Dynamic Transfer and Learning New Contexts

Dynamic Transfer is a complicated subject, and one that I feel requires a lot more background than I ideally want to dedicate myself to giving in one blog post. As a simple explanation, “Dynamic Transfer occurs over time as a learner coordinates prior knowledge along with other resources available in the environment to produce new understandings (p. 182)”.

I recognize that there is a lot to unpack there. When I use the term transfer, I’m talking about the ability that a person has to take prior knowledge from one context and apply that knowledge to a new context.

As a sufficiently geeky example, a gamer who has perhaps been persuaded into playing on console, despite their preference for playing on the PC, might ask another player over the in game communication system what button throws a grenade. The PC player knows that it is possible to throw a grenade and draws on that prior knowledge to use one of their resources, another player, to determine how to accomplish that goal in the new context.

That’s close to dynamic transfer. It occurs during the moments of floundering as the gamer adjusts to the new method for interacting with the game. Any gamer who has switched from playing video games using a mouse and keyboard to playing them on console knows the experience of dealing with a period of adjustment.

It’s an adjustment to moving the camera the right way. Personally for me, I struggled with the joysticks seeming much too sensitive compared to looking around with a mouse and keyboard in the 3D space. Aiming with a mouse and keyboard is a much different experience than aiming with a controller in a first person shooter, and it took me quite awhile to adjust to being able to aim as well as I could with a mouse and keyboard on a controller. There’s also something else that happens during that adjustment. My skill level when playing the same game dropped considerably. I was struggling to get anywhere near the performance I had with using different controls. It’s during that period of adjustment where dynamic transfer is happening. I have this prior knowledge and experience playing the game well, but I have to figure out what that means on a controller.

I had to draw on a few resources in order to actually get good at playing the game on a controller. One is learning the keys from another player, or the in game tutorial system. Another resource is the in game menu that has options for adjusting the joystick sensitivity. Another one is watching others play the game to see what they do, and how their hands move when they are interacting with the game. After some struggling with the new system, eventually, and that’s key, I was able to perform on a console controller nearly the same way that I could on a PC, but it would not have been possible without struggling. Getting through that period of adjustment is where dynamic transfer happens, and usually learning a new context requires gritting your teeth through a difficult experience.

The kind of dynamic transfer and creation of new knowledge I’m primarily interested in in terms of this blog post involves writing. Dynamic transfer occurs in much the same way. A writer goes from one writing context, let’s say the first year composition classroom, to a new writing setting. They have prior knowledge about writing, but their writing with different goals, styles, audiences, tones, and more in this new context and there’s a period of struggle in which they can attempt to synthesize their prior knowledge with the resources in the new writing context in order to reach an understanding of how to write in this new context.

The questions are: What do resources for dynamic transfer look like in a writing context, and What transfers from a previous learning context to be coordinated with those resources?

For example, let’s take a writer who is going from a First Year Composition context to a biology class room. Abstractly, a writer might understand that they need an introduction, a thesis statement, and conclusion,  but they might not know specifically what a introduction, thesis statement, or conclusion should look like in the biology department.

The prior knowledge that transfers over is the need for a introduction, the need for a thesis, and the need for a conclusion. These ideas are abstract. A writer might not even think of them in those terms, but they know they need to start the paper a certain way, and the paper needs an end point. The question becomes, what does the writer draw on to understand what those aspects of a paper should look like in the new context?

The resources might be very simple. Perhaps the psychology professor passes out an example paper that the student could try and imitate in order to write the paper in the correct way. The professor might lecture about what the goals of a piece of writing and that might help the students to understand it as well. The only thing is that those two examples might not be very common. In fact, the resources in a new writing context might be even more subtle than that. Students might have to try and understand how their writing is supposed to sound based on extrapolating on readings that have been assigned in class. The point is that there are resources in these new setting and if we can figure out what those resources are, and how they might help a student to understand a new writing context, we might be able to teach students to identity them even if they are very subtle.

Sources

Hayes, Hogan. Ferris R, Dana. Whithaus, Carl. “Dynamic Transfer in First Year Writing and “Writing in the Disciplines” Settings”. Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer.  Ed by Anson, Chris M. Moore L. Jessie. The Wac Clearing House and University Press of Colorado. P. 181-213.

 

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Understanding Interviews and Co-Researcher Participants

In the past I’ve always found the methods sections of studies a little boring if I’m being honest before I understood the importance of them. I was one of those students who would read the introduction and the results and I wouldn’t pay that much attention to the often math-y middle bits.

A description of methods is important because they describe the context and interpretation of the study, and also give some insight into why the researchers discovered what they did. Without really understanding this information one runs the risk of grossly misinterpreting the results of a study.

I’ve tried much harder over the course of my studies in composition to pay much more attention to methods sections and to assess a greater meaning from reading them rather than treating them as a hurdle to jump before getting to the results of a study.

Specifically, I’m writing about what new understandings of methods I’ve come to recently based on the readings of my current composition class and how they affect my understanding of how to collect data during a classroom observation.

1. The subject(s) of the study can be and sometimes should be a co-researcher

I think traditionally speaking when it comes to studies we imagine that subjects are not involved in the collection of data and sometimes are not even aware of the goals of the study. This calls upon prior knowledge of studies adhering to the ideology of scientific neutrality. the idea being that all that matters is what the data reveals, and that interpretation or individual perspective is not to be trusted.

However, this kind of objectivity could make things difficult for researchers depending on what they are trying to understand. For example, in a study called “Double Binds and Consequential Transitions: Considering Matters of Identity During Moments of Rhetorical Challenge” by Elizabeth Wardle and Nicolette Mercer Clement, the subject of the study was made a co-researcher because of what the researchers were attempting to understand.

The study was meant to reveal what kinds of struggles a student goes through during a consequential transitions when transferring prior knowledge to a new learning setting. A consequential transition is one that causes a student, or person for that matter, to struggle with sense of identity or place in society. These are transitions that change someone’s perspective on the way that the world works and who they are or should be.

The problem with doing this kind of study without a participants involvement in interrupting data is that a researcher can’t see inside the brain of the participant. A researcher wouldn’t be able to look at the data and determine what the subject was feeling, or how they understood their own struggle. As mentioned in another study called “Dynamic Transfer in First-Year Writing and ‘Writing in the Disciplines” Settings which used interviews for the process and used this understanding as a reason for getting input from the students via interviews to help the researchers with interpreting the data.

2. Data points shouldn’t always be predetermined

This idea is not one that is new, but one that I’ve reflected on again recently. Studies are sometimes conducted with a concrete idea of what the researchers want to explore. Going into a study there might already be a system for coding data, and for determining what it means, but often it’s a good idea to allow the research to reveal data points.

As explained by Wardle in the previous cited study, “Predetermining data points […] entails making a number of faulty assumptions (164)”. Researchers cannot see how a student is reacting to material on a mental, emotional or social level and predetermining data points regarding problems of transferring writing knowledge from one context to another becomes problematic.

It doesn’t mean that researchers shouldn’t have a goal in mind, but it doesn’t help to make things to rigid and to collect only what the researchers assumes matters. In Wardle’s study it was discovered that a lot of difficulty regarding Clement’s consequential transitions were related to losing a particular social resource. Clement was used to  support from her family, and due to the socially controversial material of the class she was involved in she lost a key facet of her support when it came to her writing which made the process more difficult.

This really leads to my final point:

3. Collecting classroom data during an observation involves understanding the emotions and thinking of the students

Understanding the way that students learn isn’t as easy as analyzing a text and determining how many grammar mistakes are present, or how many instances of misunderstanding how to communicate properly in an assignment there are points of data that cannot be tracked only by collecting handouts or completed assignments.

Researchers, depending on the task, need to be aware of how to collect data that is pertinent to their question. Some of that data may take a shape that is not easily collected and might require interviewing participants and otherwise involve them in the study. To understand learning we need to understand how learners feel about their own learning ability and what is taking pace when they are learning. What struggles they might be having internally while attempting to change their writing process may be unpredictable without the insight from those individuals.

Sources

Hayes,Hogan. Ferris, Dana R., and Whithaus, Carl. “Dynamic Transfer in First-Year Writing and ‘Writing in the Disciplines’ Settings.” Critical Transitions Ed. Anson, Chris. Moore, Jessie. Wac Clearing House and University Press of Colorado.

Wardle, Elizabeth. Clemet, Nicolette Mercer. “Double Blinds and the Consequential Transitions: Considering Matters of Identity During Moments of Rhetorical Challenge”  Critical Transitions Ed. Anson, Chris. Moore, Jessie. Wac Clearing House and University Press of Colorado.

 

 

 

Observing Threshold Concepts in the Classroom

Threshold concepts serve as a way to look at learning. The idea is that when we encounter new ideas,  new environments, new goals, or new knowledge we are unfamiliar with there is a kind of struggle that takes place as our previous knowledge transforms given the encounter we have had with a new situation.  A threshold is a kind of metaphorical doorway that one must successfully pass through in order to understand their new knowledge.

People often encounter threshold concepts even if they don’t really understand that they have done so. As an example, when I first started blogging a long time ago when Live Journal was very popular with everyone the idea was new to me. I treated that blog as if it were a diary or journal and wrote some really personal and embarrassing melodramatic stuff. The threshold, that I think many people who grew up around the same time as me went through, was realizing that blogs were in fact public spaces and there are rhetorical rules about what is appropriate to post and what isn’t.

The reason why I bring threshold concepts up is because they are a significant piece of our research in one of my current composition courses. What we’re interested in mostly is writing for transfer and how it’s handled across academic disciplines, but threshold concepts give us a way to look at what is being learned.

The question is: What practices of teaching writing can we observe in classrooms outside of the discipline of composition which seem to address threshold concepts tied to learning to write as we understand them in composition studies.

There are five thresholds concepts of writing that we are focusing on for this study.

  1. Writing is a social and rhetorical activity
  2. Writing speaks to situations through recognizable forms
  3. Writing enacts and creates identities and ideologies
  4. All writers have more to learn
  5. Writing is (also always) a cognitive activity

It’s probably outside of the scope of this blog post to go into these threshold concepts specifically and to define them. Instead, I want to talk about how we might observe these thresholds being enacted in a writing intensive classroom that is not in the Composition discipline.

I’ll write specifically about one threshold here. The second one up there: Writing speaks to situations through recognizable forms. We use a term differently in Composition than we might use it in most other situations and that term is genre. A genre is the shape a type of writing might take.

For instance, A journal entry is a genre. A journal entry often begins with the date at the top of the page. If a writer is going to route of treating it as a diary, it might begin “Dear Diary”. Journal entries tend to be stream of consciousness type writing reflecting on the events of a day or an emotional state.

What we’d be looking for in classrooms across the disciplines is instances of this threshold concept being addressed. If a professor offers the class a style guide for the way they need to write a report or a case study we would be able to code that as an instance of threshold concepts being addressed in the classroom.

I’ll do one more dealing with concept: Writing enacts and creates identities and ideologies. This threshold might be observed in a professor telling students who they are writing as. In a biology course, if the professor mentions to a classroom that they are being asked to “write as researchers” that points students to this threshold. They might also be told something about tone. Often in scientific writing writers are expected to be objective. This tone creates an ideology of neutrality which students are expected to adhere.

I personally think that threshold concepts offer a great way to code writing taking place in classrooms outside of the composition discipline. While it might seem abstract, there have been studies on these threshold concepts and it seems that it might be possible that classes that teach with threshold concepts in mind are more successful at giving students the tools to transfer their knowledge from one writing environment to the next.

Sources

Ed Adler-Kassner, Linda; Wardle, Elizabeth. Naming What we Know. Utah State University Press. 2015.

Meta-cognitive Awareness of the Social and Rhetorical Aspects of Writing

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this here before, but I am a Composition and Rhetoric major at Sacramento State University. I’ve been asked by an instructor to update a blog of my responses to readings (articles, studies, etc). I figured I might as well make those blog updates here. This blog title is “Geek Intellectualtist” So I might as well have something on here that is intellectual, right?

The class is focused on Writing for Transfer which as a concept is kind of addressing what is sometimes perceived as a problem with the discipline of Composition. In a standard Composition classroom, we are often having students do a lot of writing, but the kind of writing they are doing is often not writing that they will be doing again later on in their careers.

Take for example the personal narrative.

This writing assignment usually requires a student to tell an instructor a story about their lives. Often they are given a goal that the story is meant to achieve. For example, a personal narrative prompt might instruct a student to tell a story that makes an argument about a value that is important to the writer. A really popular prompt is to ask students to write a personal narrative about a time they had struggled with writing and to reflect on what they learned from that struggle. (There are reasons for this that as I study more and more composition theory I think I can understand and explain, but that’s a subject for a different blog post.)

These kind of writing assignments are not assignments that students are going to be asked to reproduced if their plan is to move on into say Engineering as their college discipline. Yet we teach FYC to all students because often enough the concern from other disciplines or the workforce is that college students or graduates often aren’t seen as capable of writing within’ those disciplines.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but the question for the discipline of Composition is: How do we teach writing so that students and young professionals are capable of transferring writing skills and knowledge from our composition classrooms to their new disciplines or fields?

One way we can do this is to get student writers to think about writing as more than just a simple action that produces a product. Writing is both a social and rhetorical activity and understanding this concept is important for understanding how to write in new environments.

An example I quite like, and is easy to follow, is one introduced by Kevin Roozen in a short article called, funnily enough, Writing is both a Social and Rhetorical Activity. Roozen uses the example of a father writing a birthday card message to his daughter. It seems like a simple enough action, and one whose purpose is easy to understand.

Why do we write birthday card messages anyway? Well, one reason is that it’s a social practice that we all have in common. When you give someone a birthday gift often there is an expectation that there will be some kind of birthday card. Generally, it isn’t really considered enough that there is a birthday card given, a birthday card must include a kind of personal note that addresses the person receiving the gift.

Roozen expresses that the “father’s purpose in writing up a birthday card is to communicate his love for his daughter.” This is the intended goal that the father might go about achieving in different ways. He might write of a fond memory, or about the gift and why he picked it out, but all of these choices are intended for that one purpose: to express fondness for his daughter. This is the rhetorical part of the action. Part of this rhetorical action is accomplished by invoking an audience in mind. The father imagines his daughter as the audience for the piece of writing and will choose what to write based on that imagined audience.

Second, Roozen explains the way that writing the birthday card is social. It’s certainly social because it’s part of the social relationship that the father shares with the daughter, but it’s also social in another way. All writers, no matter if it’s unconsciously or consciously draw on previous experiences with writing in order to produce new writing. The father might think back to birthday cards that he has received, or he might have seen what another person has written on a birthday card to their daughter, and that influences the way that he chooses to write his message. He might think about what a birthday card message is supposed to look like. He’ll likely sign his name at the bottom of the message he puts in the card or sign it off as “Love Dad” because his previous experiences with greeting cards have taught him, most likely unconsciously, that that is the correct way to write it.

This is a simple example, but we can look at that example we can extrapolate to other situations. For example, A person writing a report for work, or typing up an e-mail to a customer or co-worker. A writer can look at what the rhetorical and social aspects of those writing goals and in understanding those goals can call upon skills and prior knowledge that assist with them. The goal for us is to get our students to always think about writing this way. This meta-cognitive awareness of writing is what we want to instill in student writers because it will enable them to navigate new writing situations with the right thinking tools and perhaps lead them to more successful writing in new situations.

Sources

  1. Anson, Chris M., & Moore, Jessie L. (Eds.). (2016). Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer. Perspectives on Writing. Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado. Available at https://wac.colostate.edu/books/ansonmoore/
  2. Roozen, Kevin. “Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity”. Naming What We Know. Edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda; Wardle, Elizabeth, Utah State University Press, 2015, 17 -19.

 

What Makes Good Hip Hop?

This afternoon I woke up and went down to a bar I was at last night because I left my card. Hey, don’t judge me! You’ve done it, anyway, I went back to the bar and ordered a campfire stout. I mean I was already there and I might as well have a beer.

I was just going to sit outside the bar, have a beer, vape, and relax before shopping for my roommates last minute barbecue. I mean, I am trying to do life stuff now. Like having barbecues, going to clubs and dancing with strangers.

Not the point.

So, I was there, and I had on my black Flogging Molly t-shirt and my nails painted black and there was this big Mexican dude sitting outside and smoking a cigarette. He was wearing a raiders t-shirt and a baseball cap. Before I sat down I was thinking of playing sad white guy music, you know, something a bit indie and emotional because apparently I do that now. I didn’t think I was going to have anything to talk about with this guy, so I minded my own business and stared at my phone for a bit.

Why the nails? I went to a goth club.

It’s another whole thing I do now I guess.

Anyway, this guy starts talking to me about bullshit. Small talk, the kind of talk that people make when they just feel uncomfortable in the moment. It’s weird to sit down with a total stranger sometimes and I think often the urge is to make conversation to try and make the whole thing a whole lot less awkward.

He starts talking to me about his job. Ironically, he works at a cancer research facility. I tell him what I do, and we start talking about Hip Hop unexpectedly. We shared three or four hip hop songs and talked about why they are good.

Now, I’m going to level with you, I really really like Hip Hop, but I’m not expert. I wasn’t really into it when I was a teenager because my Dad hated Hip Hop music and might have been a touch racist. I had a friend growing up that was into it, and he would share it with me constantly, but I never really got a chance to get into the way that other people have gotten into music. Hell, I couldn’t really get into any kind of music other than Classic Rock because all other music was bad.

Hip Hop is something I’ve come to enjoy lately, and I’ve gone back and listened to a lot of the music trying to understand the history, and the culture around it.

This guy, however, really knew his shit.

He made a few declarations about Hip Hop. The usual fan fair about Hip Hop being different these days, and artists don’t do it the way they used to. I get some of that, but I also think some of that rhetoric is just people being old and not giving new things a chance.

More interesting were his other declarations.

He started with this one: He wants a rapper to tell him a story.

There’s a stereotype about Hip Hop that all that music is about is pussy, drugs and violence. Those themes are definitely in there, but good Hip Hop tells a story about those themes. It paints a picture of a different environment.

This is a perfect example of the storytelling that a good rapper can offer. Ice T takes us through a day in the kind of life that he experiences. It’s not just about bragging. Instead, it’s a look into a window of what life was like. I’m sure, some of it is over exaggerated, but the point is that it paints a picture.

Back on the Streets after five and a deuce
Seven years later but still had the juice
My homeboy Ken Gee put me up the track
Told me E’s rolling Villain, BJ’s got the sack
Bruce is a giant – Nat C’s clocking dough
Be bop’s a pimp, my old freaks a ho
The batter rams rolling, rocks are the thing
Life has no meaning and money is king
Then he looked at me slowly and Hen had to grin
He said, man you out early, we thought you got ten
Opened his safe kicked me down with cold cash
Knew I would get busy, he didn’t waste time to ask

What gets my attention here are lines seven and eight. “The batter rams rolling/ Rocks are the thing/Life has no meaning/and money is king.” This gets me every time that I hear it because it signifies some deeper meaning in the song. There’s a certain sense of nihilism that Ice-T is getting across when he talks about his life. Why does he do the things he does? Because his environment has taught him that life has meaning and the only thing that matters in life, and the only thing people care about is money.

The next declaration the man at the bar gave me was that Rap songs have to be clever and mean something beyond the surface details. It’s not enough to talk about your hard life on the streets. There has to be something behind the story being told. There also has to be something clever in the lyrics. It’s one of the reasons that both of us gushed over Kendrick Lamar while we were talking and not someone like Future. When you pay attention to the details of a good Hip Hop song there are things to notice in the lyrics: reasons the songs were written the way they were.

Another interesting part of 6 ‘N the Mornin’ is the ending of each verse.

Didn’t know what the cops wanted, didn’t have time to ask
Bitch didn’t know what hit her, didn’t have time to ask
Nigga didn’t know what happened, didn’t have time to ask
Knew I would get busy, he didn’t waste time to ask
We didn’t know who they were, no one had time to ask
Cops wouldn’t shot us on sight, they wouldn’t took time to ask
She didn’t even know what happened, didn’t care, didn’t ask
She knew her loving was def, she didn’t waste time to ask
Didn’t know where we were going, didn’t care, didn’t ask
But it was 6 in the morning, we didn’t wake up to ask

There’s something interesting going on here is there? This motif is important to pay attention to in order to understand something more about the song. Sure, on the surface it might look like someone bragging about the gangster lifestyle. There is also a deeper idea.

One aspect of focus here is the subject of time. Everything is moving so fast that there isn’t enough time for anything. There’s not time to reflect. There’s no time to try and understand the world that Ice-T is describing here. Some people might experience times of leisure, relaxation, and reflection, but in this world there isn’t time for that. No one really understands why the events are occurring in the song they are just happening and everyone is so used to it that they don’t ask about it. No one living in this world tries to understand it.

It is what it is.

Life has no meaning and money is king 

Ice-T calls this genre “Reality Rap” instead of “Gangster Rap”. He’s said that he is just rapping about the way that things are. He’s reflecting in this song on what’s going on in his life, but he’s finding no meaning there. In reality, there is no meaning for the events that are taking place around him. This is his life. The fact that he ultimately doesn’t find any meaning at all in the song is poignant, in addition to the fact that he doesn’t bother trying to give the listener any meaning. I kind of like the moniker reality rap because in a sense he is just describing what life is like, but he’s also making reference to the fact that it’s meaningless, tiring, and for some reason everyone is just used to it being reality. 

I really enjoyed that conversation earlier today, and it got me thinking about this song a bit more. It’s not one of my favorites, but even it has more going on than one might recognize on a casual listen to the song. One of the reasons I get frustrated with the way that people dismiss Hip Hop as music about “drugs, girls, being a gangster, and partying” is that people haven’t taken the time to engage with the lyrics the way that they might if they were reading a poem instead.

Now, again, I am really fresh to really falling in love with Hip Hop, so I’m sure to some people I’m just talking bullshit right now, but I enjoy it and I’m making an effort to appreciate the music.

Off My Chest

Continue

Hello empty box.

It’s been awhile.

I wasn’t going to make this blog a personal one when I started it, but I’ve never really felt an urge to post to this blog as strong as the one I have now. I have something on my chest, a weight, that I need to get off of it.

The worst thing about a break-up from a long term relationship isn’t just the end of something that once had a pulsing vibrant heart. It’s not the sudden financial burden of losing a partner who was providing more support. It’s not the sudden loss of emotional support through the hardships of life (though that’s nice). The hardest parts of losing something as significant as a long term relationship is:

The Meaninglessness

Before a break up, every moment is bright with potential. Every accomplishment, failure, story, or conversation becomes a moment to share with someone. I feel like I’m always expecting to be able to look over my shoulder when something happens and see someone there with their hands on my shoulders giving me comfort, smiling at the moment, or laughing with me. Now, I look over my shoulder and there’s a ghost of the person who used to be there. The building blocks of life seem to have less meaning because at the center of those building blocks was a cornerstone on which every block connected.

Now the palpable loneliness greets me every time I do something and expect to be able to share it. I feel a tug in my chest and those strings are wavering in the air looking for something that’s no longer there to connect with. The little things that build up meaning suddenly are smaller, and a reminder of what was once. Speaking of reminders:

Things

See, in a long term relationship people often give one another things to show their affection. As the years pass these things build and build up. What’s worse is all the things matter to me. Their connected to my interests because that someone I had knew what I wanted. The mechanical keyboard I’m typing this up on was a gift. The musical keyboard that I’m learning to play to try and find some new meaning for myself was another one. My favorite watch which I wear around my left wrist everyday, its face embossed with my superhero idol (Spider-Man), greets me whenever I check the time.

Each of these things surrounding me brings the ghosts of what once was back to me. Memories playing in front of my eyes, both good and bad, and pull me into the past. It’s hard not to wallow in the sadness of those moments.

What’s harder is that these things are intrinsically linked forever to who I am. I can’t be rid of them because they belong with me. Picked out with precision for me. They tell a story of someone who used to care for me, and that’s what’s hard because now where love used to be there’s:

Dread

Especially for me, breaking up means that the universe become that much more meaningless. I’ve often thought myself a existentialist, but occasionally I drop into bouts of nihilism. We’re all just trying to stave of the dread of truth: that ultimately we don’t have any place in the universe.

Having someone’s love means that suddenly there’s meaning in your life. That person, they look at you, and they see you, and that seeing means something. The universe becomes less dreadful because you can find a place to hang on for dear life when the absurdness of human existence begins to try to blow you away into the void.

Now, I feel myself slipping, my fingers slipping off the edges of the rail that I already had a loose grip on anyway. Maybe it’s my depression, but I can feel that place pulling me into it in my darker moments and sometimes I’m afraid it’s going to eat me alive.

What now?

I don’t know.

I’m picking up the pieces of myself and trying to see if they make a shape. I’m afraid, deeply frightened, that they won’t.

All I can do is…

Continue looking at my things and trying to figure out what they were meant for.

Continue looking for a job to support myself as a single person.

Continue to instruct my classes as best as I’m able.

Continue to study the subject of my field and attempt to master it.

Continue to make connections with friends who care about me.

Continue.

Hopefully, choosing to continue enough times means that those pieces will come together again, and I can figure out what it means to be whole.

I promise, I won’t just make this a place to get things off my chest. I need to write interesting things into it, and I will do that. For now, this post, this is for me. It’s what I need, and I did need it.

Thanks for reading.

Introducing New Players to TTRPGs

Alright,

I better write something on this blog at some point. I got my glass of johnny walker red, and I’m ready to smith words. I’m just going to write about what’s on my mind.

I’ve been GMing[1] a lot lately. I really love the experience, and I’ve been hungry for more opportunities to run games. This hunger has made me do something probably at least a little bit stupid.

I recently convinced some people to give Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) a try for a one-shot[2] game.

Of course, really when I say someone should give D&D a try I’m really just talking about any fantasy Table Top Role Playing Game[3] (TTRPG). D&D is often assumed to be the center of the TTRPG universe. It’s the most recognizable game, and often it’s the easiest game to convince people to try because of its notoriety. On the other hand, the name carries enough weight that sometimes people cringe in horror when they hear the name, but that’s not as common anymore.

So, why is offering to run a one-shot of D&D at least a little bit stupid?

Well. All of the worries that a GM can have about running a TTRPG become condensed and much scarier and you have a shorter amount of time to make a good impression. If you’re playing a campaign over ten session, than at least you have ten session to adjust for any particular problem. In a one-shot, a GM has just one-shot to create a good experience. I have given away my security blanket, and it’s cold.

So so cold.

After the dreadful ensuing panic, I thought about what could make a one-shot experience good. In a one-shot of a game, I think you want to players to have fun, encourage people to play more often, and give a good impression of the experience people can have in a TTRPG.

There are three issues that come to mind that can make that goal terrifying to achieve in a one-shot.

  1. Character creation.
  2. Learning the rules.
  3. Creating a satisfying narrative.

So, let’s tackle these one at a time.

First, character creation sucks for new players. I mean it really really does. It was really hard for me to think back to a time when I didn’t know how to make a character for a TTRPG. I mean, hell, when I first played one it was after spending hours, days, reading the shit out of a TTRPG book. I knew the rules backwards and forwards. The first time I created a character for a TTRPG I was practically an expert. Or at the very least, I knew what I was doing.

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Whaat?

Think about trying to make a character with almost zero context in a game, and what that feels like. Think about how long it takes to make a particular character, even when you know what you want to do. Creating characters is more complicated than it seems even for an experienced player.

I recently ran into an experience of trying to make characters for Shadowrun 4th edition with no context, and with no real assistance regarding what kind of things I should be looking to put on my character sheet. I discovered problem after problem with the way my character was built, and had to spend time adjusting points, erasing things on my sheet, and just putting a ton of effort into fixing the character even after the 2nd session.

I was extremely frustrated with the process, and still am frustrated with it. I dread playing it and finding out what other bad decisions I made when constructing my character[4]. Even if it wasn’t for potential frustration with the character creation process, I’ve run a few games lately and in D&D in can take up to two hours to get people’s characters made.

That’s fine for a full on campaign that’s going to go on for months or years, but for a one-shot it really eats up a lot of time that could be spent playing the game.

That means for a one-shot a GM absolutely have to expedite the character creation process. I want to be able to hand the players a character sheet and give them everything they need to play right there. There are two ways to go about this I think.

Option one is to play the right game. There are games that lend themselves to quick character creation processes that don’t have complicated decisions that need to be made, but still offer the experience of customizing a character narratively if not mechanically.

The other option is to make characters for the players ahead of time. I personally think the former is the best way to go. I want the players to feel an attachment to their character even if they are only playing one session. That attachment to a character is part of the TTRPG experience, and I think players will feel that attachment much more if they get to make decisions about their characters.

The other fear is about teaching the rules. I’m about ten sessions or more in on my seven player D&D game. I still have players asking about the rules that are pretty basic to D&D. And that’s not really their fault. They’re players, they care about killing dragons, riding giants, sneaking past guards and taking treasure. They don’t care how that works mechanically very much as long as they get to do it.

The first session of a D&D campaign can grind to a goddamn halt constantly each time a new rule about something comes up and has to be explained, and then re-explained because someone wasn’t listening the first time. Problem areas are AC, DCs, skill checks versus saving throws, spell slots, actions, bonus actions, opportunity attacks, movement, class powers, race powers, reactions, and there’s more.

A one-shot should give players an idea about the mechanics of a game, but the game shouldn’t be so bogged by the discussion of mechanics that the players can’t get anything done.

There are a few solutions to this issue. One is, again, and this might get repetitive, pick the right game. Games that have simpler rules are surprisingly easier to run and teach. If the game you have to run doesn’t have simpler mechanics, consider simplifying them when you run the game. Don’t get caught up in the minutia of each particular rule and instead try and rule the game mechanics in the spirit of the game and worry more about the final issue in our trifecta.

Creating a satisfying narrative.

Goddamn. That’s a horrifying bullet point goal. Seriously, how does one make sure that players walk away satisfied with the narrative?

Well. This can get a bit heavy.

I think I have to talk about a major misunderstanding about good Gming. At least, one of the major misunderstanding I share with some experienced GMs. There are certainly GMs who will disagree on this subject.

The GM of a TTRPG doesn’t create the story. The GM isn’t writing a novel that a player then reads. The GM isn’t directing a television show that a player watches. They would be readers or viewers in that case, right? What I’m saying might seem a bit sarcastic, but it’s actually an important distinction regarding TTRPGs. The story is created by everyone involved at the table. The GM creates the opportunity for players to add to the story, and the GM adds on to what the players add.

A GM shouldn’t plan for a particular set of things to happen. The best option for a GM is to set up a story and let the player characters fill in blanks left by the GM. This will work better for some people than others. There are different types of GMs as there are different types of writers. Some writers prefer to have an outline before they begin a writing project, some write from the gut. Some GMs prefer to do a lot of prep, and some prefer to be more improvisational[5].

I will say once again there is one solution that carries through these three issues. Pick the right game. Some games are designed with the intent of making narrative easy to get through. The mechanics drive the narrative towards an end. But that’s not always the case, and I’m not really talking about this game versus that game in this blog post.

I think part of the secret here is to make sure that the adventure that’s been prepped is of appropriate scope and can be completed in one session. I wouldn’t set up a one-shot to be about making peace between noble houses that have been at war for centuries. A one-shot scope is probably more along the lines of helping two nobles from those rival houses get married in secret and escape the city. In fact, I wouldn’t assume that the player characters would be interested in helping them escape. Player characters might decide that the best thing for them to do is to capture the two nobles and return them to their respective houses.

I think the worst thing that a GM could do in a one-shot is write acts or scenes that have to happen. That’s not the way a TTRPG should go.

A plan like:

Hour One: Characters find out the king has a secret prison.

Hour Two: Characters infiltrate the secret prison.

Hour Three: Characters lead the prisoners in an escape.

Hour Four: Characters fight the evil warden while the prisoners flee.

This might look good on paper, but a GM never knows that the players are actually going to give a shit about prisoners. They might think the prisoners deserve to be there. They might instead look for someone who wants to pay for a prison break. Hell, the players might talk with the warden and decide to track down prisoners who escaped and bring them back to the prison or kill them.

The GM should work hard to make sure the fictional space exists to explore and there are things to do in the fictional space, but trying to force the players down a particular path is probably not going to be the best experience.

Instead, I think the object for GM here is to establish a situation that requires action. Instead of having the character discover a secret prison, in a one-shot the characters are in the secret prison and need to find a way to escape!

A good narrative experience in a one shot should aim to create a situation that requires action with a reasonable scope.

Situations which require immediate action work really well in one-shots. The Gm can avoid the awkward meet the other player characters phase of the game that a lot of TTRPG veterans have been through. If the characters are on a plane that has lost one of it’s engines and is quickly spiraling down to earth to crash into a flaming wreck of carnage, twisted metal, and the left over meat of what used to be people, a player doesn’t have to stop and explain who they are and think of an excuse to work with the other players.

Bottle episodes also work really well for this type of one-shot. The character are trapped on a island together, in a prison together, in a haunted hotel…it can go on and on. The idea is that the situation requires that the characters work towards a similar goal because the situation is one that demands a particular kind of action.

I think that about covers my worries about the subject of one-shots as a GM.

For now, leave a comment and let me know what issue worry you as a GM when it comes to one-shots? What games would you suggest for one-shots in particular? Also, how have you handled running games with complex character creation, or very detailed and specific rules?

Another big question is what other GMing topics should I address in this blog? What would you be interested in?


 

[1] Gming stands for Game Mastering. Game Master is a really weird phrase for the person who is running a TTRPG. I think Game Master really just comes from Dungeon Master, as D&D was the first widely played TTRPG and that naming convention stuck. When other TTRPGs hit the market, they couldn’t really use Dungeon Master but probably wanted something that carried the same weight and that gives us Game Master.

[2] A one-shot is a term used in TTRPG circles. It means a group of players and a GM are going to get together to play a particular TTRPG with the goal of finishing it in one play through without any expectations for follow up sessions. Usually, the idea is to finish an adventure or a complete story arc (As opposed to a campaign arc which can take many sessions to complete.)

[3] I’m not going to go over the definition of a Table Top Role Playing Game. The definition can be found other places, and often those definitions might be better than any definition I invent.

[4] It is unclear to me how much of this problem could have been mitigated by a better understanding of the rules, or a more thoughtful GM for the game. As it stands, the experience has definitely colored my opinion of Shadowrun, and I’m not very convinced that I like the system or should for that matter.

[5] The implications of this comparison seem pretty huge. I’d definitely like to give this subject more thought in the future. In what ways does the writing process reflect itself in the ways a GM runs a TTRPG?