Killer Mini-Campaign

I’ve posted before here about using RPGs as a learning tool with students. One of the things that’s important when you do this is to (a) choose a story structure that emphasizes communicative tasks: your students should have to talk a lot, whereas combat is something they want to avoid, or something that must be coordinated when it’s absolutely necessary.

That is to say, pedagogically, it’s better for students to end up having to negotiate treaties or beg for their lives than it is to have them running around doing hack’n’slash adventuring, or dungeoneering of the type epitomized in the phrase, “kick in the door, smash the monsters, grab the loot.” You probably do need to include combat once in a while–and the kids really do enjoy it more, the more occasional it is–but something closer to “Deep Immersion Storytelling”mode (as described here) is more effective.


The problem, of course, is that some kids are conditioned by computer games to see all gaming of any kind as basically an opportunity to fight, fight, fight, kill, kill, kill. While I disagree with the idea common among their moms that video games lead to violence or derangement, I do think that playing games that feature, almost exclusively, fights to the death (often as the sole form of conflict resolution), tends to condition kids to equate conflict in games with combat only. They have a vocabulary for that kind of resolution, gleaned from whatever games they are playing, for example.

Korean schoolboys these days seem to mostly be mired in League of Legends territory, for example, and they all seem to know and use phrases from the game, like these:

In fact, one of the things I’ve been struggling to get these kids’ moms to understand is that not all games involve killing killing killing. They don’t seem to believe me that there are games with interesting puzzles, problem solving tasks, or even language tasks. Part of the reason is that kids are all playing the free games, and the free games are often kill kill kill. You can tell a mom, “Well, yes, but look at this wonderful, amazing game that doesn’t involve any killing! And it’s only $10!” they kind of default to: “Games? Paying, to play a game? Meh, I’ll just ban games in the house and make my son study instead!”

Yeah, like that’s gonna work.

Anyway, beyond all that, I’ve still made some inroads with some kids, though I’ve gotten more selective in who I used games with, and how much. The RPG portion of any lesson is always a supplement, either to generate more material for homework tasks, or to give the kid a context to practice language structures in a way more interesting than a simple a drill.

Lately, there have been a few interesting examples I’ve tried with my students.  

The Blacksmith’s Boy and the Goblin Invasion

One game I’ve played is with a boy who is very smart, and has very good English–he reads and writes and speaks in English (and comprehends spoken English) much better than the average Korean university student, and, indeed, probably better than 99% of Korean nationals overall. He’s smart as a whip, organized, and a cool kid. So we’ve been working on other skills: how to organize a simple essay, how to write a story, how to make a speech with a thesis and three major arguments.

For him, I designed a mini-adventure which basically played out in about six parts, based on the character he wanted to play. That character is the son of a blacksmith, living in a royal city and basically dying to go on an adventure. Luckily, the local king decides that this boy–who is likely to grow up to be the Great Keep’s blacksmith, should get some “real life” experience using the weapons he crafts, and sends him off to investigate at a farm that reportedly has been invaded by goblins. During the course of the investigation, the boy discovers the goblin invaders, is captured by them, and has to live with them for a time, before figuring a way out and then deciding what to do next. (Instead of fleeing the area, he decided to head back to town, warn the king of an impending goblin invasion, and fight to save his city… but he also had the choice to join the goblin army, or just get out of Dodge and try catch a ship to far-flung lands.)

Of course, along the way, language tasks have abounded. When he decided to learn magic, we talked about rhyming words, and drilled a few advanced grammar points, the correct usage of which became necessary for the successful casting of spells. Likewise, when he decided to poison the goblins, he had to go home and write a recipe–according to the proper form for recipes in English, including measurements–and preparation instructions for the poisoned dish, before I’d let the poisoning occur in-game. There was only one magical item he picked up, of unknown powers: a coin that he was told by a mysterious wizard to break in half and place on his tongue if ever he was in crisis. (Because of course, any crisis will involve an act of speaking, because we are studying English, right?)

A couple of sessions ago, he had to prepare a logical speech with a thesis, three major supporting arguments, and some explanation for each argument, regarding the need to fight off the goblin army for the sake of the city’s safety, and then he had to deliver the speech effectively. Flubbing the speech would have had in-game consequences, but he did well, even answering questions successfully enough to get the king’s agreement.

And he loved it.


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In the end, it was a convoluted plot: he thereafter helped lead the invasion to fight off the goblins, and during the battle he learned that his own king was… kind of a lying scumbag, and a coward to boot. The king got captured by the goblins, and since Jonathan was the only human they felt they could trust, they summoned him to speak on the king’s behalf… that is, to give another speech (in character, with a woollen blanket fastened together with a laundry peg serving as a cloak) with an introduction, body, and conclusion, including three main arguments why the king should be allowed to live. He successfully gave a speech to the goblin army on why they ought to free the (human) King, mostly focused on the goblin society’s own chances of surviving the change it would bring about. (Personal threats, plus reminder that the goblin nation is surrounded by human kingdoms who might take badly to goblin regicide of a human king; plus the fact the current king was an inept goblin hunter, and his successor might not be.)

Jonathan the warrior’s speech convinced the goblin king of one thing: that he should kill the human king anyway, but then install Jonathan as a puppet king on the human throne, since Jonathan, at least, is a decent sort of chap and wouldn’t lie to the goblins. Jonathan refused the throne, and insisted the king be set free, and so finally the goblin king complied. This, of course, led the king to declare Jonathan a hero–though not within earshot of any other human beings–and he promised the boy a lifetime’s supply of food, a luxurious house in the capital, and an income of truly noble scale…

… and when they returned to the city, he placed Jonathan under house arrest immediately, later summoning him to the castle to inform him that he is to be exiled from the Kingdom. Horrified, Jonathan returned to his family, and took his magical coin and snapped it in half, placing it on his tongue. Suddenly, his amplified voice filled the streets of the city, and echoed out even to the goblin encampment. The citizens of the city gathered around the boy’s home with pitchforks and torches, ready to protect him from a king that none of them liked anyway, and then the Royal Goblin Troop marched into town, to help Jonathan, whom they regarded as a trusted friend, as much as any human could be called a friend.

The goblin King offered Jonathan a nice “clean” house in a “clean” forest in the goblin kingdom–since it’s clean, goblins avoid it, since they like dirty things–and a career as peacemaking ambassador from the Goblin Kingdom to all the surrounding Human Kingdoms. Jonathan, eager to travel and see  the world, accepted the offer, and he and his family were escorted out of the city and kingdom, to their new home.

Thus the City of Ballisfree lost all its prestige before the world, and its best blacksmithing family, all in one fell swoop.

The cool thing about all of this is that all his homework fed into the game: writing a recipe for poisoned sushi rolls, preparing and delivering speeches to save the king, learning how to find rhyming words in English and use them to create little rhyming couplets (which was how magic worked in this world) and so on, were all in-game tasks that helped move the story forward, and all of which he did with great attention and energy.

Of course, he’s a great kid to begin with, and probably the best student I’ve worked with here, but even so: he was even more motivated and concerned with doing a good job, and even more serious about getting his work done correctly, with each session and with each homework task that fed into in-game action.

The Adventures of Mike and Mary

Another of my students is a boy who is a total League of Legends nut, with a mild interest in space, whose earlier adventures I’ve detailed previously. My success has been more limited with him, in that his writing isn’t improving rapidly, though it is slowly improving. He maintains a tumblr for his game-related homework, which is heavily edited during our lessons, with the intention of his developing writing and revision skills … but if I were to continue teaching him much longer, we’d be abandoning that: after several months, he still doesn’t really revise his writing, nor does he even look over the corrections most of the time. Only recently has he even begun to catch his own errors, and even so, that’s only when he’s sat down and forced to look for them during lessons.

I wish I could say it’s only an issue of parental support–that his parents don’t push him to check his work–but he’s commented on how his mother often encourages him to review the corrected writing so that he learns from the revisions. The fact is, he’s simply not that interested in improving his writing, and, well… while you can lead a horse to water but cannot make it drink, the reality is that if a horse always refuses to drink, eventually the whole business of leading it to water looks like a waste of time. But also, this is my sense of what the hakwon–and really, any kind of enforced, shove-it-down-your-throat schooling–does to kids. If you’re looking for a way to stifle and snuff out any and all sense of curiosity in your child, well, hakwons aren’t a 100% guaranteed method, but they’re pretty effective nonetheless, especially paired with teacher-centric mainstream Korean public schooling, and a parent whose main interaction with the kid is to push him or her to study, study, study…

Still, the thing is that this boy represents a much more conventional student attitude, for Korean middle school boys who have spent a lot of time in hakwons. He is somewhat jaded, somewhat weary of studying English, and really, wants nothing more than to go home and play League of Legends. Tell him something surprising or weird, and he doesn’t react: it’s as if something fundamental was excised from him at some point, and nothing surprises, shocks, angers, or amazes him anymore. Teaching a kid like that is bound to be Sisyphean to some degree, because the one thing they’re missing is any shred of intrinsic motivation; all their motivation to learn comes from without: either from parental pressure, or parents’ fairytales about how studying English will lead to lots of money, a pretty wife, and a nice house. (Which are in fact his reported reasons for studying English.)

The interesting thing is that the story itself engages him and he likes playing the sessions, which is another way of saying, when we’re actually playing out the story, he gets into it, he speaks in English for an hour, and he seems just that little bit less dead inside. It’s the only thing that’s actually gotten him out of the funk of short-as-possible answers, and shoulder-shrugging “So what?” Sometimes he even gets into the spirit of negotiating or debating with antagonists instead of outright defaulting to kill kill kill.

Probably some of that is because, as soon as dice are on the table, the element of chance is on the table, and that means risk, and suspense.

Probably another part of it is because once we’re playing, he forgets the fact that we’re actually playing in English: the desire to “win” at the game takes over, and that’s all there is for him till the session is over.

And maybe it’s a little bit because of plotting: the plot has gotten twisty and tangled to the point where the two characters he’s playing, Mike and Mary, have discovered that (a) they’re not really brother and sister at all, and (b) they’re actually the kids who will grow up to be the (supposedly, according to public records) married couple who started the war that they (kid-selves) have been frantically traveling and time-jumping in an attempt to prevent: yes, these kids are trying to prevent the interplanetary war that their adult selves (who somehow lived centuries in the past, and who they thought were their own parents) are on record as having started. Which is a tangled plot, and I suspect the boy just wants to know how in the hell it’ll be resolved. As for me, I have no idea, but I do know it’s likely the characters are going to meet the “historical” Mike and Mary–the people they thought were their parents, and are (supposedly) themselves, back when they started a war a hundred years ago.

At the present moment, Mary’s in a medical bay of an unknown spaceship, dead from the attack of a giant Martian lizard that was teleported onto the ship, while Mike finds himself having been saved from the brink of death by being modified into a cyborg, which was then later “upgraded” (against his will) by the junk-management bots on the same ship, into the form of a sentient spider-bot.

(What they don’t know is that the “historical” Mike and Mary are on this same ship, even now, as it heads toward the asteroid belt to escape the Martian attack.)

Since the world is dying to know how it all will end, I’m sure, I’ll post a little update. Whether we’ll manage to resolve the tale in the three sessions we have left, I cannot even guess, but I for one feel we should try. If I do end up teaching this student again, in the fall, it’ll probably be in a bigger group–three kids his age, say, would be optimal–and I’ll probably have them do less writing of story-summaries, and more writing of things in the story: letters to antagonists, for example, or magic spell recipes, things where they have an incentive to revise their own writing and get it right for game purposes.

That’s the missing link in the chain in the Mike and Mary story-game: this student has no major incentive to revise and edit and proofread his work, since it has absolutely effect on the story itself. In other words, I think the big failing here is that all the writing tasks I gave him were OOC instead of IC, to use gamer terminology: they’re out-of-character, and out-of-game, and either involve researching the solar system and writing up little bullet-pointed lists of interesting things about this or that planet or moon, or consist of game-plot reports (recounting what happened in the last session). There are no consequences for story outcome if he fails to proofread his work–and he routinely fails to proofread it, even though, when we sit down and look at it together, he immediately is able to pick out two-thirds of his errors–whereas with in-character, in-game story tasks (even those done at home as preparatory homework) always seem to get way more attetion… because they have direct consequences for gameplay, and so encourage the student to focus harder on producing quality writing.

I guess the lesson is, when using RPGs as a springboard for tutoring, make sure to make as much as possible of the work involved connected to the game, in-game, in-character. Have the student prepare speeches to be delivered in character. If you’re going to assign writing homework, make it writing that their characters have to write, and have to send to someone, and which will affect the outcome of the game. (Such as, for example, communications that will be sent in-game, or instructions for how to do something that, when misunderstood and incorrectly carried out, spell doom; or, well… you get the picture.) The temptation, especially when dealing with parents who don’t understand RPGs, is to provide “serious” OOC homework which supplements the game, but in fact, the more IC/in-game the work, the more motivation your students will have to perform the tasks effectively, accurately, and so on.

At least, that’s my theory right now.

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