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When Dungeons & Dragons Went to the Museum Curators Symposium

**I’ve launched a Reddit discussion about how to incorporate RPGs and D&D at Museums. You can join the discussion there, or begin one here. I’ll recap it all in a few days.**

I should have known I'd be speaking to an agreeable crowd. The EIU campus looks like a castle.

I should have known I’d be speaking to an agreeable crowd. The EIU campus looks like a castle.

On April 12, I was invited to give a lecture at the Historical Administration Program Association Symposium at Eastern Illinois University, a yearly event that the EIU HPA alumni association puts together to examine “some aspect of current museum theories and practices.”

My lecture, “Trans Museum,” explored how transmedia storytelling can be used at museums both to reach audiences in new ways and to extend the mission of museums beyond the building walls. As an exemplar, I discussed Transmedia Indiana, a project I co-directed with Professor Jennifer George-Palilonis.

One of the most challenging aspects of explaining transmedia storytelling is helping people understand how it works. To do that, I fall back on anecdotes and metaphors to illustrate the concepts we find in transmedia stories. One of those concepts, interactive and collaborative storytelling, has its roots in Dungeons & Dragons.

There is a Dungeon Master, who is analogous to a museum curator, that leads a group through a story. However, the experiences and interactions of the players, who are analogous to the museum audience, colors and changes the way the story unfolds. The best DMs (and curators) are those who create spaces for people to experience the story without being confined to a single, direct route through that story.

This is normally where the audience sometimes gets a bit uncomfortable because it requires the curator to consider their work as more than just an expert storyteller. Instead, it asks the curator to re-align their identity to be part of the collaborative communication experience.

Even those people who lean towards including the audience in storytelling decisions sometimes have a difficult time giving up absolute control. To help soften my argument, I discuss the science behind the idea of how to cede control in order to engage your audience more quickly and to achieve your storytelling goals much more easily. The process is called constructivism, which is an approach to teaching that puts an individual’s experience at the center of the learning process and moves outwards from there (as opposed to putting a teacher or textbook at the center of learning, and asking a student to relate to that).

The point I try to argue is that by engaging the audience on its terms, you can more easily bring them into a directed story you want.

As I was gearing up to convince these curators and graduate students that ceding control was good, I noticed the curators and graduate students were nodding their heads in a (near) collective agreement.

It was a bit unsettling to have so many people agreeing. For a moment, I assumed they were all simply being polite. Then we reached the question-and-answer session, and I understood what was happening.

The lecture lasted about 45 minutes, which left time for 15 minutes of Q&A. And the questions came. Before I knew it 15 minutes had stretched into nearly 45. The audience spent as much time talking about the ideas in the lecture as I had giving the lecture. The best part: The curators and students were not only asking me questions, but also responding to audience questions and comments.

Of course I’d like to take credit for creating that environment, but the truth is a bit less flattering.

These students and curators grew up role-playing with D&D, reading graphic novels, and playing computer games. These ideas and sensibilities about storytelling and interactivity already existed for them. Now they were given permission and room to talk about the ideas and experiences that led them into historical administration in the first place: fantasy role-playing and interactive storytelling.

As our session ended, I asked the curators to consider how they might use the spirit of my talk in their institutions. The easier way to start: create a tabletop RPG game night built around the historical artifacts and exhibits they had, and recruit comic book stores and game shops to lead the campaigns.

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