Working Hard at Play

by Victoria Jesswein published 2022/11/12 09:28:20 GMT-7, last modified 2022-11-12T09:28:20-07:00
by Gwendolyn F.M. Kestrel Many educators acknowledge the learning potential of out-of-school literacies. Here, I'd like to discuss the merits of roleplaying games (RPGs). The genre is very broad with games such as Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, Lord of the Rings, and Stargate SG-1 produced by a variety of companies. The oldest formal roleplaying game is Dungeons & Dragons which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, in 2004. This is the best selling game of its type. Currently, there are over 4 million players worldwide, ranging in age from preteens to senior citizens. These are the players of the paper-based, book product, not the computer game variants. I'll draw my specific examples from the newest edition of the game (version 3.5 published in 2003), but the general points are applicable to any RPG.


What is a Roleplaying Game?

Here, I'm using the term roleplaying game (RPG) as it is customarily used in the hobby game industry. I'm referring to a paper-based game. Each of the players creates a character with numerical ability scores such as Strength, Dexterity, and Wisdom. The game is narrative fiction in nature. The action takes place in the players' minds, often aided by miniatures or game tokens representing the characters, monsters, and terrain.

Most of the participants are players. They each create and run a single character. Each character has a race such as human, elf, or dwarf and a class in which they're trained such as fighter, wizard, or bard.

One participant is the game moderator who acts as the narrator and rules adjudicator. Depending upon the game system, he or she is called the Dungeon Master (DM), Game Master, Keeper, or similar honorific. The DM keeps track of the plot and runs the monsters and nonplayer characters the PCs encounter.

A typical gaming group will have 4-6 players and 1 Dungeon Master. It is a live, face-to-face social activity. While the table-top game and computer game RPGs and MMORPGs resemble each other in many ways, my discussion of the merits of reading and mathematics applies only to the paper-based game since the computer games rely more on visual interfaces and automatically do the mathematical calculations.



Playing a character in a paper-based RPG fosters improvements in reading. The Dungeons & Dragons® Player's Handbook is a mighty 320 page, 8 1/2 by 11 inch book. It's densely packed with text, illustrations, and diagrams. The word density averages out in excess of 900 words per page. Certainly, the average player won't read all of it, just the parts that pertain to the character he or she is creating. Even so, that's quite a bit of text to read. The players read it not just to get through it, as they might a school assignment, but to understand the material at a deep and useable level.

The vocabulary contained in the text would enrich most people's lexicons. For example, in the description of the basic fighter we find that "Human fighters are usually veterans of some military service, typically from mundane parents. Dwarf fighters are commonly former members of well-trained strike teams that protect the underground dwarven kingdoms. They are typically members of warrior families that can trace their lineages back for millennia, and they may have rivalries or alliances with other dwarf fighters of a different lineage . . . " (Player's Handbook, v 3.5, page 38).

For the person who is the game moderator, alternately called a Dungeon Master or Game Master, the reading demands are much greater. In addition to understanding all of the information in the Player's Handbook, there are two other books. The Dungeon Master's Guide talks about running a game and details rules on niche topics as varied as how to adjudicate drowning to the effects of forest terrain on visibility. The Monster Manual has the statistics for creatures ranging from unicorns to werewolves.

The fighter is generally thought of as the simplest character class to play. Even so, it makes heavy demands on a player's arithmetic skills. First, the player looks up her character's base attack bonus. To this, she adds the relevant ability score modifier, which differs between, ranged and melee attacks. Next, she adds in any modifiers for her specific weapons, perhaps because it is of superior, masterwork quality or is magically enhanced. These numbers are recorded and are fixed until her character advances in skill or changes her equipment. This sum is the attack roll modifier. It's what the player adds to the result of her attack die roll, a 20-sided die.

Let's see how this works with a beginning character. Tiberium, a 1st-level fighter has a +1 base attack bonus (found by looking at a chart in the Player's Handbook). The player assigned a score of 16 to his Strength score (he's strong). This gives a +3 modifier to melee attacks (found by looking at a different chart). Tiberium's Dexterity score is only 10 (average). This gives a +0 modifier to ranged attacks. The player equips her fighter with a masterwork longsword which grants a +1 bonus to ranged attack, a regular longbow, 10 regular and 10 masterwork arrows. Here are the results of the calculations

Melee: +5 masterwork longsword
Ranged: +1 longbow (+2 with masterwork arrows)

Even after these semi-fixed bonuses are determined, there are numerous others that arise from tactical play. The fighter charges at the monster. This gives a +2 bonus on the first attack roll. Two characters flank the monster, so each gets a +2 bonus to attack. Cover, higher ground, and other setting aspects also give bonuses or penalties to die rolls. An inspiring bard might give an additional bonus to attack and damage rolls. Spells alter the situation even further. All of these tactical and transitory bonuses are added and subtracted on the fly.

The weapon a player chooses for her character also has a great impact on the mathematics at the table. All weapons do extra damage (a multiplier) on a natural die roll of a 20. Players choose among options that enable them to do multiple damage more often or greater damage when a 20 is rolled. Should Tiberium wield a longsword (damage 1-8, double damage on a natural roll of a 19 or 20), a rapier (damage only 1-6, but double damage on a natural roll of 18, 19, or 20), or a battleaxe (damage 1-8, but triple damage on a natural roll of 20)?

Most players expend substantial amounts of time and thought in such calculations, looking for ways to improve their characters. Many try to min/max (minimize/maximize) their character's potential, making him very good at a few things at the expense of being sub par at others. The economics of the game world, the buying and selling of equipment and treasure layer on additional math.

These mathematical calisthenics are voluntarily undertaken. They're done because they matter to the player. Did your character hit the monster? Adding the fixed and variable bonuses to the die roll matter. Doing it quickly and accurately matters, too. It matters to your character and those of the other players, friends and peers, also participating in the game.

Creative Thinking
Fighting is just one aspect to the game. There are also skills such as Diplomacy or Move Silently that give characters non-combat options. These have rules text associated with them and usually numerical modifiers based on a character's ability scores such as Charisma. Sometimes, the DM will present the players with riddles, codes, or puzzles that they, themselves, have to figure out.

Other Creative Endeavors
Most players carry their interest in the game beyond the time they spend playing it. Many write up backgrounds for their characters, often quite detailed and elaborate. Some gaming groups have one or more people who write up a recap of the adventure. Many choose to post these on personal websites or blogs. These foster a community where people can share their gaming experiences, brag about their victories, and receive sympathy for their defeats.

Many RPG players read books, often fantasy or science fiction. Some players also choose to learn more about history, since most RPGs are set in a medieval society with magic. What's a halberd? A javelin? A falchion? Most RPG players know. Hearing that the British longbow proved superior at the Battle of Hastings, a D&D player might nod knowingly because he knows that in game terms a longbow does up to 8 points of damage while a shortbow only does up to 6. Knowledge of geology will help a player's character adventuring in the depths of the Underdark. Some players might read more about dinosaurs so that their Talenta Plains halfling can have a better mount to ride. In addition to electronic and traditional literacy pursuits, RPG players often enjoy other creative outlets such as painting miniatures to represent characters or creatures. Some draw illustrations of their characters.

Kids and adults will work very hard when something matters to them. Roleplaying games provide a fun, challenging, and creative outlet. They offer a myriad of ways to improve literacy and basic mathematic skills. It's learning through play.

About the author

Gwendolyn Kestrel works full-time as a games designer. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in Education with an emphasis in Cognitive Studies at the University of Washington. Feel free to contact her at .

©March 2005 New Horizons for Learning

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