Game Mastering & Teaching: Might They Be Related?

As a grade-school teacher who plays role-playing games (RPGs) a lot, I am convinced that game mastering gives great teaching experience and teaching gives great game mastering experience. The correlation between the two has been growing inside my head from a weird thought into a strong thesis since I began my studies, around the same time I began my journey in game mastering.

It all started with small humorous comparisons between my teachers’ mistakes or successes and classic game masters’ conundrums. Jokes that kept coming, each time more accurate, succeeded by identifying various game master (GM) behaviors with those of my teachers. After years of this, it became just impossible not to take the equivalences seriously. Today I’m here to talk about the inputs I got from it.

Firstly, for what purpose would anyone want to detect the matches between education and role-playing games? Having witnessed this knowledge helps not only me, but also educators who don’t play RPGs, as well as players who are not interested in education, I’m confident it is a useful tool for anyone who is open to using it.

So, how do you use this tool, this knowledge? In Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that a path to better understanding what a just soul is would be to imagine a just city; the knowledge of the bigger thing would make it easier to recognize and understand the smaller. The relation I’m promoting between education and role-playing games is rather alike, save that this one goes both ways. Understanding aspects of education helps to understand aspects of role-playing games and vice versa.

Countless times the way to the solution of a teaching problem, be it others’ or mine, became clearer by comparing it to things I learned through role-playing games. Likewise, I often find inspiration to solve problems at the game table through what I’ve seen and studied about education.

Even if you’re not a teacher or teacher-to-be, you can make these connections. You’ve almost certainly been a student! Trying to think of your teachers’ behaviors and problems, or merely of classroom situations and your opinions on them, can give you some extra insight into dealing with similar issues at the game table.

Be aware that this equivalence is not unique or incredible. It is not perfect equality, and it is probably possible to trace similar parallels between RPGs and most other activities involving people or crowds. Still, these associations have served me many good fruits, enough so that I will share them.

D&D Starter Set

The Starter Set

For your buy-in, let’s run by the most noticeable, those similarities quickly clarified. 

  • Planning ahead
  • Getting to know the people involved
  • Trying to discern what they like and what will catch their eyes
  • Adapting what you planned
  • Presenting it to them
  • Improvising based on their reactions
  • Attempting to deduce some sort of feedback or even pleading them for it

Any teacher or game master will probably recognize these steps in their activities. The trick is shifting from considering these aspects of education and role-play gaming as two separate things; to viewing them as applications of some broader skills to different activities, in doing that you take advantage of your practice of one activity on another.

Gaming Styles

Growing up, we experience lots of different teaching methods. Some educators write everything on the board, others never touch it, some will like to stick to the book, while others will pull references from everywhere. The physical conditions and class topics may also affect these tactics: if the school doesn’t have projectors, if it’s close to a museum, if the topic can be better taught through experiments, songs, or other special activities. Ideally, the students influence this as well, with the teacher adapting while getting to know and understand them. All these things yield different approaches to education.

The same goes for role-playing games, some game masters will prefer to focus on one thing or another, to ignore one thing or another. What is physically available (paper grids, minis, soundtrack, GM screen) and the game system used also will shape gameplay. The players’ feedback and reactions will definitely play a part as well.

Everyone will almost certainly have favorite teachers, favorite game systems, favorite subjects, favorite homebrew rules, or favorite approaches. But no method is definitive or perfect. Educators working through opposite philosophies can be adored by their students just the same. The favorite game system will probably change, and to a much different system sometimes.

In school, and in life, we have to learn not to let ourselves be controlled by the “Mercer effect” (when players, and sometimes the GM themselves, expect the game master to act like Critical Role’s Matthew Mercer). We have to accept, embrace, be open and learn to work through our differences. And now there is more than one good approach to teaching, game mastering, playing, to anything really.

Art by: Jonas De Ro (https://www.instagram.com/jonas_dero/)

Sandbox and Railroading

Getting more specific, I bring a classic RPG discussion: sandboxing versus railroading. By now, almost everyone sees railroading as a bad practice, which is to force your players into the awesome inflexible story you thought of, and they will be just interacting with a movie you created. But it’s also known there can be a level of sandbox that’s “too far”; ultimate freedom risks the game going nowhere and feeling random (which can be fun, but not everyone’s cup of tea) as if the sandbox had nothing but actual sand in it.

In education, everyone’s seen a class or teacher that simply spits out content, with little to no room for student input. It’s explicit how this can cause the students to slumber, look into the teacher’s face while thinking of something else, or get distracted by just about anything. Meanwhile, give the classroom full power of interaction and a teacher might end up stuck explaining a tiny thing over and over, teaching something else entirely or nothing at all, which might not be your goals. It might even not be all the students’ goals, in case only one very vocal student “hangs onto the mic”. This leads us to another problem.

The Spotlight

Also commonplace amidst RPG talks is “the spotlight”. Folks usually say a good game master will balance the time each player is the focus, giving them all the same chances to shine, enabling the same shots at having fun moments, enabling space for participation and dealing with potential “spotlight hogs”.

Although it may look like the spotlight will invariably enhance the fun for who’s in it, experienced teachers can tell you that’s not always the case. While some students might be more attentive and focused on the class if successfully brought to interact with it, others feel more comfortable at the back row, and can shy away and lose interest if they feel they’re too much at the center of attention. 

Even as students, friends saying loudly their shy friend’s whispered answers or questions is a familiar scene, the hard part is knowing whether the shy friend would be better off saying those themselves or if they’re just fine where they are.

Attention, interaction, and timing are crucial in teaching and game mastering. This should motivate you to observe the individualities of each person to learn to better ascertain how much (and what kind of) focus on them would stimulate their interest and enjoyment, while not hampering the others’.

Advanced Learning & Playing

In addition, in schools and in role-playing games, there are subtle gains beyond the lines of playing as a dope sorcerer or learning about biology. While not as consciously pursued as the main ones, these goals can also be hugely rewarding; learning about yourself, about your friends, about humanity, about society. Briefly put, plainly learning, most times about things that you weren’t even aware you could learn there. Oh, the joy of hearing a player tell of how they were successful in a serious negotiation using classic RPG persuasion talk! Or of seeing a student applying common courtesy the same way you expressed previously in class! If you often read about education or about RPGs, as you are doing now, these goals may not look so subtle, but it certainly is not obvious.

Assimilating the learning chances from both fields pays off for both roles. As a game master (or even as a player) looking at classrooms, I can see not only teachers attempting to motivate learning and discovery in general, but also how students respond to it, which helps me identify, motivate and value such situations at my game table. As an educator looking at role-playing games, I get to see these circumstances at the table, in a place with less judgement, less rush and less pressure or importance to restrain or frighten people’s actions, which allows for freer training and experimenting on how to better explore these occasions in class.

Tyrants at Classrooms and Tables

Now, I can see some arguing that comparing a game master to a teacher gives off a rather tyrannical view of the first role. Does this mean that a GM’s work is simply passing the players his knowledge? Does he have authority over them? Are they supposed to memorize and respond according to his expectations? Well, one who has this doubt should question instead if they do not have a rather tyrannical view of a teacher.

The idea that this is how teaching works or that strictness is intrinsic to an educator’s job is rapidly getting outdated, and working through this view is highly discouraged. Thus, we should not treat this as the absolute model of a teacher just because our pessimist side or unfortunate past experiences expects that from them.

Note that, in a bittersweet way, this same problem happens in role-playing games. Strict, presumptuous and despotic game masters weren’t an uncommon expectation in the past, and just like with their counterparts in education, people are increasingly frowning upon their way of doing things. Cue to picture Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 being about oppressive GMs.

Just because someone is virtually (emphasis on virtually) in a higher position, doesn’t mean that acting that way or reinforcing that virtual height will yield good results for them or for those around. And, as said in our previous article by LJ Heydorn: “Everyone is learning (doesn’t matter if you’ve just started playing or have been running games for 50 years) and no one knows everything.”

That’s why when talking about learning, knowledge is not fixed as moving necessarily from game master to players, nor from teacher to students. Even while focusing on GMs and educators, some lessons we can take from the players and students surfaced. Recognizing the value of being open to this bidirectional learning in one field might help a more easily acceptance of it in the other. All those people can learn great things from the others, and if they’re open to that opportunity, all the better. 

Mind you, I’m not trying to railroad you; I simply invited you for a stroll through one of many paths, hoping that it proves as pleasant and useful for you as it is for me, and maybe some of you will help carve this road even further through your own thinking and experiences. I’d also invite you to look for resemblances between RPGs and any other activity, for if you find any, they will certainly accelerate and improve getting experience in both activities.

Maybe you noticed that I didn’t give any major breakthroughs or novelties into role-playing games, that is not what I was trying to do. I tried here to teach yet another way to apply the experience from all those years of our lives we’ve been studying, now to this wonderful hobby of ours.

In Conclusion, both game masters and teachers, like everyone, can find good insight if they try to learn from each other, fitting their problems at the other’s lenses.

Article written by Bolha  (Twitter: @akabolha)

Some art copyright of Wizards of the Coast and used under the fan creation policy.

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