Wizards Of The Coast, 2014.
Pyle, Angela, and Erica Danniels. “A Continuum of Play-Based Learning: The Role of the Teacher in Play-Based Pedagogy and the Fear of Hijacking Play.” Early Education and Development, vol. 28, no. 3, 12 Sept. 2016, pp. 274–289, tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/96410/1/A%20continuum%20of%20play-based%20learning%20-%20Revised.pdf, 10.1080/10409289.2016.1220771.
Weisberg, Deena Skolnick, et al. “Guided Play: Where Curricular Goals Meet a Playful Pedagogy.” Mind, Brain, and Education, vol. 7, no. 2, 17 May 2013, pp. 104–112, 10.1111/mbe.12015.