One thought I keep mulling around is playing RPGs with my students. I teach ESL at a private school. My students are almost all native Japanese speakers, with a small mix of native bilinguals and the occasional English-primary Japanese-secondary speakers. I keep thinking, I'd like to run an RPG for them. And that RPGs are a great way to engage with the language, use it, and give you a direct and consistent need to learn it.
First, you might want to plow through this article on the subject:
Collaborative Non-Linear Narrative Tabletop Role-Playing Games in the ESL Classroom
Some of what I discuss below is covered a bit in that article.
The main obstacle, really, is making it an educational activity. I wouldn't be running the game for free, and thus parents would be paying tuition/class fees for each and every game session. Education would need to be primary. In simpler terms, the game must be worth paying to play, and the game must directly benefit the English skills of the players each and every class. It would be different if I was running the game for free, but then the parameters change greatly - not the least of which is that I'd be running the game for my fun, not their education. The rest of this post assumes running a game as a school/ESL/learning activity that costs money to participate in.
I've tried games in the past that were fun (Awful Green Things, for example) but didn't require a lot of English to succeed, and thus weren't very educational. I've also some that require a surprising amount of English to master (Fluxx 3.0 is my favorite, but Go Fish is exactly like this). I've run games that needed no English (Chess), but taught them with English. RPGs require a lot of English and have a bit of a learning curve - you can probably add English-weak students to a group but not start an English-weak and gaming-inexperienced group and expect to get much.
Below is a mix of ideas, quandaries, and other issues I'm mulling over. This is very early drawing board type stuff; I have no plans yet to present this as a school club or after school class.
Logistics of Play
Rotating Player Pool. I'd need to deal smoothly with missing players, changing players, one-try drop ins, etc. Death of a PC would need to be smoothly handled with a replacement or repair because the goal isn't a challenging play experience but learning English though use. "You die, next time do better" is the same as "Stop using English, class is over for you." Ever been in a spelling bee and got knocked out early? Not very productive. In a one-on-one class, I could do it that way - simply start over - but not with a group.
Naturally this would also mean I'd need to deal with totally new player with no game experience. I'd have to assume that at any time a new person might join.
Rotating Caller. I think a caller would be a good idea. This allows those with strong speech to shine, and those with weaker speech to have to talk. It would also organize the game a little - it wouldn't be many-on-one teacher. The teacher/GM can assist the caller or players, but the caller would be responsible for passing on what happens.
It also feeds into the Japanese cultural tradition of student-directed activities.
I think a rotating caller - every X minutes, say - could be a good approach. This would both allow those who speak English better to assist those with weaker English. Rotating may also prevent those with poor English from being shielded from speech.
I'd allow the caller to parrot speech from better speakers - basically, being a mouthpiece for things they don't know how to say. Especially for children, I've seen this work wonders. I've taught games and had teachers or other students coach kids on what to say line by line or word by word . . . and they start to pick it up by rote at least and then catch the meaning and usage. If other students do the prompting, it's even better - it gives confidence to the prompter and the kids seem to pay attention more and try harder to remember it. Peer pressure beats superior pressure, I guess.
How about the system?
So what about the rules?
If you're worked with kids, fairness is their primary concern. They define fairness differently than adults, too. In my experience they like fairness of results more than fairness of chances.
I've had a kid get really upset because I gave everyone a chance to read one sentence out loud, and then opened it up to volunteers to read more . . . as he saw it, dividing 15 worksheet sentences amongst 9 kids meant some people got 2 tries and some didn't, and it bothered him. Not only that, one kid went twice before he went twice, but he'd read sentence #1 and she read #3, so to him she was going out of turn. From a teacher's perspective, it meant everyone got to try reading, and I was able to dish out an extra challenge to the better readers and to the ones who really needed extra work. I've had kids cry because someone going first wasn't fair because that kid got to go first during a previous teacher's class so it wasn't fair that I let the kid go first, too.
So "It's fair that everyone rolls 3d in order" sounds like a great way to get crying kids who didn't roll that well. "Everyone gets 100 points" or "everyone gets an 18, a 16, a 14, a 12, and two 10s to put where they want" is going to save me a giant load of tears and arguments. And vastly speed up chargen!
If I run GURPS, I'd probably use very simple templates (basically, nearly complete characters with a series of A or B menu choices) or the Buckets system from Alternate GURPS III.
System Mastery Isn't An Obstacle.
I'd like a relatively simple system, so I'm split between an old game (Basic D&D, say) or stripping down a new game (GURPS Lite). A lot of rules isn't a big issue, though, because to master the system they'll need to master English. Rewarding players who demonstrate reading comprehension by finding rules that benefit them, or knowing the good rules option - that's no different that scoring kids higher for reading, writing, spelling, etc. I'm fine with rewarding kids who put extra time into learning the game rules.
Still, the basics of the game must be simple enough that "mastery" is "getting better" not "learning how to play effectively in the first place." That's why I'm thinking GURPS Lite or Basic D&D or something of that sort. Both require extremely minimal explanation.
Easy to Consistently Implement. It would be nice if I could quickly and easily teach other teachers how to run the game. That way they could cover my class when I'm away and run their own RPG-based classes. The consistency aspect would mean that we'd be running it in a close enough fashion that the classes were accomplishing the same things and not establishing a different standard for use of English or acceptable levels of native language usage for a given grade level.
Cost. Ideally, the materials would be cheap or free, so I don't need a layout or a big reimbursement request.
Kid-Safe Materials. Sorry, no nudity, guys doing bloody Mortal Kombat death strikes, cursing, murderous rages, etc. in the illustrations or examples. I work for a school, so this is non-negotiable. I'd want to be able to encourage the parents to look into the system without worrying that they might find something adult-oriented in their kid's class materials.
Non-Confusing Game Name. This might make D&D a no-go, unless Next is so awesome that I run that. If I play D&D with the kids and they like it and go to the store and buy D&D, it's going to be a different edition. If I play Swords & Wizardry, they might end up with Complete or White Box or something else. This is pushing me towards something like GURPS Lite - there is only one extant version of GURPS, and finding 3e stuff is harder than finding 4e stuff. It makes games like Basic Fantasy Role-Playing slightly worrisome because there is also Basic Roleplaying, and it's not the same game at all.
Good Grammar! Seriously, games with weird writing styles or grammar/spelling errors are out. It's an English class! I love Labyrinth Lord but it's got some odd phrasings in the book. I love AD&D but Gygax makes up his own words sometimes, and uses oddly stylized tones occasionally. Vancian English is great, but it's not ideal for ESL.
Those are my thoughts so far. I'll keep digging at this until I feel like I've thought through the issues enough to make it worth proposing and trying. I think it's an activity with an enormous upside for the students who participate, but it's not without its complications and problems.