Why D&D is the best free therapy you’ll probably never take advantage of
ABOVE: The cast of Mazes & Monsters (1982)
[this article contains spoilers for Dimension 20’s The Unsleeping City]
Let me set a scene for you. People new to Dungeons and Dragons, stick with it; it’s gonna sound silly, and you’ll probably find it weird. Just humour me.
Imagine New York City. The taxis, the pizza, the chatter of voices: it’s a place where people go to find their dream, and then work themselves to the bone to catch that dream. Now, imagine that this same city has, for centuries, had a secret magical underbelly (seriously, humour me). Picture witches, and demons, and goblins, all living amongst the regular humans, all calling the city their home. Most people can’t see these creatures, because there is a powerful spell protecting the human world from the magic world— so the city runs as it normally would.
One (human) New Yorker, Sofia, lost her husband Dale under mysterious circumstances. She discovers that he was part of a powerful order of monks, whose mission it was to keep the city safe from magical harm. Part of that mission was a rumoured prophecy that a ‘Chosen One’ would have to be picked by the Order to help save the world in a great battle. Dale believed that going to the top of the Empire State Building would reveal who the Chosen One was, which would subsequently save New York from destruction. He died before he could figure out the rest of the mystery, but he left Sofia a cryptic message before he passed: “When you get to the top, I know what it’ll seem like, but there is someone there.”
During her arc, Sofia goes from yet another non-magical person, oblivious to the secret goings-on right in front of her nose, to being fully submerged in the confusing magic mirror-world. Sofia learns that Dale did not leave her for another woman, but was murdered for his work with the Monastery. In time, Sofia realised the deep corruption that took her husband from her. It’s safe to say that she is pissed.
So, now, we cut to Sofia at the top of the Empire State Building. It’s the night of the Big Boss Battle, and she needs to get this ‘Chosen One’ business out of the way so that her team has a better chance of winning. As is the way with D&D, Game Master* Brennan accompanies her, as a sort of omnipotent narrator, asking her what she wants to do and how she would like to proceed. Sofia stands at the Observation deck, takes a deep breath, and says to the air: “Okay, all you sphinxes, and all you choosers, you weren’t there for my husband Dale, and look what that got him. So, I don’t give a shit about being your Chosen, I’m honestly just trying to fuck some shit up tonight. So just choose me for the fucking night. You let Dale down, now show the fuck up.”
*for D&D newbies, the Game Master is the person in charge of the game. They control anything that isn’t a character played by someone sitting around the table, and typically narrate events, voice non-player characters, set up battles, and organise the story.
There is silence, interrupted only by the sound of a passing breeze. She looks around. Brennan says, “Nothing but the wind howls up here.” Sofia is determined, but desperately angry: to have come all this way and be met with nothing is frustrating. It makes her feel like Dale was wrong, which only riles her up even more. After fruitlessly searching for any sign of response, Sofia tells Brennan that she is going ‘right to the very fucking top’. When she’s at the highest possible point of the Building, she says loudly: “If you don’t show up now, there might not be anyone to choose, ever again, so then you’ll have had this little gift you could have to someone, this little ‘choosing’ you could have done, and you will never do it to anyone. It’s like letting food go bad! I hate when people let food go bad!”
Her words ring out to nothingness, and then there is painful silence. Another gust of wind. She looks down, from this mighty height, and sees all of the people of New York moving around like ants. Brennan, soft-voiced, explains how Sofia realises the strange schism of this place, where people come to pursue these completely lofty, faraway goals, and yet life from day to day can be so dreary, and miserable, and hard. She frowns. The gap from those dream to this reality feels insurmountable. Maybe Dale was wrong. Maybe she’s not the right person to figure out the riddle. Maybe it was all for nothing. Clearly defeated, with tight lips, she says “Alright.”
Sofia learned to be a monk during her attempt to unravel this riddle, so, now, she meditates. She closes her eyes and skilfully stands on one foot on the top of the spire of the Empire State Building. Her dark hair moves around her face in the cold wind. She’s a true born and bred New Yorker, and she thinks back to the birds-eye view she had of the city moments ago. She imagines each dream of each individual, and the sheer magnitude of all of that hope. She starts to recognise that unlike the shiny, polished, flawless ‘American Dream’, the true spirit of New York City is, as Brennan puts it, “to meet dreams with concrete. To hustle in the muck and the grime, and grind away to make something miraculous happen. The spirit of this place is that these people make it happen for themselves.”
There is a beat. Sofia’s eyebrows are low on her face in concentration. Brennan asks gently, “Who is here, at the top of the Empire State Building?”
Sofia smiles, the first wave of realisation creeping into her face. She whispers: “Motherfuckin’ I’m here.”
The storm clouds roll and roar as potential crackles in the air. There is a low hum of energy that surrounds her as she speaks the words. Sofia never saw the actual scrolls, but she remembers what else was noted by the monks over their years of research: the identity of the ‘spirits’ who live at the top of the Building were never actually named. No one knows who picks the chosen one.
Sofia gazes out at the night, this information settling in her mind. “Okay. I choose myself to be the Chosen One.”
There is a huge boom of energy, spreading violently away from this tiny person amongst a vast skyline, as the reverberation of these powerful words spreads through Sofia. She feels her magic grow stronger, and the true nature of the prophecy finally washes over her.
There is someone at the top of the empire state building, and she chose herself.
This was one of the first moments where D&D made me really, genuinely emotional. At this point in the series, The Unsleeping City was running at around twenty five hours of content, and it’s safe to say that I was somewhat attached to the characters. I’ve been a fan of the game for a couple years, but Dimension 20 was the first online content I got really into. Unlike other series’ that I’d been told about, D20 had totally inexperienced players at their table. When I started the first series, Fantasy High, I saw myself in these newer players, who had to ask lots of questions as they navigated the game.
The series is also a fantastic example of the storytelling potential that D&D holds. The structure of the role play creates a cocktail of random events mixed with thoughtfully constructed character arcs. The deaths of characters hit that much harder because they’re not like deaths in books or movies, which are written in to fulfil a narrative purpose or create an emotional hook: in D&D, character deaths are completely unpredictable, and often avoidable, because they stem from the consequences of the player’s actions. All of that is to say that even just watching a game evolve over weeks can be super intense, let alone actually playing the sessions yourself.
Furthermore, D&D poses moral questions to its players frequently: Do you steal from this small shop to get the materials you desperately need? Do you horrifically torture a bad guy to get information? Do you choose to stab your allies in the back to get to your goal? Putting players in these situations helps to motivate critical and moral thinking, as well as one’s imagination. You can do anything (dice rolls permitting), and a good DM will make sure that you see the outgrowth of those decisions— through good and bad. It’s a phenomenally complex and fascinating practice, and the global success of tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) shows that there is definitely something joyful about playing make-believe that stays with us long after we grow out of childhood, where most of these fictive modes of play are first explored. As CJ Ciaramella says; “It’s the game’s unboundedness that has seduced millions of people— children, teenagers, and adults— to sit around tables and essentially take part in highly codified games of make-believe.”
Over the last few months, I couldn’t help but wonder why D&D, in all of its freedom and excitement, still doesn’t seem to be a mainstream thing. In recent years, video games, cosplay, and anime have all ascended their fandoms and shed their ‘nerdy’ status, but D&D remains as a fairly underground hobby. Unless you know someone who plays, you’re unlikely to ever be fully exposed to it. To explore the D&D community’s opinions, I conducted some research by putting a Google Form on reddit. Of course, this creates validity issues, as all online surveys do, but I think the feedback are enlightening, even if we have to take it with a pinch of salt.
The replies I got ranged from people of various ages, genders, and experience level: one respondent had eight years of gaming experience, while others wrote that they’d only been playing for a couple of months. All of the interviewees had played their own characters, with 58% of those also having acted as DM at various times. When I asked my interviewees about the general reputation of D&D, Jenny considered it to have a bad one: “Take Riverdale’s G&G and Stranger Things for example. I think they’re depicted as kind of dangerous and obsessive.” In terms of the game’s history, these specific words; ‘dangerous and obsessive’; hit the nail on the head.
“[D&D] is depicted as kind of dangerous and obsessive.”Jenny, D&D player for one year
Prompt a non-player to imagine a D&D session, and most of them will probably picture the same thing: an obscure, complicated hobby, played in a dark basement, by a bunch of guys with too much time and Cheeto dust on their hands. This negative stereotype is, at least in part, caused by the Satanic Panic of the 80s. When Gary Gygax released the first edition in 1974, it caused genuine concern. The game was full of spells, monsters, demons, and other magical items, which, obviously, rung the shrill alarm bells of the strictly Christian middle class. Amongst rock & roll and violent TV shows, D&D became yet another sinful activity that youngsters had to be shielded from.
This stigma reached a crescendo in 1979, when sixteen year old James Dallas Egbert III went missing from Michigan State University. The private investigators hired by his parents uncovered that he was a part of a secret gaming group, who would meet in underground tunnels to play sessions. Even though Egbert was eventually found and succumbed to his mental illness over a year later, the sensationalised version of the story had taken on its own life. It would eventually lead to a TV-movie of the book based on the event, Mazes & Monsters: a story about a young role player (Tom Hanks) who loses his grip on reality and throws himself off of a building. On a 1985 broadcast of Newsweek, a psychiatrist flatly stated: “The game causes young men to kill themselves.” The game was banned from Waupun Correctional Institution (Wisconsin) for being provocative— wardens were worried that it would inspire inmates to act out their fantasies.
While the media was in a frenzy about the potentially fatal consequences of teenagers (gasp) rolling some dice, the other side of the story was seeing people from all walks of life discovering the joy of D&D. An inmate wrote to Ciaramella about playing the game behind bars: “I’ve taught murderers, gang bangers, and Neo-Nazis to come together and work as a team… I believe that games like D&D can be a powerful tool to inspire creativity… and to give to vilified an opportunity to be the good guy.”
A 2017 study by Jennifer Cole Wright et al. compared the moral values of students who were a part of a table top role playing group, and students who were not. The researchers original hypothesis was unsuccessful, as “the increase in moral integration we had hypothesized did not materialize.” However, this led to the research showing that the moral integration* of the gaming group stayed more stable than the control groups. This suggests that roleplaying games are a safe space that keeps feelings of community and security safe from the chaos of every day life. They also found that the students who played weekly games came out of the semester displaying more connection to group morality and the needs of others, “as seen in the decrease of their use of personal interest reasoning.”
*‘moral integration’ is basically a fancy word for being a part of a healthy community, understanding your value in the world, and respecting others.
Wayne Blackmon cites a case study in which ‘Fred’, a severely mentally ill college student, recovered from his suicide attempt by playing D&D. The psychiatrist was initially reluctant to hear about Fred’s in-game activities, but was enticed by his patient’s enthusiasm about the game. He says, “I began to encourage him to bring summaries of episodes into therapy and to ask about motivation and feelings of characters. Therapy was now confined to this displaced material, and emotional content began to emerge.” While Fred talked about issues through the veil of the roleplaying game, he managed to return to school; the very environment that had harmed him so badly in the past. This phase lasted six months, until Fred became comfortable enough to abandon the D&D framework and discuss his own trauma bluntly.
Blackmon summarises the psychology of D&D thus: “Players are encouraged to become their characters in the course of the game, which is to say, to become their own fantasies. Juxtaposed to this… is the ever present structure of the rules that provide a vehicle for how one is to fantasize… when needed, there are rules to provide structure for the wanderings of one’s imagination. For the patient, the game served as an organized vehicle to become familiar with his own unconscious.” Playing as a character in a D&D game helped Fred to understand his own emotions, as he had a critically think about his own characters’ motivations and feelings. Though this case study was documented in the 90’s, our culture that still has deep issues with men showing their vulnerability. Role play could have immense power when used as a ‘shield’ by which men can express their insecurities, fears, and grievances. This case study, plus thousands of testimonials from other D&D players proves that this function could be an invaluable tool to the mental wellbeing of male players outside of the game.
“The game served as an organised vehicle to become familiar with his own unconscious.”Wayne Blackmon
In my survey, Sam directly echoed the thoughts of Blackmon: “[Playing D&D] feels like a good way to covertly discuss issues that bother you without necessarily admitting to them. You can act them out and see what happens.” On the other hand, Ryan disagreed that TTRPGs are innately emotional, noting that “the game system does not structure for it and it is easily possible to play without emotional investment.” Even within the die-hard community, people’s playing styles are intentions are vastly different, further adding to the diversity that the game can offer.
When I asked if a session had ever left her feeling drained and why, Samantha responded: “Lack of a voice at the table. As a woman I sometimes felt like the other players would speak over me, or not value my opinion because of my gender.” This issue is often swept under the rug because of the positive and welcoming community that surrounds D&D. The entire genre of fantasy has been tailored pretty exclusively to a male audience: the only roles for women in these stories tend to either be the damsel in distress or a delicate elf.
Furthermore, Gygax himself has said some less than favourable things about women players. He posted his insights on an online message board in 2005: “As a biological determinist, I am positive that most females do not play RPGs because of a difference in brain function. They can play as well as males, but they do not achieve the same sense of satisfaction from playing.” Granted, this comment was made over a decade ago, but it remains an accurate distillation of the attitude that tries to discourage women from playing: ‘it’s not made for you’. The makers of D&D, however, seem to be putting in at least some leg work to try and make the space more friendly. When the fifth edition was released, they had cut out a lot of the hyper-sexualised female characters that previously littered the handbooks.
My survey also saw responses about the difficulty of working with other people. As with anything that involves group work or play, there are moments were the dynamic isn’t quite right. Maddie highlights this when she says, “I’m often wary of new people, especially those I’m unsure of how to behave around. The first few sessions of that campaign were pretty draining as I tried to figure out the [in real life] group dynamic along with the party dynamic.” The double-think that is necessary to understand both of these realities can be incredibly taxing for new campaigns.
However, when the group does mesh well, the bonds created by players during long-term sessions are invaluable even away from the game. When I asked about emotional support between players, 80% of people said they felt supported by their game party. Interviewees said that their gaming group helped them with a range of things, including stress about University, mental health issues, and even personal losses. Mae, a fairly new player, says that her group talk about session’s events, but also discuss things like religion, relationships, and activism: “It’s a lot of affirmations and reassurance in a safe space, which is something that I value greatly.”
The stick D&D gets comes from an outdated fear of anything that breaks the status quo. The game allowed young children in strictly religious homes to explore their identities. The smear campaign that was waged against D&D could have been dispelled by even the lightest research (which would have made it clear that every official D&D quest focuses on overcoming and defeating evil). One interviewee, Dom, was positive about the future reputation of the game: “[It’s] on the rise… with shows like Critical Role bringing on people like Vin Diesel and charity live streams for Children in Need. Its’ shed its’ ‘satanical’ image in the public and is now a quirky game that friends play.” Ezra managed to summarise my emotions towards D&D by saying, “It’s still understood to be something “nerdy”, but people seem more willing now to give it a try.”
“People seem more willing now to give it a try.”Ezra, D&D player for three years
We all, deep down, know how to play D&D, because we were all once five years old. We all ‘made belief’ in forests, waving sticks around, thinking of them as our mighty swords, and convincing someone else to play the dragon so that we could conquer a terrible beast. D&D can be a catalyst for overcoming painful experiences, realising your own strength, and even processing trauma. I truly believe that it is a phenomenally effective form of therapy. All you have to do is give it a try.
Sources used include: Dimension 20’s The Unsleeping City, The Radical Freedom of Dungeons & Dragons by C. J. Ciaramella, Imaginative Role-Playing as a Medium for Moral Development: Dungeons & Dragons Provides Moral Training by Jennifer Cole Wright, Daniel Weissglass, and Vanessa Casey, Dungeons and Dragons: The Use of a Fantasy Game in the Psychotherapeutic Treatment of a Young Adult by Wayne D. Blackmon, ‘Dungeons & Dragons Prison Ban Upheld’ by John Schwartz, and ‘Emotional Stability pertaining to the game of Dungeons and Dragons’ by Armando Simón.
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PS. My final question to interviewees was “What would you say to someone who is interested in starting to play Dnd/TTRPGs?” Here are some of my favourite responses:
- “Go for it! You may not be comfortable with all aspects at first (like talking in character, or giving your character a voice), but that doesn’t mean you can’t play and you can’t have fun doing it. There are no stupid questions, trust me. I’ve found most people are very accommodating and helpful if you give them the chance.” Maddie, D&D player for four years
- “Find some people you trust and like and start with a one shot- create a character based on your gut instincts, don’t worry about cool storytelling. Listen to The Adventure Zone or Critical Role or any DND podcast and see how people play, but never compare yourself to them – it’s your game!” Ash, D&D player for a few months
- “Do it! Any kind of person would enjoy playing, and it’s worth giving it a try. You might not start out as an excellent role player, you might stumble on the rules, but find a patient and supportive group and you’ll have the time of your life!” Ben, D&D player for one year
- “Maybe explore the concept of the game first, read bits of the players handbook, understand races and classes and dice rolls, watch some actual play media to see how others do it, and then find some other willing players and go for it.” Liv, D&D player for three years
2 thoughts on “Dungeons & Dragons & Daddy Issues”
Great article! It covered a lot of areas of the history of the game, I was particularly interested in the bit about its use in prisons. I’d love to see more writing from you about your experiences with d&d!
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thank you so much!!