Lessons from Applied Games
Recently an article came out in Wired about therapeutic gaming, and since then there's been a lot of focus on people using D&D and TTRPGs within therapeutic contexts. While I am absolutely for people using RPGs therapeutically, I feel like focusing exclusively on the therapists using RPGs ignores the large population of non-therapists using RPGs in their work. As such, I want to discuss some of the ways I've used applied RPGs, and the critical lessons I've learned because of those specific applications to highlight that other areas of applied RPGs can bring a great amount of insight and experience to the field. I hope to some day be on a similar article talking about the larger applied RPG ecosystem and how including greater diversity in applied gaming groups leads to a richer dialogue and community of applied GMs. So with no further ado, here's all the applied RPG groups I've run, and the biggest lesson I've learned from each experience.
Foster Care groups
I started out with Foster Care groups by accident- I was working as a Community Support Specialist in a Foster Care focused agency, helping foster kids get positive time in the community and working to deescalate situations in the home. While I was working here, I started doing randomly generated D&D adventures at my local gaming store, and found out that a lot of the families that were showing up were foster parents. Both the foster parents and foster kids praised me for helping create a wonderful time for their family. After questioning the store owner about it, he revealed that he knew a couple foster parents and told them that I was running foster care friendly games. While this wasn't my intention from the start, it was a hit, and that was the moment when I realized games could be applied for other purposes.
The most important lesson I learned from this was that it's critical to create a shared experience. Finding a space where people can all come together and have a fun adventure is transformational, and one of your biggest tasks as a successful applied GM is to ensure that everyone has not only time in the spotlight, but a way to connect with others through the game.
These groups are therapy adjacent, as they focus on developing social skills, but are more focused on skill development rather than focusing on specific therapeutic goals. I've been running autism groups for about 8 years, and as they've gone on, I've changed them from focusing on developing social skills to focusing on developing autistic friendships. This has resulted in kids not only getting a chance to try out more neurotypical social skills under the guise of role playing, but form long lasting, healthy, unique friendships that, as per the report of the kids, has helped them feel less alone, and more happy because they have genuine friends.
The most critical lesson I learned here was that what happens in the game can be groundwork for work that occurs outside the game, and to be very intentional in how you use that. When running an applied game, it's important to use what little time you have in the game to highlight ways the players can grow outside the game time, and one of the best ways to do that is to build community.
I ran a theater group for a production of She Kills Monsters where, as a cool sort of double feature, the cast would play a game of D&D with me prior to the show, so the audience could see what D&D actually looked like. It was an absolute blast, and I really enjoyed being able to play D&D on stage.
The most important lesson I learned here was that it can be a compelling tool to connect things happening in the environment around the players with the game. In this example, I had parallels of the D&D module in She Kills Monsters in the adventure, and it was a fun way to tie it into the play. While this might not always be appropriate, especially if the environmental tie in is traumatic, if it's something light hearted, it can absolutely bring a fun angle into the game that builds engagement and familiarity.
I helped with a High School January Seminar course on the history of fun, and did a series on D&D and Role Playing as recreation. In my part of the course, I taught kids what RPGs were, how to play them, then gave them free reign to play with their friends. By the end of it, there were three tables playing their own campaigns. The campaign I sat in on was a rather stereotypical but fun Jungle Temple crawl that was killing off party members one by one to find the sole survivor who would get the magic amulet. Another table had a pretty plot heavy story about vampires attacking a castle. And another table, all girls, had a soap opera where someone's husband had gotten her best friend pregnant that ended up in a rooftop scene atop a skyscraper where they were pushing each other off and stabbing each other. Absolutely wild.
The lesson learned here was that kids will always go in directions you don't expect, and to embrace that, because they can probably tell more interesting stories than you can.
I consulted on and beta tested an edu-RPG that taught marine science. It was a fun, modern adventure that used a story about finding Amelia Earhart's plane to teach things like how underwater subs work, marine trophic levels, etc. While the concept was cool, when asked about what was learned, the kids were able to say very little. However, they did report walking away with a renewed interest in marine biology.
The lesson I learned here was that edu-RPGs need to be very intentionally designed and played to build subject matter knowledge. Furthermore, this one utilized dice and skills, which seemed like an unnecessary artifact from D&D, so when designing any educational RPG, start by throwing D&D out the window, and look at what will actually teach the skills, then add things on top of that for the fun aspect.
I am not a therapist, but I worked with a colleague who is one while working at a family behavioral health provider as a care coordinator. I was effectively the case manager for a family that was struggling with interpersonal issues, but they were very interested in playing D&D. The therapist didn't know how to play D&D very well, but she was able to play a PC, and by including her at the table, we were able to run a very successful therapeutic intervention with this family, with her stepping in to provide therapeutic work as needed, and collaborating with me extensively outside of the game.
The big lesson here was that, if you are not a therapist, running therapeutic D&D right needs to have the therapist at the table, playing a PC to be effective. She was able to, both in character and as her role as a therapist, step in at key moments and do key therapeutic work. It also benefited from the fact that I was heavily involved with the case, and we would spend as long as an hour a week staffing this family. That being said, our collaboration here was wildly successful, and I feel that it could be a good model for future collaborations in a similar family behavioral health model.
Disability focused groups
Most of the groups here have some explicit goal- ranging from teaching an audience of a play what D&D actually looks like, to teaching marine biology. This group broke from that, focusing exclusively on being an accessible game of D&D for young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities who would normally not be able to play at a typical table. Instead of having an end goal separate from just enjoying D&D, the end goal here was to ensure the kids were enjoying themselves through accommodations. This was far more challenging than any group I had run in the past, as I had to really work around a lot of the inaccessible aspects of D&D, while also rethinking the structure of the gameplay to avoid confusing, respect player fatigue, and make the gaming space accessible to people with a variety of abilities.
I think the biggest lesson I learned here was to focus on your relationship with the player to be able to support them. One of the biggest reasons this group was successful was one of the co-facilitators had good relationships with most of them, and they trusted him enough to communicate their needs to him.
I think the core message here is that there is a whole diverse ecosystem of applied RPGs beyond the therapeutic RPG world, and each can highlight really important skills, truths, and insights about the field. By highlighting and centering the voices of a greater audience of GMs, we make the field better for everyone.