Wednesday, November 8, 2017

From Tragedy to Gaming

On Monday, I had the opportunity to speak at a memorial for two students, majors in my department. One was a veteran with PTSD. He took his own life. The other, I already wrote about in my last post. I didn't know the former, Jay, but he was Marine Corps vet (like me), and, so, a brother of sorts. Summer, though, I got to talk about, and I got to express how very much we (faculty and students) miss her, how much I personally miss her. I told the students there that we faculty don't always get to say it, because of our peculiar relationship with them, but that we do care a lot about them. I hope my remarks were welcome. My colleagues seem to have appreciated them.

Summer's boyfriend was in the crowd, too. He told a fellow faculty member, afterward, that he'd been worried about being able to afford a funeral service for her, and that the memorial had helped to address that need, that it might be enough. I'm glad for him, and glad we could do that for him. I've been thinking, since it happened, about him (even though I didn't know him) and trying to imagine how it must be. Horrible, horrible shit. I can't imagine losing my wife, Carol. She's so very good, and I wouldn't be able to cope, I think. I'd be holed up in my house, curled up in a ball, crying. I'd be lost without her. So, it was good for us all to get together and acknowledge the depth of our loss (however relative), and to be physically and emotionally present with each other for the time we spent doing so. I was closure of a sort, I guess, but I'm still grieving. They will be grieving for a long time to come.

In the moments after the memorial, we met with surviving family/friends. I'm shitty at that. I know that nothing I can say is important. I went through the motions of thanking them for coming--the man who just buried his only son, and the man who suddenly lost the person he wanted to spend his life with--letting them know how glad I was that they could come. Then I just didn't know what else to say. What else was there to say? I even patted him on the back, and then, realizing I was doing so, I stepped away, awkwardly, feeling like it was so oddly formal and weird and stereotypical. I'd said stuff, but it wasn't worth saying on some level. It felt fake and forced. I wanted to do more, so I spoke again to Summer's boyfriend, Matt. I told him that if he needed someone to talk to, to vent to, about anything, I'd be there. I told him I know I don't know him, but that I would like to. I don't know why I had that impulse. I'm a good listener, sure, and I do want to help people (and him, especially, because his girlfriend was special and so must he be). So I told him I was there for him.

He sort of drew back from me, in a posture where he was hunched over and looking up at me very intensely, almost suspiciously, like I was maybe fucking with him. And why the hell not? Who the hell was I to presume so much, and what motivations might I have to offer that to him? I just looked back at him, making no move or reaction to the intensity of his stare, just accepting it and meeting his gaze in return. I guess what he saw was okay, so we talked.

He told me that Summer had recounted some of the things we'd done in my Advanced Public speaking class, last spring, and about the crazy role-playing elements. He revealed to me that he used to play D&D, too, had enjoyed it, that he missed it. I immediately knew that I had to ask him to play with me (even though I knew it was maybe too much to say on such short acquaintance and at the fucking memorial service. What. The. Fuck. Johnson.). But, because I'm just that kind of asshole, I made the offer to run a game. I told him that we get together and play in the afternoon and have beers and food after. To my surprise he said that sounded cool. Then he had out his phone, but I only realized what he was doing when he said, "What's your number?" So we exchanged contact info.

I started assembling a new gaming group the very next day. Some people are from my old group, the one that broke up when a new player hijacked two of my longtime regulars for his own game. I lost the heart to play with them, after that, feeling deeply betrayed. "I'm getting the band back together," I texted them. I also reached out to a player from my on-campus game. She was an awesome role-player, and just really cool. I've been missing that game and wanted to play with her again, too. She and my daughter are acquainted, as well, so that's nice. There's also another guy, an Army vet with a lot of combat time in the Middle East (and everything that goes with that). We met up a while back, when he texted my wife about a crisis he was dealing with, after one of his soldiers killed himself. I met him at a Waffle House and we talked for a few hours, about depression and the military, about our lives. Mostly I listened, but told him a bit about myself, too. We talked about DCC, of all things, and he also revealed that he'd play it, and might want to play again if I'd run a game...

I'm not a godly man, but I am superstitious in weird ways. In any case, I'm going to take this as a sign that it's time for me to get a group together. Maybe it will help some people to cope with the shit the world is throwing them. Maybe it will help me to deal with my own depression. I hope it works. It may be the height of arrogance to assume that any game I'd run would help anybody, with grief, with PTSD, with anything. But I want to do it, because it's basically the only damned thing I can think to offer, the only real reason I have to engage them. I do want to help, and I hope that, somehow, sitting with people at the table, playing games, shooting the shit, having some food and drink, and sharing physical and mental space with each other will help in some way, even if just on the days we can meet.

It's weird. I've been thinking a lot, lately, about my life and my connections with people. I have a bad history with maintaining relationships. I move away, or the friend does. I lose touch. They stop returning calls when I try to maintain that connection. I've had the same problem with family. It sometimes seems like it's just me and my wife and kid, really, and it's like I have no past. I wonder if I'm just broken on some level, that I can't form deep and abiding connections. Am I needy? Annoying? Not worth the trouble? Or is it just circumstance? Probably this is driving my urge to connect with these people, like I'm trying to redeem myself. I'm afraid I'm going to screw it up, because it's really just me being selfish. I feel like I'm doomed to screw it up, but I really, really hope that I don't. I hope I might make some friends who might be around for a while. These are good people, and I really hope I can do that. (Don't fuck it up, Johnson!)

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Summer's Gone, and the World's a Darker Place

This isn't a gaming post, but a memorial.

I found out this morning that a student of mine passed away. Her name was Summer, and she was one of my very favorite students. She was just 23 years old. I usually don't get very emotional, but I've been crying all day. I need to tell you why. It's just so fucking awful, unfair and shitty. Fuck.

A few weeks ago, Summer started feeling sick, and thought she had a cold. It didn't go away, so finally she went to the doctor. They told her it was a cold, too. A couple of days later she collapsed, and she flat-lined. She was rushed to the hospital, where they were able to revive her. She was unable, beyond that point, to do much more than blink, but they thought she was still "in there," and able to communicate through blinking her eyes. That might or might not have been true, as they later found out she'd incurred some brain damage while her heart was stopped.

They moved her to Emory University Hospital, in Atlanta. I've been waiting and trying to follow her situation since then, but getting the news through second and third-hand sources. I'd been waiting and hoping for the situation to turn around. It didn't. It got worse. She finally was diagnosed as needing a heart transplant. Then, they discovered that she was allergic to the blood thinners she'd need to make such a procedure viable. In the end, there was nothing anyone could do to make her better.

Her boyfriend and executor was told that he could either wait for the inevitable or take her off life support immediately. That's where my knowledge gets hazy. I know that he didn't immediately take her off life support, but nothing between that and when she died, shortly after 3 a.m. on Saturday.

When I met Summer, she was a major in my department. As I got to know her, mostly during the few classes she took from me, I found out that she was a deeply weird person. Not surprisingly we developed a mutual appreciation, and she took more of my classes, the last of which was Advanced Public Speaking. In that class, I ran a game/simulation called Romans... in Space! She played a character named Numeria Ulpia Crispa, and boy did she play it to the hilt. She was funny and mischievous in her play, making me and everyone else laugh at how far she'd take it. At one point, when the head of the Ulpius family was absent from class, she took the initiative to establish a new family business: a porn store. She was so very pleased with herself, and couldn't wait to tell Colin, whose absence she'd exploited for her own amusement. Why? Because it was funny. I loved that about her.

Here's what I learned about her, over the couple of years I knew her. Summer was on her own in the world, except for her boyfriend. She was estranged from her parents, who were alcoholics and addicts. She'd left home when she was very young, and supported herself working the kinds of jobs someone without a degree can get. She worked full time at a coffee shop, usually opening at 5:30 a.m., so she could attend classes at the university. She'd recently completed an internship where, if I'm reading things correctly, she made a bunch of new friends and really impressed her boss. That's pretty typical. It's just how she was.

As a professor, I try really hard not to play favorites. I try to treat every student with respect, caring, and honesty. I try to be fair (but kind) in my evaluations of their work, and to help them get where they need to go, from wherever they might start. Some care about their work, and some don't. I really appreciate the ones who do care. Summer was one of them. She was never the best of my students, academically, but she sure as hell was one of the best people. There's a lot of shitty people in this wicked world, and it's just so fucking unfair that she was the one who got this.

She was a great person to have in the classroom, always present and engaged. She had some struggles with writing. She wasn't a strong writer, despite being smart and articulate. But she took her lumps, grade-wise, and payed attention to the feedback I gave her. She never got discouraged. She was getting better, bit by bit, and I know she knew it. It fucking kills me that she never got to a point where she was able to feel like she was a good writer. Maybe I'm just projecting my own concerns, but I think she would have relished the accomplishment, and probably would have said something funny about it. I probably would have told her how proud I was of her, and that I knew how hard she'd worked to get there. And she would smile, because she always smiled; and I would smile, too. Now we won't get the chance to share that moment, and I am so filled with sadness right now that I can hardly bear it.

That's how I'll remember Summer: Smiling.

Summer, you were a really sweet kid. I loved having you around, and in my classes. I hope that, in some small way, I made life happier for you, too. You left us far, far too soon. I will miss you, you weirdo, and I will always remember you. You were one of the good ones. I wish I'd had more time to be your friend.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

DCC Tournament Time

Off to run a DCC tournament for the Augusta University Gaming Club.

This year's tournament is "Once Upon a Time... at Band Camp." Normal high school students are sent into the Metal Lands to face death. Who will triumph over the minions of the Iron King? Will they stick it to The Man and appease the Metal Gods?

Those who do will receive acclaim and valuable prizes! Top three winners get DCC Quickstart Rules and a set of dice, and the supreme winner also gets a pound of dice and a trophy.

Pure improv session, set in my old high school.

I'll tell you about killing them later.

Elves and Iron, Updated and Complete

This is a "finished" version of a post I made a long time ago. It proposes a radical rethinking of the Elf class for DCC RPG. It was originally intended for Metal God of Ur-Hadad zien, but that never happened. It may someday see the light of day as part of a Goodman Games product, but not sure.

Of Elves and Iron

Iron Rules for DCC RPG

Iron is inescapable. Iron is poison. Iron kills.

The presence of iron, unknown in Elfland (the human name for the transdimensional realm where the elves live), was the downfall of the Imperial elves of Ore. Iron changed and corrupted elven magic, driving elves with particularly weak constitutions mad from exposure, causing low birth rates and terminal birth defects, and occasionally producing horrifying mutations among their children. The Dungeon Crawl Classics version of elves makes clear that they aren't Tolkien elves, but more like the Fae, including an aversion to iron:

Elves are extremely sensitive to the touch of iron. Direct contact over prolonged periods causes a burning sensation, and exposure at close distances makes them uncomfortable. An elf may not wear iron armor or bear the touch of iron weapons for extended periods. Prolonged contact with iron causes 1 hp of damage per day of direct contact. (DCC Core Rules, p. 57)

In my mind, this is a bit too forgiving. Iron is inconvenient to elves, but not actively dangerous. If we follow the rules-as written, iron is a bit like poison ivy: It's nasty stuff, and it can cause a person some discomfort, but it's really not that bad. Mechanically, the in-game effects are about nil, unless you do the equivalent of stuffing your pants with iron nails (or poison ivy for that matter). It's not likely that an elf is going to put herself into a position where iron contact is constant. Moreso, Judges will tend to forget or just ignore iron's effects on elven characters. Ignoring the Iron Rule is not only against the rules-as-written, it's also forgoing an opportunity for some great character development and role-playing. So, I begin with a question: What if iron poisoning was a real danger for elves, akin to heavy metal poisoning for humans?

Heavy metal poisoning is no joke. Symptoms include headaches, weakness, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and constipation. Information about more specific metals suggests we could add diseases of the organs, brittle bones, and permanent nervous system damage (with physical and mental effects). Medical science also differentiates between "acute" and "chronic" effects. In what follows, I will try to add some teeth to the effects of iron on elven characters, and explores some of the ways iron-sensitivity has had, and continues to have, significant effects on elven lives and culture.

Iron Exposure: Acute and Chronic Effects

"Acute" iron exposure results from injury, usually by getting various pieces of brutal cutlery shoved into one's body—a sudden, massive increase in the level of iron exposure. "Chronic" iron exposure occurs over time, affecting the mind and body in painful, dangerous, and frightening ways.

  •         Acute Effect: An "acute" iron effect check is triggered when an elven character is reduced to 0 hit points, and either gets healed or has a successful Recover the Body check. Roll on the following table, in addition to the "bleeding out" and "recovering the body" effects described in the DCC RPG core rules (see p. 93).

  •         Chronic Effect: Each time an elf gains a level, make a Fortitude Save (DC 10+new level). If failed, roll d12 on the table (plus Stamina modifier). Should the elf have the wherewithal to afford an iron-protective encounter suit (see below), he or she should reduce the DC by 1 per 2,000 g.p. spent on the encounter suit (rounded down, maximum of 10).

d12+STA mod
less than 0
The Sickening: Lose 1d4 points of Stamina, permanently. If 0 or less, death occurs.

Nemesis: The character has gone irrevocably mad from iron poisoning. Play as NPC with hatred for former comrades.
Fisher King's Lament: Acquire a wound that will not heal normally, and which requires a 4 dice result of a Lay on Hands check to heal through divine means. Lose 1d6 hp per day until healed.

Rust Rot: Skin turns the color of rust, and flakes off constantly. Lose 1d4 points of Personality, permanently.
Vampirism: As result of damage major organs are mutated. Character must ingest the blood of intelligent creatures of the living, red-blooded races (e.g., humans, halflings, dwarves) in addition to normal food. Failure to do so at least once per week results in roll for chronic effect.

Ghoulish: Arms lengthen by 2d10 inches and grow iron claws (1d3 damage).
Something Human: You are no longer immune to magical sleep and paralysis. Each time one of these spells could affect you, make a Will Save as normal human.

Twisted Freak: Body becomes contorted over the course of two weeks (Strength and Agility -1d3).
Blood in Your Eyes: Eyes turn the color of blood. You no longer have infravision.

Orked Out: Gain 1d3 Strength and lose 1d3 Personality, permanently.
Dulled Senses: Normal ability to detect secret doors reduced by 1d4, permanently.

Hot blooded: You now bleed red instead of "normal" blue-green. When you take damage, make a Will Save (DC 15) or go berserk for 1d6 rounds. During this time, you will have AC -2, to-hit and damage +2. You will always attack the nearest "foe" even if that person is not your enemy.
Human Frailty: Hit dice reduced from 1d6 to 1d4 when gaining next level.

Blood Magic: Choose a spell at random. Spell checks for that spell made with next higher die type (e.g., d24 instead of d20), but must Spellburn 1d3 points to cast. If caster does not Spellburn, the spell is cast using next lower die type (e.g., d16 instead of d20).
Freaked Out: The character is delirious from the effects of iron poisoning. Spell checks and Will Saves are rolled at -1d6 for 1d3 days.

Wild Mercurial: Choose a spell at random. Each time you cast that spell, roll 1 additional Mercurial Magic result, which occurs in addition to any other Mercurial effect(s). This effect is permanent.
A Little Itchy: Develop a persistent rash at the site of the wound. -1 to Initiative rolls for 1d3 days, due to incessant itching.

Arcane Chaos: Choose a spell at random and roll 1d4-2. If the number is positive/negative the spell now must be cast using a die up/down that many steps in the dice chain, permanently. If 0, then no effect. However, that spell also requires 1 point of Spellburn to cast.
Iron Burn: Lose 1d3 points of Stamina. Any points in addition to the permanent 1 point loss required by DCC RPG rules are temporary (like Spellburn) and will be recovered at a rate of 1 per day.

Holding Pattern: No chronic effect.

Since coming to Ore, elves have sought to escape the effects of its poisonous, iron-rich environment, to find new ways to avoid the poison that saps their vitality, warps their magic, and corrodes their very souls. Unfortunately, their adaptations involve extremely expensive technologies, and not all elves are able to make use of them.

Elven Encounter Suits

Encounter suits are the product of millennia of elvish medical experimentation ( none of it particularly ethical and some of it quite horrific). Each suit provides a body-covering "suit" (a tough sheath of cloth, sometimes enhanced with mithril thread), a face concealing helmet with integrated breathing apparatus, and gloves/boots to cover the hands and feet. The suits provide an enclosed, protective environment, free from the corrosive effects of iron poisoning, and must be worn at all times to provide their benefits.

Encounter suits are expensive, both to purchase and to maintain, and elves think of them much in the same way that modern humans regard things like automobiles: They are at the same time utilitarian objects, expressions of personal aesthetics, and markers of social status and/or financial wherewithal. Only the wealthiest of elves can even afford encounter suits, as they are expensive both to acquire (at least 5,000 gp) and to maintain (1% of purchase price per month). Also, should the suit be damaged, a hasty repair can keep it in working order for a short time, but any real repair costs up to 10% of the suit's value. They also, of course, are markers of particular elves' identities and status. The sheathing suit, gloves, and boots provide visual cues that other elves can use to determine things like clan identity, personal triumphs and accomplishments, professional affiliations, and so forth.

Encounter Suit Garments (including gloves/boots)
Cost (gp)
Lowest Quality
High Quality

Encounter suit helmets are as individual as the faces they conceal, and the most important marker of a wealthy elf's social identity, the face he or she presents to the world. For such reasons, even lower quality suits are well made of high-end encounter suits are crafted using a range of rare and valuable materials to highlight the owner's exquisite taste and cultural refinement, and there's much emphasis placed, among elves, on matters of encounter suit aesthetics that are, to the other races, incomprehensibly abstruse. The elven nobility are particularly given to using their helmets to mark particulars of rank and status, and each noble family has a distinctive style unique to itself. Anyone else pretending to that style who is not a member of that family invites a duel (at best) or even a feud.

Encounter Suit Helmet

Lowest Quality


High Quality



There is great variation in the range of quality of encounter suits, including their physical protective qualities, their ability to shield their users from harmful iron, and the money that elves might spend on their customization. It is up to judges to determine if and how they might allow players to customize their encounter suits. However, no encounter suit may reduce the saving throw DC for Chronic effects by more than 10 points.

Iron's Effects on Elven Culture

The effects of iron are ever on most elves' minds, and fear of it is pervasive. Though not all elves are able to do anything to help themselves—They simply can't afford the cost—there still are a whole host of cultural practices, from mere quackery to science, risen around the problem. Here are a few of them for judges to think about:
  •          Elves are vigilant toward potential vectors of iron infection. They find ways to seal themselves and their homes off from those vectors. (Adventure Idea: Provide positive modifier to Chronic Effect roll for players of elf PCs who role-play this vigilance well.)
  •          There is an area of arcane study concerned with iron exposure and its effects on spell casting. Iron makes magic work differently. Corruption will tend to be exacerbated by iron infection, or it might manifest as symptoms thereof. (Adventure Idea: Magical artifacts may be created to stabilize spell effects may uncertain by iron.)
  •          Elves study healing/medicine concerned with iron exposure and its effects on elven biology. This area of study is guarded from outsiders, and elves have been known to assassinate any non-Elf who tries to pry into these mysteries. (Adventure Idea: There may be cults who engage in horrible experiments, attempting to "fix" elven biology.)
  •          There is a thriving industry in quackery, "holistic" approaches to healing from iron exposure, and other pseudo-medical and faith-based scams. Because iron is so dangerous, and infection so inevitable, some elves will believe nearly anything in order to cope with their fears, even if the cures offered are ineffective or even worse than iron infection itself. (Adventure Idea: Charismatic cults dedicated to healing iron poisoning have arisen among low-class elves, though their practices have little or no real effect.)
  •          Elven artisans craft devices to limit their exposure to iron (e.g., filter masks, special garments, etc.). This tends to make them look even more otherworldly, and sets them apart from the other races even further. Given the history of the elves on Ore, this means that they are even further excluded from the society of other races. Encounter suits are only one such technology, and the only one that works reliably. Elves who can't afford them might attempt other means of self-protection (Adventure Idea: PCs or NPCs could work to recover and develop lost technologies.)
  •          Evan non-elves know that iron-infected elves are potentially dangerous. The more powerful the Elf, the more likely he or she is to be a problem. As a result, there is strong anti-Elf sentiment in some quarters, and even some political impetus to exclude elves from human society entirely. (Adventure Idea: Some NPCs/NPC Factions may display prejudice toward elven PCs.)
  •          Elves sometimes return to Elfland in order to seek respite from the effects of iron infection, and to attempt healing of some sort. Some never return. (Adventure Idea: Make this a Quest, with associated effects based on level of success.)

Clearly iron is important to the elves, but their attempts (even failed ones) to deal with its effects is not simply a matter for each individual to handle. Whole ways of life and industries have arisen to cope with the sad reality faced by the elves of Ore. Within elven society, though, there are other, potentially dangerous things brewing, because not every elf can be protected from it. Wealth and nobility are keys to accessing the protection needed to stave off iron infection. As with the other races, though, not everyone shares equally the things from which all could benefit.

The Spires of the Elven Lords

The wealthiest elves live in great spires, sealed off from the dangers of the outside world.
Though Man conquered the elves in His rebellion, lo these many years ago, the elves never surrendered their Spires. They still stand, a testament to elven persistence in their quixotic fight against the inevitable.

The Spires were built in the earliest days to combat the iron threat. Though their arts are not now practiced (and are forbidden by decree), the ancient elves of the Imperium were masters of technomancy, and could create life through those forbidden processes (though it is rumored that some elven factions still follow this path). They "bred" homes, aether ships, fortresses, fell constructs bred for battle, and all manner of other things. These creatures were grown from strange seed and nurtured into the mature works of elven master artisans of this foul craft. Five elven Spires grew from such seeds, rising thousands of feet into the skies above Ur-Hadad.

The Spires look like bleached, blue-white bones, shining unsullied by time under the sun and moons of Ore. Their surfaces are near-impregnable, with few windows or portals, and these well guarded. They rise with celestial grace into the sky, their sharp points skewering the cloud layers, disappearing from sight, far, far above. They look just a little bit like thorny vines, engorged of stem and laden with fruits and buds, climbing toward eternity.

Each Spire has a name Anuch-Dar (the Collective Mind), Morgath-Ka'ak (the Bloody Hand), Morgath-Gur (the Sinister Hand), Morgath-Noriel (the Adroit Hand), and Anuch-Ur (the Singular Mind). No one is quite sure what these names mean, and the elves aren't inclined to answer questions about them. In fact, the Spires are not spoken of in the hearing of non-elves, and even those elves who walk among Men refuse any attempt to discuss them, going so far as to fight duels to avoid doing so.

No non-elven person has ever entered a Spire. In fact, not every elf has done so. They are sealed off to most, and guarded jealously against unauthorized entry. Cloistered within are the elite of elven society, whose faces are concealed by bizarre breathing masks and protective raiment, and whose voices emerge, strange and discordant, from the places where their mouths must be. No living human has ever seen the faces of the elven nobility. As a result, we have little to go on but rumors. Here are a few:

  •         The elves are preparing to reconquer Ore.
  •          The elves are using their arcane knowledge to build a bridge to the moons.
  •          The elven women are the true rulers, and use the Spires to keep their breeding stock of pure-blooded males in harem.
  •          The Spires descend miles into the depths of Ore, and are just the tips of a far vaster structure that spans the entire world.
  •          The Spires are great aether-ships, and could leave the surface of Ore to sail among the moons and stars.
  •          The creatures living in the Spires are not elves at all, but demons, and wear their concealing raiment to hide their true natures.
  •          The elves are attempting to cross-breed with Men, and the Spires are full of vast slave pens, technomantic laboratories, and mad elves bent on fiendish experiments and lusting after human women.
  •          The Spires are great libraries of lost knowledge, jealously guarded by powerful elven nobles.
  •          The Spires are portals to other planes, where the elves still rule a great empire of cruelty and despair.
  •          There are lost Spires out in the wilds and under the seas of Ore.

None of these rumors has been substantiated, but neither have they been disproved. And there are many more than these, each wilder than the last, each speaking to the greatest hopes and deepest fears of the Men of Ore, and underlining the cultural rift between the two races.

Men gaze suspiciously upon the Spires, pondering their threat and their promise. Elves, too, live outside the Spires. They are not the elite of elven society. They do not share in its bounty. Most cannot afford the protections either of Spire or of encounter suit. Their misery grows, generation by generation, as they are warped and corroded by iron infection, and fewer and fewer healthy offspring are born. They, too, gaze at the Spires. Their hatred springs like thornwood from blackened ground, growing from sentiment, to philosophy, to vocation. It surely will bear poisoned fruit.

A terror cult has arisen among the common classes of elves: It is known as Morgath'ak-Lugash (The Iron Fist). The members of this notorious sect hunt, torture, and (usually) kill the wealthiest among the elves, using iron weapons and instruments. Their first acknowledged victim was crucified with iron nails, an iron spear drive into his side, and a wreath of barbed wire wrapped around his brow. No one has been able to determine its terror cult's membership, what resources they might have, or where they might lair.

In the end, as every elf knows, there is only metal. Ore's iron core spins malignantly beneath its crust, and its arteries pump iron-rich magma. Iron dust blows across its lands, and the other races bear weapons and raiment of iron, as if making mock of the elves great plight. From iron there is no escape, no surcease, but only the long, bitter struggle against the inevitable. There is death, or there is madness, or there is the choice to "sail into the West," a cryptic reference that no elf has ever explained to outsiders.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Children of the Earth

I've long been dissatisfied with the mundane ways fantasy RPGs portray dwarves (or dwarfs, whatever floats your boat). They are, more or less, short, stocky, grumpy, bearded humans, except that they live underground and are greedy for gold and gems. Like REALLY greedy for them. They're sort of gnomish but way more industrious. And, sure, maybe they have other differentiating aspects. They have knowledge of the underground spaces, can see in the dark, detect slopes, suss out new construction, and all of that, sure. But in the end they're just little people who have some quirks. All of those quirks provide ways to differentiate their powers and abilities from other playable races, though I've never felt like it was really worth not just being human. Even DCC has this problem, sadly, and I've never quite understood the reason for the sword-and-board ability for dwarves in that ruleset. Seems like any warrior should be doing shield attacks, right? Mostly, it seems (again) just a differential power, with no reason for being except for "Not a Human." I won't even get into elves and halflings, now, because they tend to suffer from the same, "Like a human, but..." problem.

What if dwarves were weirder?

I like to think of dwarves as being more like the mountains themselves than like the men in the mountain villages. In fact, I think about giants the same way. They are children of the earth. They are born of  the living stone (maybe literally "living") and take from it their flesh and bones, their character, their sense of the world. Different stone means different tribes. The granite and basalt dwarves are different. The dwarves around coal fields are especially odd (and flammable); and giants from those lands belch smoke and breathe fire. There are no sandstone dwarves, and none at all associated with sedimentary rocks: Only metamorphic and igneous rock will do.

Each dwarven "race" takes its character from its original substance. The dwarves of the Iron Mountains have grey skin, streaked with orange, and those who dwell in Cinnabar bleed mercury. The golden dwarves are beautiful and pliable, and desired by all. They hide themselves away, hidden from sight, protected from being stolen. Dwarves are of the flesh that is not meat.

A punch from a dwarf is like getting hit with a stone, and they have their own schools of unarmed combat. Such is the war they wage against each other, but they mimic the ways of humans to keep their true fighting traditions secret.

Dwarves cannot abide mortar and concrete. It smells of old death, and seems like an astonishing perversion of their very substance. They hate human cities for this reason. In every human habitation, they try to teach the natives to work stone properly, and with reverence, so that they can fit it perfectly without any cement whatsoever. But humans are stupid, and willfully ignorant. They can't take the time to learn, nor the time to coax the stones into their proper shapes. It takes a long time, and they are so short-lived.

Dwarves work stone more by persuasion than with blows of a pick, or chisel and hammer. They speak to the stone as they shape it, pressing their flesh into its flesh, and shaping it more like a smith than like a carpenter. Rather, more like an animal trainer, than like a craftsman. The stone listens. The stone speaks. The stone remembers, else how would the dwarves be born?

All the wizards want their secrets. All the elves want to steal their nobility, the mithril dwarves. All the humans pretend that the dwarves are just little, hairy, grumpy humans, perhaps from Scotland. They refuse to understand how wrong they are. They trade in the bones of the dead, looted from deep burial grounds. They will count a reckoning, later. Stone is patient. Stone can wait. Stone will not forget.

Dwarves (and giants) are the bones of the world, its blood and passion, and they have all the time in the world.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Romans... in Space (The Whole Thing)

It's been a busy couple of weeks, and much of my writing time has been devoted to completing this essay, my submission to the Southern States Communication Association annual conference. Give it a look. Note: I'm cutting and pasting from Word, so the formatting is a little bit wonky. I've also left out the appendices. Anyhow, give it a look, if you're interested.


Though most of the literature examining "gamification" in learning environments focuses on digital games and applications, use of game elements to "gamify" the classroom experience, or development of (usually digital) games to enhance student engagement, motivation, and other measures of affective learning, almost none of the literature approaches gamification as an exercise in role-playing. This article examines development of a role-playing simulation for the author's advanced public speaking classroom. This approach was inspired by the Reacting to the Past movement in history education, but differs in several important respects. A critique of the approach and suggestions for improvement are offered.

Romans… in Space! "Serious Games" in the Advanced Public Speaking Classroom

In the last decade-plus, "gamification" has become prominent in discussions of teaching and learning, building upon earlier scholarship in experiential learning, especially David Kolb's (1984) Experiential Learning Model (See also, Bergsteiner & Avery, 2014; A. Kolb & D. Kolb, 2005; Schenck & Cruickshank, 2015). The term "gamification" was first used by Nick Prelling in 2002 in the context of developing user-friendly, electronic device interfaces (Marczewski, 2012; Pelling, 2011), but the definition of gamification most cited in the literature is the use of design elements characteristic for games in non-game contexts (Deterding, Sicart, Nacke, O'Hara, & Dixon, 2011, p. 13).[1] Because the concept first emerged in digital communication, much of the literature available focuses on digital uses. Burke (2014), for example, defines gamification as, “the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals” (n.p.n., emphasis mine). Thus, theories and many applications of gamification were developed under a digital paradigm, so commonly are adapted to gamification models following the same paradigm.
Hunicke, Leblanc, & Zubek (2004) developed the mechanics, dynamics, aesthetics (MDA) framework to describe the essential elements of computer game design, and their work has been taken up as part of the broader understanding of gamification, as such (see also (Robson, Plangger, Kietzmann, McCarthy, & Pitt, 2015). Further, gamification has been deployed across divergent contexts in a variety of practical applications, including commercial uses and marketing, though its application in those areas has not been without controversy (Bogost, 2011; Zicherman, 2011). Gamification also is used as a means to add game elements to non-game leisure activities, as in the Zombies, Run! mobile application for walking and running (and zombie) enthusiasts (, and the Hero's Journey workout, a 60-day, bodyweight workout routine gamifies fitness development using a fantasy role-playing game framework ( Gamification also has a somewhat older counterpart in corporate, emergency response, and military training as the "Serious Game" (Cook, 2005).[2] It is important to note a tendency within the literature on "Serious Games" to emphasize that, though gamification may include game-like elements, such games are not always supposed to be fun or enjoyable.

Gamification in Education

It may well be, as Marc C. Carnes (2014) notes, that "play," as such, has a long history of vilification in educational literature, and that bringing the "fun" elements of games into more serious, non-game contexts may smack of subversion of authority and order. Nonetheless, educational gamification has proliferated, both in the classroom and in the literature. Dicheva, Dichev, Agre, and Angelova (2015) have reviewed the broader literature covering gamification in education, noting that, "there are many publications on the use of gamification in education but the majority describe only some game mechanisms and dynamics and re-iterate their possible use in educational context, while true empirical research on the effectiveness of incorporating game elements in learning environments is still scarce (p. 83).[3] The Washington, DC-based Educational Advisory Board, a for-profit consultancy, issued a report including a broad overview of game-based learning (GBL), suggestions for implementation and learning outcomes, and a list of challenges facing those adopting GBL practices (Patel & Vasudevan, 2013).[4]
It is increasingly possible and acceptable (even desirable) to gamify a variety of features of educational practice, in part because of the proliferation of games and gamification in other areas of life. Deterding (2014b) uses the term "gamefulness" to describe the increasing tendency for elements of games and gaming to influence the broader culture, suggesting that, "If ludification of culture captures how games and play increasingly inform other domains of our everyday life, we also can and must speak of its counterpart: the cultivation of ludus” (p. 23, emphasis in original). That is, since public and private life now feature games and game elements so prominently, and in so many forms and contexts, it grows increasingly simple to include gamification in education. Students recognize game elements as part of the grammar of public culture, and are able to apply them in non-game contexts. However, readers should also be cautious in the assumption that all students in all cases either will recognize gamified elements, or will to apply them in the way(s) intended by instructors. As with other literacies, facility with gamified elements is unevenly distributed among learners, despite growing salience in the broader culture. Even where gamification is implemented successfully in learning environments, learning and affective outcomes still may be uneven (E. Boyle, et al., 2016; Connelly, E. Boyle, MacArthur, Hainey, & J. Boyle, 2012).

Gamification of Public Speaking

Given the breadth of examples of gamification and game design applied in educational contexts, even in just the last decade, it might surprise readers that the subject of gamification in the present work—an advanced public speaking course—drew inspiration from entirely different sources. In this case, the major influences are tabletop role-playing games, a movement within history/humanities education known as Reacting to The Past (Carnes, 2014)[5], as well as game dynamics derived from this author's experiences with video games like the Civilization series and board games like Diplomacy. The author's goal was to develop an advanced public speaking course in which a game-like simulation provided students with a shared, fictional context and opportunities to role-play within that shared context in completing in-class assignments and activities. The use of simulation originated from the author's successful development of a group decision-making exercise in several semesters' basic public speaking courses. In those simulations, groups of students pretended to be members of a foundation selecting students for scholarship grants. They developed criteria for selection, chose "winners," and each group presented their selection process, their results, and then justified their choices in a 15-minute Q&A session in which the audience pretended to be members of the public and board members of the fictional foundation. As a test case, that activity demonstrated the applicability of simulation in the author's public speaking classroom and resulted in improved student learning outcomes in the persuasion module for that course. It also suggested the possibility of extending such simulation to cover an entire semester's speech activities.
Later, in planning for SACS-COC reaccreditation, the author's university hosted a series of meetings to discuss proposals for the quality enhancement program (QEP) portion of accreditation, a program to be developed around experiential learning. Shortly before these discussions, the author had discovered the Reacting to the Past movement in the humanities, and began to consider development of a game-like simulation in an advanced public speaking course. "Reacting" games treat history as a resource for students' experiential learning, not simply requiring that they learn historical facts, but also allowing them to participate by role-playing prominent "characters" in important historical events. Later that spring, the author fielded a game-like simulation in an advanced public speaking course, as proof-of-concept, but low enrollment in the course and the experimental nature of the simulated content achieved uneven results. While most students "bought in" to the simulated element, their limited numbers resulted in group-think when making important, in-game decisions, while the game itself was designed to create some degree of conflict of interests among participants. The game's intent was not simply to produce conflict, mind you, but some speech activities (e.g., in-class debates between game factions) did not go as well as they might have. Also, not all of the other assignments proved as useful as originally conceived. They would need either to be revised or reconceived entirely. However, it also was clear that our game-like simulation, whatever its shortcomings, had resulted in greater-than-normal student attendance and generated substantial engagement and excitement among the enrolled students. The course, though the results were not optimal, had worked to an extent that was difficult to ignore, and provided important lessons for extension and improvement of that first experiment. In spring semester 2016, a new version of the course was offered. In this work different aspects of course and game design will be described and assessed. Broader topics include course design and game design and their interaction, specific game elements and course speech activities, and integration of the university's learning management system in a course of this kind. Finally, student assessments of learning, engagement, and specific game elements will be considered.

Omega Station: Romans… in Space!

The broader conceit of this simulation was founded upon a speculative fiction, one in which the Roman Empire had never fallen, and in which they were beginning to engage in space exploration and limited colonization of the solar system. The choice of a fictional context was intended both to provide a real-world analog for their public speaking activities (e.g., deliberation and debate) but also to free their instructor from the confines of actual history. While the Reacting to the Past movement was inspiration for this approach, this author is not an historian, and a speculative future allowed for a situation in which just about anything could (and did) occur. This game design element was intended to provide a sense both of mystery about the outcomes of the narrative and some degree of player agency in how that narrative unfolded. Also, this future-Roman conceit was designed to allow your author (the game master, or GM) to draw upon the real heritage of Roman history, particularly its tradition of oratory, and especially upon the life of Marcus Tullius Cicero, perhaps the greatest Roman orator of all. It was hoped that the connection to tradition would also foster a desire among the students to take the simulation more seriously than not, a desire that was only partly realized in play. In this narrative, five praetorian families (Benedocto, Medicari, Novari, Palatina, and Skora) had been sent to run an asteroid mining facility (Omega Station) the fictional place where all of the action took place. Twenty students were assigned randomly to the five families (four each), and placed in a seating arrangement in close proximity to the other family members. The praetorian families and their interactions would serve as the social basis for the game element of the course, but that game would require tight integration with the course requirements, for a variety of reasons to be addressed in the next section.

Course Design vs. Game Design

One overarching goal for the course was that the speech activities should be central to our concerns. While the game was important for adding a sense of context, it should not be what we spent our time doing in class. For this reason, game "turns" were made part of the homework for the class, resolved between class sessions, and reported to the students via the university learning management system's discussion application. The game's mechanics are reported in a later section (see, "Game Mechanics"). The course itself, however, needed to be designed in such a way that the overarching narrative provided context for in-class speech activities. This was attempted through selecting speech activities appropriate to the narrative context, and structuring them such that each built upon the results of the others, making the game's narrative emerge from the actions taken, in-game and in speeches, by the student/players. In practice the relationship between the speech and game elements proved to be a somewhat uneasy marriage, but produced a definable story arc matched to the pace of the semester's meetings. The space available in this writing does not permit extensive treatment of the game/speech interrelation, but a brief summary follows, below, after an overview of the "game mechanics" portion of the course (see "Speech Activities"). The game rules used in this course are included in the appendix to this work, for readers interested in viewing them.

Game Mechanics

The game mechanics for enacting this setting included use of "characters" (one for each student) in the manner of a computer or tabletop role-playing game (RPG). Lay discussions of tabletop RPGs almost inevitably lead to reference to ur-games like Dungeons & Dragons and various "geek" and "nerd" stereotypes, but using RPG characters in the classroom provides students with personalized narrative spaces for creativity and improvisation, and enables the development of group narratives based on individual character arcs. For these reasons, tabletop RPG characters provide an important means to engage communication students through immersive and interactive play, with space for narrative and interpersonal improvisation. To define this narrative space, two different role-playing games were used, and then combined with several author-designed game mechanics.
The first game, Microscope: A Fractal Role-playing Game of Epic Histories (Robbins, 2011) was intended to provide an explanation for the students' characters—player characters (PCs)—of the history of their families and of how Rome had come to space. It helped us answer the question of what had happened differently than what is recorded in the actual historical record. During the second class session, the author led a session of Microscope to answer the question, "How did Omega Station come to be?" Suffice it to say, without going into too much detail, that the students surprised your author. They demonstrated great, often confounding, creativity in the unfolding narrative with unexpected events (e.g., alien artifacts discovered under the ice of Antarctica, a deep space shooting incident with unknown extraterrestrials, etc.), important ancestors of the Five Families (e.g., Jimmy Skora, Jr., Will Ferrell Palatina), and other oddities. The outcome of the Microscope game shaped the emergent narrative over the course of the semester, though not always in the expected ways.
The other RPG used was Apocalypse World (Baker, 2010) from which three specific game mechanics were selected. Two of the mechanics were used to provide player characters with role-playing archetypes (e.g., Face, Spymaster, Prospector, Tactician, etc.), with associated "moves" allowing each member of each family to contribute during game turns in specific, unique ways. The Face role was mandatory (as leader of the family), but then each family selected others from among several others. Not all roles could be covered by the remaining three players, ensuring that each family had particular strengths and weaknesses compared to other families. This design element was developed to necessitate inter-family cooperation as the players discovered the limits of their in-game actions. There also was need for a resolution mechanic for actions with uncertain outcomes. Apocalypse World uses two six-sided dice as a means to resolve actions taken in the game. The resulting die rolls would provide chances for success, success with consequences, and failure of in-game actions taken by characters. In the case where different characters engaged in opposed actions, two rolls were made and compared. In all cases, the author used this game mechanic to improvise narrative outcomes, rather than specifying die roll results, so as to maintain students' narrative immersion.
Several original game mechanics also were employed in this game, including an asteroid mining mini-game and a social intrigue mini-game. The asteroid mining element was the means through which each family generated income. The income could be used to buy ships, bid on exclusive mining rights in the nearby asteroid field, or (in an unexpected move by players) to bribe other families to take specific actions in favor of one's own family. Wealth generated in the asteroid mining-mini-game resulted in a "score" that added to each family's victory points, though the "leader board" was kept secret until midterm and then again at end-of-semester. The social intrigue game dealt with attempts at spying on other families, discovering upcoming Complications dictated by the game master, and enhancing the reputation score of one's own or defaming that of the other families. Each of these game systems, in combination with character roles and their associated "moves" allowed each student to affect the narrative course of the game (Complete game rules are included in the Appendix to this work).

Speech Activities

One of the greatest challenges faced in running this class was keeping the "class" and "game" portions relatively independent of each other. While it may not be immediately clear why such separation is important, it was critical. The course has programmatic student learning outcomes, which must be achieved regardless of course format. Incorporation of RPG content into the course was an aberration, and focusing too much on the game would detract from students' ability to learn to deliver various types of speeches needed to achieve specific learning objectives. So, it was necessary to ensure that the "game" portion of the course occurred outside of class time (for the most part), while at the same time providing context (and some content) for the actual, in-class speech activities.
Speech activities in the course began with a research-based informative speech, but most assignments emphasized effective deliberation and policy argument, including group deliberation, policy speeches, and policy debates. The informative speech required each student to provide a response to a specific research question dealing either with Roman history (e.g., "Who was Marcus Tullius Cicero and what were his accomplishments?") or with possible human futures (e.g., "How could asteroid mining help development of space-based industry and activity?"). Beginning with the Roman history, we moved to the current space programs (government and private industry), trans- and post-humanist theory, and speculation about the human future in space. Students were, at the same time, accomplishing course-specific outcomes (e.g., completing research, crafting and delivering a research presentation) and providing everyone in class with a sense of the broader context of the simulation comprised by the game. The goals of the informative speech demonstrate how the author attempted to negotiate between the "game" and the "class" elements of the course, such that students were able to meet specific learning objectives for the class but also remained engaged in the context of the game.
Beyond the informative speech, the speech activities were designed to build cumulatively, allowing students to scaffold learning outcomes from one assignment to the next. So, a Faction Deliberation assignment explored the elements of effective policy, and required each family to develop a response to a policy question (e.g., "What should be done to prevent piracy among the families?"). The Policy Speech required each student to provide a stand-alone policy argument that included all of the required "stock issues" logically required for such a speech (e.g., harms, inherency, plan, etc.). Finally, the Faction Debates required to students to debate matters of policy, each student receiving a chance to argue for both the affirmative and the negative side, in different speeches, in a modified parliamentary debate format.
The class and game elements, by mutually reinforcing each other, provided an immersive experience and a "serious game" in which students' speech activities had broader meaning. They weren't simply delivering speeches in a class, but giving speeches with longer stakes based in a shared narrative framework. Moreover, the speech activities were developed in such a way that "playing the game" did not interfere with the learning objectives to be accomplished by students taking the course. While the "game" remained separated from the "class" by requiring that game turns be accomplished in the days between class meetings, as homework, all of the speech activities required in the class were founded in the context provided by the game. The broader effects of this immersion were (for most students) increased engagement in speech activities and a real sense that there was something at stake, besides simply completing assignments.

Learning Management System

The course used the university's chosen learning management system (LMS), Desire2Learn, including features used in other courses (e.g., grade book, attendance records). In this course, however, the discussion/forum features also were employed. A separate forum was developed for each of the five families, where they could enter their game moves for processing of game turns, communicate with each other, and otherwise engage with the "game" portion of the course. Using this feature provided several advantages. First, it kept game discussion in a space accessible outside of class sessions. It also provided a means to keep records of student interactions and game "moves," making it easier to process and review game turns and their outcomes. Finally, it allowed the instructor to communicate directly with individual families, rather than with the whole class. Two other forums were included in the LMS, one for directly addressing rules and procedures questions, and one allowing for open discussions among the families. However, those saw little (rules and procedures) or no (open discussion) use over the course of the semester.
In practice, using the discussion forums did not work as well as planned. In some cases, students forgot (or were not particularly engaged by) participation outside of the speech activities. This failure to engage sometimes had the effect of slowing down the pace of the game turns. Originally, the class was supposed to complete twenty-five turns, but only nineteen had been resolved by semester's end. Processing the game turns also became increasingly cumbersome as the semester progress, simply due to the overwhelming amount of information.


In-game narrative intrusions, termed "complications" in the game, were introduced at various points in the semester. Complications took the form of narrative descriptions of in-game events to which the families, and individual players, would have to react or adapt. The author had used such a narrative device in the scholarship board simulation, described above, to good effect. With the introduction of such complications, players might be moved to respond creatively to unanticipated challenges or take advantage of unexpected opportunities. One such complication also served as a means to demonstrate the concept of deliberation. Early in the semester, once the students had a basic grasp of the mining/wealth generation part of the game, those functions seemed routine to many. However, the news of a miners' strike (Complication!) created a situation in which asteroids captured for mining could not be used to generate wealth for the families. On the instructor side of the equation, there was no specific answer or outcome sought. It was important merely as an exercise through which the concept of deliberation could be introduced, so that the students might get some experience prior the Faction Deliberation assignment. A full session of the class was set aside to address a specific policy question, "What should be done to end the miners' strike?" This session created both an opportunity for learning, but also a series of narrative consequences that would continue to unfold over the course of the semester.
In practice, thatclass session was organized as a legislative deliberation. Individuals (speaking for themselves or for their families) were invited to contribute to a broader understanding of the causes of the strike, the conditions resulting from it, possible remedies and their potential advantages/disadvantages, and even to consider the broader framework of values underlying the discussion. This was the first occasion when a student suggested a violent solution to an in-game problem—literally killing the strike leaders to bring the others in line. This caused a great deal of controversy, and motivated others to advance less violent solutions. Though the problem ultimately was solved in peaceful fashion, by implementing safer working conditions and granting time off for vacations and free transport to Terra Roma, at least one student continued to be troubled, stating in the course assessment (discussed in next section):
I didn't like the idea of a violent game. In the hall way, after a debate speech I gave where I made a claim against a class mate, this class mate actually continued the fuss about a claim I made against him. This can be dangerous. Violent games get people engaged and it can go overboard sometimes. (personal communication, April 2016)
The author was not notified of the incident at the time it occurred, but it clearly indicates that narrative immersion can generate passionate responses, and that it's important for instructors using such course designs to account for possible negative interactions, both between students and between individual students and game elements. While some themes might be completely out-of-bounds for the course (e.g., violent or eliminationist rhetorics, sexually explicit content) it's also important to find ways to include explicit discussion of what is/is not acceptable in terms of interaction, game themes, or even specific game mechanics (e.g., piracy) in the context of students' personal growth and development. While the author believes it's important that students engage with, and learn to discuss productively, a variety of themes that might come up in class (even troubling ones), such latitude should also include discussion of interpersonal empathy, honoring of diverse viewpoints, and professional interaction with one's colleagues.

Assessment of Course

At the end of the semester, students were asked to complete an assessment of the course. Several quantitative items asked them to report self-assessment of course learning outcomes, level of engagement with various course elements, changes in confidence in public speaking, and prior experience with various types of game activities. Open-ended items asked them to reflect upon their initial expectations, lessons learned, impact of the game upon in-class speeches, what they enjoyed least/most about the class, and "other comments about the game or class." While there is not sufficient space to review all of these elements, we will consider the students' assessments of their learning outcomes.

Self-Reported Learning Outcomes

The course in question has the following learning outcomes:
  • Students will be able to deliver oral and written communication appropriate to instructor-specified situations and audiences.
Assessment: Oral presentations and accompanying written work evaluated with associated rubrics.
  • Students will develop significant academic research for appropriate oral and written communication.
Assessment: Oral and written work evaluated with associated rubrics.

Several questions were asked regarding learning outcomes, and student responded to them using a Likert scale indicator, with "1" indicating lowest/most negative assessment, and "5" indicating highest/most positive assessment of the item. Nineteen of twenty students responded to the assessment.

Learning Outcome 1

Q4: As a result of taking this class do you feel you are able to develop oral presentations tailored to specific situations? (Avg 4.37, N=19)
Q5: As a result of taking this class do you feel you are able to develop oral presentations tailored to specific audiences? (Avg 4.42, N=19)
Students provided strong positive self-assessment, for these items, of growth in their ability to create presentations adapted to specific situations and audiences, with 15 and 17 students, respectively, reporting "4" and "5" results, and none reporting "1" or "2" results. Further, analysis of students' open-ended responses suggested that some of this self-assessed growth resulted from the game and narrative features of the course, particularly the contiguity between the role-playing elements and students' ability to perform in specific speeches. In brief, playing a role provided students with a better sense of the connection between self-as-speaker and the co-constructed narrative framework. Their speeches were not simply being addressed to a "pretend" audience that is unknown/unknowable because it's hypothetical, but to a specific, known audience and situation which, though it is based on pretense, is both known and possesses a certain narrative coherence contiguous with specific assignments. The shared framework afforded by game play allowed for a clearer sense of the audience to whom their speeches were addressed, and the available means of persuasion for addressing that audience.
The instructor's evaluations of their speech and debate performances tended, with some exceptions, to support the students' self assessments. The degree to which these students addressed both this specific audience and the specific situations to which their speeches pertained, demonstrated superior results when compared to other more "standard" iterations of the course. They knew whom they were addressing, and they were better able to determine what situation-specific arguments might move this audience.

Learning Outcome 2

The second learning outcome, however, was not achieved at as high a level. In this case students were asked:
Q6: As a result of taking this course do you feel better prepared to answer a research question as part of developing an oral presentation? (Avg 3.84, N=19)
In this case, only 13 students reported positive (4 or 5) results, while 5 reported neutral (3) and one student reported a negative (2) result. In future courses of this type, the author will address this shortcoming by requiring additional research in both of their prepared speeches (informative and policy), and spending more in-class time discussing the importance of research and factual argument in policy deliberation.
In this case, the instructor's evaluations support the students' own self-assessment. While most of the informative speeches demonstrated effective use of research, including appropriate citation techniques, the depth of research was not as profound as it should have been, based on assessment of the annotated bibliographies submitted to as part of their written work. Further, while students were asked to complete an ungraded outline in preparation of the speech, only a few of them actually completed that component. In future courses of this type it will be important to integrate the research, writing, and speech components more explicitly, and to make the written components more rigorous.

Assignment Specific Outcomes

The author also was interested in student assessment of specific assignments used in the course, including evaluation/critique of students' own, and other students', speech and debate performances. The following questions and results captured those elements of the assessment:
Q7: As a result of this course do you feel better prepared to evaluate and critique your own oral communication performances? (Avg 4.37, N=19)
As with Learning Outcome 1, students reported strong positive assessments of growth in their ability to evaluate their own performances. The self-critique assignment asked the students to write a minimum of three pages, and to "provide description and analysis of your speech performance, and describe specific goals for improving it… [and to] discuss your role in the simulation, and how you incorporated it into the performance you gave, the topics you covered, and so forth" (course syllabus). While many of the students demonstrated insight and attention to detail in completing this assignment, the instructor's evaluation of these assignments noted that self-assessment of learning and development often took a secondary role to description of the speeches' game-related content. In the future, it will be important to include additional discussion of effective self-critique process, and to develop an assignment more focused on speech performance and improvement.
Students also were required to critique others' performances, and were provided with rubrics with which to do so. It was assessed as follows:
Q8: As a result of this course do you feel better prepared to evaluate and critique other people's oral communication performances? (Avg 4.21, N=19)
Students reported relatively strong positive self-assessment of their abilities to critique others, but the instructor's assessment is somewhat more negative. Simply put, the rubrics were not the best instrument for the job, as they simply required that students check boxes and assign scores. They were simple to complete, but resulted in shallow assessment of others. It is one thing to assess something as effective or ineffective, but another to suggest what changes or improvements might be made. In the future, it will be important to require that such assessments be justified using specific, detailed notes, and require provision of actionable feedback.


Experiential learning theory suggests that deep and authentic learning is supported by curriculum that allows students to become engaged actively with material, to experience learning through action and not simply through rote learning or context-free practice. This author believes that a course based around game-like simulation including role-playing game elements is an effective way to provide effective experiential learning in an advanced public speaking class. However, such an approach creates significant challenges, even when the instructor is well-acquainted with both the course material and the means to simulate situations in which persistent role-play is possible.
Among the greatest challenges is understanding (and accepting) that, while some students will become very engaged in such a course, it may lack appeal for others. Further, it is impossible to know in advance how many students, or which ones, will be productively engaged by the simulation. While the author's students, in general, reported high engagement and interest with the course when it was run in this manner, approximately ten percent of them stated explicitly that the approach was not something that interested them. They would have preferred a more standard approach to the course, and the "game" failed to engage them. As noted above, even getting them in the classroom is no guarantee that the students will engage the course as expected. Some will not. Also, it's difficult to determine in advance what kinds of assignments, when included in a game-like simulation, will help students best to learn the expected knowledge and acquire the requisite skill sets. Even when "the course" and "the game" are well-matched, students' engagement and learning are not assured. A student can be a creative, engaged role-player in the game, but still demonstrate average or poor ability in completing required work for the course. That said, the same situation would seem to pertain to any form a course might take: Some students will engage, some will do the work, and others will not. At least with an immersive scenario like the one described in this work, more students tended to be more engaged, and, very importantly, they actually attended class at a greater rate than non-game iterations of the course. Further, no students dropped the course and no one failed to achieve a passing grade, something unprecedented in the author's experience.
Another significant challenge represented by using a game-like simulation is that it's nearly impossible to play-test such a scenario in advance of implementation. The only time an instructor is able to assemble enough "players" to fill a course is when they come into his or her classroom. This makes it difficult to align coursework with simulated elements during the first iteration of such a course. However, assuming that one's academic department and institution are supportive of this sort of approach to instruction, further iterations of the course get progressively better. This assertion is supported by the author's previous experience using immersive games in a basic course in public speaking. Successive uses of a group speech based in a role-played situation allowed for better results. Experience with adverse outcomes and conditions provide opportunities for instructors to improve the course and its delivery. As a result, students' experience of the simulation/scenario and achievement of desired learning outcomes improve relatively quickly after the first iteration. It is worth taking the risk, and learning from the mistakes that one will inevitably encounter, when fielding either a discrete assignment or, as in this case, an entire course relying on role-play, game-like simulation, and the various course work such scenarios support.
Finally, the "game" element of this course was complex, perhaps needlessly so. Though it hasn't been discussed extensively, the sheer amount of bookkeeping required for logging individual players moves and their results was nearly insupportable, requiring at least an hour per turn to document, to process, and to notify students of the results. This alone slowed down the game, and took time away from more productive elements of the course's implementation. As suggested above, only a few students really relished the complexity of the game elements (e.g., turns, character "moves," etc.) and some outright hated them. In design, these elements were supposed to make the simulation more "real" and promote immersion. Instead, they may have created a situation where the complexity caused many students either to be confused by or to tune out the "game" part of the course. Nonetheless, most students were deeply engaged by the more narrative elements, and enjoyed role-play as an element of their experience in the advanced public speaking course. In future iterations, the course might benefit by emulating the "foundation board" exercise from the basic course in public speaking, dropping the rules-heavy elements, and engaging in more improvisational role-play to drive the emergent narrative. The narrative, in fact, seems to be what drives most of the engagement. Students are interested in seeing what comes next, and engaged in taking part in the story. Even simpler "gamified" elements like leader boards and achievements, as used in this course, didn't have the effect (or as much effect as intended) of increasing student engagement through competition between the families. Most didn't care, and some disengaged because their team wasn't "winning." Others became so engaged by it that they violated significant professional and social norms, making other students uncomfortable, as discussed above. "Gamification" in that sense may not be suitable for every classroom.
Even with these challenges, this author's experience using the Omega Station: Romans… in Space! simulation in an advanced public speaking classroom was overwhelmingly positive. Most of the students remained engaged throughout the semester, taking part enthusiastically in the class activities and nearly every student attended every class. During discussion with students at the end of the semester, many of them were effusive in their praise for the course. Even those who were less engaged acknowledged that they appreciated the experience, though it was not one they would care to repeat. The author plans to offer a modified, "rules-light" version of the course in Spring 2017, and to improve upon some of the more problematic elements described in this work.


Gamification has become an important part of educational practice, and even classrooms that are not "gamified" in the sense discussed here may include elements of "gameful" culture brought into being by video gaming and other forms of play. Gamification in education, as described in academic literature, is relatively new in its development, only emerging in the current millennium. Though it relies on older work scholarship in experiential learning, much of it is concerned with digital-based learning games, simulations and, in many cases, just the inclusion of gamified elements to supplement more traditional education. In this work, the author has described a rather different approach to gamification in the advanced public speaking classroom, one that emphasizes role-play, improvisation, and narrative. This approach has its roots in tabletop role-playing and relies on students' interaction with each other, with their instructor, and with course materials and activities specifically tailored for such face-to-face interaction. While not without its flaws, this sort of gamification provides a useful means for increasing student engagement and enhancing students' abilities and confidence in public speaking.


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[1] See also Deterding, Dixon, Khaled, and Nacke (2011) and Deterding (2014a).
[2] See also Michael and Chen (2006); Susi, Johannesson, and Backlund (2007); Peterson (2012), Chapter 3; Cate and Albright (2015); Roselli and Rossano (2015); Spöttl and Schulte (2015); Bauermeister, et al. (2016).
[3]Additional, recent works not included in Dicheva, et al. (2015) include, Adams, Mayer, Koenig, and Wainess (2012); Banfield and Wilkerson (2014); Bilgin, Baek, and Park (2015); Botte, Imbellone, Marinensi, and Medaglia (2015); Bramesfeld and Good (2015); Cain and Piascik (2015); Chang and Wei (2016); Chen, Burton, Mihaela, and Whittinghill (2015); Cheong, Filippou, and Cheong (2014); Cicchino (2015); Coccoli, Iacono, and Vercelli (2015); Cózar-Gutiérrez and Sáez-López (2016); Erenli (2013); Faiella and Ricciardi (2015); Marklund and Taylor (2016); Niculae and Duda (2015); Nordby, Øygardslia, Sverdrup, and Sverdrup (2016); Olsson, Mozelius, and Collin (2015); Palmer (2016); Ulicsak (2010); Vagg, Tabrica, Ronan, Plant, and Eustace (2016); Wilson, Calongne, and Henderson (2015).
[4] See also Tulloch, (2014); Urh, Vukovic, Jereb, & Pintar (2015); Van Eck (2006).
[5] See also Barnard College (2016); Boss (2002); Courage (2004); Lang (2014a, 2014b, 2014c).