Rolling Dice and Shaping Minds: Systems of Play and Teaching – Part One

Dungeons--Dragons-dice-010I was a teacher before I ever picked up a roleplaying manual. In 2009, after completing my Master’s in Teaching and Learning I was struggling to find a job. In the meantime my wife, then fiance, suggested I try running the latest iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. She had experience in her youth with tabletop roleplaying and I had always been curious about the TSR advertisements that popped up in the comic books I read over the years. So I got a copy of 4th edition and read through it. The very first thing I did was try to make my own character. I reasoned that I wouldn’t know how to run a game if I didn’t know how characters worked. It didn’t seem too hard. In a few weeks, I had slapped together some ideas and ran an online session with some friends. We enjoyed it and I decided to keep it going. This was the beginning of my education in tabletop roleplay.

Dungeons & Lesson Plans

It was Sunday and I sat going back and forth in a number of PDFs and web pages trying to assemble some monsters, dungeons, and assorted NPCs for my players. I don’t care for the pre-planned lessons in the state-sanctioned curriculum, at the time I felt the same about using a module. From my limited experience as a GM, I saw it as limiting me and my players’ choices about where they wanted to the story to go. If the module didn’t gel with the style of characters they’d rolled up it might not be enjoyable. So instead I spent hours making scenarios that went along with character information fed to me during previous sessions.

I think my dislike of using a module comes from my dislike of the direct instruction model of teaching. This is essentially passive learning, where students take part in seminars, observations, and demonstrations. Direct instruction was formally developed throughout the 1960s by Professor Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley Becker to help disadvantaged students due to poverty or by being minorities, students who historically have not had the resources and privileges of others. This model of learning focuses on explicitly defining key terms, ability grouping students, and regular assessment to determine how much progress a student has made.

When you say the word “school” this is probably what most of us imagine. There are a lot of benefits to this way of teaching. You make key concepts very clear to the learners and you model skills step by step. If a student is paying attention they will definitely understand the basics. But it is not a very engaging way of learning. As I mentioned above, it’s known as “passive learning”. If a student is truly struggling or has no interest in the concepts they likely won’t get much. So the tug of war begins between in the learning process: is this about the teacher finding ways to engage the student or is it the student’s responsibility to find their hook?

Let’s come back to the module based tabletop roleplay. Using a pre-planned, adventure with most of the gaps filled in can be very disengaging for some players. But just like you would find in a classroom, some players/students like being led down a very clear path so they get the most out of the experience. Some of my favorite professors in college were notorious for being a little digressive. I enjoyed that, but other students had a different expectation of what they should get from a class.

In education, the Direct instruction model has come under a lot of fire lately. When the modern academic reform movement was getting started in the late 1980s, psychologist Robert Slavin released Success For All. This program heavily emphasized explicit direct instruction and was originally rolled out in Baltimore with a focus on children living in impoverished communities. SFA has become a major building block on which a lot of public school districts and charter schools have built their foundations on. The major criticism of the program is that it focuses on “drill & kill” instruction, some of the lowest level of thinking and learning on Bloom’s Taxonomy. It also pushes for a very authoritarian view of discipline. Students must not just follow a very clear path in terms of their learning but also behavior, with incidences of demerits in schools being given out over picking a pencil up for a classmate or not standing perfectly in line.

I personally don’t like telling children what they should want to learn. As a teacher, I know there is always content they are going to have to learn. And that gets taught in my classroom, but how they learn it can be made into an engaging, enjoyable experience. As a teacher, I’m always walking this tightrope between addressing the standards my students are expected to master and making learning an experience they want to continue for the rest of their lives. As a GM, I have expectations of what I want to get across to my players, whether that be certain plot beats, NPCs, a mood or atmosphere. But I also have to be mindful of what will keep my players engaged. If the game becomes me sitting there and simply reading some fiction I wrote with an occasional dice roll then I wouldn’t blame a player for completely breaking off.

There’s also a contingent of students/players who don’t like the idea of a structure that’s too loose. These stakeholders want assurance that they will be experiencing a complete narrative in a game and a purposeful lesson in education. They need concepts laid out concretely so they can feel that their investment of time was worthwhile. So adventures modules and direct instruction models are guarantees that there will be a direct thru line in the experience. From an educational point of view, I have been that student, sitting in a class with way too many professorial digressions and wanting to get to the point. I also believe my mood was affected by my relationship with individual teachers. The teachers I loved I could listen to digressing for hours. The teachers whose classes I barely tolerated I wanted to be super direct and get us to the end of the hour as fast as possible.

So, we come back to that Sunday afternoon. I have planned out around three hours worth of content and begin thinking about how my players will want to diverge from my path and so I end up inevitably making things up off the cuff and all these “plans” get tossed aside. So why am I making all these intricate detailed plans? That was probably the moment I gave up on D&D and haven’t really gone back to it, or any other OSR style of tabletop game, since. I don’t think I dislike those games, I know I don’t have an urge to run them anytime soon, but have always been open to playing them and seeing if I can find a GM who can make them shine for me.

But in that moment,  I began searching for something new and different. My search would lead me to discover a bounty of new games and in turn, would lead me to sit at this desk and writing this very post.

Next: Fiasco! And Inquiry-Based Learning!

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2 comments
  1. I agree with many of the points that you make even though mainstream teaching methods would consider them unorthodox. This is the teaching approach similar to philosopher John Dewey. A few weeks ago I posted an interesting article about him at mittflorg.wordpress.com. This is a Detroit area community organization. I write similar interesting things on there in line with the article you just posted.

    • Yeah, I definitely felt like I was simplifying concepts for the article. I’m still working on the focus of additional parts in the series and I think I’ll be doing some more research to clarify for myself and revisiting points later. Thank you fro the link to the article 🙂

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