Tuesday 3 February 2009

Lessons Learned from Teaching

Alright, quieten down and get in your usual seats. You two stop fighting, you three put your gum in the bin. Put that crossbow away.

After doing over a year of teacher training you start to notice similarities between learning theory and everything else in the world. Mostly this is down to having so much of it crammed into your brain but with game design and GMing there are genuine links!


I've seen the graph below crop up in both game design and learning theory but it makes a great, simple point. Between anxiety and boredom lies the optimal zone for a satisfying challenge. 

Simply put, if your players are bored either increase the challenges you're throwing at them or hinder their own abilities somehow (this one is trickier to pull off well...). If they seem overly stressed either give them an extra boost of power or lower the challenge slightly. Try to keep them in the zone of flow and remember individual failures are perfectly acceptable if they result in a more satisfying overall session.

Starter, Development, Plenary

These are the three ideal components to a lesson's structure and they can be easily ported across to a successful game session.

The starter is a short, usually fun task that has the main aim of engaging every single member of the class. Often they involve getting them to do something physical or loud, it wakes up their brains and reminds them all that they're in a class now and are here to do things

The development is the meat of the lesson and focuses on progressing the group's understanding of whatever the topic may be. 

The plenary is a recap of everything that's been covered in the lesson, cementing it in their minds.

Try using this structure for your next game. Hit them hard with something interesting as soon as they sit down. Combat is a great example for many games but most importantly this scene should engage every single character and give them all something to do.

After this you can progress the plot in the meat of the session, after that big start the players should be in the right mood to get some productive gaming going.

Finally, before you finish you should have the Plenary, where you wrap up everything covered in the development and close off the session, right? Not necessarily. I don't like to wrap everything up at the end of a session and I do love a good cliffhanger. However, the end of the session is a good time to summarise everything that's happened so far. This could happen out of game by quickly taking input from the players as you write bullet points for a session summary.

Cater to Different Types of Learner

A theory tells us that most people sway towards being either Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic learners that learn best by seeing/reading, hearing or moving/touching respectively (guess which one kids come out as more?). In any lesson plan you should cater to every one of these learning styles as much as possible. Activities can easily cater to two or three of these at once.

Uh oh, am I going to delve into the somewhat questionable GNS theory or threefold model or all that stuff? Thankfully just a very shallow dip. I do think that a good GM will use the ideas present in these theories to cater to players that might favour either plot-heavy sessions or a more "gamey" experience with more tactical choices and rolling of dice. The third group often identified are players that enjoy the simulation aspects of a system. This group can be satisfied either through the realism of the system itself or how the GM presents it. Even with a highly abstract system I believe a good GM can make the players believe they're interacting with a real-feeling world through consistency and quick thinking. 

Oh, and I really don't buy into the idea that a game has to focus on being either Gamist, Narrativist or Simulationist. But that's a topic for another day.

Get your class to do as much of your job for you as possible

Ask any teacher, this is a great piece of advice. Rather than having misbehaving pupils wash my car at break-time I'm talking more about the idea that if a lesson is going well the teacher will often look like they're not doing much at all while the pupils will be a buzz of activity. Ideally they'll be asking appropriate questions, answering the questions of other pupils, supporting each other in difficult tasks and challenging themselves with new ideas. If the teacher is talking a lot and asking a thousand questions that are getting one-word answers then it could be going better. 

This topic has arisen elsewhere so I'm going to knock out my points quickly.

  • Encourage your players to ask questions and make suggestions of their own rather than waiting for you to prompt them. Do this with rewards and praise. 
  • During character creation have each player create one or two NPCs concepts for characters that are linked to their character in some way. As well as this have each suggest a key location or two that are important to their character.
  • Consider giving the players full control of one or more NPCs. This also helps avoid the dreaded GMPC situation. 

Take out your homework planners. For next lesson I want you to consider how your own career or studies have given you surprising tips for GMing or game design. Put them in the comments box and the best suggestion will receive a house point.


  1. I find it interesting how often people grab things from work and insert it into their rpg campaigns.

    By training I'm an engineering, prone to look at things from a systems viewpoint. And I bring that to the table with me in how I examine the working of game mechanics.

    Meanwhile I tend to ignore the more social aspects. I would never attempt to treat my group as a classroom for example. But I would use another area that I have training in- public speaking.

    Interesting enough, there's a huge amount of overlap with public speaking and your outline above of classroom methods. Same result, different directions to get there.

  2. I've observed something similar, though I have no formal training on teaching and my approach is more personal.

    I'd also suggest not using GNS as an analysis tool unless you are actually familiar with it. If not, I'd suggest not bothering to learn it. GDS (also knows as the threefold model) is much more practical, and most people who just hear what GNS is a shorthand of assume it means what GDS means. (This is because GNS is a bad naming schema.)