Adventures in Learning — Part 5

What Has Gone Before

Part 1 and Part 2 introduced the Team-Based Learning methodology (TBL) and course design for an undergraduate INF 202 Introduction to Data and Databases class. In Part 3 and Part 4, I discussed parallels between TBL and roleplaying games (RPGs)—particularly in the area of overarching campaign structure.

Where We Are Going

In this entry, more gaming discussion. I talk about the components of RPG campaigns—adventures—and relate them to TBL.

Adventures

As I discussed in Part 4, an RPG campaign is a series of interlinked stories that trace the events, activities, and developments of a party of characters. A campaign can be further broken down into one or more adventures, single storylines that include a backstory, a hook, one or more complications, a climax, and a denouement. The backstory establishes the context of the adventure. It details how the main participants—the protagonists and antagonists—came to be at the proper place, time, and circumstances to begin the storyline. A well designed adventure reveals the backstory over time, bit by bit, allowing the troupe (the players) to piece it together and experience a sense of discovery. The hook involves opening scene or scenes, giving the troupe hints as to the problem, the potential solutions, and/or the means to learn more. In generalities or specific details, it establishes the larger challenge that faces the players’ characters. Complications misdirect, block, sidetrack, undercut, or otherwise keep the players’ characters from achieving their goal. Quality complications make the characters question their ability to achieve the goal, the propriety of the goal itself, or the potential for an alternative goal. The best complications emotionally involve the players, so that the challenge’s existence, avoidance, and/or defeat is an occasion for frustration, relief, and/or exultation. All that passes beforehand culminates in a climatic scene or event that significantly challenges the characters and brings some resolution to the adventure as a whole. Finally, some feature of the now-concluded storyline raises a question, a problem, a concern, or some other hint of “wrongness”, compelling the characters to turn their attention to one or more possible further adventures. This bridge to the next adventure can be part of the denouement. Additionally or alternatively, the denouement can be a wrap-up that highlights an important lesson of the adventure, that reinforces the theme of the campaign, and/or that provides an emotionally satisfying conclusion to some aspect of the campaign.

To illustrate further, I’ll review “The Night of Rage” adventure that I wrote for my former company’s game, Conspiracy X. This RPG drew on the alien, conspiracy, UFO, government secrets genre that buttressed the X-Files TV show, the Men-In-Black movies, and countless other popular media. The breadth of the “real life” conspiracy mythos, the coherence that we imposed on those tales in our game, and the creation of player character agents who work for a conspiratorial group called Aegis—all that provides the backstory. The hook, as it often does in a Conspiracy X game, is delivered via the agents’ secret communications link, HERMES. A contact with prior (unverified) supernatural ties claims that a mysterious murder has occurred. Some leads are given and the first series of complications involve gathering past, recorded information about the contact and the prior events. Further complications include a rival conspiracy investigating the same situation, a volatile preacher with odd associations, a gang of thugs, a neighborhood with a dark secret, and 15 separate personalities that can be questioned, persuaded, tracked, or otherwise encountered. In the finale, the agents must trap and bind the supernatural presence at the heart of the events. As a denouement, the characters meet a nun with special abilities who might prove useful in future missions, or even lead directly to the next mystery.

All in all, the adventure structure serves to ground the individual game events and sessions, give the players a larger objective (than mere survival), build suspense, and make the ultimate, multi-session resolution more satisfying.

Sections

As campaigns are made up of adventures, TBL courses are made up of sections. A section covers a group of logically related material in a course. The readings assigned for the section can be seen as the backstory. They get the students situated in time, space, and content for the learning to come. The activities—a variety of lessons that give the students a chance to explore the materials—can be seen as the complications that must be “overcome.”

Other parallels could make the section more compelling, but are less automatic. For a section, a hook could be an introductory problem/issue that ties the activities together. A climax could be a complex, capstone activity that pulls together all the material of the section. A denouement could be something teased out of the activities as a whole that recaps the overarching lesson learned and/or sets the stage for the upcoming, subsequent section. I use the term “could” because none of these things are “baked” into the process of a TBL section. Only if an instructor determines that such features are important aids to the learning process need they be implemented. No doubt some of the conceptual work of hinting at, setting up, and pulling together the materials is done during the decision-making process that leads to an instructor designating a body of material a “section”. Making the hook, the climax, and the denouement as explicit as the backstory (the readings) and complications (activities), and structuring the section around these features, however, clearly requires extra effort. Doing this well, no doubt, will require significant effort. Conceptually, it is comparable to devising 4-7 short stories that together build a semester long novel.

As a final note, I realize that the end-of-section assignment could be seen as the climax counterpart, if it indeed pulls together the materials (as it should). The downside of this for purposes of sections-as-adventures: feedback (resolution) of the end-of-section assignment is usually delayed until the after next section has started (unless the instructor is very prompt in grading/review). That makes for a less satisfying culmination of the section/adventure and undermines the impact of the denouement.

Economics

Identifying parallels—real or potential—between sections as adventure raises an interesting possibility for the economics of TBL courses. Perhaps the economics of RPGs could be applied to TBL teaching. I’ll return to that later in the series.

More to come,
M Alexander Jurkat
@malexkat

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