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The Surprising Benefits of Role-Playing Games (and How to Get Started)

 

The Surprising Benefits of Role-Playing Games (and How to Get Started)

When you hear about role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, you probably picture a dimly-lit basement filled with people in silly robes rolling dice, but there’s much more to it than that. Not only are role-playing games incredibly fun, but they can actually teach you skills you’ll use in the real world.

When I first heard about role-playing games, I immediately thought it was something that was just for the nerdiest of nerds out there. I could only imagine how ridiculous it would feel to sit around a table with other people and act like someone—or something—else, pretending to fight goblins and dragons. The entire premise just sounded way “too geeky” for me—even as someone who was way into video games and other “nerdy” things.

Fast forward a couple years, and I found that I was completely wrong. As soon as I took a moment to strip away the facade of monsters and swords, role-playing games revealed themselves to be something far more interesting than other traditional games. Behind the fantasy adventures was a fun social gathering that required you to think on your toes, solve problems, be creative, and ultimately learn how to become a team player. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s because it’s like every job out there. It turned out that it really wasn’t about the dungeons or the dragons at all—it’s about thinking critically and working like a team.

Now I indulge in role-playing games as often as I can. It’s nice to have an escape from the toils and troubles of the real world, but with every game session I play, I find that I actually learn something as well. Maybe it’s about myself and the way I think, maybe it’s something about one of my friends that brings us closer together, or maybe I just find a new way to look at something that I hadn’t thought of. I’ve learned that role-playing games are about more than playing a game, and more importantly, that they are for everybody.

The Benefits

Playing Cultivates Creativity

The Surprising Benefits of Role-Playing Games (and How to Get Started)

Creativity is the bread and butter of role-playing games. They have a certain quality that allows you to transcend typical game interactions. You have real freedom and the ability to move the story forward how you see fit. There are rules for each game, but they are merely the skeleton to whatever story you and your team want to create.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to activate our brains, and role-playing games do this incredibly well. When we tell stories—or experience them—our brains have to process language, the cause and effect of events, and also relate it to our own pre-existing experiences. While you’re playing a role-playing game, your brain is firing on all cylinders.

It’s good for you, the same way socializing or reading a book is good for you. In fact, as Jon Michaud of The New Yorker explains, reading comes with the territory:

…D. & D. is a textual, storytelling, world-creating experience, a great apprenticeship for a budding author. But, more fundamentally, you cannot play D. & D. without reading—a lot. Ed Park, in an essay on D. & D. (included in the anthology “Bound to Last”), celebrates the magnificent vocabulary of the game… Combined, the player’s manual, the Dungeon Master’s guide, and the monster manual (the core books of advanced D. & D.) add up to four hundred and sixty-eight pages of small-print, double-column text. I read them with studious devotion and headlong glee. Almost immediately, television all but disappeared from my life.

Before Michaud started playing, he spent his days watching TV while his grades were plummeting. As soon as the fantasy of D&D came into his life, however, that all changed. Michaud even goes so far as to say that Dungeons & Dragons “saved his life” because it got him on a better life track after reading more and finding something that excited him. Perhaps it won’t save your life, but it can still enhance it. As you play, you’ll develop creativity in a way you might not have experienced before. Whether you’re running the game as the “Dungeon Master”—controlling what happens to the players—or simply playing as one of the characters, your storytelling ability will increase.

Dungeon Masters—also called Game Masters in some games—must be particularly good storytellers. Even if you’re using a pre-made adventure with most of the work already done, you still have to be ready to come up with dialogue and personalities for the non-player characters, and be able to vividly describe the world your players explore. As a player, you have to find ways to make your character more interesting by creating personality quirks or a rich backstory.

Role-playing games force you to draw from what you know and create something that you and others can enjoy. A lot of famous creators have been influenced by Dungeons & Dragons as well. Comedian Stephen Colbert, writer George R. R. Martin, comedian Robin Williams, Simpsons creator Matt Groening, and Community creator Dan Harmon all played at one time or another. Storytelling is the one of the most basic creative skills that you can draw on for so many other skills, and being a good storyteller can even make you a more charismatic person. Dive in to another world and see what kind of cool stuff you can come up. You might surprise yourself with what you come up with.

Playing Levels Up Your Social Skills1

The Surprising Benefits of Role-Playing Games (and How to Get Started)

When you think Dungeons & Dragons, you probably don’t think social skills—but once again, that’s a stereotype that doesn’t necessarily hold true. Role-playing games are 100% social. You need to be able to talk to other people, express how you feel about certain situations, all in a group of people. Role-playing games come with a social network built directly into them.

Sure, to an extent, video games do the same thing—but it isn’t quite the same. Role-playing games bring the interaction right to your face, no screens between you. Plus, you get to hang out with your friends. Before and after a play session, you can catch up with what they’ve been up to and share what’s going on in your life. Once you know the rules for a particular game, you can easily make new friends too. You can hop into other game groups and make new friends; the process being easier because a giant plot of common ground is right out in the open. Making friends when you move can be really tough, but you can hit up a local game and hobby shop to see if there are any groups looking for more players.

This engrained social network can be particularly helpful for kids too. Making new friends can be more difficult for some people, and the forced social interaction of role-playing games can help them find people that share their interests. Additionally, kids and adults alike can use role-playing games to combat shyness. Players are given a mask in the form of their character that allows them to feel less vulnerable. Using my characters as a vehicle helped me feel more comfortable talking to others. Over time I got over shyness and felt comfortable cracking jokes and starting conversations on my own. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with being shy, but for those that do want to get out of their comfort zone a bit, role-playing games can offer some help.

Playing Encourages Teamwork and Cooperation

The Surprising Benefits of Role-Playing Games (and How to Get Started)

Most role playing games don’t end in a “win” or a “loss”, but they still require teamwork. The events depend on players’ actions, just like any other game, and failure to work with other players will guarantee a not-so-fun time. Role-playing games are designed from the ground up to be cooperative and it can be a lot of fun to play a game where there are no winners and losers.

A lot of games strive to be competitive, but life can be competitive enough, and role-playing games provide a refreshing change of pace. Additionally, learning to be a team player is highly important in the professional world. You take on a role at work and do the things that you’ve trained to do, and it works the same way in a role-playing game. Your character normally has a particular skillset, and that fills a role on a diverse team. Just like at work, if you don’t do your job, the whole team can suffer for it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that role-playing games are as serious as work. They can just help you learn the basics of working with others. You get a feel for how you handle interactions in stressful settings. Maybe you’ll find that you’re a good leader, choreographing a perfect battle where nobody gets too hurt. Or maybe you’ll find that you’re more of a support-type, ready to jump to someone’s aid when they need it. Perhaps you can just think outside the box better than your peers, and figure your way out of complex situations. There are no good or bad roles, just the roles you can fill. By learning to play with a team, you can learn how to work with one.

Playing Teaches Problem Solving Skills2

The Surprising Benefits of Role-Playing Games (and How to Get Started)

Problem solving is what makes the world go ’round and role-playing games are filled to the brim with it. Layers upon layers of problems stand in front of you and your fellow party members. You could be trying to solve a riddle, while navigating a labyrinth, while deciding the best way to take out a band of goblins, while trying to solve a murder mystery, all while preventing a dark lord from taking over the kingdom. Talk about problems.

Role-playing games and their campaigns are problem after problem, all just barely solvable. As each event of your game unfolds, you’re forced to think on your feet and react. You develop some improvisation skill and feel a rush whenever your group finds a clever way to tackle a tough problem. In fact, some of your most memorable moments will likely end up being times that you felt like your back was against the wall, but you managed to pull through using your wit.

Learning how to solve problems develops your critical thinking and can help you approach problems in the future with the right mindset. In role-playing games you’re simultaneously the chess player and the chess piece. You learn to see problems from multiple perspectives and realize that there’s always a light at the end of the dark, goblin-filled cave.

Playing Is Fun

The Surprising Benefits of Role-Playing Games (and How to Get Started)

Seriously, playing role-playing games is an absolute blast. Try this: Imagine a time in your past that you did something that felt a little silly. Maybe you were at a party, or maybe you had a couple drinks and hit the dance floor at a wedding. Something you were worried about being embarrassed about it at first, but as soon as you gave in, it was some of the most fun you’ve ever had. That’s what role-playing games are like.

Half the fun is letting go of the heavy world around you and playing like you’re a kid again. You sit down at that table and suddenly you’re running around the playground, having adventures and saving the world. Can you honestly say that fun like that isn’t for everybody?

How to Get Started

The Surprising Benefits of Role-Playing Games (and How to Get Started)

Getting started can be the toughest part, but there are some things you can do to make it a lot easier. Unfortunately, there’s no way I could even come close to explaining how to play all of the role-playing games out there, but I can point you in the right direction.

First, you want to find a game that would interest you. The world of role-playing games can be very overwhelming, but it also means that there is literally something for everyone. If you like sci-fi, there’s plenty of that. If you like fantasy, there’s plenty of that too. Vampires? Check. Werewolves? Check. Super heroes, Lovecraft, zombies, aliens, Star Wars, wrestling… You name it, there’s probably a role-playing game for it. Heck, I’ve even played a role-playing game based around the movie Mean Girls (and it was, like, so fetch). So don’t worry if Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t sound like your cup of tea.

Do some research and see what you can dig up. Google “[thing you like] role-playing game” and you might be surprised at what you find. Certain games are going to be more popular, however—which means it might be easier to join or start one of those game types—but see what you can find that excites you. If you’re not into the world the game is portraying, you’re probably not going to enjoy yourself. As far as recommendations go, check out Fate, Pathfinder, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, Call of Cthulhu, and (of course) Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition. You can even get a large taste of what D&D is like without paying a cent. If you’re still lost, hit up a game and hobby store and ask around. You’re sure to get more recommendations than you’ll what to do with.

When you find something that interests you, see what materials you need. Most role-playing games require that you at least own a copy of its player’s manual. Some games may require additional books as well, so make sure you’re getting what you need. These books can be very expensive—usually $40 and up—and the go-to, Amazon, won’t necessarily hook you up. Shop around online and check local game and hobby stores to find the best deals. You can also find digital versions of almost every current game and those can be significantly cheaper. There are a few other things you’ll need to play as well:

  • DM or GM guide: The Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master (GM) usually can benefit from having this additional book.

Dice: You’ll usually need more than the standard six-sided (d6) dice. Some games require sets of their own special dice. Always check to see what you need.Character Sheets: You can normally find these in the back of the player’s manuals, but you can also find them on each game’s web site for free.Pencils: Not pens—especially if you’re just starting out.A table: The more space you have for books and character sheets the better. Some people like to use grid mats and figurines, but they aren’t completely necessary.People: Alas, you cannot play these games alone. Trust me, I’ve tried. It’s not nearly as fun. Two people will work in a pinch, but a group of four or five tends to be way more fun.

Once you have all of those things, you need to read. A lot. Role-playing games require some investment. The rules for each game can be complicated, and even though you shouldn’t let rules be the focus of your game sessions, you should get a basic idea of how they work. If you know someone that knows how to play, ask them to teach you! They’ll likely be glad to show you the ropes. They may even have their own group and invite you to join, even if it’s just for a few sessions so you can learn.

In the same vein, it doesn’t hurt to ask around if you’re looking for a group to play with. If none of your current friends play, ask around your local gaming stores. A lot of stores have regularly scheduled sessions in-store, and it’s a great way to learn to play without having to buy a rulebook or convince your current friends to come play with you. At the very least, someone might be able to point you in the right direction. You can also find playgroups online. Web sites like Meetup.com can help you find other people in your area that are interested in playing the games you want to play. It never hurts to check out the forums of big role-playing game publisher web sites—like Wizards of the Coast or Fantasy Flight Games—in search of players, either.

Lastly, if you’re having trouble understanding how things work, YouTube is your friend. You can find countless videos of real gameplay and rules explanation for whatever game you’re interested in. Watch a few games and you’ll start to see how the flow of a game should feel. This can be especially helpful if you want to run the game too.


Role-playing games are fun, exciting, and can actually help you learn a thing or two. So get out there, find a group, and don’t let the concept overwhelm you. Ease into the games and you may even make some new friends along the way. Role-playing games really are for everyone, especially you.

Photos by PublicDomainPictures, OpenClips, Dan Catchpole, Michael Harrison, Benny Mazur, potential past, Benny Mazur, Sean Ellis.

 

IT AIN’T JUST FOR SLAYING DRAGONS NO MORE

And there ya go…

Actually my whole family has played for years now and it has been an especially good tool for teaching critical thinking, overcoming danger with planning and preparation (basic survival mind-set and skills), problem solving, and tactical decision making to my wife and daughters. So I think it is every bit as good a gaming tool for females as it is for boys.

 

Dungeons & Dragons strikes back

After a period of decline, the iconic game shows signs of revival thanks to an update and a greater diversity of players

From left: Sophia, Jung, and Charles Starrett play D&D at home.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

From left: Sophia, Jung, and Charles Starrett play D&D at home.

Some updated player’s and dungeon master’s guides for D&D.

Ethan Gilsdorf

Some updated player’s and dungeon master’s guides for D&D.

As a teenager in the 1980s, Charles Starrett spent hours playing Dungeons & Dragons with his pals but stopped after high school. His interest was rekindled as a father when he introduced basic role-playing games to his two daughters when they were six years old, and he also persuaded his wife, Jung, to play.

“They just gobbled it up,” Jung Starrett says of her daughters’ interest in D&D.

Now the couple and their now 14-year-old daughters, Sophia and Julia, gather around their Brookline dining room table regularly on weekends to toss polyhedral dice, slay orcs and hobgoblins, and tell an unpredictable, unfolding fantasy story, together.

As it turns 40 this year, the pioneering role-playing game (or “RPG”) appears to be enjoying something of a renaissance after a period of decline. Once the province primarily of white, suburban teen boys and young men, D&D is drawing a more diverse group of players, owing in part to the widespread popularity of fantasy books, films, and television shows. And a new update of the game is renewing interest among veteran players.

An estimated 20 million people have played the game and spent at least $1 billion on its products since D&D’s early days. But the game, which experienced strong growth throughout the 1970s and ’80s, began a slump in the 2000s. The game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, does not make sales figures available, but analysts say that RPG sales have been declining for years, partly supplanted by the surge in video games and Internet culture.

In response, Wizards, a Washington subsidiary of Providence toy-and-game giant Hasbro, launched a revamp of the game’s rules this year, informally known as “Fifth Edition,” that returns D&D to its story-based roots. The response has been positive.

“Nearly every player I’ve spoken to says they like the new rules,” says David Ewalt, author of “Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It.” When one of the core rule books, the D&D “Player’s Handbook,” was published in August, it climbed to the top of Amazon sales charts and hit number one on both Publisher’s Weekly and Wall Street Journal’s hardcover nonfiction lists.

Distributors and retailers say the new edition is selling better than expected, says Milton Griepp, founder and CEO of ICv2, a publication that covers geek culture. “And expectations were high.”

Nationally, and locally, retailers are saying the new edition is doing well and drawing players to game nights. John Beresford, books manager at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, reports that the store’s weekly in-store D&D events have grown by at least 25 percent. “Fifth edition is getting a lot of nostalgia gamers back in to take a look and is also drawing in a number of new gamers,” he says.

Unlike the last edition, released in 2008, the new D&D focuses less on mimicking video game-like action and combat, and more on ease of play, role-playing, and narrative. Also making the game more accessible, the rules ask players to consider characters who do “not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior.” Your 12th level wizard might be gay.

In addition to getting a boost from the game update, D&D and other RPGs are also finding fresh player bases.

“There’s been a real expansion of the audience in recent years,” says Ewalt. When Ewalt went to his first game convention 20 years ago, the attendees were largely white, male, ages 15 to 40. When he attended the massive role-playing game and tabletop game convention called GenCon this summer in Indianapolis, “there were men and women, kids and adults, and people of all races and cultures.’’

Liz Schuh, head of publishing and licensing for Dungeons & Dragons, agrees. “We are seeing a broad mix of ages playing D&D today,’’ she says. “The game spans generations, as parents introduce their kids to the game that inspired them as kids.’’

One reason new audiences are embracing D&D is that so many of its key concepts are already familiar to a generation steeped in video games. D&D spawned a legion of game designers and programmers, and the industry borrowed heavily from D&D tropes such as outfitting characters, leveling up, cooperative game play, representing character traits as statistics, fantasy battles, dungeon environments, and controlling avatars.

D&D also benefits from the popularity of fantasy entertainment such as the “Lord of the Rings,” “Hobbit” and “Harry Potter’’ books and movies, and hit TV shows like “Game of Thrones.” As in the case of video games, the appetite for consuming fantasy worlds is one that D&D actually had a role in nurturing.

A whole generation of screenwriters, novelists, directors, musicians, and actors who once played D&D — including Stephen Colbert, the late Robin Williams, Matt Groening, Vin Diesel, and George R. R. Martin — have proudly embraced their basement-dwelling days as a nerdy badge of honor.

“All those kids who were obsessed with the game in the early 1980s have grown up, and many of them entered creative pursuits because D&D got them excited about telling stories and creating adventures,” says Ewalt.

The game’s imaginative reach extends beyond popular entertainment. “Gaming certainly provided me with an imaginative praxis that helped prepare me for the imaginative praxis of being a writer,” says Junot Diaz, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and MIT professor whose group played D&D in the 1980s. “The game was an important source of solace, inspiration, learning excitement and play for us.”

Chris Robichaud, author of “Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy” and a D&D veteran since age 10, is bringing RPGs into the classroom as a learning tool. At the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he is a lecturer in ethics and public policy, Robichaud has been teaching D&D-like simulation called Patient Zero. “I wanted to give policymakers the creative, outside-the-box thinking opportunities that only a tabletop design with a gamemaster at the helm could really create,” says Robichaud, who believes his game “has the distinction” of being Harvard’s first “zombie pandemic tabletop simulation.”

The potential educational benefits are not lost on younger players. Back at the Starrett home, Julia and Sophia say they play primarily because it’s fun, but the game has also imparted valuable life skills.

“I have the reputation as a walking dictionary, which I got from playing D&D,” says Sophia, who has been blogging about “the benefits of playing D&D.” Beyond building your vocabulary, the two sisters reel off myriad other boons. The game improves critical thinking, decision-making, spatial intelligence, and team-building.

“In D&D, if you’re going to succeed,” says Julia, “you have to be part of a group of very diverse individuals all going for the same goal.”

Indeed, the role-playing game is a perfect tool for forging communities and connections “which can further knit our society together,” says dad Charles. “We can even explore living a life as someone who believes quite differently from how we actually believe, which increases understanding and empathy towards those who differ from ourselves.”

Like a warrior after an epic battle, D&D has survived to fight again — and its players hope it will keep on rolling for another 40 years.

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.” Contact him at www.ethangilsdorf.com .

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