Adventurers in Learning — Part 4

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. In Part 3, I introduced roleplaying games (RPGs).

Where We Are Going

In this entry, I continue with my gaming discussion. I talk about campaigns (extended game storyline) structures, which parallel course structure in TBL. I point out a couple RPG campaign tools that, although difficult to implement, could enliven TBL.

Again, 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 Campaigns

An RPG can be played in a single session (as in a 4-hour slot at a gaming convention) or in a series of isolated short tales over a couple sessions, but the game really shines when it collects a nearly unlimited number of sessions in an extended storyline. Immersing the players in a setting or world, allowing them to discover the ties between their character actions today and the storyline consequences months from now, providing continuity in characters that progress in skills and abilities over time—all these factors take full advantage of the RPG format.

The open-ended feature of an RPG does not mean constant churning, however. Stories continue to have beginnings, middles, and ends. Such stories may be interwoven—a subplot appearing in an ongoing main story can grow over time and reach a crucial point just as the main story concludes (or reaches a status point). In this manner, RPG storylines are like serialized TV shows (more on that later). Still, each storyline has a limited structure. When an extended series of stories, all related to each other in some way, is revealed over several game sessions and a relatively long period of time (months usually, but campaigns that last a year or more are not unheard of), RPG gamers call it a campaign.

A campaign has an overarching theme, villain, plot, or other commonality that builds, iterates, or unfolds over time. Each campaign is played out in game sessions (each taking two or more hours). Ideally, each session ends on a revelation, a high point, or a cliffhanger that keeps the players interested in coming back for more. Ultimately, the full campaign is the story of the players’ characters—how they grow, change, develop, and (depending on what type of game the Facilitator wants to run) fade into the sunset triumphant or die heroically.

In one of the most popular RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons, James Wyatt’s Dungeon Master’s Guide provides the following campaign creation advice: (1) set a theme, (2) consider how that theme will evolve over time, (3) detail what has gone before (to provide depth to the story and a baseline knowledge base for the players), and (4) create an outline of the campaign highpoints. In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG (one of the games I helped produce), CJ Carella mirrors a TV season in the campaign structure: each season has a theme, the theme evolves (often through misdirection as to its nature), the season is broken down into related episodes, each episode resolves a mini-storyline that resolves a self-contained, satisfying way, but also builds on the theme.

All this is remarkable similar to course design work in TBL (or in a traditional course, for that matter). As you may recall from Part 2, each course focuses on the nature of the student who finishes the learning process. In a sense, it is the story of that student’s evolution. Getting the student to that point involves a series of linked classes that build on common themes and move the student from his or her starting point to the “end game.”

One tool of RPGs that would be wonderful additions to TBL is the idea of a satisfying session/class that leaves the students wanting more. It’s no easy feat, I grant you, but some thought should be given to providing a conclusion to a class that gives the student something (or better yet, reveals to the student a skill that they now possess) while also providing hints as to the larger goal and the road they travel to get there.

A more subtle and possibly more exciting tool of RPGs that could be imported to TBL is the empowerment of the players/students. TBL training warns instructors that they must face the idea of “letting go.” Instructors are no longer “masters” of the classroom. The instructor does not stand between the students and the material—digesting, interpreting, and conveying it (as in a traditional class). The instructor stands with the students, facing the material, aiding the students’ exploration and absorption of that material. That viewpoint is extended if the students are somehow empowered to make real choices about the direction of their learning, the nature of their activities, or the make-up of their assignments.

In an RPG campaign, Facilitators are encouraged to drop in numerous encounters, hints, personalities, etc. that reveal the existence of side quests, alternative missions, and other tales. These subplots are not forced on the players. They have the choice of ignoring them, filing them away for later, or diving in. An instructor who had a full enough understanding of all aspects of the course material (or more likely was willing to shift gears and adjust his or her class material on the fly) could provide similar hooks for students to follow as they wished. Indeed, simply the mechanism of presenting a couple of options at periodic points in the course and asking the students “Where would you like to go next?” could be a engaging, novel, and empowering experience for them.

RPGs and Learning

The power of RPGs for learning and of Kickstarter for crowdfunding are both displayed in Magicians: A Language Learning RPG. Nice to see others thinking along the lines I am.

More to come,
M Alexander Jurkat

One thought on “Adventurers in Learning — Part 4

  1. Pingback: Adventurers in Learning — Part 3 | The CCI Student Center Blog

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