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Interview with Culliope, tabletop RPG teacher and educational researcher!

I interviewed Maryanne Cullinan, also known as Culliope, about her experiences using tabletop RPGs with middle schoolers and the research she’s doing on applied educational tabletop RPGs!

Note: this is a transcribed interview, edited for ease of reading

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sure!  My name is Maryanne Cullinan or Culliope, and I am a middle school teacher in New Hampshire who uses role-playing games as a pedagogy.  I am also a PHD student at Lesley University and am studying using role-playing games in middle school classrooms for content and community.

I teach improv, I run the theater program, and I have a very large after school D&D club that currently has 45 students but has gone up to 65 students.  It’s about a quarter of our middle school!

So, I’m really really interested in how we can decentralize role-playing games to put kids in the driver seat, right?  A lot of role-playing games, clubs, or classrooms have the teacher as the DM all the time, but kids can’t put me in their pocket and take me home with them.  My ultimate goal is always to foster independence and community in kids so that they can go home and play D&D without me.

That’s like the goal of teaching or being a tutor, isn’t it?  You want to make yourself obsolete to that person so they can take the skills you’ve taught them and be able to teach and learn on their own eventually.

Exactly!  At the end of 8th grade, students always say to me, “Are you going to miss me.”

I always say, “No, I’ve done my job and I’m just excited for you.  You’ve outgrown me.  No one wants to be an 8th grader for the rest of their life.”

I teach too, and it’s a proud moment when you see them at graduation a couple years later.


So, when did you start playing tabletop RPGs, and what was one favorite moment that you have?

I actually didn’t start playing TTRPGs until maybe 5-6 years ago.  I grew up as a girl in the 90’s in New Hampshire, and I wasn’t invited to the table.  I just never knew that it was something for me or that I would be interested in. 

I went to PAX Unplugged to a panel called Hand Her a Sword that was about why using Dungeons and Dragons, specifically, but TTRPGs in general, with girls is empowering.  I was like… I could do that!  I know girls!  I bet I could figure this out!  I just went home and asked around, “Hey do you want to play this with me?”

We started a group called Slay Queens, which was our girl centric D&D community/social skills/friendship group that lasted a few years until COVID.  Then, we sort of expanded it out.  We had some students who are nonbinary, and we had a student who came in and he was like, “I feel like a Slay Queen at heart”, and he really was.  So, we included him, and everyone else was like… I’m not a Slay Queen, but I want to play!  And that’s how we started Hero’s Hall.

At the same time, I was using what I would now call role playing games in my classroom, but I didn’t know that’s what they were.

My favorite moments are always sort of the funny moments.  There are always so many really good moments of collaboration and success with students. 

In my role-playing game that I made for Greek mythology, there was an item called Baby Hefestus.  If you get it, it automatically puts you at the end of initiative because you’re carrying a baby.  This one group… they had like 4 of them!  Everybody was at the end of the initiative order and couldn’t put it down or get rid of it!  What do you do?  You can’t leave a baby behind or put it down in a fight.

So, they’re fighting a chimera, and it burned away all of their possessions, including the Baby Hefestus items, and they were weeping and pounding each other on the back and cheering and shouting that all their babies had been burned up!  And that’s, you know, where the principal comes in to do my observation.  The kids are all wrassling each other, haha.

I think that’s all really fun.  I really really love a little indie RPG called to Serve Her Wintry Hunger, and it’s a beautiful little one shot game that I’ve reskinned for Greek mythology where you chase down one of Zeus’ concubines and help Hera.  The kids don’t really realize what that means until they get to the end. Then, they have to make a choice.  Do they kill her and take the baby?  Do you let them both go and suffer the wrath of Hera?  How do you make those decisions?

Watching them wrestle with all of that… the impassioned speeches to each other, the horror of it all… it encapsulates all the passion of middle school into something that’s about learning and community.  It’s about making a decision together. 

Can you tell us about your research in using TTRPGs in the classroom?

My emergent research that I’m doing right now asks what do people who use role-playing games in their classrooms think about the benefits and drawbacks?  I just interviewed 13 people who use role-playing games in their middle or high school classrooms, and one of the things that I’m seeing that is really interesting is that by playing a game together and all being in the same fictional space, it shifts the way that students think about school to a more collectivist way of thinking about success and lifting each other up and community.  They see the value of their other classmates.

They might say, oh, remember when we did this or when the Baby Hefestus got burned up, the actual value of it is not just that they learned about Hefestus but also because now they have that community between them.

You get to adventure and build bonds in a way that you couldn’t otherwise.

Exactly; that’s why you have camp friends or army buddies or whatever, right? It’s sort of a little peek at that.  You have friends in this community that you might not think you have things in common with, but it creates that affinity space with other students who might not be part of your regular social group.

I work full time as a middle school enrichment teacher, so I’m trying things out all the time in my own classroom as action research, just for myself.  I’m also doing formal research. 

I used the RPG Inspirisles with two classes last spring, and I’m working on going through the data from the focus groups from that.  I’m working on writing a teaching pack to bring Inspirisles into other classrooms.

Inspirisles, for those people who don’t know, is a TTRPG from Hatchling Games that helps introduce people to deaf awareness and to basic ASL or BSL.  It’s designed to be for hearing communities to help bridge the disconnect between the two communities. 

I mentioned before that I recently interviewed a lot of people to kind of get the State of the Union with all these disparate people who are finding each other over the Internet, and a lot of people have independently come up with the same realizations.  It’s been very interesting for me to try to figure out how similar those realizations are.

Those two things are what I’m using towards starting my dissertation. I’m hoping that it will be about using role-playing games as pedagogy in the extended school year and special ED programs in my district, but that remains to be seen.

We’ll need to do a follow up!

Yeah!  Oh, and I just talked to my co-author, and we just got our first manuscript accepted to the International Journal of Roleplay!  So, you can look for an article from myself and Jennifer Genova in the next issue of the journal.


I am so excited; it’s my first author publication! 

You mentioned a couple of the benefits of playing TTRPGs already; what would you say are the top maybe 1-3 benefits that you see from using tabletop RPGs as an educational tool?

There are a couple of different ways that we learn.  At school, we think of explicit learning, which is like, “What is the capital of Nicaragua?”

Explicit learning is when you’re able to recite facts or understand basic concepts.

But the majority of our learning is implicit learning, which is how we end up with biases or stereotypes and also how we quickly make sense of the world.  We get up and look outside, and maybe someone taught us exactly what weather means, but we also have had enough experience with it that we have a sense of what weather is just from knowing.  We do that a lot with social skills too.

I think the main benefit of using role-playing games in the classroom is that there is an awful lot of implicit learning and semi-structured interactions that allow us to help kids have access to emotions and experiences that they might not necessarily have together.  That’s where I was talking about the affinity groups earlier.

If your character does something successful, that emotion bleeds into your brain.  Your brain doesn’t know the difference, right?  That’s why people cry at movies.  You know the difference, but your brain is still crying.

Yet, if you have some sort of failure, there’s enough separation that you can say, “Oh, that’s not actually me.”

So, you can try things out, which, in middle school, is what middle schoolers are developmentally doing.  They’re role-playing all the time.  Having the opportunity to try things out in a relatively low-stakes environment allows them to make mistakes and learn things implicitly that they might not be able to do in another setting.  At the same time, it gives them a really good reason to care about the content that they’re learning, especially if it forwards the plot.

I’m teaching a math class that’s sort of a math bonus class to try to help bring up school test scores – it’s called Math in Action, and it’s supposed to be hands-on math.  My current class is very passive learners, and I started using a role-playing game with them to make them see connections between the content and the value of the content.  

They’re not interested in learning how to measure things or review how to measure things, but when I throw a bunch of fake fish on the floor and tell them that they are oracular fish and the right ones will tell you a secret word, but you must measure them to find which ones are helpful and which are not.  Then the secret word will turn Gandolfdoor the wizard back to a wizard from being an actual door, and he can help them on their quest.

It’s exposure to new ways of thinking, it’s ethical dilemmas, it’s a good reason to care about the content, and it’s a good reason to care about our classmates and everyone’s value and contributions.  It’s just a different way of being in the classroom that, I think, is much more positive for 11 to 14 year olds.

I see this with my kid too; he does not want to do math worksheets, but if it’s a math worksheet about, like, Spiderman, he’s super into it.

Absolutely.  I think kids inherently want to be helpful, and they really like pretending and having access to that.  At the middle school level, many of them are not pretending the way that they used to.  They’re transitioning out of pretend play into a way that is socially acceptable in a public forum.

TTRPGs are a way for them to access those skills and needs in a way that is socially acceptable.  

We know adolescence is a time of neural pruning, which is when you’re getting rid of all the connections that you don’t need in your brian.  You’re also myelinating, which is like putting insulation around the wires for the super highway paths.  So, it’s really important to use those skills if we want kids to be creative and flexible thinkers and to be inclusive and to try things.  Then, creatively, we have to let them practice that so they can stay as part of the currently usable brain and not get pruned. 

Thank you Maryanne for the awesome interview!  I’m looking forward to checking our your publication and research!

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