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Questing for Change: How Tabletop Role Play Games Help Develop Skills

Dragons, gnomes, and spooky places, oh my! Fantastical creatures and scenarios will take over Lillybrook shortly! Why, you might ask? For Adventure!

These fictional characters and places are a part of the therapeutic game groups being offered starting in September. So what are therapeutic tabletop role playing games (TTRPGS?) They are interactive storytelling scenarios presented by a game facilitator/master where the players create a character to role play throughout the game. The game storyline has a basic outline, but also changes depending on what the players do. They can also be affected by what number the players have rolled on a set of dice. Higher numbers mean better outcomes, while lower numbers mean… Well, let’s just say, you want to roll high.

If this sounds weird, believe it or not, role playing difficult skills or situations is actually an effective and evidence based technique that some therapists use in sessions to help clients practice the skills they need to build to manage that situation. Tabletop gaming offers a less intimidating way to practice these skills. Research has shown that kids especially, but also adults, learn better when skills are practiced along with play, so you might be surprised how effective therapeutic tabletop games can be. You might be wondering, how does one take something from a made up game and use it to teach new skills?

A scene displaying fantasy imagery.

Let me give you an example of what players might experience in a group. This particular game was Quests of Yore, as seen in the movie Onward.

To start, each player created their individual own character, including backstory, traits, strengths, and weaknesses. The party met at the Manticore’s Tavern to form a team, decide if or how the characters knew each other, and talk to other adventurers in the tavern. They spent some time talking to each other in character and talking to the Non-Player Characters played by the Quest Maker (the group facilitator.) After this, the adventuring party was sent to run “The Gauntlet,” a training course that needed to be completed to be accepted into an elite group of adventurers.

The group’s first choice was a deceptively simple one: Which path to take- one was relatively safe, the other was maybe not so safe. Without any clues as to which path was which, how did they figure out where to go?

The Adventurers decided as a team to ask the local sprites who were hanging around the entrance for a hint. Since sprites are known to be mischievous in this world, the party couldn’t just ask them outright in case they were tricked. Instead, the party discussed options within the group and soon realized that one group member was a gnome with plants and plant knowledge that the sprites were willing to trade information for. After some small talk, so as to not be rude, and an offer to trade, the sprites were willing to answer the question of which path was safe. Everyone was happy- the sprites got new plants and the adventurers got to proceed knowing they had the right path. That was just the beginning of the quest and the party had many other challenges standing in their way, including hidden traps, mysterious attacks and foes, and puzzles to solve.

Looking at that very beginning scenario, it may seem like there wasn’t much to learn. Here’s an outline of the skills the players needed to use to solve that first dilemma:

  • Creating a character: Generally speaking, players tend to create characters that have traits that they themselves wish to have, without even realizing it.

  • Practicing conversations: Learning who each character was, talking to other unknown characters, reacting to basic or unexpected conversational shifts.

  • Practicing interpersonal skills: If they were rude to the sprites, the sprites would most certainly not help them with the right path to take.

  • Teamwork: Making decisions as a team and learning to listen to others are important for lots of different aspects of life.

  • Creative problem solving: How could they get the information they needed to be safe? Could they figure out traps and how to solve puzzles?

  • Confidence building: Practicing confidence building in game is much easier when the consequences aren’t going to affect real life. There’s always a second chance in game!

  • Managing emotions: It’s really rough when your roll doesn’t go how you want it to go, or your team doesn’t think your idea will work. If you storm off or refuse to participate because of this though, the game is suddenly much less fun for both you and everyone!

  • Thinking through Consequences: What happens if you charge ahead and run into a trap because you didn’t check first? What about angering a character that might help you if you had done something different?

As you can see, there were a lot of skills being practiced just in that one situation. Since it was presented in a fun way, the players got the benefits of learning and retaining new skills without even realizing it! TTRPGs are especially good for those who may have difficulty with traditional therapy, or are neurodivergent.

We will have some more details up on the specific games we’ll be using at our next round of Lillybrook’s TTRPG groups later this week, as well as a video of how I (Linnea) run games as a facilitator.

If you want to learn more about the science behind gaming for change, here are a couple of recommended videos from the Therapeutically Applied Geek and Gaming Summit (TAGGS.) They have a wealth of information on the efficacy of all sorts of geeky therapy methods. You can find more of the science info through SuperBetter as well. They design games with specific psychological concepts in mind to help people overcome mental health concerns. I hope to see you in game soon!

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