Here’s what we did today in a 75 minute session of my Game of Thrones fanfic/RPG course. There were 17 people in class, making it a challenge to keep the story interesting for everyone. This covered the first day of the Hand’s Tourney in King’s Landing, commemorating Ned Stark’s appointment to that post by King Robert Baratheon.
Some context: the students used a role-playing game to create their own unique characters, and each of the characters belong to one of four noble houses, and each house belongs to one of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Each of the characters has her/his own role within their house: some are servants, some are heirs, some are soldiers, some are scholars. The goal of the course is to have them think deeply about how a combination of social pressures and individual motivations shape the decisions their characters make. My goal as the instructor is to put difficult choices and interesting situations in front of their characters and make the students decide what the characters do on the fly. Plot, then, is something that develops based on the decisions their characters make rather than something decided beforehand.
Much of the below is a combination of events taken from the novel, random events rolled from a D&D manual, and some lightly scripted events I designed based on the students’ characters’ back stories.
What’s it look like as it happens? Lots of laughter, applause, and cheering. People shouting advice to each other. Joking. Dice rolling and calling out of results. Questions about the rules. It’s a very lively atmosphere and lots of fun as we spin out the story together.
* Two students of noble lineage were forced into participating in the joust due to their station, even though neither really wanted to. One drew Jamie Lannister in the opening round and lost gracefully. The other had a much easier draw and managed to win twice, advancing to the Round of 16, where he will face Renly Baratheon. (both of these are characters in the novel)
* A young woman participated in the archery contest and advanced past the first two rounds, but was disqualified on a bogus “foot fault.” Through interrogation, she and her brother forced the contrite judge who disqualified her to admit that the tourney organizers would not allow a woman to win the contest. As a token of apology, he offered them a bolt of fine silk they could collect at a clothier in King’s Landing (a location created by another student)
* A rough-and-tumble warrior doubled his money dicing in the People’s section of the festival. A fight unexpectedly broke out and he took great joy in clubbing the two nearest combatants near him. Everyone celebrated his prowess and bought him drinks.
* One noble house is charged with serving their fine wine at the royal feast. One administrator organizes the staff efficiently, a fact noted by the keepers of King Robert’s kitchen. His colleague in charge of accounting notices that the kitchen is not tracking how much wine they are pouring, and he can bill them for virtually whatever he wants. He is already skimming the accounts of the noble house, and this could be an opportunity for him to make quite a bit of money, but if he gets caught…
* One of the ladies-in-waiting hoping to be find a husband from a good house is groped by a very drunk, and quite ugly, young noble. While she initially accepts his advances, his lecherousness turns her off and she shoos him away only to discover that he is a member of one of the richest houses in the Westerlands. She’s left pondering her decision.
* Another lady-in-waiting discovers to her horror that the lord of their house, an unapologetic drunk, has arrived at the feast despite the family deliberately leaving him at home. He is trying to get the noble families to start singing a bawdy song in the middle of dinner. When the lady-in-waiting moves to lead him away, he shoves her away. It’s only when his daughter comes to his side that he sobers up enough to be led away to the kitchens and then outside so he may get sick in the bushes.
* And finally, as time ran out in class, at the end of the feast a drunken man approaches the royal table shouting death threats at the lord of Westeros’s most powerful houses.
And there’s still a second day to the Hand’s Tournament!
I get plenty of skeptical looks when I tell people that I’m teaching a class that’s a) modeled on role-playing games, b) a pop culture series, and c) having students writing fanfiction. This can’t possibly be for college credit, can it? Something so frivolous? Sure the students like it—why wouldn’t they? But what are they learning?
Plenty, actually, and it’s not by chance. Using a popular text like Game of Thrones means that just about every student enters the class with at least one thing> they feel confident they know something about. They come in with different levels of writing ability but they share a common knowledge and common interest in the subject matter. This immediately lowers the bar for participation. The Song of Ice and Fire Role-Playing Game: A Game of Thrones Edition provides a wealth of additional information about the world, drawn from the source material and expanded upon. These early readings build on their preexisting knowledge, and the game rules also highlight social forces at work in the world, particularly those of class and gender. Westeros, as we know, is not a nice place.
Skeptics might say that there’s no content here, that they’re just learning about a fantasy world. And they’d be right, but only partially. I’m not worried about content at this stage, but rather I am very consciously (and hopefully subtly) constructing a learning community where students feel at ease sharing ideas and knowledge. And it’s also quite easy to talk about touchy subjects such as sexism, racism, classism, and jingoism in the world of Westeros, but that allows the instructor (i.e. me) occasionally to turn the conversation back to our world’s social structures, institutional biases, and guiding mythologies. Those things can be hard to get at in a more traditional classroom, but it becomes a lot easier when you use students’ knowledge of a fantasy world as a basis for reflection on our actual world.
At this point, which is only the second week of class, they break into groups and start creating noble houses. The role-playing game rule book gives them specific instructions on how to do this, and dice rolls help determine details how long ago the house was established, important moments in its history, how many resources (lands, money, vassals) the house currently possesses, and more. They then collaboratively begin writing a narrative that strings together these random dice rolls into a coherent history. A story. One that they write collaboratively. And that’s just the beginning. Over the coming weeks they build out parts of the world the novels only hint at and develop their own personalized character.
There’s a lot more to it, but I’ll stop there. Is the class fun? Undoubtedly. But that’s a happy byproduct, not the goal. What I want to do is create a tight knit writing community built on friendship and trust that can boldly experiment in a large-scale digital writing experiment, one that gets them to think critically about how societies operate, both fictional ones as well as our own. On the craft end, they put a lot of care into the fiction that eventually comes out of this process, and they put time into their critiques of their peers’ work too because many times the stories feature people, places, and things they themselves created. My job as the instructor is to steer them away from the titillating aspects of Game of Thrones and instead delve into psyches of the characters they painstakingly created. Does it work 100% of the time? Of course not, but neither does having them read literary fiction. And I get a whole lot more out of them this way.
So, yeah. It’s a bit more than just fun and games. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.