I've recently had a chance to look at a few educational RPGs, and was thinking to myself, "What is the learning goal here? How would assessment work? What are the students going to carry away? How does the design of this game feed into those learning goals?"
And in many cases, the connection to actual learning was incoherent and unclear. The games were dressed down D&D, set in an educational setting that fit the subject matter. There were things like stats, skill rolls, character progression, and classes. All of these things did very little to actually teach subject matter, and while they created some cohesion with players that were used to playing D&D, the actual gameplay did little to further instructional goals.
D&D can be a very useful tool for teaching generalizable social skills like teamwork and communication- it's one of the reasons it's so commonly utilized in social skills and therapeutic groups. However, for teaching subject matter, it usually doesn't match the subject matter at all, and is a clumsy and ineffective way to teach.
Imagine if you were trying to teach history using math methodologies:
"If Nero+Rome=Fire, what does Galba+Rome=?"
Or math using the methods of history:
"Okay class, today to understand the pythagorean theorem, we're going to write a biography of Pythagoras to understand how it was discovered."
When you are using an RPG educationally, you need to think of it as a functional curriculum, not just a tool to introduce subject matter. This means you need to abandon everything that is a norm with RPGs. Character sheets? Gone. Dice? Gone. Skills? Gone. Start with students sitting at a table (or online) with a teacher facilitating it.
Then, identify the learning goals. Say you want to teach physics. Well, you want the students to figure out practical applications of mass and acceleration, and be able to chart the trajectory of a thrown object. With that, you start thinking about what would be a good way to introduce that- Oh! Trebuchets during a siege! Okay, cool, you now have a RPG where the kids are trebuchet operators besieging a castle, and they need to be working together to destroy the castle before the people inside can get their trebuchets set up and hit you.
Once you have that figured out, then you start re-adding things. Character sheets? Sure, but just RP based stuff, to add a bit of flavor. Role playing? Absolutely- add a crusty old captain who is telling the siege engineers to get the trebuchets set up correctly or they're all dead meat. Dice? Maybe as a way to introduce damage to the castle or something of that sort- but not as something that would impact the performance of the trebuchets, that is entirely on the students doing physics equations right.
Another example might be teaching about ecosystems, you would build a worldbuilding game where the students design an ecosystem in a dungeon, and then another group of dungeon biologists has to explore the environment and determine where the different dungeon biomes are, what is the food chain like, etc. Combat would be completely scrapped, but items might remain to help collect samples and identify specific things about the lifeforms in the dungeon.
Or if you were teaching Spanish, setting up a world where all the elves speak Spanish, and the game would be largely narrative, with no skills, but plenty of role playing, and some type of mechanic to help kids if they can't remember a word (perhaps they have to get 4 sentences right before the GM will help assist them with a sentence, but if they haven't, they have to go back to a less challenging area.)
When designing educational RPGs, it is critical to remember that D&D is based around wargaming, and the best thing you can do is abandon everything you can, focus on the subject matter, and turn the RPG into a functional curriculum that you can add traditional RPG elements to after the fact.
If you have experience with educational RPGs, (especially around assessment, I want to write about that at some point), I would love to pick your brain, so please reach out to me on twitter: @rollforkindness. Thanks for reading!