Come to the geek side of #scicomm: Marine science education by Dungeons & Dragons

A couple of years ago, several of the people organizing the International Marine Conservation Congress let slip in their planning discussions that they played Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). There are many of us of a certain age that remember fondly playing in our youth, some of us have kids who are now getting of an age where we can, in turn, teach them how to play, and some were drawn in by the surge in Youtube and podcast shows like the hugely popular “Critical Role” where literally millions of people turn in to watch a bunch of nerds play Dungeons and Dragons … and have fun.

This led to the idea of playing a game at the conference. After more discussion, perhaps helped by a few drinks, the idea was spawned that perhaps we could make this game marine-themed and educational? Maybe even play this game in front of an audience at the conference? Perhaps even record it and share it online…?!

And lo, this crazy idea did come to pass.  In a bar at the conference venue we played to a packed house. The adventure involved saving the seagrass beds used by some giant manatees (yes, it was habitat for huge manatees) and the adventurers had to fight a collection of fishmen, giant mantis shrimps and even a monster constructed of shark teeth. In the adventure, there were a number of “easter egg” character and place names that were marine species or famous figures from marine science history, and the audience could win prizes (in the form of bags of dice kindly donated by Kraken Dice) if they noticed them.

The episode was recorded and put out on the (then) new podcast the Marine Conservation Happy Hour. The episode, somewhat to everyone’s surprise became one of the most downloaded episodes in the show.

We then realized that we might have created something that might have a broad audience and, more importantly, found a way to talk about marine science in a new, and fun, way. So we decided to officially launch the regular podcast “Dugongs & Seadragons”.

The podcast goes out every week and it follows the story of “the Cephalosquad” an eclectic bunch of “no-quite-so-heroes”, exploring a world, and adventures created by marine ecologist and conservation scientist Dr Joshua Drew (the “Dungeon Master”). The rest of the regular members of the Cephalosquad include:

  • Fisheries biologist Heather Penny (who plays Marigold Bumbershoot the halfling rogue)
  • Lobster biologist and teacher Travis Nielsen (who plays the dwarven cleric of beer Carl S Berg and the Porter’ a warforged barbarian)
  • Coral reef biologist Matt Tietbohl (who plays Leo the dragonborn ranger)
  • Shark biologist Frances Farabaugh (who plays Calli an assimar bard and Pepper the gnome paladin)
  • Marine conservation policy expert and podcaster Andrew Kornblatt (who plays marmo, the halfling bard lawyer)
  • Environmental scientist and artist Erin Ziegler Anderson (who plays Dharma, a kelp forest druid)
  • …and myself, a marine mammal scientist (who plays Lucien Darke, a tiefling warlock)

In terms of marine science, episodes have included discussions on upwelling ecology, dynamite fishing, whale behavior, primitive chordates, nutrient cycling, the ecological theory of “landscapes of fear”, diving physiology, bioluminescence, fisheries management and many other topics.

The show has also had some spin off adventures, for example, the “Clogg & co” adventures. These are episodes where the players themselves are kids in their tweens and early teens. Their characters are abandoned street urchins and orphans who have been banded together by the goblin plumber “Clogg” to solve mysteries. There are also the “terror & tentacles” adventures, which uses a different role-playing system (Call of Cthulhu). In these adventures the characters are agents for the allies in the early days of the Second World War, investigating eldritch terrors but also encountering the environmental, maritime and military history along with a big splash of zoology and marine science.

The show has even been invited to sci-fi conventions. In May 2019, the team did a live recording at the Awesome Con event in Washington DC. Again, the episode was filled with scientific references and other “easter eggs”, which could win audience members prizes of dice (kindly donated by Kraken Dice again).  

The most recent development was that the players collaborated with a bunch of other scientists who played D&D (led by University of Maryland ecologist Zeke Gonzalez) to produce a book “the Scientific Secrets of Saltmarsh” a collection of dungeons and dragons monsters that were based on, or inspired by real life aquatic creatures. Each monster entry is linked to a scientific paper and has a section on the scientific background of the creature.

The feedback about the podcast has been fantastic. Many fans (some as young as 10 or 11) have contacted the players telling them how much the show has inspired them, and how much they’ve learnt. The podcast has also hit the top 20 podcast charts in the US for gaming podcasts and also, simultaneously, hit the top 30 for nature podcasts. Like good scientists, however, the Dugongs & Seadragons crowd are currently conducting research to scientifically evaluate the educational impact that the podcast is having (with an interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists), so hopefully we’ll soon have some hard data on the actual impact of the show – watch this space for updates !


If you are interested in listening to episodes of the Dugongs & Seadragons podcast it can be found on most good podcast providers including apple podcasts & spotify. All the archived episodes and the more details about the show can be found at the Dugongs & Seadragons website. If you would like to support the podcast, we also have a Patreon site to collect donations.