Bad Teaching Habits
Us gamers, we love our games. If there is one thing we excel at, itís displaying how much we love our games. Some times even a little too much.
What we arenít so good at, however, is showing off our games, and bringing others to understand how they work. Whether it is a friend whoís never gamed, a spouse whoís horrified at how much time is sunk into this hobby, or a fellow gamer that plays different games, we can always say how much we love playing, but when it gets to the big question (and it always does, sooner or later), we almost always drop the ball.
"So, how do you play?"
This is part one of a (probably) two part set of articles that looks at how we answer that question. Specifically, how do we teach games in a way that is clear, instructional and still fun for everyone involved? Part one addresses some of the bad habits that are rife in the hobby, and suggests ways to recognize and work around them. Further articles in the series will be about good habits, functional methods and teaching effectively. I donít know if Iíll write any of that; I donít currently have the knowledge or practical experience to do so. I may eventually acquire it.
This article will talk specifically about four broadly defined bad habits that I have specifically
observed to either:
a) interfere with the actual straight up education of someone regarding role-playing games, or
b) turn the education into a chore, and kill the fun, either for the player being taught or for others at the table.
What this article does not address is the role of text or the job of the game designer in this process. That is all about focused game design, and the forge already has tons of valuable stuff on that topic.
The examples used in the rest of the article all relate back to this basic scenario, which is what prompted me to get off my ass and try to address bad habits instead of just complaining about them. Iím quite certain it is very familiar to everyone who has spent any significant time gaming.
There is a new player in the 7th Sea game that is played here on Monday nights. He clearly does not know the rules. They are halfway through the session, a fight is starting and the new guy is looking blank. The GM says "Roll your panache."
I'd lay long odds it's the first time he's heard those words that way. More-or-less at the same time, he's told "It's a three." "The bottom stat." and "It's how often you get to act."
From there it devolves into one player trying to explain the way 7th Sea breaks down their rounds and a couple other people yakking around that about panache and cool panache stories and....
This article addresses four sets of behavior, broadly classified as:
- The shotgun approach
- Information overload
- I know it, therefore you know it
- The butt first method
The shotgun approach
What is the Shotgun Approach to teaching? Simply put, it's the technique of throwing enough answers to a question out that (you hope) one of them will click.
Situation: Person A is new - either to the specific game, the gaming group, or to gaming as a hobby. There's a lot of stuff they don't know that everyone else present does.
Problem: Person A asks a question, and gets 4 answers.
GM: Roll your panache.
Person A: (blank look)
GM: It's a three.
Player 1: The bottom stat.
Player 2: It's how often you get to act.
GM: Roll your panache.
Person A: (blank look)
GM: It's a three, the bottom stat. It's how often you get to act in a round.
It isn't so much the number of people firing off answers as it is just different answers.
Why is it a problem?
The shotgun approach comes mostly from 'scrambling for an answer' - the explainer sees the blank look, and keeps trying different explanations until they see a light bulb. You see it a lot at convention demos and game clubs, and also when a new game is being taught. In all fairness, it's not a bad technique for teaching, when used well. Poke your head into a classroom, and you'll probably see the Shotgun approach from the teacher, especially early in the year.
When it becomes a problem is when it becomes a habit. You stop pausing between answers to see if it clicked, and just always toss out three or four different takes on something. Nothing is going to confuse a person faster than telling them something that makes sense, and then telling them three more things. Because they'll assume they didn't actually get it, and you're worse off than when you started.
It's also a serious, serious time suck. It always takes way more time to teach something with the shotgun approach.
So how do we fix it?
Slow down. S L O W D O W N. When you explain something, stop. See if it made sense. Ask if it made sense. If it doesn't, then try another take on it.
The key thing to fixing many of the problem behaviors, and this theme will come up again and again, is being socially aware. Be aware that you are teaching something. Don't make the mistake of talking about the rules; talking about something and teaching something are very different behaviors.Practical tips:
- Give yourself a physical cue. If you've got a drink at your elbow, then every time you touch that glass, stop and ask if it makes sense so far.
- Don't mix metaphors. Metaphors are useful; they let us bridge huge comprehension gaps. But also be aware of their limits. If you use them broadly, they can often cause more problems than they're worth. "It's kind of like D&D" "Isn't that the satanic game that kills kids?" If you're using a metaphor, use it tightly, for this specific thing. If it doesn't work, drop it - do not try and stretch it.
- Use what works. If the first couple things you explain with the shotgun method always get the "ah hah!" on explaining the numbers and the math, then start with the math for the next thing. If they always get it with an "It's like when you..." then start with that.
What is information overload? It's the situation created when there the sheer volume of information being presented in and of itself prevents that information from being retained.
Situation: Person A can be practically anyone; new or experienced doesn't seem to matter.
Problem: Person A shows they're missing some information, and someone else floods them with it.
GM: Roll your panache. Person A: (blank look)
GM: Hmm. If you flip open the book to pg 110, it's got a brief description of what panache is, but I've always found the entry on page 233 to be more evocative and useful. Panache is one of your basic stats, like Brawn, Finesse, Wits and Resolve. Panache is how cool and flashy you are, like Brawn is how big and strong you are [...]
There's a whole lot of information there that just is stunningly irrelevant, and the information that is relevant is getting lost in the flood.
Why is it a problem?
Unlike the shotgun approach, there's little that's redeemable about the information flood. Everyone has a couple relevant thresholds: How fast they can process new information and how quickly they can flag information as already known. These will vary from person to person, and it's compounded by the fact that it's two different processes. Switching back and forth takes time and mental effort, which brings both of those thresholds down substantially.
Here also is where a 'bad behavior' that got mentioned in passing comes into its own and shines: Talking about something instead of teaching it. One of the things our society values strongly is knowledge, and the natural progression from that is: having lots of knowledge is a bragging right. Jeopardy!, Trivial Pursuit, sports statistics and hundreds of similar things are all basically social cues saying "know more, reveal your knowledge and bask in the adulation!" Ok, that's a bit of an over-simplification, but the basic point stands that being the first to produce reams of information is a social one-up.
Giving someone else that knowledge, on the other hand, means that it's no longer unique; you're widening the pool of people who can compete in the one-upmanship - therefore it's better by far to dump information only when it benefits you, and not in a fashion that is actually learnable Ė the social goal becomes getting "oooh, aaah, smart" , and not "I get it now."
It isnít pretty, but that's where the information dump comes from: social competitiveness and the desire to look smarter.
So how do we fix it?
Shut up and check your ego at the door. And again, be socially aware. Recognize that answering questions isn't the arena to compete in. If you absolutely can't keep from competing to get the answer out, try one-on-one. If the urge to pontificate still overcomes you, work with a mirror. It doesn't take long to realize how much you're saying and how little you're actually conveying.
- The Socratic method. Instead of opening your mouth and letting answers pour out, force yourself to ask a question, and not the rhetorical kind. You have to stop and wait for a response, and you might even get a better idea of what the other guy is looking for.
- Bite your lip. Metaphorically or physically, whatever works: don't speak up first. A lot of the bad habit stems from the rush to be first. Cure that and you're halfway there.
- Be concise. One of the other things our society holds in very high regard socially is the ability to sum up a conversation in a sentence. Lose unnecessary words, lose unnecessary subjects, and youíll get social recognition and youíll get the point across.
I know it, therefore you know it.
Situation: Person A is new to a game, or situation.
Problem: Person B omits crucial information from an explanation.
GM: Ok folks, we got a combat!
(Players variously roll dice and otherwise do stuff)
Player A: "umm..."
Why is it a problem? Short of the unwashed ignorant lout, there is no greater barrier to entry for the hobby of gaming than the huge volume of data, lingo and jargon. We likes our little in-jokes, yessss my precious.
This is usually a good thing. In-jokes and references naturally develop over time, and are how we connect with the other people at the table. They're a huge part of the fun. Common knowledge (when the GM calls combat, we all roll Panache without being prompted) is part of this insider information, and is not just part of the fun, but lets us skip past tedium and get to the interesting parts.
Where it becomes a problem is when, either through inattention or deliberate snobbery, it becomes exclusive instead of inclusive. Healthy 'good' in-joke behavior is "hey remember that time when..." and everyone laughs. Unhealthy is when it turns into "Hey, remember that time - oh, no wait. You weren't there." (turns to other people) "But wasn't the samurai fish slap the funniest thing ever?"
Part of why it's a big problem in teaching games is the 'inattention' side of the equation - we don't explain things at all because "we all know it". It may have been weeks or months or even years since anyone you gamed with didn't know "the rules" And the rules can be anything from the Panache example to "everyone brings their own drinks".
So how do we fix it?
This is one of the really hard ones to work around, because even more than the other stumbling blocks, this one is all about ingrained social habits. Thems is hard to break. Also, they are often habits that we don't actually want to break - we just want to bend them enough to get the new guy up to speed, and then snap back into the same patterns.
Be mindful. Keep in mind how it feels to be the guy on the edge of the group. Be patient. Teaching a new guy the ropes is, frankly, boring for most people. Try to remember how much faster this will bring the whole group back online.
Also, and this is a bigger thing for the "fun" side than the "teaching" side: Don't get so caught up in demonstrating how cool and awesome your group is and how much fun you have that you forget to include the new guy in that fun.Practical tips:
- Post-it's: Put a sticky note on your character sheet that says "Bob knows none of this." Put it on top of something you have to look at or change a lot, like hit points in D&D.
- Use the Buddy system: Designate someone friendly to sit with the new guy and make sure he's included. This should be someone willing to say "Hey! Shut up, Bob's trying to figure this out."
- Stop and explain: When you give an inside joke or make a rules jump, stop and explain it. Tell the cool story, or explain how the rule works. Yes, it slows the group down right now, but it keeps the group healthier over all and, in my experience, makes things reach full steam sooner.
The Butt First Method
Situation: Person A asks a question.
Problem: Person B starts to answer, and gets distracted.
Person A: How do I use Panache again?
Person B: It's kinda how fast you are... actually, the best way to show it is to run a mock combat so you see how it works. (rummage rummage) Sorry, gotta get out my dice. (rummage rummage) Take a look at this - I picked up a bunch of new dice and this one's my favorite. Last week, I rolled this die, and it came up ten, like three times in a row. [...]
Why is it a problem?
That should be blazingly clear from the example. It's a problem because the question never gets answered. And worse, the question starts to get answered, so you're left there hanging with half an answer from one person, and everyone else sees that someone is responding, so they assume you've got your answer. My mother-in-law describes this as "going through life butt first." (I have to do laundry. But first, on the way to get laundry, I notice the bed is unmade. So I have to make the bed. But first I need clean sheets. But first, on my way to the cupboard, I trip on that loose board. I need to fix the board. But first....) In the end, it's just spinning wheels and wasted effort, because you start a thousand things and never get a single one finished.
So how do we fix it?
Focus, focus, focus. Pay attention to what you're doing. There's a boatload of articles and advice books out there on keeping focused and achieving goals instead of dropping out halfway. Go read some. After you finish reading this article.
- Pause, then answer. Before you launch, take a couple seconds and think about the question. Part of the Butt First behavior is caused by just not thinking ahead.
- Look at the person you are talking to. Don't look at your sheet, don't fiddle with dice, and donít keep watching TV or reading the book. This will do wonders for your ability to finish the conversation you're having, instead of getting distracted.
- Turn the damn TV off. Minimize distractions in the environment. Keep your play area uncluttered, and make sure that the things that are there serve to put focus back on the game and the people playing it.
Each of these behavior sets has different roots, but by the time they get to the gaming table there is a common factor: exhibiting any of these behaviors means you are not paying attention to the other people at the table. Role-playing is, first and foremost, a social activity. Everything about it, right from teaching to playing to running involves interacting with others, and for that interaction to be positive, you need to pay attention to each other.
This article focuses on teaching, because learning a new game is where most people get their first exposure to gaming as a whole, or to a new aspect of the hobby, and first impressions count. But donít let this articleís focus on bad teaching habits hold you back Ė apply the underlying lessons to everything you do at the gaming table, and youíll get a better game for it.
If you have any questions about this article, or concerns it raises, please feel free to start a thread in the appropriate forum at the forge; probably in Actual Play if itís about specific instances of good or bad habits at the table. If you just want to throw out a bad habit youíve seen or a practical tip thatís worked for you, just PM me. If I get enough of them, Iíll either expand or revise the article.