The therapeutic value of RPGs

Almost since the invention of the hobby in 1971 claims have been made for the benefits of role-playing games. Early advocates tended to focus on the benefits for literacy and mental arithmetic that came from playing games that relied on heavyweight rulebooks and complex rules. More recently interest has focused on the social and emotional benefits of games.

This article points to some key resources in the area.

Before going any further – I’m not a therapist. And as these resources often stress just reading them won’t make you into one either. If the problem you’re dealing with is serious enough that you need to see a professional, then you need to see a professional. Now, read on…

Small ‘t’ therapeutic resources

Playing role-playing games is fun and social. When I talk about ‘small t’ therapeutic benefits I’m talking about the benefits you accrue just by playing the games. These include things like

  • Spending time with friends
  • Exercising your creativity
  • Developing social skills
  • Using basic arithmetic and probability skills
  • Problem solving

That’s all stuff that will just happen as you game. The same way your cardiovascular system will impove if you go for lots of long walks. There are though a few resources worth mentioning to help you get the most out of your regular games.

Play Unsafe

Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley looks at what happens if you bring ideas from improvisation into your role-playing games. It’s an excellent book, full of suggestions and techniques to bring more creativity to your games. Mostly though, it’s an appeal to the reader to do more playing in their role-playing. Gaming is more fun when we stop worrying about doing it properly, trying to win or following all the rules. It also suggests deliberately choosing material that you and your group find challenging or confrontational, which leads nicely to…

Consent in Gaming

Consent in Gaming is published by the Monte Cook Games studio and is intended to help adult players address mature content in their games. It contains an introduction to the principle of consent, tools for helping your table discuss what everyone’s ok with, and advice on what to do if your game ventures into territory someone’s uncomfortable with.

If you’re planning on running a role-playing game at a convention, or for players you haven’t met before – it’s a must read.


Somewhere between small t and capital T benefits is the fact that for some of us sitting at a table for an extended period engaging in a social activity might not be straightforward.  This thread is full of tips for anyone gaming with ADHD, but to my mind there’s tips in there for everyone. Who can focus for four hours straight in a social setting? No-one I know.

Other resources

Your best game ever, from Monte Cook games. I have only read the free preview, but this looks like an excellent resource for anyone wanting to gt the most out of the time they spend gaming. It’s even got recipies. The other book I’d like to flag is Improv for Gamers by Karen Twelves, judging from the reviews it’s a more comprehensive and literal adaption of improv techniques to gaming than Play Unsafe, and could be a great way to bring extra creativity to gaming sessions if your group is up for it.

Daniel Kwan who works with Level Up Gaming has written a number of articles for Gnome Stew addressing these issues. This one, which looks at games for education purposes is a good place to start.

Capital ‘T’ therapeutic resources

Capital T therapeutic resources are those intended to be used in addressing problems deliberately in a therapeutic setting. Applications can range from young girls learning confidence as ‘self rescuing princesses‘, to veterans processing their time at war.

Games played for capital T therapeutic reasons may include elements that aren’t part of a regular game session. You might have a post-game debrief to reflect on things you could have handled differently, or talk about what you have learned. A game might focus on deliberately pushing a player’s particular button until they learn new ways of dealing with it.

Here are some resources with more information and guidance on role-playing games and therapy.

The Bodhanna Group

Based in Pensylvania USA the Bodhanna Group have ten years experience offering programs designed to improve social skills, education, critical thinking, resiliency, and creativity through game play and discussion. They organise the annual ‘Save Against Fear‘ convention.

In March 2019 The Bodhanna Group published Wizards, Warriors and Wellness on DriveThruRPG. At 30 pages the booklet contains plenty of content and is divided roughly into three sections. The first looks at the potential therapeutic benefits of role-playing games, the second is an overview of what role-playing games are and how you might get involved, while the third looks at specific applications of role-playing games as therapy.

Areas covered are ADHD, Anger Issues, Anxiety, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Depression, Learning Disabilities, Social Skills Deficits and Trauma Informed Care.

Game to Grow

Based in Washington State Game to Grow provide therapeutic and educational gaming groups that contribute to the growth of communities , and promote the benefits of role-playing games for therapeutic purposes. Game to Grow was founded in 2017, but grew out of an older project dating from 2013.

Game to Grow are best known for Critical Core, a game designed to help kids on the autism spectrum build social skills and confidence. Critical Core hasn’t been released yet (pre-orders are possible), but will comprise a simplified version of Dungeons and Dragons, plus a series of adventure modules specially written to develop the functional and emotional developmental capabilities of their players.

The Press section of the Game to Grow website includes links to numerous talks and presentations by the founders, and is well worth a look.

Psychology at the Table

This series of videos by psychologist Dr. Megan Connell addresses a huge range of topics, from anxiety to learning problems and conflict resolution. It’s audience is perhaps most directly people who are running games for therapeutic purposes, but it’s crammed full of good tips and advice for running your games in a way that is supportive of your players and any issues they may have.

The Therapeutic Value of Amazing Tales

This article is a summary of some research I did while working on my own game, Amazing Tales. Amazing Tales is a role-playing game for kids aged four and up to play with their parents. In that respect it offers all the small t therapeutic benefits you’d expect. It’s a great way for parents and kids to bond, make up stories together, exercise their creativity and for the very youngest players, learn about things like number recognition.

In the two years since Amazing Tales launched I’ve had parents asking me about it’s potential value as a tool for capital T therapy. And my answer has been ‘I don’t know, I’m not a therapist’. So I was delighted when Lilly Smith, who is a therapist got in touch to tell me about how she’d been using Amazing Tales as part of her practice. And now Lilly is contributing a chapter to the forthcoming ‘Big Book of Amazing Tales’ detailing some strategies anyone can use to help kids with additional needs.

You can download Lilly’s work for free here at DriveThruRPG. The six page guide includes advice on teamwork, social problem solving, impulse control, creativity and fine motor skills. 

5 thoughts on “The therapeutic value of RPGs

  1. Great list of resources and groups, some of which have directly inspired my own practice (e.g. Dr Connell and Game to Grow). Just to add on, Swords & Stationery also does educational therapy for students with learning difficulties such as dyslexia and ADHD. In fact we’re the first in the world to directly integrate games with the learning of English-based subjects. It’s been a fun journey so far, and always satisfying to see the kids enjoy lessons.

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