Adventures in Learning — Part 14

What Has Gone Before

In Parts 1-5, I discussed the Team-Based Learning methodology (TBL), course design for an undergraduate INF 202 Introduction to Data and Databases class, and drew parallels between TBL and roleplaying games (RPGs). In Parts 12-13, tblbasic and supplemental TBL lessons about group activities were discussed.

Where We Are Going

In Parts 4-5, I presented the RPG campaign (an extended series of stories, all related to each other in some way, revealed over several sessions and a relatively long period of time) and adventure (single storylines that include a backstory, a hook, one or more complications, a climax, and a denouement). I compared these conventions to the TBL course and section.

In this entry, I move a level deeper—to the TBL activity. I look to a  parallel component – the encounter – in an RPG.


In an RPG, the adventure storyline and goals play out in a series of scenes, each involving one or more player characters, a specific environment and environmental factors, and a specific objective. The scene may have one or more non-player characters, but sometimes the player characters are on their own. These scenes are most commonly called “encounters.”

Most encounters pit a group of bad guys against the player characters. The scene is likely resolved through combat, although negotiation is possible. The goal is to overcome the resistance and gain the reward (usually treasure, but possibly information or cooperation). The Orc and The Pie parody by Monte Cook is a lovely example of a one-encounter adventure.

the orc and the pieEncounters need not be so limited however. Any atomic scene in a larger storyline can be the basis for an encounter. Certainly, a TBL activity that forms part of a larger lesson could be seen as an “encounter” with the course material.

In Dungeons & Dragons (2008) and Pathfinder (2009) – the two most popular “traditional” RPGs, encounter creation is heavily influenced by the combat system and the character quantifiers that relate to combat. Indeed, the bulk of the limited (a couple pages out of hundreds of pages of rulebook) encounter-building suggestions relate to matching player character capacities to opposition challenges. Such matching is relatively easy in those games because nearly all features are scaled according to a quantifiable measure (level, XP, CR, etc.). Although nowhere near as easy absent clear metrics, the idea of meeting capacity with challenge is one that we will return to in the near future.

Borrowing from screenwriting, the Angel RPG (2003; one I helped produce) breaks the storyline into Acts, which include “one or more Scenes, each described in varying degrees of detail.” CJ Carella, the author, continues:angel rpg

The scenes need a setting, some Supporting Cast Members and their agendas, and a general overview of what’s about to happen. You may have to think through several paths. A well-designed scene allows the Cast to take a number of approaches to the central problem or conflict. If so, you must prepare for different actions and their repercussions on the general storyline. Don’t get too detailed or narrow though—you can count on your Cast doing stuff you didn’t imagine . . . with regularity. That’s when you need to go with the flow, adjust the storyline, improvise, and gently lead the crew back to the main story path. It can get tricky and ragged at times, but that’s the fun of a free-flowing, shared storytelling experience. Don’t worry the outcome is always more than you could have hoped for.

Again, not a great deal of detail on how to construct an encounter. Essentially, an encounter needs context, challenge, and goal. The bulk of Carella’s advice highlights the “improv” element of RPG encounters. This may have interesting implications on the intergroup discussion part of a TBL activity (more on that later).

The Star Trek RPG (2002) spends more time on scenes, breaking them down into four components:

Purpose: “Each scene has a purpose, the thing the Crew [player characters] must accomplish or experience before moving on.” The authors categorize purposes: establish atmosphere, create/introduce/develop conflict, present a mystery/raise a question, answer question/resolve conflict, provide information, develop character, fun. As long as a series of activities are grouped together to former a larger exercise (in effect, forming an adventure, see Part 5), these groups can be used for inspiration. They tell us that not all activities need to convey a specific lesson or chunk of content information. An activity could set a mood/atmosphere, such as “threat” (making a guess about penalties for college students who sharing music) or “confusion” (how should software be treated) at the beginning of a lesson on Intellectual Property. Another activity could fit in the “fun” group by incorporating silly themes or playful language. An interesting approach might be taken with a “provide information” purpose – the group effort could be directed at eliciting some facts, particularly if each student has access to a computer or smart based learning

Action: “What is happening in the scene?” For a TBL activity, this covers the specific effort you are assigning. What exactly is the group of students to do during the 2-5 minutes (or longer) that you are leaving them to their own devices? Such instructions should be clear.

Actors: “Who participates in the scene?” In an RPG, this component could include outside characters or only a subset of the player characters. In a TBL activity, this component covers anything external to the students: information sources, algorithms, notes, computing devices, apps, drawing tools, even random number generators (dice) if relevant somehow. Or the idea of an outside person could be taken more literally. What if the group had to interview a database system stakeholder during an activity?

Location: “Every scene takes place somewhere”. For the most part, TBL activities take place in the classroom and this environment need not be discussed. On the other hand, an activity could be set some place else. Building an activity around a description of an environment could engage the student and spark creativity, but would require a detailed write-up and clear instructions that the students should add other elements a needed for whatever decision they make in the activity.

Finally, an interesting distinction is made by the Lost Souls RPG (2007). “There must always be more than one possible resolution to every event, based upon what the characters do and how well they do it. If the players have no choice, it’s not an event; it’s a transition.” This requirement ensures that the player (student) efforts during an encounter (TBL activity) are meaningful. If an activity has only one real outcome, it’s called “railroading” in gaming. Such removal of meaningful player choice is a sure way to lose your players’ interest.

rpg railroadingSimilarly, TBL instructors should strive for activities that contain more than one justifiable choice or solution. Otherwise, the post-group effort, intergroup discussion falls flat. Little discussion is necessary if only one answer can be supported. Even better would be activity outcomes that lead to different subsequent activities depending on how the students’ actions and decisions. Create more than one path through a given class’s lessons and let the students know that they must make a collective decision at the end of each activity. That collective decision then affects which of several activities comes next. Should a subsequent activity prove difficult or even impossible, walk the students back to an earlier decision and head down a different path. Of course, if handled poorly, such an approach could result in confusion and frustration. If handled well, the students will come to a better understanding of both false and productive approaches to the material.

More to come,
M Alexander Jurkat


Image 1 by Duke Corporate Education {link to}

Image 2 by JourneymanGM {link to}

Image 3 by Eden Studios, Inc. {link to}

Image 4 by Duke CIT {link to}

Image 5 by RPG Motivational Posters {link to}


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