Game Design

Level Up Your Classroom With Tabletop RPGs

Gnome Stew - 10 December 2018 - 3:00am

In an unpublished dissertation, Alice Pitt (1995 – Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) noted that “learning about content is not the same thing as learning from it.  In other words…learning is something more than a series of encounters with knowledge; learning entails, rather, the messier and less predictable process of becoming implicated in knowledge” (p.298). As such, gaming tables are undoubtedly places where informal learning happens. The growing variety and accessibility of tabletop roleplaying games present educators with powerful tools to provide students with the agency to shape the trajectory of their learning within and outside traditional classroom settings. From traditional subjects such as mathematics, science, history, and art, to social skills and resiliency, RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons can serve as powerful tools with which to collaboratively interact with curriculum materials and the world beyond the gaming table.

“RPG Math”

Whether you realize it or not, gaming tables are informal spaces to practice math. The variable interplay between rolling dice and mathematical formulas to determine narrative outcomes results in opportunities to make math feel real and beneficial. I’ve never been good at math, but I’ve always been good at what I call RPG math. By that, I’m referring to any math that would involve dice rolling or using a character sheet (aka player spreadsheet). From the shape recognition and geometry associated with using polyhedral dice to the basic operations of arithmetic required during character creation and turn taking, there’s no denying that many popular RPGs, particularly the dice-heavy D20 or Year Zero engines, are exercises in mathematics. Let’s not forget that character sheets are essentially spreadsheets.

A few of my favourite RPGs for practicing math:

  • Dungeons & Dragons
  • Pathfinder
  • Coriolis
“The History & Science Books You Always Wanted”

Photo by Kiron Mukherjee

Whether it be indirectly or directly, analog games draw on the collective experiences of humanity to inform their worlds. Just take a look at the genre staple Dungeons & Dragons. From the multitude of fantastical creatures to the arms and armour players use, almost everything has a parallel in the cultural or natural history of the earth. Even the Magic: The Gathering crossover world of Amonkhet (a fantasy Egypt) demonstrates the lengths to which the most popular RPG in the world takes inspiration from reality. Some games take it even further by encouraging players to develop culturally relative perspectives of history. Two of these games immediately stand out, both for their attention to historical detail and educational intentions. Night Witches by Jason Morningstar draws players into the fictional lives of real-life WWII aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment – known to the Germans as Nachthexen or Night Witches. This Powered by the Apocalypse game is particularly popular with my students at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), who enjoy continuing their education of WWII through gaming…all while playing in the museum’s galleries! The second is Thousand Arrows by James Mendez Hodes and Brennan Taylor, another Powered by the Apocalypse title which takes place during Japan’s Warring States period (the Sengoku Jidai). I myself have also endeavoured to author an RPG for educational purposes – Ross Rifles. As an educator, few roleplaying games have helped me teach science like The Warren by Marshall Miller. In this indie RPG, players assume the role of intelligent rabbits navigating the natural world and the dangers of being at the bottom of the food chain. The Warren is an excellent example of how science can come to life in the form of a story game. From the stellar art by Shel Kahn to the text, it so perfectly captures and communicates one aspect of the natural world. I took this a step further and co-created a rules-light RPG called Zany Zoo. In Zany Zoo, players take on the roles of animals escaping captivity. Think Madagascar meets Finding Nemo/Finding Dory.

A few of my favourite games for engaging with history & science:

  • Night Witches
  • The Warren
  • Thousand Arrows
  • TimeWatch
“Level Up” Your Social Skills

Despite all of the above, playing RPGs are first and foremost opportunities for human connection and community. Aside from the amazing human beings I’ve met playing and designing RPGs, these games have personally provided me with the opportunity to internalize and communicate my feelings, develop self-confidence, and flex my creative muscles. With both the Royal Ontario Museum and Level Up Gaming, I have nearly 7 years of experience using tabletop RPGs to facilitate opportunities of people with autism and other disabilities to develop their social skills. During this time, outlined on episode 3 of the Asians Represent! Podcast, I came to appreciate perhaps the most powerful educational aspect of the RPG hobby. The seemingly intuitive “unwritten rules of social behaviour” are naturally codified by games. A session of any tabletop RPG is a highly structured and safe social environment. There are rules of engagement, objectives, and moderation. While gaming, everyone at the table is tasked with recognizing and defining problems, exploring options, considering strategies, putting their plan into action, and reflecting on the process and outcome. Unlike multiplayer video games, those of the tabletop variety provide uniquely democratic spaces for exploration. Everyone at the table is involved to a degree that they are comfortable with, and analog games have the narrative and mechanical freedom to be tailor-made to the needs of the players. Story games provide impactful and structured opportunity for social connections where you can learn how to exchange space in conversation, communicate needs, and provide help to others when asked.

A few of my favourite RPGs to practice social skills:

  • Emberwind
  • Tales from the Loop
  • The Veil
  • Urban Shadows

From both a professional and personal perspective, games that encourage meaningful and engaging connection to the world never cease to amaze me. They enrich our lives beyond simple entertainment and make each us of better with every playthrough.

Stay curious and game on!

Daniel Kwan is an educator, media professional, and game designer based in Toronto, Canada. He is one of the co-founders of Level Up Gaming, an organization that provides individuals with autism and other disabilities opportunities to develop their social skills through group gaming experiences. His first educational RPG, Zany Zoo, was released in 2018. He is currently working on Ross Rifles, a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG about the lives and experiences of Canadian soldiers stationed on the Western Front during the First World War. Daniel has over a decade of experience using tabletop RPGs in educational contexts at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Works cited:

Pitt, A. (1995) “Subjects in tension: engaged resistance in the feminist classroom’, Unpublished Dissertation, OISE/UofT, Toronto, ON.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

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RPGNet - 10 December 2018 - 12:00am
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This week's surprisingly video-heavy highlights include a great mini-doc about the history of the Punch-Out franchise, a looks at the latest acclaimed Smash Bros. game, & a multitude of other neatness. ...

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Video Game Deep Cuts: Smash That Punch-Out, Hard - by Simon Carless Blogs - 9 December 2018 - 12:33am
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Categories: Game Theory & Design

Whose Game Is It Anyway?

Gnome Stew - 7 December 2018 - 12:00am

It’s the tug of war between whose fun is most important.

Where’s the line between the game the players want to play and the game the GM wants to run? Is the GM bad if they’re getting upset that the players are completely ignoring their setting and plot? Are the players bad if they’re bored and uninterested in what the GM is presenting and they’re trying to pursue things that would be interesting to their character? Who does the game belong to — the GM or the players?

Think back on the favorite games that you’ve ever played or run. I know mine have always been a beautiful mix of the best of a GM’s prep and skill combined with players elevating the game in exciting and unexpected ways. 

Of course, the answer is ‘both’. If everyone at the table isn’t having fun, then something is wrong with the game. Now, the specifics of what’s wrong could be any number of things. Yes, it is possible the GM is being inflexible and railroading their players through a game that isn’t nearly as engaging or interesting as they thought it would be. And yes, it’s equally possible the players are being deliberately obtuse and disregarding the time and effort the GM put into prepping the game they’re playing. Over the years, I’ve seen both of these extremes happen but usually most examples fall somewhere in the middle.

As with most things, it’s not a black and white situation and the middle ground is super broad and very fuzzy. Think back on the favorite games that you’ve ever played or run. I know mine have always been a beautiful mix of the best of a GM’s prep and skill combined with players elevating the game in exciting and unexpected ways. Unless you’re one of those GM’s that craves absolute control or one of those players that craves pure chaos, your favorite games are probably also a similar mix of what both sides bring to the table.

On the GM’s Side…

A friend complained not too long ago that he was seeing a lot of advice in various RPG communities that was essentially telling GMs they should always just roll with whatever the players want to do, even if that completely disregards the setting or plot the GM had prepped for the game. Having talked to a fair number of GMs, I know how absolutely frustrating that advice is when you’re no longer having fun running games. While we are there to bring an entertaining game to the table, our fun shouldn’t be completely disregarded in favor of the players.

At the same time, if we’re not cognizant of the players’ expectations and running a game without their engagement in mind, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. No matter how awesome our ideas as GMs are, if they’re not offering the players an opportunity to add their own flavor and change the game world, we’re essentially asking them to just sit there and be an audience to our greatness. In addition, no matter how excited you are about a game or campaign idea, if the players you’re presenting it to are lukewarm on the idea you’re unlikely to get a very good game out of it. Not every game is meant for every group of players. If you want a high intrigue game of politics and mystery and your players just want to blow off some steam by cracking jokes and punching evil in the face, you’re both going to end up frustrated.

On the Player’s Side…

Tug-of-war might be fun, but fighting between the players and GM isn’t.

Players aren’t completely innocent in this equation. I’ve seen plenty of players who think messing around with the GM’s plan is the height of entertainment, so they go out of their way to screw up any perceived plot. This is always a little sad but funny when I run a Powered by the Apocalypse style game and mostly run improv style. There are also players who get wrapped up in their own ideas to the point that they’re trying to slam the square peg of their character into the round hole of the GM’s planned game. Players absolutely can make or break a game by their willingness to engage with what the GM is presenting.

Now, this isn’t to say players should just lay down and take it when a GM is running a bad game, and no one should feel forced to play a game they’re not interested in. There are times when a game is just bad and any fun you get out of it as a player is going to be what you make of it for yourself with the other players. Or, sometimes a GM’s logic behind their scenario fails and the players make the game go sideways through no ill intent on their part. If I am completely honest with myself, I’m a horrible player to have at the table when I’m not enjoying a game. My impatience is obvious and I don’t hesitate to call out things that are making the game less fun for everyone at the table. Diplomacy isn’t always my best skill.

It’s OUR Table…

What can we do to avoid this tug-of-war between GM’s and players? Neither the players nor the GM have a game if the other half of the equation isn’t there, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to figure this balance out.


  • Be clear with your players about what your expectations for the game are. Explaining the tone and principles of the game up front, regardless of whether you’re starting a campaign or running a one-shot, is going to help get everyone on the same page right at the beginning.
  • Give your players very explicit character creation guidelines and stick by them. Allow them the flexibility to create someone they’re going to enjoy playing, but don’t feel pressured to let a player build a character that won’t fit the game. You’ll regret it from the moment play starts.
  • Be flexible and learn how to think on your feet when your players aren’t engaging with things the way you expected. You can lead your players to a plot hook, but you can’t make them bite. Every GM makes an occasional misjudgment on what is interesting for the players, so we all learn to adjust when needed.


  • Don’t agree to play games you know aren’t your cup of tea. While I encourage everyone to stretch their horizons with new games, you know yourself best and will know when you’re not going to have fun with a game.
  • When you do agree to play a game, play the game the GM is bringing to the table. Find a way to balance a character you’ll enjoy with the setting and tone of the game. Talk with the GM and work out what you’re hoping to get out of the game with what they’re bringing to the table.
  • Remember that your fun at the table is dependent on the fun of everyone else at the table, including the GM. Figure out how to facilitate your own fun while drawing in the other players and even with the plot the GM is dangling in front of you. Do that and it will make you a player any GM wants at their table.

Ultimately, roleplaying games are a collaborative hobby.  Bring out the best in both the players and the GM and your game will be an amazing thing you and everyone else at the table will be talking about for a very long time.

What are your experiences with finding the balance between the GM’s fun and the player’s fun? I’d love to hear your stories.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

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Categories: Game Theory & Design

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Categories: Game Theory & Design

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