Training Technology

What Tabletop Gaming Can Teach You About Course Design

Published by in Training Technology

You’ve spent late nights doing research, taking notes, making plans, looking into the best software for creating what you need, trying to keep track of every person’s experience to make sure you’re giving them the information that they need to succeed, but not too easily.

It’s tabletop gaming!

No wait, I mean it’s course design!

No wait, it’s both.

As it turns out, being a game master for a tabletop game and being a course designer actually have a lot in common. And there’s a lot that course designers can stand to learn from gamers.

What is “tabletop gaming?”

On the off chance that you aren’t a total helpless case of a nerd (like yours truly), you might not know what the heck I’m talking about.

Tabletop gaming is, broadly, any game that you play on a table. That heading includes Clue, Risk, Monopoly, and all the other games you might play on board game night with your kids. But it also includes a wide array of games designed for adults, including strategy games (like Warhammer), resource management games (like Catan), and role-playing games.

For this article, I’m mostly referring to role-playing games such as Pathfinder, Dungeons and Dragons, and Shadowrun. Why? Because these are the type of games that are most like course design.

So… what do games have to do with course design?

As someone who’s deeply familiar with both online course design and tabletop gaming, I see the parallels all the time.

A typical tabletop game is played with a small group of players led by a singular game master. The game master plans out the story, sometimes alone, sometimes with the aid of a template or prefabricated storyline.

The game master develops a path that the players will follow, from beginners to accomplished veterans. They make up challenges, puzzles, and obstacles that will test the players’ skills and abilities, usually leading up to a final fight or challenge that wraps the game.

The game may be played in a single sitting or be broken up into pieces over regular intervals for weeks or months. The players usually have a general idea of what to expect, but don’t know exactly what each game session will be about, or how to beat the challenges.

Sound familiar?

If you think of course design in the same way that game masters think of game design, you’ll find a lot of lessons you can apply to your courses. Here’s three.

Lesson 1: There’s more variables than you’d expect

What does that mean?

Planning a tabletop game night is notoriously similar to herding cats. You need to find a time that works for everyone, that can be maintained on a regular basis, that offers you enough time to get the story done without running so long that people lose interest, in a place everyone likes… it’s just a mess. Not unlike trying to plan a training schedule.

The game itself is full of different variables. You can’t plan for what a player will say or do. You can design ten different unique paths, all based on potential player decisions. You can try not to railroad your players. You can be positive that you’re totally prepared and there will be no surprises.

And what do your players do? The one thing you didn’t plan for.


How can I use that?

In order to account for variables and use them to your advantage when designing a course, you can visualize branching pathways.

In a branching pathway, each player or student starts at the same place. They progress forward, but make decisions along the way that alter their course. Each new path is a variable you need to account for when figuring out how to make all your students end up in the same place at the end of the “adventure.”

You can plot out your course material as if it were a road with varying points and destinations.

Perhaps a student needs to get really in depth on a particular topic. They can keep pushing and asking questions and making choices in scenarios around that topic. Unless they don’t really need it because they’re already trained in it, in which case they can branch away from that material and move on to cover different ground.

You can determine where your learners are with milestone content: quizzes and surveys that help determine where a learner is in their journey.

Perhaps they’re acing every question on one topic, but only scoring 30% on another topic. You can use that information to offer them fewer lessons on the first and more on the second, so they get the training they really need (and follow the path they should take) rather than retreading the same path.

Either way, you need to be agile and prepared for whatever your students need, even if its not the lesson you expected to give, and this visualization of branching pathways is useful in doing that. If you find you like this style of visualization, you’ll find lots of course design software options that can help you lay out lessons like a path, along with plenty of online resources to help.

Lesson 2: Scale or fail

Get it? Dragon? Scales? I

What does that mean?

As in most games, players in tabletop typically begin at level one, and can only progress by overcoming a series of challenges set forth by the game master. That means that the longer the game goes on, the more experience the players gain, and the more difficult the challenges need to become.

You can’t throw a massive dragon in the path of a group of new players. They’ll be roasted alive. And it’s pretty pointless to have a troupe of seasoned combat veterans get attacked by a couple of bunny rabbits (unless the bunny rabbits have some unknown tricks up their furry sleeves).

If a game master can’t scale the environment to their players, the players will be too frustrated or too bored to keep playing.

How can I use that?

You don’t want to dump a ton of information on top of your students’ heads and hope for the best. And you don’t want to just assign the final evaluation and hope they did their own homework. That’s the course design equivalent of throwing a dragon at a bunch of level one players.

Nor do you want to do nothing but throw easy questions at industry professionals who’ve been trained before.

Think of your students’ ability in terms of levels, just like you might for a game. Is the question you’re asking a level one question or a level 20 question? Is your material using terms they’ll easily understand, or are they beyond their level?

You can assess where your students are by giving pre-course tests (ungraded, unless you want to show them their progress at the end of the course), and then tailor courses to meet different learners at different levels, ensuring that the material is always well balanced.

The level rating will change with every question and every lesson, so keep it in the back of your mind as you design. Docebo has a good post with suggestions to help achieve this growth.

Lesson 3: You can grow with your players/learners

Get it? Dragon? Scales? I

What does that mean?

As players gain experience, they gain confidence in themselves and in their approach to the game’s subject matter. If you run a really good game, then by the end of it your players have a deep knowledge about the world and the rules.

But just as they learn, you learn, too. All those unexpected turns of fate teach you what to expect and plan for next time. If you fail to explain a situation well, or every single player bombed a puzzle, you learn what you need to do differently. As your players progress through the game, so do you.

How can I use that?

If you’re an old hand at course design, you can look back over your career and see the mistakes you made that turned out to be great lessons to inform later materials.

Keep a running notebook or document dedicated entirely to mistakes. When you find that a method isn’t working, that you could have explained something better, or that your students are all having a common problem with your material, make a note of it.

Come up with two or three solutions to the problem, and try them out in the next course. If your students are struggling to visualize a problem, try using a video or an infographic next time. Or if a series of step-by-step instructions are getting ignored, try turning the instructions into a story-based scenario. Make sure to keep notes on which fixes actually work so you can keep making forward progress and become a better course designer.

I’ve said it before, but more people should embrace repair theory and use it to encourage learning from mistakes!

Ready to slay some course design dragons?

Do you play any tabletop games? Link you might start? Let me know in the comments below, or tweet me @CapterraHalden— the choice is yours!

Want to know more about becoming a better eLearning trainer? Check out these articles for more:

Looking for Training software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Training software solutions.

About the Author

Halden Ingwersen

Halden Ingwersen

Halden Ingwersen is a former Capterra analyst.


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