The Power of Play
How Tabletop Roleplaying Games Can Level-Up Youth Engagement
by Gabe and Jay
Introduction – Session 0
The quote, “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning,” hangs outside of the Toy Hall of fame on the first floor of the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Museums like Strong, and early education classes have harnessed the power of play for years to drive learning. Play, or the act of playing, is fundamental to how we as humans learn to interact with our physical and emotional world. As students get older, though, the element of play is gradually cut from structured learning. Something about play, and games in general, is associated with immaturity or childish tendencies. Using play to drive learning, however, can be just as powerful to engage older students and adult learners.
Games are a way to structure ‘play’ as a framework to explore concepts and learning materials at a young person’s desired pace and in their own way. I entered the world of games at a young age and used them as a tool for my own learning and emotional development. By participating on sports teams, I learned about teamwork and work ethic. Through card games I practiced reading body language and facial expressions. With board games I had to apply creative strategies within the boundaries of specific rules.
We can learn a lot about the world and ourselves by playing games. In this article, we’re going to explore a specific genre of games—tabletop roleplaying games or TTRPGs for short—and its power as a tool to help develop social emotional learning skills and resiliency. We hope to be the first stop on your Tabletop Roleplaying Game adventure.
In March, the nation hit pause in the wake of a worldwide pandemic. Many of our schools, social systems and everyday routines ground to a halt. Educators, parents, and community members had to rethink how to create space for their young people to learn, maintain community, and encourage wellness. As MYAN worked to navigate this uncomfortable space, we turned to activities that brought joy into our lives. Jay and I turned to the games we play with our friends and families. At the same time, games became valuable engagement tools in distance learning.
TTRPGs, like Dungeons and Dragons, provide opportunities to explore new worlds and concepts, develop lasting relationships and overcome adversity; we become the heroes of our own stories. That’s the idea we’re interested in exploring. If you’re willing to take that journey with us, pull up a chair and take a seat a seat around the table—Let’s find out how roleplaying games allow young people to play at the world, and find themselves along the way.
Introducing Our Setting: What are TTRPGs?
In the last few years, Roleplaying games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons, have exploded into the mainstream. From depictions in popular television shows, such as Stranger Things, to the multimedia phenomenon of Critical Role, where hundreds of thousands tune-in to watch eight professional voice actors broadcast their games live. To the uninitiated however, tabletop roleplaying games might appear arcane, mysterious, and difficult to understand.
To help us on this journey, first we need to map and understand the landscape. By definition, TTRPGs are improvised, interactive and collaborative storytelling games where players each take on the role of a unique character. In most games, one player is the facilitator, often called the ‘Game Master’ or GM for short. They craft the situations, obstacles and challenges that the other players must work together to overcome. The GM acts as the narrator of the story. They introduce new concepts and characters, ask questions and mediate disputes as a kind of referee. Sound familiar?
The other players create characters—the story’s protagonists—and act, or “role play” the thoughts and decisions their characters make in response to the people and situations described by the GM. Roleplaying games are played essentially as conversations guided by a set of rules. Players ask each other questions and provide answers, sometimes rolling dice to find out what happens. The narrative cycle of a TTRPG tends to look like this:
- Describe: The GM (or sometimes player) describes a situation or action and asks questions.
- GM: “You are hiking through the woods when you hear a low growl and turn to notice a bear staring at you through the brush. What do you do?”
- Decide: The players decide how their character would respond to the situation.
- Player: “My character is really good with animals! I try to talk to the bear and let it know that we mean it no harm!”
- Roll: The players roll to determine if their action was successful, and the GM helps players interpret the results.
- GM: Roll two 6-sided dice to see if the bear understands you.
- Player: “I rolled a 4 and a 5, which is 9 total. What happens?
- GM: “You succeed! The bear seems to understand you and rolls onto it’s great back, giving you a playful expression. What do you do next?
The “deciding” step is where the potential of roleplaying games lives. In many real-life situations, the power of choice is absent for young people. Other than prisoners and some other institutionalized groups, young people are the most controlled population in the country. Students may only get a token vote in decisions made about them and their education. Additionally, students with marginalized identities are impacted by inequities at higher rates. Marginalized young people are more likely to lack access to afterschool activities, choice over what they eat at lunch, or how they’re allowed to dress in school. By contrast, TTRPGs are driven by thousands of choices, big and small, that players must make; young people’s creative problem-solving skills directly alter the story’s direction.
To emulate some of the randomness and uncertainty of everyday life, many games use dice. With the probability of success clearly defined by the rules, young people can make informed choices about risks, rewards, and how new skills and resources can make once impossible tasks achievable. This provides a low risk space for young people to cope with failure and learn that one setback or failure doesn’t mean the end of their story. In fact, some of the most amazing successes are born out of what seemed like epic failure. Learning to cope with a bad dice roll or negative outcome helps cultivate valuable resilience skills. Seeing their characters overcome the challenges of an adventure can serve as a model for their own lives. Fictional challenges often reflect real life barriers that young people experience. For young people who encounter systemic barriers due to their identity, TTRPGs provide a space to explore the possibilities of what could be. When working with Jay to write this piece, they mentioned,
“When I was growing up, I didn’t have access to the language or even the concepts to understand that I was transgender. Roleplaying games allowed me a relief from the everyday dissonance I felt around my identity. Even if the social pressure was still there to play a character who matched my assigned gender, I felt able to explore new ways of acting and eventually new ways of identifying as my understanding of myself grew.”
Problem solving in TTRPGs invites young people to reflect on how social and cultural influences shape their character’s development—and by extension their own. It’s practice for examining every day systems in order to identify creative solutions to real-life challenges. The power of imagining leads to young people creating more just worlds, and provides a foundation for them to identify what changes can be made towards more liberated possibilities.¹
If you’re anything like us, you might be excited by the possibilities of TTRPGS, and can’t wait to try one out with your friends, family, or students. When searching for a TTRPG to play you will find an overwhelming number of options. The most well-known is Dungeons & Dragons, but there is a vast library of games with different goals and rules, themes, settings, and even types of dice used (if at all!). It is important to have a conversation with your players ahead of time to ensure everyone agrees on what kind of game they want to play.
You might ask questions like:
- What kind of story do we want to tell?
- What setting would be interesting for us to explore?
- What kind of experience do we want to have?
- What is it about TTRPGs that excites us?
Questions like these will help with planning and ensure everyone is excited to play the same kind of game. These questions initiate the game by transferring ownership from the facilitator to the group of players. This process is especially important to model collaborative decision making with young people. Modeling collaboration from the start invites young people in and will improve engagement and help everyone arrive at more meaningful outcomes. This pre-game discussion is known as a ‘Session 0.” As a way to model that first conversation for you, Jay and I roleplayed out what a session 0 might look like.
In our video example, we decided to play the game Monster of the Week. We chose this game because it fit well with the kind of narrative experience we wanted to have. The game was also accessible to us both because the game’s rules are free and use dice we could borrow from our family sets of Monopoly. If you don’t have any board games to take dice from, you can use one of the many online dice rollers or embark on a small math project to discover alternative methods of chance. If you’re interested in viewing the game we chose to play, you can access free PDFs for the game on the Monster of the Week website under the ‘Resources’ tab’. From here, players can download the ‘Playbooks’ and copies of the basic rules called the ‘Hunter Reference Sheet.’ With the appropriate tools for the game, let’s explore what it means to be a character in one.
Every story needs a group of heroes. In TTRPGs, that’s you! As we’ve mentioned, choices matter, and a player’s decisions should ultimately dictate the outcome of the story. When players are leading the direction of a game, they develop a deep connection to the choices, events and other characters that exist in the story and take ownership of their part in it. These connections can cultivate critical social emotional learning (SEL) competencies in young people. Character interactions involve practicing high-level skills like empathy, and critical consciousness—how a character’s backstory influences who they are and how they act.
Players have to consider how their character would respond to different scenarios, rather than how they personally might act, think, or feel. When first imagining their character, players write a history that justifies the motivations, personality traits, strengths and flaws of the character they want to explore. These backstories require an understanding of how someone’s past experiences shape their current perspectives. Facilitators can encourage deeper analysis of these ideas in group debriefs at the end of a game session. In addition to building SEL skills, character creation provides space for young people to explore different perspectives and ways of being. This is especially potent for young people exploring aspects of their identity. In the same ways that media representation helps us feel accepted and accepting of other identities, TTRPGs create the same opportunities for young people to connect with their identities in an active way.
TTRPGs can also help young people who are exploring their gender identity or sexual orientation. Games allow us to create characters outside of ourselves and explore their experiences and feelings with a buffer from the potential for real-world social danger. Facilitators can lead players in engaging with their characters’ identities, decisions, and outcomes to encourage collaboration between everyone at the table. A well run and collaborative experience can be a complex, deeply emotional process and build a stronger emotional vocabulary. The coupling of emotional development and authentic ownership creates spaces for individuals to see how their decisions impact the world around them. After an eventful game session, we rarely find ourselves recounting our adventures in third-person—Instead, we are almost certainly talking about the challenges that we overcame and the kingdoms we saved. Our heroism isn’t contained to the paper or the screen—it’s internalized in ways that remind us we all can be the heroes of our own story.
Watch the video below to see an example of a typical TTRPG interaction between characters:
Games & Youth Engagement
Due to the vast range of settings available through different role-playing games, they can be used to explore different narratives that address any number of topics. In the video example, our players used Monster of the Week to explore the challenge of balancing everyday life with protecting their community from harm. The duo must cooperate in the game to solve mysteries, overcome challenges, and interact with social situations. Perhaps they’ll try to convince the skeptical principal to shut down the science fair to avoid a cataclysmic disaster from happening to their home. While the situation is fantastical, imagining how it would feel to approach a school administrator, when they may not believe you, is real. TTRPGs can be used to explore systems that “mediate the experiences of participants” specifically experiences that are impacted due to race or gender.¹
Resolutions – What comes next?
To fully understand the value of TTRPGs, plunge into one. Without being in a situation where your character is asked to respond to a Kingdom under siege, a charging bear, or a science fair threatening an environmental disaster, it can be difficult to understand the emotional resonance a game can provide. These games actively encourage people of all ages, identities, and backgrounds to imagine different worlds, ways of being, and stories outside of themselves. They provide experiences that can be translated to real world change.
We all play roles and assume different identities every day, especially LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color who hide or code-switch between identities in different spaces. Role playing gives us the opportunity to intentionally explore the identities we admire, strive to be, or desire to understand. We not only feel important but understand that our actions can change the world.
Through the intentional use of games, facilitators can construct experiences that promote deeper reflection about community assets and issues. This process works similar to techniques you may already use, like team builders, videos, or classroom instruction. Consider this post your ‘Session 0.’ What will you do next?
Here are some questions to help you get started on your Tabletop Roleplaying Game journey.
- What else do I need to learn about TTRPGs?
- Where can I find resources to run games?
- Who might be facilitating TTRPGs in my community?
- How do I want to integrate games into my practice with youth?
¹ Antero Garcia (2017) Privilege, Power, and Dungeons & Dragons: How Systems Shape Racial and Gender Identities in Tabletop Role-Playing Games, Mind, Culture, and Activity, 24:3, 232-246, https://doi.org/10.1080/10749039.2017.1293691