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.

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