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


Did you ever find yourself sitting in a university classroom listening to a mind-numbing, spirit-crushing lecture about agrarian life in the pre-industrial era or perhaps a talk about Karl Marx’s critique of the capitalist system? Given the option, wouldn’t you rather take a university course with lectures about Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), colonizing and quantifying the imagination, Satan’s game and moral panics, or the revival in old-school tabletop RPGs?

I am a cultural scholar in the humanities tradition. I am also an “acafan.” American fandom scholar Henry Jenkins describes an acafan as an academic who also identifies as a fan (or in this case, gamer). Acafans are both enthusiastic and yet critical of the subjects they study. Based on this point of view, I established a program of research that examines the subject of nostalgia and fantasy role-playing games. I published essays in academic peer-reviewed journals like Games and Culture and the Canadian Journal of Game Studies. In these papers, I examined how nostalgia aesthetics, in the form of module cover art, worked ideologically to establish difference from the current editions of D&D while reaffirming the subcultural beliefs and values of the old school renaissance (OSR). The OSR, if you are unfamiliar, consists of gamers that prefer the style of play found in early editions of D&D (pre-2000) and their retro-clone games like Labyrinth Lord.

In addition to academic publications, I am also the author of Barrowmaze — a megadungeon written for classic fantasy role-playing games. Barrowmaze began at my dining room table as part of my regular home-game. I started the campaign with 2E and 3E D&D players. In order to run an old school game based on the tenets of play from the late 1970s and early 1980s, I needed a large dungeon that could provide the basis for a campaign. If you would like to live vicariously, you can read many of our session reports on our group wiki (Red Box Niagara). We had a lot of fun. I ran successful crowdfunding projects on to expand and improve the dungeon, including a current campaign — Barrowmaze Complete with Official Miniatures featuring cover art by ex-TSR artist Erol Otus.

Based on my research and game publishing, I developed a senior undergraduate course on the history and culture of role-playing games to parallel my program of research. 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). From the outset, I knew this course would be a pedagogical challenge. I wanted more than a simple lecture course. I sought to integrate academic research with popular non-academic readings while also including opportunities for experiential learning and direct interaction with game designers, artists, and publishers. I had a lot of work to do.

First, I had to come to terms with the body of academic research on tabletop RPGs. The research on tabletop is interesting to characterize. Between the early 1980s and the 1990s, very few academics published on the subject. The primary exception being Gary Allan Fine’s seminal study Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds (1983). In my mind, this was surprising. I wondered why was so little research was published on one of the largest popular culture phenomenons of the late 20th century? No single explanation exists. However, I’ll provide two that I think help inform the discussion. D&D reached the peak of its popularity in the early 1980s prior to the development of academic programs devoted specifically to the interdisciplinary study of popular culture subjects. In addition, there was a “triviality barrier” within traditional university programs that kept mainstream “ephemeral” popular culture subjects outside of university institutions. By the mid-to-late 1980s, when popular culture, media studies, and cultural studies disciplines gained ground and began to coalesce in institutions of higher learning, D&D had already given way to computer and console gaming. In my view, tabletop RPGs were effectively missed as an object of study until very recently. Academics that grew up with the game like myself, with the support of their departments and the advent of Game Studies as a nascent field of study, began researching and publishing on the subject. In the last several years, a blossoming of journal articles and anthologies has provided impetus for further study of tabletop fantasy role-playing games.

Alongside academic research, I’ve always viewed popular readings as a crucial body of literature for a course on the history and culture of RPGs. I am as interested in the popular lore, books, and stories about tabletop games, as I am the academic analysis. The study of culture is fundamentally about meaning and meaning-making. Subcultures convey meaning through their stories, language, bodies, material objects, spaces and places, cultural practices, and aesthetics, just to name a few. We can relate all of these to our tabletop games: we wear gamer tshirts, have our own unique language, tell stories about our games, treasure (or destroy) our dice, play in our game rooms, and are passionate about how our games are depicted in art. All of these serve as points of articulation for the careful academic, particularly acafans, who take the time to read the popular material produced by a given community and who possess the cultural capital to understand the subculture on its own terms.

In addition to academic and popular readings, I wanted the course to include opportunities for experiential learning. I believe that students learn best by doing themselves. My RPG course includes a one hour seminar/tutorial in addition to lecture hours. I wrote a tutorial guide using the Labyrinth Lord Core Rulebook (a retro-clone of Moldvay Basic from 1981, long considered the most newbie-friendly version of D&D) that walked students through the process of character generation and random dungeon design using the one-page dungeon format popular in the old school RPG online community. Students create a small dungeon employing a completely random design and then, though their creativity, interpret the randomness into a meaningful dungeon scenario. This serves to introduce the students to the basic principles of tabletop design while also highlighting the importance of randomness in each tabletop experience. 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. These two activities, character generation and one-page dungeon design, consume about half of the seminars available in the course. For the remaining seminars, students break into small groups to provide each person an opportunity to run a group of characters through their adventure. The seminars emphasize both process and product in their approach, and provide opportunities to create and sample a number of games designed by their peers. This also takes the step from abstract lecture topic to direct application in seminar. The students aren’t just taking about design: They’re doing it.

Of Dice and Men

The final aspect of the course includes classroom video-conferences with gamers, designers, artists, and independent publishers. In the past, my classes have video-conferenced with members of the Red Box Vancouver gaming group and Jennifer Stratford of Dungeon Majesty fame from the early 2000s. I also try to tie our popular readings into the conferences. The first time I taught the course the students wrote a book review of Ethan Gilsdorf’s Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. Following the book review, we video-conferenced with Mr. Gilsdorf to provide the students with an opportunity to discuss the book directly with the author. This term author David Ewalt will join the class via video-conference after we read his new book Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It. Later this term, we will also talk with Suzi Yee of Expeditious Retreat Press. I believe these unique opportunities breathe life into university courses and allow students to better understand the subculture under study.

Student reaction and feedback has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic and positive. Many of our early undergraduate courses emphasize social and cultural theory. These classes are crucial to analyzing and deconstructing the media they study. However, this course serves as a reminder of the importance of blending theory with experiential learning. By the end of the course the students possess an understanding of the history and culture of tabletop role-playing games, a comfort level playing the game, and the rudiments of design. Students tell me the only drawback to the course is that there are too many readings — it seems one aspect of university life never changes.

At this point, you probably guessed that during my undergraduate degree in the early 1990s, I sat bleary-eyed through more lectures than I want to remember that dealt with subjects like agrarian life in the preindustrial era or Marx’s critique of the capitalist system. I understand the importance of these subjects, but I still would have preferred to take a course on gaming subculture. Instead, I get to deliver a senior undergraduate course that provides students with a unique opportunity to learn about pencil and paper RPGs first-hand. I admit — I watch with a wry smile when they choose to split their party, decide to search just one more room, or forget to look on the ceiling. Some things in tabletop RPGs just have to be experienced to be understood.

Greg Gillespie is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. He can be reached at [email protected].

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