Role-Playing Teaching (Part 11: Abominable Terror as Means of Entertainment)

Role-Playing Teaching (2) I love autumn. The days are getting shorter, the evenings longer and the general feeling is that it’s so cosy to stay in with a cup of hot tea (or hot chocolate). The only thing to make it better is to add some more fun with free educational value. Aaaaand here we are with my next article on Role-Playing Games and how it can make your life easier and your classroom funnier.

Today we’ll discuss horror, terror, unspeakable doom and abominable fun they bring, and also why you could spend money on something nobody pays me to advertise.

I have written quite a lot about different role-playing games, various worlds and ideas, but today I want to encourage you to try on your own. And since we’re all dealing with English, the system I would recommend most is Call of Cthulhu. The greatest advantage of CoC is that you may choose your favourite period, from 1890s to… well, technically to the future as there are systems like Delta Green or CthulhuTech that are more future-oriented. Still, let’s start with the classic CoC and by classic I mean the USA in the 1920s. Fun, mystery and all that jazz. The players take the roles of more or less ordinary people – detectives, doctors, criminals, artists etc. and the adventures always start innocently, in a realistically described world, where the one of the few subtle differences is that we can visit Arkham with its Miskatonic University and infamous neighbourhood. It’s easy to create an ordinary character in a world that you pretty much are familiar with. The great benefit of this setting is that it encourages players to do a bit of reading on the period and if there’s any period of the USA history to be studied that’s certainly the 1920s! You could watch a film (film noir is great, even if it’s a genre about the 1940s, the atmosphere of gloom and doom suits CoC marvellously, but Chicago will also be great) or read some articles on the Net to get the grasp of the realia of the times. Now, in order to realise what unspeakable terror may await you (remember, your character will not know anything of the menacing shadows) – you may familiarise yourself with HPL’s stories.

This is something I find adorable – people who wouldn’t spend ten minutes on learning vocabulary would pore over the dictionary just to understand HPL’s alliterations and grammar (you may find some fine Future Perfect uses in his works).

The next advantage of CoC in general is the abundance of adventures, so you don’t have to trouble yourself with creating new stories (which can be overwhelming), but just get a sourcebook and follow the plot, adding some personal events. Game mechanics is as easy as can be – characters’ skills are defined by percentage (the higher the skill, the better your ability) and tests are basically determined by a 1d100 roll (which is a roll of two ten-sided dice where one is tenths and the other units). If you roll within your skill limit – you generally pass. I don’t encourage you to bring a RPG system to your classroom with more than fifteen pupils if you haven’t played a game before. But if you’re an English teacher – get yourself a copy of the Call of Cthulhu RPG and try to play a simple adventure with your friends. You will have a perfect entertainment for an autumn evening, you will experience the fun, the educational value and the possibilities you may include in your classroom. With the world that is easy to revive (especially for EFL teachers, honestly, I find them way more into the world than other people!), characters so ordinary that impersonating them isn’t difficult, and ready-made adventures – you can play a game on your own. Enjoy!
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Role-Playing Teaching: IATEFL speech transcript

Role-PlayingTeaching

Introduction

Hi and hello. My name is Monika Bigaj-Kisała and I’m a teacher of English, a worshipper of two cats, a socially awkward extrovert and a gamer. But first and foremost I am a storyteller and during the next 45 minutes I will take you on the journey where I will share my stories and you will spin yours, with superheroes, coffee and the Great Cthulhu.

Brene Brown says we all are born storytellers and by the end of our meeting I want you to discover your potential as a super-hero of your own story.

21 years ago I was 15, waiting for my diploma for reaching the finals of the regional English language contest, which was quite a big deal at that time. Fun fact, I had started learning English properly only two years before. I started attending English classes when I was 11 and for 2 years I had classes with an Ukrainian teacher who would start with lessons focused only on pronunciation drills like “hit-lit-wit” to be followed the next year by translation of English jokes. No grammar, no communication. Then we got a less unusual teacher and she would start with Present Simple and the verb “to be”, and pretty soon she discovered I actually know some English and can communicate quite decently, although I had no appropriate education. So she started to hone my skills and two years later I turned out to be a pretty good student.

The reason behind my linguistic abilities wasn’t a great teacher, nor was my natural talent. The two aspects responsible for improving my English were Cartoon Network and computer games. I spent my free time watching cartoons in English and that helped me develop my receptive skills, but playing games – Elvira, King’s Quests, Alone in the Dark – was what made me produce. I had to understand the meaning and act accordingly. There were no online games as it was ages before the Internet and in order to get a game you had to catch a dinosaur and ride it to the nearest game dealer, but still, games were communication. A game ordered me to do something, I had to understand and react, and the game judged whether my understanding was correct.

But then I didn’t appreciate the educational approach of the games, I only found it a source of fun.

One of the things that have set me on the quest of finding Holy Grail of the RPG in TEFL was the tedious environment of the coursebook-oriented curriculum. After years of using the same scheme of lessons, I started to dream of a course where changes would be part of its curriculum. And what gives RPGs such allure is certainly their variety – declaring actions (as acting out is not really a necessity), following the plot and building a story is similar everywhere, differences are in the worlds – and those are aplenty.

Jerzy Szeja explains that narrative Role Playing requires a person leading the game (GM: Game Master) and at least one player who impersonates a character (PC: Player’s Character). The world is described in a particular system of a narrative RPG along with the rules and mechanics.

RPG may be compared to children’s games where participants play different roles (e.g. cops and thieves), but a GM is the person who makes all the difference with outlining the proper plot and acting out other interactive characters.

The basic semiotic model of communication in RPG, looks rather simple:

GM describes the setting and NPCs actions.

PCs declare actions (sometimes after discussion to decide the way of behaviour).

GM describes the result of the actions (often based on mechanics).

And the whole cycle repeats itself.

Continue reading “Role-Playing Teaching: IATEFL speech transcript”

Role-Playing Teaching (Part 10:Why RPGs Rock in the Classroom)

Role-Playing Teaching (1)

So far I’ve written 9 articles in my Role-Playing Teaching series and I’ve just realised I didn’t write anything about why RPGs are so cool when it comes to teaching! So here we are, a list of seven main reasons you should take your class into one of the Never-Never worlds.

1. Communication

I wrote about it in Character Creation part – with RPGs you start communicating before you even start playing. You create your character, you establish relationships with other players and then you spend hours talking, communicating, arguing, convincing and making people see your point of view. You don’t practice communication, you simply communicate and learn on the way, that if you speak to a police officer the way you talk with your best buddy, it may affect the communication. Which is a lesson worth learning before you meet an actual police officer and start talking rubbish…

2. Fun

I know some people believe proper learning requires solemn approach, study books and a lot of copies with grammar drills. I agree with this perspective when it comes to introducing grammar constructions (surprisingly, I guess that in order to understand the Reported Speech you need to produce a certain amount of drills) – but my primary goal in teaching is fun; this is the main reason I teach, honestly. And when you can teach, play and have fun at the same time – how could I resist the temptation?

3. Friendship

For years I’ve been attending fantasy fans’ conventions and spent hours talking about RPGs, systems, world, adventures and sessions – if you’re a teacher, imagine attending a teachers’ conference and discussing with a random teacher of another subject and from another part of your country your issues with a particular group of students: it doesn’t sound probable, right? Yet that’s what RPGs fans do, we share our adventures, epic stories and even equally epic dice rolls! Why? Because RPGs connect people – you start talking about the last edition of Warhammer, go for a pint, it turns out you have some common interests apart from RPGs, then you meet more people like this, have a great time, you meet them again on another convention and boom! suddenly you have friends all over the country.

Very useful from a tourist’s point of view.

4. Research

I remember, when we started playing my presently favourite system (Delta Green) we did quite a lot of research on American governmental organisations (as you usually play an FBI agent, or a CDC official, or maybe even an NRA representative, and you even might playing a CIA agent if you’re risky enough). Likewise, when we started playing Call of Cthulhu in 1920, we had to do some research on laws, politics, pop-culture, social code etc. I’m planning to take my teen students on the journey to the USA in the 1920s and that will require them to do some reading and learn things they otherwise wouldn’t even bother to think about.

5. Memories

Imagine meeting people after five years and trying to find a common topic after you’re done with the small talks. Sometimes it causes awkward silence, but never for the RPGs fans! Our chats are full of “do you remember” – “do you remember when you killed that giant demonic slug with one hit?” (don’t ask…) or “do you remember when we had to solve the case of the missing hen?” (4 hours playing). Taking part in various “after years” meetings I must say the RPG-related ones are the liveliest and the funniest. No English course will give you memories similar to those when you go on an adventure with a group of people who ultimately become your friends.

6. Team building

I live in Poland. Poland is a lovely country but the social trust is terribly low. As a nation, we don’t really trust people – and something I’ve observed and been told when I worked abroad is that we’re not really team players. And that’s true, even when you look at the way we’re working, starting from primary school. Team-work is important, being teachers we know that collaboration and cooperation are vital. Now, RPGs teach you team building. You have to work as a team, otherwise you won’t complete the quest. Communication, negotiation and the awesome ability of taking the blame sometimes and not blaming others – you learn it all here.

7. Teacher’s laziness

I know there are hard-working teachers who enjoy lesson-prep, copying materials and cutting-out visuals. Regretfully, I am not one of them. If you read my blog, you probably know the best lesson for me is when my students do the work and I am a mere counsellor. RPGs work like that – you prepare an adventure, define the area of the language your students are going to practise (“today we focus on the passive”) and make notes of new vocabulary they will want to revise after the session… and then you basically have fun! Especially when you see your students having a blast, not even realising they’re learning the language.

To be sure, I could give you more examples of RPGs being awesome in your class – and I probably will, as this year I’m starting a mini-course of English based solely on RPGs. Adventures galore, a group of teenagers, Great Cthulhu and English – what can possibly go wrong?

Well, we’re about to see quite soon…

Role-Playing Teaching (Part 9: Madness is Magic)

Role-Playing Teaching(Part 9_ Madness is Magic)

After a series of theoretical reflections, I want to offer you a unique experience of taking part in a RPG session designed for EFL teachers. If you’re lucky enough to take part in 4th Teachers’ Convention in Stryszawa (23-27.07.2018) or IATEFL in Wrocław (21-23.09.2018) you may have an opportunity of not only taking part in my workshop Role-Playing Teaching: Madness is Magic, but also enjoying a session as a player, with me as a game master.

If you won’t be able to take part in any of the events, I will probably organise online workshops and sessions so that you’ll see the magic of dice-rolling and storytelling.

I want to offer you two sessions to choose from – one may easily think that age is the main criterion of choice, however it isn’t so: there are adult people who enjoy My Little Pony and there are teens fascinated by the eerie horror of the Lovecraftian literature. Do not let the pink fluffiness blind your better judgement!

Call of Cthulhu

Adventure: Ties That Bind by Tom Lynch

Number of players: 2-6

English CEFR level: B2-C2

Language practice: we’ll focus on the communicative aspect of the language, mainly register and vocabulary use depending on situation (cop talk, society event, etc.)

Story: Ipswich, near Arkham, 1920s. Mrs. Enid Carrington, a wealthy heiress of one of the most influential families in town, only plans to build a beautiful fountain in her rose garden. However, there are certain things in motion that will prove the whole attempt unsuccessful. Old man’s memory, human greed, thirst of knowledge, madness… What may win against the dark shapes stirring in the shadows? The investigators will face abominable terrors, unspeakable horrors and ties that bind us all – will they attempt to break them? And if yes, at what cost?

You are going to play as: 1920s is a great period to follow an adventure – you may be a scientist, a private eye, a police officer, or even Mrs. Carrington’s best friend.

My Little Pony: Tails of Equestria

Adventure: The Pet Predicament

Number of players: 4-6

English CEFR level: A1-B1

Language practice: we’ll focus on how to implement English revision and communication into the game, how to encourage students who feel shy and how to support groupwork because friendship is magic, after all!

Story: There are many ponies in Ponyville, not only famous Alicorn, Princess Twilight Sparkle, and a lot of them want to become heroes. And sometimes even Twilight Sparkle needs help from her new friends! Will the ponies aid the Princess? Sometimes a simple quest may lead to great – and dangerous – adventures!

You are going to be: a typical young pony – you may choose whether you prefer being an Earth Pony, a Pegasus or a Unicorn.

As you can see, I may give you only two choices, but that’s how you’ll experience the variety RPGs offer. I haven’t chosen any typical fantasy system like D&D or Warhammer because, well, I believe not everyone feels like acting out an elf, but pretending to be a private eye in a 1920s film noir may be funnier and easier to try.

If you’re interested in joining the game, let me know after the workshops – or keep following my blog and FB page if you’d like to experience it online.

Let’s roll!

Role-Playing Teaching (Part 8 – making classes SuperBetter)

Role-Playing Teaching

It’s a really strange feeling, when you read a book in April and you realise you’ve just read your Book of the Year. Also, it’s hard to believe I hadn’t heard of Jane McGonigal before my Prince Consort picked her book during our monthly book hunt and said “You will love it”. He was right, naturally.

If you wonder why I would write a book review in my Role-Playing Teaching series, you need to watch a TED-talk by McGonigal herself who says things that make my little, black, rotten heart swell with happiness:

If the video hasn’t convinced you, you should read McGonigal’s bestseller “SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient – Powered by the Science of Games”. I’m not a fan of self-help books (I read Faber and Mazlich’s How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & How to Listen So Kids Will Talk, tried to use it while communicating with my parents and failed miserably – I was 13 by that time and lost faith in such publications), but I cannot describe SuperBetter as a self-help book, and one of the reasons is the emphasis on cooperation and social relations helping us grow.

The book begins with a moving story of Jane’s happy life, misfortune and final success in overcoming obstacles and reaching a happy, yet full of challenges, life. Frankly, so many books written to inspire others follow the similar pattern, so being the Villain I am, I was somewhat sceptical – but what followed the personal story, was a flood of data from various research – and this was something I love (yay, research!). Have you heard of Snow World, a game used in burn centres to alleviate the pain using phenomena called spotlight theory of attention? And that’s just the beginning of the motivating story where you create your own game-like life in which you can assume a role of a superhero to overcome any obstacles.

How do games help in our development?

Playing video games releases as much dopamine as an injection of a drug. Why is it useful apart from sudden exhilaration? Simple – the research show that dopamine “shots” while we play games make us more determined to achieve goals and less frustrated in case of the failure. It was proven that players are more dedicated and resilient, moreover, games help you try out various tactics and approaches without real-life consequences which encourages you to be more daring, open and ready for opportunities. Playing games also help you learn proper prioritising your own goals.

How to wake up a gamer in oneself?

Even if you haven’t played for a good while you can recall the mentality of a gamer – think of your obstacles as challenges or quests, whether it’s a visit to the dentist or becoming an entrepreneur. From the neurological point of view, McGonigal explains, there’s no difference whether you feel “real” excitement or “make-believe” feeling, your brain is ready to go! If you read the book, you will learn how to “power up” positive experiences and build your inner game-world (for example, by giving names to the obstacles – if your goal is getting fit, your main enemy might be a Scheming Local Pizza Place, where they seem to have great deals exactly when you’re hungry and passing by… coincidence? I think not!). You will also learn how to plan your aims realistically and how to avoid procrastination (to which some of us, like yours truly, are really susceptible).

Quests!

Apart from theory, the book includes three quests: the first is for those looking for True Love (which, as all of us fans of The Princess Bride know, is the best thing in the world except for cough drops), the second is for people who want to become ninjas (or at least Mulan), and the third one is created for those who feel their days are too short and want to work on time management.

Why should you read it?

You may sensibly ask: so far so good, but what does it have to do with teaching? Well – everything! With games, you have the perfect tool to make yourself and your students motivated, ready for a challenge (because Dreadful Grammar Drill looks like a perfect name for the obstacle on our quest to Purrfect English!) and, first and foremost, to make all the educational process fun, even within the strict framework of public educational system.

I believe in games and teaching complementing each other to make education fun, so if you’re a member of a facebook group of Polish Teachers of EFL and you’re interested in this topic, you will have an opportunity to attend my workshop on RPG and TEFL as well as take part in a RPG session during Zlot this summer.

I hope to see you there!

Jane McGonigal: SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient – Powered by the Science of Games

Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (September 13, 2016)
ISBN-13: 978-0143109778

Role-Playing Teaching (Part 7: For Those About to Roll)

Role-Playing Teaching(Part 7_For Those Aboutto Roll)

The following note is a rough translation of the post Erpegi na pierwszy raz available here. The author, Michał Laskowski, kindly agreed to me translating and sharing his work. It is originally meant for people who are already familiar with RPGs, so I believe you already know enough of theory and it’s high time to start playing on your own!

Two important things before you start reading: I took the liberty to shorten the original post, so if you’re Polish and want to read more, go to the original page. Also, some of the games presented by Michał are in Polish only and I didn’t share them here, so if you’re Polish… you know what to do.

Bored, ain’t you? Wanna play a game?

(…) One of the methods of introducing new people to the hobby is persistently telling stories about it, sending links to texts and videos entitled What is RPG?, and finally making an appointment specifically for the RPG session. (…) However, you can take people by surprise, with the game that is small, free and easy to use. Suited to a social meeting over a pint, the long train ride etc. Either way, it’s important to choose the game according to the interests of people who we plan to engage into playing RPGs:

For the travellers: the game suited perfectly for chilling out and worth every recommendation is Luna by Marta Kucik Kucińska, which won Polish Game Chef Award in 2014. Attractive (for a DIY) and recommended to try for the first time before it gets too dark. Once you get the rules, you may try playing under the starry sky to experience an even greater fun. (…)

For those who enjoyed Stranger Things (and Netflix shows in general): Outstanding Heroes and Extraordinary Threats (…) that will bring you great fun with colourful yet cliché adventures. (Something many people are surprisingly fond of, me included)

For those hungover and jet-lagged: the irreplaceable Norwegian game by Tomas HV Mørkrid Stoke-Birmingham 0-0. The game where you play the most average European ever. I do not want to spoil surprises here – this is the ultimate RPG!

Time to rock!

If you already managed to break the ice in speaking on behalf of your character (I have a feeling that this is a big challenge, even for the fairly outspoken people), we can try with more games. I believe that only then can one theorise on what RPGs are? and start playing more typical systems with character sheets, dice, and a typical Game master – Players structure.

Another RPG worth testing is Lady Blackbird. It’s already reached the status of one of the canonical classics. One of the best choices for a quick RPG (there is no character creation) (…).

From an old player’s library…

I wanted to mention a few published games that were released some time ago. Many of them may seem quite forgotten. Sometimes they may require chipping in a few dollars from the players (…):

Blood and Honor by John Wick Now a classic, made for all lovers of Japan and the Samurai. One of the most interesting elements is contributing to the storytelling – test results do not indicate the success itself, but the person who determines the consequence of the action. It’s a very engaging game for the whole team, especially that you start with creating own clan.

Dogs in the Vineyard by Vincent Baker. This alternative western story about young Mormons with just a hint of fantasy. Something that you want to show your friends from a drama club to show them that your kind of fun is also “real art”.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Another classic (…), perfect for chatting and sipping beer, and looking at the fireplace during long winter evenings.

Let’s roll!

As you can see, most of these games challenge the typical image of a Game Master as a guide followed by the players. It’s not because I despise the mainstream games. It’s a matter of pragmatism. After gamemastering a few sessions in Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing Game, you will still be the one who knows all the rules of the fight, you’ll be an authority in matters of the world and the main creator of a plot during the adventure. If the players learn how to co-create the plot from the beginning, as well as using game mechanics, they will take the initiative much more easily,

Role-Playing Teaching (Part 6: Game Mechanics)

Role-Playing Teaching (1)

I’ve avoided this moment for as long as I could, but I don’t think I can move forward in writing about RPGs without discussing the mechanics. If you haven’t played any proper RPGs before, you probably won’t know that this aspect of games has been discussed for years, and involved: fandom wars, friendships ruined (seriously, been there) and physical injuries (OK, I might exaggerate a bit here) by almost all RPG players (minus D&D players who simply watch from the sidelines and eat popcorn 😉 ). Which one is more important – rolling dice or storytelling, element of chance or the belief that everyone should be satisfied with the general outcome of the story where a roll may often be unfair?

In case you’re worried – I’m not going to discuss those issues here – let me just admit I personally believe both aspects are important: storytelling may be the most important goal of RPGs (at least from a teacher’s approach to use RPG in the classroom as a communicative tool; as a pure game I’m convinced its main goal is to have fun), but it is the rules and rolling the dice that makes it a game.

In my previous note I gave three examples of characters’ communication and you could see that even if a simple chat or negotiation was fairly easy to act out, there were problems with finding a fast and easy conflict solution. In order to make it short and simple (my favourite KISS rule) we may simply roll a die and determine the success by the higher number rolled.

While this idea may sound good enough, it still seems rather unfair, especially when one character is an Experienced Lawyer (who spent years manipulating people), and the other is an Edgy Teenager (who simply goes with I know better attitude). Now, this exactly is the reason why RPGs use a tool called Character Sheet with basic traits and skills listed and “graded”. Usually all players start with the same number of EXP (experience points) to divide among traits, skills and abilities according to their characters’ background, profession etc. Then the roll may be modified by a point assigned to the particular attribute, so Experienced Lawyer, having higher social skills, will have an advantage over Edgy Teenager.

Naturally, you may design your own character’s sheets, but since I’ve already picked Monster of the Week as a system in which I’ll set my adventures, I’ll share a simplified MotW sheet.

Simple Character Sheet

Moves

Moves cover situations when the game rules step in to help you determine what happens, e.g. something dangerous, conflicts, unusual events. The Moves in MotW we’re going to use are as follow:

  • Act Under Pressure, used for difficult/dangerous situation
  • Help Out, used to help another player by giving them a bonus on their task
  • Investigate a Mystery, used to work out the situation the character is in
  • Kick Some Ass, used for, well, kicking ass, because in RPGs sometimes we declare a fight
  • Manipulate Someone, used in those times when Kicking Some Ass would be too risky
  • Protect Someone, used to save someone from danger
  • Read a Bad Situation, used to work out what dangers are threatening you

In MotW there are more Moves, but since we’re not really hunting Monsters (not yet), we’re good with the basics.

Ratings

In order to make abilities good enough to reflect our character, we are using the Ratings. They are added to (or subtracted from) your dice total when you roll for a Move:

  • Cool is how calm you are and adds to your roll Under Pressure and when you Help Out
  • Tough is how strong you are and adds to your roll when you Kick Some Ass or Protect Someone
  • Charm is how pleasant you are and adds to your roll when you Manipulate Someone
  • Sharp is your intelligence and how observant you are, and adds to your roll when you Investigate a Mystery or Read a Bad Situation

The ratings range from -1 to +3, where -1 is bad, 0 is average, +1 is good, +2 is really good and +3 is phenomenal. You start with 3 points, so some ratings will get better than average, some worse – just like in real life.

Now, all you need to do is roll two everyday six-sided dice, add them together and then add whatever number is written down for your character’s rating:

  • 10+ is a success – well done, you passed the test and everything’s great
  • 7-9 is partial success – well, you’ve made it BUT…
  • 1-6 is a miss – sorry, not this time…

So let’s take the conflict situation from the previous note:

Situation: You meet up on Wednesday afternoon in your favourite café and enjoy coffee and cakes.

Player A: you realise you’ve forgotten your money… again. Ah well, Player B will probably help you.

Player B: Player A seems to have forgotten money… again. It riles you up because somehow it’s you who usually pays for both of you and A doesn’t usually remember to give it back to you.

Let’s assume player A is Edgy Teenager, and Player B is Experienced Lawyer. If the discussion takes too much time you simply ask Player A to test their Manipulate Someone move. Now, Edgy Teenager adds 0 from his Charm and rolls 3 on one die and 4 on the other die. He gets 7 – partial success, Player B will treat Teenager this time, but this is seriously the last time, and their friendship is somewhat shaken…

I hope I helped you to grasp the idea of game mechanics – naturally, there’s much more to this as there are many worlds, many systems, many mechanics and their variations. The simplified version of MotW is just an example of a family of popular systems (called Powered by the Apocalypse), but there are ever so many of them, more or less complex, based on dice, cards, tricks etc.

Do you feel like learning more of them? Well, why don’t you get your own copy of a system that suits you and go on an adventure with your friends, students or both?

Enjoy!