Role-playing games (RPGs) had a bit of a bad rep for a few decades – if you look at popular culture we see a nerd-collective; a mishmash of the unwanted, unwashed and friendless few sat around a dingy table in a poorly lit area rolling dice and getting ‘nerd-rage’ when things don’t go their way. It’s a pretty lame appearance and while stereotypes do exist, the reality is very different from the social perception.
Since the reawakening of games such as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the popularity of computer / console games and hype from books, film and other media, fantasy and its sibling science fiction, have become mainstream profiles. It’s cool to be a nerd (but better to be a real nerd).
So, what are games like Dungeons & Dragons about?
They’re a social-narrative story-telling kind of game. You create characters based on calculated abilities (actually very simple to generate) and attribute a race (Elf, Dwarf, Human, Gnome etc), class (like a life-long profession such as Rogue, Warrior, Sorcerer etc) and a personality to fit with all the above.
You may be lucky and roll a high Strength attribute, meaning you could choose a profession which is martial orientated, such as a fighter or barbarian. Or you may roll a high intelligence attribute, which could lead to the arcane path of the wizard, or a very cunning thief – there are quite a few varieties and endless customization to create a character you enjoy role-playing as.
And inevitably, you’ll get attached to them as their stories unfold.
But how does it run, how does the game progress and how do you keep track?
The same way you would reading a novel, only in this instance the author is often referred to as the games master (GM) or dungeons master (DM) if you’re specifically playing Dungeons & Dragons.
The GM will create a story within the guidelines of a theme, usually fantasy (think sword & sorcery) or science fiction (think Star Wars). The GM acts as the story teller (although story-shower is more appropriate) and referee, describing the scenes, acting as the non-player characters (NPCs) who are both the good guys and bad guys you may encounter on the adventure.
The format of the game is usually referred to as an adventure, although different RPGs may label these as mysteries, quests or simply as stories. An adventure can last a couple of hours, or they can be linked together with an overarching story which are sometimes referred to as campaigns. A campaign can last for weeks, months, years or even decades (can confirm).
Why are they good for you then?
This can be straight forward and quite complex at the same time. If you’re thinking of running a game with the family the benefits are obvious – your child will learn literacy skills and likely have a desire to read more about how the adventures can work. They’ll also begin to grasp the simple math behind the core mechanic of the game – which will lead them to ponder the chances or probability of dice rolls. They’ll want to know what their chances of surviving the dragons terrible fire breath are!
The slightly more complex learning will come from creativity and cooperative game play. Team work is required in games like D&D as no one will have the same advantages and disadvantages. Learning to plan out how the adventuring party will get over an alligator infested chasm will require verbal skills, game skills and the ability to compromise.
It may even allow the younger player to consider with retrospect how encounters worked or not, despite their protest at being democratically overruled by the party as a whole.
It’s good to learn to be a respected loser and a humble winner.
While we’re at it there’s also scope for more critical thinking – the game offers broader choices than you would find in digital role-play games on account of the limitless imaginations we all have. This brain stimulating critical thinking and imagination will increase a child’s capacity for reasoning and open mindedness which they will not get with other forms of games.
And finally; morality.
Every action has a consequence in just about any walk of life and RPGs. It may be cool to slay the evil orcs as they attack the human village… but what if the adventuring party then encounter the orphaned children of those orcs, starving and cold, searching for their parents?
In this day and age, morality and empathy are hard lessons to learn – best to start early.
A smidge of science: Adams (2013) studied the effects of role-playing games and identified several human needs which are sated during regular game play; the need to belong, the need for spontaneity and the need to be moral, all within the democratic participation of a well-balanced adventuring party. Why wouldn’t you want to fulfill those needs, and what better way to learn and cope with them?
And regarding those naysayers who say RPGs are bad for you? Check out this abstract from a scientific journal. Less than a quarter of psychiatrists questioned thought RPGs are bad for your mental health. The rest were likely players of Dungeons & Dragons or did their homework. The majority are clear; there are no links between playing table top RPGs and psychopathology. It’s good for you.
Want an easier version of an RPG to try? Check out this game, it’s made by Justin Halliday who has kids and likes role-playing with them (it all looks cute too!)
And for the grownups…
Well all of the above, with practice in improvisation, humility and creativity. Some say that RPGs bring people together, connecting people with fond memories in a world that has only ever existed in their minds, but are no less real to them than the air they breathe.
This author can confirm; friends since the age of 9 still get together weekly to combine might and kick evil in the ass.
“Full plate and packing steel!” as his teenage hero used to say.
Adams, Aubrie S. (2013) “Needs Met Through Role-Playing Games: A Fantasy Theme Analysis of Dungeons & Dragons,” Kaleidoscope: A Graduate Journal of Qualitative Communication Research: Vol. 12, Article 6.
Edited 5/10/18 to help make opening sentence more inclusive.
J.D Ferris, C.C