by David Gutbezahl –

When I was just starting out on my journey as a Jewish educator I worked as a camp counselor at a Jewish summer camp. Part of my job as a counselor was to plan activities for a large group of eight-year olds. Now, as a proud “nerd”, I happen to be a fan of role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. I thought that implementing my two passions, Judaism and roleplaying, would make for an amazing experience for my campers.

Oh boy was I wrong. I planned what I thought was an amazing retelling of the story of Jericho for my campers. I let them make paper swords, set up the scenario, placed them on opposite sides and told them to go to war. I was young and inexperienced. Nobody told me that giving eight-year olds weapons and telling them to reenact a violent point in history was a bad idea…

My first attempt at synergizing roleplaying with education may have ended in tears and trips to the nurse, but that does not mean that we should give up on the idea. I am of the opinion that roleplaying and Jewish education specifically synergize extremely well, if done correctly. Role-playing is all about telling a story, but not just from an abstract third-person point of view, but as one of the characters experiencing the story itself. Judaism is all for storytelling, and even acting it out. We do so with the Purim shpiel, and with the story of Passover we are told to retell the story as if we were taken out of Egypt ourselves. Judaism is the perfect breeding ground for fascinating and meaningful role-playing experiences.

So, how can we effectively implement role-playing into our lesson plans without bringing out the inner monster in our students?

Set the Scene

Whenever I start a new role-playing game with a group of friends, we start with a little process that helps us set the scene. We discuss among ourselves what genres were interested in, which aspects of the game they enjoy, and how intense some of the roleplaying might be. Then, we start with a little exposition and I set the scene in which the game will be played.

When using role-play for educational purposes, the first question you have to ask yourself is what are you trying to teach? This will set the framework for the activity that you are planning. Any activity needs to be adapted according to this framework, but the amazing thing about role-play is that it can be adapted to almost any lesson.

Once you know your educational goal, you can then determine what sort of role-play you want to engage your students in. If your goal is to teach history, you could set the students in a scene from that historical event. Teaching mitzvot? Have the students roleplay a situation where they could perform the mitzvah. Of course you could even combine the two. Maybe you want to teach the laws of Shabbat, but through the lens of the tribes of Israel as they trekked through the wilderness alongside Moses.

As part of setting the scene and ensuring you reach your educational goals, you’ll also have to consider the best way of delivering information to the students. Do you give them all the information beforehand? This may be necessary if you are having them role-play performing a mitzvah. Do you deliver it “in-character”while they’re in the midst of the role-play? Perhaps you can play Moses coming to the Israelites and instructing them on the laws of Shabbat whilst they are in the wilderness. Or, if you are teaching a historical event, maybe you don’t tell them what happened, but only set up the scene and allow them to see what they will do. Afterwards, you can teach them what the figures actually did in the Torah.

The way you set the scene plays a major role in how the message of the lesson will be delivered. There are so many ways for you to approach this, but the important thing is for you to not tell the students exactly what they should do in the role-play. If you do that, they are simply acting out your script, which may be great, but misses out on the personalized element of role-playing that could help the students really connect with the lesson.

Encourage Stepping Into a Role

One of the things they say in the world of role-playing is that some people role-play and others “roll-play”. Roll-playing is when a player is really just there to do the actions and play a game (roll dice,) while role-playing is when the player actually steps into the shoes of their character and takes on the role. Some speak as if they are the character, others actually act out their character, even taking on new voices when they speak. When using role-play as an educational tool, our goal is for the learner to feel a personal connection, and the emphasis is on the “role” more than the “play.”

It is important to convey this to the participants, and to help them step into their role. Tell them that they are the character, and encourage them to improvise and act according to the character they are playing. For some students, this can bring out so much creativity in them, and can teach them to approach things differently. Tell them not to take the “best” option, but the most fitting option. Obviously, they should listen when they are told not to collect more manna in the desert, but have them actually imagine being hungry and worried about the future. Make them question the “right” decision.

Be careful with this one, though, you don’t want to push too hard. One thing I’ve learned from my games, is that everyone approaches roles differently. Some students will get really into their role, and even start acting it out. Others may be uncomfortable with this, and prefer to direct their character with a more removed voice. This does not mean the role isn’t being considered when they make decisions, and to push them to act it out more can lead to them having a bad time.

Keep it Simple

These kinds of games can get complex! There are massive tomes filled with rules and instructions on how to play them. Unless both you and your students are fans of these games already, avoid actually using them. Instead, keep the game simple so that students can focus on the story and the roles they are playing. Below are a few suggestions for keeping it simple:

  1. Allow the players to succeed at anything they say their character does. If there is a conflict between players, settle it with a simple coin toss.
  2. When you want to give your players a little challenge, rather than simply allowing them to succeed, give them a quiz or some other fun activity. Prepare a handful of “challenges” that you can quickly pull out. If they pass, their character succeeds.
  3. Check out games like FATE Accelerated. Fate Accelerated is an excellent game that uses four simple dice and doesn’t focus on things like statistics. It is a narrative experience that is easy to learn, and can be adapted to fit any story.

Think Outside the Box

Be creative. No lesson plan, activity, or role-playing game is going to work in all situations. The suggestions in this article are to get you to think about how you can engage your students’ creativity and have them feel a deeper and personal connection to the lesson. Perhaps a traditional game won’t work for your group. Instead, you could have your students divide into groups and write a short story together, with each student suggesting the actions of a specific character. Maybe they can write a little screenplay together? Either of these activities can achieve the same goal as a role-playing experience, but may fit better for your group. What will work for your group?

Do you have any experience with using role-playing in your lessons? Have any suggestions for others considering this for their own students? Share with us in the comments below!

David Gutbezahl is the digital projects director for the Pincus Fund for Jewish Education in the Diaspora and editor of Jeducation World.