The RPG syllabus
Games and the social conversation

Ask and ye shall receive...big time!

Ultima5map Yesterday I asked you to recommend RPG titles you considered essential for a course devoted to the subject. Today - 30 comments and 11 email responses later - my head is spinning with ideas, and my course outline is overflowing with possibilities, far too many to cover in a single semester. These are the best problems I've had in quite some time! :-)

Thank you very much.

As I noted earlier, I've been teaching for many years, but it never occurred to me to construct a syllabus in this way. As an extension of this blog and a survey of community wisdom and experience, it makes perfect sense to proceed like this, especially given the limits of my own expertise. I've played many RPGs over the years, but I certainly can't claim first-hand experience with every significant title, and my memory of many games has dimmed. Your suggestions regarding the Ultima series were particularly helpful in this regard.

Several useful questions have arisen that I can address here. Some of my responses reflect comments I posted earlier:

  • I will definitely post the final complete version of the syllabus here. It will include a bibliography and an outline of assignments and readings. I will also post a preliminary draft for comments.

  • Wabash College, where I teach, does not offer courses online. Sorry. I am working on a project with other educators that may culminate in such course offerings, but I can't say much more about that now.

  • I do intend to spend time on D&D and its roots in literature and mythology. I will likely assign King and Borland's "Dungeons and Dreamers" and Barton's "Dungeons and Desktops" (thanks, Chris!) which do a nice job of covering the rise of D&D and computer game culture. We'll also read some Tolkien. When I mentioned that I wanted to get to the games as soon as possible, I meant that I didn't want to spend two weeks reading epic poetry and another week studying the D&D Player's Handbook before ever starting a game. That said, in the past I have invited veteran D&D players to class, and my students have observed them playing a session and engaged them in Q&A. If I provide some background and context in advance, this works very well.

  • I agree that students needn't finish every game, but I will require them to complete certain ones in order to comprehend the full experience intended by the designers. I think it will be important to choose at least one or two games that all of us will play in order to have some common experiences to discuss. What I've learned about this kind of teaching is that students are apt to exceed the boundaries of the assignments, often going farther or taking on additional games on their own. This rarely happens when I teach literature...which is a separate subject for vigorous discussion!

  • Providing save files that enable entry at various points is a good idea that never occurred to me. This could come in very handy for extremely long games like Morrowind, for example. Not that I would assign Morrowind. Or maybe I would. ;-)

Finally, several of you wondered about the parameters of a course on the history of role-playing games, and what exactly defines an RPG? Is the Legend of Zelda an RPG? What constituent elements will I use to define what's "in" and what's "out"?

Well, that's a very good question, and it's one that will underlie all the work we do in the course. At the risk of dodging the question, I will expect my students to develop their own definitions of what constitutes an RPG by thinking hard about what exists at the core of these games and the experiences they offer. I want to ensure a certain flexibility in the content of the course to allow a student to study, if he wishes to, the RPG elements in a sports game, for example, and how they relate to the role-playing aspects of more traditional RPGs. I have a fairly solid notion of what I think an RPG is, but I expect my students will challenge my preconceptions as vigorously as I will challenge theirs. Well, maybe not quite as much.

I'll return soon with a list of titles and some ideas on how to proceed. Again, many thanks for your ideas and your interest in this work.