INTERVIEW WITH REBECCA THOMAS OF ROLEPLAY WORKSHOP
Thomas is the heart of The
in Oakland, California, which began in 1989 as a summer program for
students in 6th through 8th grades, and has since expanded to a
year-round program with after school, summer, and special event
programs. The program uses an interactive storytelling game of her own
design, called Abantey, that aids in teaching math, science,
problem solving skills.
Rebecca was gracious enough to answer some questions for me about her
program and how it works.
you to create Abantey? Did it start out as a teaching tool,
or did it evolve into one?
things, it started out in an unexpected manner. I was
teaching a combined 6-8th grade class (ages 11-13), all subjects, at a
very small private school in 1998. I had the students working on a
project to 'design a world'. We began with its structure (land masses,
water), moved on to atmospherics (weather), and were looking ahead to
designing cultures for each continent and their trade relationships.
While the students were working on their class project, I used the time
to begin design of a role playing world/system.
Can you give
examples of how the system encourages different math processes?
My students 'caught' me.
They asked to play test the game. The school administration was
supportive, so we play tested it a few times. The students got so
excited about the game, that they talked to their parents, who
approached me and asked me to run the game as a week-long summer day
camp. I did. It was well received, with 6-12 kids enrolling for 8
The next school year, I was asked to continue the game as an after
school activity. After three years, I was having much more fun working
with the kids through the RPG, and felt I was having a bigger impact
there than in the classroom. I quit teaching in 1993, and began running
after school programs and summer programs full time.
system we use has a lot of math, everything from simple
arithmetic up to percentages and probabilities. We make calculators
available, but also show by example that the more core facts (addition,
multiplication) you know, the quicker you can reach a solution. We
teach them how to do the math if they don't already know it. This
includes how to read standard mathematical formulas, the order of
operations and more. Of course, we don't say that's what we're doing,
it's just a step in figuring out, for example, how fast the character
is going, or how long it will take them to catch up to the 'bad guys'.
(a classic algebra problem!)
explain some of the ways that Abantey builds social skills.
Have you had
any negative experiences while running the program, and if so, how did
you handle them?
Each student gets a turn to give or comment on ideas when they're
making plans. Obviously some students are very good at this, and others
are not. We help the shy kids learn how to express themselves, to have
the confidence to speak out. We help others find positive ways to give
feedback. For example, it's not very helpful to tell someone their idea
is stupid, but it can be very helpful to, if done politely, point out
weaknesses in an idea. For our students with social cue recognition
problems, we may go as far as teaching them how to tell if someone is
sad or angry by their words and by their body language.
- Listening Skills
This is a tough one for some kids. It is common for kids (and adults)
to be very self focused and unwilling or unable to let others 'be
right' or to admit that other ideas may be 'better' than their own. In
the game we stress that there are many ideas that will 'work' in any
situation. Some will have more desirable outcomes and others will
have less desirable outcomes. Sometimes the players need to
through' these before they begin to understand and modify their
negative experiences - no. Certainly, over the last 18 years,
there have been challenges, ranging from personality conflicts, to
story lines that fall apart and unhappy players. Handling them, while
not always easy, is a matter of listening, compromising if needed,
making changes if necessary, taking responsibility for failures,
creating clear boundaries and working to communicate clearly.
How many kids do you normally
work with at a time?
We have groups
of 3 to 6 players. When we have learning or
developmentally challenged players, we like to keep a ratio of two
'norm rated' students to one challenged student. We sometimes have
dedicated groups of three or four students with learning or
developmental challenges to work on specific issues. We currently have
space to run up to three full groups of kids at a time. During our
summer programs, we usually run at capacity: 3 tables of 6 players,
supervised by a Game Master and an assistant.
you say are your biggest hurdles, challenges, and difficulties?
certainly had many challenges! In the beginning, the biggest
was convincing parents that a role playing game could be an educational
tool. Many people here, even in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area,
have negative associations with role play gaming. I addressed this
issue by calling what we do "interactive improvisational storytelling",
and emphasizing my teaching credentials in General Sciences, Biology
Tell us more
about the afterschool program. Do you offer
homework help to your players? Do you ever synchronize any
your games with lessons that your players are covering in class?
Even now, when many parents fully grasp just what the program offers
their child, others still see it as 'just a game' with no more value
than paying to send their child to a movie. I'm sure the issue could be
addressed if I had more marketing skills, or could employ a marketing
professional to 'spin' my product. Or, of course, if our educational
system would recognize the value of role play gaming as an educational
For awhile, I
offered a Study Skills group, but demand was not high.
I've also combined enrollment in after school programs with 1/2 hour of
tutoring before or after the program. Frequently, when some of the
students have arrived, but we're waiting for others, the kids will work
on homework, with my help when needed.
Who runs the adventures beside
yourself? How do you co-ordinate your efforts, if at all?
It would be interesting to synchronize games with school lessons, but
since each group is composed of students from different schools, and
often different grades, it would be a daunting task. I DO incorporate
specific math concepts into the system of our game: averaging, order of
operations, simple algebraic equation building (word problems).
have one other adult staff member, and 8 high school staff
members who are running games. I have a series of guidelines for game
subject matter. Each game master or game running team submits a game
outline to me for review before they run. I go over the game for
general story structure and 'run-ability', and make sure that any
'world changing' themes fit with the current 'world story'. I also look
for places where they may need to trim or pad the story to make it fit
the game time and the ability of the players they have.
Where do you
hold your sessions? What arrangements did you need to make to
get the space?
The game world often goes through 'themes' or 'history making events',
in which case, my staff and I sit down and discuss what types of games
would fit in with the big story line. In general, my staff runs
missions that are 'local', in that the missions are only involving
individuals or local politics or small villages. I am responsible for
missions involving the development of the world and larger events and
politics. We make sure that if a game in being run (mine or anyone
else's) that would have larger impact (say on several cities, or in
some cases, the entire world), we coordinate the effects and implement
I began my
program by running it at the school where I taught. I
currently rent space from a local comic book and game store. I knew the
owners and when I needed my own space, I approached them. They've been
wonderfully supportive! Which is a good thing, as we don't generate
enough income to support paying market value business rent in the Bay
I see from
your enrollment schedule that you have games running
every day of the week, including weekends. When do you take
What's that? Seriously, the big downside of running your own
SMALL business, is that you don't make any money if you're not working.
AND, running a business of running games is MUCH MUCH more
How has the
program affected your personal gaming time? Do you
still find the desire to roleplay in your free time, or has turning it
into a business changed that for you?
than just running the games. I manage all aspects of the business:
answering emails, phone calls, billing, upkeep on the database,
development, design and publication of all materials, marketing,
mailings.... it's a very big list. I typically work 60 - 80 hours a
However, I do shut down the business in September, when the kids are
transitioning from summer to school. We get very low enrollment during
this time, so it is more effective for me to take the month off. I
usually end up spending one week 'ramping down' from the summer
programs and one week 'ramping up' for the school year programs, so, I
get about 2 weeks off. I also have a 'kid free' week before each summer
program begins. I can sometimes take a break there, but often end up
using the time to work on manual updating and publication, and
enrollment. I also get any 5th weekend completely off! Yeah!
So, in the interests of informing others who may want to do this: it's
not a quick, easy business where you're going to make lots of money
right away, work reasonable hours, have weekends off and get to take
two or three vacations a year. Certainly, if we could get over the
'bump' and become big enough, it could be a different thing entirely --
office managers, web and marketing gurus. The biggest trick there is
finding a way to have more income. During the summer, it's no problem.
We work a 45 hour week and enroll 12 - 24 kids a week. We get weekends
off. We make good money. During the school year, it's a different
story. There are only 17.5 hours of gaming time a week - including
after school (3:30 - 6:00) and Saturday (noon - 5). That means only 70
hours of work a month (not including the occasional school holiday).
For an adult to make a living in the Bay Area, they need an income of
$2000 - $4000 a month, depending upon their expenses. That would be a
hourly wage of over $35. Which is not doable, unless we had zero
business expenses or we could charge parents way more than $12 an hour,
OR we could add groups outside of after school hours. There are many
possible solutions, of course, butI haven't been able to implement
them. Although, I'm pretty sure that someone who came from a business
background instead of a teaching back ground, may be able to find a
more effective way to become financially solid.
gaming time... that is something that I really enjoy. I like
to develop characters and see just what the GM is going put my
character through next! For a long time, I had little or no
personal gaming time. The last thing I wanted/want to do is run more
games on my 'play time', and I had trouble finding a good gaming group.
However, I currently play in a fantastic weekly d20 campaign and a
truly swashbuckling bi-weekly 7 Seas game. I also run and play my
favorite system, CyberPunk, once a year at a local gaming convention
I'll also admit, that I do manage to get a little of the feel of
'personal gaming time' by maintaining story lines with major characters
over many years -- basically the development of my gaming world has
become a vicarious outlet for my own roleplaying.
One other factor that plays into my personal gaming time... as a GM who
basically runs games all the time, I've gotten pretty picky about the
games I play in. It's easy for me to anticipate what the GM is doing,
and to end up spoiling the game for myself by guessing the ending. So
when I game, I look for GMs who are really good at building a tight,
consistent game, with subtle foreshadowing, dynamic plots and complex
NPCs / PC interactions. I also really appreciate GMs who avoid making
the players feel railroaded (tricky) while staying within the
boundaries of their plot outline.
Find out more about The Roleplay Workshop at www.roleplay-workshop.com