“You enter the enchanted forest, what is it you would like to do?”
“I’m in a forest, which means I’ll need a shelter, I better look around for things to make an ax.”
“Roll a perception check, roll your d20 and add 3 to the roll.”
“You find a sturdy stick for a handle, and a stone that looks as though in the past it was used as an ax head and without much issue you are able to craft a wood ax.”
The above is a sample of a game of Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D, that I had the joy of playing with my 6-year-old. During this past year of living in continuous lockdowns and the loss of many of our social encounters, more and more people are being drawn the tabletop role playing games (TTRPG), such as D&D.
D&D and other TTRPG’s are a wonderful way for us to spend time with our family. For those not familiar with such games, TTRPG’s typically are for two or more players. One player will act as the narrator of the story, often called the Dungeon Master (DM), or Game Master (GM), while the other players will create characters that interact with the story. Characters can be anything from human fighters, to mouse wizards, to owl knights. The story takes place in the collective imagination of the players and it can be a wonderful way for a family to spend time together and to create memories together.
The GM crafts a narrative and that narrative changes as a result of how the other player characters interact with the story. These games can not only offer families a way to sit down and interact with one another without screens, they give parents ways to help teach their children problem solving skills through a game.
In the above example, my child demonstrated that they were thinking about planning. My job as the game master became finding a way to help her build and utilize this skill in a way that would help them in the game. Through playing D&D I have also been able to help teach my children concepts of shared play such as the improve technique of “yes and” or “no but.” For those unfamiliar the concept, “yes and” and “no but” are ways to expand shared play. One person puts forward an idea and rather than saying “no that does not work” we take their idea and add to it or modify it. For example if a player was looking for an ax, but they did not roll well rather than saying “you are unable to find anything.” you can say “you look for things to make an ax and are not able to find something, though you do find some rope next to a bucket.” For the players this might take the form like the following:
Player 1: I can create a distraction!
Player 2: Yes and I can sneak in while you do that.
Player 3: Yes and I can be on the roof keeping watch!
At its heart TTRPG’s are cooperative storytelling, meaning the players are working together to achieve their goals. The players learn how to cooperate rather than to compete. For families it can be so wonderful to find ways to work together, for one of the children’s characters to come in an heroically save the characters of the rest of the family, or for a clever idea to save the day.
Something else that is wonderful about playing TTRPGs is the memories that are made. When we discuss the memories that we made around the gaming table we recall them in terms of first person, meaning “do you recall that time we saved a village from goblins?” rather than “do you recall that game where our characters saved a village from goblins?” These memories that we make at the gaming table feel real and give us a way to travel, and have epic adventures without ever leaving the kitchen table.
For those interested and wanting to look into picking up the game for their family I would suggest for younger children to look into Monty Cook’s No Thank You Evil game–this is a TTRPG designed for younger players that has rules that you can add complexity to as the players age. For children in later elementary school, to early middle school the game Stuffed Fables, or the Humblewood Setting from Hit Point Press can be wonderful fantastical settings. For those in mid to late middle school and up, picking up the starter set for Dungeons & Dragons is a great entry into the hobby.
Dr. Megan Connell is a board-certified clinical psychologist whose practice encompasses a wide variety of topics and approaches. Her innovative work with girls, geeks and games has garnered her national attention, particularly for her work in applied role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. She co-developed applied, therapeutic role-playing games training curriculum for mental health professionals. She is the co-founder of Geeks Like Us, a community-driven entertainment group. Dr. Connell’s work on the interface of gaming and psychology has been featured on multiple podcasts, Syfy WIRD, Forbes, and Geek and Sundry. She regularly speaks at major gaming conventions nationally, and she writes, directs, and produces the YouTube series Psychology at the Table, as well as the live play Dungeons & Dragons game Clinical Roll.