Thursday, March 6, 2014

What Running Dungeons & Dragons Taught Me About Teaching

I used to teach English back when I was a relative tyke. This is the part of the conversation where a lot of people look at me and have one of several reactions: boredom, for one. I'm going to ignore that one, because on the Internet everything is way more awesome than it is in reality. Another type of person asks me why I'm in IT when my background is in lit (short answer: it sucks and doesn't pay well). And yet another type just gets really impressed and then asks me to edit their Great American Novel about intelligent cats who fight crime on Mars. Best. Novels. Ever.

Anywho.

I was lousy at it. I hated teaching writing and it showed. But more than that, the way the program was set up at my university, you'd enter grad school and they would immediately throw you into teaching freshman comp. And it wasn't over any concern over training or anything, it was more that they couldn't get any of the real professors to volunteer to teach it. So there I am, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and 22 years old, trying to show kids who are only three years younger than me how to write when I've barely just learned myself.

It was awful and so was I. I got better, slightly, but only by accident. These days, I could probably do it, no problem, but I was, at best, an indifferent teacher then. A more realistic description would be "wildly incompetent." I'm glad those were in the days before online student reviews because mine would be savage and brutal, much like the IMDB commentary for "Battlefield Earth."

I've avoided teaching since then for the same reason that fresh out of the field Vietnam vets avoided Civil War reenactments.

Until recently. I had to teach some coworkers how to use a new program last week. And it was actually pretty fun. They had a good time and they left the room as fired up about using the thing as you can be in a corporate environment.

Afterwards, I found myself mulling over what the difference was. It could be that I'm older and much more socially-grounded than I was in my 20's. I'm pretty sociable these days, as far as that goes. It could be the specificity of what I was talking about: "here's the program folks, lets go over how to use it" versus "tell these heathen bastards how to write! Good luck, bye, don't get your ass killed! *door slams shut and locks*"

But I think it's because I've been spending a lot more time over the last few years running Dungeons & Dragons (disclaimer for nerds who care: not just D&D specifically, but several other game systems, including Marvel FASERIP, Call of Cthulhu, White Wolf and AD&D 1e).

There are two different types of gaming groups you can have, I've found. You have people who want information fed to them and then you have assholes. The first type don't do much of anything and are fairly predictable--they consume whatever game you're attempting to run passively, taking cues and making rolls as directed. If there's a sign for the next dungeon, they're mostly content to follow the arrow to get there and then they go through the maze in a logical fashion, hitting the expected goals and doing the expected things. Nothing wrong with that at all.

The other type will look at the sign, laugh heartily and then go off in a perpendicular direction. They have an innate ability to see where the railroad tracks are and avoid them. If they see you've spent hours of prep, they will do their utmost to invalidate it.

You can guess which one my group is.

It's great practice as far as storytelling goes because you never can tell what your players will do. You might expect to run a nice session about fighting Dr. Dreadful through the streets of New York, but you'll get home three hours later after the players decide to befriend Dr. Dreadful, run for public office in New Jersey, get elected and start using public funds to build a rocket ship.

I've learned a few things from it. When I prepare for a session, I tend to only do a few things.

I come up with basic NPC's and the premise for the session.
I come up with a few set pieces that I might want to use. Fighting winged demons on top of a speeding train for example (and usually no more detailed than what I've just written down here).
I come up with a few ideas for weird directions the story might go and things about the characters to riff on, as a contingency, but with the full expectation that they won't get used.
And I try to have a broad idea about what cliffhanger I want the session to end on.

The less prepared I am, the better the game usually goes.

When I'm actually running the game, I tend to listen very closely to what the players are saying and doing and then riff off of that. A lot of my best ideas are basically from me saying "Yes, that happens, but..." or "No, you don't quite manage it, and while that's happening..."

I'm also not shy about telling them I'm stumped and either asking for a time-out or polling the group for ideas on what happens next. Sometimes, when I'm really stumped or tired, I'll even pass the GM hat to one of the players for a scene while I regroup. It works surprisingly well: players get a real sense of agency when they have that level of control over the game.

So, after a few years of DM'ing like that, teaching a class was relatively easy. I made a very broad outline of what I wanted to cover. I jotted down the points I wanted to get to and where I wanted to wind up. And then I ripped up my notes and winged it. When I got stuck, I'd just throw questions at the students and let them direct where I went.

D&D. Teaching clueless people how to deal with groups of equally clueless people since 1974.

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