D&D and Education: The Rumblings of Research with Character Creation

Sarah Roman
Feb 19, 2018 · 7 min read
First day of character creating and research-based learning

“How do I roll for my ability scores?”

“Did you look over the first chapter?”

“No.”

“Ok…? Maybe look over that.”

Sometimes, I have no idea if my students actually know how to read.

This seems like a laughable premise, since I’m technically one of the primary twelve gatekeepers of English language and English learning that my students will encounter throughout their schooling. I worry, however, that since there’s such a strong motivation amongst the student populace to figure out a way around reading, they are fitfully chipping away at the skills that will behoove them most as they move into higher education or the “real world”: the ability to productively skim, the practice of paraphrasing to understand, the worthwhile act of annotating, and the practice of pulling relevant information from large swathes of text. I know that these are just a smattering of what we try to do as teachers, but as I began developing my use of Dungeons and Dragons within the classroom, I began to incorporate these foundational skills first.

In my earlier post, I had discussed my primary motivations for the role-playing game within the classroom environment. So, not only was I developing massive storylines within which my students could play, I was also working to integrate the New Jersey Student Learning Standards to keep our classroom fruitful, skilled, and tied to the curriculum. My supervisor was probably very relieved. Interestingly, Dungeons and Dragons had done much of the topical work for me, as the creativity, engagement, analysis, and critical thinking skills were already inherently in place. Luckily then, the incorporation of curricular goals and standards required what I would consider the typical amount of work for any teacher who was looking to inject a new project into the room.

Well, the students wanted to go kill some monsters. They were sold; I was sold. Naturally, the beginning of this whole adventure series relied on building functional characters for the students to use for role-play, and this turned into the perfect opportunity to bolster student research skills.

Non-teachers might glaze over this, but I’ll begin with the learning standards that I chose to tie to this character building activity:

  • NJSLSA.R10. Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently with scaffolding as needed.
  • RI.11–12.4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text.
  • RI.11–12.7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • W.11–12.7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

For essential questions and learning goals:

  • EQ: What research skills, such as skimming, paraphrasing, and textbook navigation, are best suited for this activity?
  • EQ: How does one apply research skills to a text with which they may be unfamiliar?
  • EQ: What does it mean to “create a character” and is character creation a reflection of self or self-identity?
  • LG: Students will be able to demonstrate active reading skills in order to parse relevant information from the text.
  • LG: Students will be able to create a fictional representation of themselves through a research-based activity.

Honestly, I have no idea if the SWBAT model is used anymore, but you get the idea.

Anyway, I then set about talking to the students about Dungeons and Dragons. I went through the general idea of the game and hit upon the importance of a decent character and provided to them some instructional YouTube videos that were short and functional in their overview. I handed out The Player’s Handbooks, the D&D Fifth Edition Character Creation Sheets, and watched the madness unfold.

Things I learned immediately:

  • While the students may be excited about creating a character, this does not mean that they will mildly attempt to figure out how to do so.
  • Some of them do not know how to readily flip through an informational textbook to find answers (e.g. — Students would stumble across a D&D specific word and, while unsure of meaning, would not look it up in the glossary).
  • Small font and more than two paragraphs means this text absolutely cannot be read as it’s too daunting.
  • The answers are in front of them, but they will ask you since they’re used to teachers providing immediate help.
Sample page of the beginning of Chp. 1 from The Player’s Handbook (5e).

With paper flying around the room, videos roaring in the background, students creating small, vicious fires of the textbooks in the back of the room, and Besheba smiling warmly down upon me, I had to make adjustments:

  1. Delineate the parts of the character sheet that you absolutely need filled out and why. For instance, I functionally needed their ability scores and modifiers figured out at minimum, so explain to them why this is necessary for gameplay. I did notice that while they “yes’d” me through this part, when they played for the first time, many of them were quickly calculating their scores and fixing the problems they had because they wanted their characters to have the advantages (or disadvantages) that the character should.
  2. Give an overview of the parts of a textbook and the purpose of each section. Oftentimes, a minority of students will not speak up if the majority knows what they’re doing during an assignment. It will happen again here, as neither some of my AP students nor some of my Honors students wanted to admit that they no longer remembered the point of an index.
  3. Show the steps in Chapter 1 and briefly discuss how locate each in the textbook and what they mean. In the picture above, you’ll notice that the first step is “Choose a Race”. This is the perfect opportunity to discuss each race, the value in choosing that race, and how that race might function within the worlds that you’re creating. The same would go for choosing a class, as this is a spot where students really start to consider who they want to be in this room. I took this a step further after this research lesson as a writing assignment. I essentially had them write a full background to their new character and share these out to the class before our first gameplay. This gives a teacher the learning space to discuss writing tactics such as point-of-view, in medias res, narrative style and structure, dialogue, and creative form.
  4. Help them but only if they’re truly stuck. I’d bat aside questions whose answers I deemed to be easily found within the text. A significant portion of this is advocating for the students to use their own skills in looking up the information, synthesizing it, and effectively getting it onto their sheets. Do pay mind to the students who are getting frustrated and guide them to the answer by pointing out certain passages and showing them the steps you would take to walk through the textbook.
  5. Let them work in groups and celebrate their successes. For this activity, I emphasized collaboration and a laid-back environment. They looked to each other for help, and it created small group leaders who knew what they were doing. Make sure to actively point out to the class the student successes that you are seeing, as this becomes a very positive activity if you can promote that over-the-top, “You did it!” attitude.

After all the furious page-flipping and scribbling were said and done, my students had sheets that were mostly filled out. For me, this was a great accomplishment and signaled that we were now ready to fully invest in the gameplay. It generated excitement among the students and, when paired with the creative writing assignment, began to create a room filled with large personalities, hulking orcs, shadowed assassins, and the occasional homicidal bard. As a note on general workflow, be mindful that The Player’s Handbook does offer backgrounds and personalities around which students can build their characters. You can have the students choose these background and personality points with the rolls of the dice, of their own volitions, or have them create a backstory prior to choosing the background and personality and have them pick the ones that most closely resemble their characters. It’s up to you to determine how much guidance they need in the matter.

Overall, I thought this activity to be effective in teaching pointed research skills, and it has the ability to be scaffolded and differentiated to varying degrees given class levels. Notably, I was harder on my students due to their Honors and AP course work, but this would be an excellent lesson for students who are just learning their ways around nonfiction, informational texts and how to work with unfamiliar territory in a research aspect. Plus, pairing it with a short creative writing project (which can, of course, be turned into a large one), helped with the atmosphere of immersion that I was beginning to construct. I was very hopeful about where the room could now go, and I certainly was not disappointed.


As a last note, we’re working to create a centralized hub for teachers who are interested in employing the use of Dungeons and Dragons within the classroom: Teaching with Dungeons and Dragons. We’re looking to host a lively forum and a place to share ideas, lessons, and storylines, hopefully inspiring others.

Thank you for taking the time, and if you’re interested, I’ll be updating weekly about lessons, ideas, and plans with more specific classroom examples.

Twitter, LinkedIn, Website, School email, TwDnD email

Sarah Roman

Written by

A high school English teacher from New Jersey.

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