Running The Fall of Delta Green

I recently ran a short multi-session (five or six sessions? I’m not sure) run of a Fall of Delta Green adventure for the Sunday night game group I play with.

This writeup will discuss my impressions of the game itself, and my thoughts on the Gumshoe system more generally.

I’ll follow it up with some notes on the adventure I ran, some resources for those who might want them, and also some thoughts on the spin I put on the game concept, since it was a bit unusual.  

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Grade Grubbing: An Update

So, something I would have thought impossible happened, and I thought it would be worth noting for posterity: grade grubbing has dropped to almost zero in my classes. 

There are a few reasons why this has happened.  

1. The Kim Young Ran Law got passed.

Hands down, this is the main thing that has helped. A few years ago, the Anti-Graft and -Corruption Law was passed. (It’s also referred to as the Kim Young Ran Law sometimes.) The effect among university administrators was immediate: they stopped being willing to accept even the smallest thank-you present from anyone: one guy helped me with some minor clerical issue, and when I tried to give him a can of orange juice as a thank-you (a common sort of gesture in the past), he turned me down and cited the law. 

It took a little longer, but finally that filtered down to formal rules for when students email asking for a higher grade. This semester, for the first time, we were explicitly told what to do by the university when a student makes a request for a grade change for any reason other than the correction of an error. The short version? We have to do the following:

  1. Tell them we don’t intend to change the grade. 
  2. Warn them that if they repeat the request, it will be reported to the university. 
  3. Immediately report any offer of gifts or bribes in exchange for a grade change. 

Students are, of course, still allowed to inquire about the details of their grades, and they still do. But even this is less frequent. In part, that’s probably because a lot of people were only ever asking about their grades in the hope that they could complain or demand a higher one, on the off-chance that the prof might just change it. (I used to call this “grade phishing,” and it was pretty rampant for years.)

It’s also changed for another reason, though: 

2. Grading on Blackboard is highly transparent. 

Students who submit their work on paper tend not to track results: they can get Bs and Cs on homework and assignments, but still forget about all that when they score A on an exam, and then end up expecting an A in the course. 

With grades tracked and transparently visible in Blackboard—which seems to have become pretty much the norm during the pandemic—this is much less of a problem. They see the results on their past homework assignments anytime they check their grades on anything new. 

Of course, the grade-calculation system on Blackboard is painfully rudimentary: it can’t be used to perform the kinds of calculations I make for students’ Participation/Attendance grades. However, as far as it goes, at the end of the semester, they’re able to see exactly what marks they earned in four of the five graded components in my classes. What that means is that they’re a lot less surprised when they see their final grade: all they really learn is what they scored in Participation/Attendance, after all; and besides, they can see exactly how the grades they earned on each homework assignment relate to the overall grade. 

These two changes have pretty much killed off the grade grubbing among undergrads that used to be endemic at universities in Korea. The end of semester used to always be a barrage of emails from students begging for higher grades, and even sometimes emails from “concerned” or rate parents. However, during the last few semesters,  it’s died out almost completely. This time around, I think I got a total of four emails, half of which were just polite thank-yous and goodbyes. (Oh, and teaching assessments have improved as a result, too. Or, at least, I think that’s part of why they’ve improved.)

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I still think the best way to improve education would be to get rid of grades altogether; I found Adam Ruben’s suggestion of this path apt, though he’s right that grades determine a lot, and unfairness with grades is also a real problem. 

Which I guess reminds me: we’re still forced to use a class-by-class grading curve that inevitably punishes the great classes. (It also seems to convince students in subpar classes that they will automatically enjoy grade inflation, which… well, not in my class.) I am open and honest with my students about how unfair I think the grading curve is, about how we should at least be able to apply it to the full set of sections of the same course when we’re teaching more than one, and how professors—especially foreign professors—have no power to overrule administration’s demands in this area. I keep waiting for the student government to demand a change, but… well, maybe they don’t think it’s possible, or have no idea how it could be done. I’m not sure. 

And so it goes…

Streamlining the Workload, Part 2

So, here’s a Part 2 I never expected to post. 

Last time, I wrote about streamlining some of the “paperwork” (or, really, data wrangling) for dealing with attendance tracking, grading, and so on. Experience tells me that not everything there works: for example, I couldn’t find a way to include the Student Numbers students input into their Zoom registrations in my attendance records. (Sigh.) 

Still, a lot of what I discussed there did help. Generating attendance records goes much more quickly when you know how to use a Pivot Table, and when you’ve given strict instructions for how people should register for your class on Zoom (in terms of their email address and their name information). Generating final grades for my Summer class was trivially easy, amounting to about 20 minutes of work once the Final Exams were graded. 

However, we’ve lost a few teachers this semester, and my workload seems to be expanding radically. In a normal semester, I would be teaching 16 hours a week; next semester, I’m scheduled for 22 hours, most of them in Academic Writing-focused courses.

Since my plate was already full even with 16 class hours a week, I’m clearly going to need to change things up a bit to stay on top of things. This post will get into the ideas I’m kicking around about how to do that. If you’re not in a similar position, it may not be of interest to you. 

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Streamlining the Workload

One focus of my work at my day job this semester has been to make working online a little more manageable. I thought I’d share some of the tools I use to do this, as well as to have them here in case I need them later. 

The past few semesters, a series of policy changes have made it hard to make things manageable, or to scale labour in a reasonable way. The administrators I deal with don’t really seem willing or able to recognize that online teaching can involve more time spent on stuff that we wouldn’t have to spend time on in offline classes, and all the sensible attempts I’ve made to try do this have resulted in my banging up against those aforementioned policy changes. Admin’s just trying to cover their backsides in case of an audit by the Ministry of Education, of course, but the net effect is that online classes have been less effective for students, less manageable for instructors, and less fun for everyone. 

think things have evened out a bit, though: I’ve figured out some ways to reconcile policy and sanity, in terms of the delivery of content to students. However, until now I hadn’t quite nailed down the kinds of tools I could use for the humdrum, paperwork-related side of things. Now, I’ve shaved many hours off the process. The following explains how I did it, and how you can too. 

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One of Us in Bastionland

Yesterday I got a chance to look at my print copy of Tim Deschene’s One of Us1. It’s great! It’s also designed for use with Dungeon Crawl Classics, a game which I don’t own (or, honestly, have much interest in running: despite the many appealing things I’ve heard about the gam, especially the kooky magic system, I’m a bit leery of any the mental workload I might have to take on running a game with a rulebook that huge).

That said, the beauty of old school games is that stuff is all roughly cross-compatible. DCC isn’t really old-school—to me, it feels like it’s maybe more of a a stripped down 3E but more crunchy complexity retained than I tend to like—but it’s close enough. 

All that said, the dustbowl carnival vibe really appeals to me. I’m a (nostalgic) fan of the old HBO series Carnivàle—one of those people who came across it a few years after its cancellation, and who still managed to disappointed at how short the series ended up being2—and I’ve long suspected it’d make a brilliant setting/concept for a game.

I mean, seriously:

1934. The Dustbowl. The last great age of magic. In a time of titanic sandstorms, vile plagues, drought and pestilence—signs of God’s fury and harbingers of the Apocalypse—the final conflict between good and evil is about to begin. The battle will take place in the heartland of an empire called America, where a traveling carnival harboring Ben Hawkins, a troubled healer, will clash with an evangelical ministry led by Brother Justin Crowe.

But yeah, I know, I know, the title of the zine invokes a different piece of Dustbowl/carnival/sideshow media, of course—the infamous 1932 film Freaks:

I think prospective GMs would do well to mix and match the two vibes a bit, to be honest.

Meanwhile, I just read my copy of Trash Planet Epsilon 5 3, an Electric Bastionland hack for cyberpunkish games on a trash-strewn landfill planet. It’s… a little light, but pretty impressive for how much it squeezes into so few pages.

So that got me thinking: how directly could One of Us be used with Into the Odd/Electric Bastionland? This is the system I’ve been using with a group of new players, and very much enjoying, lately, after all: it’s very simple, and much of the fun is in the flavor, which is communicated through character careers and setting details.

And One of Us is pretty much all character careers and setting details, so: I think, yes, it can be used… with a little tinkering, anyway. As a challenge, I am trying to do this with minimal work, since I many not end up doing it in the end… but it’s a fun think to think about.

Here’s what I would do to make it work:

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  1. Available in PDF or in print

  2. We don’t have HBO in Korea, but the series’ DVDs were available in the Carrefour store in Jeonju when I lived there.. and in a sadly fitting irony, Carrefour only lasted a short time in Korea before being shut down, just like Carnivàle.

  3. Also available in PDF or in print.