This January, Tales of a GM was proud to host the RPG Blog Carnival. In keeping with the season, the theme for the month was Gates & Portals. My final essay for the theme was personal growth, a topic I found so fruitful it became three separate posts. This is the third part of this mini-series on RPGs as a vehicle for personal growth.
The focus for many articles in the January Blog Carnival Gates & Portals theme revolved around the physical transition from one location to another. However, January is also the time of year to start a personal journey to a new way of life. Such a personal transition may be physical, mental or spiritual.
Transitions are also embedded within RPG games. One of the core principles of D&D is the idea of “levelling up”, the incremental process of improving the Hero.
There are, however, more avenues of personal growth within RPGs than just the accumulation of levels. This essay switches focus away from the characters, and onto the Players themselves.
RPGs are such an intense, personal experience that they cannot help but have an effect on the Players themselves. Obviously, there are the social benefits of gaming: facing common hazards with friends, and overcoming shared obstacles. The bonds of friendship forged at the table can be strong and enduring. Furthermore, when broader society may be less accepting of an individual, they can find a warm welcome at the gaming table.
Yet, there are other potential benefits to playing. It is rarely discussed, but I am certain gaming in a group gives Players many opportunities to develop their social skills. Both teamwork and negotiation skills are tested in most games. This can happen during the narrative of the game, but also in the inter-Player dynamics of planning and discussion. RPGs are a group activity, and thus subject to the usual social dynamics. Debate, discussion, presentation of ideas and building a group consensus all occur at the table. For all the stereotyping of geeks as poorly socialised, our hobby gives us many opportunities to develop social skills.
Social Growth at Your Table
Expanding the social skills of your Players is a hard task. The pre-game negotiations and boundary-setting inherent in the establishment of a Social Contract is a good place to start this process. It is far better to establish these boundaries before a campaign begins, rather than have conflicting desires or expectations flare up during the game.
During the game, however, the GM needs a light touch to manage the social dynamics of the Players. There is an unequal balance of power inherent in an RPG, with the GM controlling so much about the game itself. Thus, for a large part, the GM is not part of the Player social dynamics.
Most of the time, the GM should act as a facilitator to these social interactions, not a participant. Intervene to ensure an equal discussion, asking quieter Players for their opinions. Nudge the Players towards making a decision, preferably without guiding them to any one outcome. Monitor the flow of the conversation, and demand a final answer once the debate starts to repeat itself. During this aspect of the game, the GM plays the role of Referee, an impartial moderator of the social interaction, ensuring fair play and equal participation where possible.
The next category for Player growth is the intellectual. Here the opportunities for learning when gaming are much clearer. I am sure many GMs learn all manner of history, sociology and literary theory during their career. D&D is famous for its exotic mix of obscure polearms. Early Traveller had a fascinating interstellar economics mini-game. As gamers we discuss tropes, archetypes and the metagame. Even our vocabularies are expanded with obscure terms such as vambraces, gladius and pyromancer.
It is clear to me that I am a better person as a result of gaming. I read widely, have a passing knowledge of ancient and medieval Europe and interact with a much broader range of friends. I am sure the same is true for you. The best RPG supplements are educational, as well as entertaining. Any game with even a passing connection to real world history or science brings with it huge opportunities to learn. Whenever the GM learns something while preparing for a game, then there is a parallel opportunity to teach the same lesson to the Players.
Intellectual Growth at Your Table
However, the process of transferring information is not always straight forward. Bear in mind that people play games for a variety of reasons. A game should always be fun, and not a thinly veiled lesson in the economics of pre-industrial societies. Well, unless that is what your Players want. Therefore, the overt opportunities for facilitating Player’s intellectual growth at your table are limited.
Yet, there are still many ways for a GM to pass knowledge to the Players. Include useful period terms in your descriptions, which can enhance the feel of your setting along the way. Thus, the warrior is not just wielding a short sword, she is fighting with a gladius. Or perhaps the cost is not ten silver pieces, but ten marks. The difference is only small, but the accumulation of small details adds to both your setting and the historical knowledge of your Players.
This final category is the trickiest to handle, but could have the greatest impact on everyone at the table. During the game there may be opportunities to develop empathy when experiencing unfamiliar roles. This aspect of Player growth is more closely tied into the narrative of the game. Some Players experience great immersion in a culture through its portrayal in the game. Their Hero may experience discrimination and prejudice, thereby giving everyone at the table some fresh perspectives on these challenges.
The classic AD&D species of half-elf and half-orc commonly brought episodes of discrimination to the table. Likewise, the opportunity to play a character of the opposite gender, or a fluid gender identity, can enhance a Player’s empathy. A heightened appreciation of historical events can be achieved if the game reproduces certain cultural pressures. It is one thing to read about, say, storming the beaches at Normandy. Yet, the experience of watching your comrades be gunned down and still pushing forward across the beach can be enlightening on an emotional level.
Emotional Growth at Your Table
This final category is hard to implement for two reasons. Firstly, the GM needs Player buy-in more than ever. If the Players just want the classic gaming experience of kicking in the door and looting the bodies, then the GM faces a serious challenge. In this sort of game, no matter how complex and nuanced your goblin culture, the Heroes are never going to appreciate it. Of course, you could try flipping the roles, and make the goblins attack the Heroes’ home town, but even that irony is likely to be missed.
Assuming the Players are prepared for a more subtle game, the second challenge then applies. Confronting the emotions of the Players carries with it some degree of risk. Any prejudice highlighted in a game could be too raw for one, or more, of the Players. The GM is advised to prepare the Players for any real world discrimination or “trigger event” which may arise during play. Approach all issues incrementally, do not force anyone to participate in a topic they find disturbing and always be aware of the mood at the table to ensure you know when to stop before upsetting your Players. This is definitely a topic for experienced GMs only.
Plots for Player Growth
Here are three plots featuring assorted growth to run in your game:
- Choose two characters, preferably ones with established backgrounds, or a strong role in local society. Have both of these characters approached in private, by opposing sides of a conflict. The exact nature of the conflict rather depends upon the nature of these backgrounds. Farmers arguing over a cow, two merchants after the same trade concession, a thief and their victim, whatever. Whichever situation you choose, the outcome needs to be two Players with conflicting agendas. The point of the set-up is to create an opportunity for the two Players to lead a debate over which option to take. Ideally, both characters will have promised some sort of restitution to the party which approached them. Thus, the Heroes have something to lose, making the negotiation between the Players more meaningful. The final outcome may be a negotiated settlement, or perhaps a clever solution giving both parties all, or most, of what they want. Either way, the Players will have exercised their social skills during the course of the story, probably alongside some moments of intense roleplaying.
- A variant of the Mcguffin hunt can easily be repackaged to teach Players the parts of a suit of armour. The Heroes are challenged by the Baron to reassemble the fabled Armour of Sir Albrecht Dragonslayer. This armour was broken apart, and lies scattered around the kingdom, or perhaps in the layers of a large dungeon, if you prefer. The Heroes need to find the helm, gorget, breastplate, two pauldrons, two vambraces, two gauntlets, the tasses and two greaves. Along the way, the Players will learn about the components of plate armour.
- Confront genre expectations by presenting a traditional foe as a vulnerable, sympathetic character. A young goblin beggar is a good choice. A chatty troll bodyguard or a charismatic orc bard can also challenge the traditional gaming stereotypes. Have the character chat to the Heroes, provide some minor help and generally subvert the traditional attitudes towards their species. Once the Heroes have made friends with this character, a bunch of drunken townsfolk attack the harmless goblin beggar. How would the Heroes react when they find the beaten, barely conscious body of their new friend? When they confront the townsfolk, the Heroes are accused of being traitors to their species.
Just as our Heroes can grow during the course of a campaign, so too can the Players. Roleplaying offers many opportunities for the Players to grow socially, intellectually and emotionally. Always keep the game fun, but a clever GM can also weave lessons for the Players into their games.
What lessons would you teach the Players in your campaign? What have you learnt as a result of game research? How else can RPGs work as a teaching tool? Share your thoughts with fellow GMs in the comments below.
- Read more about the January RPG Blog Carnival at the launch page.
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If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:
- Something for the Weekend last week: Gates & Portals Summary
- Something for the Weekend next week: February Blog Carnival, Building Player Engagement