The context

I am an experienced GM and EFL/ESOL* teacher. I've mostly played pre-3e D&D but also later D&D, Exalted and OWoD, Savage Worlds, more recently D&D Next Playtest / 5e and Fate.

The players are mixed-ability learners of English, in classes ranging in size from 12 to 20 students, with no specific knowledge or experience of pen-and-paper rpgs.

  • some classes are homogenous in terms of their low level of English (Elementary or Pre-Intermediate; CEFR A1 or A2)
  • some classes are mixed-ability, including higher level learners (Elementary - Upper-Intermediate; CEFR A1-B2)
  • of the 100 or so students in total, only one has even heard of Dungeons & Dragons in particular or pen-and-paper rpgs in general, and none have played before.
  • that said, most of the students are familiar with many fantasy / swords-and-sorcery tropes from mass media (see below), and about half from computer games.

I plan to play with each class separately with an identical (though flexible) self-contained GM-written adventure, like a convention game.

The game recommendation

I plan to use a simple rpg both as a way of getting students to use English in an entertaining way, and also test the waters for people interested in joining a university rpg club, which I intend to found.

The requirements for this rpg are:

Essential requirements

  • Rules light. The rules must be easy to convey to students in the minimum of time, so as to spend as much time possible actually playing the game.
  • Chargen must be very quick or instant, for similar reasons.
  • The genre should be something which can be linked to the students' mass-media knowledge and interest in fantasy. An informal survey of the students revealed that the majority of students love the Harry Potter films, with Hobbit/LoTR films and the Twilight series coming in joint second.
  • It should be possible to explain the game, generate characters, and play a short (GM-written) adventure in 3-4 hours, so as to fit into students' timetables.
  • The number of special vocabulary items needed to play the game should be minimal. As a negative example, even the relatively short list of D&D 5e skills would be overwhelming for some learners.
  • Due to the lack of rpg experience and in some cases English language, the game should be GM led.
  • The game should be a tabletop rpg, not a larp as I have no experience with larp, and am planning to found a tabletop rpg club.
  • Clearly the number of people in each class is an issue, as traditional rpgs can usually only cope with about 2-8 players, but some sort of splitting the classes into smaller groups is possible.

Ideal requirements (OK if not possible)

  • Ideally the game should use polyhedral dice, as my experience showed that students love these anyway, not being available in their country, and that could add to student engagement in the game. I have enough sets of polyhedral dice to make this practical.
  • It should be available legally as a pdf, either paying or free, to avoid postage expenses and problems.

Remember, game-recommendation answers have to be from experience

The appropriate broadness/narrowness of this question was discussed on meta and I recommend anyone look at the discussion there before attempting an answer.

To be relevant to my situation, but not so narrow that only I can answer, I would like to see answers where people can describe their or others' experience of using games fitting the 'essential' criteria above:

  • in an educational context
  • where the students are new to roleplaying
  • in classes which exceed the normal number a tabletop rpg can cope with (12+)
  • with students of mixed English ability

I am aware of the following online resources relating to using roleplaying games with learners of English, but they don't answer my questions for the reasons given:

  • This paper is too technical - I'm looking for more practical advice.
  • This paper is more practical, but dated, being based on AD&D 2, a system I love but which is also far too complicated for my purposes.
  • This blog entry is interesting as it offers an actual adventure map, but it doesn't address the problem of a rules light system - the teacher/DM used D&D which he admitted to be overly complicated.

*English as a Foreign Language / English to Speakers of Other Languages

  • \$\begingroup\$ See meta.rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/5408/… for meta discussion \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Mar 7, 2015 at 13:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is the kind of question it makes me sad to have to close as off-topic as a game-rec, but then I see a bunch of answers that are speculation and not demonstrating experience with an ESL context and remember why we made them off topic. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Dec 16, 2015 at 13:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk Just to clarify - does this mean the question and all the answers are going to be deleted, or will it remain but just be closed for further additions? \$\endgroup\$
    – harlandski
    Dec 16, 2015 at 13:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just closed. We don't delete historical Q's like this. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Dec 16, 2015 at 14:21

6 Answers 6


Let me first cite my experience because I don't have the combined experience of a foreign language teacher of a class of 20, but I do think that I have experienced most parts of it. I am teaching groups of 2 to 10 people technical skills in my native language. I have been the instructor for roleplaying special project weeks at a local school teaching 20-30 teenagers roleplaying. We included foreign exchange students into our RPG groups and as they did not have a strong enough grasp of my native language, the whole group switched to english, a learning experience for everyone involved. So yes, I did all this, but never in combination, like you do. So treat this post as an information supermarket: buy what you like and leave the rest of it on the shelf.


Intrinsic motivation is key. If your students want to play Harry Potter or Fantasy, go with it, regardless of any "good advice" that follows. But as a teacher, you already know this :)

Essential requirements

  1. Rules light. I think this is more of a GM thing than an actual RPG decision. Beginners adventures should never use the full rules anyway. Even in D&D, which I guess we can classify as not rules light, there is a huge difference between a level 1 encounter of 3 human bandits with clubs versus a level 10 encounter of a svirneblin mage/cleric/cheater-of-the-nine-swords on a griffon fighting 3 harpies with nets in a cloud of hot volcanoe ash. There is like 3 rules in the first encounter and I don't know how many in the second. But your players will never play the second, so the fact that it can be complex is really not that relevant. The only relevant fact is how complex the GM makes it. Personally, I have made very good experiences with systems that only have a single task-resolution-model. You calculate a number, you roll dice, and you know whether it succeeded or failed. D&D for example with to-hit, damage and saving throws for half of no effect has multiple models that even overlap. Not very beginner friendly or rules light.

  2. Character generation In my experience character generation is not long because of the rules, but because of decisions to make that have so many consequences that you need to think it through and calculate. Or because people cannot see the consequences. Character generation is quick when there is little to decide and the decisions are clear. "Is your character good at sports?" is a clear cut decision. "Is your character better at athletics or acrobatics." is a decision that you have to explain to people. And explaining takes time. So this really boils down to self-explanatory character sheets. There is a more detailed explanation of it here.

  3. Genre and special vocabulary I'd strongly advise against high fantasy or science fiction. Because both have a set of vocabulary that your students will not have and upon learning it, will not be able to use outside of fantasy gaming. Fantasy/Horror set in todays world is great though. Take Twilight: yes you need to know what a vampire or werewolf is, but basically, any new word they learn will be useful, because it's a word that is real. Not like "chainmail" or "wand" or "horse-drawn-cart", which is... well just not usable in todays world.

  4. Number of people Sadly, I don't have a perfect solution here. In my experience, 2-6 people is ok, with 7-9 you have a few shy people lurking in the background (which is neither fun nor a good learning experience) and with more it only gets worse. Divide and conquer. Make smaller subgroups with their own GM so that you don't have groups with more than 6 players. We made the adventures actually written adventures and met with the groups GMs the evening before to run this adventures among us. That was extra work using extra people. I wish I could offer a better solution, but I don't have one either except for "more GMs, smaller groups".

  5. Language Rules and material should come in the language you are playing in. In this case: English. A foreign language is hard enough as it is, there is no need to double-translate all the time.

Game recommendation

I did not find a game that fits my own needs perfectly. However, three came close and I modified one to match. Cthulu and Cyberpunk fit most points but they are not rules light, not even if you dumb them down. Vampire (the old edition, I don't know the new one) was a good match, but creating actual vampires with powers and backgrounds turned out to be lengthy and a bit much for starters.

So what I did was take the character sheet and let them play normal humans, generated by only picking attributes and skills. No powers, no clans, no backgrounds. Yes, by the rules they would be more powerful then normal humans, but so what. As far as adventures went, I chose some Cthulu stories because they mirror just that: your players are normal people and neither believe nor know about the fact that the world is full of supernaturals.

Normally, my first adventure would be about a haunted house, a missing person or something else that leads from the normal to the supernatural. The point is that all the rules about supernatural stuff are GM only. No player has to know them to have fun playing. The players are normal people.

Actions are easy: you say what you want to do, your GM decides what attribute and skill this is. You add them, roll that many 10-sided dice, everything 6+ is a success. Difficult tasks need more successes. (There are rules about manipulating the 6 as a success result, but that's for more advanced players, I never used it for starters.)


I want to break down the door

Ok, roll Strength + Athletics


I want to balance on that rope

Ok, roll Dexterity + Athletics


I want to crack that code using my smart phone

OK, roll Intelligence + Computers, you need three successes because your smartphone is not really good for this task.

Why Vampire with only half the rules for players

  • This is rules light without removing the structure of actual rules. Learners need rules and structure.
  • This is leaving only a few decision on character creation, but at the same time, those decisions mean something.
  • All skills used during the game directly relate to skills people know and they even come on a scale of 0-5 which is standard school grading in most countries (being 1-6 where I live or A-F in the states). A character with an A in athletics and an F in computers is properly characterized, everyone can relate.
  • It's using normal, everyday vocabulary. No special knowledge required.
  • 99% of vocabulary gained is actually relevant to the real world.
  • The genre is plain pop culture, Twilight or X-Files (yes, I'm that old) or any other tv serial where normal people are drawn into a world of supernatural events.
  • It's easy to step up and use the full rules later, without having to switch games.

You can find the full rules for example here. I just picked the first hit on google and didn't check prices, it might be available cheaper somewhere else.

To see what I'm talking about with skills and attributes only you can view a chacter sheet here. Imagine only using the first three blocks, name, attributes and skills. The point is that the attributes and skills are self-explanatory and relate directly to real world skills. If you tell people how many dots to spend, it should not take more than 5 minutes to build a character.

  • \$\begingroup\$ @harlandski I think it looks good, but I have never actually used it, so I'd leave it as a comment. \$\endgroup\$
    – nvoigt
    Mar 10, 2015 at 14:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ I tried out your idea, using the NWoD quickstart A Nightmare at Hill Manor drivethrurpg.com/product/92564/Nightmare-on-Hill-Manor I used a reduced ruleset, ignoring virtues, vices and merits. It worked great with three classes, even (in fact especially) with students with elementary/pre intermediate English. You're right that using modern world vocabulary helps a lot. So I've accepted your answer: It's not what I did the first time, but it's maybe what I should have done... :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – harlandski
    Mar 19, 2015 at 12:58

Dungeon Squad

The game I chose to play in the situation I described in the question above was a five-page game called Dungeon Squad. I had initially discarded this game as viable with college students, as it states it is:

designed expressly for young players with short attention spans who demand action and fun.

However, there is nothing childish about the setting, being as the name suggests a dungeon-crawl, and it fitted my criteria perfectly:

  • Rules light: The central mechanic is similar to Savage Worlds, in that players roll the relevant die for a given attempt and compare their roll to a target number. The default difficulty is set lower than SW (2 rather than 4), but that is also good for beginners' sense of competence.
  • Chargen is super quick (though in class not the 30 seconds promised by the rules). There are only five attributes: 'Warrior, Wizard, Explorer' which cover all attempts to do anything, and two Stuff attributes which can be armour, weapons or one of five spells. All players have to do is prioritize "Warrior, Wizard, Explorer", assigning a d12, d8 and d4 respectively, and then choose two bits of stuff, which are assigned d6 or d10. These latter dice determine how much impact (usually damage) the Stuff does or prevents. The players can then shop for various bits of adventuring equipment including the beloved ten-foot pole. I narrowed this list down a bit so as not to overwhelm my students with choice and vocabulary.
  • Students who wanted to be Harry Potter (about half) could be, by choosing 'Wizard d12, Explorer d8, Warrior d4'. Students with more Tolkien interests were also well catered for. I had to improvise with requests for vampires (and a unicorn!), but the rules were sufficiently oblivious to race to make this possible.
  • Introducing the limited amount of fantasy vocabulary (via pictures from films) and chargen took between 30-50 minutes depending on the English level and creativity of the students, and it was possible to fit a whole game into three hours even with the students with the weakest English.
  • I solved the problem of having larger groups by having groups of 2-4 students control one PC, which meant:
    1. The PC party was of a normal size.
    2. Those who understood the idea of the game could support their groupmates.
    3. Chargen and play was a lively set of group discussions in English. Of course this did slow play down a bit, and required some chairing on my part, but at the benefit of all the students participating and using English.
  • The game provided ample use of polyhedral dice, and is available as a free pdf from here.
  • I also used miniatures and a Battlemat which provided visualization support for all students, including those with weaker English. The Dungeon Squad rules are entirely silent about movement - so I improvised.

Although my adventure was incredibly simple (a short NPC encounter and then the assault on a small dungeon with some combat and puzzles/traps), I was pleasantly surprised how quickly the students got the idea, and very different games ensued. Of course, not all students were as interested as others in the game, but the keenest players have now formed the core of a new tabletop roleplaying game club in the university, and are learning D&D 5e.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I really like the idea for handling larger groups. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rubberduck
    Mar 10, 2015 at 13:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Rubberduck I was pleased with the idea when it came to me - group size was the main thing that had kept me from using rpgs in class before. \$\endgroup\$
    – harlandski
    Mar 10, 2015 at 14:28

The Pool

The Pool is a simple genreless RPG that uses a small pool of dice. Characters are built with a 50 word story (english practice right there!) and drawing out traits from that story - again, specific words or phrases become your traits. The game itself is 4 pages long, which, if your students become really into it, you can give them the PDF and they can read it for themselves and also get some practice from that.

The "lose roll, lose dice" mechanic is sometimes harsh for folks, so many people play with the Anti-Pool variant, where successful dice rolls lose you dice, while failing dice rolls gain you dice.

Finally, it defaults to a pool of D6s but you can easily substitute alternate dice if you really want to pump up the polyhedral factor - just change the numbers on which successes happen to keep the odds a bit better. (Maybe 1-2 on D8s, 1-3 on D10s, etc.)

My Experience with the Pool

Aside from running one-shots, I find that if someone at a party or get together asks me about RPGs, I can run a 10-15 minute demo using the Pool to show what roleplaying is like.

The rules are easy enough to completely remember without having to look up anything and scrounging together a bunch of D6s or finding an online rolling program or app is easy.

Conceptually for players it's very simple: rolling MORE dice is better. You only have to see if you roll a single number to see if you succeed or fail. The mechanical choices are important (how much to gamble? Take the die or narrate?) and don't demand charts, heavy thought about odds, and are very simple. With all of this, players can focus on playing, and the rules are easy enough that people can pick it up and break into seperate groups, or advise each other on how to play without overwhelming people.

For these reasons, it's an excellent way to teach roleplaying as most of the hurdle non-roleplayers have is dealing with the fact the primary medium of play is the fiction we build in communicating with each other.

The fact that players can narrate also teaches improvisation and helps you come up with interesting events in play without much prep.

I end up teaching a decent amount of new-to-roleplaying folks about roleplaying, and The Pool or a highly simplified version of Burning Wheel (pool of D6s, count successes) are two tools I use a lot. The Pool happens to have the advantage here in being both completely published and easily shared AND better for language use overall.


FU: Freeform / Universal RPG

This week I have had very good results using FU: Freeform / Universal RPG with my English-language students - the same type I described in the original question, but now some of them have had some rpg experience from my lessons. Of the games I have tried with English students (Dungeon Squad as in my other answer, and NWoD A Nightmare at Hill Manor following @nvoigt's answer), this one has proved the best, for the reasons given below.

Essential criteria fulfilled

FU fulfilled all my original essential criteria.

  • Rules light. The core mechanic is simple - a d6 roll giving an answer from "no, and" through "no", "no, but", "yes, but" and "yes" to "yes and" to a closed question, with descriptors adding and subtracting d6s. These answers are printed on the character sheets and were very quickly adopted by students.
  • Chargen is very quick - just a case of deciding on freeform descriptors for "Body, Mind, Edge, Flaw, Gear, Drives, Relationships".
  • The system is genreless, but the low level of detail means it can be used for any genre the students choose - in my case "pirate superhero", "vanilla superhero", "vampire pirates". Students specifically drew on their mass-media interests to flesh out their characters, and the bad guy which we created cooperatively.
  • It was possible to explain the game, establish the genre, create the bad guy, do chargen and have a mini adventure in 2 1/2 - 3 hours.
  • As the descriptors are freeform, the students can use whatever vocabulary they have.
  • The game is GM-led, though leaning towards cooperative storytelling, and tabletop.
  • I solved the class size problem in the same way as I described in my Dungeon Squad answer, by having several students create and control one PC between them.

Ideal requirements

Other advantages of this game for English learners

The game also provided additional benefits for use with non-native speakers of English in a classroom environment.

  • The freeform description of characters meant that lower-level students could stick with what they knew (Body: Strong, Mind: Smart), whereas higher-level or more creative students could push the limits of their vocabulary (Body: Regenerating, Mind: Strategic).
  • The 'closed question' system of resolving actions, which is the core mechanic of the game, is excellent practice for English question forms "Do I jump across to the other ship?"; "Can I shoot the captain from here?"; "Will I free the police officer before he dies?".
  • Equally, the "yes, and", "yes, but", "no, but", "no, and" answers encourage students to speak English to describe the nuances of the outcome they achieved, and for lower levels is practice of this type of coordinated sentences.
  • In general, the cooperative nature of the game encourages more participation from players not currently describing their characters' actions, who may suggest outcomes or descriptors for other players or locations. (In my previous games using Dungeon Squad and then NWoD Nightmare at Hill Manor, there was a tendency for groups to descend into their own conversations whilst waiting for their PC's turn.)
  • The ability to zoom in and out of detail for resolution questions meant that it was easy to tailor games to fit the timetabled lessons.

It sounds to me that you'd like to play Roll for Shoes

The rules for Roll for Shoes are very simple, and pretty much all of the game is improvised. I'd consider this to be a great advantage as you can adapt the difficulty level of the language you use to your players. You're not constrained by trying to express the mechanics of interactions of rules to your players, instead you just take turns to 'try things' and maybe the actions work, and maybe they wont. That's basically all there is to it.

You can adapt it to any theme you need: fantasy, sci-fi, western, etc. There isn't much reading involved to get started - no scanning through tomes for rules or creature designs. However, if your party has a favourite creature that they'd like to face off against, you can get some pictures of it, help them describe it, and play it without much preparation.

DM: "The Sphinx is a giant creature with the face of a cat. It smiles at you and says you will need to answer a riddle."

P: "Oh, the Sphinx is cute! I want to tickle the Sphinx!"

DM: "Okay! Let's tickle the Sphinx! That's 1> Do anything -roll- The Sphinx purrs and rolls over! You get a new skill: 2> tickling!"

You could guide your players into learning about specific verbs or nouns this way, it seems!

You can use the tag to get an overview of all questions asked on the stack.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Roll for Shoes is a good suggestion, and in fact I have subsequently played it with students! :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – harlandski
    Dec 16, 2015 at 12:59

The game I chose is very accessible (I have even played it with my mother, grandmother and mother-in-law, and they all loved it). It can be played in very large groups effectively, but is best with groups between 10 and 20 (minimum 7). Also, you can play the game without any equipment at all, though at least a pen and a few pieces of paper will definitely come in handy.

Although this is not your typical medieval, adventurous, level-up-your-hero kind of roleplaying game, I think it still classifies as one. The reason I'm suggesting it is mainly because your players will all have to interact with each other, in English, with a Game Master leading the session.

Werewolves of Millers Hollow

In this game, there are two groups of players: citizens and werewolves. It is the goal of each group to eliminate the other; werewolves are out to eat all citizens, while citizens try to find out who are the werewolves and hang them.

Each player is assigned a role (citizen or werewolf) secretly. The game includes several classes of citizens, which can add extra flavor and special powers to those who get these roles. Despite of their assigned role, each player represents a citizen of Millers Hollow.

One Game Master moderates the game - he cannot take part in the game, as he knows many of the secrets of the village. Two phases alternate, the phases of night and day. During night, all players have their eyes closed - except those "woken up" by the referee. It is important that nobody cheats during the night! During day, all players have their eyes open and try to identify the werewolves.

  • During night, the werewolves are woken up by the GM. They decide on a victim by pointing at him. The GM remembers the victim and the werewolves close their eyes again.
  • Citizens with special classes might be active at some point during the night, see below.
  • During the day, first, the GM tells who got killed at night (and what his role was). Then, the surviving citizens (including the werewolves-in-disguise) discuss whom could have committed this crime at night; who is a werewolf. The GM will end the discussion after a while by calling for a vote. At that moment everyone points to a person they accuse. The person with the most votes is hung. The role of this person is unveiled, too. If there is a tie, nobody is hung.

The two opposing groups - "good" citizen including special classes, versus werewolves - try to kill the other group. The werewolves are much less in number, but have the advantage of on kill each night and they know each other, while the citizen superior in number can't be sure who is good and who is villain, and have to find out in discussions, with the help of some of the special roles. The surviving group wins the game.

Citizen classes

  • Seer: During each night, the seer can unveil the identity of one other person. The GM then indicates whether the person is a werewolf or not. The seer has to transmit that information to the group of citizen during the discussions at day, without arousing suspicion by the werewolves who would definitely like to kill this powerful person.
  • Witch: After the werewolves have selected their victim, the witch is woken up. She has two magic potions she can use throughout the game (each one only once): with one, she can rescue the victim of the werewolves, with the other, she can kill a person of her choice. Doing so, she can influence the game in a way that in the next morning, between zero and two people can end up dead.
  • Cupid: He can designate a lover's pair secretly. Both are tapped on their should by the GM and open their eyes during the night to confirm they know who their lover is. However, they don't know each other's roles. If one of the two dies, the other immediately dies as well (due to lover's grief).
  • Huntsman: When he dies - due to whatever reason - he can shoot one other (living) person as last action of his own life, taking the victim to death alongside himself.
  • Little girl: The little girl is explicitly allowed to cheat during the werewolves-phase at night. It may try to glimpse and to identify the werewolves. She must be very careful doing that, as the werewolves are eager to find her and would kill her if they recognize her.
  • Other roles can be added to the game, through official expansions or by creating your own.

Essential requirements fulfilled

  • Rules light: The rules are simple, and it's possible to start the first game with only werewolves and citizens, and each subsequent game you can introduce a new citizen role (like the Seer).
  • Character generation is instant.
  • The genre can be linked to the students' interest in fantasy, mostly the Twilight series.
  • It's possible to explain the game, generate characters, and play a short (GM-written) game within 10 minutes.
  • The number of special vocabulary items needed to play the game are minimal: Only a handful of specials are required, namely the citizen class names and perhaps their inherent abilities. Other than that, the only vocabulary required is that which you use in normal social interaction.
  • The game is GM led.
  • The game supports virtually unlimited number of players; a classroom full is not an issue at all. For best results, play with around 15 people.

Essential requirements not fulfilled

  • This game can be considered LARP, although I think it's extremely mild.
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ In theory Werewolf/Mafia could be considered a LARP, but it's not usually considered an RPG at all but rather a party game or parlour game. \$\endgroup\$ May 6, 2015 at 15:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ So you have used or seen this used with ESL folks to teach language? \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Dec 16, 2015 at 13:07

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