Thursday, July 23, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: Ryan Windeknecht's World of Professionals Teaches How to Think Ethically

Future Programming Note: The Ludoverse Lab’s summer trilogy will wrap up in August with Jesse Burneko’s Dungeons and Dilemmas. What follows below is a report on the second installment of our foray into fantasy role-playing games that lend themselves to classroom use.

July brought the second part of the Ludoverse Lab’s “Summer Trilogy.” In this case, we had Ryan Windeknecht at the helm. He teaches philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and, as he explained to us, he tried an experiment in 2016 when he brought Dungeon World into his classroom. Since then, he has continued to expand, revise, and refine the experiment. That has resulted in what he calls The World of Professionals. This amounts to a rich and workable fantasy rpg framework which he uses to teach students about ethical schools of thought within his professional ethics classes.

I recorded the two sessions we played, and you can access them here:


The recordings (which are admittedly long, even in their edited form) contain clearly marked headers and footers, so I encourage you to hop around to view the sections that most interest you.
There are so many artful and edifying touches, but here are a few notable highlights:

Classes as embodiments of occupations and ethical schools of thought 
In Ryan’s game, you belong to one of five guilds, and initially they sound like your traditional fantasy tropes: There are Paladins, Merchants, Artificers, Clerics, and Wizards. Pretty standard fare.

But then some spice and sizzle gets added. The classes are subdivided into various occupations. For example, if you are in the merchant guild, you might be a butcher, baker, cheese maker, crofter, or herder. The classes are also presented as allegorical placeholders for contemporary professions. For example, we should think of Paladins as lawyers, Clerics as health care workers, Merchants as business people, Wizards as educators, and Artificers as skilled tradespeople.

The coup de grace is that each class is also tasked with upholding an an ethical outlook:

  • Paladins are Kantians (driven by the laws and imperatives);
  • Artificers are Utilitarians;
  • Merchants are Contractarians;
  • Clerics adhere to Care Ethics;
  • Wizards subscribe to Virtue ethics.

Dungeon Delving as Gamified Quizzes and Thought Experiments
After creating their characters, building a village, and forming into adventuring groups, the students (who are now players in this game) venture into dungeons to work through ethical thought experiments and to collect badges. Each dungeon begins with a puzzle, which is a gamified quiz based upon a required reading, and then the students engage in various surreal situations where they must demonstrate clear ethical thinking in order to progress.

The conception of the game is brilliant, and the mechanics are also solid. Ryan has replaced dice rolling with a token economy which effectively puts added emphasis on the arguments and thought processes of the players as opposed to the reliance on random fortune.

As I note in the debriefing, one of the great payoffs of the gamifying engine is that students collaborate in resolving the ethical thought experiments. Moreover, since the party involves characters thinking things through with different ethical frameworks, they can see how the different systems see the world and approach situations.

Debriefing Brainstorm: Students as GMs and the Village
In the debriefing, we consider some different lines of approach and points of emphasis. I was curious as to how you would deal with game play in a class of 20+ students, and Ryan notes that this can get challenging. The idea that you might be able to pull students into the GM (or assistant GM) role would be an interesting solution to the problem of dealing with numerous adventuring parties playing simultaneously.

We were also interested in expanding the role of the village. I’m a bit hesitant to go too far in that direction. For all their artificiality and railroadiness, the dungeon delves offer a tightly structured scaffolding that would be hard to beat. Some of us were thinking of pushing towards village adventures, and this would be worth exploring. However, I fear that the more open ended and organic nature of the village context might prove impractical in the classroom without some system of managing the play. If the dungeon delves are working (which they seem to be) then I wouldn’t be too eager to abandon the format.

In part one, you will see the list of moves and agendas that drive the game. Those familiar with Powered-by-the-Apocalypse games will note the ancestry of this engine. As a teacher, I appreciate the way that this organization breaks things down for the students into small, manageable units. You will note that the moves are legion, and at first blush, this might seem intimidating. But if you put this into the context of a semester-long course, it is not as daunting as it might first appear. If a student can work towards gaining competence with the moves, it is clear that they will have developed some formidable skills of communication and critical thinking.

One last item of note: Midway through part 1, Ryan fields questions about whether the game agendas are to be conceived as player-facing or character-facing, and he responds that they exist on both levels. This highlights another great strength of the World of Dungeons: When learning the moves and resources available to the characters, the players are also learning the procedures and skills that they can carry with them from the gaming table . . . into the classroom . . . and then beyond.

Concluding Thought: The Call to AdventureRyan’s approach has much to offer educators, regardless of their discipline. I’m excited to hear reactions of other teachers and to see how we might adapt this type of educational game play to different classrooms and disciplines

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: Barrow Keep and Nurturing Volatility

Preliminary Note:

This is a report on the second and final session playing Richard Ruane's Barrow Keep.

You can find links to the Barrow Keep playsets discussed in this post here and here.

On Saturday, Richard Ruane finished giving us a tour of Barrow Keep. As usual, I have edited a recording and you can watch it here.

I’m struck by the variety of scenes we covered during play. We begin with some interrogation, move into a banquet with less-than-pious pilgrims, experience a heist that turns south, and then end up with a meeting with a goblin ambassador (which Richard gives a distinctly feline appearance). The session ends with our group talking about Richard’s approach to role-playing games, and there are a number of observations in the post-game debrief that are worth considering.

Barrow Keep aims to put characters into volatile situations and then leaves the players free to determine how they want to deal with the dilemmas, which inevitably have social and cultural implications. In retrospect, I’m struck by the nuanced style of play that this encourages.

To give you the spoiler first: It turns out that a band of goblins is interested in taking back a relic which the pilgrims (temporarily residing at the Keep) are carrying with them. Back in my role-playing youth, the set-up, approach, and outcome of this scenario would have been much simpler and would inevitably have resulted in some type of grand fight with the goblins, no doubt leading to more physical confrontations. In our case, the machinery of the game was more complex. To begin, none of our characters were wedded to the Archon in command of the Keep, and we each had slightly different political angles that we were working.

To add spice to the stew, Richard gave the goblins a unique look and a set of mysterious motivations tied to an ancient history that we were only vaguely aware of. I would mention in passing that fantasy games are swiftly moving to give groups like goblins a more weighty, meaningful culture that is enriching the games. Such groups might still be treacherous, even villainous, but if so, their antagonism is given a background and meaningful momentum. Even if the cogs of their mental life are not fully revealed, you nonetheless sense that they are planning, thinking, and reacting in ways that are open to analysis. This, in turn, gives the players around the table more to consider and more possible courses of action, each with their own moral and cultural valence.

I enjoyed the climactic closing scene with the goblin ambassador. Richard didn’t feel like he had to reveal or explain all the pieces of the puzzle he had laid out. We never discover what exactly the relic is that we are carrying to the ambassador. There is a sense that there are weighty further chapters that will develop the continuing relationship between Barrow Keep and the goblins. And there were some curious NPCs in the Keep who were involved in their own missions which we never fully figured out. These freely floating strands (and Richard’s restraint as a GM) added to the weight of our game play and contributed to the sense that we were characters acting within a living world.

I recommend listening to some of Richard’s closing remarks. He has some incisive comments to make about his approach to role-playing. For example, his philosophy that a role-playing game should provide "the foundation of a story to be told" is advice that will improve the character and quality of gaming at your table. His point is that GMs and players are often shackled by the idea that characters are either living out a story or creating a story. The result is that the group forecloses the surprises and unexpected curves that can open up a more layered, vibrant, and organic form of play.

It might be useful to talk about Richard's form of role-playing in terms of Roger Caillois’ idea of ilinx, which is the term he uses for the kind of play that creates an experience of vertigo. Ilinx is what happens when there is a kind of shock or genuine surprise injected in the midst of play. To be sure, role-playing games rely on mechanics and expectations which order and direct the conversation and events, but games can also allow for those spaces for ilinx to be created. Now, if you are playing with the idea that you are creating a story--as opposed to laying the foundation for a story to be told--you will tend not to leave space for the creation of ilinx because stories inevitably impose a narrative ordering on events.

Richard and his Barrow Keep offer a bounty of instruction for GMs, players, and designers. I appreciate the way in which he inhabits his NPCs and makes them come to life through some simple tricks with body language and phrasing.

And his concept that games should create volatile situations for characters to resolve is another golden nugget of wisdom. Note that much of the catalyzing agents are waiting there in the characters themselves. Character playbooks, for example, push every player to think of a couple key NPCs who are friends, rivals, or acquaintances of their character, and these elements then get fed into the scenario pack which serves as a kind of alchemical alembic to get those volatile reactions moving. It is a rich and dynamic approach to roleplaying, and you can see the payoff by watching a few parts of our session.

The Road Ahead:
Next month, we will venture into The World of Professionals, a Dungeon World hack created by Ryan Windeknecht. That game will delve into issues of virtue and professional ethics through the medium of another fantasy role-playing game.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: Excavating the Ur-History of RPGs in Barrow Keep by Richard Ruane (Part 1)

Preliminary Notes:
You can find links to the Barrow Keep playsets discussed in this post here and here.

I would also note that Richard and a bounty of other innovative game designers are participating in itch.io’s megabundle to raise funds for racial and social equality. Please move quickly to take advantage of that deal which is set to expire on June 15, 2020. 


An isolated castle. A new king with an ambitious heir apparent. Ghostly apparitions. Mysterious surveillance. A band of itinerant travelers.

Such elements sound like the makings of a juicy Shakespearen tragedy, but Richard Ruane turns them the cogs driving a role-playing game project he calls Barrow Keep. His brainchild was successfully Kickstarted and is now into serious development with playtest documents already available on itch.io and DriveThru RPG. This month, he has graciously agreed to provide me and fellow educators with an experiential tour in the Ludoverse Lab.

What is Barrow Keep?

Richard takes basic fantasy role-playing rulesets to drive scenarios filled with political mystery and social tension. He is specifically designing sheets and statistics to match the systems of  Diogo Nogueira’s Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells and Gavin Norman’s Old-School Essentials (Necrotic Gnome) . . . which means that they will be easily translated into any “old school” style fantasy rpg.

To begin, players choose from character sheets. These outline a role in Barrow Keep (hostage, ward, revenant, spy, etc.), and an archetype (beast bound, seer, rogue, magic-user, etc.). They also provide sequence of character questions, the answers to which modify character attributes. The responses also fill in character backgrounds and generate a motley crew of rivals and allies.

With character sketches in hand, the players direct their attention to Barrow Keep itself—its political situation, current internal antagonisms, the archon’s ambitions and fears. All this material then becomes fodder for one of the playsets that Richard has designed. Essentially, the playset gives the GM a scaffold for a wicked network of schemes and machinations bubbling about in the keep. While a Barrow Keep adventure might involve travelling to a mysterious cemetery  or investigating an abandoned tower, the key action occurs within the keep itself, which is filled with all sorts of colorful NPCs—courtesy of the character and setting creation work accomplished by the players in the opening minutes of the session.

Much of Richard’s playset approach derives from Beyond the Wall (Flatland Games), but whereas that game is steeped in the young adult fantasy of writers like Ursula K. LeGuin, Susan Cooper, and Lloyd Alexander, Richard is more influenced by more recent writers like George R. R. Martin, Ellen Kushner, N.K. Jemisin, V.E. Schwab, Lois McMaster Bujold, Tamora Pierce, and Mercedes Lackey.

We are playing Barrow Keep (with Richard at the helm) across two sessions, and you can find the first of these recordings by clicking here.

The game strikes a neat balance between character and setting complexity. The initial player-facing questions provide everyone around the table with juicy ideas and NPCs to work with, and the playsets allow a GM to develop an intrigue-rich setting in a 15-minute planning break. There are a number of factors to admire about the design. The character and setting creation process is efficient while still giving the players room to invent and further develop initial concepts. The elements of the playset provide rich, suggestive catalysts for the GM. Play begins with hard-framed scenes that allow the players to set their characters in motion through the activation of suggestive signs and portents.

You can watch the dynamics of the game in action starting at the 33:45 mark of the recording: In our playset, we have a group of pilgrims who have made a stop at the keep, and there are all sorts of strange events and bumps happening during the night.

One thing I love is that it’s not clear that everything strange or mysterious is related, and the playset doesn’t dictate that the players pursue any specific course of action. For example, there’s an NPC named Sennin who sets off for an evening ride (1:48:00), which seems kind of unusual, except it has also been established that Sennin is involved in a secret affair, so maybe he’s just off for a romantic rendezvous. And there seems to be an intrusion of some strange feline monster in the Keep, but it’s not at all clear that that’s related to the appearance of the foreign pilgrims.

For a bit of RPG history and some sense of Richard’s deep design roots, I suggest you look at the discussion beginning at the 2:11:00 mark. There, Richard mentions David Wesely’s Braunstein, a game concept developed in 1969. Coming out of the miniature wargame tradition, Wesely introduced a variety of roles into the normally martial setting. Many of these roles were explicitly non-military: For example, in a scenario involving a war-ravaged city, someone might play the university chancellor or even the local baker. In addition, Braunstein embraced an “anything can be attempted” mindset that encouraged players to think creatively and to become driving forces of the developing fiction. Though the specific “rules” of Wesely’s game were never published, Richard is aware of the notes that Wesely made, and he is looking to recapture that earlier ur-D&D style of roleplaying.

I’ll leave with one last suggestive note. Going back to the start of this entry, I would be interested in writing some specifically Shakespearean Barrow Keep playsets. In other words, the game would lend itself to a number of specific tropes and conflicts taken from texts like Hamlet, Richard III, 1 Henry IV, etc. Given how streamlined rulesets like Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells are, I can imagine setting students loose to inhabit a Shakespearean setting brimming with paranoia, anxiety, and backstabbing. Barrow Keep would potentially give a classroom an engaging, dynamic insight into the fraught royal courts we find in Shakespeare’s world. I can see similar applications to history classes covering the charged politics of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

I'll be back in the next post to discuss the outcome of our second session in Barrow Keep.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Ludoverse Lab Summer Line-up: Fantasy Role-Playing in a New Light

For the Summer of 2020, the Ludoverse Lab will feature a fantasy trilogy. Interested educators are invited to be part of the adventure!

We will be taking games like Dungeons & Dragons and its kin into brave new worlds. The goal is to have some fun while exploring how these games can bring serious topics—topics crucial to education—to the front burner.

As an added bonus, sessions will be led by some of the most innovative designers and GMs in the field today.

Here’s the line-up:

  • Saturday, June 6 and 13, 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. Eastern Richard Ruane, will be running a playset from his Barrow Keep project. He brings political intrigue, romance, and coming-of-age epiphanies into the fantasy rpg framework.
  • Saturday, July 11 and 18, 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. Eastern: Ryan Windeknecht will be running World of Professionals, a hack of Dungeon World which he uses to teach students about moral systems and professional ethics.
  • Saturday, August 1 and 8, 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. Eastern. Jesse Burneko is running a scenario inspired by his Dungeons and Dilemmas project, and he’s designing elements especially for the Ludoverse Lab. When you enter Jesse’s dungeons, you will be battling deep moral dilemmas along with the monsters. [Content warning: This game will deal with themes of pregnancy and possible harm to children.]

Hearken to the call to adventure. If you are a teacher who is curious or who is looking for innovative ways to bring games into the classroom, please reach out to me (robowist <at> gmail [dot] com) to reserve a seat at the table.
Please note: These are designed as “two-shot” adventures, meaning that you should sign up for both sessions within a given month.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: The Curious Synergies of Our Last Best Hope by Mark Diaz Truman

For this report, the Ludoverse Lab turned its focus to Our Last Best Hope, a game about a serious crisis whose resolution rides—for better or worse—on the shoulders of a small group of intrepid heroes. I was interested in continuing to explore a game which would touch on the current viral state of affairs, so I chose the Zombie Apocalypse playset / scenario which is included in the original book.

An edited version of our recorded session can be found by clicking here.

Our Last Best Hope is a curious mix of a role-playing game and a resource-management strategy game. Moreover, in its default incarnation, it is designed to be played on a large table with 30+ 3x5 cards and sets of white and black dice which you use to keep track of relationships, assets, threats, story points, and other vital stockpiles. Since we were playing the game virtually, I spent a couple hours in advance of our session building these elements on a Google Drawing file. That set-up worked remarkably well, but if you try it, build the cards in advance! I did so, and it facilitated a quick entry into game play. Had I started with a blank Google Drawing, it would have been a laborious start for the group.

The opening of the session involves choosing character types, building connections with other characters, establishing secrets and fears, and developing the setting. I have deleted this section in the video. So, after introductions to the game and to the players, you will see us move right into game play.

Our Last Best Hope alternates between spotlight scenes, which are driven by role-playing, and threats, where you work to build up dice pools in order to win against the game. The mechanics reward your role-playing: You earn story points by incorporating character relationships, painful secrets, and guarded fears into the scenes. For example, on a card, you write down the name of another character who drives your character crazy. If, during a scene, you are able to demonstrate that relationship quality, you can turn in the card for two story points.

Afterward, when dealing with a threat, you can spend story points in order to activate assets or engage the situation. These types of proactive measures earn your group added dice to roll, which increases your odds of dealing with the threat.

The game is set up to make the situation more dire as it progresses. Threats continue to appear, and they become more difficult to overcome in Act 2. Eventually, some of the heroes will have to make the ultimate sacrifice. When a character dies, the remaining members of the group receive a significant boost which makes it more likely that the core mission will be accomplished.

We found the game stimulating, and if you move to the end of the recording, you will catch some of our initial reactions in the debrief. The idea of sacrifice is at the core of the game, and the mechanics are set up to incentivize the players to consider taking one for the team as they zero in on their goal. The game also incentives role-playing in the opening scenes: You are looking at opportunities to play your story cards as you interact with the other characters. The threat resolution system is suitably strategic and dramatic.

We encountered problems with the time estimate. The book suggests 2-3 hours for game play, and even with the virtual table and cards set up in advance, we only made it about ⅔ of the way through the opening act in our committed 3-hour session . Part of this was a result of the way we leaned into the role-playing, but we also were quite efficient at working through the opening threats. If I had to play the game again, I would plan for two 3-hour sessions.

We ran into a similar time problem with Ben Robbins' Follow. In both cases, there may be a fundamental design problem at issue. On the one hand, there is something very appealing about a one-shot game which can be pulled out and played in a short session with minimal preparation. At the same time, the designer wants to deliver an experience that has a level of richness and complexity. These two goals, however, start to work at cross purposes. I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that there are games which should be considered two-shots or three-shots. I realize that billing them as such would not work from a marketing perspective. In my experience, games that most comfortably fit the one-shot mold—The Quiet Year, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Microscope—are ones that do not require a high degree of individual character engagement or relationship mapping.

Our Last Best Hope is game with many moving parts. It is smartly designed, but you have to be on top of the game to remember and keep track of all the rules and triggering effects. As an experience, it has much to offer both in terms of its interwoven mechanics and in terms of its core messaging. But this is a game that would require careful thought and planning if you were inclined to bring it into the classroom.

What especially intrigues me about Our Last Best Hope is that it gives the group a fighting chance for success but only if individual members can find it in themselves to sacrifice their characters. There is actually a death card that you play when your character meets their demise.

Our Last Best Hope is built on the idea of tragedy in its profound, classical sense. I can’t think of another contemporary rpg that is so perfectly designed to deliver the experience of heroic sacrifice to its players. That factor alone makes me as an educator interested in bringing it in front of my students. They often have difficulty seeing how a character like Oedipus is heroic, and are inclined to favor the more shallow triumphant victories of characters like Odysseus. A game like Our Last Best Hope might help to open their eyes to the emotional human core that resides in the tragic heroes—people who give of themselves so that others may flourish. It says something about the selfishness and shallowness of our culture that we don’t encounter those tragic models more often.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: Improvisational Play with The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen by James Wallis and Cheat Your Own Adventure by Shane Mclean, with the Pompey Crew Design Team

For this session of the Ludoverse Lab, we went after more lighthearted fare. Cheat Your Own Adventure and The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen are prep-less and GM-less games which challenge the players to think on their feet. Absurdity and inanity follows.

You can see the video recording of our session by clicking here.

I’ve lightly edited the video with headings used throughout to assist you in seeing how the gameplay develops. The video ends with some brief discussion about the games in education and the possible tweaks we would use to make sure all the students are involved in the mix.

Of special note is the contributions of Mikel Matthews, a drama and English teacher who also has deep experience in the improv acting arena. He gives us some useful instruction at the 59:00 mark as well as towards the end of the session during our debrief. Teachers who are interested in teaching role-playing and improvisational skills would be wise to take a look at what he has to say.

Cheat Your Own Adventure is freely available as a 2-page pdf on the internet. The basic idea is simple: One player starts a narrative about an adventurer using the second person (“you”) and takes the tale to a branch. The other players then propose options for the protagonist, and the narrative then passes to the player whose option is selected. The end result is a collaborative tale, and the players naturally fall into the idea of coming up with options that are attractive either because they are intriguing or because they will lead to hilarity.

It quickly becomes apparent in this game that the destination is less important than the journey. From the get-go, we swerve down paths that have little to do with the sorcerer Zalkir (whose name appeared in the title of our adventure) and more to do with introducing zany side characters and detours. When the narrative branches, the players at the table are challenged to come up with new directions for the tale. There were occasions when a player had come up with a good idea yet found someone introducing their idea before they could put theirs on the table, so we had to keep on our toes. It was also sometimes challenging to keep all the options in mind: You will see me constantly taking notes as an aid.

CYOA is a solid warm-up game that will inevitably lead to a lighthearted good time. It also has great flexibility in terms of the types of stories it can tell. For example, one might use the framework to tell the story of a press secretary who has to handle various gaffes and missteps of a President whom they serve. That would activate a great pun in the abbreviated title of the game—COYA. There are also clear possibilities of taking the narrative to more serious or dramatic destinations.

Baron Munchausen is a more refined game. Players challenge each other to tell tales, with the goal being to make your story more extraordinary than the others. The game really cooks when you use the challenge mechanic, which allows you to interrupt another player’s tale and ask them to explain or justify some detail.

The game has a curious competitive aspect, and one can consider strategy, but the rivalry side of the game is ultimately simply more veneer that exists to generate additional outrageous fiction. For example, if you challenge other players, your purse will surely dwindle, which seems like a bad thing. But in the final round of voting, you are giving your purse to the other player whose story you deem to be the most extraordinary. That means that having a small purse leading up to the end is actually a boon in disguise, since you will ultimately be passing fewer coins to a rival. Wallis has worked out a brilliant betting mechanic that rewards deep study: It valuable lessons into how an apparent strategic-competitive component can encourage the alert player to lean into the tactics and, in so doing, reinforce the underlying goal of the game.

One element that adds to the humor to Baron Munchausen is the atmosphere of false 18th-century propriety that the game encourages. Players are instructed to give themselves bogus honorific titles, and challenges are delivered with an affected politesse. The rule book is a delight to read and puts you in the right spirit. At some point in the future, I’d love to drill into the stylistic approaches of different rpg authors. There is great variety out there. If you wanted two writers worthy of close study who exist at opposite ends of the spectrum, I’d suggest comparing Ben Robbins to James Wallis. I admire both of them immensely, but for opposed reasons: Robbins is a master of clear, cogent precision, while Wallis is capable of delivering lush hilarity.

I’m gearing up to play Our Last Best Hope by Mark Diaz Truman, and I’m then going to set up a few more laboratory experiments for the summer. Announcements about those sessions will appear in the coming weeks, and as always, I’ll be looking for players to join me at the table.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: Follow by Ben Robbins

For our most recent experiment in the Ludoverse Lab, I decided to play with fire.

I had already talked to players who blanched at the notion of bringing viral material into a game. The reasons for their reticence are easily understood. The coronavirus pandemic has touched everyone on multiple levels. The topic goes deep and hits on sensitive nerves. For many, the idea of playing with something so close to home is not what they are after in a tabletop gaming experience. They are understandably looking for games to give them some respite, consolation, and social connection in this bleak time.

I, however, am especially drawn to tabletop roleplaying games that will go hard after vital topics, and it strikes me that this medium has deep resources for probing into very real human situations. As a teacher, I’m interested in how we might use games in education to prompt our students (and ourselves) to reflect on our world, to consider how others might view situations differently, and to explore alternate “real-world” outcomes in a fictional space.

So, I gathered together three other intrepid, like-minded souls, and we played Ben Robbins’ Follow using the playset called “The Cure.” I recorded our session and edited it. You can access it by clicking here. [One note: I took out much of the character creation section to keep the length more reasonable and to cut to the chase.]

The players include a middle school science teacher, a high school math teacher, a college American literature professor, and me (a high school English teacher). It was a special joy for me to have in the mix a former colleague whom I hadn’t seen in years.

I find the opening of our session intriguing: You will see some anxious body language and nervous hesitations as we consider whether to take a more indirect route through some fictive distancing—by, for example, dealing with an epidemic in a futuristic or historical setting. Ultimately, we left the idea of dealing with a zombie infection or a medieval plague for another day and opted to set our game in the here and now. The coronavirus was directly in the crosshairs, and we played characters living in a small city in upstate New York which was starting to grapple with an outbreak among teachers at the local elementary school.

The idea of Follow is that the players take on roles of characters in a “Fellowship,” a group which is united by a common crisis or mission. It is clear from the playset of “The Cure” that Robbins was initially imagining a hospital, research facility, or laboratory as a setting. Our group expanded this setting so that it encompassed people across a city, and you will note that we had to tweak and mold the playset to fit our conception. Our characters included a prominent local business owner, a member of the city council, a hospital security, a dispirited pharmacy assistant, and others. The result is that we had a varied mix of “takes” on the infection, and we remained true to providing a fiction that focused on ordinary people navigating an unexpected crisis with wide-ranging personal and social impacts. In Follow, each player controls a major character and a minor character, and the major characters are involved in some personal entanglements: The major character sitting to you left has something which your major character wants, but which is being withheld. Given the more broad city setting for our Fellowship, we were able to leverage some of these tensions, while others were relatively unexplored. A more contained, pressure-cooker environment—such as, for example, a single hospital—might have afforded us more opportunities to bring more of those conflicted connections into focus.

As will be the custom with the Ludoverse Lab, the session ends with a roundtable debrief. These comments begin with reflections on our actual play experience and the game, and then we spiral outward to talk about possibilities for the classroom. Many of the points raised merit further exploration. For example, Lali considers whether a middle school setting would require a more indirect, less immediately realistic approach. We were also considering whether the game, which ideally involves 3-5 players, could be played (perhaps with modifications) in a classroom context.

Related to this question is Chana’s curiosity about how to approach role-playing with students, most of whom are new to the activity. I have some advice to offer in the recording. If one has the luxury of time, for example, one can work to build up to role-playing through experiences and assignments given early in the year. I have had 9th grade students play the game Microscope initially without the “Scene” component, but I end the game with a writing assignment which takes students through the nuts and bolts of constructing an effective, dramatic scene between characters. With that assignment under their belts, students are more equipped to step towards more freeform, improvised role-playing situations later in the year.

This consideration has led me to the perhaps obvious realization that the GM-less environment can make things more difficult for less experienced role-players. A GM can ask players questions (such as “What does that look like?” or “What is it about Mr. X that most annoys your character?”) and push them to flesh out role-playing situations. In GM-less games with younger students, I have sometimes adopted a pseudo-GM role to prompt the students to think more deeply about their role-playing.

Ultimately, what I need is to develop a “Role-Playing 101” lesson which would pull together many of the insights and techniques I’ve picked up through my years of role-playing. This is another area where the classroom is manifestly different from the organic hobby group. When my friends and I first took up role-playing games in my high school years, none of us knew what we were doing, so we just worked it out over many months of trial and error. In the classroom, a more targeted and efficient approach is required. I will have to add “Role-Playing 101” to my list of summer projects.

I will end by reiterating my invitation to educators. If you are reading this and want to participate in an upcoming Ludoverse Lab, let me know and I’ll happily reserve a seat at the virtual table.