Sunday, December 30, 2018

Roleplaying Games in the Classroom Trenches, Part Two: The Experiment

If you are just now coming to this article, you might want to glance at Part One, where I detail the challenges that roleplaying games face when they enter the classroom arena. In that article, I also summarize a specific game and design concept I created to face those challenges. What follows here is an assessment of where my efforts succeeded and where I have more work to accomplish.

I start with the good news. Here are some of the most salient positive outcomes I observed:
  • The tribal organization of Becoming Beowulf meant that students worked within smaller groups, and this increased the participation and engagement level. The average size of a tribe was around six students. Yes, in any given class, there were a few students who did not get into the mix, but the vast majority were enthusiastically involved in the activity.
  • The competitive format of the game provided motivation for the students. This was amplified when the Grendelkin faction was created due to players being eliminated from their tribes. The Grendelkin can target other tribes and derail their efforts, and this adds a dynamic antagonistic component to the game which sparked excitement.
  • The resolution mechanic provided a climactic build-up, and the result of the dice roll for each tribe was avidly watched by the class. The mechanics are quickly grasped by the students (though they don’t necessarily think about those mechanics in strategic terms).
  • The splitting of the game into rounds meant that the play could be easily halted at the end of one class period and then resumed on the next day with little difficulty. Each tribe had a playsheet that allowed for easy accounting and record keeping, and this allowed tribes to easily pick up where they left off. I was successful in making the game flexible for use within class periods of varying length.
  • Students were creative and varied in their plans. I was especially excited when the tribes were adopting very different solutions to the same problem. For example, the game involves a situation when a foundling child washes ashore on a boat filled with treasure (similar to the way that Beowulf begins). In one class, I had one tribe that abandoned the child while taking the treasure, another that gave the child to its enslaved minority, and a third which adopted the child as one of their own. That type of diversity of responses was common.
  • The crisis situations prompted immediate, focused discussion within the tribes. Students were quick to consider various options, and there was some vigorous, thoughtful debate as they worked towards their solutions.
But the game in its current form is not an unequivocal success. What follows are some of the areas where the game requires further revision or development:

  • Roleplaying: When the tribes are presented with a challenge, they face two tasks: (1) they must decide upon what trait points to allocate to the crisis, and (2) they must frame a scene which dramatizes some aspect of the tribe’s response. Both of these tasks can result in adding dice to the pool (and thus increasing the chances of a positive outcome). But the second task, which involves roleplaying, was typically weak. The students usually presented a simple, barebones “skit” with minimal dialogue and action. This happened even after multiple attempts at prompting, advising, directing, and cajoling students. In the next iteration of the game, I’m going to suggest that Wyrd (the gamemaster) intervene in those scenes, possibly by taking on the role of a tribe member who will ask questions, object, or otherwise create friction for the other players.
  • Strategizing: Despite some thoughtful discussions, tribes were typically conservative and cautious in spending trait points to build up their pools. When I asked the class about the game, most students thought that the resolutions were largely a result of chance. Even when I pointed out that they could substantially increase their odds of success by expending more points and by leaning into their roleplaying, they usually failed to take advantage of their opportunities.
  • Resolution mechanics: The game has many variables. It doesn’t railroad the players into any set solution to a challenge, and there is considerable room for creativity both in terms of the framing of the scenes and the tribe’s strategic responses. Given this open-ended nature, I was often left scrambling as the gamemaster to come up with resolution outcomes that seemed fair and that made sense to the players. I sometimes wished that I had a more rigorous, programmatic resolution mechanic that I could draw upon—something which would make my final decisions seem more defined and less arbitrary. I certainly would like to have instructions in place which will give more direction to other teachers who might choose to give the game a try.
  • Maintaining interest and motivation: The novelty of the game and its competitive nature gave it considerable initial spark, but as the days progressed, this impetus lost its edge. I reacted by offering some bonus points for tribes and players who distinguished themselves in their play and their decisions, and this had a temporary positive impact. The game as I ran it involved five 45-minute class periods: This involved taking part of the first day to explain the rules and then to work through about eight different scenarios or rounds during the remainder of that class and the subsequent classes of the week. There was still energy working in the final session, but I didn’t want to press my luck beyond that. 
  • Writing the saga: In the classroom, a game cannot be an end in itself, and I need to consider ways of leveraging the play experience into further experiences for growth and education. In retrospect I wish that I had accompanied the game with a creative writing activity that would allow the students to process their experience and to memorialize their tribe’s triumphs and tragedies. I migh also have them include reflections on whose decisions seemed the most useful, intriguing, dramatic, and/or provocative. .Next year, I’m thinking of attaching the game to an assignment in which the students will recount their tribes’ sagas, modelling their writing on Old English literary models.

Becoming Beowulf engaged, challenged, and educated my students, and I have faith that other classrooms could benefit from this type of game. I’m writing and revising the rules of Becoming Beowulf with an eye towards making it accessible for other teachers. Figuring out how to publicize and distribute this type of game, however, is baffling. Educational roleplaying games are almost by definition misfits. Game designers are usually not in-the-trench teachers, and teachers are seldom aware of the current landscape of roleplaying games.

So there are major challenges to getting this type of game into the hands of people who would benefit from it. I will attend teaching and gaming conventions to discuss educational roleplaying games, but my sense is that I have an uphill battle ahead of me. Teachers are likely to be puzzled by what will be, to most of them, a strange classroom activity, while gamers will be uninterested in a game scaled for classroom use. Bringing those two groups into dialogue with each other will have significant payoffs for both groups. But getting that dialogue moving forward will require some heavy lifting.

I invite you to consider any of the challenges I have offered here and to offer ideas and solutions. And stay tuned for Part 3, where I will offer some insights into sponsoring a roleplaying game club in the high school setting.

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