Monday, June 16, 2014

The Forbidden City: Postmortem (part I)

The school year is over, the monsoon rains have returned, and silence hangs over Bawal Bayan.  I'm not particularly good at letting things end and it's no coincidence that this year, like most, I was the very last teacher left on the hall after the posters came off the walls, the chairs were all stacked, and the lights were turned down.

"The panels shrunk, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell out of the ceiling, and the naked laths were shown instead; but how all this was brought about, Scrooge knew no more than you do. He only knew that it was quite correct; that everything had happened so; that there he was, alone again, when all the other boys had gone home for the jolly holidays." -- A Christmas Carol

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This year, however, I have plenty of bones left to gnaw as I reflect on my experiment -- my effort to introduce tabletop role-playing, my own absurd hobby and passion, to my middle school students courtesy of Brave Halfling Publishing's Dagger for Kids.

It seems that the key to extending the reach of the adventure, interaction, and excitement of role-playing in the public school classroom lay in three steps:
  1. create a stable of novice GMs [Game Masters] within my classroom
  2. equip them with tools that are accessible and evocative 
  3. get out of the way
Each of these steps came with a measure of risk -- things could go all pear-shaped at any of several stages.
I'll be looking at each step in order as I reflect on what I learned over the last month or so.

1. Create a Stable of Novice GMs

Though Dagger for Kids was as simple as any rules set I've ever handled (maybe tying with S. John Ross's excellent Risus: The Anything RPG), I realized that functioning as an effective GM entails quite a few skills beyond managing dice mechanics -- everything from reading the table and adjusting pacing to stave off boredom to creating clear and evocative descriptions of locations and NPCS.  With play time limited (none of the 3-5 hour sessions we enjoyed as kids possible here) I opted to stack the deck in my favor and selected five students who I was confident had a pretty well developed set of communication skills for my first batch of newbie GMs.

If we were to employ the classic distinction between guilt cultures and shame cultures offered by E.R. Dodds  (The Greeks and the Irrational), then middle school is certainly a shame culture (perceived social status is paramount).  For this to work, I felt like I had to tap kids who were going to be able to command the respect and cooperation of their fellow students.
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Merely knowing who could hold the attention of a table of his or her peers wasn't enough of course.  Enthusiasm for a fictional action-adventure setting and an interest in, or at least receptivity to the type of activity (cooperative gaming, collaborative storytelling, engaging in conflict with imaginary obstacles) was necessary as well.  This is where is it was so important that I run those first few whole-class sessions, watching to see who was highly engaged.  As mentioned in an earlier post, with such a large group the window of opportunity before distraction sets in is pretty small ... maybe one and a half class periods, so in the future I'll need to be much more focused on the players than on the game.  Short surveys can also help me identify novice GMs in the offing.