The clinical psychologist Jon Freeman was feeling burnt out. He spent his days at a corporate office in Manhattan, managing dozens of research assistants as they tested pharmaceuticals on people with anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Looking for an escape hatch, he noticed that his daughter often had nothing to do after school. From time to time, he enticed her back into social existence with board games.
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In this mission, who do you want to be? A brave dwarf warrior? A brainy human wizard? A skilled elvish archer? A stealthy hobbit thief? As you approach the ruins, you see a creature. What do you do? Rush and attack? Blast it with a magic fireball? Sneak around and find another way in?
Try to bargain with it? Or something else? I grew up in an isolated New Hampshire town before the Internet, smartphones and social media. My buddies and I played it a lot. These stills are from a home movie I shot in and should give you an idea of how the game is played. Each person is a character that has certain powers and weaknesses, represented by statistics that you keep track of on a sheet of paper.
For example, you might have a strength of 16 out of 18 , which is good, or a charisma of 3 out of 18 , which is not so good. One player, the Dungeon Master, or DM, dreams up the adventures that the players will go on and creates the world, the backstory of its peoples, creatures, magical lore and legends.
Best of all, no one knows what happens next. Games can last for weeks, even years. The same school year that I discovered role-playing games, my mother suffered a crippling brain aneurysm that left her physically and mentally disabled.
She was unpredictable and behaved strangely. She scared me. I was already a hopeless introvert, and her illness made me feel even more powerless, even more trapped in the maze of adolescence. The game allowed me to escape my fears and navigate a fantasy world as someone else — someone with power and agency.
Then, I stopped for 25 years. Role-playing games had shaped me. They provided a powerful coping mechanism. They had given me powerful tools. They saved me. But I believe fantasy role-playing games have the ability to benefit anyone.
While you can complete some tasks on your own and make individual decisions, most of the story action requires your adventuring party to work together to accomplish quests. Collaboration means recognizing the power of teamwork and diversity. Your team has a range of skills to draw from — spell casting, fighting prowess, healing powers, seductive charm.
Each member plays a part. The same occurs in the real world with your officemates, your family or other groups when you have to finish a project at work, host an elaborate meal, build a startup, or plan a trip.
Each person in the circle contributes. That surging feeling of camaraderie — of being part of something bigger than yourself — is a powerful thing.
Who needs football when you can shoot fireballs from your fingertips? Beyond providing the thrill of victory, these role-playing games also help you solve problems. What could that mean? Your party enters the dungeon under the castle. Or when you walk your dog, you know to bring your smartphone, some treats, and extra poop bags. Back to the dungeon. You discover a long corridor with a strange pattern of tiles on the floor.
Your loveable but blundering dwarf steps on the first tile. You hear a click. Then, you remember that scrap of paper. Could it be a code? Maybe L means left, C is center, R is right? You could disarm the trap; set off the arrows by rolling a large rock down the corridor; bribe a lowly orc to walk in front of you to trigger the trap. The point is, role-playing games teach innovation. They train the mind to solve problems, make unexpected connections, and discover alternative paths through the darkness.
Solving problems also requires perseverance. You must begin at the first — the lowest — level. You have a rusty sword. You cast a spell that makes … pancakes. Have patience. As you gain experience points, you will grow in skill and strength. You do this by taking risks, which lead to reward. Want to leap from the castle wall onto it, and bang the monster on the head with a rock? Go for it. The game lets you take risks and fail in a safe environment.
Sure, your character could be gravely injured or even die if your DM is particularly mean. If you die, a cleric can resurrect you. And you get to try again. Take it from this 17th-level nerd, it gets better — you can and will heal from defeat, setback, embarrassment. Another step in building character is developing empathy and tolerance.
Role-playing creates that intersection. You can choose to be someone like you, or someone not at all like you. But these goblins are children. Because of the game, I can look at everyone — the annoying driver on I, the bossy colleague at work, my sick and broken mother — with just a tad more empathy, compassion and love. Look at this map I drew back in the Reagan Administration:. Focus on it for a moment. Who lives here? What happens next? You must bring your imagination to the table to complete the picture.
Humans used to sit around the fire telling each other stories. But today, most of us settle for being passive consumers of Hollywood narratives made with millions of dollars and thousands of digital animators. Storytelling, it seems, has been taken from us. Fantasy role-playing games return that power of storytelling to us. It made me want to create, to be a storyteller and a world builder.
And to take a leap and imagine a better world. Stories not only connect us; they create hope. You can slay the troll with a single shot, kiss the girl, love your mother. Deep inside each of us is a dungeon with a powerful dragon.
Ethan Gilsdorf is a writer, critic, teacher, performer and nerd. Cristina Daura. About the author Ethan Gilsdorf is a writer, critic, teacher, performer and nerd. TED Talk of the Day. Bernice King, Anthony D. Romero The path to ending systemic racism in the US.
I don't know what I want to do with my life!?! Here's how to change them Business The key to productivity is tapping into your flow state.
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How playing Dungeons & Dragons has helped me be more connected, creative and compassionate
In this mission, who do you want to be? A brave dwarf warrior? A brainy human wizard? A skilled elvish archer? A stealthy hobbit thief?
Share on Facebook Share on Twitter. Amazon UK. Barnes and Noble. Fantasy Grounds. Find a Store. It contains rules for character creation and advancement, backgrounds and skills, exploration and combat, equipment, spells, and much more.
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