Teaching Role Playing Games #1

In late February, I started to teach a Role Playing Games Design class at GAMEDEC: Game Studies&Design: 30 hours of lecture + 30 hours of design labs. My wife does the lecture, I teach the lab. We have just completed the first part of the course. I feel like it's time to share thoughts and experience with the world.

The lab has 3 parts:
First, we learn to play, gamemaster, and write scenarios for tabletop (pen-and-paper) RPG.
Next, we learn how to play, design and organise larps. 
Finally, we play student-designed larps in class.
Beside regular class participation and a variety of minor graded tasks, students need to deliver two well-developed 'masterpieces': a scenario for a selected RPG system and a chamber larp for 15-18 characters. The pen'n'paper scenario is written individually, the larp in teams of 5.

The students had already been given a general "what-is-rpg" introduction in previous lectures, so I didn't have to spend the lab's precious time slots on that. Here's what the first 5 weeks looked like:

0. Introduction to the course
Overview of the course structure, grading requirements, etc. Plus, prospects of cooperation with our national and foreign partners (Kuźnia Gier, Portal Games and CDP.pl from Poland, Tall Tale Events from Canada, Seekers Unlimited from USA).

1. First Session
A flipped class. Students who already have experience as gamemasters prepare and run RPG sessions for their colleagues, with me eavesdropping and occassionally planting suggestions. Each volunteer GM earns +6 XP as a Special Quest (click here for their stats).

2. Gamemaster's Day
This time, everyone becomes the gamemaster for 20 minutes. In groups of 3 or 4, they play a scenario I wrote for newbies as "gamemaster's pre-school", with the role of GM rotating from player to player. Everyone would gamemaster one short episode based on explicitly given (1 page) instruction: what to describe, what to test, how to roleplay an NPC. When the first episode is up, another player takes over as the GM (and gets a page with instruction to the 2nd episode), while the previous GM takes over his/her character.

3. Collective Scenario Design
That's an idea I borrowed from game conventions. Back in the days, when I was editor at Portal Magazine, Ignacy Trzewiczek, owner of the publishing house (now under the name of Portal Games), would attract crowds at game events for scenario design sessions. I also attended one or two run by Staszek Krawczyk. I have never seen it fail. As far as I can tell, it always draws huge audiences and always ignites a creative firestorm. It also worked with the small audience (11-16) I have in the lab.

How does it work? First, we select a well-known popular genre which doesn't require detailed knowledge of a specific world. It usually ends with a typical fantasy setting with a scenario for wandering adventurers. Then, I ask for suggestions for: a) the opening scene (forest? tavern? village? lakeside?), b) the details of the scene (weather? light? season?), c) landscape features and locations (what does the village look like? what is it surrounded with?), d) NPC-s (who lives in the village? what they do for a living? who owns the land?). The audience offers suggestions, and we pick some of them by voting or my decision.

Gradually, we put more and more items on the whiteboard, and when we have NPCs and locations, I start to ask questions about relationships and conflicts. I expose inconsistencies, demand explanations, suggest modifications, etc. That's how we build a rich setting with its own backstory.

And then it's time to bring in the player characters. How will the locals react to the newcomers? Will the PCs be seen as a threat, as easy prey, or as partners or prospective contractors? How can they get involved in the local conflicts? How will they be able to make a difference? To what extent can we predict their choices? What are the possible endings, what will be the consequences for the PCs and NPCs?

By the end of the 90-minute class, we have a well-rounded scenario ready to be written down. Or sometimes we don't: teams Alfa and Charlie did develop a good story, but team Bravo spent so much time designing the setting (a port city with a complex network of factions and intrigues) that we didn't manage to complete the gameplay for players. Still, it was a powerful creative experience. Worth every minute.

4. Wolsung Test Drive
Do you know Wolsung: Steam Pulp Fantasy, a Polish RPG with editions in English and German? I used Wolsung for in-class practice in character generation and game mechanics. They would create basic character sheets and resolve a number of actions and conflicts with increasing level of complexity: simple tests, opposed tests, and confrontations. First with dice only, then dice + tokens, finally dice + tokens + cards. Home assignment: read the entire Wolsung Test Drive and get a good grasp of both the setting and the rules.

Why Wolsung? Several reasons.
  • It has an easy-to-use Test Drive legally available as free PDF.
  • It has clever rules that are complex and simple at the same time, and elegantly merge mechanics with story elements.
  • It has Polish and English editions, so students can write Wolsung scenarios in both language versions.
  • Wolsung is published by our partner (Kuźnia Gier), so we can combine in-class and graded home assignments with official university - business cooperation.
Graded Assignment

Now are almost done with the pen'n'paper section. The main task was a full-size scenario to one of existing RPG systems (they picked). Some assignments were accepted "as-is", others were sent back for rework. Credits won't come easy. I had pointed to the resource base of Quentin - an annual competition for the best Polish RPG scenario (I'm on the jury, by the way) for models to follow. And I had recommended some of the best Polish books on scenario design and gamemastering. In no way would I accept a 3-page stub that seems to have been written overnight.

Into the Larp Zone!
Last week, we started the Larp section, with one of my educational (historical) games played in class. For most of my students, it was the first larp experience ever. By the end of semester, I am supposed to turn them into independent larpmasters and larpwrights. Challenge accepted!

Post Scriptum
I've been an academic teacher since 2008. Never before had I seen a student willing to take the same class again with another group. In the RPG Design lab three of them have done that.