The sounds of dice rattling and soft pencil scratching permeate a first year composition classroom as students, individually and in small groups, play through tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) designed by their peers that tackle the topic of writing a research paper. As the class session draws to a close, the students grow louder—some in triumph as they are able to “win” or complete their research papers, others in frustration as the game does not progress the way they want. This assignment, completed at the end of a two-course composition sequence, asks students to create a “one-pager” tabletop roleplaying game that walks the player through the process of writing a research paper, using the idea of a “writer” as the character in the game. This assignment was designed to both support skill transfer by defamiliarizing the process of research writing through translation to the roleplaying game, “making strange” the familiar process of research and exposing invisiblized and routinized habits; and to define the persona (or player-character) of the writer, exploring the materiality of the writerly identity. This paper reflects on this assignment, exploring the composition and game studies theories that were foundational for the assignment before turning to talk about the assignment itself, using two student examples to discuss the successes and challenges of teaching this assignment. Ultimately, this paper argues that having students create one-pager TTRPGs in the first-year writing classroom is an excellent strategy for defamiliarizing the writing process. It also addresses how explorations of writerly identity are more complex and pose unique challenges, largely owing to asking students to create a TTRPG without intentional and explicit instruction in broader TTRPG design theory.


The first-year composition sequence at the University of Illinois Springfield, where I taught this assignment, is a two-course rhetoric-based sequence that emphasizes research writing in the second course. ENG 102 currently has a four-assignment sequence, with the third being an 8-10 page research paper, and the fourth a multimodal remix of the research paper. While many instructors have taken the content of the research paper as the subject for the remix, this one-pager assignment invites students to instead remix the process work of writing a research paper. The learning outcomes for the course emphasize metacognition, writing as process, and writer agency/choice as key skills for students to develop in this section, and this assignment was designed to map onto these learning outcomes and build out these skills. The one-pager created by students was accompanied by an in-class play session, where the students were able to play the games created by their peers, and a reflection submitted following the play session in which students reflected both on writing their own game and on playing the games created by their peers.

In preparation for completing this assignment, several class sessions were devoted to rhetorical and genre analyses of existing one-pager games. Students were assigned several games to read together, including Honey Heist, The Witch Is Dead, Sexy Battle Wizards, all created by Grant Howitt; Over the Mountain, a solo journaling game created by marchcrow; The Workplace, a Lasers & Feelings hack and parody of The Office, created by Matteo Sciutteri; and The Travellers Tale, a collaborative story-telling game that fits on a business card, created by Into the Weird Blue Yonder. An in-class activity asked students to search the “one-pager” tag on (an archive/store for indie TTRPGs) to find examples that aligned with their own interests and to get a sense of the breadth of the genre.

A brief excerpt of the prompt that was given to students (see appendix I for the full assignment sheet) says:

Using what you have learned about writing a research paper and about writing to meet the requirements of a genre, I would like you to complete a “one-pager” tabletop game that turns the process of writing a research paper into a roleplaying game. As you write, think about the processes, steps, and skills that go into writing a research paper, and how you might translate those ideas into a game. As well, think about the character of the writer in the game, and how different writers might approach the processes of a research paper differently. As well, think about the features of the one-pagers that we have looked at as a class: what kinds of things would your audience expect to see?

When designing your game, you can use any format that makes sense to you, including pen on paper, and you can copy liberally from the samples that we looked at in class (as long as you are citing your influences).

Once your games are completed, we will play them together as a class.

Students are asked to compose a “one-page” TTRPG, which is a kind of game that requires that all the text for the game—from the story and narrative context to the rules for gameplay to tables, stat blocks, and character creation guides to GM-specific suggestions fit on a single piece of printer paper: “[e]ntire systems and settings on single sheets of paper. Rules-lite by necessity… Restriction breeds creativity, the only limit is the imagination of the designers and the players” (UnknownDungeon). These games are designed to be lightweight and easy to play over a single session. As part of a legacy of short tabletop RPGs, one-pagers were popularized by Grant Howitt, who released the germinal Honey Heist as a part of his Patreon (Carter), and saw the game become one of the most popular indie tabletop roleplaying games, consistently remaining at the top of the most popular games list, and being played by Critical Role, arguably the most popular actual play show. The one-page genre has become a popular part of the indie tabletop roleplaying game scene—for example, hosts a yearly one-page “game jam”, where creators are invited to create and submit new one-pager games, and the 2023 game jam saw 615 entries—that is, 615 new one-page TTRPGs created in 2023 alone (“Submissions to One-Page RPG Jam 2023”).

Composition Meets Game Studies Theory

This assignment is rooted in two key theories in composition pedagogy, defamiliarization and writerly identity. Defamiliarization—the act of making the familiar strange in order to examine the unseen or routine features of an experience—is tied to several core concepts in composition studies: first, the idea that writing is a recursive process (which includes, but is not limited to, prewriting/brainstorming, writing, and revision) (Elbow); second, that learning to control or make active choices about this process requires both reflection and metacognitive development (Taczak; Bazerman and Tinberg); third, the idea that paying attention to writing processes that have been internalized or routinized by writers requires active work on behalf of the students and the curriculum. While defamiliarization as a concept comes from literary studies (defined by Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky), it has been used in the composition classroom to interrogate issues of race (Zuba) and is a useful pedagogical strategy for laying bare entrenched and invisiblized features of writing (Hayles). One of the goals of the one-pager writing assignment is that, by asking students to not only explicitly name, but use as the mechanics of a game, parts of the writing process, students must grapple with the process of writing as an active, deliberate series of choices. This requires that students pay attention to pieces of the writing process that they might otherwise have overlooked or not been able to concretely discuss.

Writerly identity centers on the idea that writing is tied to identity, as Kevin Roozen argues in Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing Studies (a project that sought to identify the core shared beliefs in the discipline). Roozen says:

Through writing,  writers  come  to  develop  and  perform  identities  in  relation  to  the  interests,  beliefs,  and  values  of  the  communities  they  engage  with,  understanding  the  possibilities  for  selfhood  available  in  those communities… The act of writing, then, is not so much about using a particular  set  of  skills  as  it  is  about  becoming  a  particular  kind  of  person,  about developing a sense of who we are (p. 50-51).

The act of writing is also an act of identity construction, of prefiguring a version of the self that is writer, and that self often shifts and changes in different contexts. As Heidi Estrem argues in the same volume, students in a first-year composition class are often constructing their identities as members of a discipline, and that these emergent identities can cause discomfort for students, especially if they contradict or challenge established identities in their home communities (Estrem). Identity studies in the classroom have been complicated by feminist and queer pedagogies that explore the challenges of identity formation in the classroom (see Kopelson, for example), and developing the writerly identity as a conscious and deliberate self through writing is one of the core goals of first year writing. The second goal for the one-pager assignment is to ask students to consciously craft a sense of writerly identity by building into the games writer as character, thinking about what it means to be a writer, what “stats” or “actions” or tools that writer might have, and how different games might frame a writer in different ways.

The intersections between game studies and composition have largely focused on either the relationships between games and literacy (Gee; Alexander), or gamification in the classroom broadly (Dwyer). However, there has been less written about the use of role-playing games specifically in the classroom to facilitate learning. Stanley, Schmidt, and Sweeten discuss playing the GM-less TTRPG Fiasco! in English, Anthropology, and Sociology classrooms “as an active learning tool in which the game’s structure of collaborative relationality reinforces the lessons conveyed by the course material” (p. 20), but this use of TTRPGs is a way to reinforce content, not as a way to explore writing processes or scholarly identities. In this case, I chose to have students create a tabletop roleplaying game for this assignment because the unique properties of TTRPGs offer a way to incorporate both thinking about writing process through gameplay structure and exploring writerly identity through the role-playing aspects of the games.

Roleplaying games, broadly writ, exist at the “the “intersection of four phenomena—roles, play, games, and media culture” (Deterding and Zagal, p. 2), and tabletop RPGs specifically are defined by Grouling Cover as “a type of game/game system that involves collaboration between a small group of players and a gamemaster through face-to-face social activity with the purpose of creating a narrative experience” (Grouling Cover, p. 168). This intersection of role-play and game system/structure, coupled with the idea of creating a legible narrative, makes TTRPGs a unique genre for exploring writing process and identity formation, as the writing process becomes the structure of the gameplay, and the writerly identity is shaped via character creation and the role-play aspects of the game.

While the writing of the game is a core feature of this assignment, actually playing the games in the classroom (and reflecting on the gameplay afterwards) is a key part of the student learning. There are two key theories from Gaming Studies that informed the decision to have students play the games as part of this assignment: frame theory as defined by Grouling Cover (2010) and persona theory as defined by Waskul and Lust (2004). Narratives created through tabletop roleplaying games are unique from other kinds of narrative because they are constrained by the gameplay structure, and that gameplay becomes a core part of the narrative itself. Grouling Cover, building on Fine (1983), offers three different frames for understanding narrative in tabletop roleplaying games: the narrative frame, where “players create the textual world of the narrative,” which includes narrative speech from the GM and player narration, as well as in-character speech; the game frame, where “players engage in game play and are immersed in the game world,” which includes dice rolls, narrative suggestions, and other mechanics; and the social frame, where “players interact in a social setting,” which includes narrative planning speech and off-record speech (p. 94). Having students engage in all three of these narrative frames as they played the game was key to not just conceptually thinking about process and character, but actually engaging in process as gameplay and enacting a character in the room, particularly as they grappled with the tensions between the self and the character they were playing across the social and game frames, and thought through their gameplay choices as either character or self. Similarly to frame theory, Waskul and Lust propose three different ways of conceptualizing the participant in a role-playing game: the persona, or character, defined by both the gameplay mechanics (like dice rolls) and the imaginative narrative choices made during gameplay; the player, who “must know and understand the rules of the game”; and the person, that is, the real human self sitting at the table (p. 337). We can see how these might map onto the narrative frames: the persona exists within the narrative frame, the player within the game frame, and the person in the social frame. Having students actually play the games, and navigate between the different personas they occupy within that game, continues the defamiliarization of writing as process and invites students to think about the ways that they might grapple with these different identities as they write a paper—outside of the game, as writers, might there be different identities (the persona of writer, the player who thinks critically about the “rules” of writing, the person who is a student who has a paper due).

A Close Look at Two Games Designed by Students

Below are examples of two games created by students for this assignment. These examples represent the kinds of thinking that students demonstrated for this assignment, and both are relatively successful at meeting the requirements for the assignment. In the discussion below, the games will be referred to as Game A and Game B.

Game A:

Game B

There are similar features between both games. Both games have identified completing a research paper as the “win” condition for the game, both games have a table of character types determined by dice roll, both games have carved out actions based on writing processes, and both games have created tables to track progress through the gameplay. Game A is relatively straightforward and was successfully playable in class given the very specific parameters for moving through a “day” in the game. Game A outlined 6 writer personas that came with explicit gameplay features: each imagined type of writer has either bonuses or handicaps to the gameplay (like the procrastinator, which started with a handicap for the days, but has bonus actions for the final day). Game A breaks the writing process down into four types of action: brainstorming, researching, writing, and revising, and a successfully completed paper in this game will have filled in a table incorporating all four parts of the process. Game A also offers “bonus” actions that link out to the four parts of the writing process identified, which highlight some of the things students were able to do in the composition classroom as they completed their research papers. Game B is less playable than Game A—students were unable to figure out how to successfully write a paper or reach the win condition—but the game has some creative conceptions of writing. Unlike Game A, Game B only imagines two parts of the writing process, writing and research, but links those actions to specific paper conditions, page length and research quality. Game B includes both character types and writing tools to define the writer as character, offering more customization for the writer, but does not give any gameplay direction for how to use this character to do things in the game. Game B also includes obstacles for writing, although it does not include any direction for how to incorporate those obstacles into the gameplay. Finally, Game B includes the specific detail that a “win” condition will be a paper that receives an “A” grade, which they define as a paper that meets the minimum requirements for the research papers they completed for the course (having 8 pages and 6 citations). Interestingly, both games are designed as solo games, without a GM, which turned out to be a commonality between all the games submitted for this assignment.


Reflections from Students

Students were required to reflect on their experiences both writing and playing the games. Broadly speaking, students found this assignment “fun”, and many mentioned that it helped them to think about their writing processes broadly. The biggest frustration expressed was from students who felt stymied by the design part, either thinking as a game designer or creating the layout on the page for the game. Some examples of student comments:

  • “This was really fun! It was fun to think about the research paper in a new kind of way, and it made me realize all the steps that you have to go to, like I had to kind of think about the process and try to make a player understand what it looks like”
  • “It was interesting to play everyones different games, I thought they would all look the same and it was cool that everyone had different ideas. I really liked getting to pretend to be a different kind of writer–I am a big procrastinator, but in the game I played, my character got stuff done really early which helped me do well in teh game”
  • “I had a hard time thinking about a writer character when we played the games. It was hard to not just think about what I would do”
  • “I don’t really like playing this kind of game and I found it confusing to try and create one, especially because I don’t feel like I am good at design. It was kind of interesting to think about writing in this way, but I didn’t like it at all”
  • “I feel like creating this game helped me to think about my own writing process, like I can be rewarded for doing each part of the process! Making the writing feel like a game made everything kind of fun”

Reflections from the Instructor

Broadly speaking, I was impressed with the results of this assignment in the class, particularly when it comes to defamiliarization. The work that the students turned in focused on writing as a process, and while each submission had a different sense of what that process looked like, they all incorporated some elements of the writing process as discussed in class and were successful in turning that process into a gameplay structure. The students likewise agreed that the assignment asked them to conceptualize the writing process in a way that helped them to think through the steps in the process. The two examples discussed above show the different approaches that students took to thinking about process.

However, conceptualizing the writer as character was perhaps less successful. On one hand, every submitted game included a way for the player to create a character (the tables in Games A and B above are typical of the kinds of writerly identity envisioned in the game), and the students obviously were thinking creatively about the kinds of writer that might exist in the world. In terms of creating the scholarly writerly identity that Estrem identified, the games were successful at inviting students to define what that might look like as they crafted their character tables. On the other hand, I am not sure that the assignment was as successful as I had desired in asking students to actually role-play those characters. Given that this is a writing centered course, and we had only roughly 4 weeks of the semester to explore TTRPG design, I likely did not spend enough time on the intersections between game mechanics and character that define TTRPGs, and certainly (owing to student frustration with the design part of the assignment) did not spend enough time discussing design theory broadly. While the games that were produced looked like one-pagers, in play they were more akin to traditional board games (something that the students were generally more familiar with) than roleplaying games, and future iterations of this assignment will explore ways to help students design for roleplaying as an explicit goal. A complication that I did not anticipate is that the students envisioned writing a research paper as a solo activity and all of them put together games that were solo play—none of the games envisioned multiple characters, or direction from a Game Master. This meant that the actual development of the writer as a character was stunted, as the students did not get a chance to truly role play as the character. We spent a lot of time thinking about the solo-journalling game Over the Mountain, and students seemed to latch onto that format as they created their own games, while the shared narrative of The Travellers Tale might have been a better model for the kinds of collaborative storytelling students might have created. Future versions of the class will emphasize the collaborative nature of TTRPGs as a way to encourage more GM-led games and opportunities for roleplaying.

Finally, there were a few other things that came up in the games and in the reflections that I will consider in future semesters. The first is that, as noted above, students were really frustrated by the design and layout elements of creating a game, and many asked for a template. In the future, I will offer more templates and example layouts to help them feel more comfortable with this element of the game design, as well as providing more readings on game design theory. Another interesting feature that cropped up was that many students were interested in citation quality and misinformation (as mentioned in Game B)—in one game, almost all of the game actions were centered around obtaining high quality citations, and misinformation was a kind of antagonist in the game. I hadn’t anticipated this, but it seems that many students were focused on the research part of the process (rather than the writing), and future versions of the prompt might lean into this as a feature of the game (alongside the writing and the character). Finally, students were worried about how their grade was apportioned between the writing of the game, the playing of the game, and the reflection. I intend to develop and share a rubric for assessing this assignment that is explicit about what is being assessed, and how that factors into the overall grade.

Works Cited

Alexánder, Jonathan. “Gaming, Student Literacies, and the Composition Classroom: Some Possibilities for Transformation.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 61, no. 1, National Council of Teachers of English, Sept. 2009, pp. 35–63. Accessed 30 Sept. 2023.

Bazerman, Charles, and Howard Tinberg. “Writing Is an Expression of Embodied Cognition.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016.

Carter, Chase. “Honey Heist and the Legacy of the One-Page RPG.” Polygon, 20 July 2021, Accessed 29 Sept. 2023.

Cover, Jennifer Grouling. The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2010.

Dwyer, Sarah. “Gameful Engagement: Gamification, Critical Thinking, and First-Year Composition.” Double Helix: A Journal of Critical Thinking and Writing, vol. 6, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1–13, Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.

Elbow, Peter. Writing with Power : Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Gary Alan Fine. Shared Fantasy : Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. University Of Chicago Press, 1983.

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Hayles, Katherine. Writing Machines. Mit Press, 2002.

Shklovsky, Victor. “Art as Technique.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Blackwell, 2004, pp. 15–21.

Stanley, Erik, David Sweeten and Michelle Schmidt. “Embracing the Fiasco!: Roleplaying Games, Pedagogy and Student Success”. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 9, no. 4, 2022.

“Submissions to One-Page RPG Jam 2023.”, 23 Aug. 2023, Accessed 29 Sept. 2023.

Taczak, Kara. “Reflection Is Critical for Writers’ Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016.

UnknownDungeon. “One-Page RPG Jam 2023.”, 23 Aug. 2023, Accessed 29 Sept. 2023.

Waskul, Dennis, and Matt Lust. “Role-Playing and Playing Roles: The Person, Player, and Persona in Fantasy Role-Playing.” Symbolic Interaction, vol. 27, no. 3, Aug. 2004, pp. 333–56,

Zuba, Clayton. “Monstrosity and the Majority.” Pedagogy Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature Language Composition and Culture, vol. 16, no. 2, Apr. 2016, pp. 356–67, Accessed 20 Dec. 2019.

Dr. Stephanie Hedge

Director of Composition, Associate Professor of English
University of Illinois Springfield

Stephanie Hedge is associate professor of English and Writing Program Administrator at the University of Illinois Springfield, where she teaches classes on first-year writing, digital literacies, the intersections between English studies and emergent technologies, and the ways that words do work in the world. She researches digitally mediated pedagogies and game studies, particularly tabletop roleplaying games, and she is the co-editor of Roleplaying Games in the Digital Age: Essays on Transmedia Storytelling, Tabletop RPGs and Fandom (with Jennifer Grouling-Snider) (McFarland, 2021) and Digitally Mediated Composing and You: A Beginners Guide to Understanding Rhetoric and Writing in an Interconnected World (with Courtney Cox) (Kendall Hunt, 2021). She is currently working on a new edited collection on indie ttrpgs for McFarland’s Studies in Gaming series.