Roll Initiative, or: Why Dungeons and Dragons is the Ultimate Cross-Curricular Opportunity

It’s dark and hot in the roughly carved stone tunnels, and I’m two hit points away from dying.

The orc is coming on strong, barreling down on me with a morning star raised high in the air, its points already wet with my blood. My sword is in my hand and I slash up at him with desperate motions. I can’t die here. I won’t.

I roll a 16 and connect, knocking him back and down, and it’s sweeter than sweet.

I’ve been a nerd for as long as I can remember. In second grade I hid my (surprisingly shiny) collection of X-Men trading cards from prying eyes. In seventh, it was a black marble notebook full of X-Files fanfiction (it needed to be written.) It wasn’t until college, and my first exposure to comics as culture that I started to realize a shocking fact: it was okay to be a geek. In fact, it was actually pretty fun.

Fast forward ten years, and geek chic is going strong. Being into fandom or other historically “nerdy” things has become normalized in a lot of ways. My kids are eager to come in and show me a fanart or video on Tumblr, excited to talk “Doctor Who” theories and “Sherlock” reviews, or recommend a new anime movie or series in a way I never would have felt comfortable confiding in my middle and high school teachers.

Their confidence has lent me some of my own, and allowed me to take a step far nerdier than high-school me would ever have admitted to. I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons (and I love it.)

Not only do I love it, but the longer I play it, the more I’m convinced that we’ve been overlooking a valuable tool in teaching morality and teamwork for the past forty years. Want to help your students understand the consequences of their actions, work together, think imaginatively? Create and participate in a narrative? Make cost-benefit analyses? Become part of a team and learn to collaborate for the benefit of the group?

Dungeons & Dragons, my friend. One of the best, cheapest, most adaptable group work and gaming opportunities this side of the 1970s.

Not convinced?


It’s Easy to Be Age Appropriate

One of the hardest things I’ve found with running a video game club is finding age-appropriate, four person games that don’t bore the kids. But D&D is easy to cater to any age, and because it’s all about the power of IMAGINATION it’s violence is less graphic. Few people are going to be concerned over the age appropriateness of a ranger killing an evil worg, and the images are only as graphic as each student’s mind wants to make them.  And if you’re DMing, you can steer the adventure every step of the way to keep it in a place where you and your players feel comfortable.


It’s Got Endless Curriculum Tie-Ins

For any game, players are expected to (at the very least):

-Create a character and a back story. This is like a creative writing/art exercise, only with vested interest beyond a grade– if I set my character as this type, with these limitations and these skills, this will determine how hard or easy the game is to play as I go forward. So it makes sense for me to take the time to weigh the pros and cons, talk to my friends and DM to get any information I need, and plan well.

-Choose and design their character to personalize them. Have a 3D printer that you are just itching to use for something fun? How cool would it be to have your kids make models of the their characters/tools/dice and then get them printed out?

-Decide what they want to carry on them and keep track of how much weight they’re carrying. There is a lot of math in this game. Your character type can only carry 40 lbs without moving slower? Then I guess the 20 lbs of chain mail aren’t in your future. You want to carry three weeks of dry rations? Here’s what they weigh. As you eat, drink, drop things, shoot arrows, change clothes, leave behind equipment, it’s up to you to update your sheet appropriately and keep track of your own inventory.

-Make moral and ethical decisions about how to treat other players and characters they encounter. Ethics class wants to have a larger discussion on society, morality, and responsibility? You’ve found a dungeon full of goblins begging to be released, claiming maltreatment by the guards. Goblins are traditionally evil, but you’re getting the sense these guys are in some real trouble. Do you let them out? All of them? Only some of them?

-Decide where you’re going and how you’re getting there. Some of the best maps I’ve seen are D&D maps. The world you create for D&D can be as small or as massive as your imagination. Being able to read and keep track of where you are, judge distances, and prepare for terrain is hugely important.

It’s Cheap

A video game console may cost hundreds, with games ranging from $10-60. A set of game dice costs less than $10. Books to help you lead the journey and help your group understand what they’re doing can be found second hand for cheap, with many available online as PDFs and EPUB files. Beyond that, all you need is a room, a table, some comfy seating, pencils and paper, and time. (And snacks. Snacks are always a good decision.)


It Encourages Research

I’m a paladin. Something about them appeals to me– their moral unimpeachabl, their noble stupidity. I admire their windmill tilling, even as I struggle to do the “right” thing instead of the “smart” thing. At first I played knowing only what I heard from my DM, but once I started looking into the books upon books about paladins and fighters, I fell in love with the character.

I’m going to get a noble soul-bonded steed! And I’ll be able to turn zombies good! And if I can stay noble long enough, I get to do magic! The more I learned, the more invested I became in the game, and the more fun I had. And the better I got at playing the game. Oh, hey, there’s a goblin over there– I can tell because I can detect evil in a certain radius. ‘Cuz I’m a paladin, that’s right.


It’s Fun

Think of D&D as the best interactive story time hour of your life and go from there. You’ll build entire levels only to have the kids explore one room and move on. You’ll be shocked by their creative thinking in trying to get out of bad situations, their willingness to help each other out in the game and how that translates to real life. You’ll have so much fun you won’t know why everyone hasn’t been playing this game for years.

And more importantly, you’ll reinforce that most wonderful of lessons to your kids: that it’s OK to be a little silly, play games and have fun, and indulge in your nerdy passions. If more kids grew into adults who had learned that lesson, the world would be a much more chill place.


Are you dice gaming with your kids already? Do you have a D12 in your back pocket at all times? Or do you think I’m spouting nonsense? Chime in below and join the quest!

3 thoughts on “Roll Initiative, or: Why Dungeons and Dragons is the Ultimate Cross-Curricular Opportunity

  1. Thanks for the interesting re-imagining of D&D. Yes, I can see lots of curricular tie-ins, and I love the aspect that it is ‘all in your head’. Our campus has a new student lead D&D club. “On Paper!” is a big part of this club’s promotion. The kids see it as charmingly retro, the fact that it is ‘unplugged’ gaming at its best.

    • Ditto! I was always curious but never knew anyone who would play/get me started. Fair warning: it’s highly addictive. HIGHLY.

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