What is an RPG?
RPG stands for Role Playing Game. There are many different role playing games with various themes. Table Top RPG's are games played at a table like a board game that also involve role play. Dungeons and Dragons is the specific table top RPG that I use therapeutically.
What is Dungeons and Dragons (TM)?
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a table-top RPG that has been played since the 1970's by many throughout the world. This game is a collaborative story telling experience in which players create characters who go on adventures. The adventures can span a wide range of experiences and stories, but often involve puzzle solving, social relationships of various kinds, beating monsters, and finding treasure or other valued items.
The Game Master (GM) tells a story and the players tell the GM what they want to do within the story. Both the GM and the players roll dice to help determine what happens, so there is always a surprise. The players have a lot of input into how the game progresses, turning it into a collaborative story telling experience.
For example, the GM may tell the players that a rumor begins to circulate in the town where they are staying that people are acting strange. They are dancing, singing and playing all day- ignoring the normal tasks that need to get done like growing food. Soon the town will begin to starve if something doesn't change. The players decide to investigate and they find that every townsperson they talk to is having the same dream at night. Now the players have to decide how to figure out what's going on and how to help the townspeople get back to engaging in tasks they need to live their lives. After some investigation they find that the townsfolk are being transported to a fairy world at night for fun parties. None of them want to leave! And there is a monster blocking the way back. Now it's up to the players to decide how to solve these problems....
Benefits of Role Playing Games
Individuals playing these games use and learn a huge variety of skills during play, which can transfer out into the rest of their lives. Below is a sampling of the kinds of skills people use and learn in this type of game.
Executive Functioning Skills
Attending to relevant details Staying focused on extended tasks
Shifting attention Breaking tasks into smaller parts
Recalling relevant information Synthesizing information
Imagining possibilities Anticipating potential consequences
Flexible thinking Sustaining effort
Delayed gratification Time sense
Self monitoring Inhibiting impulses
Emotional Awareness and Regulation
Noticing emotions at lower levels Telling others about your emotions
Stress management Tolerating anger
Managing excitement Tolerating sadness & loss
Noticing emotions of others Facing fears
Tolerating unexpected change Tolerating undesired outcomes
Tolerating the unknown
Critical thinking and Problem Solving
Curiosity Asking relevant questions
Analyzing complicated information Drawing good inferences
Deciding between two bad options Evaluating effects of one’s actions
Learning from other’s mistakes Creativity & Improvisation
Social Thinking & Social Communication
Reading others facial expressions Guessing other’s emotions
Anticipating what others might do Asking about others thoughts
Tailoring your words to the listener Self advocating
Asking about other’s feelings Emotionally supporting others
Empathy Social “rules”
Being a good team member Working with people you dislike
Noticing social faux pas Recovering from social faux pas
Establishing new friendships Enhancing sharing in relationships
Self Awareness and Identity Development
Recognizing personal strengths Recognizing personal weaknesses
Allowing yourself to be vulnerable Acting braver than you feel
Trying something risky Recognizing we can all play “roles”
Learning to change roles Learning our limits and boundaries
Trying on philosophies of life Existential issue exploration
Exploring & accepting uncomfortable/undesired parts of self
Reading complex material Speed reading
Arithmetic Speed arithmetic
Writing Taking notes effectively
What is Therapeutic D&D?
There are additional benefits to participating in role playing games with a therapeutic game master. There is an added layer of emotional safety provided by the therapist's presence and management of issues that can arise. The game itself is modified to encourage work on particular skills that each player needs. The therapist provides questions or prompts for the players at the beginning or ending of each session to promote self reflection. Most people who play D&D or other role playing games can tell you that their characters reflect parts of themselves- sometimes parts they like and sometimes parts they don't like. Other times characters may reflect ways of being a player wishes they could have in their regular life. The game setting gives people a chance to try out being different in a safe way. Because if it goes badly, it was your character who did that, not you! Therapeutic game masters help modulate players' experimentation with new ways of being so that it is more likely to be a positive or healing experience.
Social Skills Focused Groups:
In social skills focused groups the players typically participate in 5 minutes of check in time, followed by 75 minutes of game time and a five minute check out period. The game is modified to present opportunities to work on each players areas of need, such as work on social communication, theory of mind, executive functioning, joint play skills, self awareness, imagination and emotional regulation. Each participant has individual goals that they develop with the game master.
Counseling Focused Groups:
In counseling focused groups there is a five minutes check in followed by 90 minutes of game time and then a 15-30 minute period after game time of active discussion and reflection on what took place to help players understand themselves. Mental health themes can be explored in safety as well as learning and practicing methods for dealing with mental health, social interaction or identity concerns. This format of group requires investment in actively considering one's own role in group, one's thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Counseling focused groups work well for individuals who are open to considering themselves from multiple perspectives, receiving feedback from others and can emotionally regulate enough to talk about mental health topics in some depth.
For more information about therapeutic D&D and the benefits of RPG's check out the following resources:
Therapeutic Applied Geek & Gaming Summit 2021 Roll for Healing GM Roundtable: Myself and other TGMS discuss this work. https://event.taggsummit.org/talks/roll-for-healing-therapeutic-game-master-round-table/
PAX ONLINE 2020 Roll for Healing Panel Myself and other therapists discuss therapeutic RPG. https://youtu.be/KCq-uC0-YaQ
Clinical Role A D&D group composed of therapeutic game masters who discuss this work and play D&D. https://www.twitch.tv/videos/443804144
Game to Grow A Seattle area nonprofit that provides services and education. Multiple videos on the site including interviews with TGM's.
Mindshift KQED Article with imbedded videos:
About the GM: I first played D&D in 1991 at the kitchen table. I currently play every Saturday with friends where I have characters including: a 6th level Human Monster-Slayer Ranger/Reluctant Warlock, a 5th level Tortle Barbarian and a 4th level Human-turned Werewolf Druid/War Cleric.
NOTE: Dungeons and Dragons is a Trademark of Wizards of the Coast (Hasbro Subsidiary). I am not affiliated with, nor endorsed by Wizards of the Coast or Hasbro.
All Groups Are Currently On Hold Until 2025