Another Rumination on Roleplaying Game Design

In an earlier post, I make mention of focusing my tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) design efforts on a mechanical system that uses six-sided dice for ease of reference and access. It’s not the only such piece I’ve put together, though; for example, I drafted one on Rich Burlew’s work for another venue, and it is with Burlew’s comments in mind that I proceed. He makes the comment that mechanics and story should interact meaningfully; they should fit together, rather than one being a vehicle for the other or added onto it. Things should make sense together (despite the fact that the broader world does not, not by half). And since narrative requires milieu, and RPGs are narratives, the mechanics need to integrate into the milieu smoothly.

Shiny.
Image from AnimatedImages.org.

That notion in mind, and knowing that I mean to use six-sided dice, I started looking for convenient “natural” sixes. Two emerged in short order: cardinal directions and numbers. The former might seem to be counter-intuitive; as typically represented, the cardinal directions are but four: north, south, east, and west. But up and down are also to be considered, making six principal directions and offering six points of reference: north, south, east, west, zenith, and nadir. It’s obvious upon being pointed out, really, but it’s not often pointed out that I’m aware of, so it seemed a useful beginning point.

The numbering takes a bit more explanation. But if I follow the tendency of RPGs to have human or humanoid player characters–“humans in funny suits,” to borrow one turn of phrase that Burlew is not alone in using–then a five-fingered hand suggests itself. I can count six numbers on one such hand: zero to five. If I add another hand, I can reach thirty-five without working through knuckles, as some finger-counting systems do. And that sketches out a base-six numbering system; zero to five on one hand, then back to zero with a finger raised on the other hand. The place-value even begins to situate itself.

Those two sixes, aligning neatly with six-sided dice, have their own implications. Some move in directions that will bear exploring elsewhere. Some, though, admit of more local treatment. For example, the idea of a body-based numbering system that invokes place-value, which I am told by those who study and teach math was quite a development, suggests that the narrative milieu is one that values arithmetic. It’s a strange thing to have emerge, particularly for the work of someone whose degrees are all in English, and not one that I had expected to emerge.

That’s part of the allure of stories, whether read or narrated along with others and the help of dice, that things emerge from them that had not been expected. There is often comfort in the familiar, certainly, and there is nothing wrong in itself in stories following predictable patterns. But there is something special about new and un-thought-of things popping up out of even basic background work that thrills as a writer. I can hope that, in time, such things will also prove to be to players’ delight.

Care to contribute?

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Class Report: ENGL 062, 11 February 2019

After addressing questions from the previous week and before, discussion returned to concerns of summary; a review seemed warranted. Discussion moved on to treat concerns of organization and of paratext after.

The class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Room 114 of the San Antonio campus. The course roster showed three students enrolled, unchanged from last week. One attended; student participation was e.

An online office hour will be held online on Thursday, 14 February 2019, at 1800.

Students are reminded that the following assignments are due before the end of day (Mountain Standard Time) on 17 February 2019:

  • Discussion Threads: Planning & Organizaing and Visual Literacy (3 posts/thread, rubric online)
  • Week 6 Quiz (online)
  • Essay 2 Draft (due online as a Word document)

Sample Assignment Response: Draft Response Essay

Last week, noted here, I had another instance of encountering an assignment for students that did not demand a new sample from me. I was fortunate to have already developed a number of samples of the kind of work students were asked to do, so I gathered an assortment of them for ease of reference and left them for the students to read through. There was some pushback from them on how I want things done–I am of the opinion that summaries need to identify their subjects, which not all of my students seemed to appreciate–but they seem to have done largely well with the exercise.

Image result for tabletop role playing games gif
It’s like that sometimes.
Image form OdysseyI/i>.

The assignment for the present week appears to be another such thing. Students are asked to expand upon their summary work by writing a response to the issue treated by the summarized piece, and the examples of summaries that I had provided to students contain responses. As such, I thought I had already done the work for this week that I sought to do to help the students. But that is not entirely accurate.

For the present week’s assignment, students are asked to write a draft of a response essay. It needs to be in APA format, and it needs to make formal reference to an outside source–in the present case, the article that had been summarized in the previous week’s work. A four-paragraph structure is suggested by the University; introduction, one paragraph relating and explaining personal experience with the subject, another summarizing the article and explaining its relevance, and conclusion. And that expanded structure suggests that I compose a sample to help guide students.

To do so, I began by stubbing out a document according to the APA format template my students and I had developed in the class. That done, I looked at my current-to-the-writing news feeds for an article to summarize and respond to; as is ever the case, I do not want to do the students’ work for them in putting together examples for their use. Nor yet do I want to be too narrowly constrained against future iterations of the class for which I write the examples. Ultimately, I pulled up an article I had long bookmarked for another project; it seemed appropriate to turn to it for the present work.

Having decided upon a piece to which I would respond, I entered its information into the required References list, looking at APA standards to do so. I then read it, annotating it for summary. And it seemed a simple thing to then draft the summary, since I would either be responding to it or prefiguring it, so I did so.

With the summary written, I then considered whether my own comments would precede or succeed it. The former would have the advantage of leading from my own situated ethos to the invented ethos of outside documentation, corresponding to traditional rhetorical ordering by placing what might appear to be a stronger point in the stronger position. The latter, though, would figure my work as a more direct response, moving from the abstract to the concrete in a way that often reads well for students. Given that the piece is meant as a sample for students, the latter course suggested itself more strongly, so I drafted my own comments after giving the summary.

As I drafted, a thesis emerged for me. I took it, rephrased it slightly, and put it in the “expected” position–just before the body of my essay begins. I then drafted an introduction to move readers into the thesis smoothly. I followed that with a conclusion that moves forward from the thesis into an idea of what can be done with that thesis, a style of conclusion I typically prefer in shorter academic pieces.

The draft compiled, I gave it a quick review to ensure that its orthography was as it should be. Nothing showed up to that review, so I rendered the document into an accessible form that I present here in the hopes that it will be helpful: G. Elliott Wk 6 Sample Essay.

Please help me keep on doing this!

A Rumination on Tabletop Roleplaying Game Design

I have made no secret, of course, that I am and have long been involved in roleplaying games, not only the iconic Dungeons & Dragons, but also Legend of the Five Rings and others. It should come as no surprise, then, that I have thought from time to time about putting together a game of my own; it should also not be a surprise that I have acted on such thoughts in the past. Indeed, my second-to-last undergraduate project was an honors thesis in which I did that very thing, though I did not do it at all well. I was not nearly so gifted an undergraduate as I thought I was, and it shows in how clunky and, well, pretentious the work I did then is.

One way to make it rain…
Image form Giphy.com.

I still toy with the idea, of course. I enjoy playing, and I can’t play unless I have folks with whom to play. And that means I have to make any game I would design accessible to people, both in terms of ease of rules and in terms of cost to play. Playing tabletop roleplaying games can be quite expensive; the rulebooks that typify them are not usually inexpensive, and even if someone can get years of use out of one, the initial outlay is something of a hurdle. I’ve not got a necessarily robust collection of gaming books, and I’ve spend hundreds or thousands on them over the years; those who have more have doubtlessly spent far, far more.

There are dice to consider, as well. One of the most common accoutrements of roleplaying games, dice can be found in extravagant numbers and styles, and they become foci of lore and jealousy, among others. They also become money-pits. My own experience in buying dice–and mine are loyal and good, though not necessarily fancy, as far as such things go–has been to the tune of hundreds of dollars across my time gaming. Again, I’ve gotten years out of them, and I did pick them up a few at a time, but it’s still an investment to get the dice roleplaying games typically demand.

Part of that cost comes from the fact that roleplaying games typically play with different types of dice, not just the cubical dice most familiar, but other sorts typically rendered as Platonic solids plus ten-sided dice. (There are other versions of such dice available, of course; my daughter picked a set that mimics gaming dungeon paraphernalia, for example.) Though they are more and more common now, they are still at a higher price-point, and they are still less accessible than the plain cubical dice that can be gotten at supermarkets and convenience stores.

It is to help get around that concern of accessibility that, when I designed a gaming system, I made sure to base its mechanics in six-sided dice. They are easily had, easily replaced, and familiar from centuries of use in popular culture. And not only as gambling devices, though that is their most common depiction; I remember elementary school math classes that used them for some basic statistics, for example. As such, when I went to set up a system to bring people in, I did so with six-sided dice at the core.

As I’ve found out in the time since, trying to orient other things around sixes has been more of a challenge. But that’s something I can return to later on…

Help fund my bad habits, please!

Class Report: ENGL 062, 4 February 2019

After addressing questions from the previous week and before, discussion turned to concerns of paraphrase and summary. The latter received particular attention, as it comes up in several future classes. Time was given to mechanical concerns, as well.

The class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Room 114 of the San Antonio campus. The course roster showed three students enrolled, unchanged from last week. One attended; student participation was excellent.

An online office hour was held on Thursday, 31 January 2019, at 1800. None attended. The office hour that would normally take place on 7 February 2019 is cancelled; students needing assistance are encouraged to email the instructor.

Students are reminded that the following assignments are due before the end of day (Mountain Standard Time) on 10 February 2019:

  • Discussion Threads: Summary Writing and Paraphrases & Parenthetical Citations (3 posts/thread, rubric online)
  • Week 5 Quiz (online)
  • Summary and Response (due online as a Word document)

This is evidently the 700th post to this webspace. Huzzah!

Something Else That Would Have Been a Sample Assignment Response

Earlier in the session, I found myself thwarted in my attempt to provide a sample assignment response when the first week’s assignments were quizzes alone. As I sat down to draft a response for the fifth week’s assignment, though, I found myself having the opposite problem. Instead of encountering an assignment I could not meaningfully or ethically exemplify for my students, I encountered one I have already abundantly exemplified for them. Instead of having no work that could be done, I had ample work that had already been done–which is a much better situation to be in than that I had had before

Seems apt.
Image from the Harvard Business Review.

What the students are asked to do in my class this week is read an article, write a summary of it, and write a response to it. I have no shortage of such things already available, in this webspace and elsewhere, even if they are not necessarily in the APA format requested by the institution. But I’ve practiced that format enough with my current students that I do not know that I need to give it them again, so, instead of making an offhand reference to where they can find examples in this webspace, I’ll give a list of a few of them that seem to have attracted most attention:

I hope they provide useful models of content for my students and for others to follow.

Help fund more quality instructional materials, please!

A Rumination on a Teaching Practice Borrowed from Tabletop Gaming

In a post I recently made to my personal blog, I make reference to some of the teaching and gaming I did as a graduate student. I remember both fondly, at least at this point, and I have done what I can to take the best parts from both into future iterations of my work in the classroom and at the table; I’ve had less success than I might hope, to be sure, but I have still had some success. And some of that success has focused on a single practice that came from the tabletop gaming I administered into some of the teaching I’ve done. It doesn’t always translate into a given class, of course; different courses call for different assignments and different techniques. But that a tool is not universally applicable does not mean it is of no value, and because I think there is some value in the practice–having students overtly commend one another in private reports to the instructor–I think it fitting to spend some time discussing it more formally than my personal blog admits.

Related image
Not atypical, this…
Image from Wikipedia, which I’d not normally use.

To explain the activity a bit: When I was in graduate school, I ran a large tabletop roleplaying game. Normally, such games will have a referee and four to six players; I was the referee, and I had thirteen to fifteen at my table. It was not always a ruly bunch, to be sure; so large a group in which individuals need longish periods of devoted attention tends to go that way. But we got on more or less well, and the players enjoyed what I gave them (I think; please don’t tell me if I’m wrong). And part of that, I think, was that I gave them encouragement to play well–beyond the intrinsic value of participating meaningfully in an ongoing extemporaneous story. For I had each player vote at the end of each gaming session for the player other than themself who had done the best job of playing at the table that night.

By asking them to do so, I encouraged them to more fully inhabit their character and the narrative milieu in which those characters were enmeshed, and to do so in a way that helped the others at the table. And I encouraged them to attend to the performances and participation of others to reward behavior that, through authentically developing and communally-determined practices, was optimal for the group as a whole. In effect, the players came to agree on community standards for behavior and participation, and they looked for ways and reasons to praise one another, rather than make mock of one another as is common at gaming tables and in too many other places in the world.

To apply that idea to classroom practice took a bit of doing. For one, it only works well in group settings, and I tend to shy away from group assignments when I can. My experience, as both student and teacher, has been that one or two group members will do all of the work, while the others coast by on the labors of the diligent. (A rant threatens to emerge; it may do so later.) However, much of the teaching I have done has been of classes that have institutional mandates for group projects (the public speaking class at DeVry was one such; the technical writing class at Oklahoma State University was another).

In the latter, particularly, I had some success with having students report on their group’s and individual group members’ progress in the assigned projects; I made it part of assignment guidelines, requiring them to submit progress reports as daily assignments, so that there was extrinsic motivation to address the tasks. (Most of the students in that course were in another writing class only reluctantly; the extrinsic motivation was needed.) But I noted with some annoyance that, while I would see participation and submission from several group members, I would not see accurate assessment of those participants who weren’t; a few noted to me that they were reluctant to “throw [another student] under the bus,” even when the group’s work as a whole suffered because of such a student.

I understand the impulse, to be certain. I’m not along in having heard that “snitches get stitches and wind up in ditches,” or other words to that effect, and I was not immune to the shame of being a tattle-tale. And, at one level, I was content to let students undercut themselves; if they did not care more about the work and their reward for it, I saw no reason I ought to do so. But, as one of the students who was exploited by group work, I hated the idea of such exploitation continuing even when students had a mechanism to prevent it (part of the students’ grades came from the mutual assessment, so they could have excluded non-participating group members).

When, instead of asking students to identify the group members who had done least, I asked them to identify those who had done most, I saw a much better response rate from them. Additionally, I received much more detailed feedback on student performance from the other students’ perspectives, which was of great help. Some of that did run to specific notes about other students’ non-compliance with the standards of their groups, which also helped me to make the adjustments I needed to make as I oversaw the groups’ work. In essence, it worked in more or less the same way with my students as it had with my players, for which reason I commend the practice to use in other classes.

It is not universally applicable, of course. Not all classes require or admit of group projects, at least not conveniently. And there are courses that operate under stricter institutional mandates, obliging specific assignment sequences and lecture topics. But where it can be deployed, the practice of having students cite and justify each other’s excellence is a useful one.

 Care to send a bit my way?