Dungeons & Dragons With Class: Bringing Old-School RPGs to College

Dungeons & Dragons With Class: Bringing Old-School RPGs to College

A professor of popular culture in Canada talks about his attempt to bring tabletop RPGs into the educational realm.

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I'm sorry, it might be because I'm unfamiliar with the American education system, but I don't really see how something as focused as "the history of table top games" is going to teach anyone anything that will be useful in the work-field, unless they already plan on working for a table-top company.

An interesting article, but I'm not entirely sure what the thesis is; is it "tabletop games are a topic that needs to be explored academically"? If so, do you expand beyond the earliest editions of Dungeons and Dragons and introduce the students to modern games? Are they exposed to different genres and rules structures, and taught about the interaction between rules systems and the stories that are told? What about storytelling experiences like Dread, or board games with a heavy role-playing element like The Resistance?

In any case, thank you for writing this piece, Mr. Gillespie. Are you going to be at the Congress of Learned Societies this summer?

EDIT:

Ranorak:
I'm sorry, it might be because I'm unfamiliar with the American education system, but I don't really see how something as focused as "the history of table top games" is going to teach anyone anything that will be useful in the work-field, unless they already plan on working for a table-top company.

1. He is Canadian, not American.

2. "The majority of my students have not played tabletop RPGs before and are majors in Communication, Popular Culture, or Film, in addition to Psychology and Interactive Arts and Science (Digital Game Design)."

The students are not learning exclusively about the history of tabletop gaming. The second page of the article talks about how they are learning about design strategies and use of randomness in RPG design, which could carry forward to working for a tabletop company. The course also explores the sub-culture of TTRPG gamers, which is interesting for sociological and psychological works on pop culture.

Thunderous Cacophony:

The students are not learning exclusively about the history of tabletop gaming. The second page of the article talks about how they are learning about design strategies and use of randomness in RPG design, which could carry forward to working for a tabletop company. The course also explores the sub-culture of TTRPG gamers, which is interesting for sociological and psychological works on pop culture.

Basically, you can't quite judge the article unless you know what exactly he's trying to say.

While a nice article, and seeing how he made a course which taught people about this all, I still feel like I'm missing quite a lot here... I just can't quite put it into words, though. Maybe it's because I'm lost due to 'what reason do you have for studying this?' If anyone could clarify, that'd be great.

hickwarrior:

Thunderous Cacophony:

The students are not learning exclusively about the history of tabletop gaming. The second page of the article talks about how they are learning about design strategies and use of randomness in RPG design, which could carry forward to working for a tabletop company. The course also explores the sub-culture of TTRPG gamers, which is interesting for sociological and psychological works on pop culture.

Basically, you can't quite judge the article unless you know what exactly he's trying to say.

While a nice article, and seeing how he made a course which taught people about this all, I still feel like I'm missing quite a lot here... I just can't quite put it into words, though. Maybe it's because I'm lost due to 'what reason do you have for studying this?' If anyone could clarify, that'd be great.

I felt that this article was quite out of place on the front page of The Escapist, and honestly agree that it is hard to find the author's thesis, but I felt the main point he was getting at was this: "Understanding randomness, how it works and what it means to the experience of tabletop, is the first step to avoiding the modern design proclivity to construct aesthetically pleasing but story-first, railroad-style scenarios that offer players few options or choices."

Thus, teaching D&D and similar tabletop games in classes with students who plan on going into film and game design is a helpful tool in promoting better games and movies in the future? Really strange and hard to "get" article, the first page of which feels largely unnecessary and surely could have been summarized much better to make the whole point of the article clear.

zombflux:

I felt that this article was quite out of place on the front page of The Escapist, and honestly agree that it is hard to find the author's thesis, but I felt the main point he was getting at was this: "Understanding randomness, how it works and what it means to the experience of tabletop, is the first step to avoiding the modern design proclivity to construct aesthetically pleasing but story-first, railroad-style scenarios that offer players few options or choices."

Thus, teaching D&D and similar tabletop games in classes with students who plan on going into film and game design is a helpful tool in promoting better games and movies in the future? Really strange and hard to "get" article, the first page of which feels largely unnecessary and surely could have been summarized much better to make the whole point of the article clear.

It's odd that that should be the way a game is made, yet things like the tales series do have fans >> And that is a linear story. Hell, MMOs do this. It may be more modern, but in that case, you are limiting different experiences. That's no good.

So what can I take from this then? It's nice to learn how to avoid linear stories, but you should also learn what it's like to make a good, handcrafted story for games.

Maybe it only goes on about D&D design? I honestly don't know and the author should definitely clarify what he tried to say with this piece. That, I think, is not very clear.

Hello, I'm the author of the story. Thank you for reading.

The question of "why study this subject" is a good one. I'm happy to offer a preliminary response.

First, the study of culture -- any human culture of any era -- is a valuable undertaking. By studying our subcultures we learn more about ourselves, our experiences, and the human condition. That is line one of cultural study.

Second, as I explained in the essay there is very little written on the history of tabletop RPGs (Jon Peterson's recent book Playing at the World is an excellent contribution) in comparison to the literature on video games. So studying tabletop tells us about tabletop but it also blends into video game history as well.

Third, I have students interested in entering the gaming industry.

Fourth, there is content and then there is process. In my courses (all my courses), I emphasize writing and oral presentation skills. These skills students can take with them (and build on) course by course, year by year, and degree by degree.

In my opinion, those are four excellent reasons to teach and research the subject of tabletop.

Again, thank you for the questions :)

Ranorak:
I'm sorry, it might be because I'm unfamiliar with the American education system, but I don't really see how something as focused as "the history of table top games" is going to teach anyone anything that will be useful in the work-field, unless they already plan on working for a table-top company.

It might not seem like it in recent years, given how higher education has become commodified, but university was never only (or even primarily) about learning workplace skills. There's still a place for studies of a more esoteric, cultural bent--at least I hope so. Whether it's a good use of your tuition is a personal matter, but if you're considering game design as a field, I think it definitely would be.

zombflux:
I felt that this article was quite out of place on the front page of The Escapist

Not as much as you might think. The publisher of this very site used to write a regular column on tabletop gaming.

zombflux:
Thus, teaching D&D and similar tabletop games in classes with students who plan on going into film and game design is a helpful tool in promoting better games and movies in the future?

I think that's his point. There is precedence for individuals like Michael Stackpole and Mike Pondsmith who were celebrated tabletop game designers in the 1980s and moved into video game design in the 1990s. Tabletop RPGs teach a form of interactive storytelling more applicable to video games than a traditional study of film, theatre, or literature would be.

I, for one, found the article quite interesting. The study of D&D, and by extension gaming (video/table-top), might be regarded as a contentious or pointless one. However, many have said the same about Film Studies/English Literature/Classics, etc... I think the operative point, as conveyed in the article, is that any academic study worth its salt should not be immediately overlooked because it may (ostensibly) lack cultural/financial capital. Again, as long as Mr. Gillespie emphasizes valuable skill-sets (written/oral presentation) in his course then I see no wrong in the subculture of RPGs given its (over)-due diligence.

On a side note, as an occasional old-school gamer, I am looking forward to the completion of the Barrowmaze mega dungeon campaign. My players have invested nearly a hundred hours (and more than a few dead characters) into Barrowmaze. In my opinion, Barrowmaze has done a wonderful job of bringing to life (or undeath) the feel of old-school D&D modules such as Tomb of Horrors, The Lost City...

Good luck with the succubi and the syllabi ;-)

I work at a public library, and I'm interested in the topic of gamification as a means of teaching.

Do you think one could use roleplaying games to model and explore some of the topic you spoke of, such as Marxist critiques of Capitalism or the impact of agrarian technology on historical and sociological events? How would you go about designing something like that for, say, an after school program?

All I could think the entire time while reading this was,

"You're late to maths 101. Do a persuasion check."
"I rolled an 11."
"Okay, professer Waterpuss bites down upon the hint of truth in your tale and forgives you, take your seat."
"Ok, I am sitting, bag at my side carefully I pull my +1 binder of keeping out and begin to take notes on the lecture using my mineral quill of scrying."
"The professor asks you a poignant question about variable distances and the amount of overpressure over those distances it would take to knock down walls of various types. Do you have physics and/or explosives?"
"No."
"Alright, roll two D-6 to see if you understand the concept of k-factors."
"A 5 and a 2."
"Okay you understand what they are but not exactly how this concept applies, you feel the shame creep up your spine as Sniggy takes in your ineptitude over the top of his glasses. He asks you, "Well Brandon-of-Snohomish, can you at least use the inverse square law to figure out if you're a mathematically safe distance from all the homework I will throw at you?" your classmates snicker, roll a D-20."
"18."
"Good roll. Do you have snarky elitism?"
"Yes."
"Alright make a comment."
"I talk about Dr. Waterpuss and the arms he shares with his 90-year old mother and how even if they possessed the muscle mass of throw the homework at me the flight characteristics of paper mean that his efforts would be in vain, much like his choice of professions."
"Haha awesome but, because of this you fail the next test, something you can appeal, but on the bright side that young maiden you met at the frat encounter last week decides she's going to call you on the number that you gave her in a less than successful manner."
"Dang, well, also good. Cool. What's next?"
"Theoretical Physical Edification and I hear pray tell that there is a band of douchey alpha-jocks in there looking for someone to judge...."
*Everyone cheers*

@Uncle, have you ever played a Murder Mystery night where people are given roles and then play their parts? Imagine that in a historical situation.

@hotdog, your response reminds me of the cameo Gary Gygax did on Futurama. "Hello, it's *rolls dice* nice to meet you!" :)

My first thought was something akin to "use fa/tg/uys as example", which then branched from historical context comment into archived stories.

They also included things such as actually playing, and TSR/WotC-lethality changes alongside d20/dicepool/etc systems.

I can understand the academics didn't write much on it for many years, because many of them went on to enter academia. There they didn't write on it as it was looked down upon as a subject to discuss, and would be so for many years. Those former gamers were shy or embarrassed about their past gaming habits as it wasn't considered professional and it didn't fit with the disciplines they were entering.

I understand and agree, Elf. I'm not sure if embarrassed is the right world -- there was just no "home" for it in universities at the time.

Falseprophet:

zombflux:
I felt that this article was quite out of place on the front page of The Escapist

Not as much as you might think. The publisher of this very site used to write a regular column on tabletop gaming.

I don't think it's out of place because it's about tabletop gaming, I think it's out of place because it's about some guy teaching kids in some college somewhere about tabletop gaming. It's all very nice and all, even a little interesting, but it's not an entertaining read.

kiltedyaksman:
@Uncle, have you ever played a Murder Mystery night where people are given roles and then play their parts? Imagine that in a historical situation.

That's a good idea, actually. Getting understaffed school and libraries the tools to set up he costuming and props for my very own Pioneer Village/Medieval Town/ Bedouin Tribe would be daunting, but perhaps having a single NPC/actor play a role and ask the learners to help supplement said role. ("I'm Todd! The wizard sent me through the magic portal to seek help from the brave, clever people of this time for fixing my village's water supply!")

Still, the idea of borrowing elements from that kind of Mystery Dinner theater/LARP experience is a good one.

A fellow I remember appearing on Reddit named Capitan Typoproduced a projected called Classroom Heroes which sought to explore gamification in the classroom. Alas, I'm not sure how much farther along his project has come.

Auberon:
My first thought was something akin to "use fa/tg/uys as example", which then branched from historical context comment into archived stories.

They also included things such as actually playing, and TSR/WotC-lethality changes alongside d20/dicepool/etc systems.

For a site with such a reputation, the /tg/- Traditional Games board of 4chan has some remarkable good commentaries and discussions on history. Just yesterday, I read on the SupTG archive an incredibly detailed take on de-Colonialized settings such as Musa I's Africa or pre-Spanish Mesoamerica. While I hesitate to completely trust the hivemind of /tg/ (seeing them start arguing over minutae of medival armaments is only funny the first time), it's not a half-bad testing ground.

I'd be leery of using D&D for this, though. D&D has its roots as a tactical wargame, and the rules were designed with combat at their main perogative. There isn't the same kind of rules support for non-combat interactions between PCs and NPCs, and particularly with the learners in this stiaution, some sort of game-ish framework would be helpful.

I'd recommend either RuneQuest or Greg Stolze's REIGN for something like this. RuneQuest has the advantages of being written under an open gaming license, having a long history of various kinds of support, and provides detailed rules for all manner of interactions beyond mere combat. REIGN, meanwhile, is a system built with modularity in mind (meaning the rules are as complex or abstracted as you need them to be), and it includes a great subsystem called Companies which lets players model larger social groups such as tribes, churches, merchant banks, or nations.

 

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