“You know what I’ve always wanted to do? Play Dungeons and Dragons.”
Just an offhand comment by a coworker.
“Yeah me too!”
“What about you?”
“I have no idea what that is but sure.”
“We’ll need a Dungeon Master.”
For some unfathomable reason, five heads swiveled to look at me.
“Um… okay, sure.”
And just like that our group was born.
In case you don’t know, Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop role-playing game. Basically, you get together with friends, each of you invents a character, and then your characters explore a world and have adventures together. At its most basic, D&D (as it’s usually abbreviated) is collaborative storytelling.
And none of us had ever played.
A few of us knew what it was and what it could look like from shows like Critical Role or Acquisitions Incorporated. But that’s not the same as playing.
Over the next few months, we (and me especially!) learned the rules of the game and played a few sessions. And the more we played the more we liked it.
By the end of the school year, we were hooked.
We ran a beginner’s module, then I gave “homebrewing” a shot (where you make up your own world and storylines).
Now, a bit over a year later, a few players have moved away and more have joined. I’ve spent some time on the “other side of the screen” as a player and not a Dungeon Master (DM).
And I can safely say that D&D has changed my life … and my teaching. And I’m convinced it can make you a better student.
I’m glad you asked…
How to Plan Better
If nothing else, D&D has taught me how to plan better. At any given session, there are approximately a gazillion different things your players could do.
And will do.
And part of the fun is never really knowing for sure what will happen.
At the same time, you prepare – fights, characters, scenes, action sequences, enemies, dialogue, villains and their motives.
A few DMs will more or less make things up as they go along and don’t really plan at all and it sorta works for them.
Not me – I have to plan. Even if that plan only survives a few minutes of contact with the enem…players.
As a player, planning is similar but different. We’d have to work together to come up with strategies and ideas, whether for travel or a fight. And once things got going they rarely worked perfectly.
But planning, even when we knew the plan was going to disappear, always made us more confident and ready to face whatever DID end up happening.
Same with teaching.
On a given day, I’ll walk into class with a plan.
And then a student will ask a question and the class goes in a totally different direction.
Even as a student, you can make a plan and then *plop* – a new assignment gets dropped in your lap and there goes the plan.
Planning is vitally important. Without planning, there is no way on earth to be a successful teacher. Heck, without planning, you can’t even be a good student.
How to Tell Stories
There’s nothing quite as terrifying as being a DM.
I mean … it’s great. I love it.
But it can be terrifying.
It’s a Thursday as I write this, which means tomorrow I will have five players sitting around my kitchen table, looking at me expectantly and waiting for me to immerse them in a world.
I didn’t invent the world this time. We’re running Wizards of the Coast’s Princes of the Apocalypse campaign. It’s really cool but it’s also massively disorganized and there’s a TON of stuff going on at any given moment.
And it’s up to me to take that and turn it into something memorable.
To tell a story that my players will care about … or rather, to help them tell their own story.
Even as a player, D&D is all about storytelling. During my summer break stint as a player, I had a character named “Ted,” a rather unintelligent barbarian of a dude.
He ended up sacrificing himself to save his fellow adventurers.
As a player, I had to develop Ted and make him into a character who was unique and who the other players would care about. I had to make his story interesting.
As a DM, I have to develop the rest of the world. The feel of a town, the drizzle of rain as an unnatural fog rolls in, the shifty look a shopkeeper gives them as they walk past.
The world has to come alive. If it doesn’t, you’re in for a lousy game.
Much of teaching involves storytelling in some form or another. My history professor in the seminary, Dr. Charles Cox, was an incredible teacher who, every class, would sit and just tell us the story of history. No notes, no textbook.
And we his students fell in love with history because of it.
Teaching is storytelling.
How to Improvise
Like I said earlier, no plan lasts longer than a few minutes when it comes in contact with my players or my students.
Being able to think on my feet is something that does not come naturally to me.
What first helped me with that is my public speaking class in college (I took as a high school dual-enrollment student). But even after that, I was only really okay if I had prepared.
Practice over the years has helped me be comfortable on my feet in front of folks, but I can safely say that D&D has accelerated that progress like few other things ever could.
As a DM I might describe a large common room are and mention some guy playing music quietly in the corner. Just the hired musical help. Something added in for flavor. A player might say, “I’d like to talk to the musician,” and suddenly I’d better be ready to talk AS this guy, knowing his name, background, reason for being there, how he became a musician, how he knows the owner of the place … you get the idea.
As a teacher, you deal with similar out-of-the-blue questions. As students learn, they make connections with what they already know – that’s how we all learn.
What I’m teaching is the same for each student. I can account for that. But I can’t account ahead of time for how students will connect it with their lives.
If I’m lucky, I can plan that aspect of the lesson. By the end of the day when I’m on my fourth section of the same class, I might have an idea of what questions are coming.
But most times?
Thinking on my feet and improvisation.
How to Act
Along with improvisation and storytelling is the whole role-playing aspect of D&D.
Both DMs and players jump into character and, for a short time, become actors at the table.
Some folks are more into this aspect of the game than others. You might have a group like Critical Role, which is composed of voice actors who completely jump into character from the minute the game starts. Or you might have a group that’s significantly less insanely talented, whose players are a bit more laid back in the roleplaying department.
At my table, I’ve noticed that the more I get into character, the more my players do.
And I see it in my classroom, too.
I heard somewhere recently that “teaching is acting” and there’s an element of truth to that.
No matter what’s going on outside the classroom, when teachers walk into a classroom, it all drops and we assume the character of Teacher. Hopefully an enthusiastic, awesome teacher.
One of my favorite stories to illustrate this is actually about Charlie Chaplin, who was a master impersonator and actor. A friend of his walked into a party to find Chaplin singing beautiful opera – a surprise indeed. After he finished, the astounded friend went up to him and said, “I didn’t know you could sing!”
“I can’t sing at all,” replied Chaplin. “I was only imitating Caruso.”
How to Be a Fair Judge
In any given D&D game, you’ll always end up with various bits of rule adjudication.
The nice thing about the game is that the rules themselves say, “We’re more like guidelines than actual rules.”
As those rules come in contact with players – players who all have different goals – it’s up to the DM to interpret them in a fair way.
To say, “Yeah, you know what – that’s cool enough we’ll dispense with the rule for now. Rule of Cool for the win!”
And also to say, “Man … that’d be neat, but it can’t work with the rules. Sorry.”
The rules of the game allow for a smooth experience, where everyone knows what’s expected of them.
So do the rules of a classroom.
No cell phones.
That’s a rule in our school and in my classroom.
It’s there for a reason – to help students not be distracted so that they learn better.
It’s annoying having to confiscate students’ phones, but being a fair adjudicator means I have to enforce the rules.
And at the same time, it means that when a student says, “Oh! Um… can I set an alarm on my phone so I remember to study this when I get home?” I have to be flexible enough to say, “Go ahead.”
You Get Out What You Put In
You’ve probably heard “you get out what you put in.” It’s true for D&D … and for teaching, AND for being a student.
I’ve noticed that, when I run a session for my players, if I go full ham and really get into a character, they respond in kind.
Same in the classroom … there’s very little that can compete with enthusiasm.
Here’s the thing: this all works as a student, too.
Being a star student requires good planning, flexibility, enthusiasm and (let’s be honest) sometimes a bit of acting, too.
I’m not saying you need to go out right now and play D&D.
But I’m pretty confident in saying that if you do (especially if you decide to be a Dungeon Master – I didn’t know the game when I started either), you WILL become a better teacher.
And you WILL become more flexible as a student, too.
Let’s put it this way: when you’re used to dodging fireballs and arrows, dodging a school-grade life curveball gets just a wee bit easier.
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