This Week’s Project: Pathfinder Fantasy Role-Playing

The cover of my first D&D boxed setThis week ‘s updates will focus around my newest project, which involves me teaching a class of middle-schoolers. In my first teaching endeavor, I thankfully have an experienced teacher in Sarah helping me out. It also helps that the subject is something I’m familiar with: role-playing games. Specifically, Pathfinder.

That’s right – I have asserted that Pathfinder has educational value, and this is my week to back things up. I have two groups of students, each who will have five one-hour sessions in which they will be introduced to the concept of role-playing games. For those who have not heard me talk about this before, here is my original presentation to the school on the educational merit of the course I have dubbed Pathfinder Fantasy Role-Playing:

The Pathfinder role-playing game is a game in which players pretend to take the role of fantasy heroes similar to the protagonists from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The players must work together to overcome monsters, traps, and obstacles on their way to a final goal. Typical goals include the recovery of a lost treasure, the rescue of a princess, and similar staples of fantasy literature.

In an educational environment, Pathfinder can teach children the importance of creativity and teamwork while exercising their imaginations and igniting an interest in both history and literature. The game is heavily rooted in many different mythologies, with creatures such as gorgons from Greek mythology, the chupacabra from Central American myth, and even literary creations such as the jabberwocky from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.

Additionally, the game uses several different kinds of polyhedral dice to determine the outcome of various actions. Players will need to learn about probability and statistics in order to figure out which actions have the best chance of success. Combining creativity, literary references, historical context, and mathematical skills, Pathfinder is an excellent educational tool.

Proposed Classroom Model: Four to six students will be placed in a group, where they will be walked through the basics of designing a hero for the coming adventure and introduced to the concept of role-playing. One instructor will serve as the “Game Master,” a referee-like individual who prepares the story, adjudicates actions, and explains the rules of the game when necessary. The students will then be presented with the story, which will involve an opening conflict, several obstacles, and a conclusion where they receive rewards for their successes. Several adventures can be linked together into a “campaign,” during which the students will be able to develop their imaginary heroes in different ways.

Sample Scenario: The heroes wake up in a dungeon after having been kidnapped by an evil wizard. The wizard plans on forcing them to work in his salt mines as slaves. Joining together, the heroes will have to trick their jailer into letting them out of their cell, sneak past the wizard’s pet monsters, and ultimately defeat the evil wizard himself in order to earn their freedom. They cannot pass these tests individually – they will need to work together as a group and use their different skills in order to escape.

Educational Value: The Pathfinder role-playing game provides three tiers of educational value:

1) The game enforces the importance of teamwork, cooperation, and group problem solving,

2) The scenarios are rooted in classic literature and ancient mythology, providing many opportunities for further reading,

3) The game’s mechanics rely on arithmetic and statistics, allowing those who take the time to learn about the math behind the game to gain an advantage.

Most importantly, the Pathfinder role-playing game allows students to have fun and be creative. They win or lose as a group, and as long as everybody has fun while learning, everybody wins.

Today was the first session. I had two groups: one of five students and one of four students. One student signed up for both courses. None of them had played tabletop RPGs before, although some were familiar with the concept from computer games. In fact, it seems that the school had billed the course as computer-based, much to my chagrin. Despite students coming in expecting something different, though, nobody had any complaints after their hour was up.

You Wake up in a Dungeon

As somebody who was introduced to RPGs through the 1991 “New, Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons” boxed set, my go-to introduction session is Zanzer’s Dungeon. PCs wake up with a bump on their head and no idea where they are and must escape from the dungeon of the evil wizard Zanzer Tem, who is recruiting slaves for his salt mines. This is the base scenario I use because it provides an immediate call to adventure and starts the PCs out with nothing, teaching them the game as they go on. At the end of the first session, our first group had not escaped the cell but had beaten up their bully cellmate Axel. The second group did escape their cell before they had even rolled up ability scores.

I gave a brief description of the concept of role-playing, using the old analogy of, “It’s like cops and robbers, but with rules to determine what happens when you say you shoot somebody.” Once the players tried to do something with their characters, I got them used to this concept by telling them to roll a d20. A high roll meant success, while a low roll meant failure. Later on, everybody rolled their ability scores and determined their modifiers. For the most part, their decisions on ability scores were driven by the actions they already performed. The character who had tried to nimbly escape the cell had a high Dexterity, while the character who had tried to smash the bars had a high Strength, for instance.

Rolling the dice early, even without ability scores or skills to modify them, got the group into the core mechanic very quickly. It also taught them the thrill of a natural 20 and the agony of a natural 1 early on. The first time somebody rolled a 20, I explained that this meant a resounding success. Sarah added emphasis to this by showing the kids her flashing d20, which they looked at in awe. Very quickly, they were cheering when other players rolled a nat 20 and cringing in fear when somebody threw a 1.

Yes, You Can Play That

My intention was to have everybody play humans. That way, I didn’t have to explain the different fantasy races or worry about racial abilities or modifiers. That went out the window early, though. The moment I mentioned the Harry Potter series in connection with the fantasy genre, one of the kids said, “I want to play a centaur!” When it comes to RPGs, I am loathe to say no to such requests. In my opinion, “No” is something reserved for computer games. The beauty of a tabletop RPG is that people aren’t limited by programming. And I certainly wasn’t going to introduce a bunch of kids to role-playing by telling them what they couldn’t do. So I allowed a centaur. Then somebody else chimed in with, “I want to have a metal arm.” Sure, you can have a metal arm. And while you’re at it, think about how your character lost your arm in the first place.

Not only did the kids have an idea of what race they wanted to play, but they already had an idea of what their chosen race was like. “Centaurs are kind of mean and think they’re better than everybody else, but they make good friends once you’ve earned their trust.” In the midst of combat, one of the quieter kids whispered to me, “I’m an elf and elves are really good at jumping, so I’m going to jump over his head to get behind him.” This is the essence of role-playing – I don’t need to tell these kids how the setting works. They already have an idea, and they’re already making things up as they go along.

Rules-wise, I don’t expect to bring in racial features. Maybe if the evil wizard casts a charm person spell, I’ll tell the elf she has a better chance to save against it. But given my time constraints, I’ll probably just skip that for now. The ability scores have already dictated things pretty well – the centaur player gave himself a high Strength, the elf gave herself a high Dexterity, and so on. Even if I incorporate some of the racial features, I’m certainly not going to stir up the hornet’s nest that is explaining that centaurs have racial hit dice and class levels. Handling that stuff is beyond the scope of the class.

The second session was even more fun when it came to selecting race. Right off the bat, somebody said, “I want to play a man with a bull’s head.” I pulled out the Bestiary and showed off the picture of the minotaur to the group. That student then hesitated and said, “I’m like that, but I don’t look that mean.” Another person wanted to play a woman who looked like a cat. Okay, game on. I’ll bring a picture of the catfolk entry from the Bestiary 3 tomorrow to show that off. After flashing the Bestiary pictures around, one of the students asked to look through the book, and I gave it to him. When he came across the picture of the gnoll, he pointed at that and said, “I want to play this.” Okay, I explained, that’s a gnoll. They grow up on the plains and are known to be savages, but you don’t have to be like that if you don’t want to be. Our final player in the second group is currently playing a human, but also flipped through the Bestiary and might change his mind tomorrow.

On the way to the buses, the kids were talking to other teachers about their characters. Sarah informs me that she heard one of them saying, “He’s playing a gnoll. They’re like hyena people and they’re savage, but you aren’t savage, right?”

A Different Game Each Time

The benefit of having one player in both sessions is that I can emphasize one of the other great parts about a pen and paper RPG: no two sessions are the same. The first group tried to escape their prison but didn’t manage to get the key from their hobgoblin jailer. They were joined by the bully Axel, who declared himself boss of the cell and promptly got beat down for his arrogance. When the second group tried to escape, the repeat player was first hesitant to try because he had seen the failure of the last group. However, with some lucky rolls, this group managed to escape the cell before Axel was even introduced. When the group spoke with Axel, the repeat player was hesitant. “In our last group, he wasn’t very friendly and we didn’t like him very much.”

“Yes,” I said, “but things might be different this time. Maybe he’ll be nicer in this version.”

There’s a bit of metagaming going on with the repeat player, but I’m not going to break him of that habit right now. The two adventures will be taking very different courses very soon anyway.

Our repeat player had some unfortunate luck with the dice, but was a trooper even when he got a bit discouraged. His second character has a 9 Constitution, and he went on for some time talking about how he is always going to carry around firewood to make sure he can cook his food, since his delicate system won’t let him stomach raw meat. This kid is going to be very good at this game. I almost feel bad for the fact that by the end of this week he’ll be a massive RPG nerd and will probably be ostracized during high school. On the other hand, at the rate we’re going, it looks like he’ll have eight other friends who are all into RPGs that he can game with, too.

Tomorrow the group continues their escape from the wizard’s dungeon and gets to choose character classes, skills, and feats. Stay tuned!

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