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Gateway: How Entering the World of TTRPGs Impacts Mental Health

In partnership with CheckPoint, we’re participating in Great Games Done Slow, a fundraising event to forward mental health awareness for gamers through games! We join other content creators from all over the world to show how games can be used for positive wellbeing. Great games, no time limit, no pressure.

Thank you Patricia for the amazing fanart of the interviewee’s characters.


“It’s more than just a game,” the tabletop RPG nerds will tell you. And everyone will have their reasons for saying so.

For myself and many others, tabletop roleplaying games are a gateway to another world. One where you have permission to be someone else, even just for a few hours. Someone who isn’t paralyzed by grief perhaps, or who doesn’t freeze up when meeting new people; or someone who isn’t constantly wishing for the earth to open up and swallow them whole.

My own first exposure to TTRPGs was the “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” episode of Community. In this episode, the Greendale study group catch that their classmate Neil might be suicidal, and invite him to a D&D game to lift his spirits.

The thing is, sitting around a table with people you trust and crafting a world different from the reality you’re trapped in puts you back in control of your life and your choices. At the very least, it’s an uplifting diversion. At most, it can be a marvelously powerful tool to slay your inner demons.

Even taking first few steps in a new fantasy world leads to strides in overcoming mental health issues. Real players share with us how, in under a year, tabletop roleplaying has helped them take significant steps out of the darkness of mental illness and into the light.

 

Meet the Players

  • Dom, 27, has been playing Dungeons & Dragons 5E for six months, and copes with depression and anxiety.
  • LJ, 26, has played three TTRPGs in the last year – including Dungeons & Dragons 5E – and deals with anxiety and depression.
  • Kat, 26, has been a TTRPG player for ten months, has played Dungeons & Dragons 5E and City of Mist, and struggles with anxiety.

 

Tabletop Roleplaying Games and Mental Health
TTRPGs can be a marvelously powerful tool to slay your inner demons.

Can you tell us about any positive changes you’ve noticed in your mental health since you began playing TTRPGs?

Dom: I’d like to think I’m happier right now. For a long while, I’d been in a slump; not being able to tap into my creative side, not seeing friends, and focusing too much on work. And then some time around the end of February, I got into The Adventure Zone. The McElroys made D&D sound so fun and interesting. They made me laugh in a way I hadn’t been able to in a while.

I wasn’t ready to dip my toes into playing the game just yet. But when a friend invited me to join a homebrew [campaign] she was going to be a part of, I hesitantly said yes. My main source of comfort was that the people playing were people I happened to know. But leading up to the game, my anxiety spiked a little.

“I was afraid they didn’t really want me there. What if I ruined their dynamic? On top of that, I was worried that my quality of playing might not be at par with theirs.” – Dom

Once I started playing, I realized there was nothing for me to be anxious about. I also realized [that] I missed creating works of fiction and sharing [these] with people. The group I was playing with was so encouraging about how I played my character. I felt like I could trust them with whatever ideas I wanted to try. All that encouraged me to expand [my social network] and play with other people.

D&D gave me motivation to be creative again and gave me a reason to connect with people. Something I didn’t expect to be doing for a while.

LJ: There are definitely some positive changes in my mental state since I started playing tabletop rpgs. When things get bad, sometimes you try to find something to get you through another day. The thought that you get to play D&D or any other tabletop rpg with friends will be the thing that will help.

Kat: I’ve always been a rather quiet person, very much an introvert. And I feel like I’ve had anxiety pretty much all my life, even before I knew what it was called. It even got to the point that just leaving the house to meet up with friends was difficult. I couldn’t speak without stuttering.

When I finally got my first job as a copywriter at a small agency, I thought I had things figured out. But because my new job was the biggest achievement I had, I defined myself by it. My self-worth was tied to my job and I wasn’t even sure if I was good at it.

Impostor syndrome was absolutely a thing – I couldn’t stop thinking: Any moment, they’re gonna find out that I’m shit at this and they’re going to fire me and who the fuck am I gonna be then?

Tabletop Roleplaying Games and Mental Health
Sitting with people you trust and crafting a different world puts you back in control of your choices.

I discovered D&D through another writer, who became my first DM. And [then I] fell into the black hole that is Critical Role, and everything changed.

Since I started playing D&D, I’ve become more positive. Bad things don’t affect me as much, or at least it’s easier for me to shrug them off. Great storytelling does amazing things and keeps me from sinking into negative thoughts that would have kicked me down and sat on me a few months ago.
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Can you tell us about some of your favorite characters that you’ve roleplayed? What makes playing them personally remarkable, challenging, or fun for you?

Dom: I always put a bit of myself in all the characters I play. I think I was affected by both what I felt during the time I was creating them, and by the people I was playing the campaign with.

Michael, [my half-orc fighter, was made] while I was feeling the following: First, I wasn’t confident about my abilities in playing D&D. Second, I wanted to take him seriously because I wanted to be at par with the people I was playing with, and finally, I didn’t want them to think I was bad at D&D. So… he inherited that sense of self-doubt. But as his story progresses, this self-doubt is becoming more about how his character is, [rather than] my feelings.

Chipper, [a rock gnome bard, was created] for a campaign I’m playing with my high school friends. She doesn’t really take things so seriously and makes jokes about a lot of things, which is how I am with them.

LJ: The first character I ever made is a stubborn, angry person. [He’s] very outspoken about what he thinks, very unlike me. I’ve patterned him after one of my favorite comic book characters and he’s always fun to get into. I introduced him to my group as this really grumpy guy that they’d probably hate, [but] they’re slowly finding him endearing because he cares too much.

There’s this one [other] character I play, I can say that he’s the most like me – quiet, a bit self-sacrificing; feels like an awkward potato in most social situations.

“What’s most interesting for me is that among all the characters I’ve played, he’s the one character I’m still having trouble pinning down.” – LJ

Kat: I’ve played a few characters by now. And two of my favorites are Atala, a naive, young trickery cleric in a homebrew campaign on Discord; and Magpie, a wizard with trust issues and a bit of a shady background!

Kaity on Twitter said that “every dnd [sic] character is wish fulfillment of something you didn’t get to do with your last one” and in my case, Magpie evolving into who she is now probably was a reaction to Atala being “too good and pure for this world.”

What makes playing them personally fun – I think a lot of it has to do with the people you’re playing with. Because when you sum up the characters in a sentence or two, they’re not that interesting. It’s when you play them that they really develop and you see how dynamic they are.
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How has roleplaying characters helped you discover facets of yourself that you don’t normally get to explore in real life? Do you find your character’s traits carrying over into real life, and what are the effects?

Dom: Because I’m a well-known workaholic (I say this without pride and enthusiasm), I usually display a more rigid and controlled persona. This is who I have to be at work, [and] my mood also tends to be a bit [foul and short-tempered].

Playing D&D is a nice outlet for me because I get to display a more enthusiastic, friendly side of me. I really like making people laugh but, I feel that I have a certain sense of humor that doesn’t appeal well with others. I tend to bring it out more at the table than at work because I trust the people I play D&D with.

LJ: Oh yes, definitely. I made [one character] specifically to explore all that chaotic energy I harbor inside of me. He doesn’t let people give him trouble about his race, and he definitely doesn’t back down from a fight. A bit of his personality carries over in a way that I don’t take take people’s BS and I stand firm on what I believe in more.

Kat: I’ve been roleplaying for over half my life. I was probably twelve when I started text roleplaying on Livejournal and forums like Proboards and Jcink. But physically roleplaying; embodying a character in voice and body language and narrating things they would do, even when – especially when – they’re so different from you, is a whole other experience. When a session starts, I try to be in-character as much as possible. And that does carry over into real life afterwards.

“Playing Magpie has probably had the biggest effect on me out of the game. I’ve become more comfortable speaking my mind, asserting my dominance; alternately relaxing my stance and walking with power and confidence. I can still be self-conscious, but my confidence has improved a whole lot. I’ve learned to give less of a fuck, and it’s refreshing.” – Kat

But I realized that Magpie isn’t as different from me than I thought. Over the weekend, I went drinking with my mom and a couple of her friends. And they told me: “You have such a strong personality, no one could ever keep up with you.”

It gave me a start, because I don’t think my friends have ever seen that side of me. Then I realized: the way I am around these people is what I bring into Magpie. Magpie isn’t not me, she’s just another side of me. I want to be confident enough to share that with more people, and not give a fuck what they think.

Tabletop Roleplaying Games and Mental Health
TTRPGs are a gateway to another world, one where you have permission to be someone else.

How has interacting with people at the table helped you form new relationships or transform existing friendships?

Dom: I’ve known [my homebrew group] for a while. But… I don’t think I’d call us close. Since playing with these people, I’ve developed deeper relationships with them. At first, things we’d talk about things that [concerned] the campaign, but we’ve been slowly branching out to other interests.

“We’re a very supportive group. We try to take care of each other, remind each other to rest or sleep or to make time for ourselves. And I deeply appreciate that.” – Dom

On the other hand, I love playing D&D [with my high school friends] because it gives us a reason to see and talk to each other regularly. We’ve been seeing more and more of each other. I like that. I miss seeing them and I’m glad D&D has given us a reason to be in each other’s lives.

LJ: There’s an openness to meeting new people, or at least friends of friends who also play TTRPGs. There’s also trying to introduce TTRPGs to friends who haven’t played to try it out.

Kat: My groups usually debrief and hang out after games. We players check in on each other, talk about what happened; and see how we, as people, feel. I’ve had some pretty great conversations about how something affected us or our characters. [If the effect is negative] we try to come up with action plans to make it better; or at least to address it either in-game or as friends.

I try to be as open as possible and to get people to share how they feel because it isn’t good to keep emotions, especially negative ones, bottled up and unaddressed.

Tabletop Roleplaying Games and Mental Health
Negative experiences can still arise due to problematic player interactions or poor table management.

There’s been some roleplay bleed; which is when your character’s emotions seep into your actual feelings, and vice versa. But for me, it’s mostly been positive. Magpie immediately latched onto the half-orc fighter [in her party], and I started speaking to his player like she was my best friend – though we only really got to know each other better through D&D. Our characters supporting each other bled into our own interactions; and it gave me an opening to become better friends with her.

 

It’s not all rainbows and pots of gold, however.

Negative experiences can still arise due to problematic player interactions, poor table management; or even something as simple as a difference of opinion in how a game should be run. Even in the aforementioned Community episode, conflict at the table almost made Neil slide back into suicidal ideation.

While the structure and mechanics of the game are designed to be balanced and impartial, bad rolls, unexpected DM or player actions that may lead to unwanted plot twists, and feelings you didn’t expect to have but are now irrevocably there all contribute to negative playing experiences. Combined with the aspects of mental illness that make social interactions especially daunting territory; TTRPGs can sometimes be more of a trial than a comfort to players with mental health issues.

Have there been negative effects of TTRPGs to your mental health? For instance, experiences at the table that have made you feel uncomfortable?

Dom: I find that, at times, I’m still insecure about some ideas, or in acting out my characters. It’s growing fainter but, there’s still a voice in my head that sometimes makes me second guess myself. Because everyone is so good with their characters and how they act.

LJ: There are times when role playing can get mentally exhausting and emotionally draining.

Kat: For the most part, my TTRPG experiences have been pretty good – but I have had one major negative experience. We had a bit of a problem PC: an angsty, overdramatic rogue. And he did not want to work with the party, ever.

“If a game makes you feel worse or makes you never want to return again, it might not be healthy for you to stay; especially if you already have anxiety.” – Kat

It was difficult to enjoy playing because wherever that rogue was, drama cropped up. PCs – player characters – who wanted to help him, or talk some sense into him would get into screaming matches with him. [And then they would] end up feeling terrible, and leave the room. Character conflict is wonderful, but in these amounts, it felt pointless and unproductive. That party wasn’t a good fit for me.

Tabletop Roleplaying Games and Mental Health
The aspects of mental illness that make social interactions daunting can sometimes make TTRPGs a trial.

D&D is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be an outlet. So a rule of thumb is to treat others the way you want to be treated. To be respectful of people’s boundaries and emotional states all the time. And if you’re worried you won’t be able to play after leaving a group you aren’t enjoying, remember: No D&D is better than bad D&D.
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Were you able to address the problem? How did you go about addressing it? Or what made it difficult to express your concerns?

Dom: So far, I’m able to talk to my partymates about this. It helps because they validate what I do and [how relevant I am] to the team, and it puts me at ease.

LJ: Yes, definitely. The post-session discussions help a lot to process what happened. Talking to the GM and other players at the table to address whatever issues that need to be tackled help a lot in this.

Kat: Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to address my problem with that rogue PC. I didn’t want to hurt the person who invited me, or even the person who played the rogue, because I think it was their safe space more than it was mine. Which is why, after missing a couple of sessions, I made my goodbyes and left as unobtrusively as possible.

We didn’t debrief after emotionally exhausting sessions or really talk things out in general. And I never felt comfortable enough to express how stressed or irritated or frustrated or down I felt after sessions. This is why it’s really important to play with people you trust and to check in on each other. One person’s safe space might not be yours.

 

Nevertheless, player differences aren’t insurmountable, or they shouldn’t be.

Conflict is a normal and expected occurrence wherever two or more people are gathered. And a full table of seven (or more!) members is a hotbed for differing expectations and opinions. Even if you’re playing with close friends, an aspect of professionalism is required when playing a TTRPG. You’re all equal stakeholders in the world you’re creating together; and thus have equal responsibility to give and take when it comes to making it a safe world for all involved.

 

What do you wish could be done to make the table a safer place for people with mental health issues?

Dom:  I think I’ve been relatively lucky in terms of the people and DMs I’m playing with. But I’d say that, if you want your table to be a safe place for you, you have to make sure you’ll be playing with people you trust and can be comfortable with. If you’re lacking one or both of those feelings towards your party, you’re not going to be able to play at a level you’ll genuinely enjoy. It might even hinder you in a way that’ll reflect badly in the story of the campaign.

LJ: Respectfully asking for a break in the session if things get too much especially if the topic can be triggering would definitely help.

Kat: Based on my experiences with anxiety, the main thing I want is for DMs to always be on the same page as their players, and vice versa. For people to respect each other in all spaces.

“I know D&D is a game to so many people. But to me, it’s an extension of life – and if you don’t show someone love or friendship or appreciation at the table, that’s a problem.” – Kat

I mean, your character may not like another PC and that can be really fun to play out. But after a game, the table needs to be a space where the players can feel comfortable discussing their feelings; whether positive or negative.

So check-ins should 100% be a thing. Before a campaign even begins, DMs should be aware of their players’ expectations and make sure everyone’s on the same page. (DMs need to have fun, too, by the way!) And when it’s begun, they should try their best to watch out for their players; and be open-minded enough to take criticism when it’s given.

Tabletop Roleplaying Games and Mental Health
Professionalism is required when playing a TTRPG to make a safe world for all involved.

The same goes for players: Appreciate your DMs. Because it takes so much energy and effort to craft a campaign and get the technical aspects right. And remember that you don’t know other players’ lives and stories; so be as attentive to others as you want them to be to you. If you feel like a friend is uncomfortable with another player or a situation at the table, take them aside and check on them.

Go beyond basic respect and be caring. Get ready to talk things out if need be. It won’t always be easy, but it needs to be done.

 

Tabletop RPGs may not a wholly perfect system in resolving all a player’s mental health issues. But there’s still incredible therapeutic value in playing them.

Adam Davis of Wheelhouse Workshop says he’s used to seeing sides of D&D players during roleplay that they don’t bring out elsewhere. Wheelhouse Workshop is one of the many therapy groups across the United States that use Dungeons & Dragons to get kids and teenagers to open up about their issues.

Jack Berkenstock runs a similar roleplaying group called The Bodhana Group in Pennsylvania. Berkenstock has a background in doing therapy for kids in juvenile treatment facilities. He designs games that show natural consequences to help with impulse control and making better choices – without anyone having to get hurt in real life.

TTRPGs share similarities with drama therapy, a treatment modality where participants take on the role of a character completely separate from themselves to gain new insights. In TTRPGs, a player is free to create a separate character opening up facets of themselves; ones that they may not feel safe expressing in real life. Game rules and mechanics provide structure and predictability. A controlled audience keeps the environment safe. And interactions at the table develop valuable coping and social skills that apply in real life.

A well-run table could be the venue for a player to reach catharsis about an issue that they may not have been able to explore in harmful or unpredictable real-life environments.

Would you continue playing TTRPGs? What do you hope continued play will change about your mental health?

Dom: Yes. At first, it will force you to be creative. But later on you’ll realize that you’ll be doing it [out of] your own will and enthusiasm. Everyone, I think, needs a creative outlet. It’s a matter of finding people you trust and can be comfortable with.

LJ: Yes, definitely. Because sometimes you get to explore some parts of your mental illness through your characters and you get to process that in a safe space with people you know.

Tabletop Roleplaying Games and Mental Health
TTRPG mechanics provide structure and predictability, and a controlled audience keeps the environment safe.

Kat: I absolutely want to continue playing! Even systems that aren’t D&D are interesting to me. Regularly setting aside time for my friends helps me get my priorities straight, of course. I am [the type who] can get too caught up in my own thoughts and worries, until it becomes unhealthy.

But the more I play and the more I DM, the happier and more confident I become. I become strong enough to brush aside my anxiety, even for a while, and it gets easier.

Would you recommend TTRPGs to others who share similar struggles to yours? Why or why not?

Dom: Yes, of course! And if other people want to invite me to other forms of tabletop rpgs, then why not? I want to keep building [characters and stories] with other people. The shared experience is different from writing your own work and sharing it with people.

LJ: I will definitely continue playing. This is one way for me to keep in contact with my friends who are primarily my support group.

Kat: Absolutely. It’s helped me get out of my head, put me in unfamiliar situations (while knowing, of course, that I’m safe), and get closer to the people around me. DMing has been incredible, too. I used to think I didn’t have it in me to be a DM, that I didn’t have what it took; but you never know until you try.

“A large part of D&D is just showing up. You can never be 100% prepared, and the anxiety gets worse when you put it off. Just Be There.” – Kat

I recommend that you do your best to Find That Group you’re looking for. Make sure you’re all on the same page about what you want; that you all have the same expectations. Just be kind to each other and take care of each other. And remember that – even when you’re a half-orc or a tiefling or a drow or even an aasimar – you’re all human. So get out there and have fun.  

 

Mind, playing TTRPGs is NOT a replacement for professional help.

If you find yourself in a crisis, the best course of action is still to reach out to a qualified medical professional. Still, the party you belong to can be a powerful support system. The very sense of belonging can give you back some of the purpose and self-worth that mental illness may have stripped from you along the way. That alone makes a foray into worlds of fantasy worth it.


Has venturing into tabletop rpgs helped you? Let us know your thoughts! We’d love to hear from you.

Editor’s Note: The interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Reina Bambao
In full: Her Radiance Rhaena Targaryen Malfoy, the Dauntless, Kapitana of the Ruscats, Grandmaster of Ylisse, Khaleesi of Slytherin House, and Queen of England.

In brief: Reina. Nerd, nurse, writer, witch. Keep her writing on writer-queen.com and reading on Bibliofeline!

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