Friday, March 27, 2020

Sorcerer and Sword: The Sodden Lands of Snia Mer, The Final Session

After eight sessions, we brought an end to our mini-campaign using Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer and Sword supplement.  You can access the video by clicking here. 

I’ve now run two games of Sorcerer, and in both cases it took a full 7-8 sessions to bring the kickers to a satisfactory resolution. The players for this series literally ranged around the globe: I’m in central Florida, Rod is in Texas, and Aybars is in Istanbul. To state the obvious, scheduling was a challenge, and it’s a testament to our commitment that we pulled this off.

I have some more sessions recorded, and we’ll see if I have the time to get those edited. This session, however, provides much food for thought, so rather than wait, I’m releasing it now.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I tend to run games that operate on a slow burn, and despite the fact that our session builds to a dramatic crescendo, there are signs of that deliberate style in ample evidence here. Some players will balk at my approach, but I like the way all of this developed in our game. In terms of why the slow burn occurs, I can put my finger on a number of sources.

First, I’m not making it easy on the players. I regularly introduce situations or scenes where you will see the players mulling over their options . . .  and I let them linger in their uncertainty. You’ll see a number of examples in this session.

At the start, for instance, the two Sorcerers have to decide whether to drug their friend (Zeki) who is experiencing an intense withdrawal, or to leave him behind to complete the process. You’ll see them working over that question, until Nagimo (played by Rod) opts for a low-dose drug option, only to have Balder (played by Aybars) rescue the situation by creatively coming up with a creative placebo option (aided by a successful roll of the dice).

And, towards the end of the session, you’ll see the duo encountering a number of fraught situations where they are thoughtfully debating what the best course of action might be: Do we sneak into the compound of the necromancer (named The Prime Herald) or do we take a more direct approach and ask for an audience? Do we try to contact the powerful demon named The Chryxen Butterfly, and if so, what should that timing be? Afterward, should Balder risk a binding with that demon, realizing that, by doing so, he will be initiated into the necromantic arts? The dilemmas come streaming down, and one consequence is that the game sometimes veers into anguished debates over tactics and morality instead of pulse-pounding action.

This session features a number of Humanity rolls. I love the way Balder/Aybars comes to a gradual realization that necromancy is nasty business . . . and there’s even a spot where he tries to justify (mostly to himself) dabbling in this very dark and wicked art (see the sequence starting at 1:14:00). Aybars is in fine form as he works through the ethics, and eventually he arrives at that favorite refuge of morally ambiguous decisions (at 1:18:00): “I have no other choice. . . I’m too deep in this!”

Sorcery and accompanying Humanity rolls are firing on all cylinders as things come to a close. At the 48:30 mark, Balder decides to contact the Chryxen Butterfly, and he uses a wonderfully described blood ritual along with some group sorcery to build up a sizable pool of dice to pull off the Contact. This again takes time (about 15 minutes of game play, some of which is edited out), but it builds up to some memorable rolls and some dramatic and satisfying outcomes.

During planning, I had determined that the Chryxen Butterfly was in a rebellious state with respect to his “current” master, The Prime Herald, though this fact was not known to the players. With the successful Contact roll and some nice role-playing on the part of the Sorcerers, the demon breaks free of The Prime Herald, and Balder then attempts to Bind the demon, In the fiction, this involves a gruesome and excruciating moments as the object demon fuses itself onto Balder’s skull. Normally, the sequence goes Contact ⇒ Summon ⇒ Bind. But since this was a case of an unbound, rebellious demon, we rolled the successes from the Contact directly into the Binding roll. There didn't seem to be any need to Summon a demon who was already there.

Balder ends up losing one of his Humanity checks, which was clearly making Aybars nervous. The session then ends with Nagimo and Balder trying to get the Chryxen Butterfly to reverse the soul entrapment afflicting Nagimo’s friend Zeki (start around 1:30:00). Eventually, the demon comes around to the idea, but notes that this type of reversal draws on necromantic forces--meaning, of course, that a human life is required. The two creatively decide to offer up the life of a former nemesis (the giant named Baseer) whom they knew to be at the complex. So the dark designs set in motion just continued to cascade!

The reversal of the soul entrapment was a puzzle for me: On the one hand it required a human sacrifice, which clearly risked a Humanity loss. But at the same time, the effect was one that was beneficent, restoring a human life (Zeki) to wholeness. In the end, I ordered Aybars/Balder to make two Humanity checks: One to see if he lost a point of Humanity for mercilessly sacrificing the giant Baseer; the other to see if he gained a point of Humanity for restoring Zeki’s soul. He succeeded in both rolls, meaning he ultimately gained a point of Humanity.

With that, the kickers were wrapped up. Nagimo had not only found his friend Zeki, but managed to have him healed. And Balder had achieved his drive for power . . . though I wonder how long it will take for him to wither in corruption like the previous Prime Herald.

As you can tell from this account, Balder had the spotlight in this session. Nagimo in fact had contemplated whether he even needed to travel to the Prime Herald to bring things to a satisfactory (or at least liveable) conclusion. Had the two Sorcerers decided on a secretive operation when they landed , then Nagimo’s superior physical abilities would no doubt have come into play. Thinking about the sessions as a whole, I believe Nagimo commanded a number of key spotlight moments throughout. Still, given that we knew this was driving towards a concluding moment, I would have liked to have found some way to give Rod more of a closing aria. It may be some consolation that Nagimo clearly has more potential as an enduring character in an ongoing saga.

We have a short session debrief at the end, which will provide some insights from Rod and Aybars. I invite them or anyone else interested to offer additional commentary here. We decided to set the game aside, though as I noted to them, it still lies ready in the dock, and I look forward to continuing to develop the setting if others are interested in trudging through the sodden lands of Snia Mer.

I’m itching to take another dive into Sorcerer. Given the frightening COVID-19 pandemic, I’m mulling over Jared Sorenson’s Schism (which is aptly subtitled “A Virulent Setting for Sorcerer”) as a timely supplement in these dark days.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Introducing the Ludoverse Lab: The Pool by James V. West

I’m excited to introduce the inaugural “broadcast” of the Ludoverse Lab.

The core purpose of this project is to experiment with innovative role-playing games with an eye towards education. Beneath that general goal are nested a constellation of exciting possibilities:
  • I hope this series contributes to the general conversation about gamification and game-based learning in the classroom.
  • I’m openly inviting other educators—regardless of prior experience—to join in either as participants or as observer-commentators.
  • I’d like to hone my own skills as a “role-playing gamer” and a teacher through these experiments, and I hope those who join me are similarly sharpened. I would argue that much of the rpg skill set is transferable to teaching.
  • I want to analyze game systems and actual play from multiple perspectives.
  • Finally, I want this experience to be fun and generally enriching for all involved.

A few comments about this opening experiment in the Ludoverse Lab.

We are playing James V. West’s The Pool, which came out in 2001. Though many today are unfamiliar with the title, one would be hard-pressed to find a game that has exerted more influence with such a short set of rules.

And the influence continues. It is now so deeply ingrained in the DNA of today’s role-playing games that I suspect some designers use its ideas without even realizing the progeny. Just last week, I was introduced to Alien: The Role-Playing Game, and the impact of The Pool was there, though unstated.  In under four pages, West managed to crystallize a number of key ideas about character-based narratives, conflict resolution, player-facing authority, intentional dialogue at the table . . . . I could go on, but so much of what I would say has been more masterfully handled by Ron Edwards in his essay “Understanding The Pool.” I highly recommend that you go there for a deep dive into the game from both a historical and an analytical perspective. You can also look at an earlier piece I wrote for Ludoverse last year.

The Pool does not define a setting or a genre, so, as a GM, it is critical to focus the players by providing them with a skeleton setting. Appropriately enough, I opted for a fictitious modern-day educational institution, which I named Palmer Eldritch High School (credits to Philip K Dick) set in the Appalachian foothills of western Virginia. I provided these additional details to let the tone sink in:

  • Mascot: The Luna Moths
  • Motto: “Dreaming of tomorrow.”
  • School Colors: Blood Orange and Reddish Green (the latter being one of the so-called “impossible colors”)

Our players consisted of a university philosophy professor, a high school government teacher, and an undergraduate student interested in education and psychology. So I had a good mix of disciplines and levels of education represented.

I won’t bog you down with details of the game play itself. The video has been edited, and I’m impressed by the tightness and creativity that the group brought to the table. I invite you to watch it by clicking this link.

I did introduce a few twists to the rules, some of which are derived from the so-called anti-Pool variants. Here’s a summary of the changes which I provided to the group in advance:

1. Character creation. Before the first session, write a 50-word character sketch, following the rules of The Pool. The 50 words should detail your characters' talents, profession, quirks, weaknesses, skills, personality traits, special objects, a signature item, relationships, etc.—anything you imagine as being important or interesting to play with in the game. This sketch provides the traits for the player's character sheet, and the 50 word limit is firm--so you have to be efficient!

Give your character a name and a “kicker” or goal. These are for free--they don’t count towards the 50-word limit. The kicker or goal should be something that sets your character in motion: It should be something specific and concrete. Examples of kickers: Your character enters the parking lot and finds that her new car has been sabotaged (tires slashed, sugar water in the gas tank, etc.). Or your character hopes to gain a college scholarship by leading the basketball team to the district championship.

2. Traits and Bonuses. Follow the rules of The Pool. In brief, you pull traits from your character sketch. You may list a trait with no bonus attached (leaving it available for later advancement). You start with 15 points. To assign a Bonus, spend dice from your starting Pool. The cost is the Bonus times itself. Thus, a +2 would cost 4 dice and a +3 would cost 9 dice and so on. It is very important to leave some dice in your Pool--at least 3 or 4.

3. Casting the Dice. Follow the rules of The Pool with these important modifications:
On a successful roll (i.e. at least one of your dice came up a “1”), you LOSE any dice you gambled from your pool, but you GAIN a Monologue of Victory! Rolling multiple 1s will add to the impact of your success.

On a loss (i.e you rolled no 1s) you get your gambled pool dice back, and you get a choice. You may either ADD an additional die to your pool or you may GAIN a Monologue of Defeat [Note: The Monologue of Defeat must stay true to the fact that you failed your dice roll.]
Other players may contribute dice from their pools to your effort if they can explain how their character is contributing to the action in the fiction. The total number of pool dice gambled cannot exceed 9.

4. Success and Failure. These follow the basic rules of The Pool save the reversal regarding the loss and gain of pool dice (see above). Note the stipulation that multiple 1s magnify the degree of success. Note also that the GM may interpret a failure as a short term success but accompanied by nasty side effects. For example, you fail your roll to climb over the fence. The GM might allow your character to make it over, but notes that your character lands hard on the other side and thinks they might have sprained their ankle. Oh . . . and there’s a guard dog that heard them when they crashed to the ground.

5. Continuing the Story. These follow the rules of The Pool, but you may deduct any previous points invested in a trait to raise that trait. In other words, a +3 costs 9 points. But if that trait is currently at a +2, you have already spent 4 points to get the trait to that level. So now it will only cost you 5 additional points to raise it to a +3. Note also the rule that you may add or increase bonuses to traits at any point.

6. At Death’s Door. Should circumstances require it, we will follow the rules of The Pool.

There are many instructive elements of our game that deserve particular note:

After sending them the skeleton setting, I gave the players the 50-word character sketch as a pre-game homework assignment, and this included the requirement providing me with a “kicker” or goal. Some might prefer to accomplish these tasks through a conversation at the table, but my mind likes to chew over what the players are signalling me in advance of the opening session. I’m better able to weave their kickers and traits into the opening scenes when I have the time to reflect. The value of this strategy is apparent in the scenes we work through.

Also deserving of study are the moments of victory and failure that occur throughout the session.

With my variant, when a player achieves success on a roll, they get a Monologue of Victory. You will see the players initially surprised by the narrative power that this gives them, but once they wrap their head around the concept, it sparks tremendous creativity and enthusiasm. They realize that they can, within reasonable limits, dictate where the fiction goes, and they obviously are jazzed that they were able to throw something back at me, the GM, which I would run with.

The moments of failure are also instructive. The players hesitated to use my “Monologue of Defeat” variant in favor of adding a die to their pool. But even so, the failures resulted in some creative and unpredictable swerves in the narrative. As a GM (and as a teacher), it is important to view failures as opportunities to move things forward in creative and exciting ways. This doesn’t mean treating failures as though they are successes. But it does mean considering failures as swerves that might lead the story into new, unplanned paths. In retrospect, sometimes these trails can lead to some of the most memorable and fulfilling moments of the session.

One notable highlight is how the players are quickly leaning into their traits and abilities. This perhaps is not surprising given the fact that all of these elements derive from the character sketches that they players wrote. Designers, GMs, and players should take note of the psychological investment (and improved game play) that this type of character creation element generates.

The video ends with some of our reflections on how The Pool might be put to use in the classroom. I’ll have more to say about this in a later post, and I invite anyone interested to offer their thoughts.

The group was enthusiastic about this inaugural experiment, so we will be moving on to a second session with the game. So expect a second installment of the Ludoverse Lab as we take another dive into The Pool.

And if you want to join in on an upcoming lab, drop me a note. I’m looking forward to taking others on the ride.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Teaching Role-Playing Games, Part 3: The Debrief

I’ve wrapped up my unit on tabletop role-playing games, so I’ve been taking stock and reflecting on our triumphs and our struggles.

For those coming new to this discussion, I’d suggest taking a quick look at Parts 1 and 2. The brief synopsis is that I took a three-week period of my AP English Language and Composition class and segmented it into the following:
  1. a few days to introduce tabletop role-playing games as a form of ergodic literature and medium of communication;
  2. a few days for students to decide upon a role-playing game, read the rules, create characters, and prepare to play;
  3. a full week of class devoted to playing the selected games;
  4. a few days to hear presentations and to write actual play analyses.
In each of my four sections, I had 3-4 gaming tables running simultaneously, with each table playing a different game over the course of a week. As previously noted, few students had ever experienced a tabletop role-playing game before. Not surprisingly, even with generous time allotted in the previous week to read rulebooks, discuss mechanics, and generate characters, the students were challenged when they launched into game play. I was circulating constantly during the class period, but, since there was only one of me, that meant groups often had to spend some time figuring things out for themselves while I was running the circuit. 

RPG Rulebooks and Critical Reading
This brings me to one of the many values of the rpg unit: There is a special form of reading entailed in synthesizing a rulebook and implementing it at the table. This type of reading is not one that students have had much exposure to, yet it provides vital training. An rpg rulebook is analogous to a manual or how-to guide, but, for many reasons, the level of complexity is multiplied. The social dynamic at the rpg table is fluid and unpredictable. Apart from understanding the basic mechanics of a game system, one has to interpret results within the fiction. Situations emerge which rules may not have fully anticipated. One could go on.

Many of my students found that their critical reading skills were initially coming up short. They misinterpreted key mechanics; they overlooked a crucial bit of text; they had disagreements as to the meaning of a sentence in the rulebook. One of the great payoffs of the rpg is that I was often not the one pointing out the students’ errant ways. Instead, the game itself made things apparent to the students. A question came up at the table, and it was clear that the rulebook held the answer. Students needed to reread and evaluate sections of the book that they had not adequately synthesized. Some of my time with students inevitably involved closely reading sections of the books with them to puzzle out vital instructions. Students quickly realized that these games were serious about procedures, mechanics, and admonitions. 

Games as Punishing Teachers
And there was another way in which games themselves chided lax players. In more traditional rpgs where there is a risk of player characters encountering harm, imprecise reading or inattention to situations can have deadly results. The most dramatic instance of this lesson occurred with one group playing Legendary Lives. The game ended up in a dramatic Total Party Kill when the characters went up against the boss monster (in this case, a powerful necromancer). When I sat down with the students to assess the game afterwards, I asked them about that tragic final scene. Had their characters tried to use some of their key abilities? Did they consider more strategic approaches? Could they have accomplished their goal without a direct assault? 

As we processed things, lightbulbs were popping. It dawned on the students that there were a host of abilities which had lain fallow because they had not read the rulebook with a sufficiently analytical eye. In addition, they had taken a more simple and blunt approach to the situation at the table instead of opting for more nuanced tactics. When the group delivered its actual play report on the game, they demonstrated a lucid understanding of the mechanics and rich resources, and it was evident that much of their insight was a result of the war wounds inflicted by the game.

The Fun of Self-Imposed Challenges
I was impressed by the students who stepped up to take on the GM roles, and I offered them footholds. In the case of Legendary Lives (a fantasy heartbreaker from the 90’s) and Swords and Wizardry (a reskinned version of the original Dungeons and Dragons), I showed the GMs some prewritten scenarios to help with the preparation. And in the case of the groups running Inspectres (a comic horror game of paranormal investigation) and Sorcerer, I suggested setting the game in Central Florida and using actual locations around town. Finally, in the case of The Princes’ Kingdom, I had the fledgling GM start by adapting the example provided in the rulebook for the first adventure.

Some of the groups opted to play GM-Less games: The Quiet Year, Shooting the Moon, and  Follow. For these groups, one of the major hurdles involved framing scenes and latching onto the role-playing. Some scaffolding work and demonstrations on my part helped them. 

I also stressed to students the fun of making things hard on themselves. A Quiet Year, for example, directs the players to grab contempt tokens in situations where they don’t feel like their opinions are respected or when a decision is made which cuts against what they believe to be the best course. Those groups which consciously worked to employ this mechanic ended up with more dramatic and satisfying narratives. This involved players deciding to start up more edgy, controversial projects, and it involved other players being willing to demonstrate their displeasure.

This lesson was one that carried over to the GM games. Good stories involve conflicts and challenges, and if you are effortlessly successful throughout a game, it won’t take long for the game to become predictably boring. In introducing the unit to the students, I had stressed the elements of emergence and creativity, and for most students, those ideas stuck like super glue. In watching them play and in hearing them speak about their games, an ever-present theme was the thrill of experiencing unexpected turns. Even the GMs were quick to latch onto the idea that it was exciting to let go of any predetermined ideas about where the narratives would take them.

With different games running throughout the day, I was exhausted when the school day ended. I had thought of taking a more focused route and requiring all students to play the same game during the week. This certainly would have made my job easier, and it would have allowed me to work through hurdles more efficiently and smoothly. But that’s not what a 21st century teacher needs to do. Much was gained when students had to deal with glitches and the challenges at the table, and taking stock of their frustrations and mistakes required them to solve most of the puzzles on their own.

Time Management
The games ran at different speeds, and this is one area which I will be more prepared next year. Groups playing The Quiet Year were off and running while those playing Sorcerer and Legendary Lives were immersed in character creation. Generally, those playing GM-less games had finished before the last day of play, so I gave them a choice of either running another round of the same game or taking a look at a new one. Meanwhile, some groups playing the GM games had to find provisional stopping places at the end of the week and were wishing that they had more time to continue. 

I don’t know that there is a tidy solution for those latter groups . . . save to let them know that nothing is stopping them from continuing to play! But next year, I’m going to offer some of the GM-less games in bundled pairs with the idea that those groups will try to complete two games and then compare them.

Going Deep
I was pleased with the depth of play involved. Players encountered situations in the games which required teamwork and self-sacrifice. They became alert to the way that decisions impacted the direction of the narrative and influenced the behavior of other characters. They were making discoveries about the dynamic inner workings of genres and settings. And there were cases where weighty moral decisions were debated.

Special mention goes to Sorcerer. I had mulled over whether to offer the game at all. Ron Edwards specifically categorizes his game as R-rated, “not because there are pictures with nipples on them or taboo vocabulary, but because it can lead to stories that are not nice.” I was intrigued that two groups opted for the game—despite, or maybe because of, my warnings that the game was serious when it titled itself “An Intense Roleplaying Game.” But those groups were committed and ended up playing games that took the game’s core trait of Humanity to heart. 

In their debriefing, one Sorcerer group talked about the value of using the safety mechanic of lines and veils when the GM was trying to stress the true violence suffered by a victim of assault. And I overheard the player of the other Sorcerer group making an agonizing decision of whether to have his character venture out from a safe shelter because he knew that, if he did so, his humanity would be at risk. This confirmed to me that those groups had latched onto the spirit of the game. At the end of the week, those students were bubbling with memories of the fraught bargains they had made with their demons.

Which reminds me . . . safety was directly discussed at the start of the unit, with the concept of lines and veils taking center stage. While most games did not enter danger zones, the Sorcerer games did, and since lines and veils were already on the table, those groups had the resources to play hard because everyone knew that there were tools in place to ensure that the games remained safe.

The Wrap Up
After devoting a full week to actual play, the groups followed up with presentations where they introduced the games to the class. Without prompting, most latched onto the idea that actual demonstrations of mechanics, scene framings, and role-playing would be key. For example, a group playing Legendary Lives set up a situation where characters from the game might be trying to persuade me to change a test day. This, of course, involved rolling the dice, and interpreting that result according to the game’s resolution chart. The group playing The Princes’ Kingdom pulled out one of the conflicts of their game and replayed it in front of class using the “call and raise” dice mechanic.

Groups went on to analyze the games in terms of actual play. They discussed areas of challenge and tension—the ways they struggled with mechanics, the social dynamic of the players, aspects of play that were engaging and those that were less so. 

The final assignment was a targeted individual written report. One stipulation was that the group members had to be sure that they were covering their game without retreading territory. But groups had great leeway in choosing how they wanted to cut up their pie and what topics to explore. Some of the students went into a nuts-and-bolts analysis of “system matters,” some investigated aspects of the social dynamic at their table, and still others talked about how their game fit into the English curriculum. 

To provide a couple examples, here were some of my suggestions for the reports:

RPGs and SEL. Role-playing games are unique in their ability to nurture self-awareness, self-control, interpersonal skills, responsible decision making, and social awareness. These are all qualities that are sometimes grouped under the umbrella of “social and emotional learning” (SEL). Many teachers see SEL as a key (but often overlooked) field of education.  Discuss your game in terms of these qualities. You might consider both the content of your game as well as the experience at the table.

Emergence and Collaboration. To what extent did the game result in a collaborative experience? What were the different roles that the players adopted at the table? To what extent did the fiction emerge organically or spontaneously at the table? Were there moments when you were surprised by a turn of events in the game? If so, what were they? What led to those moments?

Reading the Sitch
There’s no question that I will teach this unit next year, but there will be changes in store. In the midst of the unit, I was exposed to MASKS: A New Generation, for example, which gives me a Powered-by-the-Apocalypse game ideal for the high school setting. And I have a better handle on how I can more effectively advice novice gamers about specific mechanics and strategies. 

I’m eager to hear reactions to this work-in-progress. I feel like I’m venturing into a largely unexplored frontier. With their focus on creating fiction and developing narratives, tabletop role-playing games clearly belong in the realm of English, but it’s a medium that is not being taught, so we are blazing new trails. If anyone wants to contribute or join me in the venture, I invite you to enter into the conversation.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Convention Report: Dreamation 2020

Things are going full tilt for me on the gaming front. So much so, that it’s hard for me to find a moment to devote the amount of reflection and processing that my experiences warrant. But I’m going to do my best to carve out the time.

Today’s post is devoted to Dreamation 2020 which I attended on February 20-23. But before we get there, here are some of the other activities I’ve been up to.

  • I completed a 4-game series of the game Mothership with the Gauntlet online RPG community. The game was run by Jason Zanes who did a great job. This was my first encounter with Mothership which takes an OSR-style sensibility and applies it to a sci fi setting. The game has much to offer. The design of the character sheet is innovative, and it takes the player through the generation process through some of its layout features. The stress and panic features are also effective in ramping up the suspense over the course of the session. What I most enjoyed about the actual play is that I had the crappiest character statistics-wise at the table. I was a Marine who commanded the squad of the other PCs, but when situations demanded the dice to come out, I was in big trouble. This ended up being so much fun, as it forced me to be creative in my approach and to lean in heavily on the role playing.
  • I finished an 8-session run of Sorcerer and Sword with Rod (from Texas) and Aybars (from Istanbul). More on this (hopefully) in a future post. At this stage, however, I’d say that I enjoyed my first foray into this supplement of Sorcerer. It was a challenging and intense experience, but very satisfying. Sorcerer is my jam, in part because it puts such a burden on the GM and players to make the game their own.
  • I have started a series of Over the Edge being played by my daughter and some of her high school chums who were also active members of the game club when at my school. They are all now freshmen in college, but scattered across the east coast, so this is giving them an opportunity to have a regular weekly get-together online. I’ll also write up more on my experience with the game. I’m using the rules of the original edition (the WARP system), and I’d like to put together my thoughts about that and why I opted not to go with the most recent version.
  • My maiden voyage teaching RPGs in the English classroom is nearing its end. Students played games last week, and this week they will be delivering their actual play reports to the class. So more on this will be upcoming. 
  • In a couple weeks, I’ll be doing a workshop of sorts for the Lausanne Learning’s Dare to Design Conference. This will involve running a brief fishbowl of my classroom Beowulf game followed by some reflections on game based learning.
  • In March, I’ll be playing Bluebeard’s Bride with the Gauntlet. This will be my first foray into this game of supernatural horror in a fairy tale setting.
  • I’m going to be attending the Serious Play Conference in June. They have a track for K-12 teachers in addition to a track for instructional design.

Now, onto Dreamation 2020. 

Save for a small game convention I attended back in high school, this was my first gaming convention. And it almost didn’t happen. I had initially thought of going to Metatopia, but that event conflicted with another teacher conference. I had started to resign myself to either going to a gaming convention in the summer or not going at all. But a member of the Gauntlet recommended Dreamation on the strength of its indie RPG game offerrings. And it did not disappoint. 

Some highlights:

I had the chance to play a two-session series of MASKS: A New generation by Brendan Conway. This is a game of young, up-and-coming superheroes who are trying to figure out who they are in a world populated by villains and by a clamor of people telling them who they should be. This is a “Powered by the Apocalypse” game, and it is quite well conceived. I was so taken with the experience, that I bought a copy of the rulebook, which impressed me even more: In a world where games are getting pumped out at a feverish pitch, it is refreshing to come across a game which is so beautifully and clearly written. With great economy, the book catches the tone of the genre. Restraint and wisdom are evident on every page: Conway gives you enough to work with, but he also leaves enough unsaid so that the players and GM can make the game their own.

In my game, I took the playbook of “The Doomed” and came up with a character concept based roughly on Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane, but a much younger and more naive version of the Puritan swordsman. This character is more suited to a long term game: One of the key aspects of “The Doomed” is that they have a Doom Track which is designed to fill up over long term play. But I had a fun time challenging myself to push that Doom Track along at a more feverish pitch.

I have been on the lookout for a PBtA game which would be appropriate in a high school play setting. Apocalypse World would be fun to try, but it features the “sex move” as does Avery Alder’s Monsterhearts, so I have sidestepped those games with the high school students in the game club I sponsor. I have not yet had a chance to look at the new “Burned Over” hack that the Bakers have produced with the specific eye towards making the game appropriate for a teenage audience. Even if that works, however, I’ll need to use the corebook, so I’m still up in the air on the Burned Over option. MASKS, however, is already PG in terms of presentation, but it’s quite flexible in terms of how deep and gritty it can go. There is plenty of room to take things in a more serious direction. In the game we played at Dreamation, I leaned heavily into the grim and violent religiosity of my character. And the game ended with a heroic and suicidal move as one of the characters took out the big bad by grabbing them and leaping out of a helicopter. No parachutes were involved, so the end result was bleak. 

MASKS gives the characters a load of cool and flexible “moves,” which is obviously vital for a superhero game. But I was more impressed by some of the other mechanics that add heft to the roleplaying side. For example, there is a thoughtful and nuanced mechanic involving influence, and this gets the players to think about how their characters are motivated by the pressures placed on them by others.

I also like the way that statistics slide in the course of the game: With MASKS, you might gain a point in one area, but that is likely going to involve the loss of a point in another area. For example, I might gain a point in “Freakiness” but that will likely mean a loss in another area such as “Mundanity.” This exchange will bring advantages with some rolls and disadvantages with others, which is cool especially in light of the youthful malleability of the superheroes.

The end result: I’m going to be working to bring MASKS to the table in the game club in the near future.

The MASKS sessions would in and of themselves would have made the trip to Morristown, NJ, worth it. But there were more treasures.

I was able to participate in a 4-hour workshop led by Chris and Heather O’Neill of 9th Level Games. Chris has refined an rpg resolution mechanic which he refers to as the Polymorph System. The system is both elegant and adaptable, so he can use it as the engine for role-playing game ideas invented on the spot.

So, within four hours, the eight of us in the workshop
  • brainstormed a new RPG gaming idea,
  • adapted the Polymorph System to accommodate the idea, 
  • playtested the game,
  • revised the game in light of our experiences.
During the playtesting, Chris and Heather worked on the computer to get our ideas onto a document, and each of the participants left the workshop with a hard copy zine of the game. 

Chris and Heather possess a treasure trove of clarity and enthusiasm. They clearly are passionate about game design, and they are able to articulate their ideas to a new audience. If you have a chance to talk to them or to attend a workshop or session led by them, take the opportunity.

Before leaving for the airport on the final day of Dreamation 2020, I played Mars 244, which was an adaptation of Montsegeur 1244. This is a story game by Rachel E.S. Walton (who facilitate our session), with a set of defined procedures to set up characters, frame scenes, and play out the narrative. The tone of the game is tragic and intense, and boy did it deliver! With this type of game, you need to have a table of committed players, which we did. As a result, the game sang. There were grim scenes, sad scenes, and dashes of dark humor. I don’t usually cry at the gaming table, but there were some moments at the gaming table.

I’ll hopefully return to Dreamation. For me, it’s a great size for a conference--big enough to offer many games, but small enough to be manageable. And I love the commitment to indie and small press games.  

One piece of advice: If you plan to go to Dreamation, pre-register for the conference and take note of when you can sign up for individual games. Then, get online and e-mail your choices as soon as the game sign-up opens. Be sure to fill in second and third options for each slot. I thought I was plenty quick in doing this, but I didn’t make it into any of my options, and so I had to scramble at the event to make it into games. As you can tell, however, this might have been a blessing in disguise. I played in some deeply satisfying sessions which I would have missed had I been assigned to my first choices. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Teaching Role-Playing Games, Part 2: The Game Plan

Robin Laws has appropriately called the tabletop role-playing game a “hidden art” because its heart and soul are only revealed through the dynamic experience at the table. It was evident to me from the start that the core of my unit on TTRPGs had to involve a sequence of classroom sessions dedicated to intensive actual play.

Of course, this poses a problem for the classroom. Most TTRPGs are designed for intimate groups. For me, a GM and a party of five players seems like a overfull house, and I can’t imagine running one of those early Dungeons and Dragons modules: I’m looking at Against the Giants where the introduction suggests a party of nine players as ideal (and an average experience level of nine). For the purposes of this teaching unit, I need all the students to be actively immersed, and that means dividing them up into small groups, each of which will run their respectively chosen games simultaneously.

So here’s what I did. I selected a group of 12 tabletop role-playing games for the students to choose from. I put the games on a Google slide presentation with a piece of art (usually a cover) and the game’s “elevator pitch.” All are games I admire, but it’s a diverse set. Some are GM-less, some are traditional high fantasy fare, some are comic, and others are dead serious. You can view the slide show here. Here are the titles:

  • The Quiet Year by Avery Adler
  • Follow by Ben Robbins
  • Sorcerer by Ron Edwards
  • My Life with Master by Paul Czege
  • Legendary Lives by Joe Williams and Kathleen Williams
  • Swords and Wizardry by Matt Finch
  • Lady Blackbird by John Harper
  • Shooting the Moon by Emily Care Boss
  • Inspectres by Jared Sorenson
  • Puppetland by John Scott Tynes
  • The Pool by James V. West
  • The Princes’ Kingdom by Clinton R. Nixon

In class, I presented the lineup quickly, with just a few comments. For example, I let them know that Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer means it when it says it is an intense role-playing game. I told them that Puppetland is very fun, but that it requires some committed improvisation from its players. I mentioned the genre of each, and noted that The Pool and Follow are incredibly flexible in allowing the players to choose a setting.

I shared the link to the Google slides and told the students to mull things over for a couple days. Then, at the start of class two days later, I had each student write down their top three choices on a 3x5 card, after which I sifted through the desires to organize them into games they were interested in playing. When I figured out the groups, I determined which chosen games were neither freely available nor covered under a creative commons license, and I contacted those creators to let them know what my plans were and to ask if I could make the rules available to students on my school’s secured classroom management platform.

Some notable developments: Two groups in separate sections chose Sorcerer. Two other groups chose Legendary Lives. The Quiet Year was the most popular choice. I’m most excited to see the end product of one of my sections where I will have the following four games in action: Follow, The Quiet Year, Swords and Wizardry, and Legendary Lives. Those actual play reports should allow for some probing examination with two GM-less games on display alongside a D&D reskin and a dazzling fantasy heartbreaker.

Virtually none of my students have played a tabletop role-playing game, so, to give them a sense of what the activity looks like, I had them watch a short clip from “D and Diesel” on Youtube. This is a segment where Vin Diesel joins some of the members of Critical Role to play through a brief scenario. I told students in advance that the video was a slick production that would not match our own upcoming experiences. But it did allow me to illustrate the kinds of conversations that can occur and to walk through the respective roles of the GM and the players in the TTRPG enterprise.

This coming week (shortened due to Winter Break) will be devoted to intensive preparation. Students will read the rulebooks, gather supplies, copy character sheets, create quick reference lists, and acquaint themselves with game mechanics. By Friday, they will be into world building and character creation so that they can hit the ground running at the start of next week, which will be completely devoted to game play.

On my end, I will be active in class, working between the groups to troubleshoot, to help clarify, and to demonstrate the game systems. I’ll also be flagging parts of the games which I suspect will challenge them.

I will also be preparing them for the analytical task to follow the week of game play. For that, I’m going to have a discussion of Robin Laws’ “The Hidden Art: Slouching towards a Critical Framework for RPGs,” and I’ll also introduce them to an assignment that requires them to deliver some actual play reports to the class (in both written and oral form).

So that’s the setup. I’ll be back with Part 3 of this series detailing what happened in the classroom.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Teaching Role-Playing Games, Part 1: The Justification

I’ve taken the plunge and have started teaching a unit on tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) as part of my AP English Language and Composition class. My initial plan was to do my trial run at the end of the year following the AP exams in May. But due to some shifts in the college counselling calendar, I had to do some reshuffling in my class.

The end result is that my TTRPG unit is now a fully legit unit being taught in the heart of the course. This alteration in my plans is completely fortuitous. It means that the TTRPG is being treated as a fully fledged, artful medium in its own right . . . which is exactly how it should be.

This post and those that follow will give you an overview of my approach, and I’ll provide some updates detailing the actual play experiences of my students.

At the start, shout outs go to a number of designers who are helping in ways large and small. Ron Edwards has been instrumental in shaping my own thoughts about this medium, and some one-on-one consulting sessions have provided some key guidance. Ron has a background as an educator, so he’s ideally suited to help bridge the teacher / game designer divide.

Thanks are also in order for Emily Care Boss, Ben Robbins, Avery Alder, Jared Sorenson, Ron Edwards (again!), Clinton Nixon, Matthew Finch, Joe Williams, Kathleen Williams, and James V. West who have been generous (unwitting or not) in sharing their creations with my students. In the case of games under copyright restrictions, I asked the designers for specific permission to share the rules with my students through a secured server. Other designers have already made their rules available either through Creative Commons licensing or through “pay what you want” offerings. So I’ve been able to give my students this opportunity with the good conscience that I am operating securely within good copyright practice.

The question for today’s post:

Why are you doing this and how do you justify taking up weeks of class (and an AP course, no less!) to play tabletop role-playing games?

In the grand scheme, TTRPGs hit on a number of key educational objectives, and they do so in ways that are uniquely powerful and effective.

  • They spark what I would call active creativity, as both players and game masters (GMs) must work hard together to bring a story into being. When you are reading a story or a novel, one is sparked to understand the narrative that has been stitched together by the author, and such literature requires considerable imaginative work. But with TTRPGs, the fiction doesn’t even exist without the committed involvement of players and GMs to bring it into being.
  • They involve collaboration and communication. The driving engine of TTRPGs is a complex, nuanced conversation taking place around the table. The medium requires engagement all around, and it demands that the participants carefully listen and respond in order to propel the story further.
  • It involves critical thinking of a high order. Each play session worth its salt requires the players to work through problems, puzzles, and dilemmas of various sorts. And in most cases, there are multiple possible solutions. The open-ended nature of the games, encourages players to be inventive and to consider outside-the-box solutions that are both effective and unique.

Even with these flags in place, however, there is the issue of curriculum and content to face. To put this as a question, How do TTRPGs even belong in an English class, which should be devoted to literature and written texts?

To move towards an answer, I started my unit by having the students read “Introduction: Ergodic Literature” by Espen Aarseth. That was a challenging piece for my students to chew on, but I was able to make headway by continually grounding the discussion in specific texts. The basic argument is that there is a type of literature—not a genre per se, but a kind of modality—that requires efforts which go beyond the direct understanding or reading of a text. This is what he means by ergodic literature.

A workbook would be one easily grasped example of an ergodic text: To “read” a math workbook (or at least to do so correctly) you are not simply going scan the pages with your eyes and flip pages from front to back. No—you are going to have out a pencil and start writing in the book or perhaps on a separate sheet of paper. Moreover, I might see you flipping about the book, perhaps to compare your answers to an answer key in another section of the book. Or maybe you are going to flip between a problem you are working out on one page and a relevant explanation that appeared a few pages earlier.

I made a point in class that you can often tell if someone was dealing with an ergodic text by simply watching them. Someone reading a novel—even a challenging one—would likely read the book in a linear fashion. You’d see their eyes moving left to right, top to bottom, and then flipping a page, and this process would repeat until the book was finished. With an ergodic text, however, you would probably see the person working in a different fashion—flipping pages, moving backwards and forwards, perhaps writing or doing other forms of manipulation, etc. In other words, there would be additional activities involved that moved beyond the cerebral effort to understand the text.

The other key concept employed by Aarseth is the cybertext. Cybertexts do not necessarily involve computers, but they do involve some type of machine function as a component of their operation. A great example of a non-digital cybertext would be the I Ching, where one employs some type of random number generation as a component of consulting the text. One goes to the I Ching with a question, and then starts to flip coins or to manipulate yarrow sticks in order to come up with the appropriate section of the text to read. Today, one can use a computer to generate the number, but in all cases, there is some type of random-number-generating machine involved.

Another great example of a cybertext is Raymond Queneau’s 100,000 Billion Poems. Queneau writes 10 sonnets, but he does so in such a way that the lines are interchangeable. For example, you can put the first line of the third sonnet together with the second line of the eighth sonnet and then put those lines together with the third line of the first sonnet, and so on. If you want to see how this all looks and operates in hard copy form, go to this youtube video. If you work out the math, you will discover that Queneau’s 10 sonnets end up generating one hundred thousand billion sonnets! This is a poem generating machine that is practically inexhaustible—at least it is inexhaustible for human readers.

Another key aspect of cybertexts is that they involve feedback loops. The reader of a cybertext is also an operator who provides key inputs for the “machine” to process. The machine, in turn provides an output, which the reader must then process. And, in many cases, this reader will take this information and use it to construct a new input which is subsequently fed into the machine.

The argument, then, is this: One productive way of viewing TTRPGs is to see them as examples of ergodic fiction. Moreover, in most cases, they are works that involve cybertextual elements.

Let me break this down and clarify.

The term ergodic is being borrowed from the fields of math and physics, but when Aarseth appropriates the word he is mainly interested in the word because of its Greek roots. Ergon means “work” and “hodos” means path. Thinking about a TTRPG as a “work path” is both appropriate and evocative.

To begin, I like the idea that these are games where a vital part of the fun and importance lies in the work or effort being invested by the players and GM. If someone at the table becomes passive, the game (along with the fiction and the experience) immediately suffers as a result. This is not simply a theoretical idea: When a player disengages with a TTRPG, the effect is immediately palpable at the table.

And TTRPGs provide the players with paths and crossroads to traverse. The trailheads of some of those paths might be given in advance, but it is up to the people around the table to continue with the exploration and at points to blaze their own trails. Aasarth usefully talks about the idea of the labyrinth in terms of ergodic texts and appropriately differentiates between linear labyrinths (such as the meditative paths that one sometimes finds on the floors of gothic churches) and mazes, where the paths fork and which might allow for multiple solutions.

The cybertextual nature of TTRPGs is almost too obvious to need comment. In a typical game of this sort, players are involved in a complex network of feedback loops that connect players with each other and (if there is one) with the GM. Moreover, the games frequently involve additional feedback loops that involve inputs and outputs involving the rulebook, dice rolls, chart consultations, etc.

On the day following our discussion of “Introduction: Ergodic Literature,” I had my students read Ron Edwards’ “System Does Matter.” This led to a discussion about the different types of game objectives, with the useful terms gamist, simulationist, and narrativist being key.  And I also had them consider how a game’s mechanics and system components are crucial in determining whether or not the game is going to be successful in achieving its goal.

Here again, I used concrete examples to aid in the discussion . . . but I was immediately struck by how the students (high school juniors) were often completely unfamiliar with analog games of almost any stripe. I initially started by using chess and backgammon as two games that are communicating very different messages, and that the mechanics are vital to what they are trying to accomplish. Random polling showed that only about half of my students had played chess (though over three quarters had at least an inkling of how the game worked and what it was about), and almost none knew about the game of backgammon! So after my first period, I substituted Monopoly for the backgammon example.

With this discussion of games, I had the students think about how the games’ win conditions, core meaning, and mechanics were intimately connected. Monopoly is a game about rapacious real estate development: You win by building your property empire and bankrupting your opponents. And, while there are some decisions to be made, a large component of the game involves chance through the use of dice. For the most part, in Monopoly, if you are lucky and you follow the urges of greed acquisitiveness, you are going to do fine.

Chess, by contrast, is a game of battle tactics where, apart from the initial assigning of black and white sides, chance plays no role. The world of Chess is gained through strategic positioning and keen wit.

The class has almost no TTRPG experience. I teach 4 sections of the course, and in some of those sections, no student has played a TTRPG, while in others, one or two have a flitting experience with Dungeons & Dragons. Nonetheless, I was able to use “System Does Matter” to introduce them to some basic TTRPG components (character statistics, resolution mechanics, etc.) and to show how, as with chess and monopoly, those systems will reinforce the goals that the games are trying to achieve and the stories they are trying to tell.

That should give you a basic sense of how I got the ship launched. Next time, I will move into the core of the unit which will involve the students dividing into groups, each of which will the play a selected TTRPG over the course of a week in my course.

I feel like I’m heading into largely uncharted waters with this unit. I’m not sure how many high schools teach the TTRPG as an important medium in its own right. So I’m keen for resources and reactions to this endeavor. Should you have any comments or suggestions, please share them.