John Leopold is a long-time teacher of ancient history and Latin at Oakwood Secondary School in North Hollywood, California. Since 1988, he has supplemented his curriculum with various role-playing games of his own design—something that began as he searched for a way to make learning more interesting for his students. Unsurprisingly, a few of the pupils in the Latin class were also enthusiasts of Dungeons & Dragons, and they helped him design some of the more technical aspects of the games he runs. Now, almost every class he teaches incorporates some kind of game.
One of them, Daggers in the Forum, pits individual students against each other in a contest of brinksmanship and intrigue set around Caesar’s rise to power in Rome. Another groups the students into countries in the Ancient Near East who must compete against limited resources and each other for survival. In his language classes he is not limited to historical simulation and becomes more fantastic, running campaigns (entirely in Latin!) based on Roman myths or Arthurian legend. More recently, he has introduced a new game based on vampire and werewolf lore set in 18th century Styria, specifically meant to engage the multitude of Twilight-obsessed girls in this year’s class.
Parents sometimes hear stories from their children about what’s going on at school and raise questions. Is this really a serious education?
For his part, Leopold explains how even the monsters in the campaigns come from classical texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Lucian’s True History, and how the games tend to inspire his students to do more learning on their own. Playing as a Roman statesman can give one a curious attachment to his story, as the distant politics of the ancient world spring to vivid life. Reading about the Tribune’s veto power in a book is one thing. Having one’s own personal ambitions thwarted by this power in a dramatic classroom confrontation is quite another. One girl who had been given the character of Cicero to play began to read his works simply out of curiosity.
In the end, though, and as in any educational endeavor, it still comes down to the individual and his or her level of engagement. “Some students learn little more than they would from a textbook,” he says. “[It] just depends on how involved they get.” Those who do get involved, however, don’t just have fun while learning— they also contribute to the future evolution of his games, too. Some suggest ideas for mechanics based on the commercial role-playing games they’ve experienced at home. Others find exploits and powergame his creations, forcing him to rebalance them. And, every once in a while, expectations are defied.
“I had two students who were determined to go to China, even though the quest was supposed to be on the Island of Crete. I didn’t have the heart to say ‘no’ to them and they overcame every monstrous encounter I sent to deflect them. The moral: I should either be much sterner or have more of a China quest ready to go,” he noted once.
The idea that a couple of strong-willed girls could steer their experience towards the East simply because they wanted to and had, through their efforts, earned the right to get there, presents an intriguing example of the way games can be different than any other medium: while the content of Leopold’s campaigns could be said to be educational, it is actually the interaction between teacher and student, enabled through and informed by the mechanics of the game, that points the way towards their real potential.