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Role-Playing-Games and English Lessons

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In previous articles we discussed how the use of game principals transform the traditional way of teaching English and turn an English class into an exciting game. In this article I’d like to focus on one particular type of games, Role-Playing-Games (RPGs) and their applications at English lessons.

When I talk about RPGs I do not mean Drama activities and Role-plays “In a café,” “At the doctor’s,” which many teachers are familiar with. RPGs are a special type of a game, which is an interactive story with only basic plot elements. Players describe their actions through narrative and this is how the story develops. The players make decisions based on their traits of character and special skills (they describe them in Character Profile at the beginning of the game). To see if players’ decisions are successful or not, we use a 20-sided dice. A person, who makes a decision, rolls the dice and if the result is “successful” (e.g. from 15 to 20) his or her suggested action is a success, but if not – he or she fails and something bad happens. Players roll a dice to every action or move they make during the RPG.

The first RPG was Dungeon&Dragons which dates back to 1974. Lot’s of different RPG systems with sophisticated rules have appeared since then. When we use RPG at English lessons we should make them as simple as possible and focus on narrative more than on mechanics of dice rolling.

Player Character

In RPGs players may create Player Characters (PC). Each PC has a number of different characteristics that represent their skills and determine their likelihood to succeed at a given task.

Let’s have a look at the procedure of creating a PC at the lesson.

Each player gets a Character Profile where they can write their name or a nickname, draw an avatar and write down their skills and number of points for each of them that will show how good they are at it.

E.g. Mary writes two skills: “climbing” and “jumping”. She rolls a dice twice – one time for each skill. The first result is “4”, the second result is “1”. So, she writes in her Character Profile:

4 climbing
1 jumping

Players can use their special skills during the game. If in the course of the game Mary wants to jump over the pit, 4 points will be added to her result on the dice. So, if we agree that a successful action is 15 and more and the dice showed 12, Mary adds 4 more points of her jumping skill and has 16 as a total.

Higher-level students may be asked to write down the way their character looks and some facts from his biography and relationship with other characters. The character description can be based on a reading text or a book used for home-reading.

Teacher’s role

The teacher performs the role of a game master (GM). GM outlines the story and thinks of some obstacles which the players must overcome using the target language. The GM narrates the story, describes situations and places, creates obstacles and comes up with different consequences during the game. GM doesn’t create his own PC and doesn’t affect the game from “the inside” like other players do, but he can help the players to come up with their own decisions and see if taken actions are possible due to the world mechanics. Also, he can play for Non-Player-Characters (NPC), who players meet in the course of the game and have conversations with.
The GM is also responsible for applying the rules of the game and making a decision when a question about the rules arises.

The Game Procedure

But neither a GM, nor players know how the story will develop as it depends on the ideas the players come up with while playing.

As the game is played through verbal interaction, it is ideal for English lessons and provides authentic output. Students are deeply involved in the game and use the language only as a means of solving game problems.

Before the lesson the teacher thinks about a few obstacles which his students will overcome using the target language.

E.g. target language: out of, into, over, across, along, up, down, through, away from, round, under.

Tell your students that there is a princess in the tall tower and they must save her. To get to the tower they should walk along a road with a wall brick on both sides. On their way they see a pit. What can they do?

Students come up with a number of different ideas, e.g. jump over the pit. They roll a dice and check if they succeed or not. If they fail to perform an action, the teacher says that they fall into the pit. Now they have to decide how to get out of the pit.

As you can see, every time they face a problem they describe their possible actions using target vocabulary. To make sure that they activate all the words you add some other obstacles on their way: a river with a boat and a gate in the tower.

There is no plot in the RPG because only players decide what move to take and how to solve
game problems.

Game Example

There are three students playing, each person has got three skills.
Alex has got: climbing (3), jumping (2), fighting (4).
Mary has got: searching for small items (5), discovering new trails (1), curing people (6).
Peter has got: making fire (3), climbing (5), chopping wood (6).

RPG starts. Game master (GM) describes the situation: “We can finally see the chest on the top of the hill. We are in the forest and we can see a trail in front of us, but it is blocked with huge rocks and trees. What are you going to do?”
A: “Is the chest far from us?”
GM: “Yes, it’s quite far, and you can see only the top of the hill above the trees.”
A: “OK, I’ll climb the rocks which block the road.”
M: “You may fall and hurt yourself.”
A: “Sure, but we need to deal with this situation.”
P: “Let me climb, I’m better at climbing.”
Peter rolls 1d20 (1 20-sides dice). Result: 9 + 5 (for the skill “climbing) = 14 (not successful)
GM: “You couldn’t climb up and you fell down. Let’s see what happens to you.”
GM rolls 1d20. Result: 3 (not successful).
GM: “The rock was too high for you and you were not lucky enough. You’ve got a leg dislocation. You can’t climb and even walking is painful for you.”
M: “I can cure people! I can help him. It can’t be worse, right?”
GM: “Anything can happen, but you can try, at least”
M: “OK, I’ll try”

Mary rolls 1d20. Result: 16 + 6 (for the skill “treating people”) = 22 (successful)
GM: “Peter’s leg is fine now, but he needs to recover because his leg still hurts a bit.”
A: “May be I will try to climb?”
M: “I have got a skill “discovering new trails”. I’ll explore the area”

Mary rolls 1d20. Result: 15 + 1 (for the skill “discovering new trails”) = 16 (successful)
GM: “You’ve been very observant and you have found a small trail. Do you want to follow it?”
M: “Yes, of course”
GM: “While walking through the forest the rain starts. And it becomes heavier and heavier. What are you going to do?”
P: “We can assemble a shelter”
GM: “You can assemble it with the wood you’ve already got”
P: “How much do we need?”

GM rolls the 1d6 (6-sides dice). Result: 4
GM: “You need 4 pieces”
M: “Let’s assemble a shelter”

Mary rolls 1d20. Result: 19 (successful). Mary gives 4 “pieces of wood”(resources that the student got while completing previous tasks)
GM: “You have got a shelter. It’s big enough for everyone so no one stays in the rain. It is very cold outside”
P: “How much wood do I need to make a fire?”
GM rolls the 1d6 (6-sides dice). Result: 5
GM: “You need 5 pieces”
P: “OK, I’ll make a fire”

Peter rolls 1d20. Result: 19 (successful). Peter gives 5 “pieces of wood”
GM: “Now you feel warm. After a while the rain stops and you can move on”
A: “Great. Let’s go”
GM: “You reach the hill. There is a small box on top of the hill”
P: “I’ll climb it”
GM: “It’s very wet and slippery. You need equipment to climb up. It’s -5 for dice”
M: “Oh. OK. I’ll explore the area, maybe I can find something”.

Mary rolls 1d20. Result: 9 (not successful)
GM: “Sorry, but you haven’t found anything useful”
A: “Can I try?”
GM: “Sure. Maybe you are luckier?”
A: “I’m exploring the area”

Alex rolls 1d20. Result: 16 (successful).
GM: “Yes, you are really lucky and you have found an axe.”
P: “Can we make a ladder?”
GM: “Yes, why not?”
P: “I’ll roll the dice.”
GM: “But wait, what are you going to make a ladder with? Do you know how much wood you need?”
P: “Yes, sorry. How many pieces of wood do we need?”

GM rolls the 1d6. Result: 6
GM: “You need 12 pieces of wood”
Alex, Mary and Peter give 4 “pieces of wood” each. Peter rolls 1d20. Result: 16 (successful).
GM: “Great! Now you’ve got a ladder. Who is going to climb it?”
A: “Me. I’ll climb it.”
GM: “But be careful. You can only lean this ladder against the rock. It might be dangerous to climb the ladder without any help.”
M: “I will hold the ladder.”
A: “I’m trying to climb.”

Alex rolls 1d20. Result: 13 + 3 (for the skill “climbing) = 16 (successful).
GM: “You’ve climbed easily to the top of the hill. You can see there a small metal box.”
A: “I’ll open it.”
GM: “No, you can’t do this. It seems to be locked.”
A: “Well, then I’ll take it and throw it down.”

GM rolls 1d20. Result: 19.
GM: “When the box hits the ground its lock breaks. Now the box is open and you can see some papers there. Congratulations! You’ve done it!”

Conclusion

RPGs are a good alternative to traditional speaking activities that we use in the classroom. As they are best played in small groups of 4-5 students they can be used as a quick-fix when half of your group is absent. They do not require lots of preparation and can be used as a low-resource consolidation activity to revise and recycle the language at any time.

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