Grappling Social Demons Using Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons — yes, the tabletop board game using basic math to play make-believe — has seen record sales and media exposure in the past few years. The game once associated with the Satanic Panic of the 1980s has seen more new players with the launch of its Fifth edition launch of late 2014 than any previous edition. A quick search of player’s short or life-long experiences with the game lead to a labyrinth of anecdotal forum posts of how D&D has helped them alleviate their social anxieties and take risks in welcoming social environments.

This is the time to get your kids, their friends, or yours into the 40-year-old game of positive reinforcement, heroics, and the occasional dragon.

It has never been easier to access a game of Dungeons & Dragons, whether through a streaming website such as Youtube or Twitch or an actual play podcast. When viewers live-stream such three-hour programs as Critical Role, or Roll Call or Girls, Guts and Glory, they watch an improvised story in real time. The mechanics of tabletop role-playing games like D&D give players the safety of pre-generated options and consequences to social encounters, including direct goals (leave the tavern with the hot bartender), intentions (seduce said hot bartender) and means of executing their plans (kidnap said hot bartender). Within this safe space of abstracting social consequences, players may either act out what their character is saying line-by-line or skip it by simply rolling the die and handling the result as a success or failure.

From prisons to troubled teens, D&D is being tested as a loose form of therapy, as described by Adam Johns and Adam Davis in their 2016 PAX South Live Q&A panel. Their research with Game to Grow (originally titled Wheel-House Workshop) incorporated tabletop role-playing into drama therapy, creating a safe space for players to explore their anxieties of meeting new people, getting into disagreements and forming compromises.

These are tricks borrowed from both theater and exposure therapy, and the gamification allows players to build toward their character’s strengths. It does not matter if you or your kid cannot approach strangers in real life because, if their character is built toward being an excellent communicator, they don’t have to act it out, they can roll for it and succeed a majority of the time. The hardest part may be sitting down at a table of strangers, but the game itself provides a language to break the ice and start cracking (imaginary) skulls together.

Furthermore, D&D is pushing itself toward a gender equal player ratio with recent data suggesting a 40-60 ratio between male and female players. I would partially attribute girls and guys playing together comfortably in D&D to the game set-up itself: tabletop RPG’s are a communal and cooperative story-telling exercise. Most adventures assume the party wants to achieve the same goal, and even while personalities may clash or disagree, there is always a clear and immediate threat (cue the Cave Troll) which encourages cooperation among the players.

Even as a player going on two decades, I will not say D&D is the end-all for social awkwardness or anxiety, but it can be a healthy first step. Go to your local game store and find out which tables are open which nights. Start a club at your school after hours. Talk to your kid about who their player is and what their heroic strengths are. Coming face-to-face with new people is a combat encounter in itself against your fears of being accepted.

But the best-kept secret about D&D? Failing a roll is just as fun as critically succeeding. Failing a roll makes the story far more interesting. It leads to cliff-hangers, betrayals, and plot twists that force everyone to sit up straight and put out (frequently literal) fires. Failed to negotiate the troll out of attacking your group? Well now you get to negotiate with a fireball.

Game on. Include everyone.

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