Suggestions and hints? Role-playing with adolescents in school

Started by Jaakko Koivula, August 27, 2009, 08:02:29 AM

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Jaakko Koivula

Greetings all.

Im trying to decide on a good game to run for a class full of adolescents. Main points would be to introduce them to role-playing and try to build some class spirit. Maybe even give everyone an experience of success at a social situation and that they have made a contribution for the whole etc. Standard empowerment stuff.

The players will be 15-18 year old and mostly completely without any RPG-experience. Im thinking groups of 4-6 players with one three hour session for each group. To begin with, at least. So the game would have to be pretty compact and the scenario playable in a demo-like situation.

Im now thinking along the lines of Primetime Adventures. Im hesitant of using any really violent/gory games (like maybe Dust Devils or Zombie Cinema), as they are still minors and because the attending would be pretty much mandatory. Playing it safe so no parent can come whining to me about exposing their child to satan worshipping or anything.

I think Zombie Cinema could be made to work, but Primetime Adventures so far seems most suitable "out of the box" for me.

Also, it's worth mentioning that I don't have that extensive experience or knowledge on "new-wave" role-playing. So there might be a game made for just this kind of gaming and I propably wouldn't know about it. So if you have any ideas on this, bring them on.

In general, has anyone here experience on using RPG-games in a somehow similar situation? Anything you think I should really keep in mind before trying this out?

Eero Tuovinen

I've done similar things. Zombie Cinema works pretty well (he says about his own game); I'm not personally too worried about the gore aspect, as it's up to the players in this game as well as others how violent they get, the game doesn't do much about it. Also, it's pretty easy to swap the zombies for something less violent if the game otherwise serves well.

However, there should be better alternatives. I'm not too enthused about Primetime Adventures here myself, as it's pretty freeformish in the short term; it's basically up to your own skills and little else to get anything out of it in a limited time-frame. It builds into a solid engine over a couple of sessions, of course.

Have you considered 1001 Nights? It has a suitable topic, it's quick enough to get some meaningful play out of it and it does a pretty good job of framing and supporting creativity.

Another consideration is Under the Bed, which has many virtues for this sort of thing. It's unlikely that an untrained group would get a very coherent plot out of the game, but it is very easy to get some fun character roleplaying, and group coherence is not a priority, which means that you can swap players and remove them from the exercise as necessary. I don't know how teenagers would like the game, though.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Callan S.

Hi Jaakko,

I think you have to get clear in your own head what fun the activity is about - because if you leave it to a bunch of children to kind of work out some way of having fun with this 'thing' called RP...well, I'd buy a lotto ticket instead, if your feeling that lucky. :)

Can you articulate what sort of fun a particular game has? A kind of dark, cynical part of me says that if you can't articulate it, you probably shouldn't do it - it might be just passing on a personal habbit rather than passing on an enriching, rewarding activity.

Jaakko Koivula

Hi and thanks for the suggestions Eero! But let's try articulating first a bit then.

I think that the main point in trying RPGs with the kids, is to show that they are also a way of having fun together. Because hanging together is fun. Doing something creative while hanging together, could be even more fun. The specific type of fun depends rather on what game I choose to try. If I try to prioritize my goals a bit:

  • 1. Hanging out: these people don't know each other that well yet and we're still building team spirit etc. RPGs might be a nice way to try to do that safely and ejoyably. If I pick the right game.
  • 2. Creativity: go for experiences of actually creating something cool. "Wow, this story is actually nice, and I helped to create it. I didn't just watch TV at home."
  • 3. Empowerment: would be a nice bonus. "The others liked what I narrated, Im not that useless after all."

I didn't put immersion or anything like that on the list. Im feeling narrativistic right now.

Hopefully this helps to clear up what Im trying to accomplish here.

Here on the forums I saw something about Zombie Cinema adapted to Cops and Robbers and that sounded quite usable, actually. Even though the amount of blood depends on the players, Im trying to minimize the risk that some people in the group want very detailed brain-eating and some don't and then the latter go and have nightmares etc. boohoo.

1001 Nights sounds pretty suitable according to Arkenstone's presentation text, Im just not too sure about the 1001 nights -setting itself. I'll have to ask how familiar the students are with it and if it interests them etc.

Also Under the Bed sounds extremely good, again according to Arkenstone's. The players are still adolescents, so actually the setting sounds pretty nail on the head -type of case somehow. I'll try to familiarize myself with the game a bit more. Would UtB be or could it be made to be playable one rather short session?

Thanks for the suggestions so far! Please, keep em coming :>

The Magus


( The following holds true for, at least, a mixed group of American Teens. YMMV )

If you have a large group of adolescents in small groups, and you're looking to build "group spirit," something you have to watch out for is that adolescents will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid appearing different from everybody else in their identity group.  You might see more "role playing" as people try to avoid looking like a freak than actually in playing a character in the session.  An important thing to remember for adolescents that while they all WANT to be empowered, very few want to stand out as actually demonstrating that empowerment.

After each session, I'd mix up the small groups, and letting them know that you'll be mixing up the groups.  That way they know ahead of time that they won't get away with just hanging out and not participating in the activity. I'd keep my criteria a secret, but probably mix them up by taking the person who did the "best," and the people who did the "worst," and moving them around.

If you're rotating the groups, you have a chance to move the people who have similar tastes (ex: high gore vs low gore) together as well.

(who has a secondary education degree as his author authority :) )

Eero Tuovinen

One reason for considering UtB is indeed that it handles the short session pretty well. I wouldn't even consider it much of a loss if the players didn't have time to finish the game - the point in roleplaying at school is often more in proving the concept than getting a whole session in. As long as the players get to use their imagination and get to see how it works, they can always join a club and play at more length later on if they want.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Jaakko Koivula

Ordered UtB for now. Just waiting for Arkenstone to email me my bill :> From what I've gathered from this thread, UtB it sounds like a decent enough game for this. And yeah, Im going exactly for something like what Eero said. Get them to know the hobby and see what you can do with it. I'll see how it starts out and then consider about more games.

And Fred really has a point too about adolescents not wanting to appear too different. Im hoping that roleplaying is a new enough area in itself, so that they might get bewildered and accidentally sneak in some fun-times for themselves. We'll see how it goes.

Thanks for all the hints so far, you can still keep them coming, please :)

Anyways, I'll let you know how it turns out once I actually get to playing.

Ron Edwards

Here are a couple of links to discussions, food for thought: Prydain, the Hobbit, Pendragon ... Fun for Kids! and IAWA - roleplaying at school.

They're both about much younger kids, but I think that certain points can be applied to your topic. Let me know if you agree or disagree.

Best, Ron

Jaakko Koivula

Hey again. Very interesting and cute threads those! :)

I don't know IAWA myself, so I might be missing a bunch of points from the other one, though.

In general I think that I can go more "role-playing gamey" with my students, as they are older. I want to play the game "as it was meant to be played" and not simplify or cut corners from the few rules that the game has. Playing by the book or improvising could both be ok ways to start playing RPGs, but I've chosen the first for now.

I might be a pessimist, but I propably will be seeing a little less enthusiasm about the game than in the threads with the younger children. Adolescents and not wanting to appear too different etc. again. That's part of the reason why I want to keep it around the table and clear cut. So if someone isn't excited about all the immersion or anything, they can still somehow participate by doing what the rules say.

Trying to keep it somehow safe for them.

"Crap, I can't think up anything to say or anything cool to narrate, well ok I'll just play a chip and say that I challenge him and I get to throw the dice and to see what happens."

Jaakko Koivula

First run down!

Went about as well as could be expected. Role-playing values not that high, but rather successful and interesting otherwise.

Some of the students had curiously hard time to understand how the rules went, while others grasped the mechanics pretty much instantly. Very interesting to see how people who haven't played any RPGs before at all, just seem to be on so completely different starting level about narrating stuff. Some can't/won't come up with anything, while others happily take hold of the story and move it along.

Im not sure how much of it comes down to skill, how much to self-confidence and how much to just actively not wanting to "get it" and then playing sub-optimally.

As I said, the game itself can't be called very successful, but it showed some interesting things. For example, students seemed to have a great urge to move the story forward ten years, to make the Child as old as they were now. My kitchen-psychology explanation could be, that they are more interested about the issues they are having now, than with the baggage they have left from earlier childhood. For adults this might be rather different. The Child is further away and you can use it easier to handle stuff, than if that childhood is still rather close etc. Not sure about this, just some hunch or idea.

I might try to make the Child really young for the next group. Like three or something. It could help the students to disconnect themselves more from it, and also maybe help them treat the Child better. Tahvo (our 6-year old Child) got nearly beaten up some seven times, was taken into a foster home from his nazi-parents and was an utter bullying bastard himself. Looking back I realize, that he was actually pretty much a 15-year old multi-troubled youth, in the body of a first-grader.

I also have a question. How do you present the game, so it turns into a Toy Story adventure with talking and moving toys? So far I've always tried to compare the game to Toy Story etc, but not once we've had a moving toy yet. If I managed to take the game into a more magical singing and dancing toys -direction, it might help to break the ice and also make the game more fun to the students.

If Im playing with my adult friends, it's ok if the game turns into a gritty story about how grown-ups treat children horribly. We'll still think it was a nice session. On the other hand if I want to show adolescents that role-playing games are fun and nice, I might want to keep the domestic violence etc. to a minimum...

Still, interesting session. Live and learn, gotta try to do some things differently with the second group.


I actually wouldn't have gone with a child themed game; 15-18 year olds are basically immature adults, and especially at the younger side are moving on from childish stuff to learning about the adult world. Many 15 year olds are first getting the hang of the political and philosophical world outside them, at least to the point of thinking they've worked out "how it goes". In my experience they don't want to escape back into childhood, they want to grab hold of those adult things and use them themselves, even if they don't have a full comprehension of how they work. That's just 13-16, older people are considering the pattern of where their life will go, where they will go to uni, what they are really about etc.

If you can hit some of that stuff, you can create some powerful experiences. As with empowerment, don't hit it too square, don't require them to "solve it" to keep playing, but add it as overtones and undertones, things that they can make a statement about, or be inspired to think about.

In terms of actual games, what does that mean? Well you might want a game that specifies overlapping forms of identity, and contains a mix of human and mechanical problem solving, but that's all I've got for the moment.


I think I would recommend My Life With Master. I know its about violence and villainy, but you can easily make that more cartoon violence and villainy rather than the usual sick and twisted stuff. You play the master and send them out on monstrous tasks all over the fictional town until one of them rebels and destroys you.
James R.

Jaakko Koivula

Cheers for the input. I won't go more deeply into the discussion about adolescents not wanting to deal with their childhood but rather going for the adult stuff straight. I just think that they need to do a bit of both and that they get enough chances to think about adult stuff in their normal lives.

And yeah, Im on the same lines about empowerment as JoyWriter is. I sort of think that you can't "empower" anyone else, you can just try to create a situation where someone can accomplish something and gets a chance to feel good about it.

Learning the rules, creating a cohesive story and spending nice time with other people (not that given with all of these guys) might actually be pretty energizing experiences for these guys.

The game I've chosen was Under the Bed and for good or bad, that's what we have been playing and will play.

One session to go anymore, I'll try to do a summary of the whole experience once the whole thing is over.


Fair doos!

Wish I could be more helpful, look forward to hearing how you make it work.