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.

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