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Thorsteinn Mar

Thorsteinn Mar

Mar 5, 2024  ·  12 min read

TTRPGs at School


Tabletop Roleplaying Games at School

As a teacher you’re constantly seeking new methods to grab your students’ attention. And in the fast moving world of smartphones, streaming and high-speed internet that is a constant struggle. Using roleplaying games can be both fun and informative, not to mention a great way to empower students.

I have been playing tabletop role-playing games for quite a while now. Although I like to believe that I do it to hang out with my friends, my wife thinks otherwise. She thinks that I do it to relive my teenage years. I don't argue with her because she's right about most things. But the truth is that role-playing is a way for me to escape reality. Some people play video games, some read books, I role-play. I love the idea of being a hero, a knight in shining armor, rescuing Wookie slaves while traveling through space in a light freighter. Or maybe I'm an expert in the occult, investigating strange cults that worship Cthulhu. All of this helps me relax and makes me happy.

I have been working as a teacher for several years, teaching Icelandic language and literature to teenagers. My job requires me to focus on grammar, spelling and literary works such as Icelandic Sagas and modern novels. To be honest, teaching grammar and spelling to teenagers can be quite monotonous, but I always try to find creative ways to engage them. For instance, I keep a few Scrabble board games handy. However, teaching literature is always enjoyable, and encouraging students to participate is much easier when they find the novels interesting.

The Icelandic Sagas are not always easy to understand. The language used is old, and Icelandic teenagers often find them difficult to follow. The cast of characters is usually extensive, and the third-person narrator is impartial, leaving the reader to interpret events. Despite the fact that the sagas revolve around Vikings, murders, and revenge, they are not very appealing to most teenagers, especially if they are expected to read them independently and answer basic questions about them.

In the contemporary educational landscape, the ubiquity of smartphones and iPads among teenagers presents a significant challenge to engaging them in academic pursuits. The allure of these gadgets often supersedes the interest in classroom activities, as students' attention is frequently diverted by notifications and the pervasive fear of missing out (FOMO). This digital distraction is compounded by an instinctive reflex to check their devices at the slightest indication of a new alert, such as a vibration, which further exacerbates the challenge of maintaining their focus on educational content. These technological distractions, along with various social changes, have added layers of complexity to teaching, demanding innovative strategies to captivate and sustain student engagement. Teachers are now tasked with finding creative methods to draw students' attention away from their screens and towards the curriculum, a feat that requires adapting to the digital habits and preferences of the modern student.

Bringing the Stories to Life Using a Roleplaying Game

One of my favorite sagas is the story of Gisli Sursson. It's a murder mystery, or a whodunit, but with Vikings armed with axes, bounty hunters, and evil sorcerers. The main character, Gisli Sursson, is a simple farmer who lives happily with his wife on his land alongside his brother, who lives in a separate farmhouse. One day, Gisli's blood brother, Vesteinn, comes to visit, but he is murdered while staying there. Gisli later avenges Vesteinn by killing his brother-in-law, which leads to chaos. Gisli becomes a hunted man, is sentenced to exile, and can be killed with impunity. He manages to evade and elude his body hunters for years until they finally catch him, but he puts up a real fight, and though his attackers manage to bring him down, it is at a great cost. Overall, this saga has every potential to be a great read for most people.

Although I enjoy the Saga, the conventional way of teaching it, along with most other Sagas, was to have the students read and answer questions from each chapter. After doing this for years, I found it to be boring and tedious. Moreover, I couldn't see any enthusiasm aroused in the students, nor did they find reading the story enjoyable or fulfilling.

I decided to make a change in the way I taught my students. First, I started reading the whole story with them, explaining in detail what was happening. Then I created a plan where each student could choose an assignment based on their interests and how they wanted to experience the story. They were free to draw comics, calculate the size of a Viking farmhouse, or set up a court like the one in the Saga era. This approach allowed them to engage with the narrative and experience it instead of just reading a text they found difficult.

In one of the assignments, the students were asked to create roleplaying characters based on the main characters of the Saga. They were given the option to use D&D, BRP or an Icelandic roleplaying game called Askur Yggdrasils. I provided them with the necessary character sheets and rulebooks. After creating the characters, I gave them an opportunity to play them in a short session that I game mastered. The session was based on a scene from the Saga.

I believe that this was one of the most successful assignments for Gisli’s Saga. Many students decided to do it and for many this was their first roleplaying experience. Some of them are still playing.

Roleplaying Games as a Subject

In Iceland, high school students are required to choose several extracurricular subjects each semester. These subjects can range from photography and carpentry to cooking and more. One year, I approached the department head and asked if I could offer the students an opportunity to learn through roleplaying games. However, I was questioned about what skills the students would acquire by playing a game where they pretend to be heroes in imaginary realms fighting dragons and evil undead monsters.

It's a valid question, especially coming from the head of an educational institution. It's their responsibility to ensure that every subject, even those that are not a part of the curriculum, have a clear objective. This objective should either help students learn new skills or increase their knowledge of the world.

Roleplaying games can be very informative and you can learn a lot by playing them. The fact that roleplaying is a social activity is proof of this. When you assume the role of someone else, it can be crucial for some people. I have seen extremely shy people open up and actively participate in a roleplaying group. Roleplaying games can help people who feel awkward in social situations practice their behaviour. The game provides a secure and safe space where they can feel comfortable enough to let themselves go.

After some consideration, the head of the department approved the inclusion of Roleplaying Games as a subject, but with certain conditions. The selection of students for the class was done with care, with the objective of improving their social status and allowing them to develop their social skills. Assignments would be given, and students needed to be graded based on their performance. Although I accepted the conditions, I was unsure about how to grade roleplaying.

Plans and Execution

I set out some objectives before starting to evaluate social skills, which is always subjective and challenging to measure. After careful consideration, I designed a sheet with various social skills to assess after each class. I also created several assignments, such as character creation, writing and game-mastering a one-shot, and participating in a small convention.

During the first meeting with the students, we discussed roleplaying games, and I introduced them to different rulebooks and accessories. At the next meeting, we used Dungeons & Dragons to create characters. Their task was to write a backstory and select a suitable image for their character.

After the first session, the students got up and started talking with each other. They were discussing the game and how they could improve their gameplay. I watched as the scene unfolded before my eyes and realized that I had been planning the subject poorly. The students were actually learning from each other and empowering each other's in-game actions. I decided to throw away the sheet with the social skills and after that first session, we sat a bit longer and discussed their characters' actions and behavior.

Even today, I'm not sure if these students know how important those moments they spent talking and discussing what had happened in-game really were. They had learned a lot by evaluating and thinking about the actions, reactions, and inactions of their characters. In the following sessions, I tried to offer as many chances as possible for the player characters to socialize with each other and other non-playing characters..

Roleplaying Becomes Cool

Roughly two decades ago, roleplaying games (RPGs) were largely considered a niche hobby, often stereotypically associated with a specific subculture. However, the landscape of roleplaying, particularly games like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), has undergone a dramatic transformation. Roleplaying has transcended its niche status to become a mainstream activity, embraced by a wide and diverse audience that spans from celebrities to inmates, reflecting its universal appeal. In Iceland, this shift is evident as teenagers have the opportunity to engage in roleplaying games at community centers, indicating a significant cultural shift. The stereotype of roleplayers as socially awkward and solitary individuals is rapidly fading, replaced by a more inclusive and varied image of what it means to be a roleplayer. This evolution reflects broader changes in societal attitudes towards gaming and entertainment, illustrating how roleplaying games have become a respected and enjoyed pastime across different segments of society.

I still offer roleplaying games as an extracurricular subject every semester, and in the last decade or so, their popularity has exploded. Almost every day, I organize a roleplaying session where students come and play for about two hours. The heads of my department see a lot of potential in roleplaying games, and we have had roleplaying game classes specifically designed for autistic students and students who have a hard time coping with school. Currently, there is more demand for roleplaying games than I alone can meet.

Students need to learn social skills now more than ever. In a world where much of their communication relies on smartphones and the internet, they need to be able to sit down at a table and have a great time together, whether it is slaying a dragon with a group of other adventurers or discussing solutions to drought in Africa and everything there between. Most companies today who are seeking people, at least here in Iceland, are looking for people who have great social skills, are able to work in groups and to be part of a team. What better way to teach this than by roleplaying!?

After all, isn’t this what roleplaying is all about?