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How Dungeons & Dragons Therapy Helps Troubled Kids Open Up

Even though geek culture is becoming more and more mainstream, something about Dungeons & Dragons relegates it to the darkest corners of nerdery. That's kind of strange, though, when you think about it. After all, more than comic books, or video games, or science fiction, Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games encourage social interaction and help develop interpersonal skills. That's exactly why some youth counselors are pulling out their 20-sided dice for a little dragon-slaying therapy.

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Dungeons and Dragons dice and hand painted lead figures produced by Citadel Miniatures as accessories to the game created by by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974

Socializing In A Safe Space—Except For The Orcs, Of Course

Using role-play to give patients a bit of distance from their anxieties and triggers is a trick that's almost as old as psychotherapy. But recently, more and more organizations have found that the structured rules and engaging gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons is perfect for kids and teens struggling with communication and social skills. In Seattle, Wheelhouse Workshop has found that the game helps kids think as a team, navigate interpersonal conflicts, and accomplish goals through a group effort. The Bodhana Group in Pennsylvania takes a more clinical approach to the game, designing experiences that could help with specific diagnoses such as ADHD, anger-management disorders, and social anxiety. Then there's Aspiring Youth, which also hosts improv and theater games as an alternative to the classic D&D experience.

So what makes role-playing such an effective therapeutic technique? Traditional therapists often ask their patients to play a role during a therapy session that they normally wouldn't—that might mean pretending to be somebody else to gain empathy, or pretending to be a healthier version of themselves, to model appropriate behavior. Because it is still play, there's a degree of distance between the role-player and the role, and that can free the patient to follow their natural instincts instead of second-guessing themselves. And by reenacting some significant or traumatic moments in their lives, patients can gain a sense of self-understanding and closure. All of these are true of Dungeons & Dragons games as well, plus there are dragons (and also dungeons).

Related: Improv Theater Was Invented To Help Immigrants Assimilate

How Does The Game Work?

But what does an actual game of therapeutic D&D look like? A lot like a normal game—you'll find the Dungeon Master (usually the therapist) behind a screen, and four to eight players gathered around the table. The differences? Maybe you'll see another therapist in the corner, making note of player interactions and therapeutic developments. And then if you start to listen in on the game itself, you might hear some oddly personal details. In one example game played by Wheelhouse Workshop, each character faces their own personal fears, with only the encouragement of their teammates for help. One character, a cheese-obsessed dwarf, sees a world without any dairy products. Another character is afraid of being alone, so he has a much darker vision—but the rest of the team is there to support both players equally. No matter how personal or how out-there the game gets, it helps each participant develop socially and grow a closer bond to the other players—who happen to be their peers, as well.

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