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RPG Therapy: Storifying the Therapeutic Process

By Daniel Hand, author of Role-Playing Games in Psychotherapy:  A Practitioner's Guide

Stories have always been a crucial part of the human experience. They entertain us, but they also teach us vital lessons about life, the universe, and just about everything. They are the basis of our history, our societal norms, and even our emotional growth. Indeed, the vast majority of verbal communication could, in some way, be described as a form of storytelling. We narrate a tale each time we tell someone about our day at the office; we perceive world events in terms of episodes and experiences, and we run through the plotline of our lives whenever we sit down with a therapist.

The difficulty comes when that story is too hard to tell. When a person has experienced some deep, unspeakable trauma, it can become literally unspeakable: the act of relaying those events can be just as traumatising as the events themselves, so it's not surprising that so many of us choose to bury these memories, preferring to forget them, rather than confront our pasts. When this happens, the only solution is to help the traumatised individual tell a different kind of story.

This is where RPG therapy comes in… and you really need to give it a go. Tabletop role-playing games arrived on the scene around about fifty years ago, give or take, and have since become a known 'thing' in the world of creative pastimes. Now, finally, they're being recognised for their therapeutic potential. In many ways, they are simply a continuation of the 'pretend' play that children have done throughout history ('cowboys and Indians', 'cops and robbers', Power Rangers, etc.). RPGs involve players creating a cast of characters, dropping them in an imaginary setting, and telling the story of how they overcome various obstacles (often with the use of dice, to add a bit of tension to proceedings). You've likely heard of the biggest name among them, Dungeons & Dragons, but there are countless others out there, covering every genre and theme imaginable, all looking to transport their players to worlds of (mostly) fun and adventure.

By introducing a 'fictional frame' to the therapeutic process, one in which the scenarios being discussed are limited only by the participants' imaginations, the practitioner is able to couch the client's experiences in neutral, enjoyable and, crucially, third-person terms. Suddenly, the traumatic story is about 'somebody else' rather than the client, the events in question may be scrutinised from a safe distance, more as a hypothetical 'what if?' than a factual 'what then?'. Swapping the specifics of a narrative from real-world events to fictional ones is even a relatively simple task: all the emotions of a lover’s tryst can be relived as a dragon hunt; a school bully may take the form of a slime-covered alien and be duly vanquished; feelings towards a late parent may be explored via a meeting with the wounded king of a cursed land. Whatever tale it tells, RPG therapy's key strength is an ability to keep the client safe from the emotions that might otherwise be too overwhelming to talk about. The in-fiction characters take the risks; the client can sit back and benefit from their hard work.

A perfect example of RPG therapy in practice is the work I recently did with a client named Ged.  Struggling to find their place in the world, and haunted by a past breakup, Ged came to me looking for a sense of both closure and self-acceptance.  Together, they and I created a character—a cool-under-pressure elf-mage named Twiggy—and a setting for her to inhabit, and followed her on a string of adventures that ultimately ended with the healing of a corrupted world.  As Twiggy overcame the obstacles that plagued her, Ged was able to follow the example, learning from in-fiction behaviours, and reflecting on how events and relationships may approached without feeling overwhelmed by them.  It was a joy to share those stories, and to witness Ged's (and Twiggy's!) heroic journey.

Across the world, mental health practitioners are belatedly learning what hobbyists have long known:  that RPGs can be incredibly powerful therapeutic tools. They facilitate introspection and self-awareness, encourage the use/development of social skills, and can be great avenues for self-care. They also make for a lot of fun, transforming sessions into the most epic adventures. Just try not to get addicted to the dice…

Daniel Hand, MBACP, is an author, historian, game designer and therapeutic counsellor in private practice. His work has appeared in venues such as Tales of Ruma, the Popular Culture Psychology series, and DEKHO!, the journal of the Burma Star Association. His latest book is Role-Playing Games in Psychotherapy: A Practitioner's Guide (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023), and he regularly speaks on the uses of gameplay and storytelling in client-work. To find out more, or to subscribe to his monthly (ish) newsletter, visit www.monomythcounselling.co.uk.