Dungeons & Dragons With Class: Bringing Old-School RPGs to College

Greg Gillespie | 25 Feb 2014 09:00
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Did you ever find yourself sitting in a university classroom listening to a mind-numbing, spirit-crushing lecture about agrarian life in the pre-industrial era or perhaps a talk about Karl Marx's critique of the capitalist system? Given the option, wouldn't you rather take a university course with lectures about Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), colonizing and quantifying the imagination, Satan's game and moral panics, or the revival in old-school tabletop RPGs?

I am a cultural scholar in the humanities tradition. I am also an "acafan." American fandom scholar Henry Jenkins describes an acafan as an academic who also identifies as a fan (or in this case, gamer). Acafans are both enthusiastic and yet critical of the subjects they study. Based on this point of view, I established a program of research that examines the subject of nostalgia and fantasy role-playing games. I published essays in academic peer-reviewed journals like Games and Culture and the Canadian Journal of Game Studies. In these papers, I examined how nostalgia aesthetics, in the form of module cover art, worked ideologically to establish difference from the current editions of D&D while reaffirming the subcultural beliefs and values of the old school renaissance (OSR). The OSR, if you are unfamiliar, consists of gamers that prefer the style of play found in early editions of D&D (pre-2000) and their retro-clone games like Labyrinth Lord.

In addition to academic publications, I am also the author of Barrowmaze -- a megadungeon written for classic fantasy role-playing games. Barrowmaze began at my dining room table as part of my regular home-game. I started the campaign with 2E and 3E D&D players. In order to run an old school game based on the tenets of play from the late 1970s and early 1980s, I needed a large dungeon that could provide the basis for a campaign. If you would like to live vicariously, you can read many of our session reports on our group wiki (Red Box Niagara). We had a lot of fun. I ran successful crowdfunding projects on to expand and improve the dungeon, including a current campaign -- Barrowmaze Complete with Official Miniatures featuring cover art by ex-TSR artist Erol Otus.

Based on my research and game publishing, I developed a senior undergraduate course on the history and culture of role-playing games to parallel my program of research. The majority of my students have not played tabletop RPGs before and are majors in Communication, Popular Culture, or Film, in addition to Psychology and Interactive Arts and Science (Digital Game Design). From the outset, I knew this course would be a pedagogical challenge. I wanted more than a simple lecture course. I sought to integrate academic research with popular non-academic readings while also including opportunities for experiential learning and direct interaction with game designers, artists, and publishers. I had a lot of work to do.

First, I had to come to terms with the body of academic research on tabletop RPGs. The research on tabletop is interesting to characterize. Between the early 1980s and the 1990s, very few academics published on the subject. The primary exception being Gary Allan Fine's seminal study Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds (1983). In my mind, this was surprising. I wondered why was so little research was published on one of the largest popular culture phenomenons of the late 20th century? No single explanation exists. However, I'll provide two that I think help inform the discussion. D&D reached the peak of its popularity in the early 1980s prior to the development of academic programs devoted specifically to the interdisciplinary study of popular culture subjects. In addition, there was a "triviality barrier" within traditional university programs that kept mainstream "ephemeral" popular culture subjects outside of university institutions. By the mid-to-late 1980s, when popular culture, media studies, and cultural studies disciplines gained ground and began to coalesce in institutions of higher learning, D&D had already given way to computer and console gaming. In my view, tabletop RPGs were effectively missed as an object of study until very recently. Academics that grew up with the game like myself, with the support of their departments and the advent of Game Studies as a nascent field of study, began researching and publishing on the subject. In the last several years, a blossoming of journal articles and anthologies has provided impetus for further study of tabletop fantasy role-playing games.

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