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Practicing the engineering problem solving process using tabletop RPGs

As an engineer and engineering professor, I know how critical problem solving skills are for work, students, and just life in general…. and tabletop RPGs are a great way to hone and practice those skills in a very fun way that fosters a positive outlook when faced with a challenge! Read on for a discussion on problem solving skills, a fun example about a dragon lair heist, and how TTRPGs apply can help develop these skills through practice!

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My background with TTRPGs, engineering, and teaching and why I’m meshing them

Before getting into more of the discussion, I want to share some of my background to explain why I’m talking about this and what my XP is.

I write this blog and play A LOT of tabletop RPGs both for fun with my friends and kid and to review for the posts here.  However, my on-paper job is that I’m an engineering professor and specifically teach a freshman “introduction to engineering” type course with lots of hands-on projects and discussion about what engineers actually do.

We build, practice presenting, conduct research, and practice using tools, like the engineering problem solving process, to create a good foundation for students to build the rest of their engineering education on.  As part of this, we focus a lot of our projects on using the problem solving process as a best-practices tool for growing creativity, reasoning skills, and more.  

The engineering problem solving process is something we present on day one and reference back to for future projects to make sure students have the opportunity to practice it multiple times (and it is obvious in the class that the more they practice it, the more clear and creative their work becomes).  

Another place that this is practiced multiple times is in tabletop RPGs!  Every session, players make decisions and intuitively go through the engineering problem solving process together, in its entirety, just by nature of how the game is structured (and I have a fun story example below).  This is so cool because it’s fun and in a game that people want to play, and it can build all of these skills that are beyond tests and homework but are absolutely critical for not just work, but life in general, and I want to share how to use TTRPGs to practice those skills before needing to learn them in college or at work.

Wait… college classes and work… this is TTRPGkids though?  How does the engineering problem solving process apply to kids?

Like I said, I want to share how to practice problem solving skills with TTRPGs before young adults are challenged to really use them, maybe for the first time, in work or college.  If education has been focused really heavily on getting the right answers on tests, learning the steps for math problems, writing about a book, conducting chem or physics “experiments” to a set list of instructions, etc, there are definitely glimmers of the problem solving process in there, but it doesn’t have the same flow as taking a very open ended problem and brainstorming, testing ideas, and coming to a conclusion that’s often required in real life.

When I show my students the engineering design process on the first day of class, I sometimes ask how many people have seen something like it before.  Most students raise their hands and will say that they covered a problem solving process in their physics or chemistry class.

Next, I ask how many people actually used it other than being quizzed on a test about it.  I get maybe one third of my students raising their hands and most of them used it in an out-of-class activity, like VEX Robotics, or once or twice in a science fair project.

That’s only one third of the future engineers in my class who are actively interested in a career built on problem solving!  That means that the other two thirds of my class are having to develop that foundation in the span of a semester to build their skills up enough to tackle the rest of their college projects.  By the end, they’ll have the tool and three months of practice, but it is going to take a lot more practice for it to become second nature and feel fluid.

These skills really do need to be practiced a lot earlier, with kids who are soaking up information so fast and developing their brains at a rapid pace, to have that foundation of creativity, logic, and follow through.  Teaching and practicing this with kids is incredibly important so they have the flexibility and experience to take on open ended problems and actually solve them now and later in life.

Example TTRPG scenario that showcases the engineering design process

OK, so enough on the intro and the why and the who, let’s get into what the engineering design process is and some examples of how it’s used in tabletop RPGs.

First, let’s define the engineering design process.  The way I like to describe it is that it is a structured method for taking problems and finding a solution using both creativity and logic.

The process looks a bit like this (though there are variations out there, especially with iterative testing of ideas):

  1. Define the problem
  2. List possible solutions
  3. Evaluate possible solutions
  4. Develop a plan
  5. Evaluate the plan 
  6. Implement the plan
  7. Check the results

In TTRPGs, when players are faced with a challenge, regardless of the system, they intuitively go through this process.  I like using analogies and examples, so I’m going to use one here (that is very similar to one I used during the SXSW EDU talk I was part of) to demonstrate how a TTRPG scenario would line up with these problem solving steps while encouraging creativity. 

The engineering problem solving process and the dragon lair heist

The scene: Players have been tasked with recovering an ancient staff from the horde of a dragon!  This staff is rumored to be the key to unlocking an ancient tomb that contains information critical to stopping an evil lich from taking over the world!  The players have traveled far and finally arrive at the dragon’s cave.  Before them, they see the dragon sleeping on a pile of riches.  One of the party members, a bard of some skill, sees the staff sticking out of the treasure heap right next to the dragon’s back left claw.  What does the party do now?

At this point, the group of players start to discuss their plan for how to obtain the staff.  Their discussion might look something like this:

  1. Define the problem

We need to get the staff, intact, from the dragon so we can get into the tomb… and we also need to have the party survive.

  1. List possible solutions
  • Sneak in and steal the staff while the dragon is asleep
  • Distract the dragon (lure them outside) and then steal the staff
  • Wake the dragon and make a deal or negotiate for the staff
  • Fight the dragon and take the staff and the some of the other loot
  • Find another way into the tomb (forget the staff, at least for now)
  1. Evaluate possible solutions

We’re all the way here, so let’s not just ditch the staff, and it looks like we probably don’t have the firepower for this as a fight either.  We could try to negotiate, but we don’t know if this dragon is friendly, and it seems really high risk for maybe starting a fight.  Sneaking in while the dragon is asleep seems like the best option, and then maybe we can use the distraction as a backup plan.

  1. Develop a plan

Kifk, the rogue, is best at sneaking, so she should try to sneak in and take the staff.  Grath, the bard, can give her inspiration, and Malik, the ranger, can cast a spell to help with sneaking.

If the dragon wakes up, Kifk, you run as fast as you can to draw the dragon out, and we’ll have Sam, the cleric, waiting halfway out the cave mouth in a section of rock we carved out ahead of time to grab you in to hide and then heal you or get you up if you go down.  While the dragon’s not looking, Grath and Malik can grab the staff and we’ll all meet up at the ranger’s station in the valley when it’s safe.

  1. Evaluate the plan 

The first part sounds good, but I’m not sure I want Kifk taking on all that risk.  Do you think we can swap some items around to help with stealth more and maybe give Kifk and Sam a few extra health potions just in case?

Oh, and also… Kifk… last time we had to “reapproriate” something you also grabbed that jeweled box that got everyone chasing us AND turned out to be cursed.  Just the staff and nothing else, OK?  It’s a risk we can’t take and that dragon can wipe you out.

  1. Implement the plan (imagine high and low rolls as you read)

Sam uses magic to create a small hiding spot then gets in position at the mouth of the cave. Sam then give Kifk their boots of silence, and the party casts their spells. 

Kifk sneaks into the dragon’s lair and climbs up the pile of gold without shifting a piece.  She grabs the staff and slowly works it out of the shining heap of treasure.  She pulls it out with a few coins shifting and then clinking.  The dragon stirs… and rolls over.  

Kifk starts making her way down to the group when she notices that when the dragon rolled over… it revealed a beautifully carved amulet that… has a symbol on it like the one she remembered seeing on her mother’s jewelry box.  It sparkles temptingly.  

Kifk looks at it longingly but remembers the talk from earlier.  She grudgingly leaves it and creeps back to the party.  The group starts making their way out of the cavern when Sam trips on a rock while exiting the hiding spot, and their armor clangs on the cave wall with a clatter!

The party hears a snort and a roar from deep in the cave!  QUICK!  Duck into the hiding spot!

The group gets out of sight just before the dragon bursts through the cave entrance, but the party is sucessfuly hidden in the (very cramped) area they prepared for their back up plan.  They wait almost a whole day for the dragon to pass then head to the ranger’s station.

  1. Check the results

The party, now at the station, celebrates!  They recovered the staff, and no one got hurt!  The group completed the mission and now heads out toward the tomb.

THE END (for this challenge)

This story is VERY typical for a tabletop RPG session; if you took out all the markers for the steps, it would flow like a very standard game scenario and discussion!

How does practicing the engineering problem solving process in a TTRPG help?

Going through the problem solving process in a game session builds core problem solving skills, and it helps to create familiarity and comfortability with being able to handle open ended problems.

The scenario above is something that could happen in any game, and, even with different scenarios like outsmarting a wizard tower full of traps or solving a security system puzzle on a spaceship, the discussion plays out along the same set of steps.

Every session, players practice, practice, practice going through this process until it feels natural and becomes second nature.

It also helps to build creativity – there’s a step specifically for coming up with ideas, so, while this is a process and some processes do hamper creativity, this one actually fosters and encourages it.  We want players (and engineers and everyone else) coming up with lots of ideas, and this intentionally creates space for that so it becomes part of that second-nature feeling when faced with an issue.  At the beginning of the semester, I usually have a lot of students jumping to their first idea with projects, but as they practice more, they get more ideas and leave space for that creativity because this trains them to do that.

Using specifically TTRPGs to help is also impactful because it is fun.  This is something that players look forward to every week and want to be part of that also helps them to learn, so this isn’t seen as practice or work, it’s something enjoyable and helps to build a connection between problem solving and having fun so that real-life challenges (like a senior project in college or needing to solve an in-field warranty issue at work) are approached with positivity at being able to get creative.  If it’s something that they like doing now and have the confidence that they can approach tough issues with a good outcome, it opens up so many more opportunities!

How do you apply TTRPGs and the engineering problem solving process directly to each other?

The great thing about this is that you don’t need to change anything about most TTRPGsto tap into this.  It’s already built in, so there’s no extra intentional work really needed other than just making sure to play!

However, if you do want to hone in on it a bit more or need to demonstrate the application for a class, you can definitely line the game up with a worksheet or short answer response page asking students to explain how their plan for today’s TTRPG scenario lines up with the process OR to use as a guide to help students create their plan.  

Thank you for reading along, and I hope you found this article helpful for games at home, in class, or anywhere else.  TTRPGs are such a wonderful source for building skills, and I love being able to share this with others.  If you’re looking for more resources about applying tabletop RPGs, there’s a ton through the site, and I’m creating a specifically education focused section here that this article is also part of.  I hope it helps, and happy gaming!

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7 thoughts on “Practicing the engineering problem solving process using tabletop RPGs

  1. This is fantastic! I notice you use both the terms engineering problem-solving process and engineering design process. Are those interchangeable or do they have slight differences?

    1. Hi Taylor! Thank you for the great question! The engineering problem-solving process and the engineering design process are generally interchangeable in most contexts, but the design process may also include intentionally making or enacting something with a practical application at the end versus just finding the solution and stopping before application or use. It’s kind of like the design process includes the problem-solving process but the problem-solving process doesn’t necessarily have to include all of the design process.

  2. This is great! My dad is an engineer, and while he never explained it in so many words, I can see this process in how he helped me problem-solve as I was growing up.

    I appreciate having a defined process for it to help in the games I run. I plan to use this to nudge kids forward if they stall out or get frustrated as they try to solve in-game problems.

    1. That is awesome! I’m really glad this is helpful for your games, and it definitely helps having some steps to walk through. I do it with my kiddo (in a pretty loose format and without really SAYING what the steps are but more through asking questions), and it’s really helped him learn how to get unstuck. I hope your game goes well, and thank you for the comment!

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