The mainstreaming of the popular roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons has significantly changed how people address and understand the game. It’s become a spectator sport and a way for some gamers to earn their living. D&D gameplay and its symbolism have become a significant plot point in geek-oriented TV shows like Stranger Things and The Big Bang Theory. It’s the subject of copious scientific studies and papers, and hundreds of long-running live-play podcasts. It’s a steadily growing business, and an effective promotional gimmick for businesses. And it’s also increasingly an educational tool. More and more teachers are publishing guides on how to use D&D both in the classroom, and as an after-school activity that promotes social growth, problem-solving, and communication.
In a recent comic at the cartoonist outlet The Nib, illustrator and author Phil McAndrew dives into D&D’s educational aspects by interviewing teachers who are running the game for their students. Dungeons & Dragons’ usefulness as a social activity has been covered before, but McAndrew’s comic delves into some particularly telling revelations about how specific teachers are using it — to let kids try out adult decision-making with community consequences, to promote interest in reading and writing, to explore personal and political problems in a safe fantasy space.
The entire comic is well worth reading, but I also spoke to McAndrew about how he researched it and what went into planning and assembling these interviews, and the resulting comic.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What got you started on this comic?
In the very beginning of the comic, I mention briefly that I was hanging out with a friend a few years ago, and he said he was helping a teacher friend of his run a D&D campaign after school, with his students. I thought that was really cool, and I kept it in my head for a while. Over the last three or four years, I kept hearing about teachers who were also doing this, encountering the idea in a few places. And I had it in my mind that I should maybe do a comic about it. When I started doing some non-fiction stuff last year for The Nib, after mostly focusing on humor throughout my cartooning career, it just seemed like a good idea, having a good outlet for it.
Did you talk to any of the kids involved, or observe any D&D sessions in schools?
I really wanted to, and planned to, but the timing stunk, because I was writing it just as the school year was ending. I have a friend who lives in the same city as me, who is one of these teachers I talked to for the comic, and he said, “Yeah, come sit in.” And then on the day I was going to hang out during their afterschool D&D club, he texted me and said, “I guess they’re not doing it today, and this was going to be the last one for the year.” So I just missed out, which was too bad.
I’ve role-played with kids, and run games for kids, and attention span is often a problem with younger players. Did any of your interviewees address how they deal with Dungeons & Dragons being such a rules-intensive game?
Two of the teachers I talked to are mostly dealing with high-school kids, so for them, it may be a little easier. But Rich, the first teacher I encountered who was doing this, was running games for middle-school or maybe even younger kids. I imagine their sessions don’t run super-long. I think they probably top out at about an hour.
Are you aware of what kind of institutional support they’re getting? Has there been any pushback, any of the old-school attitude that Dungeons & Dragons is unhealthy, or some kind of cult gateway?
That was something I was really curious about, too! All of the teachers I talked to, I asked about that. They all said they hadn’t really run into any resistance at all. In fact, some of them said the administrators of their schools were pretty excited about it, and thought it was really cool. For some, it was also an unofficial thing, an afterschool club, or during lunchtime. So it didn’t sound like there were any major hurdles. One or two of them were getting active support from the school, but for the most part, it was just something the schools are allowing to happen.
You talk to all your teacher interviewees about their own D&D characters, and they all have these elaborate personal fantasies around them. Why was that an important part of the story for you?
That started just for my own curiosity, as a good way to maybe start an interview. I’d ask, “Can you tell me a little about your own experiences with D&D?” And they all wanted to talk about their characters that they’d played. It just seemed like a fun detail. Some of what they described was so interesting and funny that I was just like, “I’ve got to keep this in the comic, even though it’s not hugely important.” I think it did add some flavor to the comic.
As you said, non-fiction comics are a new step for you. How are you approaching stories like this?
This was just something I was curious about, and that I thought was really cool, hearing about this happening in schools. I just approached it with curiosity. I just go and try to talk to people, and let them do as much of the talking as I can. I thought it was interesting, so I wanted to spread it around, and get people thinking about it — especially teachers and parents.