Roleplaying Family Literacy Pilot

I was fortunate in 1979 to be given the basic and expert set of this brand new game called Dungeons and Dragons. Essentially, the game takes collaborative storytelling and stirs in some game mechanics to introduce some luck and unknown quantities within the storyline. I grew up as a struggling reader, until this game and it's volume of books and rules came my way. Together with comics, I found a love of reading that motivated me to become literate in spite of the challenges I faced. 

My current efforts to introduce literacy to families is to introduce modified role playing through a local community organization I work with. I wanted to share the framework of this pilot project with you in the hopes that you could offer some feedback as well as maybe become inspired to possibly adapt such a system as a tool multiple Adult Education programs might find useful. 

Target Audience: Families in our community, specifically starting with families with youth of most any age 6-18.

Method of delivery: Primary method of communication is by email, but printouts could be used for those that can't even access email. Links to surveys or forms are used to gather in the family's choices and decisions for their character (see below #2). A public webpage or collaborative document will summarize the ongoing story for public consumption.

Recruiting: Because the community organization I work with offers constant support to thousands of families in our area, their staff is helping to reach out to key active families with invitations to join this pilot. Information given out tries to focus on the project getting all family members to work together to represent a single character in a community collaborative story. All major characters will be represented each by a family making all the decisions for that character. 

Starting up: Families are given custom designed cards I have created that offer limited choices in seven or eight key character attributes. These cards are used only to develop the initial character the family will represent in the story. Things like attitudes, employment, special abilities and even major challenges are all going to be debated by families to come to consensus on each choice. I have created ten options for each of these attributes and a family will get a random sample of only three of those ten. For example, in Employment, a family may have to choose between Janitor, Reporter or Construction Worker. All choices given to families include a brief paragraph highlighting the positive role playing aspects of each choice within the experience. After all seven attributes have been discussed and chosen, families illustrate or take a photograph that represents what their character might look like.

Story Progression: With characters established, the following story progression begins:

  1. The Game Leader (GL) offers families an introductory summary of the setting with actionable choices available to characters. This is similar to Choose Your Own Adventure stories, but will have more generic, open ended options. For example, one choice a family may choose is to "Look for clues by connecting with all my contacts". 
  2. With choices now available, families now discuss with each other how their character goes about doing what they chose to do. Prompts will be included to help push families to include details that really represent their character's attitudes, attributes and ambitions with specifics about how the character goes about their action. Picking up on the previous example, the family knows that their character is a janitor and janitors not only can get into most any place in the building they work in, they are also in a position to over hear other conversations or interact with others in non threatening ways. The family might really focus on this employment option to get the information they hope to find and their description of their efforts will help determine how successful they are. When the family has crafted their response, they enter that response in the linked form (or return a paper form if offline).
  3. The GL takes in the family submissions and blends those choices into storylines and arcs to form two components. One part is an Action Report. This summarizes how the story advanced based on previous decisions all the families have made or if this is the first episode it would be setting the state of the world players are entering. This should be a couple pages of reading filled with items families may want to pay attention to. There will be ample situations in which the plan of action a family hoped for was interfered with by some other character (family) that had actions that somehow inadvertently disrupted their plans. The second part is the Situation Report. This section helps to get families to advance the story by focusing on key choices easily available or options that may seem enticing for their next submission. There will always be the option for families to choose to do something not on the Situation Report, but it is suspected that early on, many families will appreciate suggestions or prompts that would help them craft useful submissions. From an education point of view, these Situation Reports open up to prompting that would help participants really focus in on standards we hope to address. 
  4. Publication: The GL will publish for the public, the story being created after each episode is cycled through. This allows all families to experience not only the exciting story, but the idea of becoming involved in the next storyline. The cycle now repeats to step 1 with the GL now sharing the Action Report and Situation Report for the next episode.

It is expected that there is at least a two day processing time for steps 1 and 2 to be completed with the GL taking a day to process and get out the next episode. So, every 3 or 4 days, families will get their next installment. 

My goal is to get families talking with each other and processing all the elements that go into a literary character and a story. Families will be reading together and processing the story elements they receive. The family will collaborate with each other to craft a detailed set of responses that help the GL represent their character as they wish in the story. I live in a diverse community and families rarely integrate with each other. This project will encourage and develop more social exchanges in our community as well as build the reading and writing skills within each family. 

As the GL, it is very easy to tie in moral choice, real life conflict resolution options and even the opportunity to craft relevant issues in a way that gets families sharing ideas and options in a non threatening and non judgemental forum. I also have the ability to help families "softly fail" which will often make the story so much more epic when successes are experienced. 

After the families get used to this format, there are many plans of expanding and keeping this activity fresh. For example, if families wish, we will be opening up chat rooms or group phone calls for families to strategies or coordinate their actions and decisions. There could be actual comic styled books created that illustrate the community's story. Including voice recordings from family members could be included. Including illustrations and photos from the families are easy additions that will likely be some of the first expansion attempts engaged in. 

After this pilot, the goal is to expand this system to be run by the teens and young adults in the community. There is no way to really roll out a true community program with only one person filling the GL role.  I will have training programs that help teach how to run this system I am creating, how to facilitate a collaborative story with total strangers, how to flexibly adapt to family input every episode and most importantly how to collect the "right" information from participants that facilitate the blended stories that become the major processing part of the GL. People finding success with this training are able to offer community collaborative stories of their own creation with me acting as a coach and support as needed. In this way, it is hoped that dozens of families can then be engaged in all sorts of genera of story within our communities with many trained GL engaging families. 

This pilot will focus on a super hero themed experience. Obviously, almost any setting or world a person could imagine could be set up. The components I am building are specific to the super hero theme, but I am trying to create generic frameworks within this work so that those frameworks can easily be adapted to fantasy, modern, science fiction, murder/mystery and other worlds people may want to introduce their community to. 

I hope the above is clear enough to help you formulate questions, thoughts or suggestions. Please ask for any clarification if you need some.

I know people are almost always too busy, but if people had interest here, we could try a pilot of our own at a nice slow pace of once a week. The contrast of having this community participating vs our local community of families processing may be very interesting. For example, I would assume that most of this community would likely engage in such storytelling as an individual representing a character whereas our local community will have entire families representing a single character. Which works better in terms of making effective stories? Which is more engaging to participants? So many other questions arise.