On teaching morality in the Dungeon

Mr Rogers remains one of my favorite guides for children, ever. (Source: reddit)

I've been given a lot of freedom in my D&D groups, and while I always make the focus of these groups social engagement and learning various social skills, there's so much in this game that can be added, and I don't want it to be dead air or generic plots. My first year had a lot of that, with the principal enemy being the dwarven mafia, which was loosely based on the Russian and Italian mob characters from various movies, which in retrospect wasn’t the best for positive representation. After that, I began thinking deeper about the way I plan for games, and that the goals were.

Thinking back to my education training, I recall there are four types of teaching models: Scholar Academic, Direct Instruction, Individualized instruction, and social justice instruction. A brief review of these:

Scholar Academic refers to a more 'sage on the stage' method of instruction, where you have the focus being on training the individual to be a scholar in the field. Such a teaching method is very academic, very lecture based, and highly theoretical.

Direct instruction is best for more practical courses like shop class- it's modality is to directly teach students how to do something by modeling it, then having them do it on their own while you scaffold instruction to teach more advanced methods, then assess their performance. It's great for learning how to do an oil change, but not ideal for biology- although given the testing paradigm, it's come into vogue, with students being taught for the test.

Individualized instruction is usually reserved for students with an IEP (individualized education plan) who are in Special education courses. That being said, most teachers would argue that every student needs an IEP, but given that teachers often see 150 students in a day, that level of detail isn't manageable.

Social Justice education is much rarer, and usually reserved for classes like civics, etc- which can have the goal (if the instructor and administrators are willing) of creating well educated, involved citizens. It teaches it's subject matter with the goal of improving the world- for a civics course, this might look like getting students involved with protesting illegal dumping or an immigration detention center, or in a biology course, it might involve writing to logging companies to advocate for preserving wildlife habitat, etc.

That being said, in the U.S., we trend towards scholar academic in our colleges and direct instruction for k-12, with the goal being higher test scores. However, with a D&D social skills group, I began thinking about how lesson planning and session planning are very similar- you ask similar questions: By the end of the lesson/session, what should the kids know? What should they have experienced? What major concepts/experiences do I need to hit on to complete this intended course?

Given that this is a social skills group, I often work with linear plots to some degree to put the kids into scenarios where they have to use social skills- They understand that this is a highly narrative game, so they don't mind the linear storyline, and I give them enough leeway to come up with their own plans. Furthermore, they've identified that one of their favorite forms of fun is to derail my plans, which I plan around anyway. So in a lot of ways, this is sort of a direct instruction method- I model these social skills using the more experienced kids, then the newer kids give a shot at interacting with a belligerent NPC, etc.

However, there's still so much in the game, and that's where I began thinking about the social justice aspect. It started coming out in the plot, with some of the major themes/enemies being as follows: A standardized testing cult, a massive pollution spike from industrialization and the steam age, an evangelical temple that claims to be saving souls but is actually a Vecna cult, a stock market warlock based loosely on Pharma Bro, and most recently, a senile king who is wasting the entire national budget on building massive trebuchets for his war on clouds.

It's gotten to the point where it's not subtle anymore, but the kids absolutely love it- many have voiced in private that they feel powerless politically, like the world is going to hell and they have no say in it. One voted in the 2016 election for the first time, and after Trump won, she was despondent- as someone on the LGBT spectrum, she was afraid for the future, but she has since voiced appreciation for being able to win and effectively change the world in the game. While this may not translate to political activism, it's still cathartic in the era of political indifference to school shootings and climate change.

There should always be space for this. Source: Undertale

The other thing that's emerged is mercy. After playing Undertale, I realized that there should always be a path for mercy, and the kids have taken that to heart. That stock market warlock was the best example of that- They stripped him of his power, then when they were going to finish him off, one boy said, “No. He's had enough. Let's let him go.” He actually had to restrain another PC from going after him, but he won the rest of the group over, to become better people. And as such, I've introduced a path towards kindness, mercy, and even forgiveness- choosing the higher ground rather than defaulting to violence. And so, while I've been using this game to overtly teach social skills like teamwork and communication, I've also been introducing chances to take the higher moral ground, and to show kindness and empathy, which are much higher level social skills. And it's been amazing, I think the kids honestly love being better than the bad guys.

So on a practical level, the biggest way to encourage this is to have the NPC's deaths always be in the DM's hands. This can be tricky, as sometimes the kids will want to kill the NPC, and you have to let that happen, but at the same time, I've come to know and trust these kids enough to feel confident enough to give them that ability, the ability to spare a NPC, and they've done it time and time again. And I am so proud of them- even when the villain returns to cause trouble again, they're content to send him back to jail, and in doing so, have the option to engage, and succeed, in peaceful play.