D&D in the Classroom: Making Old Worlds New

Sarah Roman
Miss Roman’s Junior class

“Can we take some parts from her?”

“You want to take parts from Grendel’s mother?”

“Yea, can we just have the claws, brain, skin, and…femurs?”

“I think I need you to roll a dexterity check for this.”

I looked around at the students, most hovering around our game table, and watched as they excitedly argued over which of the groups got to keep the spoils from defeating the classic sea witch. We had just finished the first of three sections from Beowulf, the Old English tale still haunting and shaping high school English curriculum. The happiness from my side was quite tangible in this moment; it was the successful end of the first, short leg of our year long Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

For the past six years, I had been experimenting on and off with gamification in the classroom in variety of ways, primarily incorporating the Raspberry Pi, Arduino Uno, MinecraftEdu, and the program, Classcraft. I loved the diversification that these mediums offered, allowing my students to code, build, write, create, compete, and access interests that may have gone previously unknown or unnoticed. These somewhat unconventional projects breathe life into a room, as you begin to and consistently activate your learners in the ways that you hope for most: through kinesthetics, visuals, sounds, artistry, and readings. Then, after seeing the passion that students can sometimes hold towards different texts, there’s this blunt moment of realization that the burden of relevancy falls upon our shoulders, not those of our long past authors.

After some thought, I decided that Dungeons and Dragons was practically the “ultimate” way for me to approach my classroom. I imagined this in parts: where 1) I was still able to incorporate all of my projects and activities, as I was creating the overall campaign and quests to specifically fit to my course-loads; 2) I was offering an immersive RPG to the students where they had the opportunity to greet each other on a level playing field and shed much of the social skin to which they’ve grown so attached; 3) the competing elements offered by programs such as Classcraft or Habitica were implicitly built into D&D via exploration, dungeon crawling, and monster-battling, leading the brunt of the game’s focus to be on teamwork, decision-making skills, critical thinking skills, analysis, and empathy; 4) both the students and I were functioning as learners, as most had never played before and I had never thought that in my life-time I would role-play as a talking lamp to twenty-four fifteen to sixteen year olds.

Brainstorming My First Full Campaign:

“The Lair of the Sea Witch”

The year prior to fully rolling this out in the classroom, I had spent some time with my classes lightly playing D&D and seeing what portions invigorated the students in their learning and what seemed difficult or a touch unwieldy. For me, I noticed that continuity, consistency, and humor (and sometimes a light dash of PG-13 blood and guts) helped to create an atmosphere that was structured around our campaign and choices that they had made while in-character. During the summer before the 2017–2018 school year began, I sat down and worked to envision a year long campaign that could encompass all of my Junior Honors course content: Beowulf, Sir Gawain, Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, Jekyll and Hyde, and Lord of the Flies (and other standard British literature fare). This generated a series of questions that I felt necessary to answer:

  • What are my learning goals for each unit and does the incorporation of the game mutate my essential questions or content goals? It really changes your view and the students’ views of the text when they have the ability to place themselves inside of the book, the action, and interactions with the main characters and then potentially change the outcome of the story itself.
  • For each book, how am I immersing students into the grand idea of the text? Which parts of the campaign will highlight the “universal themes” or character motivations within the book? As an example, Beowulf turned into a structural piece where the students followed the natural breaks in the poetic structure and fought each monster at the end. It functioned as a “walk-through” book, allowing them to learn the game and its expectations while working on content and analysis. On the other hand, with a text like Canterbury Tales, the students found themselves in a town where the storyline went unstructured. They had to communicate with residents, uncover the corruption in the land, and work together to battle it with wit and words.
  • How do I incorporate writing, content analysis, critical analysis of diction, syntax, detail, et al, and keep the students in character and motivated? For this, I employed pieces like the use of “Encounter Tiles” that offered a question plus some kind of loot or gold, monsters that would hiss and burble some seriously meta inquiries, and NPCs that would have quest hooks that required text and content analysis.
Sample Writing Exercises for Beowulf
  • What props am I incorporating into gameplay? How tangible should certain experiences be? As you’ll notice above, I employed the use of a custom game board, paper minis, and general abuse of small laminator I had gotten for Christmas in order to give them equipment cards.
  • What am I willing to be like as a Dungeon Master? Will I wear costumes? Do I do accents? Am I still Miss X or Mr. Y or am I Lok’tar Thunderfoot, Slayer of Gods? I realized right away that you have to trust in your students. You’re oftentimes asking them to role-play as something that they are unused to, but you can show them your abilities and pitfalls as well. The way I saw it was that if you felt your face getting a little hot trying an accent or holding a wizard robe you impulsively bought on Amazon, tone it down and let yourself be natural around them. My students know that I won’t really do accents and that it’s unlikely that I’ll dress up (except that one time), and that I may or may not bring in my guitar and pluck away at what I consider “Middle Ages music”.
  • What does my classroom look like now? How do I appropriately divide time? Am I changing the seating? When I started out, the first idea that I made clear to them was that while I wanted to have fun, learn, and interact with our books in a new way was that overall content had to come first. They would be eager to play but, if we had a day where we spent too long pillaging a town, it was likely that the next few classes would be pulled away from the fully immersive game to make sure that we stayed on task. In ways, you’re looking at different levels of immersion. They may be fully in-character one session or they might be working at their tables writing as their characters for a particular exposition piece. As for the seating, of course it’s dependent on your room, but I found that since I had a specific gaming table set up it was easiest to do arena seating. I would, however, alter the seating in a particular way every time you transition in and out of the fully immersive game — it opportunistically creates a sense of threshold for the students and they know when they are stepping in and out.
  • I feel like I’m not great at story-telling like this, so what do I do? Before writing my custom campaigns, I looked to some old school Dungeon magazine offerings, as many have already pulled from great works of literature. If I recall, I was thoroughly impressed with a version of King Lear and the Sky Giants and a campaign centered around Macbeth but with Drow elves. I also looked to the internet for inspiration, as there are incredibly comprehensive forums for DMs that will get you started in the right direction (even some general scrolling through D&D subreddits gave me a wealth of ideas). Always remember though, your lesson plans and projects ARE the campaigns. You already have a set trajectory for your students to follow, it’s a matter of creative story filler that gets them from point A to B to C.
  • Where do I start if I’m entirely new to this? I know that I’d like to try this, but I don’t know if I can run the game properly within the room? I highly suggest turning directly to The Player’s Handbook (5e), the Monster Manual (5e), and the Dungeon Master’s Guide (5e). These will give you the guidelines and actual mechanics to the gameplay. Don’t be intimidated by the volume of work here, as it’s prudent to remember that you don’t have to adhere purely to what’s set forth in these manuals. For instance, I really fudge the rules behind combat due to time constraints (the students will roll dice once or twice and we essentially resolve the fight). I don’t include item weights or worry about things like movement speed or rations. This, again, is what fits the play-style in my room, so you may choose to highlight some different elements and push others to the wayside. Furthermore, take a look at some YouTube channels like Critical Roll to get a feel for what people do.

In Closing:

Regardless, I thought it would be helpful to see a strong sampling of the preliminary questions I had when starting out on this venture. I feel like at times that the undertaking was vast and intricate, but the feedback in the classroom has made the effort involved inherently worth it. I have students eager to come to class to learn and see where they will end up in the adventure; I have students willing to read, to analyze, and to consider character choices as a way to make sure that they’re as successful as possible in their quest-lines; I see students working together within the game and then having this helpfulness bleed into other areas of their coursework; and I fundamentally see a positive change in how the students are learning the works through their analytical essays and more practical assignments.

As I have a bit more free time, I thought it best to begin documenting and discussing how I use this in the classroom, since I know that there are other teachers out there who are working towards the same goals. If you’d like, you can take a look at the rough draft of “The Lair of the Sea Witch” (obligatory twenty-two page warning) or watch the quick video of my students:

Furthermore, we also had the opportunity to be filmed again for NJEA’s TV show, Classroom Closeup, where you can currently see the preview of our episode due to air on March 18th.

As a last bit, I was luckily able to get in touch with Wizards of the Coast last year, who has been helpfully guiding and giving some suggestion as to what myself and other teachers might want to consider as we wholeheartedly move forward. I was put in touch with my new partner, Kade Wells, and we’ve been working together 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.

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Sarah Roman

Written by

A high school English teacher from New Jersey.

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