ID&D: Modeling Your Course Like an RPG

Three Dungeons and Dragons
By Nick Noel, Instructional Designer and Dungeon Master

Utilizing the affordances of games in education is not a new idea. However, as games, and specifically digital games, have become more sophisticated, they have increasingly been the focus of research,  and utilized as models for course design. James Gee has described them as “learning machines” (2005, p. 5) that require the participants to be “active” (2005, p. 5). Building on this idea, Fishman and Aguilar highlight how the principles of video game design, not just the games themselves, can be utilized to increase student motivation (2012). This is all very exciting for someone like me who both loves games, and believes in their use in education.

While video games provide a useful model for student engagement and course design, a key component missing from this discussion is the interactions between student and instructor within a course. Regardless of how expansive and intricately designed a video game is, the player is still unable to change or adjust beyond the confines of the game’s programming.

Modeling Role Playing Games

A model for this type of interaction can be found in the world of games. But it isn’t the high-tech world of video games, instead it’s the low-tech one of pen and paper Role Playing Games (RPGs), such as Dungeons & Dragons, and Shadowrun. The concept of a Role Playing Game may be familiar through popular video games such as World of Warcraft or Guild Wars. These games are based on the pen and paper games that came before, and while their formal constraints (Ferrara, 2012) are similar, their issues are still inherent. The advantage that pen and paper RPGs have over their digital cousins, as it relates to the classroom, is that the designer of the game experience is present throughout the game, and the actions and desires of the players affect how the game is played.    

In a pen and paper RPG, one participant referred to as a Game Master (GM), outlines or adapts a fantastical world for the players to inhabit. They then create and act as characters for the players to interact with, and craft a plotline for an adventure that the players will undertake. Players interact with the GM, who describes the environment and sets up challenges. It is up to the players to utilize their characters skills and abilities to overcome the challenges the GM lays before them.

In this way, RPGs are essentially an exercise in collaborative storytelling. One participant provides the world, plot, antagonist and ancillary characters, and the rest of the participants provide the actions for the protagonists; together, they make the story.  This model, while it may not be readily apparent, lends itself well to instructor-student interaction.

Instructor as GM

Like the Game Master, instructors are responsible for providing content and challenges. In order to facilitate an experience that is both mentally stimulating and physically exciting, it is necessary for there to be an element of choice to the challenges. The best GM’s set up scenarios that have multiple possible approaches to achieve the same objective, while remaining flexible enough to adapt to unexpected actions of the players.

In addition, it is important to plan for the wide variation in skills, abilities and interest that make up any group of students. A GM that plans an adventure without taking the makeup of the group into consideration will quickly end up with dissatisfied players. The same is true for instructors.

Students as Players

Whether it’s modifying rules to make the game more enjoyable, discovering interesting ways to engage in the environment, or creating unique and exciting backstories for their characters, players always have an effect on the game. Every student is different, and every group of students exponentially so. They have different interests, skills and experiences, all of which contribute to their experience in a course.  If you take this into consideration when designing your course, allowing for opportunities for choice and personalization, then you will end up with more engaged students.

Utilizing the RPG Model

Think of your course as a collaboration between yourself and your students. You will be providing the overall structure and content, while your students will supply the classroom interactions and solutions.

Once this approach is contextualized into your course, you can begin  to plan for the variation in interest that your students will display in regards to the material. This isn’t just a binary, they like it or they don’t, relationship. Students may be intrigued by one particular topic, or desire to explore the material through the lens of a particular theory. You can encourage this by allowing students to propose adjustments to their assignments or create their own. In addition, you can offer students the opportunity to set one or more personal or course learning objectives. This will send a powerful message to the students that you value their interests, and that you want their input.

As the instructor, it will be be your responsibility to determine how much variation is appropriate within your course, however you may find that allowing for greater student choice is more interesting and satisfying for both you and your students. Whatever path you choose, bringing RPG principles into the classroom could encourage students to take an active role in their learning – and have a little fun, too.



Aguilar, S., Fishman, B. (2012) Gaming the Class: Using a Game-based Grading System to Get Students to Work Harder… and Like It

Gee, J (2005) Learning By Design: Good Video Games as Learning Machines E-Learning 2(1)

Ferrara, J. (2012). Playful design: creating game experiences in everyday interfaces. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media.