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.


  1. This sounds like a fantastic unit. When I tried to read Aarseth, I didn’t get very far. But using the introduction as the whole of the text is probably a good compromise. It does look like a difficult assignment to read it for just one lesson, though. Then again I’m far removed from high school. We did read Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and others so perhaps Aarseth is par for the course.
    The idea that students no longer know boardgames is bewildering but perhaps not surprising.

  2. For me, the most valuable payoff of Aarseth is that he gave me a way of thinking about role-playing games in relationship to other types of texts. I knew he was going to be difficult for students, so I gave them some advice about how to approach his essay. As long as they have some idea of what he means by "ergodic," "cybertext," and "labyrinth," it has served a useful purpose for them.

    On the board game front, I'm pushing our school library to order more "easy-to-learn" board games (Zendo, Forbidden Island, Backgammon, etc.), and I'm going to propose to the Strategy and Role-Playing Game Club (which I sponsor) that they set up some occasional "Learn to Play" sessions for other students in the school.