An Exploration of D&D and TRPGs

Introduction

In February, I posted a blog entry in which I proposed using the Tabletop Role-Playing Game (TRPG) Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) as a text in English Language Arts classes. You can view the post in its entirety here, but for those who may not want to do that, I’ll briefly introduce the text before proceeding.

Dungeons & Dragons is the world’s first fantasy role-playing game, introduced in 1974 by creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (What Is D&D?, 2017). Players create and enact characters who will navigate the world of a story together. This world is narrated by a Dungeon Master (DM), who provides narrative cues, asks players what actions they will take (framed as the question “What do you do?”), and reveals the results of actions. When a player wants to initiate an action, he or she typically must make a dice roll to see whether that action was successful, adding an element of chance and unpredictability to the storyline. Characters may die throughout the narrative, but players may create new characters and therefore stay involved. Whether or not the party “succeeds” in their quest or mission, there are no losers, for a story is created and experienced regardless.

In this post, I will expand upon my exploration of the Tabletop Role Playing Game genre, turning to research that has been conducted about the genre or its players. I will be focusing primarily on Dungeons & Dragons, but my comments should be generally applicable to other Role Playing Games, such as video games, other Tabletop Role-Playing Games, and even murder mystery parties.

 

Scholarly Discussion

Although it may seem like a niche area, Tabletop Role-Playing Games have actually been the subject of academic study since the 1980s, and so a wide (and quickly expanding) body of research about the genre exists. D&D has been around for a fairly long time, but is still being talked about in new ways in academia and other mediums like podcasts, YouTube videos, and blogs. In June of 2016, I attended a talk at the University of Victoria’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute in which Anastasia Salter discussed D&D as a feminist space for gaming, as it allows for female characters that are agents and that transcend typical boundaries often placed on women in static texts. She also revealed that the game did not begin as this inclusive, showing the audience evidence of a “harlot” encounter that was written into the game early on. This lecture was one of the first things that really piqued my interest in Dungeons & Dragons as a topic for research and a potential teaching material. If one could bring gender studies into D&D, what else could be brought in? Below, I summarize some of the recent research on D&D and TRPGs that effectively outlines the chief affordances I believe such a game could have in an English Language Arts classroom.

Jennifer Grouling Cover (2010) explores the narrative and social structure of TRPGs, looking at the genre as a cross-disciplinary entity that engages with narrative, linguistic, cultural, and writing studies (p. 6-7). Grouling Cover (2010) emphasizes the interactivity of D&D, noting that “there are different endings depending on the actions of the players” and that the players can “add to the world and story that surrounds them” (p. 30). The open-ended nature of the question posed by the DM (“what do you do?”) allows the narrative to progress uninfluenced by the Dungeon Master, and even though players can make decisions, the outcomes of their choices are still determined by dice rolls (Grouling Cover, 2010, p. 31). Furthermore, the collaborative nature of Dungeons & Dragons allows players to explore multiple narrative directions, diverging from a single, linear storyline (Grouling Cover, 2010, p. 32). Grouling Cover (2010) proposes a model for TRPGs that outlines the different frames and levels of narrativity that players become engaged in throughout a session (p. 95). The highest level of narrative engagement is within the world of the “narrative frame” (i.e. the world of the story, including DM narration and character speech). Below that is the “game frame” (i.e. the aspects of gameplay, including dice rolls and suggested actions), and lastly, the “social frame” (i.e. the moments when players interact with each other, such as when they negotiate rules, comment on the game, or simply engage in conversation) (Grouling Cover, 2010, p. 94). For Grouling (2010), D&D is an innovative way for people to engage with story: “Spatial, temporal, and emotional immersion work together in the TRPG to give the player a narrative experience” (p. 107).

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While Grouling Cover primarily focuses on the narrative interactivity of D&D, Sarah Lynne Bowman (2010) focuses on the social interactivity of RPGs in general, arguing that RPGs give players the change to develop “personal, interpersonal, cultural, cognitive, and professional skills” (p. 179). Bowman (2010) brings up the social stigmas surrounding RPGs, noting that many players have self-identified as being societal “misfits” who have found friendship through fantasy gaming (p. 68). Bowman argues that RPGs aid in empathy training, as the games cause players to enact and interact with character-types with whom they may not normally relate; thus, players gain the opportunity to see through new perspectives and may begin to apply this skill to their lives (2010, p. 59). RPGs may also aid in developing skills for problem solving in social contexts, as each character must navigate conflicts and overcome obstacles collaboratively (Bowman, 2010, p. 104). If players can recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each party member, including themselves, they can work together to negotiate challenges more effectively (Bowman, 2010, p. 116). Bowman (2010) ends by discussing RPGs and their role in identity exploration, arguing that RPGs are a venue in which players can “‘try on different hats’ of selfhood” free of societal judgements (p. 127).

C. Wright, D. E. Weissglass, and V. Casey (2017) argue along with Bowman that Role-Playing Games like D&D may aid in social development. Wright, Weissglass, and Casey (2017) recently conducted a study which has suggested that imaginative role-play can promote the moral development of players when social and/or moral dilemmas are built into the gameplay (p. 1). Their study stands out due to their inclusion of two control groups who did not engage in gameplay and did not show any growth in moral development (in contrast with the players of RPGs, who demonstrated great growth in their moral development) (Wright, Weissglass, & Casey, 2017, p. 1).

The final bit of RPG discussion that I will include in this post considers RPGs as instructional tools for life. In a heartwarming colloquium lecture geared towards the parents of RPGers, Ulrich A. K. Betz (2011) highlights several “business and management principles” that RPGs can teach both children and adults (p. E117). These principles are as follows:

  1. To be successful you need a team – it is very difficult to succeed alone
  2. To be successful you need diversity – we do not need to be the same
  3. To be successful, you need to agree on the fundamentals – we need to share the same values and visions
  4. Work can be fun – as long as it is not an obsession
  5. Learn and grow – what is impossible today will be possible tomorrow
  6. Manage your downside risk – things will happen that nobody (or at least you) did not foresee
  7. You can make a difference; you can change the world

Like the other scholars I have discussed above, Betz (2011) focuses on the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills that players have the opportunity to develop while participating in fantasy role-play. The lessons he sees embedded in the gameplay are collaboration and communication, problem solving, self-regulation, and growth of self-efficacy. And, by pointing out that RPGs can help children as well as adults, Betz draws attention to the enduring nature of these skills and how they connect to lifelong learning.

 

Conclusion

Even a cursory glance into the body of research about TRPGs reveals a few key themes. In this post, I have picked out 3 studied benefits that D&D could have in an English Language Arts classroom. TRPGs could add value to an English classroom by encouraging the following in students:

  1. Rethinking narrative structures: divisions between authorship and readership are broken down and narrative becomes interactive. Players can have direct effects on storyline and therefore can become engaged in more meaningful ways, actively contributing rather than passively absorbing material. Because multiple players can pursue diverging plots, students/players can observe the creation of a complex, non-linear narrative.
  2. Practicing interpersonal skills: Students/players must collaborate with each other and communicate if they wish to be successful in gameplay. The multiplayer nature of D&D (and most TRPGs) encourages players to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, taking advantage of characters’ assets and compensating for weaknesses. Because players enter different perspectives, TRPGs can be an effective way to teach empathy.
  3. Developing intrapersonal skills: By allowing students to “become” characters, TRPGs provide opportunities to explore different identities and “try out” different worldviews, ethics, beliefs, and so on in a non-judgmental context. In their attempts to work towards certain targets, players develop skills like goal-setting, self-reflection, and self-moderation.

What stands out to me the most about much of the research is that the benefits that researchers are finding apply in a cross-disciplinary way; skills are developed within the space of an RPG and carried forward into the players’ lives. The benefits also largely connect to BC’s new curriculum, hitting on all of the core competencies that BC Education wishes to foster in its students (i.e. communication, creative thinking, critical thinking, positive personal & cultural identity, personal awareness & responsibility, and social responsibility) (Core Competencies, 2016). This text form would work especially well in an English Language Arts class due to its affordances in narrative engagement; however, TRPGs could be used in any classroom that wishes to develop those core competencies in students.

Although a mere gameplay description cannot capture the many, many nuances and interactions of a session of D&D, I’d like to conclude my post by rooting the above themes within the game itself. D&D’s current story (Storm King’s Thunder, 2017) is described as follows on their website:

“Hill giants are stealing all the grain and livestock they can while stone giants have been scouring settlements that have been around forever. Fire giants are press-ganging the smallfolk into the desert, while frost giant longships have been pillaging along the Sword Coast. Even the elusive cloud giants have been witnessed, their wondrous floating cities appearing above Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate. Where is the storm giant King Hekaton, who is tasked with keeping order among the giants?

The humans, dwarves, elves, and other small folk of the Sword Coast will be crushed underfoot from the onslaught of these giant foes. The only chance at survival is for the small folk to work together to investigate this invasion and harness the power of rune magic, the giants’ weapon against their ancient enemy the dragons. The only way the people of Faerun can restore order is to use the giants’ own power against them.”

Even in this brief description, one can begin to see the themes that emerge in the research that has been done on TRPGs and D&D. The collaborative nature of the game is highlighted (the “small folk” must “work together”), along with critical thinking skills (“to investigate”), creative thinking skills (how can they begin to restore order?) and intrapersonal skills (what is my character’s place in this conflict? what can I do to help?). And, of course, it is an engaging narrative that the students can enter and help shape.

In this post, I have only covered a fraction of the discussions that have happened and are happening about D&D and TRPGs; however, it is clear that much research exists that argues for these games as learning tools. And I, for one, am very excited to bring D&D into my classroom one day.


References:

Betz, U. A. K. (2011). What fantasy role-playing games can teach your children (or even you). British Journal of Educational Technology 42(6).

Bowman, S. L. (2010). The functions of role-playing games: how participants create community, solve problems, and explore identity. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Devilla, J. (2008). The “Random Harlot Table” from the original Dungeon Master’s Guide. Global Nerdy. Retrieved from http://www.globalnerdy.com/2008/03/05/the-random-harlot-table-from-the-original-dungeon-masters-guide/

Grouling Cover, J. (2010). The creation of narrative in tabletop role-playing games. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Storm King’s Thunder. (2017). Dungeons & Dragons. Retrieved from http://dnd.wizards.com/dungeons-and-dragons/story/storm-kings-thunder

Wright. J. C., Weissglass, D. E., and Casey, V. (2017). Imaginative role-playing as a medium for moral development: Dungeons & Dragons provides moral training. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 1-31.

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