Interview with Shelly Mazzanoble, D&D curriculum creator and senior brand manager at Wizards of the Coast

While at SXSW EDU 2024, I had the amazing opportunity to meet and talk with Shelly Mazzanoble about D&D in the classroom!  Check out our chat here to learn about Shelly’s XP at Wizards of the Coast and see what educational resources she’s been part of making!!

Steph: Hi Shelly!  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Shelly: I am the senior brand manager for Dungeons & Dragons, and I’ve worked at Wizards of the Coast for about 20 years.

Steph: That is AMAZING. 

Shelly: It is amazing!  I can’t even believe it myself!  I’ve had a lot of roles within Wizards, which makes it feel like I’ve had a lot of different jobs in that time.

I did not play D&D when I came into Wizards, and I didn’t play Magic the Gathering either; I just liked games, puzzles, party games, card games, but I had never interacted with D&D as a kid, which is a real shame.  

I’m very grateful that I got a job on the D&D team back when we were publishing children’s books, and my manager was like, “Oh!  You’re a writer, and you’d probably be interested in publishing… come work on this team.”

I worked on that team for honestly about a year and still hadn’t played D&D.  I was learning about it, but I just didn’t think it was a game for me!  I don’t love fantasy as a genre, I’d read the Hobbit like everyone else, but… I just didn’t think it was for me.

Finally, they caught on, and my manager said, “You HAVE to play Dungeons & Dragons!”

Steph: You got caught!

Shelly: She set me up in a group with five other newbies, and the rest is history.  I made a character, with the Dungeon Master because I didn’t know what I was doing; it was 3.5, and it was a lot of math and a lot of questions…. But then… he handed me a mini of the character I was playing, who was an elf sorceress.  Which, I think most new players are like, “I want to be an elf!”

Steph: Oh yeah, same for me!  I think I’m on my 4th or 5th elf character.

Shelly: Right!  Like, if I’m going to play a fantasy game, I’m going to play and elf!  That’s what I know!

So, he handed me this mini, and she’s got this long flowy blonde hair and these pink robes, and she’s in this very powerful pose… I thought, “That’s me?!  OK!  This is cool.”

We had an amazing time.  Fifteen minutes into it, and I was like… is this it?  Do we just talk to each other?  And we roll dice when we want to do something?  OK!

It was around that time that I started learning about how some librarians were putting D&D books front and center because they noticed a lot of boys were dropping off on reading around the age of twelve, but fantasy pulled them back in.  They saw kids flipping through the monster manual and getting super interested in other topics. 

It spawns other interests in them and keeps them engaged!  Fantasy dragons are going to pull anybody in.

I love a good origin story!  When I ask people about how they started D&D, they almost always were kids, and they’ll say, “UH… my mom dragged me to Borders Books, and while she was flipping through a cookbook… I looked over… and I saw the cover of The Monster Manual and The Dungeon Master’s Guide!  I was hooked from that moment.”

It’s so nice that kids are still gravitating towards it.

Then, I met Kade Wells, about 10 years ago.  He’s a teacher, and he was talking about the profound impact that he was having playing D&D with the students he was teaching at a Title 1 school.  The game was making some really significant changes in the lives of the students.  

We keep hearing all these anecdotes that keep getting more and more powerful, so I spent some time trying to figure out how we could bring D&D into more classrooms.  Not all teachers are like Kade; they like the idea and they understand, but they don’t have years of experience playing it or have an administration that’s open to the idea of gamifying education… so what can we do? 

A few years after that, we discovered a company called Young Minds Inspired who make standards based curriculum, and I worked with them to create the first ever D&D curriculum – it’s like D&D inspired activities to do in class, and… it was just such a delight!

The first batch of classes is focused on social emotional learning and was coming out when kids were just getting back into school after COVID, and that’s been one of the eternal struggles for educators… it’s “how do I engage these students”!

Steph: Yes!  There’s no specific class for social emotional learning!  I that often ends up being more important than anything else!

Shelly: I am with you on that!  I’m not using any of that algebra that they forced me to learn… 

Steph: And as an engineer, I’m saying the social emotional skills are more important too!

Shelly: Yeah!  And, as you know, Dungeons & Dragons is an incredibly innovative tool for teaching math, reading, and writing without feeling like it… I mean, totaling up to see how much damage you do… they LOVE it when you tell them to add another d6 to that!  Or when you tell them that you have a bonus and get to add this and that!

And it doesn’t feel like learning to read when you’re reading the Monster Manual to learn about 200 or something new monsters. 

And it doesn’t feel like practicing writing when you’re creating a character.  These kids show up with words that I did not ask for!  Then the teachers come back saying that this kid will not stop reading… it may not be the assignment that they’re working on, but they’re hooked!  They’re creating worlds and backstories. 

I love all of that, and it’s really the soft skills that are so hard to teach in a traditional setting.  Are you going to sit them down and just learn about empathy?

It’s all roleplaying that people come back to with it.

That’s the beauty in this game.  You’re existing in a world as a totally different character, so your interactions are all different, and you’re interacting with different people in a world that’s much different from your own.  

Steph: It’s that perspective taking.  Reading books is a great way to practice perspective taking, but you aren’t actually acting it out.  You are acting out when you play the game.  It’s your own actions that you’re seeing happen live.

Shelly: It’s happening to you as a result of your actions.

Then, just the amount of therapists using D&D in their practices!  Not just roleplaying but D&D.

Steph: Yeah!! Dr. Megan Connell!  

Shelly: Oh!  She’s my favorite!  Did you hear about her all girls group?  She taught them empowerment and about the power of female friendship, but then she’s also like, “I just taught them how to say no!”

Steph: Exactly!!

Shelly: It’s so powerful!  No one was teaching them that it was OK to say no!  She’s amazing.

Steph: Now, you do a lot with regards to classroom D&D.  What’s the first step for teachers who want to use D&D with their class? 

Shelly: I would say that your first step is to download the curriculum, so long as it’s age appropriate.  We cover grades 3-8, so if you’re in that range, get that curriculum because you don’t need to know how to play D&D to use it. It’s meant to just be printed out and handed out. 

We explain everything to you, and the kids don’t need to have prior knowledge of it.  Those activity sheets cover everything from social emotional skills to problem solving to analytical skills. 

Now, we’re on to this next fresh batch of sheets, hot off the press, is all about how to write a story and the format of creating plots and developing characters.

There’s tons of great activities there, and I think that’s a great first step.  That’s what it’s meant to be.

Steph: I think that is a great resource and that it can really help a lot of people!  It is a great first step. 

Shelly: This is just a topic that I can’t believe how much I love.  Twenty years ago, I wasn’t all into stuff for kids or D&D, but now, it’s all I think about!  I just want to bring those two together.  I want to see D&D in all schools in some capacity, whether that’s D&D clubs or curriculums or books on library shelves… that’s the goal here.  

This game has such an ability to impact people in such a positive way, we just really want to get it out there!

Steph: That is awesome, and I truly think it can have an awesome impact! 

Thank you Shelly for taking time to chat with me here at SXSW EDU!

You can find out more about Shelly’s work on her website here, and….

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