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I am an RPG guy who is also active in my religious community. Recently I was asked to conduct a class at my local mosque (my religion's equivalent of a church) for kids ages 7-12. To make it interesting for them, I was toying with the idea of DMing a D&D campaign during the class.

But in order to justify having such a game during a religious instruction class, there must be some positive religious "benefit" that comes out of it. It can't be purely entertainment. It has to make the children love God more, or it has to teach them some morals or ethics (such as helping the distressed, forgiving those who wrong you, having empathy for the hardships of others, etc).

So the hope is that through their role playing the children can demonstrate this.

How best can this be achieved? Is it giving them characters who are paladins, priests or acolytes? And having an "in universe reality" which is compatible with our beliefs such as there being only one God?

Any other thoughts on how to make this work would also be appreciated.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Any answer that is not "I have done this or seen this done, and this is how it happened and turned out" will be deleted per the Back It Up! principles of Good Subjective, Bad Subjective. This will be the only warning to this effect. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Aug 21 '16 at 13:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Must it be D&D specifically? \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Aug 21 '16 at 13:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Seconding Erik's question. Also, how strictly monotheistic an environment do you want to portray? In my religion, there are some stories that suggest less "there's only one God" and more "there is only one true God worth worshipping". The latter attitude would require less drastic modification of some settings. Also, what's the time frame? 45m a week for 9 months, or what? How many kids? \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Aug 21 '16 at 14:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: How to convince people DND is not an occult ritual \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Aug 21 '16 at 14:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: How to get PCs to not be murderous cretins (because there will be players who want to pick the non-moral answer to see what happens) \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Aug 21 '16 at 14:38
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I'm trained in conducting faith-based lessons for children focused on morality and virtues, in facilitating spiritual empowerment programs for junior youth, and in tutoring youth engaged in service-oriented community activities (this last one is my specialty). In both religious and non-religious contexts I've used role-playing as a forum for exploring complex societal issues and as a medium for fostering positive group dynamics and social skills.

First and foremost, RPGs are great microcosms for learning about social skills and how people can interact beneficially as a group--and I'm not talking about in-game character actions. The RPG format provides a structured, low-stakes environment for players to learn skills and virtues like consultation and empathy as they support each others' efforts. Issues like "My Guy Syndrome" are great opportunities for talking about taking responsibility for one's choices; the question of whether to enforce a rule even if it produces an outcome no one likes can be tackled as a question of the balance between justice and mercy; differing gameplay goals are opportunities to learn how to work together despite differences. We've got many questions here on the site which deal with the difficulty of doing this, and some great answers about how awesomely groups can overcome those challenges.

In addition to the skills we can learn from working together to play a game, the game itself can be an opportunity for growth and insight; this, I think, is what you're thinking of primarily in your question. I've played games which addressed prejudice, colonisation, mental health and mental abuse, and journeys of personal discovery, or which asked the players to make hard choices about what ends are justified by what means.

If you can find a good lightweight system to fit the situation (or just go free-form), role-playing is also a really useful tool for acting out situations in the kids' own lives. I've used this to great effect with a situation they're expecting to face which they'd like to practice beforehand. It's also good for dealing with something they've faced that they'd like to examine more carefully and see how else it might have happened.

D&D is not a great tool for "issue" games, though. There are thousands of RPG systems out there, and it's important to choose one that fits your goals. The games I've played where major moral or social issues were dealt with meaningfully? They used systems designed for those topics from the ground up. D&D is a franchise where combat is the primary tool for conflict resolution and there's few social mechanics to encourage moral interaction with society. When D&D games confront those issues constructively, it's because of the group's interest in doing so. The D&D system has been at best a neutral force in these games--often the group struggles against the system to reach their goals. Many other systems actively and consciously support and enforce those themes, and I love using them (many of them are also cheaper and easier to acquire, learn, and play than D&D, too!).

I've found that Fate is a good generic system for teambuilding. It can be used for any game in any world so long as the player characters are dramatic, proactive, and competent; it encourages a lot of roleplaying around relationships; and it's got built-in consultation. Systems I've used (or would use) to focus on particular issues or virtues include Bubblegumshoe (diversity, relationships, and teens' potential as a moral influence on the local community), Dog Eat Dog (colonisation or any situation where one group is assumed superior to another), The Princes' Kingdom (making hard moral choices as young community leaders), 14 Days (empathy with those suffering from chronic pain), Microscope (enforces collaboration without competition), and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple (service to others as a path toward youths' personal growth and self-discovery). I can't speak to these systems' suitability for use with kids from personal experience, but I know many people have successfully used The Princes' Kingdom, Microscope, and PotFT with kids. There are also a large number of RPGs designed specifically for kids.

A final note: This will vary depending on your religious group, but it's been my experience that there's no need for the universe of the game to conform to my own religious cosmology. For example, polytheistic gods are not the Singular All-Powerful God of my faith, but telling stories in worlds with many deities provides opportunities to explore the difference between a powerful being and God. Similarly playing in a world dominated by grim, cynical pessimism helps me appreciate hope and joy in my own life. And sometimes an allegory is useful to give distance from a weighty topic so we can explore it more easily. The important thing is to discuss these themes with the kids. I can use role-playing games as starting points for conversations about these topics, just the same as Batman is a great starting point for talking about the true nature of justice. A game doesn't need to be didactic (in fact, it probably shouldn't be--that quickly goes sour with condescension and straw men) in order to spark significant discussions on weighty themes.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Excellent answer, thank you very much!! So if D&D is not the way to go, could you give me some links to resources for the other RPGs you mentioned or something which will teach me how to structure an RPG, since I am not very familiar with RPGs outside of D&D. \$\endgroup\$ – AbuMariam Aug 21 '16 at 18:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not specifically a religious example, so I'll comment here rather than answer, but I've had a lot of fun with my own kids & their friends using Do: Fate of the Flying Temple (evilhat.com/home/do-fate-of-the-flying-temple) as a medium for teaching virtues and values (as this answer mentioned). It's inexpensive, simple, and pretty free-form in terms of how you run stories, but as-written it's heavily focused on nonviolent problem-solving (even confronting and handling violent opponents through nonviolent means) ,and teamwork. \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Aug 21 '16 at 19:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AbuMariam That sounds like it'd be worth a separate question of its own, but you'll probably be better able to ask it if you've looked into the site's other questions about RPGs as a social structure, talked to folks about it in chat, and/or done some Googling on the topic. To be a good question for the Stack, "How to structure an RPG" needs to get whittled down to specifics about your goals and context. Folks in the Role-playing Games Chat will be happy to help you codify those specifics. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Aug 22 '16 at 6:00
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[Establishes credibility: I have taught Sunday school/run church youth groups and have used role-play (both freeform and RPGs) in that context. Though, admittedly, never D&D. I have played plenty of D&D. I run the RPG group (which does include D&D) at a religious school where everything is expected to tie back to our religious mission. I've had these conversations with administrators and parents.]

To make it interesting for them, I was toying with the idea of DMing a D&D campaign during the class.

I don't want to discourage you from using RPGs in Sunday school. I want to discourage you from planning your lessons by saying "I'm going to play D&D today, what can I teach with it?"

To a man with a hammer...

I fear that you're stumbling into a very tempting trap in the teaching profession: you've got a great tool in your hand. You know it's a great tool. (You're right, by the way.) And you're looking for a way to use it.

Good tools are a good thing to have. But lesson formation doesn't start with the tool, it ends with the tool.* Broadly speaking: you should design your lessons by thinking:

  1. what do I hope they will learn?
  2. what set of experiences can I craft which I believe will help them learn that?
  3. how will I know whether they have learned that?

When considering step 2 we usually consider things like direct instruction (lecture), discussion, experiment, research, games, independent reading, inquiry, interview, creative writing, exploration, film, &c. &c. &c. when trying to craft experiences. You've realized that one more contender belongs on that list: role-play (and RPG, specifically). But it's as foolish to think that RPGs are the right tool for every learning objective we might encounter as it is to solely lecture.

"But I really want to swing this hammer!"

I sympathize. And there are a few ways to get there.

  1. If you're allowed to set the curriculum/objectives for this class, then it's easy: you make your list of a hundred things that would be worth teaching, go through the list and cherry-pick the half-dozen where an RPG seems like an appropriate delivery method, and proceed.
  2. If you're not allowed to set the curriculum, you'll have to go through your prescribed list and do the same thing. Only some small subset of your topics will really be suitable--leave it at that. Your campaign will hit upon three-of-ten topics, and you've got to design other activities for the other seven. Do not force your campaign onto ill-fitting topics: it'll result in a bad campaign and bad topical coverage.

Look at the rest of the tool aisle

I said that I've used role-play in Sunday school before, and that I know D&D pretty well. But I've never combined the two. That's because I don't think they actually fit very well.

I want to echo @BESW's excellent answer here: D&D may not be your best RPG to choose. Simply put, D&D's really good at the game where you kill bigger and bigger things. Depending on your edition there's also a varying focus on how much you steal from others.** This has never struck me as terribly fertile ground for discussion of my religion.

D&D can do other things, yes. But it's not great at many other things, where purpose-designed game often are great at them. If you're trying to teach about interpersonal morality then some of the bond-centric games may be better bets. If you're trying to teach about the history of your religion than a historical-fiction hack of Microscope could be excellent. If you're looking at the seamier sides of a religion, then Dog Eat Dog's tailor-made to help explore the sorts of harms that can occur when cultures come in conflict.

P.S.

I really hope you swing through chat. There are a number of regulars who are religious, are interested in this question, and who'd love to chat with you both as you think about implementing this and as you see it play out.


* - That's, actually, quite an oversimplification, but it'll do for a post--rather than a course!--on lesson planning.

** - There are other things D&D's good at, too: character-building, the "solitaire" game of designing castles and dungeons, &c. &c. &c. But none of them have ever struck me as terribly well-suited to teaching the precepts of my religion. C

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BESW covered the broad concept very well. A couple notes that I think might apply to your specific situation, from my experience participating in, and then running, various religious education classes and camps, which included some roleplaying activities:

KISS: Keep It Short and Simple.

This isn't so much about the ability of kids to understand complex concepts - they can - as it is about classroom management. If you have an elaborate storyline in mind, the odds are pretty good that children, in their boundless energy and creativity, will be off the rails before you can say "What do you do next?" So you probably won't be able to do an RPG Campaign (TM). Instead, think about one question or idea that you want to bring up, and one or two scenes likely to produce that outcome, then call it an episode. You can certainly re-use characters, and should, but don't worry too hard about connecting one session to the next plot-wise. Instead, remember...

Repetition is good.

Have certain verbal cues that you re-use in similar situations. There's a reason shows have theme songs: ideally, it signals "hey remember that fun thing? It's happening again!" I'm not saying you have to sing (though if you do, great), but develop some catch phrases like "What do you think our heroes would do in that situation? Let's use our imaginations," and, yes, "It's time to talk about what we've learned today." Over time, this should help kids get comfortable with the structure so they can be looking forward to what happens next. (Not unique to kids, by the way - I get chills when Wil Wheaton says "I think it's time for you to roll initiative", and my players have agreed that the signal helps.)

Choose your props carefully.

Props are great for building immersion in the activity and helping everybody keep track of who's who (especially if it changes). They're also potentially a distraction. I would avoid anything shaped like a weapon - a helmet can make a soldier, and a blanket can make a shepherd, all without the risk of clobbering or tripping anyone. You also want a curtain or an opaque bin for whatever you're not using at the moment so people aren't pawing through them instead of paying attention. (How strict/careful you have to be about this depends on the extent to which you're accountable to someone who might look in to make sure Serious Learning is happening, not just "messing around". My view is that you can't actually force someone to mentally participate, and it's less stressful for everyone if you don't try, but some folks like to see everybody looking in the same direction.)

Eat the red berries.

You can't lead from behind on something like this - if you look bored and obligated to be there, or even neutral because it's early, the kids will pick up on that fast (I learned that the hard way). Take a few minutes to psyche yourself up before they arrive, if possible. If you make it clear that roleplaying is both fun and okay, they're much more likely to dive in. If you hold back for fear of looking silly, so will they.

Have multiple ways to participate.

Adult players have trouble sitting still and paying attention and patiently waiting their turn and then passionately emoting and improvising dialogue, so make sure your expectations in this area are realistic. Some kids will likely want to stand up and run around the room and talk loudly. Some will be more interested in sitting in the corner where no one is looking at them. If possible, allow for both. Maybe the kid who stutters would love to be the stony-faced guard who has orders not to let the heroes into the castle. Maybe the kid who hates participating in any kind of conflict will be really good at analyzing the emotions and motivations when you discuss the story afterwards (and you definitely should, to bring it home - "What happened when X tried to Y? How did that make Z feel? What could X have done differently?")

Along these lines, I'm going to take a rare opportunity to disagree with BESW, and say that I think even some of the games they listed are too rigidly structured for a mixed group of 2nd-to-6th graders. At least, I think you'd have to take on a more active moderator role to make sure everyone gets to participate in a way that's appropriate for them, and doesn't get lost or drown out everyone else.

Overall, though, this can work and be a lot of fun. Good luck! (And do explore the site and/or ask further questions about running short sessions, roleplaying with kids, etc. as needed.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ I absolutely agree with your disagreement about the systems I've mentioned; my experience is with older youth, so I can't really speak from a supported position about what games would better for the asker's situation. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Aug 22 '16 at 6:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ When we did it it was usually like a very loose LARP, which worked pretty well. Lacking the religious angle, but I think still relevant for the "RPGs with kids" part of the question: geekmom.com/tag/rpg-kids Shadows especially seems like it could have some real potential. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Aug 22 '16 at 16:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Larping sounds like it could be a great way to go, if the teacher can keep it under control. This summer I was at HoBLotH, a week-long camp based around the Ultima computer games (which are known for their deep explorations of morality), and each attendee had to create and run a quest. I was amazed at some of the wonderful quandaries and morality tales the quest-creators came up with, and equally bedazzled by the huge range of solutions the players came up with for each one. \$\endgroup\$ – Dewi Morgan Aug 23 '16 at 4:53

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