Role Up! Bringing Adventure to English Learning through Role Playing Games

in Teaching

I recently gave a workshop for English teachers in which I helped them use Role Playing Games (RPGs) in their classes. In this article, I will give you some advice on how to customise an RPG for your own English language classroom.

Today, we’re going to look at The Quiet Year, by Avery Alder*.

It is a map-making, story-telling and community-discussion game. Although it’s pretty simple, it elicits some fantastic English, and can easily be tweaked to fit your class. (Note that if you do tweak it, please respect the author’s rights! Don’t give out copies of the rulebook, don’t pass off AA’s work as your own, give them due credit, etc.)

* I haven’t received any payment or benefits from anybody related to this game, and I’m in no way related to them. I’m just a fan of the game, and I find it works well in the classroom!

The Quiet Year, by Avery Alder

This game costs €6,89 (for the pdf version) and is available here.

To play it, it suggests 2-4 players and 3-4 hours; these figures are very flexible though. You can play with a larger group, or even play two games at once from the same instructions (provided by the teacher). The game can be spread over multiple sessions, or you can play for an hour and leave it unfinished without it being unsatisfying.

Materially, you’ll need…

  • A blank piece of paper to draw the map
  • A few pencils or pens
  • A couple index cards (or smaller pieces of paper – or just draw on the map)
  • Six small dice, 6-sided
  • 20 ‘Contempt’ Tokens – any kind of smallish token will do; they don’t even have to look alike. I use glass beads.
  • A deck of ‘The Quiet Year’ cards or standard playing cards and ‘the Oracle’ (in the pdf)
  • The Turn Summary card (in the pdf)

This can also all be played online – just practise with the tech first!

I’m not going to go into too many details on how to play – you need to buy the rules! – but I’ll provide a brief overview and offer suggestions on how to use them in class.

What do you do? How?!

This is a game about a small community that survives an apocalypse.

The players decide where this community lives, and then draw a basic map of the area – is it a tropical island? A remote alpine village? U-Bahn Alexanderplatz? Next, they decide what resources they have in abundance and what resources are scarce. Shelter might be abundant in an U-Bahn station, but sunlight is scarce.

After this, the game starts – players draw cards, giving them a choice of interesting items to discuss – either printed cards included with the game, or standard playing cards with an included ‘key’. For example:

The players discuss these issues, add details to the map if necessary, and move on to the next turn.

That’s about it!

There are a few rules to pace discussions and keep track of long-term projects the community may engage in, but it’s all very simple and flexible.

When I played it with my classes, we had discussions ranging from:

“How does this food-delivery machine work?” to “Should we approach the stranger on the horizon?” and “Do we need to build a wall for defence or a field for crops?”

They used a range of grammar to discuss previous sessions, results of the in-game events and plans for future sessions, and they also had to manage interpersonal skills to organise their group roles and decision-making process.

All of this was done in English, and each week I could guide the discussion to cover a particular grammar point – discussing in-world achievements using the present perfect. I used this game as open practise at the end of a session, spending about 30 minutes playing through it while I asked the group questions or encouraged discussion to elicit relevant grammar and vocabulary.

How do I prepare?

  • Buy and read the rules. Make sure you know what you’re doing. Play the game with friends if you can! Consider how you will explain the rules to the class: you can prepare a ‘cheat-sheet’ (for example, a turn-order guide is included), or explain them as you go.
  • What level is your class? Some of the vocabulary is quite advanced. Consider how much your learners will understand, and if you can simplify it.
  • Will this game match your students’ interests? If it doesn’t, either don’t play at all or consider how you can change it. It could be as simple as changing the setting or era.
  • Consider group size and timing. You can divide large classes and read the same card each turn to the groups. For small groups, you might need to stimulate discussion. For timing, consider the duration of play in one session and across multiple sessions. Is this an ongoing project or a closing activity?
  • Are there any sensitive subjects to consider? For example, the story of the game features looming conflict – you may need to change this if you have learners who have fled violence themselves.
  • How will you engage less-confident learners? This doesn’t just refer to language confidence. Think about less ‘imaginative’ learners; they may feel lost if they’re forced to create stories. Instead of being pressured  to come up with ideas, they can develop other learners’ ideas, or act as a discussion moderator.
  • How will you keep notes? If you keep notes, you can hope know they’ll be reliable. If your students take notes, they can practise delegation and fast, accurate, writing. Also consider what you will do if you return to the game and everybody remembers events differently, or the notes contain mistakes.
An example of a map created by my learners.

How can I customise this for the classroom?

The materials:

  • Think about the story. The story of the game focuses on a small community who survived a conflict that still looms over them. Do you need to alter this story? Will it interest your group? Is anybody in your group sensitive to the themes? You might not even need a story at all.
  • How much will you customise the game? By default, it focusses on a small community ravaged by war. This story can change dramatically without affecting the core gameplay; you may however need to rewrite the events cards/table if you make big changes to the story. The game could be set in an ordinary office in Berlin – if you are willing to rewrite a lot of the cards! For example:
    “There is a café near the office everybody avoids. What happened there?”
    “There is a café near the office that attracts office workers. What does it sell?”
  • How will you use the printed materials? You can read the cards to the group/class yourself, ensuring that everybody moves at the same pace and you can explain difficult terms. Alternatively, the learners can read the cards themselves, requiring the reader to speak clearly to the group. Will you need to simplify or modify the printed materials?

Your own thoughts:

  • What are the learning goals? You can divide this into ‘discussion’ and ‘world’. Are you focussing on communication techniques – for example, making suggestions and polite disagreement? Or are you focussing on the world of the game itself?
  • How do the learning goals and the village work together? Think about the language you are focussing on (“”How about we…?” / “What have you built?”) – and how the game can elicit it. Can you steer the discussions towards these goals? Or, if you’re just trying to encourage discussion and build confidence, consider your role as ‘moderator’, keeping everybody engaged.
  • How will you monitor and guide the discussions? The game has a built-in structure that ensures everybody gets a say. Does this work for you? You might need to encourage discussion, or you might need to keep things moving along.

Play the game!

  • Most of this is covered in the game rules themselves… But consider what you need to focus on as an English teacher.
  • When will you offer corrections? Be careful not to interrupt the flow of the game; you could collect errors for post-game activities.
  • How will you manage the pacing and encourage or guide conversation? Read the provided rules and consider if these will work for your group. Do you need a tool as ‘blunt’ as a timer? A deadline could add drama to proceedings, but it could also be an unnecessary source of stress. Remember that the goal is to teach English, not finish the game.
  • How will you monitor shyer students? Make sure everybody is engaged, and more confident learners don’t hijack the discussions.
  • Who will be taking notes or minutes? This could be you, it could be a single student, it could be a group activity or it could be a rotating position. You could also make the students decide, as part of interpersonal skills training (see the next point).
  • Does the teacher distribute such roles, or do the learners manage this amongst themselves? To keep the game moving at a suitable pace and to avoid confusion, you might want to assign roles yourself. This also allows you to assign students to roles that they need to practise. Letting the learners decide themselves, however, will help build group cohesion and English-language organisation and interaction.
  • How will your groups handle disagreement (check the ‘Contempt’ rules in the game)? Make sure that nobody makes any real-life enemies! There are rules that cover disagreements between characters; you might need to remind your players that they – and their disagreements – represent groups of people in the community. Don’t let it get personal, and if it does – stop the game.

It doesn’t end there!

  • How will you wrap up each session? The learners could write news articles or reports about the events of the game. They could make predictions about future of the community. It could form the basis of a story-writing exercise, or for a future role-playing game. There are lots of directions you could take this in!
  • Can any of the themes that emerged be discussed in future lessons? How did the community react to… climate change? War? Strangers? How did the players themselves deal with these issues?
  • What was group interaction among the players like? This could include how they delegated work, what their decision-making processes looked like and what kind of group hierarchy they used. You can ask them to compare this to how they act when speaking their native language.
  • What were the key themes of the game itself? There is a ‘sister game’, The Deep Forest, that focusses on questions of “cultural continuity, adaptation, and the looming worry of re-occupation” (description from the Quiet Year Rules). As English teachers, these can be very relevant fields for discussion – how do we teachers and learners look at the cultural-linguistic juggernaut that is the English language? Did any such ‘broader themes’ emerge in your games?

Video recommendation:

Here, you can find a short video tutorial on how to play a simplified version of “The Quiet Year”.

It really doesn’t end there!

I could write more. Much more. But I won’t – for now!

Look out for a future article on the game Lasers and Feelings! This is a more ‘traditional’ – but very simple – RPG that encourages players to describe their actions and environments, create plans, discuss courses of action, justify decisions and work together to achieve success.

It’s a game of space travel and adventure, but in my next article, we’ll boldly go where it’s never gone before – the English classroom! [Terrible joke! See me – Ed.]


If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in graphic facilitation for English teachers.

Following the traditional path of discovering Rammstein, Kraftwerk and Run Lola Run as a teenager, Kit has dreamed of living in Germany ever since. Finally making the move in January 2019, he now works here as a freelance English teacher by day and by night enjoys reading, writing and weeping into books of German grammar.

Following the traditional path of discovering Rammstein, Kraftwerk and Run Lola Run as a teenager, Kit has dreamed of living in Germany ever since. Finally making the move in January 2019, he now works here as a freelance English teacher by day and by night enjoys reading, writing and weeping into books of German grammar.

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