Thursday, December 27, 2018

Roleplaying Games in the Classroom Trenches, Part One: The Challenge

Periodically, I run across blog posts and articles waxing poetic about the educational value of rpgs and about how they should be used in the classroom. While I’m sympathetic to such articles, they’ve typically suffered from being thick on the idealism side of the scale and thin on the practical, “rubber-hits-the-road” side. Gamers can point out a LARP school in Denmark, and we can learn from those experiences, but a 90-student boarding efterskole is a far cry from your bustling high school in the United States.

What follows here is a work-in-progress report from the front lines of teaching in America. Rather than extolling the potential of rpgs in the classroom, I want to zoom in on some actual experiences, take stock of what I’ve learned, and point the way to future prospects. For ease of reading, I’m breaking the report into three separate posts:
  • Part 1 The challenge
  • Part 2: The experiment
  • Part 3: The club

From my vantage point, the classroom provides a vast, unexplored territory for rpgs, which makes it both exciting and daunting from a game design standpoint. It is so very easy to talk about the educational merit of rpgs: They can provide an immersive experience in a way that reading a book or listening to a lecture cannot; they can involve creative problem-solving on a sophisticated level; they can help to develop the players’ powers of imagination; and the list goes on. If we can figure out how to design rpgs that are accessible to teachers and that enrich the classroom experience, we would uncover a new path to reach and educate students, and these games in turn would encounter a largely untapped audience of young minds eager for enriching experiences which few other art forms can rival.

Lest we get carried away, however, it might be best to begin with our feet grounded in reality. Let me play the devil’s advocate and give you just five reasons why your typical roleplaying game is NOT a good fit for the classroom.
  • Most roleplaying games are designed for small, intimate groups typically ranging from 3-6 players. The high school classroom is usually much larger. In my school (a private prep school), I’m working with around 18 students on average, and in some high schools the number can easily be 30 or 35 students.
  • In the classroom, students are not volunteering to play the game. I teach English, which is a required core subject. My students have not chosen to be in my course; they are in there first and foremost because it is a graduation requirement.
  • Roleplaying games involve intrinsic motivation, and the goal of play is typically created by the gamemaster and the players. By contrast, because of the setup of the educational systems, students are motivated above all by grades and assessments.
  • The vast majority of students are new to roleplaying games, so the entire experience is one that requires careful guidance, regulation, and advice.
  • The typical class lasts somewhere from 45 minutes (on a regular schedule) to 90 minutes (on a “block” schedule). The actual time for play is actually going to be less once you take into account attendance, announcements, and other matters of the daily routine. By contrast, a typical roleplaying game session lasts from three to four hours.

To state the obvious: Most roleplaying games are explicitly NOT created for the classroom environment. In fact, there is much about the usual design of these games that makes them foreign—even antithetical— to that kind of context. Imagine forcing a group of 25 self-conscious adolescents to play Dungeons and Dragons with minimal instruction during a 45-minute session in a class where they are getting a grade. I would need a 10th level barbarian just to maintain order!

So how does one confront this challenge?

During the final stretch of the fall semester, I ran an original roleplaying game based on the Anglo-Saxon world of Beowulf in my ninth grade English classes (three-sections worth).

I decided quite early that I had to rely upon my own inventiveness and forge my own path. There are some games like Diplomacy and Microscope which can be effectively modified for the classroom, but those games are few and far between. Moreover, I, as a teacher in a core subject, have specific content and curriculum requirements that I must meet, and my classroom activities need to work in conjunction with my educational objectives. I knew that I would be teaching the Old English epic Beowulf sometime in the middle of the year, and I felt that text would offer some rich material for a roleplaying and problem-solving game for my students. Yes, games inspired by Beowulf do exist, but none of those are appropriate for classroom use. So I devoted part of my summer to designing an original game—one that couldnaddress the special demands of the classroom and breathe some new life into the Old English epic.

I’m happy to share the full rules of my work-in-progress, titled Becoming Beowulf, to interested parties (just ask!), but, to keep things short, here is the basic outline of the game:
  • Students are divided into Anglo-Saxon tribes, each of which is ruled by a king.
  • The tribes have traits (Treasure, Resources, Mead-Hall, Loyalty, Strength, Will) which they can draw upon to deal with various crises. The values of these traits fluctuate during the game.
  • The gamemaster (called Wyrd in the game) reads a card detailing a problem which each tribe must deal with. The groups then retreat to their mead-halls to discuss how they will face the situation. This involves allocating trait points to the task and framing up a scene where they will roleplay some aspect of the tribe’s response.
  • Based upon their response, their point allocation, and their roleplaying, each tribe builds a dice pool. A dice roll then figures prominently into the outcome of the crisis. Tribes accumulate points of Doom and Fame as a result of these resolutions. In addition, they can lose or gain points to their traits.
  • Occasionally, tribe members are eliminated due to battle, hardship, or other nasty events. Those students become members of the monstrous Grendelkin tribe. This tribe can then use the other tribes’ Doom points against them to spoil their efforts to deal with the crises they face.

The game design aims at creating a rhythm: Students spend some intense minutes in their smaller tribes discussing and planning their response to a crisis, and then the entire class comes together to watch the framed scenes and to determine the outcome. It also works to keep students active: No one is ever eliminated from the game, and the small size of the tribes means that everyone can play a vital role.

I initially thought I would use this game alongside our reading of Beowulf or as a fun post-reading activity. The more I thought about the game, however, the more I feared that students would be swayed by the epic and simply replay the responses and events of that narrative. I didn’t want the game to turn into a shallow practice in imitation.

So I zagged: My students played Becoming Beowulf as a preparation to reading the text itself (which will occur in a couple weeks at the start of the second semester). Now, when students encounter the epic, they will read about situations which they previously faced as players in the game. Often, they are going to discover that the characters and tribes in the epic took very different approaches than the solutions tried out in Becoming Beowulf. That should open up some rich discussions about the strategic, cultural, and dramatic situations that factored into those differences.

In a traditional book, the path of the narrative is set by the author and the reader has no choice but to follow along. But the openended nature of the roleplaying game means that the players can explore alternative pathways, and these can give them some valuable alternative perspectives when analyzing narratives. I will be heavily exploiting this resource in the coming weeks. When, for example, we read about Hrothgar offering asylum Beowulf’s outcast father, my students will not see this act of charity as given or inevitable, for they will have already explored different ways in which a tribe might deal with a foreign fugitive seeking help. That, at least, is the idea.

How did Becoming Beowulf fare on the actual field of battle? For that assessment, read on to Part 2: The Experiment.

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