TEFL RPGing Aplenty

So, a while back I posted about using an D&D-like role-playing game as part of my teaching with one of our students. (See: Youngmin and the Magic World.) I recounted the story, and promised an update, but I haven’t followed through…

Not for want of RPG action, of course. Youngmin has since rhyme-battled a forest ogre the size of a high-rise, teamed up with a goblin and a dragon to beat his nemesis, then teamed up with a mysterious capoerista girl (yes, capoeira has made its way into the game) and the goblin village’s witch to take on the dragon once it turned on him; he’s in pursit of the capoerista who now has the dragon pearl, in fact…

Theodor Kittelsen’s Skogtroll (1906). Click for source page.

But both I and Mrs. Jiwaku have introduced RPGing into the teaching routines for several more students, along the way. And doing updates for all the little narratives is something I just don’t have time for. A snapshot, though might be fun for others who are trying to think about how to integrate RPG-like interaction into their teaching, so here goes:

Mrs. Jiwaku uses a murder-mystery investigative genre with several of her students, having them investigate a murder by interviewing a cast of suspicious characters. (The first one she did involved an old, alcoholic, rich man who was apparently murdered: but was it by his bitter first wife? By his gold-digging and significantly younger second wife? His greedy and amoral son? Or someone else altogether?) She obviously is using the form to get students to formulate and ask coherent questions in English, without them obsessing over the grammatical perfection of the questions.


Oh, the above image is not just sly reference, by the way: one reason she uses this genre is that some of her students are fans of the BBC TV series Sherlock:

Sherlock: A Study In Pink

… though she only discovered this after developing the first investigative mystery. In other news, one of those students also studies with me, and will be grilling me on the first episode of Season 1 of Sherlock. Which wasn’t bad, but felt a bit over-acted, juvenilized, and disappointing, in a way familiar from–but less egregious than–Dr. Who of the Matt Smith era. Not that I’m a huge fan of any of the Dr. Who reboot, but Smith’s Doctor just nauseated me enough to give up on the whole franchise, after reticently giving it a try when I felt like Ms. Jiwaku and I were the only people in the world not watching it.

(We are content to live within that minority once again.)

Likewise, I’ve got some other students doing RPG in other ways, for other purposes. For one thing, I’m putting the onus of backstory and worldbuilding onto them. With one of my students, we’re working on his writing, so we came up with a story of a young man, the son of a yangban who was assassinated and who has taken cover on Jiri Mountain, crafting weapons and planning his revenge on the men who killed his father and who he has discovered are, even now, hunting him down too. Homework is basically writing out the narrative that happened last session, and we spend time correcting the text, and integrating the grammar corrections into the next session’s dialog or exposition.

Joseon X-Files screencap
Image taken from an episode of the TV series Joseon X-Files. (Source.)

Another of my students is working on simple conversational competency so we drill whatever grammar she’s working on in our mini-sessions (which are usually just the last quarter of an hour or so). Her character is some kind of Renaissance-era courtly investigator in a corrupt Spanish kingdom; she’s had to deal with the king’s mischevious son, and gotten herself locked up in the dungeons in the process. In our last installment, she’d just discovered true king of the land in the dungeon cell in which she’d been imprisoned,and she is now supposed to write out a plan by which she and the true king will break out of jail.

With her, it’s mostly just getting her to use the grammar we’ve been working on, and giving her stuff to write about, so after some drilling, we use the grammar structure at hand in the game, to reinforce it, and I ask her to write up the story making sure she gets that structure right in her writeup.


But most interesting is the “interactive story” I’ve started with one of the boys I teach. With him, we use English as the language of instruction, which is to say, we study something other than English, but we do so exclusively through English. Until now, we’ve been studying a kids’ prose rendition of Julius Caesar, but he said he was interested in studying the solar system next. I need to try find a book that’s an appropriate level for him, since the (wonderful) book I have on had–Giles Sparrow’s The Traveler’s Guide to the Solar System–is just a little too tough.


The story he’s come up with is the most fascinating of all, and probably worthy of some kind of computer game or RPG setting. It’s vaguely reminiscent of what Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix would have been if it’d been designed by a 13-year-old kid who’d grown up never speaking English, and some geeky Canadian Bruce Sterling fan.(Ahem. It’s an amazing book, for reasons well-explained by this review.)


Anyway, our story is set some ridiculously short time into the future (squint and ignore that), but basically, it imagines the 21st century as being characterized by a conflict between three ideological factions who settle different parts of the solar system after Earth gets ravaged, in part because of a war between the groups, and in part because of climate change spinning out of control. The groups are:

  • The Mechans: A group of engineers dedicated to a machine-assisted utopian future. They settle the moons of Jupiter, primarily making them home on Europa.
  • The Biologics: A corps of life-science specialists who work to awakening Mars, either by finding native life and helping it take over, or by terraforming and settling the planet with life of their choosing. Of course, they want the water of Europa… which puts them in conflict with the Mechans.
  • The Physians: A society of physicists committed to deepening humanity’s grasp of edge physics, and to applications that would blow your mind: they develop the ability to tweak fundamental properties of the universe and weaponize those tweaks. Like, say, “turning up” gravity on Jupiter so it sucks in all its moons, or moving planets. These folks settle themselves in orbit around Saturn, the rings of which are coveted by the Mechans for I’m not sure I remember what reason besides the resulting conflict.

Of course, that’s all ancient history as far as the guy’s characters are concerned. The characters are a brother (strong and tough, but not too bright) and sister (a genius, but ravaged by a serious disease of some kind) who were rescued as infants from cold sleep, the state in which they were found a few centuries after the Mechans, Biologics, and Physians waged a total war that resulted in the destruction of Mars and Saturn, and in all of the moons and satellites of Jupiter being dropped from orbit to the planet’s surface. They live on Jupiter’s sole satellite, an artificial world he named Mechaworld, peopled by the surviving Mechans. (The surviving Biologics have moved on to Venus, and the Physians have branched out to Neptune and Uranus, and points more distant still.) There’s an uneasy peace, and people look back on the insanities of the war with a sense of shame and anger, though it’s history… what can be done about it?

Repeat: he came up with a backstory of a war in which Earth gets destroyed, and then so do Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. (I talked him into letting Jupiter survive, for various reasons.)

Well, something, apparently. History is about to get real, real relevant to the characters. During the first brief session today, time travelers from the future appeared, who brought along the older versions of the brother and sister, to convince them to go back in time to the era when Earth was dead, but Mars, Jupiter’s moons, and Saturn had not yet been destroyed.

Their mission? To find their parents, who were high-level leaders in the Biologics during the war, and talk them out of pushing that red button. Which, in practical terms, means that my student will need to learn a bunch of stuff about Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn: each of the future episodes will involve him reading about a moon or planet, and using the information to get some task done, or even just to survive. (His current homework is to bring himself up to speed regarding Europa, which is the first stop on his characters’ adventure.) What’s cool about this is that he gets to do some research, try to learn things, and put them to use in his story. Yeah, he had to put in a cheesy prophecy and some stuff about the kids being descendants of a king and queen… but whatever. He’s still reading about Europa, and I can always surprise him with the fact the Mechans weren’t monarchists later on…

In the meantime, what can I say? I’ve never seen him more active, never seen him ask a question with such fascination: “How big is Europa? Is it big like the Earth? What’s in the water? Could there really be life there?” (Which is why his homework is to do some research about Europa.)

A gorgeous shot of Europa, released by NASA.
A gorgeous shot of Europa, released by NASA.

I just wish the book I have (the Sparrow book mentioned above) were more appropriate for his level; it’s optimal for my level, and I kinda wish I was playing this game, just so I’d have an excuse to study up on the solar system a little more each week. But I figure, his studies are enough incentive for me to study up anyway. I’ll try find some resources online that are appropriate to his level, I guess…

By the way, yeah yeah, the above stuff wasn’t solely his ideas. I helped him work out some of it, like some of the details of what the three factions would be fighting, or the intellectual obsessions of the three factions. But I think a lot of people might be surprised how much of it he came up with. I don’t know if he’s just ripping off some comic or cartoon he’s seen, and frankly, if he is, that’s fine: we’ve already departed from whatever source he might have started out using, and things are pretty interesting already.

I can’t provide updates for all these different narratives; frankly, some interest me more than others, but the interest to me isn’t the point. The point is how useful and interesting they are to the students. It makes me wish I could use them with adult students, except I know that most adults will not be so easily convinced to try this method. Pity: I bet it’d work at least as well for them as it does for the kids…

5 thoughts on “TEFL RPGing Aplenty

  1. I have been reading your posts on RPGs as an English language tool and I was wondering how useful they would be in a setting with more than one student. Say for example a class of 10 or so. Grades: 5th and 6th, junior high, and high school. Assuming there is interest and sufficient ability, would you find it possible to work it in as part of a lesson? Or do you think that this is best suited for very small groups, (less than 5-6) because of the teaching assistance required? Just curious^^ Thanks :D

    1. Hi Donovan,

      Your question is complex because there’s so many axes:

      • Level
      • Age
      • Group Size

      I’ve used RPG-like exercises in larger groups a fair bit–up to 30 or so–but it’s always involved some more careful planning, precisely for the reason you mention: one has to minimize the necessity of constant intervention. (That is, one needs to develop or adapt a DMless system.) This is pretty doable, though: I’ve specifically done it with uni students.(Here’s a lesson plan for one such RPG exercise I used with undergrad students, but that involved more homework and some in-class presentations. With kids, you’d need to do a lot more of that work in class… and might want to avoid the whole organized crime theme with the younger kids at least. The example is pretty elaborate, but it’s just an example of how much prep you need to reduce the intervention down to a manageable level.)

      As for age: the age groups you mention are perfect for RPG, especially the younger ones. The high school kids might be a little self-inhibited, but the elementary and middle school kids should be capable of having fun with it. If you can engage them in the game, then other work related to it–like research–shouldn’t bother them too much at all.

      Finally, as for level: the lower the level, the harder you have to work at intervening. It’s always still possible to find a way to do roleplaying, but at a certain level, it becomes more work than it might be worth. You may also find that something like The Magicians–a game designed for foreign learners of Korean, by the way, but based on the author’s experiences teaching Korean kids–might have more useful suggestions in terms of adapting the game experience to larger groups, I don’t know… I won’t be seeing the game till March. If you’re in Korea, you might try contact the game developer directly, I believe he has some copies in Korea so you wouldn’t have to order from overseas… if you prefer print to straight PDF.)

      I’d stress that it’s very, very important to make sure you can connect the roleplaying to other stuff: to having the kids write up reports, or do presentations on their group’s RPG narrative, or integrating research into the game, or something. Even if it’s just having them watch Avatar: The Last Airbender at home, so they know the setting and some of the expressions used, this ought to be a way to spur them to find new ways to engage with English.

      Also, it’s important to remember that not all RPGs need to be high fantasy. My wife’s investigation game (where she roleplays various shady suspects of a crime, and the students interview them, occasionally spending a clue point for a clue or rolling dice to see whether they perceive something hinky) is working out very well. There’s no magic or dragons (or mutants or aliens or superheroes) at all, but the girls she’s using it with come alive during those lessons, and listen like nobody’s business, coming up with questions independently, and writing up “police reports” in a way that’s more attentive that they do when they’re doing other, less-exciting writing.

      All that said, it can also be that RPGs of some kind could also be used fruitfully just as a fun break on occasion. My buddy Justin Howe (over at 10 Bad Habits) has commented on his classroom use of RPG in ways that suggest it’s more of a fun break thing in his classes, and that’s another way to use it. (He also has more experience with RPGing with little kids; I assume he strips the game down the way I do, with dice rolls thrown in for drama and excitement and omitted or skipped when they’d just slow things down, but he may have other comments on adapting things to the classroom. His post on the subject shows good use of cheapo, student-made miniatures and a map, which is one big hint.)

      Anyway, I think the key is, the bigger the group or the lower the level, the more prep will be necessary, and the more they’ll have to learn “how to play” so it makes more sense if you set the game stuff up as part of an ongoing series, not a one-shot thing. (So that, once they know the rules, play recommences without the need for teaching all the rules again.) Age determines to some degree what you can do thematically, I guess, but it’s less of a big issue than level or group size. (And, frankly, in my experience, anything you can do with ten year olds, you can do with college kids, as long as you can sell it to them as an exercise.)

      Hope I’ve answered your questions! If not, fire away any more you might have!

  2. I recognize that troll image, and the El Greco one! Those are some of my favs!

    Other than that, I’m really excited to see what you’re doing with these kids here. It must be even more rewarding for you, as their teacher, to see them get their creative gears in motion, something bigger than the sum of your and their work.

    1. Heh, I figured, why not put some good art in, right? The troll image is one I remember from… I’m not sure. Probably one of those coffee table books on giants and trolls that I had as a kid, which came out in the wake of the success of Huygen and Poortlivet Gnomes books… or maybe it was in one of those Time Life Enchanted World books. (Of which I only ever got about four in the mail, I think…)

      (Aw, man, now you have me itching to get my hands on Samurai Cat again… the books I managed to get, and the books I never got, too.)

      But yeah, it was pretty exciting, stopping for a moment to recognize all these diverse creative projects we have going on. And that’s to say nothing of the little arduino project I may be starting with another student, or the two (2!!!) budding composers I’ve turned on to the freeware Musescore notation software. (Or the chat I had with one of them–who aims to become a film score composer–about constructing interesting harmonic progressions, when she showed me one of her ongoing composition projects. She’s actually supposed to input the score and bring it next time, so I can show her a few more tricks. Which, hey: we’re doing it in English, and it’s a subject she cares about, so… so much the better! Strategic competency, and all that.)

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