Instruction in the Responsible Conduct of Dungeons & Dragons

I’ve just finished working on a grant for my day job which would create a program for training emergency medicine physicians to do clinical research. One thing this means is I’ll have more time for posting. Another is that my head is full of phrases from the bureaucratese you use to communicate with the National Institutes of Health.

NIH policy says that any time you want them to give you money for a research training program, you have to demonstrate that it will include instruction in the responsible conduct of research. This means that one of the things you’re required to teach is ethics, or why you shouldn’t intentionally infect Guatemalan prisoners with venereal disease.

Last night, as we were preparing for the third Dungeons & Dragons afterschool class, James and I decided that it was time for some instruction in the ethics of roleplaying games. We decided to go about it by breaking up the kids into discussion groups before we get down to playing.

The first thing we’ll do is to have the kids talk about a time that their character made a mistake, and what happened as a result. After everyone’s answered, we’ll ask: Did you have fun when that happened?

If the consensus is yes, making mistakes is as fun as succeeding because it makes exciting and unexpected things happen, we’ll move on to the message: Since making mistakes is part of the fun, you don’t have to listen when someone else tells you what your character should do. There’s no right way that they know and you don’t; it’s all about making your own decisions and enjoying the consequences.

For the second discussion, we’ll switch from talking about the game to talking about real life. Here’s a list of things that have happened to everyone; talk about one time it happened to you.

  • You were excluded; other people went off and did something in secret, intentionally keeping you out of it.
  • You made a mistake and other people yelled at you and tried to make you feel stupid.
  • You were put down; someone acted like they were better, smarter, more powerful than you.
  • You were robbed; someone cheated you out of something you had, or the share you deserved.
  • You were attacked; someone used words or violence to try to hurt you.

The message here is that it feels bad when these things happen in real life. D&D is not real life, but it still feels bad when someone treats you badly. Playing a role-playing game is a way to have fun with your friends; treating one another badly makes it less fun for everyone.

The last idea I’ve had is that I don’t have a lot of control over who these kids are. Everything that some young boys do is going to become an acting-out of their pecking order and its internal struggles for dominance over one another. Some boys are going to be attracted to D&D because quantifying the abilities of their alter ego gives them a tool in this struggle: I’m better than you because my character can beat up your character, thanks to this 18 ability score I “rolled” or the optimized choices I made.

What I do have some control over is what characters the kids play. The world of D&D is a dangerous place; in order to survive long enough to become a hero, your character had to become a trustworthy team player. Trying to enforce pro-social behavior will drive me nuts; encouraging the roleplaying of a pro-social character is what the game is all about.

10 Responses to “Instruction in the Responsible Conduct of Dungeons & Dragons”

  1. 1 Naked
    October 7, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    Everything that some young boys grown men do is going to become an acting-out of their pecking order and its internal struggles for dominance over one another.

  2. 2 Naked
    October 7, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    That said, I love what you guys are doing. Would there were a million more of you.

  3. 3 Tavis Allison
    October 7, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    James & I agreed that what changes with age isn’t the primate hierarchy, it’s just that for most, around puberty D&D stops being the ideal way to show your dominance over your peers.

  4. 4 Ryan Browning
    October 7, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    Heh – oh, how I wish I had an afterschool D&D program when I was a kid. This is awesome, Tavis. Makes me wonder if my kids will get into it or just auto-equate RPing to lameness since dad does it!! Is there any escaping that, once they become pre-teens?

  5. 5 Invincible Overlord
    October 7, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Great stuff! Please take copious notes, because then I could pass them off as my own in a thesis for my Ed Masters. Try to work in state standards and Vygotsky too. ty

    But seriously, that should have some affect! Not to be underestimated: straight up telling people (including small people): “Yeesh, I know you’re not a bad guy, but that’s a bad thing to do, it makes everyone mad at each other. Just be cool.” and not integrating the proposed action into the play reality — editing.

  6. October 7, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    Tavis –

    If you get any more insights on how to gently teach ethics through a game let us know. I personally know games run better through team play. Maybe one thing to do is just set a strong norm. Say they are all on a team. Have an “Oathstone” everyone swears by. Individuality will come out naturally – it’s cooperation that needs to be encouraged.

    I also have some recent thoughts on my blog about what kind of morality a player might bring to the table and how alignment can reflect that.

  7. 7 Charlatan
    October 7, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    This strays into reasons why I’m bad with kids:

    “Hey guys! Before we play today, I thought we’d talk a little about social psychology and game theory. Who knows what a positive externality is?”

  8. October 7, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    @ Tavis, I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it today. My daily work schedule consists of nothing but wandering monster encounter checks, and it makes it hard to plan things. I am going to try to reserve time for the next two weeks,

  9. October 8, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    @James, no problem! Next week we have both girls volunteering to DM, so mentorship will be welcome – based on my experience mentoring a newbie DM yesterday, I think we should give an content-learning exercise that the old hands can help the newbies with & spend the time they’re doing that on helping the new DMs get their act together.

    @Charlatan, I’m with you 100%. Knowing a lot about D&D proves to be less important than knowing about classroom crowd control & the other nuts and bolts logistics of being an elementary school teacher.

    @Roger, I’d already been digging your riff on making alignment more gameable. I think those are great for a mature group that’s interested in playing with the parameters of behavior, contrasting ruffians and paladins. In my 3E campaigns, though, tracking alignment points – making them an in-game token – encouraged people to manipulate the tokens in ways that were fun but not kid-safe. And having in-game representations of party cohesion (everyone got outfitted with a mutual phylactery of alignment by their patron), even for grownups, led to a lot of arguments about ‘you’re doing it wrong’. I’m trying to stay out-of-game here (at least in the first two examples I’ve actually used so far) to point out that telling someone they’re not roleplaying their paladin right is as much a dick move as being a party-backstabbing assassin.

    @IO, the biggest problem I had last session turned out not to start with in-game ethics, but rather out-of-game frustration. All the kids feel like the newbie DMs’ games move too slow – both because the new DMs lack the experience and authority to compel attention and keep things rolling ahead, and because even the players who complain “when will it be my turn” are themselves too antsy to stay focused. So when some of the kids were yelling at another for doing distracting stuff like tossing dice across the floor of the classroom & reduced the offender to tears, I had to be simultaneously “hey, you don’t have to be so hostile in telling people to stop doing that” and “you should not throw dice!”

    @Ryan, before I was a parent we joked about putting all the things we wanted our kid to like in a big box with a sign: DO NOT TOUCH. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU USE THE KEY HIDDEN UNDER THIS BOX TO OPEN IT UP AND LOOK INSIDE. Nowadays, though, I feel like modeling through my own behavior that “I don’t care what others think is cool, I just know what I find fun & work hard at doing that as much as I can” is both a potential antidote to losing RPGs in the too-cool stage and a good guide to having a happy life, which is what it’s ultimately about.

  10. October 14, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Sorry for being late to the party, but great post Tavis.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2010

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