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Strixhaven: Back to School Edition

It’s back to school season in the US, so I wanted to revisit an old post about Strixhaven. To recap, when I wrote my Strixhaven adventure, The Pub that Crawls, I was inspired by thinking about how we can learn about different real world subjects from playing RPGs. Last time, I talked about how social sciences can help us appreciate the value of difference, by exploring otherness in time (history) and place (geography, anthropology). Now, I’ll look at some of the other subjects.

Math has a pretty obvious connection, since D&D and many other RPGs are very number heavy. When parents talk about the value of RPGs for kids, this is often the first point brought up. I don’t want to discount the importance of working with numbers for childhood development, but I think we can go deeper than math and think about logic, which is where I went with the inspiration for the second pub, the Frothing Flask.

A wizard making geometric patterns from water
Ingenious Mastery by Cristi Balanescu via ArtofMtG.com

The puzzle here is directly inspired by a real world logic problem, the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg, whose analysis by Euler set the stage for graph theory. In the real world, the puzzle is one that is simply impossible: you cannot walk all seven bridges in such a layout without retracing your steps. However, I’d encountered the problem in the past with addendums for how to complete the path by creating more bridges, so that is the solution I facilitated in the game. Granted, this is a world of magic, so to stop the solution from being too trivial, I added a few magical barriers as well.

The next pub, to go along with the Strixhaven theme, is associated with language arts and communications. One route here would have been to focus on the written word, as I know many people have developed their reading skills and vocabulary comprehension from poring over rulebooks or associated fantasy novels. However, Lorehold’s pub, the Tall Tale, was already pretty bookish, so I went in a different direction, towards theater and performance. There has always been a theater kid contingent in RPGs, grown markedly more visible now that professional voice actors make D&D podcasts! Though I was never really a theater kid myself, I did get involved with some school plays via friends who were into both that and RPGs, so I can appreciate them as an outlet for awkward kids.

A wizard showing off her prowess with magical ink
Promising Duskmage by Johan Grenier via ArtofMtG.com

When I went about making a performance challenge for the Lucid Dreamer, I was not sure exactly how to proceed. Longtime readers will know that I’ve spent a lot of time[blog post] thinking[tweet] about how to handle the social pillar in D&D. Should it involve lots of skill challenges? Intense roleplay? When I returned to that inspiration, how RPGs can help us learn, I decided that the most important lesson for communication was helping shy and awkward kids open up, so that is what the challenge is about: putting on a performance, any performance, just to have fun. Therefore, while there are skill checks, I tried to avoid them being punitive; this has a game design reasoning as well, because you never want to throw too many dead ends in front of players, and I wanted there to be a good chance of success regardless of skill or comfort level.

That will be a wrap for now, but I promise not to make you wait so long for the next installment about the last two subject areas, science and fine art! In the meantime, you can find the Pub that Crawls on DM’s Guild, and if you want to hear the latest on ttrpgs and education, please subscribe!

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Glagolitic

If you want to try my short Glagolitic course, go to courses.khyberia.com and either log in as a gueast or create a free account!

Glagolitic is a writing system devised in the 9th century by Saint Cyril, a missionary from Thessalonika, to translate scriptures and holy books into the slavonic language of Great Moravia, centered on modern Czechia and Slovakia. It was the earliest known writing system for Slavic languages, though it quickly went into decline; in Moravia and Western Christendom, its use was mostly banned in favor of Latin liturgy, while in the east, it was supplanted by the Cyrillic alphabet devised by Cyril’s students. It was used into the modern era in some parts of Croatia, but it is probably most famous for appearing in the Witcher games, which have a strong basis in Slavic folklore.

tablet featuring the Glagolitic script and Latin equivalents

Why learn Glagolitic? Well, it can be a ready made fantastic looking script much like Norse runes or the Irish Ogham script. If you’re learning a Slavic language like Polish or Ukrainian, it can also help teach you a bit about the sounds and grammar in those languages. Or, if you’ve always just had a desire to learn Old Church Slavonic (does this apply to anyone other than me?) then Glagolitic is one of the two scripts you can use for practice!

I’d originally put together flashcards for myself on Tinycards, a now defunct Duolingo spinoff. I was able to back up some of the data before that service was discontinued, and it recently occurred to me that I could put together some simple Moodle resources to test myself in the same way. Since I made this for myself first and foremost, I focused on what I needed to practice: flashcards! I focused on two types of quiz questions: first, short answer questions entering the Latin or Cyrillic character based on seeing the Glagolitic character, and second, multiple choice selecting the Glagolitic character based on the name/sound in Latin script.

As I mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been using Duolingo to learn some basic Ukrainian. I was already familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, but I liked some of the exercises they used to reinforce the alphabet, specifically practice drawing letters and using vocabulary rather than single letters. The other level added by Duolingo, using audio files, is feasible, but adds additional work in creating the recordings, plus my pronunciation is probably atrocious, so I’m focusing on the others. Drawing letters would seem like a difficult feat to pull off, but Moodle actually has a plugin for a Freehand Drawing question type (albeit one with some bugs on mobile, but it’s something).

Using vocabulary is easy enough to set up, and I can even mimic Duolingo’s question style with various drag-and-drop question type plugins. Of course, one actually needs to know the vocabulary, which led me down another rabbit hole. Where could I find ready made Glagolitic text to use? Well, why not go to the oldest Glagolitic manuscript, the Codex Zographensis, which happens to be fully digitized and searchable? This led me to the ultimate nerdy idea of making a language 101 style course. After all, the gospel of John discusses introductions (“There came a man who was sent from God. His name was John.” -John 1:6) and vocabulary like “word,” “teacher,” and “student” (technically “disciple,” but I don’t believe Old Church Slavonic makes a distinction).

examples of drag-and-drop and drawing quiz questions

So, now that I’ve fairly memorized the Glagolitic script itself, in order to provide myself further practice, I find myself embarking on a self-study course in Old Church Slavonic. They say that the best way to learn something is to teach it, don’t they? Right now, I have a simple course with a lesson, some reference pages, and a repeatable quiz, but I plan to add more as I tinker along. And the course is open to anyone who’d like to come along for the ride! Feedback is, of course, welcome.

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Social Sciences at Strixhaven

This is expanded from a Twitter thread I wrote a while back. See the original (link)

Even though I don’t play much Magic: the Gathering, I was excited by the release of their Strixhaven setting and its a D&D crossover book. Between graduate school and my work in instructional design, I’ve never strayed far from academics in my life. Even my favorite TV show was set in a community college! #SixSeasonsAndAMovie So, an official educational setting for my ttrpg hobby was a natural fit. I immediately knew I would set my next big project there.

Wizard students amid a pile of books, from the cover of Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos
Time to get academic in this roleplaying game. ‘Strixhaven: Curriculum of Chaos’

The idea for a pub crawl came up early in my brainstorming. Once I’d settled on that, it was obvious I would need at least five pubs to correspond to the five Strixhaven colleges, which are tied to the subjects of classes you’d take in the real world. Between working in education, being a parent, and playing a lot of ttrpgs, I spend a lot of time thinking about the educational value of roleplaying games. Somewhere along the line I thought, why not look at how rpgs interact with each subject area, and use that as the basis for the pubs and their puzzles?

RPGs’ relation to some subjects is fairly obvious: for instance, handling all of the stat bonuses, adding dice rolls, and judging probability on the fly is good practice for math skills. RPGs also seem to be beneficial for developing language skills based on the number of nerds who got their first introduction to words like alacrity, expeditious, and simulacrum, Baudrillard notwithstanding.

History and the social sciences are a bit less straightforward, but this is the area closest to my heart, since I majored in history. D&D developed from historical wargames, and it’s true that there is a learning there, like the difference between a glaive and a halberd. The quasi-medieval flavor of the game can definitely foster an interest in the past, but a lot of the facts you could pick up from the game are superficial at best and inaccurate at worst (look up banded mail for a benign example). To better understand how RPGs might relate to social science education, I want to discuss the question: what *is* the purpose of studying history and the social sciences? This has no easy answer, and there is no single consensus by scholars, but I’ve developed my own ideas that I think are often reflected by a good number of them.

A wizard historian surrounded by floating books with an unhinged look on his face.
Please, sit back while I expound my many theories! ‘Conspiracy Theorist’ art by Svetlin Velinov via artofmtg.com, copyright Wizards of the Coast

The adage that “those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it” implies that history is useful for its predictive power, but I know of few historians who would actually make this argument. Knowledge of the past certainly gives us insight into why things are happening today, and it can give us good ideas on some possible futures, but it is a fallacy to think that a historian is therefore better equipped to predict the future than anyone else. We can’t be like Maxwell’s demon, able to tell the state of future objects because we know their trajectories in the past. Too much of history is contingent on factors beyond what we could model. The most compelling argument we can make about the analytical value of history is that it can help foster critical thinking, a valuable tool for navigating the present, but still limited in knowing the future.

At its best, I think that history, and the social sciences writ large, give us an appreciation of the diversity of human experience. Just, seeing that people think differently in different times, different places, and different contexts, and that’s okay! This can help us learn how to interact with people who are not like us; incredibly important in an ever more global society. My favorite quote along these lines comes from Robert Darnton, that “nothing is easier than to slip into the comfortable assumption that Europeans thought and felt two centuries ago just as we do today – allowing for the wigs and wooden shoes. We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of culture shock.” 

I think there is a benefit to studying the past for its own sake, just because it is interesting, but if I were to justify the place of history and social sciences as a curriculum requirement, I would defer to the appreciation of otherness. In an RPG, we can go further than observing or even immersing in otherness, we can embody it! Now, there is a danger here in thinking that because we read about otherness we understand what it is like to be other, but keeping this in mind I believe the benefits to empathy outweigh the risks.

Lorehold campus, an ancient ruin emerging from a desert canyon.
History is worth studying for its own sake, if only for all the cool ancient ruins. ‘Lorehold Campus’ by Titus Lunter, via artofmtg.com, copyright Wizards of the Coast

As I mentioned on Twitter, the ultimate design accommodates both the wargaming-style traditional military history as well as a more empathic approach based on cultural understanding. I hope it is a good summation of ways we can approach history and social studies through the lens of roleplaying. In future posts, I’ll visit the other subject areas of Strixhaven and how they fit into the design: mathematics, language, science, and art.

Did RPGs spur interest in any particular region or time period for you? If you’re a social studies educator, how would you use (or how have you used) roleplay in the curriculum? Leave a comment below and please subscribe for more updates on Revue