WRIT 1133 | Writing: Indie RPGs | jesse.stommel@du.edu

Course Description

The first commercially available tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), was published in 1974. In most role-playing games, players take on the roles of characters and tell a collaborative story, whether fantasy, science fiction, horror, romance, realism, etc. RPGs range from massively popular commercial projects like D&D, which includes 100s of source books, to much smaller indie projects with a single book as short as a chapbook (or even a single page). In this class, we’ll play, analyze, write, and release short RPGs. The shape our games take and the stories they tell will be driven by research. We’ll imagine worlds, experiment with game mechanics, and play-test our own creations. The course will be hybrid, so we’ll meet in-person once each week and then do a good amount of our work together out on the open Web.

A class is a process, an independent organism with its own goals and dynamics. It is always something more than even the most imaginative lesson plan can predict. ~ Thomas P. Kasulis

And so we’ll start with a syllabus and schedule, but it will evolve throughout the term driven by our discussions and discoveries. In this class, we’ll approach writing in novel ways, examining and experimenting with rhetorical texts, including film, multimodal composition, games, and other interactive narratives.

What We'll Do and How We'll Do It

Our world is increasingly complex, and so we can't know exactly what shape this course will take over the next several months. This course is hybrid, so we’ll have scheduled in-person meetings each week. (Our subject, the playing, analysis, and creation of tabletop RPGs really depends on these face-to-face sessions.) But we'll also be sharing our work together asynchronously online and out on the open Web. It's also possible to play most RPGs via video chat. And there's even a few that can be played by text message. Not all of us are encountering this moment in the same ways, so each of us will have to make decisions about how we can engage. I want to be clear about several things:

  • Much of the work of the course will be shared asynchronously online.
  • Each week, we'll have scheduled face-to-face sessions. These will be designed as spaces for discussion, gaming, and play-testing.
  • While our face-to-face sessions will be key to the collaborative work we'll be doing, I trust you to make decisions about what feels safe for you, and we all want you to do what you can to keep others safe.
  • I encourage you to connect with me and your classmates in whatever ways make sense and are safest for you. Ultimately, this is a community, and there are lots of different ways we can each contribute.
  • This course will live on the Web in three places: this site, our Discord server, and wherever you choose to put your work for the course. Our face-to-face sessions will inform our other work.
  • I look forward to getting to know you as a student, a writer, and a person.

Office Hours

I will be available for virtual office hours as necessary. Just reach out to schedule a video meeting, or feel free to engage via DM in Discord, which is the fastest way to get feedback or questions answered.

Disability Accommodations

I've worked to make this course adaptive and flexible, so that you can find your own way into the work, whatever your context. DU's Disability Services Program guides, counsels, and assists students with disabilities. If you have already met with them, feel free to chat with me about any changes we can make to help your learning. I will certainly offer accommodations. I'd rather we work together to make sure the course meets your needs. You do not need to divulge any personal information in order to have these conversations or to receive accommodations. I trust you. Learning is something we do together. And, of course, I will hold information you do share with me in confidence unless you give me permission to do otherwise. If you do not require accommodations due to a disability, understand that some of your fellow students might, and it is important to me that you do not make assumptions about where, when, or how they learn.

Basic Needs Security

What's most important to me is that you feel able to show up fully to our work together. I'm human first. Students are humans first. If you face challenges securing your food or housing and believe this may affect your learning in this course, visit DU's basic needs resource site for support. Please also let me know personally if you are comfortable doing so, because there may be ways I can help.

You can seek confidential mental health services in the Health & Counseling Center (HCC) and My Student Support System (My SSP). Another helpful campus office is Student Outreach & Support (SOS), where staff can connect you to other campus resources.

I'm decidedly putting these accessibility and basic needs statements at the top of this syllabus, rather than buried with the fine print at the bottom. At this moment, at any moment, our basic humanity is something we need to be leading with.

Course Objectives

Nothing in this syllabus will be set in stone or taken for granted. The outline and objectives here are a beginning, something we’ll treat roughly as the course proceeds. This is not a map, but rather a direction we’ll point ourselves with the goal of vigorously rewriting the syllabus as we go, discovering what we’ll learn together as we learn it, questioning what we’ll do even as we begin to do it.

You can find the DU University Writing Program's standard outcomes for Writing 1133 here.

To these I'll add that we will:

  • Interrogate writing as a practice. This is, in part, a course about research, so we'll consider how writing comes into the world, thinking about what sources we need to gather to do our work and thinking critically about that gathering.
  • Wonder at genre, audience, and intention, both in the work we do but also through our selection of sources.
  • Consider the intersections between text, images, moving images, games, etc.
  • Experiment with multimodal composition. This is a course about critical thinking and also critical making.
  • Change our minds about stuff.
  • Have epiphanies.

The Work of the Course

This course will be as much about breaking stuff as it is about building stuff, focusing on critical thinking and process more than finished product.

Required Films and Texts

There is not a traditional textbook for this course. We will do some reading and watch some films, but the course will center around what we make and our discussions about what we uncover.

We'll be playing and analyzing games that are available in both book form and as downloadable PDFs. You should plan to spend at least $40 - $50 for the term for the downloadable PDF versions (which are usually significantly cheaper than physical copies). If that presents a challenge, for whatever reason, let me know.

The rest of our readings will be available openly online.

Weekly Activities

Each week, the course schedule will guide you through the various activities of the week, including information about synchronous sessions, both face-to-face and online. Watch our schedule and Discord for updates as we proceed.


This is a collaborative course, focusing on discussion and work in groups. The class will be a cooperative learning experience, a true intellectual community. And so, you and your work are, in a very real sense, the primary texts for this course. In order for us to work together as a community, we all have to come prepared to participate. If you can’t finish work for any reason, chat with me (and your collaborators) in advance.


You may collaborate with your peers on any of our projects. I've created a channel in Discord called #looking-for-group, which you can use to find collaborators. If you have questions about the various ways collaboration can work, chat with me at any point.

Self-reflection Letters

You'll do lots of writing for this course, some of it short, some long, some rough, some polished, some for an audience, and some of it just for yourself. There will be lots of room for you to decide how much time and energy you want to invest in each of the activities or assignments we'll do. The most important work you'll do is to reflect on your own writing and writing process. Ultimately, this course is not about proving to me that you can write, but about helping you find new ways into your work as a writer.

Public Work

Much of your work for this course will live publicly on the Web within open platforms. If you would like to remain anonymous, I encourage you to use a pseudonym. Think carefully about these choices. We will discuss issues related to privacy and the open Web extensively during this class.

Grades and Assessment

"Extrinsic motivation, which includes a desire to get better grades, is not only different from, but often undermines, intrinsic motivation, a desire to learn for its own sake." ~ Alfie Kohn, "The Case Against Grades"

Everyone who participates in our course community, finishes the major assignments for the course, and completes their self-reflections will get an "A." Instead of your grade, here's what I want you to focus on:

  • Actively engage in the work of the course. Writing is ultimately what this course is about, but there will be lots of different ways for each of us to engage.
  • Determine what participation in our community looks like for you – online, in-person, synchronously, asynchronously, on Discord, in our physical classroom, wherever you can best contribute and learn. Listening and reflecting can be just as important as speaking and questioning. Writing is not an independent exercise, so I encourage you to focus a good amount of your energy on helping your peers, reading their work, championing their accomplishments, and offering feedback that pushes them in their own writing process.
  • Reflect on your own work. This course is about process, not product, and so writing about our own writing is the most important work we'll do.

I will not be grading individual assignments, but rather asking questions and making comments that engage your work rather than simply evaluate it. The intention is to help you focus on working in a more organic way, as opposed to working as you think you’re expected to. If this process causes more anxiety than it alleviates, see me at any point to confer about your work in the course to date.

You should consider this course a “busy-work-free zone.” If an assignment does not feel productive, we can find ways to modify, remix, or repurpose the instructions.


Authorship is a hotly contested topic in the academy. At what point do we own the words we say and write or the images we create? In literature and digital media, creative influence, collaboration, and borrowing are usually acceptable (even encouraged). So, what sort of statement or warning about plagiarism would be appropriate in this class? Let me go out on a limb and say: in this class, I encourage you to borrow ideas (from me, from the authors we read, from the films we watch, from your classmates). But, even more, I encourage you to truly make them your own — by playing with, manipulating, applying, and otherwise turning them on their head. In the end, it’s just downright boring to rest on the laurels of others. It’s altogether more daring (and, frankly, more fun) to invent something new yourself — a new idea, a new way of thinking, a new claim, a new image. This doesn’t give you license to copy something in its entirety and slap your name on it. That’s just stealing. Instead, think very consciously about how you’re influenced by your sources — by the way knowledge and creativity depend on a sort of inheritance. And think also about the real responsibility you have to those sources.


It is my commitment to you that I will not submit any of your papers to Turnitin. Plagiarism-detection software like Turnitin monetizes student intellectual property and contributes to a culture of suspicion in education. I trust you. I trust that your work is your own. If you have questions about how to properly cite sources, let me know. If you want to know more about Turnitin and how you can protect your own intellectual property, here is an essay with info.

Inclusive Community

While some of the work for this course will be done independently or with a small group, think of all your peers as an audience for your work, as well as a source for feedback and encouragement. Draw on their expertise. This class will be as much (or more) about you teaching yourselves and each other as it is about me teaching you. Because of this, it's incredibly important to me that we create an inclusive community that is respectful of our differences and offers space for the boundary-setting necessary for positive relationships to form. Our diversity is reflected by differences in race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, religion, nationality, and other cultural identities and material circumstances.

Discrimination, Harassment & Gender-Based Violence (TITLE IX)

Discrimination, harassment, and gender-based violence can happen to anyone regardless of race, class, age, appearance, gender identity, or sexual orientation. The University of Denver is committed to providing an environment free of discrimination on the basis of sex (gender) and other protected classes, such as race, color, national origin, age, and disability. The Office of Equal Opportunity & Title IX (EOIX) is responsible for responding to and investigating reports and complaints of discrimination, harassment, and gender-based violence. In addition, all non-confidential University employees are considered “responsible employees” and required to report such incidents to EOIX. For more information, please visit the Office of Equal Opportunity & Title IX website.

DU Writing Center

The Writing Center provides writing support for undergraduate and graduate students at all levels, on all kinds of projects, and at any stage of the process: from generating ideas to learning new editing strategies. Consultants take a collaborative approach, working with you to help you develop your writing in light of your specific goals and assignments. To make an appointment for a free, 45-minute consultation, call 303-871-7456 or go to MyWeb > Student > Writing Center. Visit the Website (www.du.edu/writing/writingcenter/ ) for hours and additional information.

Teaching Philosophy

Critical thinking is like eating, something lively and voracious, something that drips and reels. It isn’t (and can’t be) virtual. And yet, somewhat paradoxically, we must increasingly find ways for this work to happen online. We must bring our subjects to life for both ourselves and our digital counterparts. Learning must fire every neuron — must touch us at the highest levels of consciousness and at the cellular level. No matter where it happens, this is what learning must do. It must evolve — and revolt.


Here’s what we’ll spend our time doing this quarter. The schedule will evolve as we proceed. Watch regularly for more details, added activities, and stuff might change or move around as our conversation does.

Unless otherwise noted (see week 2), we'll meet at our regularly scheduled times each week:
WRIT 1133 Sec. 16 on Tuesday at Noon (Sturm Hall 492)
WRIT 1133 Sec. 17 on Tuesday at 2pm (Sturm Hall 234)
WRIT 1133 Sec. 18 on Thursday at 2pm (Sturm Hall 491)

The rest of our work will be done online via Discord and wherever you choose to do your work for the course. Generally, you should try to complete the required readings before we meet in person. The rest of the activities can be done at any point throughout the week, unless there's a specific date listed.

Week 1: March 28 - April 3

Read and watch:
A Critical History of Role-playing Games
What is a Tabletop RPG?

Do some stuff:
1) Sign up for our Discord server, using the invite link I added to Canvas and sent by e-mail. Here's a quick getting started guide for Discord, if you haven't used it. Discord will be our "classroom" when we're working online, for both synchronous and asynchronous activities.

2) You'll need a space online to share your work for this course. A couple options: (a) Use your own personal site or blog, if you have one; (b) Sign up for a free account on Medium; (c) Prepare to publish anywhere else (Google Drive, WordPress, Tumblr, etc.), as long as you can post regularly and share your work with the class via hyperlinks. Feel free to leave your full name off of your site (or use a psuedonym).

Week 2: April 4 - 10

We won't be meeting in person this week. This will give us a chance to get oriented to the digital part of our course.

Read and play:
1) Read the 1-page RPG that you got in class last week. Find some folks to play it with. Most of these should only take about 2 hours to play. If you weren't in class last week or didn't pick up a 1-page RPG, here are some more recommendations. Most of these are very low or no cost.

2) A couple recommended books if you want to check out more mini-RPGs:
The Ultimate Micro-RPG Book (print or Kindle)
#Feminism: A Nano Game Anthology (pdf or print)

Do some stuff:
1) At the time we'd normally be meeting in person this week, make a short (less than a minute) video introducing yourself to us. This can be super simple (shot on your phone, no editing, etc.). Share your video in the #who-are-we channel in Discord.

  • Don’t tell us your major, unless you have a story about it
  • Don’t tell us what you did over the holiday break, unless it involves giant snakes, parachuting, a unicorn, or it will be documented in a viral video
  • Don’t tell us where you grew up, unless you’re going to show pictures
  • Do tell us what moves you, what you care most about
  • Do tell us what you hope to get from taking this course, but only if you can do so in a limerick
  • Do tell us where you are
  • Do give us random facts we can come to know you by

To share a video in Discord, upload to YouTube (or any other site where videos live) and share with a link. Or click the little + to the left of the message box in Discord, select a video file you created, and add a title or hello in the message. There are limits to how big a file can be, hence why using YouTube might be easiest.

2) Watch some of the videos of your peers, respond, add reaction emojis, etc. There are three sections of this class. When we can hold in-person sessions, you'll come at the time your section is scheduled. However, all three sections will work together in our Discord server.

3) Write a short response to the 1-page RPG you read/played. Talk specifically about the game mechanics, your experience playing the game, etc. Publish your post wherever you will be doing the work for this course (a blog, Medium, Google Drive, somewhere else). Share a link to your work in the #our-work channel on discord. Make sure your work is viewable by anyone with the link.

Looking Forward: Over the next two weeks, you'll be working on your own 1-page RPG. It can be a single page, but should be no longer than a single page (front and back). The shape of the page is up to you. It should contain everything a person needs to play the game. Look to any of the other material for this week for more models. You'll bring a draft to class next week (week 3), which you'll revise and share for playtesting by the end of the week.

Week 3: April 11 - 17

Read and play:
We'll play a short game together as a group in class this week. Otherwise, continue looking at the 1-page RPGs recommended for last week, as you begin to craft your own.

Do some stuff:
1) Bring a draft, a sketch, or an idea for your own 1-page RPG to class this week. We'll spend some time in groups discussing and honing your ideas.

2) By the end of the week (Sunday), share a link to a playable draft of your 1-page RPG in the #our-work channel on Discord. Make sure to give your game a name, and I recommend including a single sentence description or preview to get people interest in checking out your work.

The guidelines for your 1-page RPG are simple:

  • A role-playing or collaborative storytelling game. Any genre. Serious or weird. Story-driven or combat-driven.
  • A single page, one-sided or front and back. All the context and instructions someone would need for your game to be "playable." Most (not all) 1-page RPGs can be played in a single session of 90 minutes or so.
  • The game mechanics can be as simple or as complex as you want. We'll talk about game mechanics more as the course goes along. At this point, feel free to experiment. Most one-page RPGs include a little bit of world-building (context that helps set the stage). Some have players make characters. Some have players using 6-sided dice or constructing their own cards with slips of paper. Some incorporate other stuff a person might find around their house. Make sure to say how many players you recommend for your game and what age(s) you recommend it for.
  • Feel free to incorporate some graphic design, sketches, etc. into your 1-page RPG, but it can also be just text.
  • If your game asks people to engage with potentially sensitive topics, incorporate a boundary-setting mechanic. Lines and veils are one common example.

Looking forward: Next week you'll playtest at least one of the other games authored by your peers, and you'll playtest your own game, if you haven't already. Feel free to begin playtesting and/or offering feedback on games as soon as they begin to appear in Discord.

Week 4: April 18 - 24

Do some stuff:
1) Playtest your own 1-page RPG. We'll playtest a few games in class this week, but we won't have time to playtest all of them.

2) Also, playtest at least one other game written by a peer (by picking one in the #our-work channel). Make sure to offer useful feedback on whatever games you play.

3) Then, revise based on your experience and any feedback you get on your own game. Share the final draft in the #one-page-rpg channel in Discord (by Sunday, the 24th).

Week 5: April 25 - May 1

Read and watch some stuff:
Critical Role: "Campaign 2 Character Introductions"
Ginny Di: "POV Roleplay," "50 Character Builder Questions for your Tabletop Character," "Backstories don't have to be tragic to be interesting"
Antero Garcia, "Privilege, Power, and Dungeons & Dragons: How Systems Shape Racial and Gender Identities in Tabletop Role-Playing Games"

Do some stuff:
Build a D&D character. (We'll start work on this together in class this week.) There's a few ways you can go about this. 1) Print a character sheet, and use the Step-by-Step Characters guide in the D&D Basic Rules. 2) Use D&D Beyond to make a character online. Here's a quick walkthrough. Whichever method you use, especially if this is your first character, take time to flesh out the personality and background section. Like so many of the games we've played D&D involves a lot of improvisation, which is much easier (and more fun) when you've got a clear frame to work within.

Week 6: May 2 - 8

In the meantime, you'll think about and work on your midterm self-reflection. There’s some recommended reading that might help as you think about how to evaluate your work for the course.

Read some or all of this stuff:
Nancy Chick's “Metacognition”, Alfie Kohn's “The Case Against Grades”, and/or Audrey Watters's “The Web We Need to Give Students”.

Write your self-reflection:
Click this link to write a self-reflection by the end of the day on Friday, May 6.

Looking forward:
If you haven't already, think about your idea for the final project. In short, you'll write either a short Indie RPG or a campaign setting or sourcebook for D&D 5E (or some other system). You can work on your own or in groups on this assignment. Your work should incorporate several components:

  • Research: survey the genre you'll be working in, looking at other books/systems. Consider how players have responded to those books/system (in reviews, on social media, etc.).
  • Writing: If you do a traditional book-shaped Indie RPG, imagine a finished product that is about 30 pages if you're working on your own, more if you're working with a group. However, you can also imagine different shapes for your writing: for example, a game structured around a deck of cards, or a campaign book in graphic novel form. So, don't get too hung up on word count. You'll do some world-building and also write some rules/mechanics, so your style will range from technical writing to creative writing. Experiment with your own voice at both ends of that spectrum.
  • Graphic Design: Think about the content of the game, but also it's form. Incorporate some basic graphic design, line art, watercolor paintings, book-making, whatever best helps realize your vision.
  • Play-testing: Approach the play-testing of this final project a little more systematically. Create a brief survey for players (or a set of questions you ask them). Gather specific information about how your game plays, how it looks, whether the writing is clear, if the world you've built captures people's imaginations.

We'll talk about each of these aspects of your work as the term proceeds, so don't fret about them all at once. Start with an idea and work your way from there.

Week 7: May 9 - 15

In class this week, we'll play the game Ten Candles. No need to prepare anything for the game.

Read and Play:
Choose one short Indie RPG to read. Here are some options I recommend (across different genres), all available in PDF format: Bluebeard's Bride, Microscope, Sleepaway, The Skeletons, Our Last Best Hope, Eden, Downfall, Ten Candles. (If you choose Ten Candles, I recommend waiting to read the game until after we play it together.)

You can find more options at Indie Press Revolution or Drive Thru RPG. Look for games that contain the entire rules inside a single book of 30-100 pages.

Read the rules for the game.

At some point this week, outside of class, find a group to play the game with.

Whichever game you choose, research the game. Find out what the creator(s) has said about the game. What other games have they written? Read through reviews of the game. What other games is it being compared to? What is the game's genre? What other games seem similar within its genre? Find pockets of the internet where the game is being discussed. See if you can find evidence that helps you guess at how well the game has sold, how many copies have been played, etc. Has the game been mentioned in any academic articles, dissertations, etc.? (For some of these games, this will be unlikely, but dig deep to see what you can find.)

Looking forward:
Draft an outline, introduction, description, or sketch of the game you're writing/designing. Bring it with you to class next week.

Week 8: May 16 - 22

In class this week, we will be looking at early drafts of your games, an outline of your system, a couple pages of world-building, a game mechanic. Make sure you bring enough to get useful feedback from the group.

Week 9: May 23 - 29

We will begin playtesting this week.

Week 10: May 30 - June 5

We will continue playtesting this week. And will work to refine our games. You'll complete your Final Project by the end of the week.

Sunday, June 5: By the end of the day, share a finished version of your final project in the #final-project channel on Discord (check week 6 for a reminder about the various components of the project).

Week 11: June 6 - 9

We won't meet in person during the final exam period. In place of a final, there are two things to do by Thursday this week:

1. The Writing Program asks all students in WRIT 1133 to complete a brief portfolio. Click here for the full instructions. The gist: Cut and paste into a single file (DOCX, RTF, or PDF) two samples from the work you did for WRIT 1133. (No need to revise further.) These can be major or minor assignments, whatever you think represents your work. Then, write a short introduction (1-2 paragraphs) that describes your work and what you learned about the writing/research process. You can use links in the document at will to multimedia components. The instructions ask you to e-mail me your single file. Email to: jesse.stommel@du.edu.

2. Before Thursday, complete your final self-reflection by clicking here.