Adventurers in Learning — Part 3

What Has Gone Before

In Part 1 and Part 2, I introduced the Team-Based Learning methodology (TBL) and its recommendations for course design in the context of an undergraduate INF 202 Introduction to Data and Databases class.

Where We Are Going

In this entry, I turn to gaming. Parallels between TBL and roleplaying game (RPG) structure are noted. Some differences are also highlighted.

When I refer to RPGs here, I mean the tabletop variety. Computer-oriented RPGs–whether intended for single or group play (such as massive, multiplayer, online games)–are generally not played face-to-face and thus have different dynamics. Over the years, the structure and dynamics of tabletop RPGs have evolved and some radical experiments have been attempted (game publishing is a competitive business and everyone is looking for an edge). For the most part, I will confine myself to the structural elements that most RPGs share. A review of the more outlandish RPG schemes must await another time.

RPG Basics

In a tabletop RPG, a troop of players gathers in one location. (I’m using “troop” to highlight the improvisational, roleplaying aspects of an RPG group; I’ll use “team” for TBL groups of students.) Games are played around a table, if a flat surface is needed for maps and other props, or in a room where the gamers can sit comfortably and talk with each other freely for several hours.

Each player, but one, takes on the role of a character—a protagonist or hero in an engaging story. The character is quantified (by numbers) and qualified (by roleplaying aspects) through the specific game mechanics. Character generation options help players define the personalities and capabilities of their fictional persona. In TBL, students simply are who they are. Still, it would be an interesting exercise to devise a way to quantify or qualify incoming students so that an instructor can better focus the course.

The final player acts as what I will call the Facilitator. Games come up with lots of names for this person, ranging from the colorful (Dungeon Master, Game Master, Chronicler) to the mundane (Referee and Runner) and beyond. The Facilitator frames the storyline, plots the encounters, describes the scenes, referees the game mechanics, plays all the roles/characters that are not embodied by players, and keeps an eye on troop dynamics. Being a Facilitator is real work and it’s a near impossible job to do well in all aspects. That’s one of the main reason RPGs haven’t become more popular. Fortunately for TBL purposes, the Facilitator parallel is the instructor—someone with compelling reasons (commitment to students, pay, etc.) to master the job.

The dynamics of RPG game play are as broad as possible. There are few “moves” as in a standard game. The goal is  to allow players/character to act in any way they can imagine given the restrictions of the world and the scenario presented to them. If a player wants to scale a wall, jimmy the Lord’s study window, seduce a house servant, and substitute a false intelligence briefing, it’s the Facilitator’s job to interpret how to do that within the rules system. The content of an RPG is an entire world, a variety of problems, and a plethora of situations—just like in a TBL course.

The objectives of an RPG are having fun, telling an entertaining tale through group efforts, and improving the abilities of  your character (for non-Facilitators). There is no specific “end game”—groups routinely play for years. They move from storyline to storyline, change characters or rules systems, evolve in membership, relocate, etc. The general structure and dynamics remains the same; the content changes constantly—just like a TBL course.


Most RPG rule sets present their character options in ways that define their role within the in-game group—the adventuring party. The four iconic roles (and their computer game counterparts) are soldier (tank), healer (buffer), sneak (DPS), and mage (controller). These roles can vary by a fair degree, however, depending on the setting and
dynamics of the particular game. The roles, however defined, help the players form more effective operating units, particularly in combat. The soldier rushes to the front line to protect the party; the healer keeps everyone active and doing their job, the sneak keeps to the periphery but when he or she acts the opposition is significantly degraded, and the mage keeps the opposition from executing its strategy. In non-combat situations, roles like the face (a talker), the brute (an intimidator), the mage (a mind-bender or mind-reader), or the noble (an authoritative figure) come into play.

All in all, roles are not mandatory. A number of RPGs try to break out of the role focus to enable players more options. Still, they do make parties more coherent and help players get comfortable with the open-ended, anything-goes nature of the game. TBL eschews roles. Research shows that trying to micro-manage teams in this way retards student development. Within any given group, each person can play a variety of roles depending on the circumstances (supporter, leader, timekeeper, summarizer, note taker, etc.). Ideally, each student would get some experience in each such role and develop those skills. Student may fall into specific roles throughout the semester based on their personality or the needs of the group, but assigning such roles could cause more harm than good.

On the other hand, characterizing different roles within a well-functioning team and encouraging student to experiment with those roles seems like a good idea to me. As long as an emphasis is made not to pigeonhole students into one role all semester, learning can be had here.

Unable to let go of my RPG roles background, I decided to have the students assign a “caller” and a “scribe” for each activities class. The caller writes out the team’s decision on the team’s whiteboard area and reports it to the class. In general, the caller is the person who supports or justifies the team decision. The “scribe” notes the highlights of the discussion while it goes on. Each activities’ class starts with a group decision about who will play the role of the caller and the scribe for that session. I’ve stipulated, in the course of the 20 activities classes, no student can play each role more than 4 times. In general, this forces the roles to rotate around the group. My hope is that because the caller and scribe need to produce something (an embodiment of the group decision), they will act as timekeepers/task managers.

I believe more could be done on this front, but one step at a time.

More to come,
M Alexander Jurkat


One thought on “Adventurers in Learning — Part 3

  1. Pingback: Adventurers in Learning — Part 2 | The CCI Student Center Blog

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