8 Ways Tabletop Role-Playing Games Can Improve Mental Health

Tabletop role-playing games—like Dungeons and Dragons–have seen a meteoric rise in popularity over the past half-decade or so, in part thanks to the cultural impact of hit sci fi/fantasy shows like Stranger Things and Critical Role. Here are 8 ways that playing these games can lead to significant improvements for you or your child’s overall well-being.

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I am one of the co-facilitators of the Adventurer’s Guild social skills group at AFG. In  this group, kids and teens play a role-playing game, in which they create their own playable  character and work together to tell a collaborative story in a fantasy world using pens, paper, dice, and their own minds. My co-facilitator and I started this group because we know from first hand experience how transformative it can be to play these games with other people. As it stands,  role-playing and narrative therapy are well-established interventions for treating various mental  health conditions, and therapeutic role-playing groups are gaining more and more traction as the  research comes out to back up the benefits. In the Adventurer’s Guild, the focus is on gameplay, but the difficult moments and topics that come up naturally through playing are worked through  with the help of other members and the trained therapists who run the group. The facilitators,  who act as game masters, take cues from play therapy, Gestalt therapy, and narrative therapy to  encourage growth and change. Our goal is for players to leave the group taking something  valuable away from the experience, whether that be new skills for interacting with other people, new insights into their own behaviors, personal exploration, or even just a positive memory of  being with other people. Here are some ways that playing TTRPGs can benefit your or your  child’s mental health.

What is a Tabletop Role-Playing Game (TTRPG)?

First, let’s define some terms for the uninitiated.

RPG- Role-playing game. This is any game (video, board, or otherwise) in which players  take on the role of another character and act through that character when making decisions, and  they are typically highly story focused. Final Fantasy is an example of an RPG video game  series.

TTRPG- Tabletop role-playing game. This is a type of collaborative RPG that is almost  always played as a group of 2 or more. TTRPGs are typically played with pens, paper, and dice  and players participate in the story together. Gameplay usually takes place at a table but in recent  years, virtual TTRPG groups have become extremely popular (thanks Covid!). Generally, players  say what they want to do, and the GM (game master) says what happens/how to do it.

PC- Player character. This is everyone who is not a GM. Players usually control one  character at a time. They may even create a voice for their character and act them out. Players  say what they want their character to do and roll dice to see if/how well their character performs

this action. They might roll a die to try to convince a castle guard to let them pass or try to sneak  past a hungry dragon; the GM interprets the dice result and says what happens.

NPC- Non-player characters. Any character in the story that is not controlled by a player. Enemies, allies, side characters and monsters are all NPCs.

Party- The group of player characters in the game. A party is a group with a shared goal.

GM- Game master. Also known as a DM (Dungeon Master). The game master moves  the story forward by describing the setting of the game, controlling NPCs, reacting to player  actions, and interpreting dice rolls into story beats. The GM is not an adversary to overcome, but  another participant in the collaborative storytelling of the TTRPG.

1. Role-Playing Encourages Self-Reflection

When a player creates their PC, they often put a piece of themselves into that character  whether they mean to or not. Through role-playing this character who reflects a piece of the  player back at them, personal growth and learning can occur. A rash, excitable player might  play a loud, fast, powerful fighter who rushes into problems without a second thought and get  into more trouble than they started with! A person who has been through a traumatic  experience may give their character a backstory that reflects a similar trauma- abandonment,  loss, and ostracization are very common themes for PC backstories. When intentionally  crafted as a reflection of the self, a person can use the game setting as a sort of healing  experience, where they get to live vicariously through a character who reminds them of themselves. In a setting like the Adventurer’s Guild, where reflection is encouraged, we may  have a discussion as a party about what a character could have done differently to see a better  outcome, which can lead to lessons applicable to real life situations. But even in casual play, players have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and change the way they approach a  situation next time it happens- whether that is in the game or in their life.

2. Role-Playing Encourages Perspective Taking

When you play a character who is not yourself, you have to put yourself into the shoes of  this fictional character and make decisions as them. For example, a player may know all  about how to defeat a mighty wizard because they have read about this wizard outside of the  game; however, their character is unlikely to have the same knowledge as the player unless  they have done extensive research on said wizard in the narrative of the game. The player  would then have to think- “what would my character do in this situation based on what they know?” Furthermore, many situations in TTRPGs require convincing an NPC to do  something for the players or even deceiving them to achieve a goal. In these cases, the  players can improve their chance to succeed by understanding the thoughts, desires, and  reactions of the NPC. This is not that different from traditional role-play interventions in  psychotherapy, where a therapist encourages a patient to imagine they are another person and  understand their point of view.

3. Players will Practice Social Skills

The collaborative element of TTRPGs is vital to the gameplay experience. Players have  to work together with their group members to achieve their goals, which means they have to find ways to communicate effectively with one another as to create plans, express  themselves, and resolve conflicts. Not everyone at every table will have the same level of  socioemotional development- that is ok! Because everyone is playing the same game together  and if they want to continue playing the game, they must settle differences and understand  one another to succeed at overwhelming challenges. Players can also help one another coregulate, such as by helping each other stay focused on the task at hand or overcome  disappointing dice rolls. Finally, players can roleplay social skills through the lens of the  game. To convince a troll to let them pass a bridge, players may have to roleplay their  character de-escalating a conflict; maybe they practice genuine conversational skills as spies  at a royal party.

4. TTRPGs Offer a Chance for Healthy Escapism

Because TTRPGs are immersive by their very nature, players can experience them as a  temporary escape from daily problems of life. In the past, RPGS (specifically Dungeons and  Dragons, or D&D) were targeted by extreme controversy over allegations that playing the  games caused people to believe they were really in a fantasy world, and people feared that  playing D&D made people into dangerous Satanic cultists. Modern research has found these  allegations to have no basis in scientific fact, and in fact they are contrary to the truth, which  is that people who play TTRPGs were found to have lower rates of depression and anxiety (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/women-who-stray/201404/dungeons-dragonssatan-and-psychology). When people play TTRPGs together, they become focused on the  fantasy world in which they are playing. Instead of ruminating on problems from their own  lives, players get a chance for a few hours to focus on the wants, desires, and problems of their PCs instead. Players with significant challenges in their own lives can benefit from  temporarily experiencing the life of a character who may not face those same challenges.

5. Playing TTRPGs in a Group Provides Social Connectedness

Humans are social creatures who crave connection to others. During the Covid-19  Pandemic, thousands of people turned to online RPG tables as a way to connect with other  people in a time of extreme isolation. The CDC has found that people who feel connected to  a community experience longer lifespans, greater health, and better overall quality of life  compared to people who are socially isolated (https://www.cdc.gov/emotionalwellbeing/social-connectedness/affect health.htm#:~:text=Social%20connection%20with%20others%20can,being%2C%20and%20quality%20of%20life.). When playing in a group, players connect with one another in a  number of ways. As a party of fictional characters, players participate in a shared world  which they all affect by their decisions and storytelling together. As players in a group, they  develop a routine and a space that they can look forward to participating in from week to  week. Players connect with one another via the stories they tell, the enemies they overcome,  the jokes they make, and even the snacks they bring. Like any game night or social routine,  playing a TTRPG together is a way to socialize and connect with other people, which is vital  to overall well-being and since playing these types of games is such an immersive and  collaborative experience, the connections that are formed during gameplay tend to feel  stronger and deeper.

6. Players Feel a Sense of Belonging to their Party

Similarly to the importance of social connection, people thrive best when they feel a  sense of genuine belonging to their community. Studies show that when a person feels like  they belong somewhere, they experience greater academic/career success, stronger  relationships, and better overall health  (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8095671/#:~:text=Studies%20have%20identified%20numerous%20positive,et%20al.%2C%201992). A sense of belonging occurs when  a person believes that they contribute positively to their respective community, and when  they feel like they are wanted by the other members of the community. In TTRPGs, the  players try to overcome great challenges and risk sincere consequences to their characters  and the world around them if they fail. Therefore, each player has an opportunity to bring  unique strengths and weaknesses to the table (pun intended).

The bard player knows that he will likely ace any social challenge the party faces,  because they are so charismatic, but they’re not very good in a fight; the fighter takes the  front line during battles to keep the bard safe from danger, but they aren’t good at making  decisions and they get into trouble constantly; the cleric is casting healing spells to keep his  party alive all the time, but without the bard they would never be able to deal with their  social anxiety. Each of these players plays a role that the others cannot play as effectively, and they know their job in the party. If one of these players doesn’t show up to a game, you  can bet that the next session people will say they missed the cleric’s healing abilities or the  fighter’s damage. They belong to their group in a tangible way, and that is an irreplaceable  feeling.

7. Role Playing Games are a Safe Space for Learning and Exploration

Remember what I said about players putting a piece of themselves into their characters?  Sometimes the opposite happens: a player creates a character that is a version of themselves  they wish to be. I think fondly about a character from the Adventurer’s Guild who used their  character as a way to work through social anxiety. They made 2 different characters, the first  being a quiet, antisocial thief who spoke few words but supported from the shadows. This  player often stayed quiet at the table during important decision-making moments and let  other players make choices for them. In their second campaign they created a new character  who was nearly the exact opposite of their first- a bombastic monk fighter who challenged  authority, defied expectations, and pranked innocent townspeople. While this character still  supported the party, there were multiple instances in which their character spoke up for  themselves and defied the group on a decision. In one critical storytelling moment, this  player made a decision which they knew the other players would oppose because it was  something his character would do. Outside of the role-playing mode, the player spoke up to  the table and justified their decision, then went through with their choice. In game, the PCs  worked together to deal with the consequences and came back together to return to their  quest; out of game, the players expressed mild annoyance about the decision but also  expressed understanding and even admiration for the player’s self-advocacy and decision making. The player later expressed that this moment was cathartic for them as they were  practicing self-advocacy skills in their own individual therapy, and getting to use their  character as a conduit for practicing this skill felt like proof that they can speak up for  themselves in any situation and still be accepted, even liked. The game setting was a safe  place to try a new skill because the consequences for failing would be limited to the fiction of the game, not real-life embarrassment or discomfort. There is distance between the player  and their character, and that feels safe.

TTRPGs can also be a way for players to explore things like mental illness,  gender/sexuality, and other difficult topics in a safe space. Sometimes, the GM can even  gear the story of the game towards personal topics indicated by the other players. For  example, in a group where all the players struggle with depression, the main villain of the  story may in some way represent depression and stand as something to be overcome  symbolically by the players. Taking lessons in a dissociated state as someone else but  incorporating them into their own lives. Grog. Some clinicians have even used TTRPGs  to treat veterans suffering from PTSD, as the game world is a safe place to explore  triggering topics or situations and offer a form of exposure therapy  (https://www.startribune.com/minnesota-veterans-get-help-through-dungeons-dragons role-playing-therapy/600234955/).

8. They are Fun

The simplest and, let’s be honest, maybe most important way that TTRPGs can  positively affect people is that they are fun. It’s fun to tell stories with other people. It’s  fun to come up with wacky plans and supernatural powers. It’s fun to play as someone  that you’re not in a fantasy world full of magic. It’s fun to fail. No, really- it can be really, really fun to fail in these games. You roll a 1 on your die to try to fire a spell at an enemy, so your firebolt spell misses and causes fireworks to go off, giving the entire party’s  presence away to the enemy! Now everyone has to think on their feet and panic as they  come up with a new plan while you try to figure out what happened to your magic wand, but Bartok the Barbarian won’t stop screaming! For players who struggle with feelings of  failure or who find it challenging to tolerate losing/adversity, it can be important for them  to experience failure in this way and learn that failing is not inherently a negative thing;  to learn to say “I failed, but I am ok.”

Playing these games is chaotic, it’s crazy, it’s imaginative, and when it clicks, it is  so much fun. Play is an important part of life for all people, not just kids. Research  supports that people who make time to play or engage in hobbies tend to have lower  levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in their systems, and therefore experience fewer  symptoms of anxiety and depression. Play is also how people develop important skills  like language expression, emotional literacy, and problem-solving skills  (https://hechingerreport.org/want-resilient-and-well-adjusted-kids-let-them-play/). Everyone has their own idea of what is fun, but I firmly believe that finding the right  group for playing a game of D&D is some of the most fun you can have with a group of  people.

How do I Start Playing?

There are many ways to join a tabletop game group. Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition is  by far the most popular mainstream TTRPG right now, and information about how to play is  easily accessible online compared to other systems of play, but D&D is not the only way to play  one of these games, not by a longshot. Play manuals can be found at your local game store, along  with dice and other fun materials for playing, but at the end of the day if you have pen, paper, and an imagination, you can play these games. Game stores also often host game nights, so check their websites to see if there are any tables you can join for a game or two. Finally, search  the web for online games that can be played over your device from home- Roll20.com is host to  many such games. Of course, not every group will be right for every person, so it’s okay to try a  few different games with different people before committing to a group. If you believe that you  or your child could benefit from playing one of these games in a positive environment, ask about  The Adventurer’s Guild today!