My first introduction to Dungeons and Dragons (commonly known as D&D) was playing with a group of high school friends. Personally, at the time, I didn’t connect with the game as a series of unlucky roles and the slow pacing of the narrative created a headstrong and juvenile distain for it. I avoided dice rolling and any association with D&D for a long time afterwards. In recent times, I found myself being drawn towards D&D, not only as a personal interest but as a possible teaching tool. My personal opinions on D&D may have changed due to maturity – ironic for a fantasy-based dice rolling game – or it may have been due to seeing others play D&D and realise its possibilities to the fullest extent. This may have been the case for other researchers advocating for the game, as the literature to support the use of D&D in classrooms is considerable. Here’s why D&D can (and should) be used as a teaching tool, and how you can get started on stoking your own interest in the game.
What is D&D?
For the uninitiated, Dungeons & Dragons (commonly know as D&D or DnD) is a tabletop fantasy role-playing game. A group of players (or party) create characters to go on adventures directed by a Dungeon Master (or DM) who controls all the non player characters such as monsters, townsfolk, and villains. Adventures usually consist of a basic plot and a number of encounters which are handled however the party wishes. As the players progress through the story they are rewarded with treasure and new abilities for their characters (Slavicsek & Baker, 2008).
Why D&D is good for classrooms
Game-based learning has developed significantly throughout the 21st century. While ‘The Oregon Trail,’ or it’s Australian counterparts of ‘Crossing the Mountains’ and ‘Goldfields,’ may still (hopefully) have a place on school computers, the label of “educational games” have expanded past historical recounts or touch-typing practice. Likewise the applications of “serious games” have expanded past just pure entertainment, with some major applications including education and training, city planning, military applications, and healthcare (Minhua, Oikonomou, & Jain, 2011). Further more studies have shown that game based learning can foster and support skills such as critical thinking through discourse (Cicchino, 2015), language learning and communicative competence (Salies, 1995), and encourage creativity, self-awareness, problem solving, and allow for the exploration of identity (Bowman, 2010). All of these applications can occur within playing the out-of-the-box, fantasy roleplaying version of D&D. However, because of the sandbox nature of D&D, the applications can be as wide, far, and as creative, as the imagination of its players.
The term for original player content that cannot be found in the official rulebook is home-brew. Unofficial content related to any part of the game; items, classes, races, worlds or maps, can all be created and applied to the game, at the player’s desire. Not a fan of fantasy worlds? Create an adventure based on historical figures. Not a fan of all the violence of slaying magical creatures? Create a campaign based around politics and diplomacy where everyone is rolling to see who’s the most convincing. Sick of medieval adventurers? Become anything you want to be from angsty teen werewolves to rough-and-tumble space pirates. Imagination is the only limitation. This works for educational applications as well.
teachingwithdnd.com features a number lesson examples using D&D. The lessons range from literature writing about Beowulf, to a unique one-shot adventure filled with writing exercises and puzzles. Applications for Australian curriculum could include; campaigns based on well known books in the curriculum such as Deltora Quest, or historical events such as the 1813 crossing of the Blue Mountains. With proper preparation of the campaign, exercises could include students writing or roleplaying about their characters backstory, or journaling about the events that took place.
Here’s some resources for starting D&D:
- D&D Beyond – The website to the official online digital toolset for D&D. Has tools for home-brew character and monster building as well as digital versions of all the regular player kits. The new players guide is particularly well worked out.
- TeachingwithDnD.com – This provides a lot of helpful resources for teachers looking to use D&D in their classroom.
D&D media (or how I became interested in D&D)
Critical Role – probably the most well known show based around D&D. Self-proclaimed “nerdy-ass voice actors playing Dungeon and Dragons.” Their YouTube channel has a lot of quick guides for new players regarding the specifics of the game including class selection, world building, and how to run a game as a Dungeon Master (DM). Also their main show, Critical Role, runs weekly and is a livestream of their D&D game. So far series 2 has run for 116 episodes, each around 4 hours. Critical Role is an example of how entertaining and enthralling D&D can be, but new players be warned, these guys are professionals. Also the channel has quite a reasonable fan base so their production values are quite high. It might be best to use them for inspiration rather than comparison because they can make regular games look quite boring.
Other online D&D channels based around entertainment including Dimension 20 & High Rollers, who I personally haven’t watched but if you’re looking for examples on how D&D can be played – would definitely be worth checking out.
Also all these channels use an amount of cursing, so probably don’t share it with younger students.
Remember while it may be easiest to follow the laid out campaigns, once you feel confident enough, anything is possible in D&D. Through the use of a bit of creativity, you can home-brew any scenario or campaign to your liking. Create situations or characters that will cater to your students needs. If you want to practice language skills campaigns could be focus around politics instead of combat, develop home made puzzle around math or science problems, create characters based around historical figures. The possibilities are endless and the only rule is to have fun.
Minhua, M., Oikonomou, A., & Jain, L. C. (Eds). (2011). Serious Games and Edutainment Applications. London: Springer-Verlag London Limited.
Cicchino, M. m. (2015). Using Game-Based Learning to Foster Critical Thinking in Student Discourse. Interdisciplinary Journal Of Problem-Based Learning, 9(2), 57-74. doi:10.7771/1541-5015.1481
Saliés, T. G. (1995). Teaching language realistically: Role play is the thing. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 424753)
Bowman, S. (2010). The functions of role-playing games: How participants create community, solve problems and explore identity. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.
Slavicsek, B., & Baker, R. (2008). Dungeons and dragons 4th edition for dummies. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral.proquest.com.