Role-Playing the French Revolution, Reacting to the Past in the Classroom

By Meghan Roberts

“I hope that Robespierre is rotting in hell!” one of my students declared, and I realized that my Old Regime and French Revolution class had gone slightly off the rails. All semester, my students had shown an admirable ability to think carefully about the history of eighteenth-century France. But as soon as we began to study the events of 1789, my students wanted to skim over the early phases of the Revolution, eager to get to the infamous Reign of Terror. And once the Terror was underway, the students had a strong emotional response to the material; hence, Robespierre in hell. 

I share this not to complain about my students; they were a smart and thoughtful group, and it is perfectly understandable that the guillotine would prompt a heated response. But the experience helped me identify two problems I wanted to tackle: highlighting the early years of the Revolution as an important phase in and of itself and helping students analyze, not just condemn, the Terror. I found a solution to both of these problems by incorporating a role-playing game from the Reacting to the Past series (henceforth RTTP): Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791 by Jennifer Popiel, Gary Kates, and Mark C. Carnes. RTTP is a set of immersive role-playing simulations designed for college classrooms. Each simulation revolves around a set of core primary sources – in the case of the French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762), and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) – and they definitely shake things up, in a good way.

A student dressed in a lab coat with the the number sixteen on the pocket.
“Hank Parfitt, a student in Dr. Robert Taber’s French Revolution and Napoleon class at Fayetteville State University, dressed as an Elvis-inspired Louis XVI for a special presentation to the National Assembly. Photo submitted by student. March 2018.”

The game begins with set-up sessions in which students read Rousseau, Burke, and other primary sources to appreciate the intellectual context of the French Revolution. The class is then transformed into the National Assembly; the date is 1791, immediately after Louis XVI had been caught attempting to flee the country. The simulation throws students into this complicated historical moment and arranges them into five groups: conservatives; Feuillants (moderates); Jacobins (radicals); indeterminates (any representative not clearly aligned with the previously mentioned factions), and the Parisian crowd (vocal but disenfranchised revolutionaries). Most students play members of the National Assembly, and all students receive detailed role sheets explaining their character’s motives and victory objectives.

Once the role-playing begins, the professor fades into the background and students run the show. Debates cover the role of the Church, the monarchy, slavery, definitions of citizenship, freedom of speech, and popular violence. Any member of the National Assembly is entitled to wait a turn at the podium and to try to persuade their fellow representatives to see things their way. If a student not seated in the National Assembly wishes to speak, they can ask permission from the president to do so or can noisily storm the building and harangue the Assembly. Equally important are the newspapers that each faction produces: these represent their opportunity to make their case not only to the National Assembly but to all of France and, indeed, the world.

Students engaging in a debate in a classroom.
“Debates held in Toby Benis’s ENGL 1900: Advanced Strategies for Rhetoric and Research class at Saint Louis University. Photos provided by Jennifer Popiel, August 2018.”

The game throws a number of curve balls at students to emphasize the contingency of the revolution. While members of the National Assembly are instructed to focus on legislation, various domestic and international events intrude on these deliberations. The beginnings of civil war rumble in the Vendée; reports trickle in about slave rebellions in Saint-Domingue; foreign powers threaten to invade. The National Assembly has to deal with these crises, which become increasingly dire. At the same time, the Paris crowd agitates for more radical policies such as universal suffrage and guaranteed low prices for bread. If the National Assembly ignores their demands, the crowd “riots”: the professor transports the class to the streets of Paris, where Danton et al deliver fiery speeches and urge the people to take up arms. If the crowd riots often (and they usually do), the Revolution slowly drifts in a more radical direction. 

I’ve now taught the French Revolution game twice. Students become engrossed: they choose to gather over meals outside of class, design props and costumes, and cover the classroom in political propaganda. Their in-character writing really shines, as they experiment with different ways to entertain and persuade. While some students find it intimidating to march up to the podium and choose to focus on behind-the-scenes negotiating instead, others find it liberating to pretend to be someone else. And, best of all, students come to appreciate, with great nuance, the dilemmas faced by revolutionary actors and the forces that pushed them to make certain decisions. Robespierre’s fate in the afterlife is no longer a topic of consideration; they can see that the Terror was much more complicated than bad people choosing to do bad things.

Because my course begins with Louis XIV and ends with Napoleon, RTTP falls in the middle of the semester. I like what this does to the rhythm of the semester: I can lay a strong foundation with traditional discussions and lectures, turn things over to the students for RTTP, and then return to a traditional format to think through the final years of the Revolution. I haven’t had any trouble shifting to and from RTTP; instead, students are energized by the role-playing experience and excited to learn what actually happened in history.

What should you do if you’re interested in getting started with RTTP? First, I highly recommend seeking out RTTP faculty as a resource. You can find them on the Faculty Reacting Lounge on Facebook, which exists to help faculty troubleshoot; running workshops at any number of conferences like the AHA; or at a RTTP conference. Mark C. Carnes, the founder of RTTP, has also published a book on role-playing games called Minds On Fire. There are instructor resources – rubrics, assignment ideas, supplementary materials – available if you create an account on the RTTP website. Second, know that RTTP does have its limitations; the game might need to be adapted for classes that have fewer than twelve or more than 41 students (this is a frequent topic in the Facebook group, and faculty have figured out ways to make the games work). Finally, brace yourself for a bit of a learning curve, and be ready to ask a lot of questions during your first game.

On the whole, I have found that RTTP helps me accomplish the goals I have for my teaching. Students develop skills in speaking and writing, appreciate the large themes driving history, see the importance of contingency and individual choices, and experiment with more creative assignments. In addition to the French Revolution game, other options for the Age of Revolutions include Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution in New York City, 1775-76; The Constitutional Convention of 1787; and a game-in-development on “Saint-Domingue to Haiti: The Haitian Revolution, 1791-1804.”

Meghan Roberts is an associate professor of history at Bowdoin College and the author of Sentimental Savants: Philosophical Families in Enlightenment France. You can find her on Twitter @meghankroberts

Title image: Execution de Robespierre et de ses complices conspirateurs contre la liberté et l’egalité : vive la Convention nationale qui par son energie et surveillance a delivré la Republique de ses tyrans : [estampe] / [non identifié]

2 thoughts on “Role-Playing the French Revolution, Reacting to the Past in the Classroom

  1. Great piece Meghan, thank you. Do you think this game could work well in a virtual (Zoom) format, or does it really require the atmosphere of in-person instruction?


    1. Thanks for reading, Malick. I haven’t tried RTTP online yet but I know others have, and have been happy with the results. I am going to play a RTTP game online this spring and I plan to put a little more emphasis on communicating via Slack to take some of the pressure off of our Zoom sessions. Slack works wonderfully well for RTTP because students can create their own personae and you can easily put them in small groups. It also lends itself very well to asynchronous engagement. For the Revolution game in particular, since newspapers are such a big part of the game, my biggest worry would be that the shift online would make it less likely that students would read what the other factions have written. (I usually distribute hard copies for in-person classes) So I’d think about the best, most user-friendly way to distribute them. Maybe pdfs posted to a newspaper channel on Slack?


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