In response to one of the final exam questions this year, a student in my upper-level undergraduate course on multilateral peace operations at McGill University commented “I never knew D&D could be so useful until I took POLI 450.” That statement finally provided the impetus I needed to offer some thoughts on role-play games (RPGs) and serious conflict simulation.
In the context of POLI 450, the student concerned was referring to the massive Brynania peacebuilding simulation that we’ve been running for almost two decades. It is a grueling exercise indeed: 125+ players, 5-8 hours of game play per day for a full week, 10,000+ emails sent, and hundreds of hours of real and virtual meetings—all at a time when students are also trying to manage four other courses, plus occasional eating and sleeping. The simulation is designed to highlight a range of issues: political conflict and conflict resolution; insurgency; negotiations; humanitarian crisis and response; the challenges of coordination; stabilization; and longer-term development. Like a good game of D&D, participants face complex situations and even difficult moral choices while having to adjust plans on the fly with limited time, resources, and information. As has been evident from exam answers and course surveys over the years, students learn a lot from it, and it helps a great deal in putting course readings and theory into a practical, operational context.
However, I didn’t want to just comment on the value of RPG-type gaming as an immersive learning environment for students—as important as that is. Above and beyond this, I wanted to offer some thoughts of how role-play gaming can help to develop essential professional game design and facilitation skills. Indeed, in terms of professional wargame facilitation specifically, I would argue that running D&D games is probably a more useful preparation than playing either miniature or board wargames.
Before there’s a backlash from my fellow grognards, let me reiterate I’m talking here about game facilitation. I’m a hobby miniatures/board wargamer too, and I enjoy those a great deal. They’ve been invaluable in learning about military operations and history—indeed, far more useful than the 8+ years I spent studying in university. It is undeniable that hobby wargaming can contribute a great deal to one’s knowledge of how to model time, space, movement, and effects.
However, no one would argue that most hobby wargaming (with the notable exception of megagaming) really contributes a great deal to knowing how to run—as opposed to design—the multi-participant events that are usually characteristic of a serious professional wargame or political-military/crisis simulations.
There’s a certain irony in all this. As it is, professional wargamers already deal with a widespread bias against the gaming element of wargames. It is well-known, for example, that many military officers recoil at the thought of dice or cards determining the outcome of military actions in a wargame, even though they are perfectly happy to have outcomes determined through black-boxed stochastic processes embedded in computer algorithms. That Clausewitz once noted ” the absolute, the mathematical as it is called, nowhere finds any sure basis in the calculations in the art of war; and that from the outset there is a play of possibilities, probabilities, good and bad luck, which spreads about with all the coarse and fine threads of its web, and makes war of all branches of human activity the most like a game of cards” doesn’t change the fact that professional audiences often equate cards, dice, and other common game elements with a glorified version of Snakes-and-Ladders. Given that, suggesting that what they are doing is actually rather more like The Tomb of Horrors would certainly be a gaming system too far. Yet RPGs can develop invaluable skills in terms of scenario design, narrative engagement during game play, subtly keeping players on track for game purposes, and managing groups of people within such a context.
In terms of scenario design, this is very much at the core of role-play gaming—the game, after all, is almost entirely about the scenario and the players’ engagement in it. Good gamemasters are good precisely because they are able to keep players within the universe they have created, facing plausible choices with plausible consequences, and subtly encouraging everyone to internalize appropriate perspectives and motivations. In a well-run campaign the players aren’t simply trying to find treasure and slay beasts, but feel themselves part of it all. They begin to filter their worldview through their (fictional) professional specializations: fighters like to fight; magic-users like to stand back and rain destruction of foes while avoiding injury; clerics provide key support; rogues skulk and deceive; and much-maligned bards (like diplomats everywhere) use silver tongues to gain advantages that cannot be obtained by brute force. As Peter Perla and ED McGrady have argued, this sort of player engagement and immersion is also what makes (serious, professional, potentially life-and-death) wargaming work:
We believe that wargaming’s power and success (as well as its danger) derive from its ability to enable individual participants to transform themselves by making them more open to internalizing their experiences in a game—for good or ill. The particulars of individual wargames are important to their relative success, yet there is an undercurrent of something less tangible than facts or models that affects fundamentally the ability of a wargame to transform its participants.
A dungeonmaster also faces the constant challenge of allowing players to explore their universe, while at the same time keeping the game on-track in terms of general storyline and plot—all without letting players feel railroaded into doing (or not doing) particular things. They do so, moreover in a context of multiple participants with different perspectives and personalities. Take, for example, Phil Sabin‘s comments on a recent professional wargame in the UK (emphasis added):
This week at the UK Defence Academy we ran a two day research wargame with a couple of dozen players and facilitators to investigate nuclear risk dynamics. I was on the Control team, and our main objective was to get the players first to use conventional force and then to escalate to nuclear strikes, despite their natural reluctance to initiate such dangerous and suicidal actions. We succeeded, and play ended with wide-ranging conventional conflict, the nuclear devastation of central and eastern Europe, and a grave threat of further escalation, all from an initial spark in the Baltics in which both sides felt they were defending their existing rights and interests.
I remarked in the final plenary that wargame controllers in such games are rather like devils, seeking ways to foster player misperceptions and frustration and to present them with horrible dilemmas in a quest to make them trigger a literal ‘hell on earth’. We succeeded in this aim, and it was sobering for everyone to realise how such a slide into disaster can occur through a horribly plausible sequence of interacting decisions, despite the initial resolve of each team individually to avoid such an outcome. At least we can comfort ourselves that nobody really died, and that the whole point of such ‘virtual’ destruction in wargames is to help us to understand crisis dynamics and so make such escalation in the real world even more unlikely….
Replace “nuclear strikes” with “boss fight” or “confronting the dragon in his lair” and you pretty much have every D&D game ever. Phil may be more of a traditional grognard than a RPGer, but it is a gift indeed to be able to nudge participants in such a way that they don’t feel nudged, while giving them the freedom to make real choices.
Similarly, in the Brynania simulation, my task as CONTROL is to facilitate exploration of a plausible path of civil conflict and (hopefully) peacebuilding, while not allowing the game to get distracted or derailed. Doing so requires the subtle use of initial scenario and game injects, but in a way that players are—again—making real choices with real consequences. Certainly the outcomes over the years reveal a sort of bell-curve of results, with some more common than others, but none of them outliers in a way that would undercut the instructional purposes of the simulation.
Brynania simulation outcomes and events.
Primary peacebuilding mechanisms used in Brynania simulation.
I’m not the only RPGamer who feels this way. Tom Fisher is a fellow member of my local Montréal gaming group and DM extraordinaire, with an impressive record as a professional game designer and facilitator (he is codeveloper of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game and the forthcoming Matrix Game Construction Kit, and has worked with the World Bank and various international financial intelligence agencies on games addressing financial crimes/corruption and strategic analysis). He had this to say on the topic in a recent email exchange:
I can say, without hesitation, that roleplaying games—particularly D&D—have led to the best jobs I’ve ever had.
There is a natural flow between being a gamer and professionally developing games, that much is obvious. What is less obvious, however, are the lessons derived from playing those games that do not directly impact game development. Role playing games, particularly the gamesmastering (facilitation) thereof engages, develops and encourages a particular way of thinking.
Much has been said about the need for outside the box thinking or lateral thinking. What is less discussed is how to train the mind to think different as some marketing campaigns encourage. Roleplaying games, in their various forms, are a virtual goldmine for the development, testing and experimentation of thought, and ways of thinking.
Roleplay, at its best, teaches through gameplay to account for assumptions, test limits of rules, push the limits of established rules – in short, roleplay is a short course on iterative design: “ design methodology based on a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining a product or process. Based on the results of testing the most recent iteration of a design, changes and refinements are made. This process is intended to ultimately improve the quality and functionality of a design. In iterative design, interaction with the designed system is used as a form of research for informing and evolving a project, as successive versions, or iterations of a design are implemented.”
Iterative design thinking is, in my view, the foundation of critical, outside-the-box, and lateral thinking. The process of iterative design faces-off actions based on assumptions against reactions based on real-world rules. Famously demonstrated by Tom Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge, participants succeed by testing their assumptions against real-world effects (in that case, gravity and the relative strength of dry spaghetti).
The experiential and imaginary nature of roleplaying games requires reflection and forces a role-player to account for their assumptions when addressing a situation. In so many of my experiences delivering intelligence analysis or crime analysis courses, it is the recognition and testing of one’s assumptions that has been the lynchpin in achieving success in the training. Roleplaying games –and by extension immersive simulation exercises– are a crucible for developing the thought processes deemed so necessary and desired by modern institutions.
The experience of the gamesmaster, or facilitator, of roleplaying games adds a further level of complexity to the mix. Adult role-players, by their very nature, are an interesting bunch. Most tend to be well-read, quite intelligent, and universally challenging. As noted above, roleplay encourages the testing of limits, pushing of envelopes, and accounting for assumptions. So, a gamesmaster (GM) is confronted with a number of players –with their unique agendas– who inherently want to push the limits of the GM’s world-rules to achieve goals laid out by said GM designed to engage, thrill and enthrall each of the players. In short: herding cats. There is no more cost-effective short-course on diplomacy and small-team management than being a roleplaying game GM.
The complexity of gamesmastering (GMing) increases exponentially as GMs become involved in world-building. At the pinnacle of GMing is the world-building GM, who shapes world from thought to engage players in a truly immersive experience. Herein, the GM accounts for the cause-and-effect of player actions against the backdrop of an entire living world simulation. At this level, fluidity and iterative design are paramount to successful implementation and player-engagement, and will lead to a level of suspension of disbelief that will engage players not only logically in the gameplay, but emotionally, on a truly immersive level.
It is these skills of engagement, coupled with the role-player’s way of thinking, challenging and testing that have led to the best jobs I’ve ever had.
Much can be said about the nature of play and the strong links between creative play and language, physical, social/emotional, and cognitive development. Roleplaying games take this level of play to its limits, and push outward, not only encouraging growth, but in my opinion, forcing it, as new pathways of thought develop to deal with novel situations.
The elusive and mysterious “Tim Price,” prolific author of matrix game articles and scenarios, has certainly been known to frequently design and play RPGs. A certain former British military officer and gifted professional wargame consultant—let’s call him GLB—actually carries an image of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook (above) surreptitiously taped to his clipboard to inspire him while facilitating serious games.
As for me, I’ve been playing D&D since the very first boxed three-volume set in the mid 1970s. Like the POLI 450 student quoted above, it’s fair to say that at the outset I too “never knew D&D could be so useful.”
Have your own experiences of using RPG skills in serious gaming? Post them in the comments section!