By Laurie Trueblood
It all came down to this. Gripping the dice tightly, he could feel their edges against his palm. Across the table, his new friend, the wizard, looked at him expectantly, a combination of hope and fear in their eyes. Wondering if he should pray to the god of his character or himself, he threw the dice and watched them clattered across the table.
Success! His new friends stood up and cheered, almost knocking down the table. He was the hero of the hour!
Later, shoulders back and head held high, he walked home, back to his life of struggle and a disappointing job. But still feeling confident and proud of their victory at the table, he decided that perhaps he could make plans to do better for his own life as well.
Most tabletop role players would tell you of the camaraderie and self-confidence they gain through playing. But now, science is also starting to take notice as well. Tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) have evolved beyond just Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. There is now a plethora of options, from horror to cyberpunk, making the hobby available to almost everyone. And beyond the entertainment value, TTRPGs are a healthy habit to form. Here are the top personal development benefits of TTRPGs backed by science.
One of my favorite definitions of a tabletop role-playing game is a group of people weaving a story together. This cooperative nature is what separates TTRPGs from most other social games. Instead of competition with winners and losers, each player contributes to the whole. While working together as a group, individuals level up their own skills.
The social nature of the game helps the player develop healthy relationships with others. But it also builds a sense of acceptance and inclusion that extends beyond the game itself. In the past few years, the TTRPG community has grown considerably. A 2021 thesis on TTRPGs and societal isolation found that players not only develop a sense of community within the TTRPG realm but also work to build a local community. It also found that TTRPGs help marginalized groups have a better sense of inclusion as well.
The most apparent social skills learned in TTRPGs are cooperation and conflict resolution. Each player has their strengths and abilities, and only through teamwork is the party able to succeed. But as each individual has different traits, ideals, and goals, there will be differing opinions on how to proceed. Players are encouraged to work together and positively resolve their differences to advance the story to move the game forward.
With cooperation and storytelling comes increased empathy. Players must try to imagine the experiences and motivations of their fellow players and NPCs. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tested this concept. They randomly introduced fantasy role-play to participants and measured attitude change before and after. They found there was a significant correlation and higher empathy levels in players versus non-players.
Problem Solving Skills
While working together, players must overcome obstacles as a group. These obstacles could include puzzles, traps, scheming NPCs, or seemingly undefeatable enemies, each with a unique set of issues. Unlike a video game or static game, TTRPGs allow almost limitless variations on achieving the party’s goals.
Players are encouraged to be creative in their problem-solving. The group will need to look at the challenges from multiple perspectives and understand that their actions may have consequences for both the party and the larger game world. Through doing so, players are developing their critical thinking skills. TTRPGs players have been shown to have a higher level of divergent thinking (a measure often linked to higher creativity) than RPG video gamers.
The narrative story and interactive elements of TTRPGs mean that players are not just observers but the protagonists in their party and the fictional world around them. The game experience teaches them to be more intentional about their decisions. But this ability to grasp intentionality and consequentiality extends to outside the game as well, as shown in a study on the transformational aspect of play.
In most TTRPGs, character development builds slowly over time. It may take several sessions to level up, and characters evolve slowly throughout the campaign. Players can relate that experience of patience and understanding back to their real lives.
While working in a group, players focus on their character strengths and talents. They compensate for any individual weakness by working as a team. Even when a particular character may be weak in one area, they are considered prized by another party. TTRPGs help to teach players to accept individual differences and see the strengths in each instead of focusing only on one’s weaknesses, a problem that many people struggle with outside of the game world.
Together with developing critical thinking and relationship building, these learned skills of patience and resilience help players deal with personal issues outside of the game world. A 2020 Australian study found that Dungeon and Dragons players linked the game with their personal mental health recovery process.
Safe Place for Self-Exploration
The fictional aspect of TTRPGs allows players to escape from reality while still dealing with real issues. Whether it is a school student fighting off monsters instead of bullies or an adult dealing with obstacles in a dungeon instead of those in a difficult home life, players can tackle complex subjects but at an emotional distance.
One of the larger areas of study in the value of role-playing games is narrative therapy. Narrative therapy in psychology encourages patients to develop their personal stories and become the observer for a different perspective. This externalization has been found to help participants find their personal voice, reducing a sense of blame or fault for past experiences and personal growth.
The storytelling nature of TTRPGs can provide a similar experience. Through the cooperative game narratives, players can explore their own identities and self-expression but at a distance. Dr. Sarah Bowman, an editor for the International Journal of Role-Playing and author of The Functions of Role-Playing Games, suggests that TTRPGs allow players to “try on” different aspects of their identity during play. These include “the Doppelganger Self,” “the Devoid Self,” “the Augmented Self,” “the Fragmented Self,” “the Repressed Self,” “the Idealized Self,” “the Oppositional Self,” “the Experimental Self,” and “the Taboo Self.”
Having a safe space to experiment with identities that the player may feel taboo or marginalized can be particularly valuable to personal development. A 2020 study on the use of Dungeons & Dragons in LGBT communities found that the safe environment of the game’s narrative was helpful to the players. The narrative experience allowed them to explore undeveloped facets of their identity and helped them integrate those aspects into their own lives. The student went on to support the further study of the contributions of TTRPGs in marginalized societies.
TTRPGS in Therapy
With the growing scientific evidence on the benefits of TTRPGs, many psychologists are adding role-playing gaming into their therapy practices. Companies such as Game to Grow and RPG Therapeutics LLC are devoted to developing the therapeutic and education applications of TTRPGs. And there are now professionally approved continuing education classes available for therapists and counselors on the therapeutic applications of TTRPGs.
Tabletop role-playing games can make a big difference in players’ lives both at and away from the table. They help them to create lasting friendships, strengthen community bonds, and grow as individuals. And while they are learning critical skills, players are enjoying the camaraderie and excitement of the game, making those dice rolls truly valuable beyond just their outcome.
Laurie Trueblood is a freelance writer specializing in topics of nerd culture and mental health. She is the editor for Adventures to Authenticity, a fantasy-themed self-development and lifestyle site.