As a teacher you’re constantly seeking new methods to grab your students’ attention. And in the fast moving world of smartphones, streaming and high-speed internet that is a constant struggle. Using roleplaying games can be both fun and informative, not to mention a great way to empower students. 

I’ve been a tabletop roleplayer longer than I care to say. I like to think that by taking part in my weekly game I’m simply meeting some friends, but my wife says that I do it so I can feel 15 again. And since she’s usually right about everything, I see no point in arguing with her. After all, roleplaying is a form of escapism. Some people like to play video games, other people read novels, I roleplay. And I love it. Imagining that I’m a questing knight in shining armour, freed Wookie slave mechanic on a YT-1300 light freighter or an expert on occult matters investigating a strange cult worshipping Cthulhu helps me relax and makes me happy.

Few years ago I worked as a teacher. I taught teenagers Icelandic, where I was supposed to focus on grammar and Icelandic literature, where they read some of the Icelandic Sagas and some modern novels. To be honest, teaching teenagers grammar and spelling is about as dry as it gets, though I tried to find different ways to arouse their interest, e.g. I always had a few Scrabble board games at hand. Teaching literature on the other hand was always fun and getting the students to participate is a whole lot easier, especially when you have novels that they find fun to read.

The Icelandic Sagas do not fall into that category. The language is old and Icelandic teens often find them hard to understand and follow. The gallery of characters is usually huge and the third person narrator is objective, leaving it to the reader to interpret events. Even though the sagas evolve around vikings, murders and vengeance, they fall short for most teenagers, especially if they are left to read the Sagas on their own and make simple projects, i.e. answer your typical “did-you-read” questions.

Bringing the stories to life using a Roleplaying Game

One of my favourite Sagas is the story of Gísli Súrsson. It’s murder mystery, or a Whodunit, except with vikings armed with axes, bounty hunters and evil sorcerers. The main character, Gísli Súrsson, is a simple farmer, happily married and lives on his land along with his brother, though they don’t share the same farmhouse. Gísli’s blood brother, Vésteinn, pays Gísli a visit, but is murdered while he’s staying there. Gísli avenges Vésteinn a little later by killing his brother-in-law and all hell breaks loose. Gísli becomes a hunted man, is sentenced to exile and can be killed with impunity. He manages to evade and elude his body hunters. Finally, after years of fleeing they finally catch him but he puts up a real fight and though his attackers manage to bring him down, it is at a great cost. Basically, this Saga has every potential to be a great read for most people.

Much as I like it, the customary method of the time was to teach it (and most other Sagas) by letting the students read and answer questions from each chapter. After doing this for years, I found this not only boring and tedious, but I didn’t see that it aroused the students’ interest or that they found reading the story fun or fulfilling.

So, I decided to make a change. First of all, I decided to read the whole story with them, word by word, chapter by chapter and explain in detail what was happening. Then I created a number of assignments based on Howard Gardner’s theory on multiple intelligences, and set up a plan where students could choose different assignments based on their interest and how they would like to enjoy the story. By allowing students to draw comics, calculate the size of a viking farmhouse or set up a court like they had when the Saga is supposed to take place, and gave the students a chance to experience the narrative, instead of just reading a text they found difficult.

One of these assignments allowed the students to create roleplaying characters based on the main characters of the Saga and then use them in a game. I used an Icelandic roleplaying game called Askur Yggdrasils and brought both character sheets and rulebooks. Once the students had created the characters I offered them a chance to play thesm, where I game mastered a short session, using a scene from the Saga.

I believe that this was one of the most successful assignments for Gísli’s Saga. Many students decided to do it and for many this was their first roleplaying experience. Some of them are still playing.

Roleplaying games as a subject

Icelandic teenagers are supposed to choose a number of subjects each semester. These subjects can include photography, carpentry, cooking etc. I asked the head of the department one year if it would be alright if I offered the students a chance to choose roleplaying games. I was asked what skills the students would learn by playing a game where they pretended to be heroes in imaginary realms fighting dragons and evil undead monsters.

It’s a fair question, especially coming from the head of an educational institution. It was her job to make sure that every subject, especially those who weren’t in curriculum had some objective where the students either learned some new skills or the subjects added to their knowledge of the world.

Roleplaying games are in fact very informative and you probably learn a whole lot more than you can imagine by playing. Just the fact that roleplaying is a social activity is enough proof of that. You assume the role of someone else and for some people this is crucial. I’ve seen extremely shy people open up and actively take part in a roleplaying group. Roleplaying games can help people who feel awkward in social situations practice their behaviour, the game is in a way a secure ground or safe space where they can feel safe to let themselves go.

After giving this some thought, the head of the department agreed to allow Roleplaying Games as a subject, but with some conditions. Only a handful of predetermined students were allowed to choose the subject and it was to be used to strengthen their social standing and offer many of them a chance to enhance their social skills. There were supposed to be assignments and students were supposed to get grades. I agreed to the conditions though I was lost on how to grade roleplaying.

Plans and Execution

Before I started I set down a few objectives. Grading or evaluating social skills is always subjective and it is in fact quite hard to evaluate them. After thinking hard about this, I created a sheet with many different social skills which I would fill out after every class. Then I created a number of assignments, which included projects like character creation, write and game master a one-shot, take part in a small con etc.

The first time I met the students we only talked about roleplaying games and I explained how they work, along with showing them a bunch of different rulebooks and accessories. Next time we met we created characters, using D&D. Their assignment was to write a backstory and find a good picture for their character.

After the first session the students got up and started talking with each other. “It was so cool when you did this” and “Oh, it would’ve been awesome if you would’ve said that”. I watched as the scene rolled out before my eyes and simply couldn’t believe how blind and stupid I had been planning this subject. The students were actually learning from each other and empowering each others’ in-game actions. I quickly decided to throw away that sheet with the social skills and after that first session, we sat a bit longer and discussed their characters actions and behaviour.

I’m not sure, but I think that even today these students don’t know how important these moments they spent talking and discussing what had happened in-game really were.

Roleplaying becomes cool

This was about 15 years ago. Since then Roleplaying has shaken of that niché culture status, now you see movie stars and prisoners alike play D&D. Here in Iceland, teens can join roleplaying games in community centres and the image of the the fat, socially awkward single guy as The Roleplayer is changing.

I left my job as a teacher years ago. I miss it, from time to time, though I must admit, I don’t think I’ll return anytime soon. Yet, there have been so many changes in the last few years, especially with the introduction of iPads, which many schools in Iceland are starting to use more and more. But I think that using Roleplaying Games in the classroom, just as teachers use Minecraft and similar video games, is something that is more than just another teaching method.

Students need to learn social skills, now more than ever. In a world where much of their communication relies on smartphones and the internet, they need to be able to sit down to a table and have a great time together, whether it is slaying a dragon with a group of other adventurers or discussing solutions to drought in Africa and everything there between. Most companies today who are seeking people, at least here in Iceland, are looking for people who have great social skills, are able to work in groups and be part of a team. What better way to teach this than by roleplaying!?

After all, isn’t this what roleplaying is all about?