Gamifying high school with a Dungeons & Dragons format

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Elizabeth Snyder

Elizabeth Snyder faced a challenge. A school psychologist at Montcalm Area ISD in Montcalm County, Michigan, she needed to find a way to help a high school student with autism who just didn’t see the point in coming to school or doing homework. He didn’t have many positive social connections at school, was struggling in some of his classes, and was exhibiting disruptive behavior.

On the plus side, he had an average IQ, but his processing speed was slower than normal. And he was passionate about fantasy stories, especially those in which he could be an evil villain and take over the world.

Snyder recognized his high-interest areas as the perfect opportunity to engage him. A self-described nerd, she was familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, and figured that translating school into quests would pique his interest.

So she did. Meeting with “Zulu”, his chosen identity, every other week for a half hour during his study skills class, she became a D&D dungeon master, laying out a story and assigning points he would need to level up and increase his power.

“You are the evil warlock Zulu,” she told him, “and your goal is to take over the land of Montcalm. In order to do so you will need to develop some critical skills:
“ • Knowledge of the history of the land
“ • An understanding of their language
“ • Endurance to see your quest to the end
“ • Craft to build the supplies you will need
“ • Arcana in order to be a master of numerology
“ • Alchemy to control the land around you.
“In order to develop and strengthen these skills, you will need to gain experience points. Experience points are gained in two ways: practicing your skills with your teachers by successfully completing assignments, and by impressing the spies I have stationed throughout the land.”

Here is how the skills translate in an academic setting:

  • History = History
  • Deciphering Language = English
  • Endurance = Study Skills
  • Craft = Art
  • Arcana = Algebra
  • Alchemy = Earth Sciene
  • Strength = Guided Academics/Spanish

For each class, Snyder gives Zulu 4 points for warm-ups, 10 points for homework, and 75 points for summative tests. Zulu has to pass the assignment (over 60%) to earn the points. Bonus points are awarded based on class participation and engagement, recorded by paraprofessionals (the “spies”) based on daily participation sheets they were already recording. The teachers use PowerSchool to record grades, which Snyder is able to access, so getting Zulu’s grades to Snyder causes teachers no extra work.

Point-wise, each skill level is 100 points. For example, Level 0 is 0-99 points, Level 1 is 100-199 points, etc. The points are cumulative and are mapped on a graph.

Skill points are mapped on a graph during each play session

 

Each play session has three parts: 1) reviewing points since the last meeting and leveling up as appropriate, 2) reviewing the story line, and 3) completing new actions and adding to the story. During play, Zulu must roll a 20-sided die to take an action, and the skill level in any given area determines what roll value Zulu must achieve to be successful — the higher the skill he has achieved, the lower the roll needed.

Here is an example of a story:

“While in the forest, you come across a lost squire, who seems to recognize you and is intent on fighting you.
“Roll dice to see who attacks first.” (Zulu rolls higher)
“What would you like to do, Zulu?”
(Zulu decides to attack the squire with smoke. The squire responds with a sword swing that does minimal damage. Zulu strikes again with smoke, defeating the squire.)

Snyder has to be flexible and creative as a dungeon master. For example, during the fight with the squire, Zulu assumed he had killed the squire and felt very badly about it. So Snyder invented a resurrection potion that Zulu could earn to bring the squire back to life.

Snyder also integrates curriculum content into the stories. For example, Zulu might have to decipher the lyrics to a song in Spanish, navigate using a map of ancient China, or calculate the length of a congruent triangle to determine when the enemy will arrive at his castle.

After each play session, Snyder emails Zulu’s teachers so they can keep abreast of his progress, and some of them play along and post Zulu’s level in the classroom.

The paraprofessionals get involved too, rewarding Zulu with random “magical items” when he participates well in classroom, which he can use in the game. These take the form of pictures, such as socks, potion, or a treasure chest. Snyder later added McDonald’s coupons as a more tangible reward.

Paraprofessionals reward Zulu for good behavior in class with magical items he can use in the game

 

The game is not a cure-all. Zulu still struggles with some subjects. But now he says school is “finally fun”, his behavior problems disappeared, and he initiates greeting people in the hallway, which he never did before.

If you’d like to try this in your school, Snyder advises taking into account each student’s interests and mindset. She felt free to invent rules and rewards to meet Zulu’s needs, but noted that another student might be very rule-oriented and would be upset by a “make it up as you go” playing style.

She also recommends reading a Dungeon Master Guide to become acquainted with the role. There are many available for free on the Internet — just google “dungeon master’s guide free”. There are also special dice you will need. which you can also order on the Internet or buy at some game shops.

If you would like to find out more, see this PDF of Snyder’s presentation on the game, and this game manual she wrote for Zulu to read. You can also email Snyder at esnyder@maisd.com.

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