One question I've gotten a lot is “How do I do what you're doing?” and it's making me realize I should have written a post about this question a long time ago, as I feel that the core of the question is 'How can I use D&D/RPGs for good?'

If you want to do D&D/RPG groups in a way that helps people, there are several pathways, ultimately come down to the following question: What do you want to do, exactly? What population/individuals do you want to work with? What is the focus? What tools, funds, and expertise do you have at your disposal? How are you going to determine logistics and support? What drives you to do it, and what challenges are you equipped to overcome?

I've seen six types of group crop up that accomplish the goal of using D&D/RPG in a way that builds good, but they're all very different paths, and given the significant differences, I want to outline them in detail for budding DMs to get a sense for what their options are. They are as follows: The social skills agency, the RPG specific agency, the school club, the therapeutic group, the community group, and the individual centered/family group.

The Social Skills Agency

Examples:

Aspiring Youth, Game to Grow

Overview:

This is the type of group I run. I was hired by an agency that focuses on building social skills agnostic of diagnosis using all manner of methods, ranging from rock climbing to tabletop gaming. Our agency reaches out to various mental health providers, schools, and community organizations to recruit youth with social skills needs (very often ASD) into our groups so they can learn things like teamwork and communication skills.

Qualifications:

Our agency doesn't officially have qualifications, however with the exception of my co-DM who is a former student and unique case due to her expertise in these groups, most of our social skills group facilitators have a master's degree in a mental health related field, have a lot of experience working with kids, and have extensive experience with their group's focus. To outline what is meant by expertise, before I was hired, I worked with foster kids and ran one shots that became popular with local foster parents, who would have their autistic foster kids attend my one shots, which proved to be invaluable experience for me getting started.

How to create the groups:

I was lucky in that these groups already existed, however any organization that focuses on building social skills is likely to be amenable to using tabletop gaming as a theme for their group, and once that is on the table, assuming you can get head count, you're good to go.

What this looks like:

Students meet once a week for a few hours to play D&D in a rented space or agency office. There should be at least two facilitators, one to run the game, and one to monitor behaviors, with each kid having a specific list of behaviors or goals that they should work towards that should be manifested in the game, (I/e student should work on building teamwork, student should learn to listen to others and be aware of their inappropriate comments, student should be able to be in a group with peers without violating personal boundaries or shouting, etc.)

Benefits:

Working with an agency means a lot of the groundwork already exists, so most of the recruiting, paperwork, and financial side of things are handled by the agency, freeing you to focus on the social skills goals and GM side of things. Also, these tend to be paid positions.

Drawbacks:

You have less control over the students who show up with the group, and you are expected to act as a social skills coach, which isn't a bad thing, but if you are hoping to do more in depth therapeutic work, this may not be for you. Also, it can be hard to find agencies that do this type of work- I was recommended to this position by a friend, but I otherwise would not have been aware of it. There's also the expectation that you have a very strong understanding of how to build social skills and the various mental health diagnoses that often require social skills development groups (mostly autistic individuals.)

Summary:

Working for an agency that builds social skills is a great way to help kids learn social skills through role playing games, and gives you a lot of freedom to focus on the gaming side of things, but requires a strong mental health background and experience building social skills through gaming.

The RPG Specific Agency

Examples: Game to Grow, several others

Overview: This is an agency that focuses specifically on using RPGs to build social skills. Using one modality to build social skills or other therapeutic goals is a huge risk, as it's a very limited market, but it gives you a better chance to focus exclusively on building RPG specific content and become a big name in the field, as Game to Grow founders Adam Davis and Adam Johns have done. There are other groups doing this type of work, but given my close familiarity with Game to Grow, I'll focus on what I've seen that has made them successful.

Qualifications: Master's degree in a mental health related field, if not higher, as well as extensive experience with role playing games, drama therapy, and similar areas. Also, very strong self promoting skills, as it's such a niche field that you need to be able to recruit students across a lot of different venues.

How to create the groups:

Similar to what the more generic social skills groups do, but you're working with a much more narrow field, so the need for networking, outreach, and PR becomes paramount.

What this looks like:

Similar to the social skills groups, but the agency only offers role playing (or similar geeky ventures) groups. They meet in an office or community setting once a week, and provide social skills coaching using RPGs only. In the case of Game to Grow, they also contribute heavily to promoting RPGs as a valid model for social skills coaching, and are developing their own RPG system called Critical Core.

Benefits:

If you are looking at starting your own RPG specific agency, there's a lot of potential for for success, and you get to exclusively work with RPGs as a medium, which also opens a lot of cool opportunities to promote your work through panels, podcasts, interviews, etc. Furthermore, given that the agency is built around RPGs, the group mechanics are more fine tuned towards successfully running RPGs, as opposed to more general social skills agencies that may use a more generalized approach and result in larger, more unstructured groups.

Drawbacks:

Given that it's a niche market, it's a gamble. There have been agencies that have tried this and gone under. Being transparent, supporting others in the field, and building a good reputation are paramount, but given that in certain geographic areas, role playing games aren't as popular, it can be a very risky venture. Furthermore, having to handle the business side of building an agency presents its own set of challenges.

Summary:

Building a RPG specific agency gives you the focus of utilizing RPGs as the focus of your work, and if successful can result in a highly successful agency that is geared towards the utilization of RPGs for developing specific goals. However, it's a gamble that may not be successful.

The School Group

Examples: Ethan Schoonover's D&D girl's club

Overview:

Building a D&D group for students presents it's own challenges, but is a great way to incorporate D&D into your role as an educator by forming an after school club. As the after school club model is well established, the barrier to entry is fairly low, although it generally requires that you work as an educator, and your players are going to be students at the school you work at.

Qualifications:

Obviously, you need to be an educator, or at least heavily involved with the school, as most schools frown on outsiders working with students. However, if you are a teacher and have the bandwidth to run a club, given that you have access to a whole student body, it's generally not difficult to find a handful of students interested in playing D&D with their peers.

How to create the groups:

Different schools have different rules for setting up after school clubs, but what it comes down to is confirming head count, pitching the idea, getting approval, and then running the group in the context of an after school club.

What this looks like:

A D&D club likely looks like any other after school club, and is likely appropriate for middle or high schoolers. Chances are most of the students are already invested in D&D, and as such the focus is just building in school community, generalizable skills, and perhaps specific academic skills (I/e a history teacher may run a campaign set in ancient Babylonia, a physics teacher may have a lot of math dungeons, etc.) As the group grows, the teacher's role may shift from being the DM to teaching other students how to DM.

Benefits:

It's fairly easy to set up, as clubs are a staple of many schools, and it's not difficult to find a handful of students interested in staying a few hours after school to play D&D with their friends.

Drawbacks:

It may be difficult to pitch, as there are many school administrators who may still feel that Dungeons and Dragons is occult. Also, there may be logistic challenges related to running an after school club, but those are going to be similar to any teacher wanting to set up an after school group. Also, obviously, if you're not an educator, this isn't really an option.

Summary:

If you're a teacher, running a D&D club can be a great way to help introduce a new generation to RPGs, and teach them the variety of skills that the game has to offer. However, you face the same benefits and limitations that any teacher running an after school club faces.

The Therapeutic Group

Examples: Multiple, across different specialties, populations, and areas

Overview: The term 'D&D therapy' has come into vogue when describing many applied RPG groups, but this is what it actually means to do D&D therapy- It's a therapeutically oriented group run by a licensed mental health provider using D&D as a way to provide therapy. This type of group needs to be run by a licensed mental health provider, and uses the game to provide directed therapeutic work.

Qualifications:

Mental health licensure. Also, a strong background in RPGs and a good understanding of how to apply RPGs as a therapeutic tool with the specific population you are working with. Furthermore, if you are working with a mental health agency, it helps to have the support of your superiors to provide logistical support and funding.

How to create the groups:

I've been approached by a number of mental health practitioners seeking advice on how to pitch this, and from what I've gathered, the best pitches include plenty of research, very clear goals that are very precise in how the gameplay contributes to the therapeutic need of the clients, and a very clear outline of the logistical details of these groups. Furthermore, if you are working for a mental health agency, they need to have group therapy coding to be able to bill for it, and the ability and focus towards providing group therapy.

What this looks like:

This is based on the type of therapy being provided. A D&D therapy group aimed at providing a type of drama therapy to domestic violence survivors is going to look very different than a group being provided through the VA specializing in helping build tools for coping with PTSD. At their core, they are therapeutic groups, but D&D is the tool they are using to reach those therapeutic goals.

Benefits:

Being able to provide therapy using D&D is an amazing opportunity to utilize your passion for gaming in your work, and RPGs can be incredibly effective therapeutic tools. Furthermore, if you are interested in doing case studies, there is a huge need for more research on the efficacy of D&D as a therapeutic tool. (Hint hint, PhD friends.)

Drawbacks:

Obviously you need to be a mental health professional to be providing therapy. And if you are not, DO NOT DO TRY TO PROVIDE THERAPY TO PEOPLE USING D&D. Despite there being a huge mental health crisis and therapeutic resources being harder and harder to get, if you don't know what you're doing, providing a therapy to people without proper training is akin to trying to do surgery without a medical degree. You may get lucky and things may turn out well, but there's a very good chance that your friendship with that person will end once you've finished working with them, and if things don't turn out well, it'll make things worse.

Summary:

RPG therapy is a blossoming area in the therapeutic profession, but it is at it's core a form of group therapy that should be provided by a licensed mental health professional.

The Community Group

Examples:

Library of Alexandria

Overview:

RPGs offer a huge variety of benefits to players, including friendship building, teamwork, fun, and problem solving skills. A talented DM can create a campaign that enriches the lives of their players for years even after the game is over, and inspire them to start groups of their own to help others explore the benefits of RPGs. Community groups run RPGs in community settings such as homeless shelters, libraries, prisons, and community centers.

Qualifications:

Be genuinely invested in and knowledgeable of the group you are working with, and have a good understanding of the game and strong GM skills as your players may require a lot of flexibility.

How to create the groups:

This varies greatly, although in the case of the Library of Alexandria, a nonprofit library of RPG books, the head librarian would approach community centers and offer to run D&D games. For those that said yes, he would find players, and run the games for as long as they went, introducing the players to D&D and giving them a chance to enjoy a good gaming experience. Generally, in approaching a community center, you will be expected to provide everything for the game, and be able to pitch why your games are a good thing to have at that location.

What this looks like:

This varies, but based on one account I heard, the DM approached a homeless shelter and was able to get enough players to run a weekly one shot. The players, who were dealing with a huge amount of stress, enjoyed a chance to just sit around and play a game for a few hours, and it was successful in inspiring one man to find steady housing so he could play games at his own home. There are countless potential applications of this across any number of community settings, and an ever growing need.

Benefits:

You get to give back to the community using an amazing game. There's no shortage of opportunity, and the barriers to entry are low- you don't need a degree in social sciences to do this, just skill as a DM, passion for helping those in your community, and extra dice and rule books. And even without having a therapy background, a good RPG campaign can change someone's life.

Drawbacks:

This is volunteer work. You're likely going to be paying for this out of pocket, unless you can get some grants or donations. Also, depending on what setting you're working in, there may be a lot of curveballs thrown at you, ranging from unexpected player absences to escalations- there's no safety net in the form of having player background, etc.

Summary: Doing community oriented RPG work offers a great opportunity to introduce those in need in your community to a wonderful experience that can enrich and ultimately change their lives for the better, but unlike most of the professionally oriented D&D groups, it is volunteer work that also requires a serious commitment and understanding of the population you're working with.

Individual centered group/Family group

Examples:

Countless, but often an older relative helping a youth connect with their family and friends through RPGs.

Overview: Nearly everyone has a relative who has been significantly impacted by a mental health diagnosis, or has special needs. In some cases, these needs can be addressed through playing RPGs with supportive family members- Not in a therapeutic sense, but in a way that builds family togetherness and helps the individual feel supported.

Qualifications:

Being invested in helping this person do something they enjoy and something that brings them together with family and loved ones is the single most important thing here. In most of the cases I've heard, it's been an uncle, parent, or close family friend working with a youth and their friends, parents, and/or siblings to run a game. If the youth has a mental health diagnosis, it's important to be aware of it and what their needs are as far as the game goes, but ultimately the goal should be building a positive shared experience for the individual and their family/friends.

How to create the groups:

This is entirely dependent on the context. One person I know who is doing this is the cool uncle, so he's able to come over and set up games as he pleases. Another cases the parents were relatively resistant and not initially supportive of the idea of their child playing role playing games. The most important piece here is to be earnest and genuinely invested in the individual and family you want to game with- and with the approach that you simply have a passion for the game and want to play it with them, that often does wonders.

What this looks like:

Again, context specific, but in the case I mentioned earlier, the cool uncle came over and asked his nephew if he and a few of his friends would be interested in playing D&D along with their dad. The youth, being comfortable with his uncle's frequent presence in the home, loved the idea and invited his friends over for regular game. He later communicated that the game taught him how to be patient with himself and his mental health struggles, and was a huge positive force in his life.

Benefits:

You get to help loved ones by playing a game with them.

Drawbacks:

These are entirely contextual.

Summary:

RPGs have tremendous potential to be a positive force in the lives of those playing them, and this potential can be harnessed by a dedicated DM to help a loved one in need, not through therapeutic means but teaching them the plethora of skills that RPGs offer while also making them feel loved and valued through spending quality time with them and their family and friends.

This completes my list of the different types of applied uses of RPGs I've seen used effectively. There's undoubtedly other amazing implementations (I personally would like to see more targeted academic groups, I/e an adult learner Spanish language group), but based on what I've seen in the wild, most successful implementations match what's listed. If you have further thoughts or questions, please feel free to reach out to me on twitter, at @rollforkindness. Thanks for reading!