Exploring Worlds Through Dungeons & Dragons

Josh Spears opens up about what D&D did for him and considers what, in turn, it can do for his learners.

2001. I am in Year 9- a neurodivergent, book loving, mostly friendless boy. I manage to fall in with a group of nerds who, after a month of slow acceptance invite me to play a game with them. It’s called Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve heard about it, even played a computer game based on its rules. I am excited to try it.

It changes my life.

I suddenly have this outlet for my creativity that before was mostly spent out trying to talk to my parents (disinterested but supportive) about the fantasy books I was reading. I learned social skills. No really, I had to learn them! I am neurodivergent with ‘ias and ‘ism’s plastered across my educational psychology report and being able to talk to people was never something I was fully capable of doing. Now though, I had this game, this wonderful game in which you created a character from rules (rules are awesome) but unlike a video game or a board game or a book you could make them feasibly do anything, as long as you could explain how and roll a dice to determine how well (or how badly) you could do it.

I kept playing D&D throughout my time at school and sixth form with this

colourful game dice rolling out of a bag

Photo by Alperen Yazgı on Unsplash

same group of friends. I also learned there were other games like D&D you could play. The term for games like these is TTRPGs- Tabletop Roleplaying Games and whether you liked typical Tolkienesque sword-and-board fantasy or sci-fi grim-darkness in the form of Games Workshop’s Inquisitor, there was so much out there to expand my creativity and bond with my friends.

Through these games, I explored worlds. Met people real and not (lovingly improv’d by the Games Master who ran the session) and developed my creativity into a passion for writing. It gave me culture and experience.

So in 2017-2018, in my second year of teaching GCSE English Language Re-Sit to FE students, when I noticed that they struggled with creative writing I had an idea: Could I use TTRPGs to deliver creative education?

It took some begging at first. My boss at that time was a wonderful woman- she’d given me my first break as a teacher after all- but she was dubious. Mostly because she’s as far from a nerd as I am from being a lead striker for Manchester United. I said I would organise it, sort the room, sacrifice my admin time. She agreed and I set about recruiting students. This was easier than you might think-nerds know nerds and I’d already sown some seeds of interest when teaching the creative writing element of Paper 1. You might think these students would have been from the more geeky subjects too- but they weren’t! I had 1 young lad doing carpentry and two girls from hair and beauty. My student teacher also joined in. The game we chose to play was Pathfinder- an evolved form of D&D I had played at their age. Every week, on a Tuesday afternoon we all rolled dice and told stories- with me as the Games Master dictating how the world was and the consequences of their actions and the students as the players.

Of course, I had to embed English though! I had them keep a journal but from the viewpoint of their characters. I’d check it every week, award bonus items in the game to the best entries (often just awarding one to everyone because they were so good). The storyline for the game that I had written was that the players were tracking down the daughter of a noble family. They had to talk (in character) to leads, face down monsters on the road and come up with ideas for where to go next. They travelled hundreds of miles across the map in game and met new cultures, stood on well described mountaintops to gaze at fantastic vistas. I had, at least I hoped I had, inspired them to be a bit more creative.

Then results day came…

Dungeons and Dragons table top game items including a box with insignia, a selection of dice and completed character sheets

They all passed!

One of them with a grade 9 in their creative writing (up from a grade 2).

I had proved that Tabletop Roleplaying Games made students more creative. So I was allowed to continue.

2018-2019 was much the same, good kids, creativity flared up. Not all of them passed the exam but I had more players. They even mentioned me in the student survey and how much the club had done for their mental health. More interest grew! Staff were recommending the club to students they thought would benefit.

2019- I changed it up. I started running a new TTRPG that my friends and I were playing. It is called Traveller. It’s a sci-fi game, but it has a twist. Rather than like in Pathfinder or D&D, where you freely pick your characters race and class (Elf Warrior, Human Paladin etc) in Traveller you’d roll a few stats (like how strong you were, how well educated) then pick from a huge list of careers (from space pilot, to secret agent) and roll a dice to see if you got into that career. If you failed, you became a wandering drifter. If you passed, hooray for you! You repeated this process a few times, each set of rolls equalling 4 years of your character’s life. Each time you could choose a new career or stay in the one you’re in. Events were rolled. Players loved it, because they had to make stories up on the spot about how they’d react, why they chose the skills they got.

It was awesome. The majority of players that year were from Public Services, thanks to my once student teacher being a principal lecturer in that department.

Then Covid hit. The game stopped. It would be 2021 until we picked it up again.

My time separate from running the game got me thinking though. Was the games club just improving their creative writing, or were they able to grow as people by playing, like I had once done? Anyone familiar with me knows for the last couple of years I have been researching and talking (when allowed!) about the subject of Cultural Poverty. Our learners are not reaching out to be their best authentic selves because they have no ambition (far from it!) but because they do not know what is out there for them to grasp. One of my players, a space-obsessed quiet lad, didn’t know that university offered a course in astrology or that he could apply. One learner was battling with gender identity and they used Pathfinder as a way to play a male identifying barbarian.

This year during the reboot of games club, I had the largest but most needy group I’ve ever had the honour to play with. We know Covid had a huge impact on social skills and anxiety. So I made my campaign very social-skills focused, with bursts of action, in a science fantasy setting called Starfinder. I watched as socially awkward, creatively neglected students, 7 of them from different courses and identities, learned to work together, to tell stories, to make decisions. The last session we played, where they had to infiltrate and destroy a base of operations run by evil robots, saw bluffing and critical thinking that would have made Ian Flemming smile. All this from learners who could barely look me in the eye at the start of the year, or write more than a line or two of creative practice.

Tabletop Roleplaying Games help to alleviate cultural poverty. They bring hope and happiness to learners, cement friendships and give practitioners new ways to teach. It may seem daunting to learn, but all things are at first.

Give it a go;

you may change a learner’s future. 

Josh Spears


Josh Spears is a resit English Lecturer at Darlington College. He has been researching the hidden epidemic of Cultural Poverty in our learners for the ETF and how the English GCSE programs need to change to eliminate it.