Tabletop RPGs and Learning

Tabletop RPGs and Learning

August 16, 2021 0 By gameschoolcoop

Dr. Brain MacDonald looks at using TTRPGs in a learning environment.

Tabletop RPGs and Learning

by Dr. Brian MacDonald


Tabletop roleplaying games are increasingly being used as teaching tools and in therapy offices to help with problem-solving, social skills, logical thinking, and storytelling. For example, one recent game, Quest! Adventure Game (, is a rule set specifically designed to teach social pragmatics and social-emotional learning skills. The television show Stranger Things introduced a new generation to a classic RPG that was played by the characters in the first episode.


What are roleplaying games?

Roleplaying games are basically group storytelling activities. One player is a Game Master or Dungeon Master who provides the background, story, and setting, and acts as all of the background characters or villains that the other players meet throughout the game. Each player controls a character with statistics and abilities that are set up before the game. More experienced players or GMs might create detailed backstories for their characters.

Sometimes a map or board is used to help the players to visualize locations and situations, but often the games take place only in the imagination. Situations have to be described in ways that help the players to visualize them. Between the settings and stories created by the GM and the backstories created by the players, RPGs provide lots of opportunities for developing writing skills. The story continues as players react to the events and characters thrown at them by the GM. These often require players to solve puzzles or riddles. Sometimes games play out almost like an escape room.

Often games involve combat with evil creatures that the players have to defeat, but creative GMs can help the players to emphasize non-combat solutions also. I’ve played sessions that required one player to win a card game, while the others had to look out for cheating opponents. Scenarios often involve rolling dice, adding skill bonuses, and comparing the results to a difficulty number determined by the GM. This adds some randomness and the possibility that players could fail in their mission.

The most popular RPG is probably Dungeons & Dragons. D&D was the original roleplaying game, first published in 1974. The setting is a medieval fantasy one, but there are also modern games with horror themes (Victorian and present-day), science fiction, superheroes, spies, and cartoon characters. Players can create versions of movie, book, or comic book characters that can be used in their games. My favourite RPG is Torg, which combines multiple genres and allows players to create almost any kind of character. Torg also allows players, and the GM, to mitigate the randomness of die rolls by playing cards or spending points.


What skills can be taught using RPGs?

Storytelling and writing skills are the most immediately apparent abilities exercised by playing RPGs. The stories rarely go completely as expected, since the players can make choices that the GM didn’t anticipate; quick thinking, creativity, and improvisation are required to keep the game fun and interesting even when it doesn’t go exactly as planned. Acting skills can be practiced for a drama class, as players and the GM act out their characters’ interactions. Through good storytelling, players become invested in the characters, which can create emotional moments: shock when the players are betrayed by someone they thought they could trust, sadness when a favourite character doesn’t survive the dungeon, and pride when a challenging scenario is overcome. 

Spatial skills can be developed if maps are used; the maps are overlaid with a grid to measure range and distances for movement. Creating maps is an excellent artistic exercise that also requires spatial planning. In middle school, I ran games for my friends and spent rainy afternoons drawing dungeons or wilderness maps for them to explore. Logical thinking and planning ahead are often required for GMs and players, for creating and solving the problems that pop up in the adventures.

The character creation process can be a mathematical exercise as players and the GM attempt to create the coolest or most useful characters. Some games use die rolls to set character attributes, but many involve distributing points among attributes, such as strength or intelligence, and skills, such as combat or lockpicking. It can be tough for players to prioritize where to spend these points since there are never enough to go around. I played a game in high school that allowed players to choose disadvantages so they could add some points to their character in a different area. Players could spend an afternoon creating their avatar for the game, or the GM could create all of the characters for the players. Some players draw their characters. Champions character sheets had a figure drawn on them so players could design their hero’s costumes.

The setting of a game can also provide factual information to the players, if the GM chooses to make it realistic. Greek and Roman mythologies are popular in many RPGs, but Flames of Freedom is an upcoming historical fantasy RPG set in the American Revolution. 

Social problem solving can also be practiced by designing scenarios that require them. Even in the earliest days of RPGs, which stayed closer to their board game roots, players had to figure out how to divide the loot they found on their adventures. I’ve played sessions involving orchestrating a corporate takeover by convincing shareholders to sell their interest in a company. There was no combat at all – the entire game was about research, persuasion, and spying, along with discussions about the ethics of blackmail. Die rolls were involved but the majority of the game was spent in negotiations between the players and characters controlled by the GM. 

Leadership skills can also be developed through gameplay. The GM is hosting a game and trying to make things fun for the players, and he or she is typically the main organizer of the session. Early RPGs were a competition between the GM and the players, and some GMs bragged about the number of characters that did not survive their adventure. Over time, the games developed into a more cooperative experience, requiring GMs to create scenarios with tension and risk that were fun for everyone. Characters might still fail to make it through a game, but hopefully, their demise can be heroic or an important part of the story. Notably, Torg has a martyr card, allowing a player to sacrifice their character to help the players to overcome a difficult part of an adventure.


In Conclusion

RPGs are extremely flexible since the stories are limited only by the imagination of the players. These games are among the few that I can think of that can be tailored extensively to the tastes and skills of the players. They also encourage players to use their imagination and pretend, while practicing cooperation, artistic skills, and problem-solving. It’s hard to think of a better way to spend a rainy afternoon!


About the Author

Brian MacDonald (Brains on Games), lover of dexterity and medium-weight board games, is by day a psychologist who works with children and families and by night a YouTube Board Game Reviewer. He started his channel to encourage families to build their relationships with their children through play together. He looks at gameschooling as a way for teachers to build strong relationships with their students as well, and then through those relationships, they can make an impact with their teaching.