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…

Advertisements

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!

Role Playing Teaching (Part 4: Games From Distant Worlds)

koata beach

One of the things that have set me on the quest of finding Holy Grail of the RPG in TEFL is the tedious environment of the coursebook-oriented curriculum. After years of using the same scheme of lessons, of omnipresent PPP model (slowly trying to include elements of TBT) occasionally interrupted by games, role-plays and authentic materials, I’ve started to dream of a course where changes would be part of its curriculum. Hence my idea of joining RPGs with TEFL – a match made in R’lyeh and blessed by Cthulhu’s tentacles.

What gives RPGs such allure is certainly its 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.

Today I want to share some examples of the environments and systems you may enjoy with your students. You may take your students to the adventure in the Wild West followed by a crime story a’la film noir in an urban fantasy setting… So, the environments I can recommend to each and every teacher are:

Fantasy

Probably the first thing that springs to your mind after you hear “Role Playing Games” – thanks to the most popular RPG in the world, namely Dungeons and Dragons.  Fantasy worlds full of magic, adventures and heroes. If you’re into ever-popular Tolkien’s Middle-earth, you may choose The One Ring. If you prefer a grim world of perilous adventure – here’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Do you love Terry Pratchett? choose Discworld RPG, and have fun! I would recommend these settings for those who actually are familiar with the concept of RPG, as one of possible problems may be convincing people that they are not only having fun, but also learning.

Science-fiction & the future

The logical step from fantasy – sci-fi. Now, there are many RPGs that happen in the future, but not all of them are true sci-fi, as there isn’t enough science in them to be called so. Eclipse Phase, Traveller and my favourite Blue Planet RPG have a truly sci-fi approach and may be awesome solutions for yet another environmentally-oriented classes on higher levels. If you’re teaching soldiers, go for CthulhuTech (future, mechs and Cthulhu, awesome!), if you prefer matrix-like world, go for Cyberpunk, or choose post-apocalyptic world as Neuroshima (Polish only, though you can play in English).

(Alternative) history

If you think fantasy or sci-fi is just too much for your students, you may try some historically accurate systems. As teachers of EFL, you may probably enjoy Pendragon, a system where you play a chivalrous knight in the arthurian realia. Aces & Eights may be a great solution of you’re into life in the alternative version of the Wild West. If you’re Polish who enjoys the history of their country, choose Dzikie Pola and enjoy the atmosphere of the Poland of old.

Non-human

Well, this may come as a surprise, but playing non-human characters may be a lot of fun! For more mature students I could recommend the World of Darkness universum, where you can play a vampire, a mage, a werewolf or a fae. Sounds too creepy? Think about something else – why not play an agile feline in Cats? Or maybe a heroic mouse in Mouse Guard? And we can’t forget of the game that at the moment is extremely popular among fellow gamer-parents who introduce their offspring to the world of role-playing games: My Little Pony: Tails of Equestria!

Urban Fantasy

The last, but not the least – urban fantasy systems, the ones I would pick for everyone who hasn’t tried RPGs before. It’s close to our own world, but you can – can, not must! – add a bit of the unreal. Think of the X-files: you can live the adventures in Delta Green, even when you leave Cthulhu mythology out of the equatio (can’t think of a reason why, though). Speaking of Lovecraftian Mythos, you may pick Call of Cthulhu and choose any period of time you wish – from roaring twenties to modern times. If you’re not into Cthulhu – choose Dresden Files or Monster of the Week – I’m sure you’ll have fun.

I myself believe urban fantasy is the best start to show the potential of using RPGs in teaching EFL, as you can introduce regular situations people experience in the real world – business conversations, small talks, negotiations etc. with no element of fantasy or supernatural. Try to think of it as a prolonged role-play exercise where each student having the same character, only facing different situations.

I hope you’re getting the general idea of what RPGs are – next time I’ll show you how to create Players’ Characters and why it may be an English lesson itself.

Enjoy!

Role-Playing Teaching (Part 3: Being a teacher and being a Game Master)

THE NEW YOU

In my previous articles (Why people play games and What are RPGs) I briefly described a phenomenon of Role-Playing Games and shared the reasons for which people play games – and enjoy it. Today, I want to demonstrate similarities between teaching and playing RPGs which will help me prove why RPGs can be the ultimate answer to Game-Based Learning approach.

By the end of the article you will realise you not only already played a RPG, but you unknowingly took a role of a Game Master!

Game Master is the person who holds the strings, who’s behind the curtain, who’s – that’s my favourite comparison – a Merlin to the group of new knights of the Round Table… and that’s exactly who a teacher is, at least to my mind: a person who sets goals and makes students reach them, but only by encouragement, not by direct passing them the Holy Grail of knowledge.

I will try to show you seven aspects actually making teacher a Game Master:

Set-up

Just like a GM before a session (a meeting where people partake in an RPG adveture), you need to pick a set-up, a theme and general idea for a lesson. You choose the areas your students will roam in pursuit of their goal (e.g. understanding the beauty of Present Perfect), and you decide on the goal itself by determining a lesson aim.

Preparation

As Gail Godwin said, good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths pure theatre. It’s exactly the same with game-mastering. You need to prepare stages of the lesson/session along with some props, like music, handouts, multimedia tools etc. We want the participants, be they players or students, to have fun, enjoy and – yes, why not? – admire the adventure we’ve planned for them.

Yes, I know there are GMs who don’t use any props, but then there are teachers who love Dogme approach, so things even out.

Team building

One of the universal truths of the world is simple: you must gather your party before venturing forth. It’s important in RPGs where you usually create a team of heroes embarking on the same quest (and yes, there are games for one player only, just like 1-2-1 classes), but creating a relationship with fellow students is also vital in a classroom environment. And while not all teachers find team building as their responsibility, having a proper team to teach is way funnier and more pleasant – and RPGs may teach you how to make people cooperate.

Rules

Role-Playing Games are designed to have fun with friends, but since one of the main characteristics of games is a clearly stated set of rules understood and accepted by all participants, there must be someone to impose the rules, interpret them and make players act accordingly. Isn’t it just like a teacher in a classroom full of enthusiastic students who have fun until the first disagreement?

And believe me, naughty teenagers can be little angels compared to adult RPG players – I’ve seen friendships ruined over an unfortunate interpretation of rules.

Compromise

Both in a classroom environment and in an RPG session there are certain misunderstandings that are bound to happen sooner or later. An adult player may sulk after an unlucky dice-roll just like a little pupil who’s failed his first test. We have arguments between students, accusations of cheating, various moods affecting the whole lesson – and it’s surprisingly similar during an adventure. It’s a teacher, or a GM, who has to smooth things out and teach what the compromise is.

Help

I’ve already said that my favourite parallel of a teacher’s (or Game Master’s, to be honest) role is the one of Merlin. He is the one to set things in motion, picture the Holy Grail as the ultimate goal and suggest the idea of the Round Table Knighthood. But he doesn’t participate in the quests himself – he occasionally helps those in need, but mostly he’s behind the curtain, glad to observe the adventure unfold and only sometimes enjoying an episodic role.

I feel compelled to write a separate article on this simile as actually this is the concept that made me think of teaching as yet another RPG setting. But for now, let me clarify this: wise as we may be, we only show the goal, never lead the way.

Fun

Role-Playing Games are designed to have fun, and playing them should be fun not only for the players, but also for the Game Master. Just like teaching – although most students don’t find it overly exciting. As you see – there are so many things a teacher and a game master have in common that actual incorporating RPGs into our lessons will not change much in our approach to educational process itself, but it may be a huge change to our students, who will find it way easier to enjoy their lessons.

Sounds good? Great – because in my next article I’ll show you how to start!