Using RPGs as Educational Tools

Today’s awesome article was written by returning guest writer, Applefritter (reach them via E-mail here). Be sure to check out Applefritter’s previous article on Dungeon Solvers here.  Today he is going to talk about his school’s RPG class unit he has been working on! 

My school runs instructions from kindergarten through 8th grade, and a teacher in the lower grade classrooms (specifically the classroom of 3rd and 4th graders, or 3/4) was interested in making a unit centered around RPGs. It’s been canceled due to COVID-19, but a bit of progress was made before schools shut down. The base concept was playing an RPG entirely GM’d and played by 3rd and 4th graders.

I’m lucky enough to be in a school with both visual art and performing art programs. This was going to be tied into visual art as well, as players drawing their characters (or GMs drawing their villains). I, through about 5 years of effort, managed to build up a D&D club with about 40 people in it. So it’s not like the unit is 3/4 full of people who’ve never seen an RPG before. But what RPG to use?

And the winner is…

It’s not like kids are dumb at this age. It’s fairly easy to learn most RPGs. I taught myself 5e when I was in 3rd grade (which is like saying you’re fluent in a language because you can say 1 word with horrible pronunciation). But even assuming that all these children now are smarter than I was then (most likely true), they’re not all absolute nerds with 8 hours a day to kill poring over sourcebooks. So the criteria so far is an RPG that can be understood by 3rd and 4th graders easily without personal instruction for each child, with educational potential. Wow.

Wait, hold on a sec.

There’s something that fits pretty close to the mark. This is kind of down the rabbit hole (as it’s not an RPG) but it’s pretty cool. There’s a site called Classcraft, (not like Minecraft) and it effectively turns your class into World of Warcraft. It gives some pretty huge efficiency jumps, but it’s not the droid we’re looking for. 

The educational part is large, but it’s more centered around the game as opposed to the game being centered around education and solving real-world problems. The GM creates the educational part (for example, the players might fight the global warming monster at the end of the campaign). 

And the winner is…

Wait, wait, hold on. This is still school. Before we even choose the RPG, we have to agree on some modifications to make. Unless for some reason we choose something like the Burning Wheel, there’s not much to do. My class used a study hall hour 4 days of the week to catch up on work, and I was almost always all done with work then. My teachers were fine with this, and I was also helping with the modifications. I already had some experience with this, from teaching a 3-hour workshop on GMing. The main mod is removing combat from the system almost entirely. Because the game has to be non-violent (school), except for maybe the end, most encounters will be solved by talking through. Attacking skills might only be used at the end, which rules out a lot of RPGs with big sections about fighting (sorry, 5e!).

And the winner is…

Disclaimer: I wanted to see how long I could drag out the RPG reveal, but here it is: FATE RPG!

FATE is super awesome. It’s usable for any setting, ridiculously easy to understand, character creation is super-quick, GMs can build anything with it- the list goes on. It’s also got several smaller rulesets like FATE Accelerated, and a lot of supplemental products. It’s also playable without magic (as that would be a stunt) and is easy to modify.

FATE by Evil Hat Productions
FATE by Evil Hat Productions!

Problems 

FATE isn’t perfect, but we would have used it if we did the unit. I think the main problem is the people playing the game. In my experience, when you have a 3rd or 4th grader in the game (or even some middle schoolers), they’re most likely to be a murder hobo. For those who don’t know (or can’t guess) this means they’ll go around KILLING. EVERYONE. THEY SEE.

It’s incredibly annoying, and there’s always been one in my school games. But the GMs might have also been a problem, as well as the essence of role-playing games. In RPGs, there’s a very real chance of failure- so how would it turn out if a group got TPK’d because an inexperienced GM designed the Racism Monster to be too strong by accident? That’s not going to feel good for anyone. Another problem might be the actual FATE rules by themselves- namely, Fate Points. 

Game-Specific Problems

Fate Points are very crucial things that characters use- think of it like a buffed up version of inspiration. In FATE, characters have aspects, traits, etc. So you might have the aspect ‘Trained Sharpshooter’ and you’re trying to shoot someone. You can use a Fate Point to invoke that aspect and give yourself either an additional +2 to the roll or reroll. It’s even better because you get to decide AFTER the roll. This is also probably a good point to talk about FATE dice.

These things are just D6s with 2 ‘+’ sides, 2 ‘-’ sides, and 2 blank sides. You roll the dice and add the modifiers. If you get a high enough roll (or a higher roll on a contested roll), you do whatever you’re doing.

Anyway, players get usually 2-3 Fate Points at the start of each session. The other way to get Fate Points is by the GM invoking one of your aspects. Let’s say you have the trait “Trained by the master spy Vivos.” You can spend a Fate Point to invoke this and give yourself +2 on Shooting someone with your bow, or reroll it. Then the GM can hand you a Fate Point right back and say “OK, but you recognize this person as one of your fellow disciples. What do you do?”

Putting the Roleplaying in a Roleplaying Game

The problem with this is that it not only requires GMs to stay sharp and keep track of players’ character sheets, but the players have to roleplay. I’ve not seen more than 3 people at my school successfully roleplay, and none of them were players- all GMs voicing a part. FATE breaks down if players can’t roleplay. The player in that example could do something like: “OK, thanks for the Fate Point back. That’s +5 with mods, or a reroll…” The GM has to stop giving out Fate Points if the players abuse them, but they’re one of the most crucial parts of the game! This is mainly what I was worried about with FATE, but it has enough good sides to balance out the bad.

GM Hopefuls

The original plan was to run some test games with the students who wanted to be GMs, explain to them about what they’re taking on, then run some test games. I managed to get to everyone who wanted to (maybe) lead a game. I explained to them what it means to be a GM. About half of them had never played an RPG before, and only one had GM experience. I also explained the base concept of Fate Points and the awesome responsibility that a GM has to the players. Usually, I try to space jokes in for the younger kids to keep them interested, and it works pretty well.

I usually mention that while the players need the GM, the GM needs the players. It’s the responsibility of the players to keep the game flowing and stable, but it’s your responsibility to make sure that everyone’s doing this and to do it yourself. The GM is all-powerful, but the role was originally that of a referee who knows the game well and wants to help the other players have the best experience.

3rd and 4th graders are kind of odd in that they still act like little kids a lot, but sometimes they’re as lucid as adults. We (the teachers and I) also told them that they had to at least skim the entire FATE Core- which is what we were using. About 4 opted out immediately, and more looked doubtful that they’d finish, but it seems we’ll never know, as that was the last day of school for the rest of the year.

In Conclusion

I’d say that adapting RPGs to education is a rewarding but tough experience overall. RPGs are a lot like classrooms already- everyone’s learning and growing, but one or two people messing around can screw the whole thing up. If any educators are reading this (especially if you’re teaching middle school) I’d recommend giving this a shot. RPGs were not built for schools, so there’d obviously be some problems, but It’d most likely work out fine!

For me, my favorite thing about role-playing games isn’t building a character, fighting evil, or casting spells. It’s meeting other people, and somehow becoming friends with them in a few hours.

Interested in writing a guest article for Dungeon Solvers? Drop me a line! I’m always looking to feature new perspectives on D&D 5e or any other tabletop RPG!

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2 Comments

  1. Hey Eldadres and Applefritter,
    I was a little disappointed after the title. Could you tell me what the learning objectives were? Or perhaps how you sold using RPGs as an educational tool to the senior management.
    You know that I’m trying to promote the educational value of D&D and other TTRPGs, but this article doesn’t really give me much to work with.
    Sam (Educational DM).

  2. Hey,
    I am so glad more articles are appearing like this and working toward the #TeacherGamer Revolution!

    The interesting part of this article is trying to get #RPGsinschools, however the struggle is that teaching is itself a skill and being a gamer is not enough to teach RPGs. Only by merging a person who is a teacher and is also a gamer into a “teacher-gamer” do we get the person who can guide young kids into real role-playing. That said, and after years of being a teacher-gamer, I only start to teach kids RPGs at 5th grade or 10+ in age. Cognitively girls might be more ready than boys (by about 2 years), but there are still so many more game mechanics and socio-emotional skills needed to approach full blown role-playing games.

    There are so many other games you can play with younger kids to get them ready for RPGs, and the more they build their gaming skills OFF-SCREEN, the more successfully they will pick up RPGs and adapt to them. Although playing RPGs on-screen might give kids a taste of role-playing mechanics, it is only off-screen that real role-playing can develop. I know VTTs are different than straight video games, but still there is so much to get from being in the same room as other people, playing your character and reading each other’s body language and being in the room for success, failure, creativity and bonding.

    Thanks for reading and to Dungeon Solvers for promoting RPGs in schools; our world will be another place altogether if we can finally get them into the curriculum.

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