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The Role of Role Playing

A woman stands with her back to the viewer, framed against a blurry, light colored sunset. Energy and electricity crackles through her as parts of her seem to be breaking off and floating like ash into the air.
Tabletop role playing has been part of my life and a core part of my identity for decades. It fills many roles for me personally including as a creative outlet, a method to meet people, and simply as a fun hobby. Role playing will always be these things for me, but I also see a higher goal for role playing games.

But let me step back for a minute.

I’m in four role playing groups and each group scratches a slightly different itch. One of my weeknight games is a great way to decompress after the work day. We eat snacks, sling some dice, and have a great time killing monsters and saving the world. On alternating Sundays I’m in a campaign that has run for more than five years with primarily the same group. I’m deeply invested in the story and have notebooks full of session notes and intricate machinations. I love each of my groups for different reasons. I also love the diverse game systems and settings wherein I live my other lives.

 Real world growth can come from imaginary situations. 
As much as I need role playing for the fun and creative outlet, for me the higher calling of role playing is as a method to examine the human condition and build empathy. The game table is one of the places I go to understand different perspectives. I use role playing to challenge my preconceptions, including on fundamental topics such as law and justice. This is a low risk, high reward opportunity that I am very thankful for.

In May 2016 my mother suffered and died after several years of battling cancer. Logically, I know this isn’t my fault. That doesn’t change that I have struggled with guilt for things I could have done or should have said in the preceding months, years, and decades. Since her death each of my RPG characters has taken a role in exploring the themes of redemption, atonement, and ultimately forgiveness. Role playing is the forum I’ve used to prod and process my sense of failure from a safe distance. I have gone through this exploration with relative privacy thanks to the overt storyline.

The other night, I played in a game where exploring the human condition and building empathy was the core experience.

There are no super powers and there is no fixing the past. The characters succeed by mentoring the child about how to move forward. One Child’s Heart is a role playing experience centered on love, trust, and empathy. 
“One Child’s Heart” from Camdon Wright is an exercise is vulnerability. It is an emotionally intense experience about processing the small but consequential traumas from childhood. The characters are the helpers: a social worker, a therapist, a psychologist, and a police officer working to give the child (played by the GM) the tools needed to deal with past trauma. There are no super powers and there is no fixing the past. The characters succeed by mentoring the child about how to move forward. One Child’s Heart is a role playing experience centered on love, trust, and empathy.

It is not every day that a game makes me -as a player- feel real emotion. After the game, as I lay awake, I finally decided to forgive myself for my shortcomings related to mom’s death. I realized it was up to me to absolve myself of the sense of guilt and to accept my powerlessness over the situation. I have been working towards this for a year and a half and it is thanks to role playing that I came out the other side.

Real world growth can come from imaginary situations. Mountain Dew, dice, and a side of empathy. For me, that is the true power of role playing, and something I hope everyone experiences at least once.

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4 Comments To "The Role of Role Playing"

#1 Comment By Pascal On October 27, 2017 @ 8:41 am

Tabletop RPG can be an effective tool and framework for personal growth and personal psychotherapy, provided:
– the group has a safe social contract,
– bleed and de-roling and debriefing are well managed,
– and there is enought Mountain Dew of course.

– Ascherman, L. I. (1993). The Impact of Unstructured Games of Fantasy and Role Playing on an Inpatient Unit for Adolescents. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 43(3), 335–344. [Non-structured play of TRPGs can disrupt the treatment of serious psychopathology patients]
– Blackmon, W. D. (1994). Dungeons and Dragons: The Use of a Fantasy Game in the Psychotherapeutic Treatment of a Young Adult. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 48(4), 624–632. [TRPG can overcome the resistance of a patient to relate to others and self]
– Bowman, S. L. (2015, March 2). Bleed: The Spillover Between Player and Character [Blog]. Retrieved March 10, 2017, from [5] [Bleed: how emotions moves from player to character and vice versa]
– Daniau, S. (2016). The Transformative Potential of Role-Playing Games: From Play Skills to Human Skills. Simulation & Gaming, 47(4), 423–444. [how ludic TRPG and extensive debriefing can lead to personal transformation] [6]
– Gualeni, S., Vella, D., & Harrington, J. (2017). De-Roling from Experiences and Identities in Virtual Worlds. Journal For Virtual Worlds Research, 10(2). [how to safely manage de-roling ie. “exiting a character from a role play experience”] [7]

More evidence-based (and non-evidence bases) resources on TRPGs: [8]

#2 Comment By Wendelyn Reischl On October 27, 2017 @ 2:47 pm

I am lucky. I trust and love my game groups, and that is returned in kind. I know I am safe with them. That is definitely the place to start if you are purposefully doing self-exploration.

Thank you for sharing these resources. This is the first time I have heard of “de-roling” finding a way to shed your character. I do a ton of in-character journaling after intense game sessions, that helps me to identify what the character feels. Afterwards I can step away from the journal and the emotion associated with their persona.

#3 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 28, 2017 @ 9:44 am

Wait. De-roling? Does that mean Rona Jaffe wasn’t COMPLETELY full of shit with Mazes and Monsters?

#4 Pingback By Role-playing Games as an Adult – Words in My Head On October 27, 2017 @ 11:01 am

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#5 Comment By Pascal On November 1, 2017 @ 2:27 pm

Thank you for shaking up my bias: after a short research on the main scientific databases (Web of Science, Scopus, PsycInfo, PubMed), I found out there is NO empirical study on “de-roling” that can back up any claim on this topic.
Furthermore, the only paper I found is a very low evidence-based 3 pages article, classified as “commentary” in an education journal [Stafford, F. (2005). The significance of de-roling and debriefing in training medical students using simulation to train medical students. Medical Education, 39(11), 1083–1085. [9].
Most of the other documents I found are books (beware of books! they tend to avoid any serious expert peer-review), all the books and and the majority of the other type of documents are on the topic of psychodrama/psychoanalysis (with a lot of non-evidence case-based studies… = not very strongat all).
It seems we can suddenly run away from the game table to catch the last train, we will not cast spells in the wagons…