Wednesday, September 22, 2010

RPG Homeschool

For those bloggers who became nerds later in life, "RPG" stands not for "Rocket Propelled Grenade" in this case, but "Role Playing Game".  That's right, D&D.  I know my twenty-sided dice.  I have also discovered that, if I want Norm to learn anything this year, RPG's are a valuable tool.

A game like this is essentially a collaborative project of art and imagination.  As a group, players help create a world and then populate it.  It is a participatory novel that exists for only that moment.  This is, however, largely done through the use of numbers.  Many things (skills, attributes, etc), in theory, can be quantified.  Many incidents--as in real life--also have the chance of appearing random.  This is why there are all those attractive, strange looking dice.  Scores are compared, numbers crunched based on skills, weaknesses, etc. then the game goes on. 

However, I am using this for much more than math.  RPG's are also about story and backstory.  The adventure and plot in the foreground must be supported with background information.  This means that subjects such as geography, civics, economics, biology, theology (mythology) and, of course, physics are involved.  All of this can serve as a starting point for all kinds of lessons.  Say you are making a map of a river.  In what direction does the water flow?  Why?  Where is the wetland?  What does it do?  Who (or what) lives in one?  These questions prompted a field trip to a local bird sanctuary this week.

Or take today for example.  Today we started mapping out a small trading post in the wilderness.  This was Norm's idea.  We discussed size and scale, which resulted in our measuring a room, finding the area, and converting our numbers from inches to feet and back to inches.  This meant "large number" multiplication and division with many stops in the process to practice.  We also dealt with conversion of units of measurement, probability, and fractions. The idea of a meaningful result to his mathematical labors kept Norm going for well over an hour on a subject that--frankly--isn't his favorite  Finally we got to the map (hills, rivers, basic ecosystem issues).  This is where things get interesting.  Everything has to fit together to make the world inhabitable, after all.  There needs to be a plausible life to the community.  We aren't done with that, but we have begun.

For example, Norm decided that among the folks who inhabit this small imagined community are a clan of halflings who live there only during mushroom season.  They gather something called "magic mushrooms" to sell to the wealthy people in a far-off city where they live the rest of the year.  We will probably have to work on the name but magic mushrooms will do for now.  There are also some small businesses and a lake which may or may not be relevant for trading.  However we do know it is full of fish!  Later we will develop other aspects of this community and, of course, possible plot-lines (we are thinking that someone might want to muscle in on the mushroom franchise, but there can be other ones).  Right now, there is research to be done on truffle hunting and lake ecosystems.  Not a lot, but enough to make the lives of these folks believable. 

It should be noted that he wants to do this!  The interesting thing is, we haven't slain a single orc.

Doing This at Home

There are a wide variety of Dungeons and Dragons-type games out there, including a large number with the same name.  As the year have gone by, many of these games have become more complicated and less flexible.  I recommend going all the way back to the original D&D game ("Basic" and "Expert"), particularly if you have 3rd-5th graders.   It is a great way to learn and the paucity of rules keeps one from getting bogged down when "nation building". It hasn't been published for some time, but if you are a real geek, I think you know where you can get a copy.  The new versions do not leave as much up to the imagination and are much more elaborate.  If you are a grown-up and want to play, I suggest using a newer game based on the (I believe) public domain "D20 System".  It goes fast and is reasonably adaptable to a lot of material.

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