Updated: Apr 6
Last week, a star of the new Dungeons & Dragons movie, Chris Pine, mentioned that he thought the game belonged in schools:
It was kind of a revelation for me because I think ... my father's 82, my mom's 76, I had no knowledge about it, my sister has no knowledge about it. Within 15 minutes, we were having the time of our lives and we didn't have to know anything. ... the gospel of Dungeons & Dragons that I think is so important to know, why I think it should be played in schools, is that it immediately teaches cooperation. It exercises the imagination. It's joyous, it's improvisational. And within a matter of minutes, everybody's on the same page. You're not arguing about whether or not you're cool or not. You're arguing about whether or not you should have gone over the boulder to kill the dragon. I think it's about the coolest thing I've encountered in a long time.
This is exciting for a number of reasons: first, it’s nice to have someone immensely famous seeing - and talking about - what many educators and game designers have been saying for years (I just gave a talk at SXSW Edu about this very subject!). It’s great to know role-playing is having a breakout year; people who might never have encountered the hobby are getting interested. I’ve written a lot about why I think role-playing belongs in the classroom - apart from creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration, it centers student agency and voice and allows for amazing socio-emotional learning (one of the hardest areas to effectively help kids grow!).
But D&D in schools is, to me, a little bit like suggesting someone cook for 30 people with a sword. If you’re a master of both swords and cuisine, you can probably pull it off. But if you’re not an absolute master of BOTH skills, it’s liable to be awkward, difficult, and maybe even cause a few injuries.
Here’s what I mean: D&D wasn’t made for teaching. It was made as a tactical war game of sorts, with a bit of what’s often called “story gaming” or, if you prefer the traditional term, “make believe” on top. What that means is only expert gamers who are also master teachers are likely to be able to use it for teaching; without both skills, it would be a huge amount of effort and energy to even attempt.
That matters. Perhaps the most obvious reason? Teachers are already overworked, underpaid, and under-supported - it’s part of what’s led to the nationwide teacher shortage. I’ve often argued that role-playing game approaches can offer a restorative balm to both teachers AND students, helping make learning joyous and collaborative rather than based on a fear of failure and need to succeed, but that can’t catch on unless the approach is:
Easy for teachers to run in their classes with minimal prep, and …
Easy to justify using instructional minutes for, providing clearly standards-aligned activities and assessable outcomes.
I’m adapting my own RPG teaching approach, which I have been perfecting in small classes over the past three years, for classroom use with Luna Uni (up on Kickstarter NOW!). I’ve been joined by two incredible 5th grade teachers, Tyler Pelletier and Tom Charltray, who have been teaching their classes with my game and seeing amazing results.
There are a lot of ways in which I’ve worked with Tom and Tyler to be intentional in my design, centering student, teacher, parent, and school needs, to make Luna Uni the most academically effective and easy to implement classroom RPG possible.
Here’s a few of the ways we’ve built it to be the right toolkit for the classroom.
Live and Lore Sessions
The first thing about D&D that makes it less than optimal for the classroom is the rules. They center around violence and combat, require a lot of learning, and playtime often centers on lengthy board-game sessions where players move figures about, roll to hit, calculate damage, and essentially play a game of war. Learning how movement, combat, spells, and the like function requires study - something kids may love doing, but teachers have very little time to first master themselves or second spend precious classroom minutes teaching.
In Luna Uni, there is no combat. Play is split between two phases: Lore and Live sessions. In Lore sessions, players write stories, read them with and for one another, edit and revise, and create characters and the world together. This hits Common Core standards for narrative fiction writing, revision, using technology to produce the work (they collaborate on Google Slides documents in “crews,” writing novellas about their fantasy work), collaboration, grammar, and speaking and listening.
In effect, Lore sessions are writer’s workshops, but with a shared world and characters whose stories are intertwined, students aren’t isolated. Instead of trying to generate narrative without inspiration, they can use one another’s work, the setting lore, and the Live play sessions to spark new tales and greater engagement. They're creating for peers, and to build a shared world, instead of writing for adults or grades that might not feel like a reward.
In Live sessions, players take on the role of their characters and collaborate with one another to deal with dramatic challenges. Each scene requires the characters to use their abilities and come up with ideas together - and, as Pine put it: “within a matter of minutes, everyone’s on the same page.” That collective, collaborative, creative experience nails multiple classroom culture-building needs, and gives students a real way to care about group work - a peer-celebrated, peer-inspired process that builds genuine student-to-student relationships. It also hits all the group work, speaking, listening, presentation, and collaboration standards in the Common Core.
Finally, the way scenes are structured in a Live session leads directly back to narrative writing standards by emphasizing a form of story outline known as the 4 act East Asian Cinema Structure (often called by the Japanese title, Kishoutenketsu).
Live Scene Structure Teaches Story Structure
Each Live Scene in Luna Uni - which begins with pre-scripted scenarios that help students learn - has four phases: Hook, Explore, Move, and Triumphs/Troubles.
Here's a quick example:
Once players have played through a few Live Scenes, we introduce the Kishoutenketsu structure to explain how players can, in their own stories, use the plot development model from Scenes to build better narratives. For those unfamiliar with Kishoutenketsu, it’s a classic narrative outlining approach from Chinese, Japanese, and other traditions. Instead of the "rising action" and "conflict" in the Western model, Kishoutenketsu simplifies stories into "introduction," "development," "twist," and "resolution"; in effect, same as the four phases in a Live Scene.
This is the student-facing explanation:
The students in Tyler and Tom's classes have taken to using Kishoutenketsu to outline their plots, and are now consistently identifying the pattern in the stories they're reading. Recently, they've been reading Amari and the Night Brothers (a brilliant novel by B.B. Alston), and kids have been calling out when dialogue and description build the scene, and noticing how, in a novel, the "resolution" is often a cliffhanger that doubles as a "hook" to bridge the readers into the next chapter.
In short, the structure they've come to intuitively understand during Live Scenes serves as a quick, easy, but nuanced tool for both analysis of authorial craft AND narrative structure in their own work.
There's SO much more to talk about! In Part II of this blog about the structure and approach for Luna Uni, I'll go over:
How character sheets double as outlines for character analysis essays
Teaching self assessment and building collective "novellas" as writing portfolios
Using digital tools to encourage collaboration
Approaches for running games for large classroom groups using "crews"
How non-violence sponsors better story-telling
Video support materials
Pacing guides and apportioning class time
Assessments and more!
You can also see a talk about this approach (with cameos from Tyler and Tom) here.