Table Top Role Playing Games in Education

There were some meaty comments in response to my first post on this topic, and the day after Clark was born Matthijs Holter sent me another thought provoking email, which I’ve finally responded to. Here is Matthijs’ email:

As someone who lives and breathes tabletop role-playing, I’m always surprised to be reminded that not everybody does – tabletop role-playing is, after all, a fairly marginal hobby. The most popular TRPGs used to be those that were most “game-like” – like older versions of D&D; however, with Vampire: The Masquerade, a lot of people started playing just because it seemed cool to be a vampire. Still, games that don’t require too much personal input/stretching of imagination are probably the way to go for entry-level players, such as students and teachers. Simple, structured rules without much need for improvisation are a great introduction – and, for many, are really all that’s wanted or needed.The issue you bring up about human gamemasters and computation is interesting. Are you thinking about computations such as effects of combat strikes and similar? In many newer TRPGs, such as Lærelyst (the one my company is developing for educational purposes), the paradigm of “game rules simulate the laws of nature” isn’t used much. Rules are, instead, used to shape the story or affect player behavior. (For example, characters can score Reputation points for doing cool, brave, elegant or noble things; they score Experience points for their efforts at school).

The two fields (video and tabletop role-playing) aren’t really about the same thing any more, I think. They’re completely different experiences. However, that doesn’t mean one can’t use ideas and techniques from the other. Lærelyst, for instance, uses the video game method of teaching rules: You learn only what you need to play right now – and the game scales up in complexity when players are ready for it. For instance, in the first four sessions there is no combat, so players won’t need the combat rules – they learn those in session five, when they’re needed.

The main educational advantage of tabletop role-playing, I think, is the flexibility it affords to teachers who want to tailor the experience to their needs. Once the method is learned, it’s simple and cheap (free) to change a scenario, design a new one, create and integrate new educational tasks. (The second advantage, of course, is that it’s incredibly cheap compared to using computers – but that’s not anything that can be transferred easily to video role-playing).

With regards to using this as the basis for a blog post: Definitely, go ahead! I started a related thread on the Educational Role-playing forum a few days ago, a first stab at comparing some forms of play for educational purposes – I talk about TRPGs, video games and live-action role-playing. You can see it here – ; you might find it interesting.

In my response I wound up articulating two ideas I’ve had for some time:

I’ve finally given the time to reading this response and you bring up some good points about how some Table-Top RPGs have gotten away from number crunching rules. Perhaps that is a necessary evolution in the face of computerized RPGs. Other comments on the post (in which I shared your earlier email) pointed out how much face-to-face communication is lost in video games, and how little actual role-playing takes place in video games.

I suppose what would interest me most is some kind marriage of the two… perhaps something in which the computer takes care of the rules and calculations to keep the story moving, and maybe even where the computer renders an immersive virtual world, but where a teacher/gamemaster can still “play god” within the world to provide students with individualized and customized scenarios to play. This might looks something like MIT’s “Revolution” proof-of-concept created with the Aurora toolset in Neverwinter Nights… but without the technical barriers. Of course, it may be that something that flexible and powerful might always include significant barriers to use.

On the other hand, setting aside my educational technologist hat for a minute, I’d still love to see teachers leading educational table-top role playing sessions with students. I think powerful learning could result – as it did in my days playing table-top RPGs growing up. Ideally, of course, students would be running their own sessions once they were ready, too.

I think there’s the making of another blog post in this… and I may just cut and paste. ;)

Note, too, that my dissertation was on “Massively” multiplayer games, and to be valuable, role-playing games don’t necessarily need to be massively multiplayer… in fact, in some ways that might actually detract from the games’ value for role-playing purposes.