Monday, March 25, 2019

The Pool and The Snowball: Forward to the Past

I’ve been running a sequence of four game sessions working with James V. West’s The Pool. Here is the video of our session.

 As with recent play reports, I'm going to cross-post this at Ron Edwards' Adept Play site which has provoked much of my thinking of what is going on in this session. Feel free to comment here or over there!

The mechanics of The Pool are lean and streamlined: Players start by creating a 50-word story introducing their characters. Traits and attributes are derived from those stories, and a players can assign points to those traits according to a simple formula. They leave some points (usually 3-5) for their “pool” which they can then use to boost the number of dice they roll in the case of a challenge or conflict. The number of dice involved in a roll is the sum of:

  • The points of the trait involved
  • 0-3 discretionary dice awarded by the GM
  • Gambled dice from the pool

If a player succeeds in their roll, they can choose to deliver a Monologue of Victory (which gives them the power of controlling the narrative for a short period of time) or to add another die to their pool.

For our first session, we used the rules as written by James West, and on subsequent weeks we have moved to variants. To get the players in the same head space, I sent them some pictures with the statement, “These are some of the inhabitants you see around the village in which you live.” One player used the term “rustic fantasy” to describe the kind of setting and atmosphere that developed from that seed.

I am focusing this Actual Play report on our most recent session (Session 3), which incorporated some rules from a variant of The Pool called The Snowball (by  Alexander Cherry). The most significant changes to core rules involve:

  • The LOSS of gambled pool dice on a SUCCESS (in the original rules, you lose those gambled dice when you fail a roll.
  • The addition of a Monologue of Defeat (in addition to the core rule’s Monologue of Victory).
  • The playing of the game in reverse chronological order. 

[Note: We are not incorporating all the rules of The Snowball, in part because this is part of an ongoing campaign whose previous sessions were run the proper rules of The Pool and the Anti-Pool Variant.]

I hope  to produce a summary of the entire 4-session series when we have completed it, but I wanted to make some specific observations about this curious Snowball session because the reversed chronological order touches upon some other issues recently raised at Adept Play. Those issues include those of “knowing the future,” the requirement to roleplay in terms of a necessary goal or terminus, and improvisation within increasingly rigid structure.

I’m including a diagram to help with establishing how the session was organized. Sessions 1 and 2 were already “in the can,” and they established a known and unalterable backstory for the players (who had participated in those sessions). For the first scene of Session 3, we lept to the future.

As the GM, my procedure was to give the players a setting and some detail. I then went around the table and each player could briefly establish where their character was and what their character was doing and/or feeling as the scene opened. From there we roleplayed to a point where we were satisfied that the scene had come to a sense of closure or conclusion.

I then transported us back to Scene 2 using the same scene framing technique: The GM provided a setting and some interesting details, and the players inserted their characters in the scene. We then played out the scene with a major objective in mind: Namely, we needed to end at a narrative point close to where Scene 1 began.

Play proceeded in this manner until we ended with a scene that was in close narrative proximity to where we had ended in Session 2.

A few things to note:

  • The starting point of Scene 1 was constrained by the basic “facts” established by the first two sessions, but otherwise was open in terms of content. Likewise, the end point of Scene 1 was determined by play and not planned. Scene 1, in other words, was very similar to the way we had been playing in previous sessions with the exception that there was a notable time gap that had elapsed. As a result, Scene 1 begins with a disorienting in medias res moment as the players try to figure out what has been happening. But this “figuring out” follows the “pump” model (State 2) of play as described by Ron: That is, it proceeds “from a pressurized position into a unique and unplanned circumstance.” 
  • The later scenes, by contrast were much more constrained. We had some freedom with the starting point of the second and following scenes, but the end points were largely predetermined (by virtue of the fact that they had to fit in with the starting point of the scene we had previously played). That said, we found that we could modulate the difficulty of the play by considering the details of one scene and then deliberately framing the “next” scene with some of those elements in mind. To illustrate: 
  • Scene 1 was set in the middle of an ancient stone circle. A plinth in the center was covered with the shards of a broken blood-red gem, and a hot war hammer lay on the ground. During the scene, an earth golem was discovered to have been involved in the act of destruction, and one of the characters (Auntie Pine) notifies the company that she is leaving her role as the firekeeper of the village.
  • It eased the way in Scene 2 to frame things such that some of those key elements were already in play or explained. 
  • The final scene of the session was the most heavily constrained: We had to start near the end-point of Session 2 and end with the starting point of the last scene we had played. (Hopefully the diagram helps to make all this clear!)

This way of play required us to move from the  pump model to a funnel model of play, and this is one reason why the players were challenged. Note that we could have been taking a form of funnel approach from the start, but my play group was happy to begin with some basic aspects of setting and then work out a story in the course of play without any predetermined end point. So Sessions 1 and 2 along with Scene 1 of Session 3 all followed with this pump approach. But with the retrograde chronology of “The Snowball” in place, Scene 2 and the following scenes have to abide by the funnel.

This made for a curious experience, especially since the trajectory of our story had not previously been decided ahead of time. Now, we were playing a series of scenes where a specific goal was in mind. Unlike a usual funnel, however, this goal was now a narrative necessity: Had we decided to pursue a different goal, our story would have fallen apart, and we would have been left with two scenes that no longer meshed with each other. Normally, the funnel is more optional.

This style of play also required some special focus and deliberation on our part. You will particularly notice this towards the end of the recording when one of the players who was battling fatigue realized that it was on him to do something with his character to preserve the narrative continuity, but memory lapses were making this task virtually impossible. I had to provide some prompting for his light bulb to go off.

I don’t think our play required any extensive fudging of the rules as we set them up at the start of the session, though with a more merciless or deadly rules system, that would change. For example, if you were following a reversed chronology and you knew that a character was alive in one scene, then what if the mechanics of your game dictated that the character died in the scene that immediately preceded that one in time? That would face you with a gordian knot, with the easiest solution being to massage or alter the results.

A few general observations about our experience playing with The Pool and some variants:

  • Using magic as a trait in a fantasy setting provides so much power within this system, and there are times when I wish that we could limit it because it can so effectively overshadow some other attributes which are more unique and curious. Traits like old age, storytelling, and cooking are interesting to put into play, but once the magic gets rolling, those traits are getting forced to the wings. 
  • The Monologue of Defeat and consequences of failed rolls motivate interesting narrative twists, but when they are the result of GM-forced rolls involving perception or knowledge, they get more tricky. To explain: Imagine that the GM asks a character to roll because they want to see if a character realizes something about an event taking place. If the character fails the roll, then it can be hard to think of some narratively consequential impact (i.e. something more than simply that the character remains ignorant of something). 

Questions or comments about The Pool, The Snowball, or issues raised by our play are welcome.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Social Media Sorcerer, Session 2: Depth and Duration in RPGs

I am posting my Actual Play reports over at Adept Play, but in case that slips by someone's radar, I'm cross-posting this report here. This is especially important because it touches upon issues pertinent to teaching and how you introduce complexity to someone (or an entire group) who is unfamiliar with an activity or procedure. Ron Edwards has a video-comment follow-up over at his Actual Play section which does a nice job of articulating and developing some of the ideas here.

We finished our second session of Sorcerer, and the Kickers with aid of the character diagrams continue to gain traction. You will find the video below. With so many dynamic elements at work in my game, I’m going to focus this report on the interrelated issues of depth and duration.

I have been catching up on The Grognard Files, a podcast from England involving players who have decades of experience playing a small handful of games together (especially Runequest). On an episode devoted to the Player’s Handbook of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the two principles had a kind of wizarding face-off which involved delving into their favorite spells. Notably absent were the heavy artillery standbys like Fireball and Lightning Bolt. Instead, the two discussed spells like Shrink (the reversal of Enlarge), Magic Mouth, and Phantasmal Force. They were quick to point out the situational versatility of those spells—the way that a quick-witted magic user can find applications for those incantations that the game designers (or the DM) probably never even considered. It is clear from their discussion that they have been steeped in the game for a while, and their familiarity with the game mechanics and setting has given them a creativity and insight that the newcomers or more dilettante gamers would not perceive. There is a depth to their gaming experience, and this is related to the duration of acquaintance with the game. The example of individual spell may seem trivial, but it is related to other, more consequential types of depth that such committed players can achieve.

As a GM who has never played Sorcerer before, and who is now running his first sessions for a group of similar novices, I feel a bit the way I do when I teach a piece of literature to my classes: In those cases, the students are so busy trying to get their bearings that many of the subtle nuances and rewards of the text are only glanced at. I already sense that Sorcerer is the type of game where we will finish up the Kickers in a month or so, and we will then say, “O.K., we are starting to understand the game. Now we are ready to play it in earnest!” It’s the kind of reaction I have when I have finished a particularly satisfying novel, story, or poem: Upon finishing it, I feel like I’m paradoxically in a position genuinely to start reading it.

This raises the question of how best to approach the game with first-time players. There is a delicate balance to be worked out between directing the game and letting the players develop insights (and make mistakes) on their own. At points, I feel like I’m a bit too forward in creating insights for the players, but if I don’t take some leading steps, they might completely miss the boat on resources in the game. And if they miss out on gaining an understanding early on, they will find themselves hamstrung as the stories develop.

Here’s a concrete example. In session two, the character named Shawn McEwan writes a blog and spearheads some social media outreach for a cult named The Eighth Laurel. (Note: The cult itself is not actually sorcerous, but Shawn’s master, who is in the cult’s hierarchy, is.) Shawn’s Kicker involves a strange surge in the popularity of his blog and social media presence, and this has thrust him into the limelight, which is giving him a sense of meaning and belonging that he is desperate for. In session two, his mentor (a sorcerer named Diana) tells Shawn that she is happy about the success he is achieving, and suggests running a social media experiment. This involves trying to lace some of the cult’s tweets and postings with phrases, hyperlinks, and hashtags that might impact weak-willed and impressionable members of the internet audience. Shawn and his demon named Aaron (whose need involves influencing the beliefs and actions of others) set to work.

Partly through roleplaying Aaron, I suggested that Shawn use a sequence of Perception, Confuse, and Taint in combination with a small social media blitz for the cult. Granted, those demonic abilities are written with face-to-face situations in mind, but Lore is being defined in my game as “Algorithmic Alchemy” and sorcery is generated through some mysterious powers conferred by the internet and the darker recesses of the web. So, for our game, it seems like internet contact is as important (or maybe more important) than physical proximity.

The rolls were successful (they were up against a countering roll of 4 Will, which I used to represent the will of a potentially malleable audience open to the teaching of the cult). Granted, the impact of this application of sorcery is hard to measure. Indeed, it’s possible that it didn’t even work. But there is an uptick in the popularity of the blog. People are even recording short videos of themselves spouting teachings of The Eight Laurel in varied settings. One such person sustains injuries when he produces a live video of himself climbing up the scaffolding of a building under construction as a goofy stunt. He’s posing and reciting some tenets of the Eighth Laurel’s belief system during his daring climb, but he then loses his grip and plummets to the ground, sustaining some serious injuries. The demon Aaron is gleeful, and he gets that look that shows his Need is being satisfied. Shawn is appalled by the event, and sends a condolence message to the victim. He’s in disbelief that he could have caused such an event. I’ve left it ambiguous: It might be a result of sorcery, or it might just be that the video streamer was just being stupid.

Through this sequence, I as the GM was offering more suggestions than I would if we were all more familiar with the game, but I’m now up to a test case to see if Shawn is ready to take flight. The player in control of Shawn has, on a number of occasions, mentioned that there are internet trolls who especially raise Shawn’s hackles. So, for our next session, I’ll have one of the trolls raise his ugly head and see whether Shawn, without prompting, will lash out on his own with some nasty sorcery to take down that hater.

Here, the “personal range” rules of demon abilities will have to be stretched. But my thinking is this: If sorcery derives from the power of social media and dabblings in the internet, and if a sorcerer is in direct, one-on-one contact with a target through messaging, video conference, etc., then that would qualify as personal range.

I sense that I will need to do some similar preparatory work in order to get the players to realize the utility of the rituals. No player has mentioned yet mentioned Contact, but it seems like that would be quite powerful in the social media context of our game. I also would like to see the players actively going after bonuses on their rolls, and I’ll try to provide some direct instruction for this. They seemed to be more onto the bonus aspect in session 1, but that dimension fell off the radar in session 2.

These reflections raise a topic for another day: The tabletop roleplaying game scene is having a renaissance, but games are being produced and published in such a white heat, that there is less of a market for sustained, deep play. This is not to say that there aren’t games being created that reward such type of careful attention and long-term commitment. But when there are dozens of games being Kickstarted, published on DriveThru, etc. every week, the market forces seem to be saying “buy something new” instead of nestling in with a deep game. And this is also telling designers to slant towards one-shots or games that will play out in a few sessions as opposed to designing games requiring long campaigns. It seems like the “long form game” is something that is being driven out of the indie game market. If long form games are produced for the indie market, I wonder whether they will more likely to be read than played.

One specific rules question. There are abilities where the user must provide a crucial definition. For example, with Perception, “exactly what is perceived must be defined at the outset.” Do you make this definition when you first get the demon (in which case, the demon would be locked into that particular type of perception for the game), or do you make the definition whenever you want to employ the ability (in which case, the type of perception can vary from situation to situation)?

A similar question occurs with Special Damage. One of the characters in my game wanted to have both lethal and non-lethal forms of Special Damage, so I counted that as two abilities. The character also wanted ranged attacks. So I’m allowing her Ranged ability to apply to both types of attack.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sorcerer Actual Play: Session 1: My Cell Phone is Possessed

We moved into Session 1 of a campaign of Ron Edwards' Sorcerer. For the recording and further discussion of the game, head over to Ron's Adept Play site by clicking here

The game is challenging for me and the players: We are novices to the game, and Sorcerer demands much of everyone at the table. We've got an understanding of the basic roll mechanic, and now we are trying to get a firm handle on the abilities of the demons and various subtleties of the game.

I continue to enjoy the way that the game gets the players and GM to forge their own narratives at the table. Each character has a Kicker, which sets their stories in motion, but not one has a clear sense of exactly where the stories will go and where we are going to end up. The experience of this game is unique and distinctive: It certainly draws upon role-playing ideas which are familiar, but it is encouraging a story that is remarkably freed from baggage and preconceptions. I think everyone at my table is into the sense that we are not trying to follow any preset plan, but are trying to float some interesting ideas and develop them in a rather improvisational manner.

Perhaps not coincidental, I've also started up a sequence of sessions with James V. West's groundbreaking game The Pool which also offers up a format that is wide open in terms of the types of stories and characters you bring to the table. More on that mini-project to follow . . . 

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Ron Edwards' Sorcerer: Novice Test Flight

I've taken a big plunge and have started up a campaign using Ron Edwards' Sorcerer. I'm excited about the game and the players (most of whom are completely new to me). I've decided to put my full Actual Play write-ups over at Ron's Adept Play site, where they are likely to meet a larger audience and to generate some comments, so if you are interested, please head over there!

As a bit of a teaser, the grounding statements for the game are:

  • "Demons are social media junkies"
  • "The most magical place on earth: Orlando's theme park empires"
Edwards has this subtitle for Sorcerer: "An Intense Roleplaying Game." He's not kidding. This is a serious and deep roleplaying game. I'm considering it as a possibility for next year's module in my AP English classes to introduce them to the complexity and seriousness of roleplaying games. This might be over their heads...but maybe not. 

Stay tuned. I'll continue to put up some actual play reports over at Adept Play. And I hope to have a post up here soon about running games online.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Teaching Tabletop Role-playing Games as Art and Literature

There are more questions than answers in what follows, but this topic has been on the backburner for too long, and it’s time for me to take action and get this cooking. I’d love to get input, directions, comments, or advice.

The core question of today’s post: If you were teaching a set of precocious, smart high school juniors had a 3-4 week period to introduce them to “Tabletop Role-playing Games as Art and Literature,” how would you accomplish that task?

The background and context: For many years, I have taught AP English Language and Composition, which is, at its core, a class about rhetoric. I’m teaching high school juniors about various techniques, strategies, and devices which writers/speakers use to achieve their objectives. Those objectives span a wide spectrum: A writer/speaker might be trying to to persuade, to inform, to teach, to deliver an experience, or to accomplish diversity of goals. The College Board (which tries to define the parameters of the course) favors non-fiction prose for this particular course, but in my class, I use a much more diverse array of texts. We read novels, stories, poetry, essays, memoirs, speeches, interviews, and more.

At the start of the spring semester, I have a one-month unit on texts that incorporate visuals as a key element. For our reading, we start by looking at Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, move on to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and then wrap things up with a graphic novel such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Along the way, we look at advertisements, political cartoons, and other comics.

Some still consider this type of thing radical, which is a testament to how old-fashioned and entrenched disciplinary boundaries remain at the high school level. It’s odd that we live in an age where images are so pervasive, yet we still insist on viewing rhetoric as belonging to the written world.

But if teaching comics is radical, they ain’t seen nothing yet.

The Task: It’s time for me to do something more genuinely cutting edge—namely, to incorporate a unit on tabletop role-playing games as literature in my AP curriculum. I may be wrong, but I don’t know that there are many high school classes out there that are taking a serious look at these games as serious works of art. (If you know of any high schools where ttrpgs are being taught as part of the curriculum, I’d love to hear about them).So there’s a lot of unexplored territory ahead. This is also a moment that is long overdue.

The problem I’m now facing is how exactly to venture into this wilderness Some key questions:
  • Is there currently a book out there that does for tabletop role-playing games what Scott McCloud and Will Eisner have done for comics? That is, is there a cogent and clear summary of the medium of tabletop role-playing games as an art form and a mode of communication? This might involve a brief history, but more centrally, it needs to be a book that develops a clear vocabulary for discussing the elements of various games. It needs to be accessible to a general audience who might be coming to role-playing games new for the first time. And it needs to be engaging. If this type of book isn’t yet out there, what would be a workaround? Are there some key essays that could fill in the gap? Some videos? Some people who could lecture via Google Hangouts?
  • If you had to introduce this group to a tabletop role-playing game which is both approachable and which can open up students to the possibilities of this medium, what would it be? Here, I need something like a Maus or Watchmen—some game which will evoke the response, “I had no idea that a game could be that meaningful and complex!” I had thought about Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts, but the sex move rules it out. But I would like a game that has a serious subject matter while also being fun and immersive.
  • How would you actually teach the game text? Would you have them read the game and then train them in how to play a role-playing game and how to be a GM? Or maybe you go for some GM-less game? This is going to be sections of 20-students, and I would like to break them up into smaller groups of 4-6 students, but that presents some significant pedagogical challenges.
  • What would you do for an assessment? Would you have them try their hand at writing a game or scenario? Would you devise a test? If so, what would that look like? Or maybe you would set up an “actual play” report, but if so, how would you set up those instructions?
There is plenty more to discuss and to consider, but that should be more than enough to get the snowball rolling. I’ll provide updates as I work through the difficulties. Any help or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Roleplaying Games in the Classroom Trenches, Part Three: The Club

In my previous posts, I considered how to bring roleplaying games into the classroom and the partial successes I have achieved. But roleplaying games are not an easy fit. They don’t work in a classroom environment without the teacher devoting sustained effort and design work to get results. And even then, the results are usually going to be mixed. (To get a sense of the mountains one must climb, go to part one of this series.)

Fortunately, the regular classroom is not the only avenue for roleplaying games in the hallowed halls. Most schools have club programs: These involve extracurricular groups that meet on a regular basis for various educationally enriching activities. For well over a decade now, I have been the active sponsor of a strategy and roleplaying game club at my school, and that context solves many of the problems that the classroom presents:

  • Unlike the classroom, the students in a gaming club are volunteering for the activity. So you don’t encounter the difficulty of “forcing” someone to play games which is what happens when you have a class play a game as part of the curriculum.
  • In the club environment, students can sit at tables within smaller groups, and there is no need to worry about everybody playing the same game. This flexible situation means that games can be played in numbers that they were originally designed for. 
  • Intrinsic motivation is much stronger within the club: Students are not working for a grade, so they can deal with the games on their own terms and can explore them and have fun with them at their own pace and as their interests drive them.
  • Clubs can open students up to a much greater array of games, activities and experiences. In my own situation, students are learning how to play different games, how to GM, how to write original scenarios, and how to design games.

While a gaming club is a more natural fit for rpgs in the school, this is not to say that there aren’t challenges. Some schools might not see the value of a gaming club and thus discourage teachers who are interested in sponsoring such a group. Typically, the scheduled time for a club is once a week (or even once every two weeks), and this time is 30-45 minutes at your typical school. That’s hardly the type of regular, sustained time that complex, immersive games require. The high school student is constantly juggling many balls, and the game club is likely to be low on the priority list for most students. And the students joining to the club will often have disparate interests in terms of the types of games they want to play and in their approaches to play.

Here are a few observations I would make to address some of these issues and to create a vibrant rpg club at a school.

Purpose and Role: It has been important that I am passionate about having fun at the table while also taking gaming seriously as a creative, artistic, and social activity. Games have regularly proven their worth in my school for the students who have participated in them. They have challenged students to develop their imaginations, to solve problems, and to improve their communication skills. Moreover, games allow them to explore dimensions of themselves and their world in a way that is safe, engaging, and meaningful. As a sponsor, I am regularly stepping back to reflect on why the club is playing the games it does and what I want to accomplish as the sponsor. If the administrators or parents ever ask me about the goals of the club, I’m excited to deliver a heartfelt, enthusiastic apologetic. Thus far, my explanations and persuasions have been forceful and successful.

Diversity and Safe Space: If you aren’t proactive about “recruiting” students for the club, you are likely to get a group of friends who all look the same and have the same interests. When the club at my school started, it was dominated by boys in the same grade. Through the years, this has changed drastically, and we now have a vibrant, diverse mix of students in terms of gender, social backgrounds, beliefs, and ages. But this doesn’t just happen. I encourage the students to draw others from outside the circle to attend, and I also ask students to give the club a shot. We also are active about making the room inviting and supportive  to those who show up. One last initiative has been to involve other teachers in games: Colleagues have been open to talking to me about how to incorporate strategy and roleplaying game ideas into their classes, and some have been active participants in our club games.

Open Room and Open Tables: One reason why the club has worked so well is that I keep an open room during the day. I realize this may not be an option for teachers at some schools, but when I start my day, I unlock my classroom door, and it stays unlocked until I leave at the end of the afternoon. Students know that they can come into my room during break, during lunch, and often after school when I am working there. The students know that they are welcome to join in on games, propose their own games, and to leave games freely.

Time Constraints and After-school Gaming: I also hold a regular 3-hour gaming session on a weekly basis. Currently, this group meets on Sunday afternoons, and it provides the opportunity for us to devote ourselves to the type of sustained game play sessions that is preferable for your most roleplaying games. During the week, the time constraints of the school day limit the types of games that can be played. The strategy game Diplomacy has been a regular staple of the club because its structure lends itself so well to individual players’ schedules. We’ve also had success with more rules light rpgs like Dungeon World as well as to short games like Munchkin or Cheat Your Own Adventure. We use those games to keep the interest going during the week, and then we have that Sunday session for those looking for longer gameplay experiences.

Safety Tools, Lines, and Good Practices: Students will look to the club advisor to take the lead in establishing boundaries, protocol, and limits. During the year, I will participate in some games, sit out on others, GM for some, and sit in as a player when a student is GMing. When at the table, I discuss the use of safety tools like the X-card, and I talk about lines. I will also call upon the more senior members of the club to assist in directing the neophytes in practices to keep the games fun and safe. We have ventured into serious and more mature topics, but I insist that students keep to a PG-13 standard, and that has worked well. There is a culture of respect that I have built up which is vital: I respect that students can run games maturely on their own even when I am not playing or hovering over it, and they respect the standards and limits I have set because they understand why I have established them.

No Dating within the Club: I give this advice with tongue partly in cheek, though there is a grain of truth to it as well. The gaming club is a social outlet for students, and they certainly hang out and socialize with each other outside the confines of my room. If those relationships develop into romance, they can present some awkward moments for the club . . . not so much when the relationships are blooming but when they encounter rocks and break-ups. I joke with my daughter (who has been a member of the game club) that we should establish a rule that club members cannot date. We would never actually do that, but when club members become sweethearts, I’m always fastening my seatbelt because I know that there may be some dramatic moments in store for us down the road.

Like a good dungeon crawl, sponsoring a roleplaying game club is filled with traps, wonders, and surprises. To succeed in the endeavor requires preparation, an awareness of the needs of the students, and a willingness to treat games with the combination of fun and gravitas they deserve. It is ultimately that combination of good spirit and soulful commitment to games that has won the day. It has, I believe, awakened both club members and administrators to these truths: (1) that games can open the way to new forms of creativity, thoughtfulness, presence, and engagement, and (2) that these developments are meeting educational, personal, and social needs key to the development of independent young adults.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Roleplaying Games in the Classroom Trenches, Part Two: The Experiment

If you are just now coming to this article, you might want to glance at Part One, where I detail the challenges that roleplaying games face when they enter the classroom arena. In that article, I also summarize a specific game and design concept I created to face those challenges. What follows here is an assessment of where my efforts succeeded and where I have more work to accomplish.

I start with the good news. Here are some of the most salient positive outcomes I observed:
  • The tribal organization of Becoming Beowulf meant that students worked within smaller groups, and this increased the participation and engagement level. The average size of a tribe was around six students. Yes, in any given class, there were a few students who did not get into the mix, but the vast majority were enthusiastically involved in the activity.
  • The competitive format of the game provided motivation for the students. This was amplified when the Grendelkin faction was created due to players being eliminated from their tribes. The Grendelkin can target other tribes and derail their efforts, and this adds a dynamic antagonistic component to the game which sparked excitement.
  • The resolution mechanic provided a climactic build-up, and the result of the dice roll for each tribe was avidly watched by the class. The mechanics are quickly grasped by the students (though they don’t necessarily think about those mechanics in strategic terms).
  • The splitting of the game into rounds meant that the play could be easily halted at the end of one class period and then resumed on the next day with little difficulty. Each tribe had a playsheet that allowed for easy accounting and record keeping, and this allowed tribes to easily pick up where they left off. I was successful in making the game flexible for use within class periods of varying length.
  • Students were creative and varied in their plans. I was especially excited when the tribes were adopting very different solutions to the same problem. For example, the game involves a situation when a foundling child washes ashore on a boat filled with treasure (similar to the way that Beowulf begins). In one class, I had one tribe that abandoned the child while taking the treasure, another that gave the child to its enslaved minority, and a third which adopted the child as one of their own. That type of diversity of responses was common.
  • The crisis situations prompted immediate, focused discussion within the tribes. Students were quick to consider various options, and there was some vigorous, thoughtful debate as they worked towards their solutions.
But the game in its current form is not an unequivocal success. What follows are some of the areas where the game requires further revision or development:

  • Roleplaying: When the tribes are presented with a challenge, they face two tasks: (1) they must decide upon what trait points to allocate to the crisis, and (2) they must frame a scene which dramatizes some aspect of the tribe’s response. Both of these tasks can result in adding dice to the pool (and thus increasing the chances of a positive outcome). But the second task, which involves roleplaying, was typically weak. The students usually presented a simple, barebones “skit” with minimal dialogue and action. This happened even after multiple attempts at prompting, advising, directing, and cajoling students. In the next iteration of the game, I’m going to suggest that Wyrd (the gamemaster) intervene in those scenes, possibly by taking on the role of a tribe member who will ask questions, object, or otherwise create friction for the other players.
  • Strategizing: Despite some thoughtful discussions, tribes were typically conservative and cautious in spending trait points to build up their pools. When I asked the class about the game, most students thought that the resolutions were largely a result of chance. Even when I pointed out that they could substantially increase their odds of success by expending more points and by leaning into their roleplaying, they usually failed to take advantage of their opportunities.
  • Resolution mechanics: The game has many variables. It doesn’t railroad the players into any set solution to a challenge, and there is considerable room for creativity both in terms of the framing of the scenes and the tribe’s strategic responses. Given this open-ended nature, I was often left scrambling as the gamemaster to come up with resolution outcomes that seemed fair and that made sense to the players. I sometimes wished that I had a more rigorous, programmatic resolution mechanic that I could draw upon—something which would make my final decisions seem more defined and less arbitrary. I certainly would like to have instructions in place which will give more direction to other teachers who might choose to give the game a try.
  • Maintaining interest and motivation: The novelty of the game and its competitive nature gave it considerable initial spark, but as the days progressed, this impetus lost its edge. I reacted by offering some bonus points for tribes and players who distinguished themselves in their play and their decisions, and this had a temporary positive impact. The game as I ran it involved five 45-minute class periods: This involved taking part of the first day to explain the rules and then to work through about eight different scenarios or rounds during the remainder of that class and the subsequent classes of the week. There was still energy working in the final session, but I didn’t want to press my luck beyond that. 
  • Writing the saga: In the classroom, a game cannot be an end in itself, and I need to consider ways of leveraging the play experience into further experiences for growth and education. In retrospect I wish that I had accompanied the game with a creative writing activity that would allow the students to process their experience and to memorialize their tribe’s triumphs and tragedies. I migh also have them include reflections on whose decisions seemed the most useful, intriguing, dramatic, and/or provocative. .Next year, I’m thinking of attaching the game to an assignment in which the students will recount their tribes’ sagas, modelling their writing on Old English literary models.

Becoming Beowulf engaged, challenged, and educated my students, and I have faith that other classrooms could benefit from this type of game. I’m writing and revising the rules of Becoming Beowulf with an eye towards making it accessible for other teachers. Figuring out how to publicize and distribute this type of game, however, is baffling. Educational roleplaying games are almost by definition misfits. Game designers are usually not in-the-trench teachers, and teachers are seldom aware of the current landscape of roleplaying games.

So there are major challenges to getting this type of game into the hands of people who would benefit from it. I will attend teaching and gaming conventions to discuss educational roleplaying games, but my sense is that I have an uphill battle ahead of me. Teachers are likely to be puzzled by what will be, to most of them, a strange classroom activity, while gamers will be uninterested in a game scaled for classroom use. Bringing those two groups into dialogue with each other will have significant payoffs for both groups. But getting that dialogue moving forward will require some heavy lifting.

I invite you to consider any of the challenges I have offered here and to offer ideas and solutions. And stay tuned for Part 3, where I will offer some insights into sponsoring a roleplaying game club in the high school setting.