Roll for initiative: Using a game master mindset in education

Adult woman wearing a headset looks at the screen of a laptop front view

“You enter a pitch-black cavern, and a low, rumbling snarl meets your ears. Roll for initiative,” the game master (GM) says. What happens next is as much a question of chance as it is strategy and planning, and the role of the GM is key in determining whether or not the character and the rest of his party survive the encounter. These players may find themselves energized for their next battle after successfully defeating the beast or frustrated and angry after fighting a battle they couldn’t win. While it may seem unlikely, a similar scenario applies to learning.

In the world of education, as in other fields, gamification, the use of gaming mechanics to encourage buy-in from stakeholders, is a recent buzzword. Game mechanics can be implemented in classrooms smoothly, but when working with students one-on-one in a tutoring scenario, the dynamic changes significantly. Furthermore, when a student comes to a tutoring session, it’s typically out of frustration, so a student probably isn’t in a mood to play games.

Despite this, educators can still find inspiration in games and, more specifically, role-playing games. There’s been a resurgence in role-playing games recently, most notably among adults1. Role-playing mechanics, storytelling, and general play have proven valuable in several fields, like military planning, psychological counselling, and health and fitness2. For tutors, who may see a student only once and likely won’t be able to plan a campaign or implement a leveling system, the mechanics and storytelling of role-playing games is less important than the GM mindset.

GMs ensure campaigns are developed to meet the players where they are3. This means manipulating challenge levels, giving players their moments in the spotlight, understanding what players want from the experience, and recognizing that the GM’s role is to work collaboratively with players to tell a story. Great GMs know their world and are able to improvise to meet players’ actions and keep a story moving. Similarly, educators should rely on their knowledge of their fields and abilities to change tactics to meet the needs of each student. They collaborate with students to reach goals, adapt challenges, and give students a place in the spotlight.

As a writing tutor, I may have a student looking for help with a thesis statement. As I talk with the student, I recognize that she doesn’t have a main idea. I change tactics to meet the student where she is. We work together to establish a new goal: what is she trying to say in her paper? I encourage her to share what she’s learned about her topic and what she wants to say about it, giving her the spotlight. Then, I develop a challenge that works for her. I ask questions to get her to work on her thesis. If she’s still struggling, I offer a model to help her see how one works. Again, I ask her to take the spotlight by writing her thesis. If we’re both successful, she’ll walk away from the session feeling confident and ready to face new challenges, just as a role player walks away from a successful encounter prepared to face the next.

Great GMs challenge, encourage, understand, and collaborate with their players. When player-characters fail, they learn from those failures; when they succeed, they build momentum for greater challenges and successes. In this way, characters level up and create lasting stories. My students have already rolled high for initiative. They’ve had the courage and taken the time to address their concerns. It’s my job to create challenging, but not insurmountable, “encounters” that make that initiative pay off. When students walk away from sessions, I hope they’ve leveled up or at least gotten some good loot to prepare for greater challenges and to continue building their stories. What are you doing to help your students level up and prepare for the encounters ahead of them?


About the Author
Suzanne Whetzel

Suzanne Whetzel

Suzanne Whetzel has been a tutor and educator for the past 14 years and is currently a lead tutor with Smarthinking. She specializes in writing, reading, and English language instruction at the high school and collegiate level. She holds a master’s degree in student affairs in higher education/student personnel with a focus on graduate and nontraditional students. Additionally, she has taught writing intensive film and composition courses at the collegiate level, as well as served as a freelance tutor and editor. She also enjoys volunteering at writing centers when possible. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, watching movies, gaming, crafting, catching up on the latest tech news, dabbling in computer programming, and enjoying conversation over a cup of good coffee.



1. Kramer, Josh. “An Illustrated Guide to Why Grown-Ups Are Playing Dungeons & Dragons Again.” Washington Post. June 1, 2016. Accessed June 8, 2016.

2. Ling, Justin. “Introducing ‘ISIS Crisis’: The Strategy Board Game the Canadian Military Could Use to Fight the Islamic State.” Vice News. May 12, 2016. Accessed June 8, 2016.

3. Colville, Matthew. Running the Game (playlist). Posted by “Matthew Colville.” Accessed June 8, 2016.

Boccamazzo, Raffael. 2016. “Boccamazzo on D&D and Autism.” Wizards of the Coast (podcast). May 5, 2016. Accessed June 8, 2016.

Be a Better Game Master (playlist). Posted by “DawforgedCast.” Accessed June 8, 2016.

Kampmeyer, Dina. “Roll a Perfect D20 at the Gym by Fighting These Big Boss Monsters.” Geek & Sundry. June 3, 2016. Accessed June 8, 2016.

Mercer, Matt. Matt Mercer’s GM Tips (playlist). Posted by “Geek & Sundry.” Accessed June 8, 2016.