How I use TTRPGs and RPG elements in the classroom
- Why and how I want to help with using TTRPGs in the classroom
- How I handle characters (2 methods)
- How I handle stories (2 methods)
Why and how I want to help with using TTRPGs in the classroom
Why use TTRPGs in class?
We know that there are many benefits to using tabletop RPGs with kids, from creative problem solving to make material more engaging to building a bond between players to… so much more (including just being fun)! These are also all GREAT to bring into a lesson to create enjoyable learning experiences and to help bring elements into your classroom that are missing in a lot of lectures, like peer-to-peer teaching and active SEL practice.
Some of the challenges of using TTRPGs in class
It can be hard to introduce TTRPGs into your class for a number of reasons. It may seem intimidating to teach a new game to a whole class and then run it for them all, especially if you’ve haven’t played a tabletop RPG yourself yet. It can also be really difficult to get an activity like this approved due to perceptions about playtime and learning time needing to be separate. There’s also concerns about class management, how to run with larger classes, where to start, and so on. I want to help address some of these here.
What challenges this article will help with
For this article, I’m going to cover the methods that I used for making a TTPRG series (StoryGuider) that could be played with a whole pre-K class AND how I introduced RP elements and a continual story in the engineering college class that I’m teaching (and my planned next steps for introducing more TTRPG elements later). I’ll also cover some of the benefits that I’ve seen in both of these situations and how it can be expanded on as you comfortable with adding more RPG elements.
This should provide you with some methods and ideas for using a very manageable and low prep TTRPG or TTRPG-adjacent activity and framework in your classroom that’s easy to use, helps kids, and is also more likely to get approved than going straight to adding something like D&D to your class.
I am going to do a follow up article, as well, on how I proposed and got approval to trial RPG elements in the college course I teach along with the specific benefits I see in my students there, so keep an eye out for that in the coming weeks.
Characters for your class TTRPG
Using a collective class character (both college and pre-K)
In both StoryGuider and the college class, I have only one character for the whole class. Each student doesn’t have a separate character, there is one character for everyone that is either created by the class together or that I have written into the story (depending on the application).
Benefits to students and teachers: Start in the comfort zone
For students, this gets everyone working together and looking to a central character that they all have stake in. It’s also very easy to understand and pick up on from each other and can be a great way to gradually introduce students to RP-style games if they’re not familiar with it.
For teachers, this can feel a lot more manageable than having a ton of different characters to look out for in class or letting the attention for the class split into different streams of the story. The focus stays on the class character and it can be a lot less intimidating to start with. It also can be a lot easier to get approved if proposing to a school administrator because you are keeping the class structure pretty similar to the existing method.
Level up: Expanding to more characters over time
If you start with this method, it is also easy to expand on as you get used to it. As you learn how to use fictional characters to help tell and engage with stories in your class and get more comfortable with your students having control in that story, maybe next semester, you set it up so they split into 5 teams and each team has a character that they control. After that, maybe you have each student with their own character. It lets you learn the process at your own pace and increase or decrease the level of complication as you need.
Creating the class character together (college course)
With my college class, on day 1, we create a fictional class engineer as the course’s ice breaker activity. This class engineer will be going on a journey with us throughout the semester and be the focus for framing our assignments. I have students either individually or within small groups share an element or two about something from themselves for us to add to the class engineer’s profile. I give them a few examples (i.e. I would add “likes tabletop RPGs” or “reads sci-fi books”) to help fuel some ideas, and then we fill out our character.
In a class of 24 students, this trait list can get pretty fun. We’ll get something like:
- plays hockey
- likes Middle Eastern food
- likes jazz
- dyes their hair fun colors
- has a pet dog
- enjoys baking
- is allergic to bad attitudes
and so on…
It’s fun, students get a laugh at the hypothetical engineer that we’ve made, and then we frame all of our assignments for the semester around this fictional engineer pursuing their education and career.
Benefits to students: connection and representation
Making this character together does a few things. First, it acts as an interesting ice breaker that continues to connect everyone through the semester. Students see how they have a lot of things in common with other classmates, and they all feel a little connected and are reminded of this every time we show the class engineer.
The second thing that this does is it helps students to see themselves as an engineer. Especially for individuals who don’t fit certain engineering stereotypes, making and playing an engineer character who doesn’t fit all the preconceived ideas of what an engineer looks like and has an element of yourself in them can mean a lot. It creates representation for each individual class, and the class supports and make this.
Level up: Adding to the character after each assignment based on class learning
To expand on this, if and when you’re ready, you can show progression and character growth over time by adding traits to the character. When my students finish writing their mid-term research paper, I can ask the class what the engineer learned and then add a trait relevant to that. In this case, the engineer may have learned that it’s important to use peer-reviewed sources for technical research versus only looking things up in a forum online (even if it’s on a university website), so the trait we could add may be “is conscious about checking sources”. This shows growth for the whole class, and it can help drive home key lessons from an assignment that might be lost if you just told the class “you need to use technical sources”.
Using stories with TTRPG and RPG elements in your class
Making choices for your character together (StoryGuider)
When making the StoryGuider series for use in larger pre-K classes, I set it up for kids to all be controlling one character that I’ve already written into a story. The story teaches topics related to SEL and pre-K skill development (pattern recognition worksheets, counting exercises, etc). As choices come up in the game, either the class votes on what the character should do (so they decide together) or students take turns making choices (rotating spotlight) between 2-3 options. The story progresses based on the choices that the class makes.
Benefits to teachers: Easier for approval and integration
This is modeled after the “Choose Your Own Adventure” style stories and was designed to find a middle ground between regular story time (reader is the only one telling the story) and a full game (all kids having separate characters and the story going in any direction from their ideas) in order to guide towards a specific theme (in this case, SEL) for the class and fit with an existing class structure.
While there are immense benefits to the full game style, it can also seem like a daunting task, and there may be concerns about it straying too far from what needs to be covered in the mandated curriculum (even if that’s not really the case). Some may argue the the curriculum and school foundation needs to change, and, even if that’s true, that is a huge long term task, and this is something we can do now. I wanted this to provide something that still gives students benefits but will be easy to implement and can potentially shift views about further curriculum integration over time.
Level up: Bring in more choice and freedom when you can
To expand this towards a more free game style, you can always bring in more choice and support more freedom as you get comfortable with some of the ideas or as your school sees that it’s working. After you’ve done the pre-written paths options for a while and both you and your students are comfortable with it, maybe you ask them a general question at the end of one story and see what they come up with. If that feels OK, try doing that with more of the story and see if it still works with staying on the topics you need to cover. If not, you can always go back to the original and maybe try again or use a different method later. It doesn’t need to be all or nothing.
Framing assignments with a story (college class)
For my college class, I actually don’t allow choices about the story right now because I’m doing a step-by-step trial to see what works with the course and am working within what I can get approved. However, I still incorporate RP elements into each assignment to provide a frame that still covers a lot of the benefits that students get from TTRPGs.
Each assignment or major section in the course is framed as part of our fictional class engineer’s journey through college and early career. It creates a story that connects all of the assignments to our class engineer, highlights themes like networking and meeting other engineers with different backgrounds, and shows what options are available in engineering.
A section that we’re covering about engineering environmental challenges may be framed as: “The class engineer was recommended by Kara, an architectural engineer that our engineer met during their last internship, for the Engineers Without Boarders summer program! Our engineer is going to travel overseas and work with other engineers to build water filtration systems for people in need.”
Benefits to students: Motivation, extra skills, and representation
This frame could be used to kick off a research paper, an assignment or section about calculating fluid flow through pipes, a discussion about different career paths for engineers… whatever you need for your class. The important thing is that instead of just saying “solve these fluid flow math problems” there’s a tangible example to show why this might be important. It also teaches skills that aren’t covered by a typical assignment (in this example, networking, options about paths students may not have considered, engineering compassion, etc) without creating extra work for you or the students.
This framing method also allows me to very easily promote representation. I have “NPCs”, like Kara in the previous example, who are part of this engineer’s story. I can include NPCs, either by using a picture to go with the slide I have or simply by use of names and pronouns, that don’t fit some of the common perceptions about engineers so that my students can feel represented and can see that there’s a variety of individuals that they’ll meet in their career. It’s easy for me to include a biomedical engineer named Ali who uses he/him pronouns, or an environmental scientist named Kris who uses they/them pronouns, or a mechanical engineer named Kai who uses she/her pronouns.
Level up: Add choice and TTRPG elements as able
My hope to further this in my class is to start adding choice elements or to shift one of the assignments into more of a game style learning experience where there’s some randomization (most likely from a number generator or random choice table) that allows for more variety in the career path that our class engineer follows and for more choice by my student. I want my students to be able to have some control in what they see the class engineer doing and how they grow over time, so, as more is trialed and checked and approved each semester, I hope to gradually expand on this by creating a small choice map that students can use for their class engineer.
There is SO MUCH MORE that I want to go into with this, so I will be following up with more articles about how to propose for approval, how to evaluate performance, and additional elements that I use in my class. This article provided the core framework that I use for both the pre-K class curriculum that I made and the college class that I teach. While there is a significant age difference between the two, many of the concepts and methods are very similar, if not the same, and they can be translated to any age or grade or even adult education. I hope this provides some examples and ideas for you to work with so you can start integrating TTRPGs and RPG elements into your class with minimal stress and in a way that helps both you and your students succeed!
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