27 November, 2017

Playing D&D with students of Master Planning and Urban Governance

Thank you to Sina Telaar for preparing the Character Sheets in Wizards of Coast's D&D format, and lending me her dice.
I had a great time playing Development & Discourses with the students of Master Planning and Urban Governance today. The goal of the class is for students to survey different Master Plans from around the world, and learn to analyse and evaluate them, taking into account the differing institutional contexts and planning cultures. With role-play, today, students could hopefully get a sense of the kinds of dialogues that might arise when a Master Plan is presented in a public forum setting.


Opening the game with a roll of the dice by the Game Master (GM), me, the atmosphere was set: 4/20. Ouch! That's was bad news: It meant that there, "was a tense atmosphere at the City Hall today". But congratulations to the five students who played the characters of Mayor, Head Planner, Assistant Planner, Real Estate Developer, and Starchitect, who valiantly defended their fictitious Official City Plan to the attendees at the make-believe City Hall, who were not an easy bunch to convince. The housing activist wasn't particularly pleased about the growth agenda. The environmental activist threatened to block the next meeting with a protest, if promises could not be made about the greenbelt that was going to be built on. Older residents were also not particularly ready to give up property. One resident, who had lived in the neighbourhood for 70 years, as his father and grandfather before him, and as his son will as well, had no interest in the new developments whatsoever.

The students need to be thanked. The five defenders of the City Plan had 15 minutes to come up with an example plan and defend it. Everyone was super spontaneous and ready for the combat of words. Some unexpected outcomes arose, like how should the public respond when the government says, "Thank you for your feedback, we will take that into account"? Or, what how should planners react when the public presents facts about the area that s/he was neither cognisant of, nor were taken into account in the plan?

As for teaching methodology, this was also a learning experience for me. I definitely need to polish my GM skills for one. Constructing a game play, or "Campaign" in D&D lingo, takes quite some planning, and I could have dedicated more time to this. But there is a lot of potential here for role-playing as a teaching method in urban geography: This, of course, is also not new (Livingstone, 1999; Meligrana & Andrew 2003; Oberle 2007).  Livingstone (1999) used role-play as a way to investigate public inquiries in urban development. Providing a number of different settings where role-play could be a useful learning tool, he argues  "Mimicking the public inquiry format in the context of a geography curriculum provides an excellent opportunity to deliver a whole range of pedagogic objectives, associated both with the geographical course content and with key skills" (p. 64). The flexibility of role-playing allows for a variety of different kinds of real world settings that could be tested in the classroom. 

To get more out of the exercise in the format that we pursued today, Oberle (2007) also provides some inspiration. Time in class could be used to research a real-world situation. Further, students could be given time to research and develop a character in greater depth (Oberle 2007). Together, these steps could be then combined with written work that could be graded and in the end could be used as preparation for the game. So far, it seems that everyone agrees: It's fun.


...and in case you haven't caught wind, D&D is currently experience a major comeback (WIRED, 2017).

  1. Livingstone, I (1999) Role-playing Planning Public Inquiry. Journal of Geography in Higher Education. 23(1). 63-76.
  2. Meligrana, J. F., Andrew J. S. (2003) Role-playing simulations in urban planning education: A survey of student learning expectations and outcomes. Planning Practice & Research 18(1) 95-107.
  3. Oberle, A. P. (2007) Understanding Public Land Management through Role-playing. Journal of Geography. 103(5) 199-210.
  4. WIRED, 2017, It's a Living: Meet one of New York's professional D&D Dungeons Masters



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