Teaching is like game mastering

25 February, 2008 at 10:45 am (game mastering, mathematics, rpg theory) ()

I spend this weekend prepping s person for the mathematics part of the matriculation examination. The student was a pretty smart guy, but he did not have much routine in twisting numbers and letters around.

I could not help noticing some parallels between teaching and running games.

The matter of preparation

When running a game, I have some possible events that I can confront the player characters with. Extensive planning is just work and encourages railroading (when done by me). I also learn the system well enough so that I don’t need to check the books that often, if at all.

When teaching, I had some ideas about what subjects to handle and possibly some specific problems to solve or tricks to show. I did not build a script of the teaching session. I did go through the MAOL formula book (contains most of the formulae used in the matriculation examination and can evn be used in said examination). I still have an excellent handle of almost all of the material, differential equations excluded. Maybe I’ll ask Thalin to give me a quick summary or alternative check out some literature. Anyway.  I familiarised myself with the “rules”. The parallels are clear, I hope.

The flow of the session

When running a game, I usually have prepared enough toget the thing going and then follow up with improvisation that springs from player choices and the dice. This leads to quite dynamic gameplay, but does have some drawbacks, too. One relevant strength is that I can change the direction or emphasis of the game based on player input, verbal or nonverbal. This would work a lot better if I actually noticed the nonverbal cues, as opposed to what I do now.

When teaching, I had something to start with (nested functions, understanding derivatives to be the rate of change or angle of a graph). I explained something from different angles until the Samuli, the student, understood what I was talking about. If a difficult problem came up, I constructed a series of problems so that it started with very simple and basic, every problem was a bit more complicated than the previous one, and the difficult situation was culmination of the series. The longest series was probably three or four, so nothing terribly elaborate. Likewise, if something was easy, we could skip past it and get on to the harder stuff.

The skills required

Roleplaying and game mastering are both skills. They can be learned, improved, or get rusty. Ditto with teaching.

I think the following skills are all central to both running a game and teaching, if interpreted sufficiently broadly:

  • Gauging interest: Are people yawning or eager and focused?
  • Building suitable obstacles/problems that are not trivial, yet are not too difficult.
  • Clear communication: Explaining/describing things so that shared understanding of the subject matter/fiction is built. See anchors by Bruce (Tumac).
  • Leaving room for the student/players: Teacher/GM knows more about the problem/obstacle than the student/players does/do. Yet, the student is the one who should solve the problem, and players the ones who deal with an obstacle. No use setting up a problem or obstacle and then solving it by yourself or having a GMPC solve all problems.
  • Judgement: When a solution or mode of action is suggested, teacher/GM is the one who judges how well it works. Sometimes a simple mistake is done, sometimes the solution is flawless. GM does have the luxury of letting dice arbitrate some events, but even then the difficulty or modifiers of those rolls are up to the GM. (There are some games where this is not true. E.g. Primetime adventures, Beast hunters, Agon. This all IIRC; I have never played any of those.)
  • Quick thinking. This one is obvious and general enough to not be worth extensive commentary.

Other styles

I had the luxury of only teaching a single person. This is good. It is very exhaustive. I’d say that teaching a group demands slower pace and is probably more conductive to  preparing. Reasoning: If everyone must understand a subject, more numerous angles of presentation are useful. It is often hard to improvise multiple ways of doing the same thing (at least for me it is). Hence, preparing them ahead of them is something between viable and necessary.

Does this apply to roleplaying? Does a larger number of players imply easier or more useful preparation?

In my experience (I have never run a game with many players; four is probably the upper limit), solo games move fast. It takes huge amounts of prep to not have to improvise in solo game. When there are many players, OOG chatter is more prominent, the characters interact with each other, and generally everything takes more time. This means that less content is used in the same time and hence preparation is more possible.

On the other hand, multiple player characters means more complex plans can be formulated and practically achieved. I’d say that the time planning takes means that adjudicating such is not a huge burden, as opposed to the rapid-fire approach a single player is likely to take.

Also, when there are several PCs, the material can be more generic, because nobody assumes that every moment of the game is relevant to every character in a very personal and intimate way. I hope.

Conclusions and a warning

There are clear parallels between teaching and game mastering. The different styles, prep-wise, are quite similar. (Sandbox play would be roughly equivalent to having a huge menu of problems for the studen to choose among; there is similarity between a textbook and a published setting).

The warning part: Don’t use roleplaying to teach a lesson. Like, “greed is teh evilness”. Punish every character that does a greedy thing, reward every generous action. Players will see it and resent it. Be open about such an undertone and add it as a setting or rules premise, like a setting where the generous are held in esteem and greed as a sign of possession by evil spirits. Let players challenge the notions and don’t fiat a conclusion you like. Provide a playground, not a brainwashing session.

This applies to teaching ethics, too. Teach something and people will resist it just because. Give something that people can interact with and they will form their own opinions about it and actually learn something.


I have no training in pedagogy. Take my opinions with a grain of salt. They are opinions, not facts.


  1. Tumac said,

    Hi my friend, I have a question. Do you enjoy teaching?

    For that matter, do you enjoy game mastering?

    I’m curious because teaching is normally done out of necessity, or perhaps benevolence, whereas roleplaying is for fun.

    So are these similarities with teaching a good thing or a bad thing? Does game mastering need to be made more fun?

    I’d be interested to know what you think

  2. Tommi said,

    I enjoy teaching a single person, given that I know enough about the subject to feel comfortable with it and given that the person taught actually wants to learn.

    I enjoy game mastering, provided the players are enjoying the game and I am not over-extending myself for too long.

    The similarities are a good thing insofar as I can utilise the same set of skills in both activities.

    Also: I don’t think “fun” is a good word to use. It implies light-hearted or non-serious activity, which is not always the case.

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