Pathfinder Fantasy Adventures Revisited

A Pathfinder heroineLast summer, I taught a course that used Pathfinder as an educational tool. Sadly, the program that allowed me to teach that course will not be held this summer (thanks a lot, US government). This is an extra shame because I had taken a course on how learners use their brains, which allowed me to overhaul my lesson plan and would have given an even better education to students while they had fun. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to do this in the future, but for now here’s what would have been, along with an outline for an adventure roughly based on Paizo’s Crypt of the Everflame module.

Pathfinder Fantasy Adventures

Pathfinder is a role-playing game developed by Paizo Publishing. The game has players take on the role of fantasy heroes working together toward a common goal such as slaying a dragon or rescuing a princess. Although the product is intended as entertainment for young adults, with some modification it can be used to educate students of all ages. It can be adjusted to fit the three categories of UDL (universal design for learning), providing multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement while teaching students about probabilities, cooperation, and mythology.

What is Pathfinder Fantasy Adventures?

Pathfinder Fantasy Adventures is an adaptation of the Pathfinder role-playing game with more of a focus on educational value. It was first implemented in 2012 with the knowledge of Paizo Publishing through their company message boards. The class will be repeated in 2013 (editing ntoe: no, sadly, it won’t) with more of a focus on assessment and self-realization on the part of the students of the knowledge they have acquired during the course.

Who is the Course For?

The course will be run for four to six 5th and 6th grade students at one time. There will be five classes for each group of students, with each class being one to two hours long. This learning model can be easily adapted to fit different age groups with a slight adjustment to subject matter and the level of mathematics utilized.

Dice and Probability

The main resolution for resolving actions in this course is through the rolling of polyhedral dice. Dice used include four-sided dice, six-sided dice, eight-sided dice, ten-sided dice, twelve-sided dice, and twenty-sided dice. Percentages can also be randomly determined by rolling two ten-sided dice and using one die as the tens place and one as the ones place. In the event of two 10s, the result is 100.

Most standard actions are resolved simply by rolling a 20-sided die and adding numerical modifiers, with the goal of meeting or exceeding a target number. The teacher can inform students of the target number and available modifiers, allowing them to determine how they can improve their odds. For example, if a student is pretending to run away from an angry wild boar, the difficulty to escape the creature might be 15. A fast character might have a modifier of +2 to the die roll. A friend can swing down from a tree and try to pull the fleeing character up, giving an extra +4 to the roll. However, failure on the roll will mean that the second character is also now at risk. The students will need to determine whether this risk is worth the bonus it gives.

At times, multiple dice will be utilized and their probabilities will be discussed. For example, if the goal is to roll as high as possible, a student may have a choice of rolling either a 20-sided die versus three six-sided dice. The 20-sided die has the highest possibility, but an equal chance of miserable failure, since each number has a 5% chance of coming up. Three six-sided dice will not have a chance of getting a 19 or 20, but has a large chance of getting nine to twelve result, as shown on the bell curve graph below. Students will have to determine what gives them the best chance of success, with the understanding that very lucky or unlucky results sometimes happen regardless of planning.

The bell curve of probability for 3d6.

The bell curve of probability for 3d6.

New Addition: Self-Assessments

The 2012 version of this course did not involve a self-assessment on the part of the students, instead “sneaking” lessons into the game so students picked up new knowledge without realization that they are learning. The 2013 version of the course will focus on improved recognition of learning objectives, following along with the theories of David Rose and Nicole Strangman. In order to accomplish this goal, students will be given a pre-course assessment and a post-course assessment. Due to time constraints placed on the course, it may be necessary to administer these assessments orally. The assessments will be a simple list of questions designed to gauge aptitude for basic math and probabilities, literary knowledge, and teamwork skills.

If the pre-assessment reveals a weakness in one of these fields shared by most of the group, the adventure material will be adjusted to provide more focus on these areas. For example, if the group as a whole has a weakness in figuring out probabilities, more tasks that require die-rolling to resolve and simple mathematics will be required to succeed in the game. This focus must be carefully instituted, however, as too much of a focus on a weak area might be perceived as a threat and cause the students to shut down. Ideally, every hard task should be followed up by a task that the group is stronger on so they receive multiple rewards for each threat they face.

Scenario and Schedule

The five days of the course will be as follows:

  • Day 1: Introduction to the course, pre-assessment taken. Students decide on the type of characters they want to play (an elven archer, an elderly wizard, a courageous warrior, et cetera). There will be an opportunity to interact in character with both each other and the non-player characters in the imaginary village. A map for the adventure will be torn into equal-sized pieces and passed out to each student. Only by putting their map pieces together can the adventure be completed. Dice rolling and probability will also be discussed.
    • Storyline: The city hall in the medieval village of Starfall is lit by a magical blue flame which is said to protect the community. At the Feast of the New Year, a group of young would-be heroes is gathered with the task of entering the haunted Spirit Wood. They must journey to the crypt of the village’s hero founder Kassen Elderstar, light a lantern on the blue flame that marks his final resting place, and then return the lantern safely to the village square.
    • Obstacle: As the characters enter the haunted wood, they will be confronted with mischievous spirits. These spirits cannot hurt them, but will attempt to steal items from the characters, including the map pieces. It will be up to the characters to chase the spirits off or distract them in order to continue on their journey.
  • Day 2: This day will add a threat element not to the players but to their characters. The concept of hit points, which determine how healthy a character is, will be introduced. Ability scores, which measure how strong, dextrous, smart, and charismatic a character is, will also be introduced. Players will assign their ability scores based on their mental image of the character and will need to face their first real threat where the characters can be harmed by poor judgment or bad teamwork. This class will also introduce the “aid another” action, in which a character can give aid to another character to provide a bonus on die rolls.
    • Storyline: The path to the crypt leads over a deep ravine, and the ropes to the bridge that lead across the ravine have been worn down by age. One rope still remains, but the rest of the bridge has fallen away. Crossing the ravine will take the group off their path, which will mean that the magical flame at the town hall will burn out before they return home.
    • Obstacle: Players will need to figure out a way to cross the ravine. They can attempt to tightrope walk on the one remaining rope, swing across the chasm, use a magical spell, or anything else that they can imagine. Each solution will have a probability determined by the teacher, and students must use their polyhedral dice to determine whether they succeed at the task. The results of the die roll will be modified by each character’s ability scores, so a dextrous character has a better chance to tightrope walk than a clumsy one. Failure in this task means injury through loss of hit points, which can lead to unconsciousness or lingering hindrances like a twisted ankle or broken arm.
  • Day 3: This day will focus on role-playing as problem solving. The characters will be confronted with a guardian of the crypt, and it will be up to them to talk their way past him in order to enter the crypt and retrieve the magical flame. Depending on classroom strengths, this may take the form of role-playing a conversation or requiring the students to solve a riddle.
    • Storyline: The Crypt of the Elderstar is protected by a golem, which is a stone protector sworn to defend the area. The golem will not allow the group past until they prove their worthiness through words, either by convincing him of their mission or by solving a riddle. As the group advances, the golem will mention that there has been another visitor recently.
    • Obstacle: Players much each talk their way past the golem or, if the situation merits it, they must solve a riddle. The teacher must use care here to push quieter students without forcing them to become too uncomfortable. If the group cannot bypass the golem with words, they may be able to sneak past it or trick it into leaving the area for a short while.
    • Sample Riddle: A barrel of rainwater weighs 20 pounds. What must you add to make it weight 15? (Answer: Holes)
  • The villainous gorgon.

    The villainous gorgon.

    Day 4:This day will test the students’ knowledge of mythology. They will face a gorgon from Greek mythology, which has the ability to turn them to stone. Should they realize the danger, they can avoid being turned to stone and also get the gorgon to look into her own reflection, ending her threat.

    • Storyline: In the crypt, the characters see several stone animals that look incredibly lifelike. As they approach the magical flame, they see a woman with snakes for hair. The gorgon is trying to steal the magical flame for herself, which would leave Starfall defenseless.
    • Obstacle: The characters must avoid being turned to stone by the gorgon and must either frighten her out of the area or get her to look into her own reflection, turning her to stone.
    • Resolution: By bypassing the gorgon, the characters will get access to the magical flame and then receive a blessing from the ghost of Kassen Elderstar that will restore any characters that have been turned to stone back to life.
  • Day 5: This will be a short repeat scenario from one of the areas that the class had trouble with earlier. For example, if they had difficulty chasing the spirits away, those spirits will return and try to steal the lantern. This is designed to give students a chance to demonstrate improvement in an area of weakness. After the end of the session, students will complete a self-assessment. Upon completing their self-assessment, they will be able to keep the record sheet of their characters and the dice they used to play as a reward for their accomplishments.
    • Storyline: One of the obstacles that faced the characters previously returns to trouble them again before they return home. If they bypass this obstacle, they will be hailed as heroes in Starfall and given a reward from the mayor.

Risks to Avoid

The teacher in this course needs to be skilled at improvisation and time management. Under no circumstances should a given student be taken completely out of the game – injuries sustained by the character should be a hindrance but not fatal, and even being turned to stone can be cured. The goal is not to utterly defeat the characters but rather to challenge them. Success or failure is determined by whether the characters return successfully with the magical flame.

Some groups spend more time talking and interacting than others. Certain obstacles can also stump students for longer than expected. In this case, some days may be cut out in order to allow for more time to be spent on one obstacle. Ideally, no obstacle should take more than two classroom sessions.

The teacher should also avoid forcing the students to take a path. Even if the students disagree and argue, this can be a learning moment. When a task becomes harder due to lack of group cooperation, the teacher can point out at the end of a session that things may work better if they work together. If this advice is heeded in future sessions, the teacher can then point out the improvement. This gives the students a chance to learn from their mistakes.

Course Environment

Because of the small class size, the course will be held at a round or rectangular table with the students facing each other. If students talk over one another or interrupt the other, it will become necessary to add order to who gets to speak and when, such as via a talking stick. The teacher sits at the table as well with access to the rulebooks and notes for the course. The goal of the course environment is to provide a friendly, equal feel that mirrors the environment of corrective practices. The students are all working together and are equal when it comes to their role in the story. As such, nobody should be behind another or pushed to the side. The teacher should also tailor each session to make sure that each student has one important task to do to help overcome each obstacle.

Self-Assessment

The pre- and post-course self-assessment will ask the following questions:

  • Familiarity with the type of activity:
    • Have you participated in role-playing actions or activities before? (Not on post-assessment)
    • Do you consider yourself a good actor?
    • If others disagree with you, how do you usually deal with this?
    • Familiarity with the genre:
      • Have you read fantasy literature before? If so, what stories? (i.e., Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
      • Name some mythological monsters you have heard of. Where did you learn about them?
      • Familiarity with probability:
        • If you roll two six-sided dice (numbered 1-6) and add them together, then roll one twelve-sided die (numbered 1-12), which result is most likely to give you a 12?
        • If you have a 20-sided die (numbered 1-20), how likely are you to roll two 20s in a row? (Optional and more challenging version: If you roll a 20 once, how likely are you to roll a 20 on your next roll?)
        • Course expectations:
          • What are you expecting in this course? / Did this course meet your expectations? If not, how did you expectations change as the class went on?

 Technology

Pathfinder Fantasy Adventures is fairly low-tech in terms of tools. Students needs pencils and paper, dice, and their imaginations. Images pertaining to the adventure as well as a map will be provided as story aids by the teacher. The bulk of the role-playing action occurs in the imaginations of the students.

Although the course is low-tech, it does have room for expansion. Tablets and mobile devices can be used to trace maps and erase them as the environment changes. Certain apps also simulate die rolling, allowing students to shake the tablet and “roll” a selected amount of dice. The role-playing game industry has a significant online community, and all the rules for playing the full version of the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game can be accessed online for free if needed.

The course budget does not allow for these tools to be purchased, but if a teacher has his own tablet or resources, this course can evolve to adapt this technology and use it as a teaching aid.

Ultimately, Pathfinder Fantasy Adventures is a way of introducing concepts of teamwork, probability, simple mathematics, and imagination into the classroom. The game itself is unique among other genres of game in that it does not have one winner. The group wins or loses as a whole based on how well they work together and how much fun they have. This enables strong reward opportunities without the risk of overloading the brain with a pressurized reward possibility (i.e., David Rock’s example of two aces on the flop). Much of the learning is done semi-consciously here because students are mostly involved with the course as a game, but in getting involved in the game they are learning many valuable lessons that will improve both their rational knowledge and their ethical knowledge.

Works Cited:

McShane, Ellen. “Educating the Heart with Restorative Practices.” Jan. 2013. 01 Feb 2013.

Rock, David. “Your Brain at Work.” YouTube, 02 Dec. 2009. Web. 01 Feb. 2013.

Rose, D. & Strangman, N. (2007). Universal Design for Learning: Meeting the challenge of individual learning differences through a neurocognitive perspective. Universal Access in the Information Society 5: 381-391. Springer Online. PDF.

Wachtel, Ted. “International Institute for Restorative Practices – A Graduate School – Restoring Community in a Disconnected World.” International Institute for Restorative Practices, 2012. Web. 01 Feb. 2013.

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