Using systems like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, groups of players come together to assume the role of their own created characters and go on adventures, quests, or world conquest (their choice, depending on how evil they’re feeling); meanwhile, one player assumes the role of the “Dungeon Master” or DM, running and narrating the game, controlling the monsters, and building the world for everyone else.
Tabletop roleplaying has been a long-time staple of nerd culture, back to the 70’s and beyond, but in recent years the hobby has exploded in popularity. All kinds of people play nowadays, from police to teachers to, yes, therapists.
But roleplaying isn’t just a game – it can actually offer great benefits for your mental health (BBC Three - Dungeons & Dragons is now being used as therapy). As therapists, we use roleplay as a teaching tool to help develop our practice, and many counsellors will use roleplay in their sessions to help their patients process complex, difficult emotions.
Here are some of the reasons you might want to try out tabletop roleplay for yourself:
By its nature, a tabletop roleplaying game requires other people. How many is up to you – most parties usually consist of one DM and 2-5 players – but some people play one-on-one games with friends or their partners, and conversely, some parties can reach double digits (although your poor DM might struggle to keep up…)
Even if you’re not massively invested in the game itself, it’s still an excuse to spend time with a group of friends every week, while keeping you all working together on a fun game. Plus, it’s usually cheaper than eating out.
If you don’t have any friends willing to join in, it can be a great avenue for meeting new people too. A little searching on Facebook or elsewhere should reveal at least a couple of local groups looking for more players, and hobby shops will usually run regular open sessions to get people into the game. That way you can drop in, try it out, and meet people without any real investment.
Lastly, it’s almost always co-operative. Unlike, say, many board games, you’re not competing against each other and trying to be the best. In most systems you’re working together for a common goal, sharing every triumph and banding together after every loss. That can build relationships both on and off the table.
There’s no “right” way to do things with roleplaying, and there are a tremendous amount of options. Some people might just want an excuse to drink with their friends and beat up goblins, with no expectation of assuming a character. Other people take their roles extremely seriously to the point of dressing up and using accents. As long as you’ve discussed it with your group, then your experience can be whatever you want it to be.
As mentioned, Dungeons & Dragons is likely the most popular system at the moment, which offers a medieval fantasy theme (or ‘swords and sorcery’, as it’s known) with a healthy mix of roleplay, exploration, and combat. But if you want something different, then the options are practically unlimited. Want something based in science fiction? How about cyberpunk? Modern day? Ancient Japan? Combat-heavy or roleplaying-heavy? Games can range from tactical wargaming with lots of miniatures, to what amounts to improvised storytelling with only a couple of light rules to guide you.
Although many systems require you to purchase at least a starter book, there are also plenty of free options to download online, so you’re never forced to invest if you don’t want to.
It lets you explore yourself
Roleplaying is all about being someone else. For a few hours, you get to step outside your usual identity and be someone new. For a lot of people, that’s a chance to explore aspects of your personality you don’t get the chance to in your everyday life. Someone who’s shy might want to play as a loud, boisterous barbarian with a penchant for terrible puns; some people like to experiment with playing as different genders entirely. It’s an opportunity to try being the person you want to be, or to be someone completely different from yourself.
Having that chance to experiment and try things out is invaluable in conquering anxiety. If you can play a character who’s outgoing and social, and it goes well, then that’s going to make it easier for you to try it out as your ‘real’ self. If it goes poorly, then you don’t have to worry – because after all, it’s not you who’s cracking the cheesy quips, it’s your character Wilhelm the Warrior, and that’s just how he is.
You might have guessed that this is coming from a place of personal passion, and you’d be right – I’ve been playing D&D for almost a decade at this point. The point of this article isn’t to force you to do something you won’t enjoy, and especially not to try and shill any particular system to you. Instead, I hope that now you might consider trying something I genuinely believe is really good for your mental health. There’s a lot of stereotypes about roleplayers, but as mentioned previously it’s recently become an incredibly popular hobby, and all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds play it.
Don’t be afraid to try something new – you might just find it’s the best decision you could have made.
Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner