Guest Post – Pedagogy and RPGs

bemyguestHere’s another first for GreyWorld.
A guest post.
I am very happy to leave the stage to my old pal Gerardo Psicopompo, roleplayer and teacher, on a subject that I always found fascinating – the positive effects of roleplaying on young gamers.
Here goes…


Cheers! A brief introduction: I have been a professional teacher for six years and a roleplayer for… well, almost twice as that, and I think I need to open this article with a premise. All serious articles, after all, open with a premise. If I were to write down some figures, I’d say the informations in this piece are based on:
– 25-30% – studies and pedagogic theory
– 70-75% – experience built in the field, as to say working as an educator, using Roleplaying Games.

dnd35My experiences and evaluations are based chiefly on Dungeons & Dragons, 3.5 edition. Some may not like it, but of all the systems tested, it turned out to be the most intuitive for the target audience, and the most useful for the intended purposes.

The target audience was composed of kids (both male and female, but with a majority of males) in an age range of 11 to 16 years, all of them involved in non-extreme discomfort situations. The kids reside in the periphery of Rome, and the most common sources of discomfort include:
– economic difficulties;
– one or both parents absent;
– immigrant family of origin;
– minimal fruition of cultural contents outside of the school system;
– learning disorders (dislexia, discalculia, attention disorders atc..).

This said, let’s begin!


There are ‘objective’ educative potentials, as to say inherent in the Role Play Game system itself. This is no mystery, as roleplaying techniques are used in psychoanalitic therapy, professional training and so on.

  1. Interpretation: In an article published in 2013, in Italian, on Davide Mana’s old blog, on the Gary Gygax Day, I found a truly illuminating phrase:

“You can’t spend eight hours a week for ten years playing the role of a hero, without becoming a little better.”

This is a positive truth. A truth that is rooted in the first and foremost, the most evident and important, of Role Play Game: the interpretation of a role, as to say a character. It is in the necessity of building a character and play the part that we find the main pedagogic tool of RPGs. Playing a character has the enormous effect of projecting the ego of the player outside their self.

The character is, for the player, a defense, a psychological shield: no matter what will happen, no matter what I do that’s “different” from my usual, the character did it anyway. The presence of this defense (that is, let’s be clear, only apparent, because we can’t express thoughts, words and feelings that are not part of the person already) allows the kids to “open up”, doing and saying things they normally would not do or say. Also, playing a characters with an alignment (to use the D&D definition) has a two-fold “educational potential”:

  • players playing “good” characters.
    This is the option I use more often, limiting the alignment choices during the character creation phase. In this case, the kids “play at being better”: they sacrifice themselves for the good of their mates, fight to help those in need or to deal with justice defending the weak. It is self-evident how this option is the one that hinges the most on the premise of the quote above. The kids find out they are capable of great things and, even if this happens “in the shadow” of the characters, this awareness grows in them, giving them a new empowerment, self-awareness and a sense of their own potential..

  • player playing “evil” or “chaotic” characters.
    Often, especially in the beginning, the kids prefer this choice. They want to “do whatever they will”, and giving then free rein, they will turn gaming session in a sort of GTA in a fantasy Medieval setting. Denying this option is not always a good educative choice: sometimes it is better to let them do as they please, and then show them, “in game” the consequences of their actions. As long as you are a fair and realistic Keeper, and kids will find themselves with dead or maimed characters, or with wanted or jailed characters… and therefore no longer playable. This may seem extreme, but let’s not forget that for the kids this is not just “a fun escape from reality”. It is in fact a repetition and “mythologizing” of those negative models that abound around them in real life. Rhetoric? Possibly. And yet one should see the damage done among the adolescents in the Roman peripheries by the TV series Romanzo Criminale1… Well, you might come to see the problem my way.

  1. The Team: RPGs are a team game, requiring a constant relational effort. The relationship requires mutual dialogue, aimed at building an environment of collaboration and trust among the members of the group. The dialogue is never a given when we are dealing with introverted kids, possibly suffering from communication deficiencies, maybe connected with their native language, or with speech impairments.

  2. The Background: The development of a background requires the boy or the girl an imagination effort. This may seem obvious, but in normal video-game related activities, the character background is “ready made”, or totally irrelevant. Also, the creation of a background helps the kids realize that actions of both individuals and groups or armies have motives, that can be known, and accepted or rejected.

  3. The Rules: Simple, fast, “down to earth” rules. Let’s admit it, browsing the Player’s Handbook is a drag for both young and old. Therefore, the kids will strive and learn the rules. Incredibly enough they will study them at home. Exercising their memory. Training their logic. And then… maths, guys! Base Attack Bonus + d20 + STR bonus … or DEX bonus on a ranged attack, but wait! I have a talent by which I can subtract points from my Armor Class, adding them to my TxC… But there’s also Thac00, for those that love older systems. The things one has to learn to kill a few goblins…


What we covered so far are the “objective” potentials of the game: traits that, basically, belong to any RPG system. We could call them intrinsic pedagogic properties of the system itself. There are other educative potentials, too, the development of which depends on the skills and choices of the Keeper.:

  1. The creation of a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural setting is a great tool for tackling themes of racism and exclusion in an way that is engaging for the kids. But also pseudo-historical settings are a powerful learning tool.

  2. The distribution of experience points following different criteria: not just by killing monsters, but for interpretation, use of smarts and diplomacy. This is a very powerful tool, that can create positive feedbacks in the members of the team.

  3. The appreciation of the skills of the players, often the subjects of exclusion, suffering from low self esteem or are victims of mobbing and harassment.


Writing this post really charged me! Not only this is a collaboration with a project I find inspiring and with an author I respect 2, but it also allowed me to collect and organize thoughts and ideas that were just laying around…
Too often roleplaying games are mentioned only when the subject is disturbed young men, homicides or suicides, satanic covens and assorted horrors. We should work to show that not only roleplaying games have nothing to do with these absurd accusations, but can be coupled with words like education, pedagogy, pro-social behaviors.

  1. in case you missed it, Romanzo Criminale is an acclaimed and popular TV series, loosely based on the history of organized crime in Rome in the ’70s. It is not aimed at an adolescent audience, and should require a certain critical thinking – but of course that’s just the theory [D.M.] 
  2. thanks. I left the cash in the usual place.[D.M.] 
Categories: Guest Post | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Guest Post – Pedagogy and RPGs

  1. Jack

    Reblogged this on Tome and Tomb.


  2. Thanks for helping out, wonderful information.



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