Role Playing Gaming in School


(Image Credit: The Dungeon Masters Guide, 2nd edition, Will McLean)

Most readers know that I am a gamer. I have played hexagon board and counter tabletop games since I got Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg for my ninth birthday. When Dungeons and Dragons came out in 1973 I got a copy and took up role playing enthusiastically. I don’t have the reaction time for shooter-type computer games but I play computer wargames and have worked with a computer game company to produce historically-based games. So, when my old friend Allison, a fellow history teacher, told me that there was a company publishing role-playing games for use in classes, I decided to give it a try.

Over the spring, via email from Burkina Faso, I corresponded with Allison and another colleague, Sharon Osirich, to come up with the draft of a Haitian Revolution role-playing game. The way we set it up originally, each class day represented a major turning point in the revolutionary transformation of Saint-Domingue, the wealthiest colony in the Americas, into Haiti, a black-ruled peasant society. Each student had a role, ranging from the famous Toussaint Louverture to almost completely unknown people like Macaya, a rebel soldier who sent a famous letter to the colonial administrators claiming that he was “a subject of three kings”: France, Spain, and Congo. Students, acting in character, debate the future course of the colony: abolishing slavery, land reform, labor regulations, race and status, and so on. There was a mechanism for military affairs, allowing players whose characters controlled armed forces to interfere in the debate through coups and military invasions.

In the summer, Allison, Sharon, and I went to a conference in Michigan to try out our draft, and based on that experience, I revised the game and used it in my class this fall. The class was Humanities III, the third semester of Mount Angel’s core curriculum designed to, in the words of the Program of Priestly Formation, inculcate an “understanding of the historical and cultural roots of the Catholic Church.” Religious issues were important in the Haitian Revolution, and of course, politics and social justice are an important concern of the Church, both at that time and today. The period covered in this semester was 1500-1815, more or less, so the French and Haitian Revolutions came at the end. So, starting around November first, we began three weeks of in-class roleplaying.

The setting:

The Haitian Revolution was a hybrid event – in some ways part of the French Revolution and the liberal political Enlightenment and in some ways part of the national independence movements of the Americas. It was a very chaotic struggle, with several different sides and a good deal of treachery and tangled motivations muddying the waters. Portraying this complexity was one of my objectives in the game. I created a complex system of personal victory points in each character sheet in an attempt to give players a reason to struggle for the goals of their character and at the same time had a faction victory mechanism to reward collective effort towards a common goal. I told the students that the individual winner and the members of the winning faction would get extra credit points for the class.

The complexity of the politics and the swirling tides of the 25-year global war triggered by the French Revolution also meant that the Haitian Revolution transformed dramatically from year to year. At one point, the rebels would be working for the King of Spain against the French Republic, and the next moment, they would rally to the Republic and fight against Spain and Britain. Next, they would be covertly cooperating with the British and Americans to gain an advantage against their internal enemies, while simultaneously protesting their loyalty to France and barring French warships from the colony’s ports. Some rebels were OK with continuing forced labor on plantations, while others wanted to distribute land to the peasants. Even opposition to slavery cannot be assumed – some of the rebels, at least at the beginning, would have been willing to settle for freedom for themselves and a variety of modifications in the slave regime, like a fixed number of days off each week or abolition of the lash as punishment. Many poorer Haitians, especially those who came from Africa, were used to monarchy as a form of government and didn’t trust the white man’s Republic. Trying to depict this complexity of motivation and changing circumstance presented problems for a game designer.

The characters:

These games are designed for play in an average-sized college class of 25 to 30. I had 32 roles written for my game, though a number of them are replacements for characters who leave (or die) in early sessions. I had 14 students in my class. I distributed the major roles, but a number of the less historically-important but interesting characters didn’t get assigned. So, for example, one of the debates that takes place in later sessions is over the legitimacy of vodun, the traditional religion of Haiti. I had a character, Romaine la Prophetesse, who was historically the leader of the rebel faction in the Léogane plain southwest of Port-au-Prince, who I had set up as the defender of the rights of the voduisants. This would have been fascinating for students at a seminary, who are interested in religious issues anyway. Afro-Caribbean and syncretic religions like vodun are common throughout the Americas today, and many of my students are Latinos or work with predominantly Latino communities and encounter Santa Muerte or other similar groups in their daily life. I would have loved to have had the debate over vodun but there just weren’t enough players to have Romaine represented.

In the end, the characters represented were:

(for the White faction)

Jean-Baptiste Carradeux: though a noble himself, Carradeux was the leader of the petit blanc faction of non-plantation owning whites. He was the acting governor of the colony at the beginning of the game and head of the colonial assembly selected in a whites-only election in 1789.

Légér-Félicité Sonthonax: a lawyer from France and member of the Jacobin radical group who was chosen to govern the colony by the revolutionary government. His priority was to keep the colony French and prosperous, and if that meant upsetting its racial hierarchy so much the better

Etienne Polverel: a French administrator, Sonthonax’s less radical colleague, primarily interested in keeping revenues up but also a supporter of racial equality and civil rights

The Abbé Grégoire: a French priest and member of the abolitionist Society of the Friends of the Blacks, an uncompromising spokesman for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for people of color in French society

Napoléon Bonaparte: needs no introduction, he was played by the person who had represented Carradeux. His priority was to ensure that the colony would remain French, prosperous, and a useful base for further imperial adventures in the Americas

Charles Leclerc: a French general and Napoleon’s brother-in-law, sent by Napoleon to implement his policies after negotiations with the colonial leadership broke down. Represented by the player who had Sonthonax after Sonthonax was kicked out of the colony by Toussaint Louverture

Moreau de St. Méry: a French intellectual and lawyer who was a spokesman for the interests of the planter class

Leonora Sansay, French author and spokesperson for the planter class during the debates over the recognition of Haitian independence, played by the character who represented Leclerc after the defeat of the Napoleonic invasion.

(for the Free Colored faction)

Vincent Ogé: prominent merchant, leader of the civil rights movement in 1790, led the first armed rebellion during the Revolution. Executed in 1790 historically after refusing to include slaves in his movement.

Julien Raimond: wealthy planter, ally with Ogé in the civil rights movement but did not participate in his armed uprising, preferring to work through the National Assembly to gain equal rights. Ultimately served as a colonial administrator and supported the rise of Toussaint, author of the first Haitian Constitution of 1801.

Toussaint Louverture: leader of the rebel forces in 1791, temporarily ally of Spain and then soldier of the French Republic. His policy goals were unclear, allowing him to be undecided on many of the major issues. His decisions would make the simulation move dramatically one way or another

Jean-Baptiste Villatte: a comfortably wealthy planter from the western region of the colony, competed with Toussaint for power in the 1790s.

André Rigaud: a small planter from the southern region, competed with Toussaint for power in the 1790s, played by the person who represented Ogé in the first session

Alexandre Pétion: a mixed-race military officer who supported Rigaud in the 1790s, then went on to become President of independent Haiti, represented by the player who had Raimond before his death

Jean-Baptiste Boyer: a small planter who rose to power as Pétion’s successor, portrayed by the player who had represented Toussaint until his death.

Henry Christophe, an innkeeper from the northern part of the colony who was a major military leader in the resistance to the French and then ruled the northern part of the island after independence, played by the person who had played Villatte in the earlier sessions

(for the Enslaved/Freedmen faction)

Boukman, leader of the slave rebels of the northern plains in 1791 who famously proclaimed the revolution at the ceremony at Bois Caiman

Jean-François, chief slave on a plantation in the north who led his workers into rebellion in 1791, and later joined the Spanish army

Jean-Jacques Dessalines, leading general of the rebel forces under Toussaint’s command throughout most of the Revolution, won the final victory over the French and then tried to rule Haiti as its Emperor. Assassinated by his subordinates Pétion and Christophe. Portrayed in the game by the player who had Boukman in 1791

Macaya, the afore-mentioned “subject of three kings”, enslaved Congolese monarchist and radical supporter of land reform

Jean Kina: an enslaved carpenter originally from Congo but a long-time resident of the remote southern peninsula who supports a harmonious peasant-based society of orders with a legitimate monarch at its head.

I had some really bright and interested students. People made up costumes, wore three-cornered hats with tricouleur cockades in them, brought a variety of props, and spent a lot of time researching the issues and their characters. The guys who had Toussaint and Dessalines did very well – I think it is key to assign those roles to the most engaged students.,

The Sessions:

The way I set things up was to place each hour-long session of the game in a different critical moment of the Haitian Revolution.

The first session was set in 1790 and represented the struggle for civil rights for free people of color. Under slavery, masters had a limited right to grant freedom to some of their slaves. They might have a variety of reasons to do so, ranging from family ties to a particular slave – a mistress and illegitimate children, half-siblings, etc. – to outright ransom. By 1790, about half of the free population of the island had African ancestry. As the free population of color grew in the early 1700s, France adopted a variety of racist laws that restricted their rights. A bedrock principle of the French Revolution was equality – that distinctions between people are to be based on merit rather than birth. The free colored population of Haiti pushed for equal rights as French citizens after the fall of the Bastille, and in the early 1790s, with the support of a prominent faction within the ruling Jacobin faction in the National Assembly, they got the revolutionary government to give it to them. The white establishment in the colony resisted, and this led to conflict in the colony. The first session of the game represents that struggle, with some characters debating the issue in France while others are plotting rebellion in the colony. The player representing Ogé has two key decisions to make: first, it rapidly becomes clear that, even though some abolitionists are calling for civil rights for free people of color, there aren’t enough votes in the Assembly for anything like what he wants to pass. He must decide to launch an uprising. Then, he must decide if he wants to cooperate with the enslaved, adopting some of their goals as his own, and try to gain their support for a broader rebellion, or if he wants to stick with Ogé’s historical decision and just push for civil rights for free people. The player chose the more radical approach, the Assembly voted down civil rights, and the slave rebellion broke out earlier than was the case historically, and with more unity between free coloreds and enslaved…at least at first. The rebels agreed to work with the Spanish and got arms and bases from the governor of Spanish Santo Domingo.

The second session was set in 1791 and represented the historical outbreak of the slave rebellion. The slaves were already in the field with Ogé, who I ruled died in battle along with Jean-François and Boukman when their assault on the northern capital of Cap Français failed spectacularly. This allowed the historical leadership of the rebel movement to come to the fore, with Toussaint, Dessalines, Rigaud, Villatte, and Raimond in play. The new French leadership arrived and the French and free colored people not in rebellion discussed and ultimately adopted abolition of slavery. The discussion was lively. Nobody was willing to make racist arguments, unsurprisingly. I may adopt the mechanism of the “race card”, from Dr. Proctor’s Kentucky 1861 game, where players who want to make racial arguments have the right under certain circumstances to “play the race card”, getting additional votes for their proposals without having to actually say the things we are conditioned not to say about white supremacy and race. I don’t like this approach, I consider it precious and I think it is a lot better for students if they learn what people in the past said and thought about racial issues. One good thing about the “race card” mechanism, though, is that in the preparatory lessons before the start of the Kentucky game, the students have to take a little quiz on racial attitudes and only those who score above a certain level get “race cards” they can play during the simulation. So at least they have to show they intellectually understand what the arguments are even if they don’t get their emotional resonance.

The third session was set in 1794, and represents the debate over the structure of the colony in the wake of abolition, combined with an attempt by France’s enemies to capture the colony and restore plantation slavery. Some people prefer the invaders for a variety of reasons, while at the same time the priority the colony’s French rulers place on economic productivity makes the formerly enslaved wonder how much abolition has really improved their lives. The player portraying Toussaint did a good job rallying support for the Republic, and ultimately the invaders were driven off. A modified labor code gained the support of enough of the formerly enslaved people to prevent an uprising – Toussaint, again, negotiated a reduction in required hours and a set of exemptions that people could earn from required labor on the plantations.

The fourth session was set in 1799, when the free colored leadership fought it out for control of the colony and proposed a separate constitution for French Saint-Domingue that addressed the different cultural and economic conditions. This was the most dramatic moment when the historical experience differed from the simulation. I had tried to set up the White faction as suspicious at best of the motives of the colony’s new free colored leadership, while at the same time stressing the importance of keeping the British, Americans, and Spanish at least neutral in the colony’s conflicts to Toussaint and Rigaud. However, since Toussaint had gained the grudging support of a majority of the former slaves and passed a labor code in the preceding session, he had overseen an improvement in the colony’s economy (a functioning labor code means that more plantations are brought on line). As colonial military leader, Toussaint has the power to give plantations to his supporters. With this inducement, he was able to gain victory over his internal rival Rigaud without needing the support of the British or Americans – he didn’t even talk to them. Thus, he was freer in his negotiations with Napoléon, and he ultimately was able to create a Constitution that was ratified by the French government.

In principle, this should have been the end of the simulation. I proclaimed a victory for the Free Colored faction. However, not wanting to end the simulation without playing out the last two sessions, I proclaimed that Napoléon had been forced by pressure from conservatives within his government to go back on his agreement and invade the colony anyway. I will have to rewrite the character sheets to make a peaceful resolution less likely, I guess.

Anyway, session five was Napoléon’s invasion in 1802 and the debate over a declaration of independence and constitution for the newly-independent nation. The Haitian defenders overwhelmed their French enemies as soon as the yellow fever epidemic took hold, aided by the decision of the French leadership not to capture Toussaint but instead to try to bring him around with bribes of plantations and a subordinate leadership role. He played along until the time was ripe to stab them in the back, aided by a variety of his freedmen supporters, who he had not antagonized nearly as much as Toussaint did historically during his period as supreme ruler of the colony. We actually ended up taking two class days to work on this, as the character portraying Dessalines had to work with the (ahistorically) still living Toussaint on the structure of a new society. They adopted a similar approach to the earlier debates, mixing a plantation-based society with a more generous labor code and a small land reform program targeted at former soldiers. They had some very progressive ideas about farm cooperatives that would have pleased my Peace Corps comrades of days of yore.

The last session was set in 1805-1821 and represented the debates over the future of the colony. The French present demands for reparations and the Haitians are divided between a variety of plans to restore plantation prosperity and/or build a prosperous independent peasant society while still having enough resources for the state to defend the nation against a return of foreign colonialists. We started this debate at the end of day 5B, but were already delayed, and then on the last day of the term there was a snowstorm, and I had to cancel class. Given what had gone before, the debate was somewhat repetitive.

Lessons learned:

I assigned a good general history of the struggle, Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World. Students appeared to have read it. However, there was a definite lack of subtlety in their understanding of the events. This is not surprising – I have used Model United Nations simulations in class before and students are always more radical and less nuanced than their real-life counterparts.

That said, these students are seminarians, they all know each other well and live together in dorms for four years. They have lots of practice in working together and figuring out solutions to problems together. I think the general harmony that prevailed on several occasions was probably an unusual outcome that a class at a different institution would not have arrived at. Moreover, the student I selected to portray Toussaint is a natural leader with a lot of respect from his fellow students. I think he was able to trade on these pre-existing relationships to get people to agree to things they probably shouldn’t have.

The point system was a motivator for students – on several occasions, people came to me and asked what the point implications of a certain course of action would be – what counted as a “major amendment” to a proposal or what would rise to the level of important land reform, for example. I am considering being more precise, but too much precision will cut down on student creativity since they will have pre-digested cookie-cutter solutions right on their character sheets. I liked that they got down in the dirt and debated policy measures. As I said, they sounded from time to time like modern development workers.

More time needs to be spent in the preliminary sessions. I think maybe an initial scene-setting debate in character over natural rights, race, and liberty, maybe in the context of a “salon” or “meeting of the Jacobin Club”, without voting, would allow students to get used to their characters and the issues without the high-stakes aspect of voting on laws and violent conflict in the offing. I also should have gone over the colony’s society and the events leading up to the revolution in a little more detail for those who didn’t follow the reading too closely.

The system for resolving military events was chaotic and time-consuming. I had thought that a few minutes of chest-bumping followed by a vote (with people having a variable number of votes depending on their characters’ skills and arms stockpiles) would be sufficient, but students insisted on a long period of negotiations before the vote.

Although I liked the idea of having a day to discuss the organization of an independent Haiti, perhaps this is too ambitious given the amount of time we spent leading up to that point. This could be an optional session for those willing to devote as many as ten class days to the simulation.

Student responses were overwhelmingly positive, with a few students making some of these criticisms or comments. I think they learned a whole lot more from this than from an equal number of lectures about national independence movements in the Americas, the French Revolution and Age of Napoleon, the Enlightenment, and so forth. I plan to use simulations in all my classes in the spring and may reproduce this in the community college classes as well.


One thought on “Role Playing Gaming in School

  1. Fascinating coincidence of your post and my current read, Isabel Allende’s novel about this time period, ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA. Lots of stuff I really didn’t know there, and this post filled in some more information.


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