Hi, my name is Michael Wolf, author of Stargazer’s World.
Some time ago, Barb, a homeschooling mom from California contacted me. She had read about my background in physics and asked me if I ever had ever thought about combining D&D and science.
For some time she has paid DMs with backgrounds in different scientific fields to run D&D adventures for her son. These adventures were always designed in such a way that they were not only fun to play but also taught the players something about disciplines like biology or computer technology.
She asked me if I would be interested in running a game that would combine D&D with physics. I have to admit that I never thought about the possibility of using roleplaying games as a teaching tool, probably because I am no teacher and I don’t have any kids of my own either. But the idea intrigued me, so I asked her if I could ask her a few questions about her concept.
When I talked with Phil the Chatty DM about this, he immediately offered me to write this post as a guest post for his blog. And I believe that there’s probably no better place on the RPG blogosphere for talking about RPGs for kids than Chatty’s blog.
As a father of two he already introduced both his kids to roleplaying games and his reports about his sessions with Nico are enjoyed by RPG fans all over the world (including even by people without kids).
So without further ado, let’s have a look at what Barb had to say.
Stargazer: Please tell my readers a bit about yourself and what your interest in fantasy roleplaying is.
Barb: I’m a California mom who has homeschooled her son since he was 6. He’s now 13. (I had no intention of homeschooling—I loved school myself and was quite nostalgic for him to start—but teachers, including those in our own family, said homeschooling might be our only real option due to my son’s extreme precocity.) For example, he was reading at age 3, and had quiet an interest in science by age 5. So homeschooling allowed him to pursue his passions at his own pace.
I’m a writer, so of course reading was always a big deal in our house. My son read The Hobbit at age 5, and was reaching for The Lord of the Rings immediately after! I actually put LOTR on a high shelf at that point because I thought the themes were a bit dark for a 5 year old! I also wanted to wait until he was more emotionally mature, so we read it out loud as a family last year, then listened to all the audio versions (unabridged and dramatized) and just finished watching the films–the extended editions. We’re now on about our 30th hour of watching the amazing back stories behind the filming of LOTR and once that’s done we’ll probably watch the films again!
The funny thing is, I loved The Hobbit as a young teen, but like a lot of girls I know, I never got through the Lord of the Rings. I think I stopped part-way through The Two Towers–too many battles for me at that point. But reading it now, with my fantasy-loving son, makes it so much more special and I’ve gained a deep appreciation for Tolkien and his work. But prior to this, I was not a fantasy fan by any stretch–I didn’t even know what D&D or RPGs were until my son discovered them a few years ago. In fact, the first time I saw The Fellowship of the Ring on the screen, I’m embarrassed to say I nearly fell asleep! To me, it just seemed like too many hours of special effects. Funny how much my perspective has changed since then!
Stargazer: As a home-schooling mom you have hired several DMs before to run roleplaying games for your kids that not only were fun but contained certain elements that were supposed to teach them about topics like biology or computer programming, can you tell us a bit more about how you got that idea?
Barb: Through the years, I’ve definitely developed a “whatever works” philosophy in regard to homeschooling, and in our family we’ve found that giving our son the freedom to follow his interests seems to lead to the most positive results. There’s a lot to it (you can check out the work of John Holt if you’re interested) but basically it comes down to the belief that we are all born curious and hungry to learn, and being respectful of what a child wants to learn and how he wants to learn it can go a long way in helping a child’s overall education. I’ve found that letting my son follow his passions often leads to the deepest learning.
Stargazer: How did your kid react when you told him, that you wanted to use D&D as a teaching tool. Did he fear that would ruin the game or was he thrilled to learn while playing?
Barb: Never told him!
Stargazer: Did your son play D&D before or was he introduced to the game by you?
Barb: He discovered it at a friend’s house. I’d barely heard of it! And like so many parents, I was initially concerned by the gruesome images, etc. and the oft-told stories of negative influences. But I could also tell my son was hooked, big time, and so I invested some time in research to find out what it was really all about. Once I talked to a number of adult D&D players, many of whom said it was D&D that got them through their teenage years, I felt good about throwing my support behind my son’s interest in it. From that point, I just did what I could to help him find D&D groups. That, of course, and providing the books!
Stargazer: Do you play or have you played any roleplaying games in the past? And if so, what is your favorite game?
Barb: Nope. I’ve never played RPGs and I’m very ho hum about games in general, though I enjoy Scrabble from time to time. I much prefer to ride my skateboard! I did attempt to get into D&D when my son fell in love with it. My husband, too. Unfortunately it turned out to be more frustrating than not for our son, since no matter what we tried, we could not find an enthusiasm for it. But we loved that he loved it, and support it for that reason.
Stargazer: You currently use roleplaying games as a teaching tool for in an homeschooling enviroment? Do you think something like that could be used in public schools, too?
Barb: I have heard that there is a school in Denmark (or is it Sweden? sorry!) that uses RPG as a large part of its curriculum. We’ve also gotten to know Becky Thomas at The Roleplaying Workshop in Oakland, Calif. Becky was a teacher who used RPGs to boost science instruction. She ended up leaving teaching and set up her own business (www.roleplayingworkshop.com)
I also recruited a Stanford doctoral student who is studying educational gaming. Unfortunately, he lives 400 miles from us, but I helped set him up with other families I know in that area, and now they are doing a D&D group based on number theory. Very cool.
Stargazer: When we first talked, you told me that some DMs you contacted were opposed to the idea of using their hobby to teach science etc. to kids, why do you think they reacted that way? Did you expect something like that?
Barb: Well, I can understand any purist’s point of view. I mean, there were Tolkien enthusiasts who never wanted The Lord of the Rings to be turned into a movie. Apparently they couldn’t bear to have anyone visually interpret Tolkien’s work. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion!
So it didn’t surprise me all that much to have D&D fanatics react negatively to the idea of me want to (gasp) pay people to DM for my kid and his friends. They saw it as a corruption kind of thing. That’s fine. But the way I see it, I treat it like a tutoring job. I pay people to be professional, to show up on time, to take the situation seriously. Just as I would a music teacher or a sports coach or a math tutor. Plus, frankly there aren’t a lot of adults who want to volunteer 4-5 hours each week to work with kids. So, while our DMs don’t make a fortune, they walk away from each session with enough pocket money for a nice meal out for two.
Stargazer: Thanks for answering a few questions for us.
So Barb’s concept not only allows kids to learn something while playing their favorite roleplaying game, it also provides an income opportunity for GM with a background in science and/or teaching. When I first heard about this, I thought it was a great idea. But I have to admit I have no idea how I would for example pull of something like a D&D game that teaches physics (Chatty DM: Make puzzles and traps based on the laws of Mechanics and Optics for starters).
But I believe teaching history for example would work great in the roleplaying enviroment. You could easily set your game into ancient Greece or Rome for example. When you try to get all the historical details right you automatically teach your players about that time period without forcing something on them.
In a modern or SF game, scientific topics or computer science could play a major role of your adventure. Barb mentioned that in one Star Wars game someone ran for her son, the players had to use a simple programming language to give orders to some droids to perform certain tasks.
The possibilities are endless and as long as the teaching part is not distracting from the fun, this could be a perfect combination if you run games for kids.
So, what are your thoughts on that matter? Have you ever tried to combine teaching kids with roleplaying games? Would you consider running a game for Barb’s son or are you opposed to using your favorite hobby for anything else than having fun? As always I am very interested in your thoughts, so please let your voices be heard in the comments section.
By the way, Barb is still interested in getting in touch with DMs that are willing to run educational roleplaying games for her son. If you are interested, let me know, I will try to get you in touch.