Do Rule Sets Matter?
I've written about choosing the right game for your applied group in the past, but since then the landscape has changed. Initially, the options for applied RPG groups were limited to a handful of mainstream RPGs such as D&D and Pathfinder. Now this has been challenged by new specifically applied RPGs such as Inspiriles and Critical Core, which have the focus of the game built in. So, the question then becomes, what is the specific benefit of having a specific ruleset designed for the applied work?
While I'm not aware of any research comparing a therapeutic group using D&D vs an applied RPG (and if there is, please let me know), I've heard from individuals within the applied RPG community that by using a ruleset that breaks away from the trappings of mainstream RPGs can be hugely beneficial, and, for example, in the case of Inspiriles, actually result in youth learning sign language and being able to apply that to their daily life. And it makes sense- The fundamental basis of RPGs is wargaming. These games are descendents of army games that people would play competitively, and much of the design is based around doing violence to others. While many of the applied RPGs keep this fundamental focus, they are adding various tools to encourage skill development and learning, while also featuring pedagogical and therapeutic tools to be used alongside the game to encourage and scaffold learning.
So does this mean for a new applied DM? Should you use these specific RPGs?
I would argue yes, but also that it depends. Again, it's important to shop around and think critically about what the goal of the group is. A game that is focused on teaching SEL skills isn't going to be very good for a class that is learning physics. However, if you want to include SEL skills alongside the physics puzzles, then it might be a good fit. It just means you'll need to do some homebrewing.
And homebrewing is just a fact of life when you are running an applied RPG. In the same way that any good GM should modify the campaign and game to meet the needs of their players, a good applied GM will be willing to modify all aspects of their table to achieve the group goals. No RPG is perfect or will meet the needs of every applied RPG group. Instead, it's important to deeply understand what your group needs and be able to select a RPG that is flexible enough in the right ways to make your job easy, and perhaps even open new venues to skill development.
But the other barrier is that D&D still controls the market and the narrative on what an RPG is. I recently inherited a D&D group through my job at a nonprofit, and one of the pieces of feedback I got was that players only knew what D&D was because of Stranger Things. While that show continues to be a huge part of people's understanding of what RPGs are, and D&D continues to dominate the market, there will likely continue to be a push in the applied RPG scene to use D&D, even if it isn't the best tool. This is unfortunate, as the modifications needed to make D&D useful for many applied RPGs means a lot of extra work for applied DMs, while also navigating the expectation of players who spend all their time amassing weapons and combat spells only to find that they're learning about physics.
Even so, if you have the ability to use something else than D&D, please do. Like any factet of the indie RPG scene, the applied RPG market is growing but needs all the support it can get. But aside from supporting small developers, having less homebrewing to make the game work is worth it's weight in gold.
Hope you found this helpful. Hit me up on Twitter at @rollforkindness for more chatting about applied RPGs!