Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is often seen as a game for male, antisocial loners looking to escape from the relationships and challenges of their lives. At best, players are seen as nerdy cowards indulging their social awkwardness with complex, esoteric rules. At worst, moral panics have caricatured players as suicidal, murderous, or even irreligious Satanists.
Today, most dismiss the game as a trivial niche activity—an odd, unfashionable relic from the ’80s and ’90s. Few argue the game is a popular and powerful cultural force which shapes relationships and lives in modern America. Which is strange. Because the game is beloved, and multiple studies suggest the game acts as a kind of communal therapy.
A player of Dungeons and Dragons enjoys a popular and pragmatic storytelling pastime.
D&D by Raw Numbers
Despite the myths, Dungeons and Dragons is an exceptionally popular game among men and women alike. In 2017, according to the publishers of the game, Wizards of the Coast, nearly 40% of D&D players were women, and at least 8.6 million Americans played D&D. That means nearly 1 in 20 Americans played the game. In other words, about 2.5 times more people played D&D in 2017 than there were Muslims in America in 2017. More people played D&D in America in 2017 than there were Jews living in America in 2015.
If playing D&D were a sign of membership in a religious community, this would make D&D players the most popular “non-christian” and “affiliated” religious group in America according to Pew Research Center. Which means that any American that knows or knows of someone who is Buddhist, Jewish, or Muslim likely knows multiple women and men who have played D&D.
Anything But Niche
The game isn’t just popular in one cultural enclave, it has wide appeal for many audiences. The plot of Stranger Things, 2018’s most popular streaming show in the world, revolves around D&D. In 2017, at least 9 million people watched others play D&D on Twitch live streams. In 2019, Critical Role, the world’s most popular D&D live role-playing show, launched a Kickstarter to raise funds to convert their previous D&D sessions into a professionally animated TV special. After raising $11.3 million in 45 days, Critical Role’s Kickstarter now holds the record for the most highly-funded TV or film project on the website.
Given the number of eyeballs and amount of cash involved with D&D, it’s no wonder that there are multiple theater companies regularly performing improvised D&D across America. Some even make careers as professional Dungeon Masters. Others run successful “AirDnDs” as 8-hour performance art experiences for sale on AirBnB. Even prisoners and celebrities enjoy D&D. While prisoners make dice out of paper, soap, and cardboard to play the game in jail, celebrities with a love for the game include figures as varied as NBA legend Tim Duncan, late-night show host Stephen Colbert, actress Felicia Day, and director of Rick and Morty, Dan Harmon. Even scholars can’t ignore D&D. Multiple articles, empirical studies, and manuscripts examine its effect on the real-world character of players. D&D has become so mainstream that even Forbes has a think piece on how it teaches leadership skills.
So much for the game’s supposed niche status. And what of the myth that the game negatively changes the lives and moral character of its players?
Not Pure Escapism
Dungeons and Dragons can change the real world conduct and character of its players, despite critics and defensive enthusiasts’ claims that it’s nothing more than escapist fantasy entertainment. On the contrary, there’s evidence suggesting that tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs), such as D&D, can have positive effects on players.
For example, some studies argue that D&D can aid players’ moral development, combat depression, and reduce the likelihood of suicide among players. Today, the game is regularly put to practical and therapeutic use by youth groups, educators, and psychologists. Groups like Game to Grow, Aspiring Youth, Autism Nova Scotia, and the Bodhana Group use D&D to help kids and teens develop social skills and emotional intelligence. On a more individual basis, some therapists now employ it in their private practices. And, those who desire to become a “professional game master for at-risk youth” can receive training in a certification course.
While the reasons for the game’s positive effects remains a subject of scientific debate, the evidence is clearly weighted against the myths. Dungeons and Dragons can have positive effects on players’ real-world character and social skills. Claims that the game is pure escapism or a breeding ground for antisocial behavior have little to no empirical support. Both assertions are the questionable legacy of the moral panics and media circuses of the ’80s and ’90s.
Both are wrong. But, if D&D can change the real world conduct of players, why does it usually do so for the better (and not for the worse)?
A Popular and Pragmatic Form of Communal Therapy
We think D&D has been, is now, and will likely become ever more popular, in large part, because the game functions as a kind of communal therapy that challenges players to improve their real-world character, emotional intelligence, social skills, and relationships.
So, what is Dungeons and Dragons and how is it like communal therapy?
D&D is a type of tabletop role-playing game (TRPG) in which a group of around 4 players cooperate with each other to tell a story shaped by the “Dungeon Master.”
“Players” usually do one or more of three things: explore, fight, or socialize. They might chat with bar patrons, try to seduce a king, kill a gang of goblins, reunite with long lost family, fight literal inner demons, or look for forgotten secrets in ancient ruins. Each player is a hybrid of an actor, improviser, and protagonist in the game’s story.
The Dungeon Master (DM) comes up with scenarios and scenes for the players to encounter. They personify the universe and its non-player inhabitants through narration and calculated dice rolls. They design fantastical settings, dramatic hooks, and challenging encounters. The DM is a hybrid of a playwright, author, director, sound designer, manager, game designer, and visual artist.
Like a Collective Lucid Dream
Game sessions are akin to a collectively shared lucid dream for both the players and the DM. While the DM can provide maps of the villages, cities, and continents that players will visit, most of the game takes place in the theater of the mind—as if in a dream. Typically, a DM will describe the situation and characters that players face, and then the oneiric adventure begins. For example:
“You find before you a sprawling city set atop a spiraling mountain. At the mountain’s peak, you see a colossal lighthouse. The city’s walls look at least 50ft tall and are decorated with statues of fallen foes. A few guardsmen patrolling the perimeter spot your heavily armed party and gallop towards you with lances drawn. Before you stands the world’s capital, Vigil. As the guards near you, they slow to a trot, but keep their weapons ready. What do you do?”
Each moment is as immersive as the mixture between a DM’s descriptions and the players’ imaginations. Each scene gives way to the next with the ease of a transition in a dream. One rarely, if ever, notices the scenes changing in a dream, even from one fantastical moment to the next, and the same is true in most game sessions. Unlike a normal dream, however, the game experience is consciously controlled and shared between the players.
Before the player can enter the dream, they must first create their avatar. A character can have as detailed a backstory and series of relationships as its creator wishes. When creating their character—his or her virtues, vices, and backstory—it is inevitable that a player will draw from their own values, aspirations, and past experiences.
It’s a proverb among DMs that players, especially new ones, often create characters that are idealized versions of themselves. Regardless of whether or not players draw on their experiences intentionally, their characters usually mix parts of themselves—who they do and don’t wish to become. For example, the scrawny can play as mighty goliaths. A professional whose career depends upon their ability to assess risk could play a pious paladin who never second-guesses their righteous cause. The highly principled—whether secular or religious—can play as skilled but morally dubious, even downright evil characters. There are, however, practical in-game and real-world constraints on the type of characters players can create.
D&D’s Mechanics Encourage Cooperation
D&D is designed to be played cooperatively. The game’s mechanics all but require players to create characters who excel at teamwork, even if they wish to play as evil individuals. All players and their characters must work together if they wish to survive and thrive in the Dungeon Master’s purposefully perilous world. The person that fights alone, dies alone.
The foes that players can face in D&D are designated power levels by the game’s rulebooks that are roughly equivalent not to a single character, but to a party of four. By design, D&D’s most powerful monsters must be faced as a team, or death is certain. Even basic monsters have abilities that can incapacitate player-characters. Fights often go something like this:
“The rogue, the mage, and the paladin face off against a braineater, an aberrational being with mind-bending abilities and psychic powers. Its first move is to enslave the rogue who lacks the mental discipline to resist its psychic attacks. The paladin uses his turn to protect the mage from the rogue who now stands against them, while the mage casts his most powerful spells against the braineater. It falls, dead; the paladin and mage have saved their sneaky friend.”
This story is characteristic of many combat encounters, but the same principles apply when players are exploring or negotiating tricky social situations.
Characters of different classes are designed to support each other in D&D. They reinforce the basic pro-social requirements for compromise in the game. Classes are usually a kind of archetype: a sneaky rogue, an oath-driven paladin, a pedantic wizard, a burly fighter, a charismatic bard, and so on. Each class provides unique abilities that the party as a whole can benefit from. A loud-mouthed fighter will struggle to beguile the local politician, but the charming bard will easily enchant him with her dulcet tunes. The bookish wizard would get lost in the woods without the help of a friendly survivalist ranger. A delicate rogue won’t last long on the frontlines without the healing spells of a cleric. Because no single class excels at all tasks, the game design demands that players cooperate in order to stay alive or achieve complicated tasks.
How Probability, Lengthiness, and Repetition Reward Collaboration
Fortune favors players who can work together. To determine whether players succeed or fail at whatever they attempt to, they must roll a 20-sided dice. The more difficult the task, the higher the roll necessary to succeed as determined by the DM. A rogue can more easily pickpocket a drunken fool than a seated queen watched by her loyal retainers. A sorcerer trying to convince the mayor of a conspiracy to smuggle magic into the local baker’s biscuits will have a harder time if he has previously appeared like a hypocritical lunatic with a grudge against magic. It would be much easier to imprison the enemy hobgoblin warlord if the bard first turned him into a harmless chicken, and so on.
Regardless of the task, players of different classes working together have more chances at success and better odds at succeeding. Much like in real life, a competent and united team with complementary skills will accomplish almost any goal more efficiently than a single determined individual. A character that cannot work well in a team, therefore, will have a hard time fitting in with the game’s mechanics, much less with the other players.
The time commitment of playing D&D regularly also necessitates collaboration and cooperative play. Each play session can last anywhere from 2-8 hours and can be played as often as desired. Even with infrequent sessions, these hours add up quickly. What may be one player’s odd habit, running gag, or penchant for ruining the team’s plans can easily become frustrating over the long run. In short, a character whose player constantly irritates and annoys isn’t viable. This isn’t just because of D&D’s game mechanics; nobody will want to play with them.
The game’s lengthy, repeated, and cooperative structure enforces a kind of baseline pro-social morality within which players and their characters flourish or fail. Only team players can reliably succeed. Players can’t hope to repeatedly compete with each other, or the DM, without threatening the game’s social fabric. These practical constraints hit even harder on a player role-playing as an evil or chaotic character. Players who set themselves up as unpredictable liabilities or consistent antagonists will eventually find the other players and the DM treating them as such.
Managing a Cooperative Dream
While the DM creates challenges for the players and role-plays the antagonists they contend with, they must also cooperate with the players when telling the story. If not, they risk waking up the players from the dream of the game. Consider this play scenario:
“The dwarf, the elf, and the human have just uncovered a lost relic from the ancient crypts of Nos-Fura, the necropolis of Dwarven queens. They depart from the central sanctum. Suddenly, the party finds themselves facing an army of bugbears as they turn the corner. The entrance collapses behind them. They have no escape. There is no hope of victory. They die. The end.”
A DM could, at any point, end the game by presenting players with a situation they can’t survive. But a DM isn’t trying to “win” or trick the players. A good DM “wins” only by weaving alongside the players a dramatic but plausible lucid dream. Even more so than the players, the DM has to cooperate with everyone else at the table in order to keep the dream going.
The Dungeon Master is in practice as much a player as the players themselves. But, they aren’t just one character. They role-play every other character that the players themselves aren’t. Jovial bakers, scheming tricksters, just kings, broken warriors, vengeful spirits and so on. While the players delve deeply into the mind of a single character, the Dungeon Masters explore the full range of human motivation and morality.
The most skilled DM’s are masters of many masks and keen psychologists who know how to create legions of credible and dangerous foes who oppose the player characters’ goals and morality. In short, a skillful DM develops a psychology or philosophy of good and evil in order to create compelling antagonists and thematic universes for their players to contend with. Precisely because the responsibilities for the DM are so much greater than those of the players, they have even more opportunities to improve their real-world character, emotional intelligence, social skills, and relationships.
A DM has more competing personalities to manage than a player does. They have to manage themselves, the characters they role-play, the players, and the characters that the players role-play. That’s a machine with many moving parts. Miscommunication is common in gameplay, so an excellent DM is an excellent communicator. Their job is subtle and complex. They need to notice what engages each player to more consistently deliver fun for the group. They need to read body-language. They need to communicate their decision-making with impartial clarity. And, most of all, they need to improvise. Constantly. It’s a proverb among DMs that players always do exactly what they didn’t expect. That’s why there’s a matching proverb that an excellent DM is rare. Someone looking to sharpen their social skills would likely find themselves even more rewarded as a Dungeon Master than as a player.
Zhuangzi the Butterfly: How the Dream Can Change Players
A famous anecdote from Daoist philosophy suggests why D&D often functions like a form of communal therapy. The parable goes roughly like this: One night, Zhuangzi has a dream where he lives as a butterfly. After he wakes up the next day, he asks his disciples, “Am I a man dreaming I was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I was a man?”
Players and DMs are like Zhuangzhi dreaming of himself as a butterfly.
Gameplay often requires players to dream for frequent, multiple hour-long sessions. Are they a player of D&D role-playing a highly-skilled individual, or a highly-skilled individual role-playing a player of D&D? We know based on empirical studies and countless anecdotes that players and DMs can and often do become more like the talented butterflies in their shared reveries. Social skills can be learned through dreamlike gameplay.
Modern researchers of RPG’s sometimes call this idea bleed. Experiences lived and emotions felt by player-characters can “bleed” over into players’ identities and vice versa. Bleed, by its definition, can be a positive and negative force. Theoretically, a player could role-play a “good” character and be inspired by their benevolence. Instead, they could role-play an “evil” character and find themselves enjoying mischief for its own sake. The fear that players might lose themselves in the dream of the game, and confuse themselves for suicidal and murderous butterflies, is precisely why the moral panics about D&D had such lasting legacies.
Dispelling the Misleading Myths About Bleed
The popular fear that the game might change players into antisocial butterflies is responsible for many of the misleading myths about Dungeons and Dragons. The game’s defenders usually reply in one of two ways. Either (1) they argue the game is pure escapism which cannot modify a player’s real-world character. Or (2) they argue bleed can change players for the better. Neither of these responses answers popular fears. The escapist defense must deny the obvious and overwhelming evidence which proves it false. While the bleed defense usually just implies the benefits of gameplay outweigh the risks—without proving why there are little to no risks to begin with. Neither response is compelling. If the game can change the character and social skills of its players, why is it improving them rather than turning them into satanist butterflies?
There’s no mystery why someone role-playing a good character might improve their character and social skills in the real world. This idea is fundamental to most religious traditions; if you emulate the behavior of an exemplar, say Jesus, Buddha, or Muhammad, then you will more properly navigate the social universe. So, no wonder a player or DM acting as a heroic butterfly for tens, hundreds, and potentially thousands of hours will learn at least a few virtues through the dream of the game.
But, what about someone role-playing an “evil” character? Players can explicitly choose to play as “evil” characters, and DMs play as them regularly. Why wouldn’t players and DMs develop real-world vices? If “good” social skills can bleed onto players, why can’t “evil” ones? How and why does the evidence suggest D&D consistently functions like communal therapy rather than a boot camp for killers?
Some games are competitive, some are cooperative, and some are both. D&D, however, is fundamentally a cooperative game. The game punishes those who can’t or won’t work together with-in game and real-world consequences. Loners looking to rage against humanity will quickly find themselves opposed by the game’s design. They will also find themselves excluded by other players. D&D requires you to play a skilled team player whether you play a good or evil character. The game doesn’t work as an escape valve for antisocial impulses. An individual’s desire for pure escapism and wish fulfillment is ultimately incompatible with a long-term, role-playing cooperative game like D&D.
Cooperative Role-playing Games Mimic Moral Training Grounds
The fear players might become “evil” through D&D role-play of evil is ultimately unfounded. For players, a viable evil character has to be open to compromise and teamplay. For DMs, a viable evil character has to behave in a way that doesn’t violate the social contract of the game.
Cooperative role-playing games place considerable moral constraints upon their players. Players and DMs end up penalized by the game mechanics and each other if they allow the vices of their evil character to bleed onto them. But at the same time, cooperative role-playing games reward players and DMs for moral development. The game mechanics and social dynamics reward those who adopt whatever positive virtues their evil or good characters might possess. D&D is a rare thing, fun that can sneakily mold you into a better person. Repeat players usually become more like wise and courageous heroes even when they role-play evil characters because of the cooperative nature of D&D.
The cooperative nature of the dream of the game is why D&D can function like communal therapy. The gameplay mechanics, time commitments, and social pressures all but ensure players and DMs will leave gameplay more emotionally intelligent than emotionally deranged. Creating an engaging story together on a recurring basis requires players and Dungeon Masters to improve their social skills. Teamwork, relationships, and friendships are forged through this virtuous feedback loop. Playing as exceptionally skilled characters often inspires players to improve their real-world character and social skills.
Despite the myths, D&D is neither a flight from reality nor a game for masculine loners and killers. It’s a popular and pragmatic opportunity for men and women to reimagine who they could be in a shared, dreamlike safe space. Everyone can learn from the skills of heroes and villains in D&D—even if they don’t intentionally seek this in gameplay. If you’re looking to have a great time with friends, or even improve your character, you could do far worse than playing Dungeons and Dragons.
(Featured image: Cliff Bustrillos/Unsplash)
Malek Samman is a data analyst by day and a dungeon master by night. His B.S. in Industrial Engineering from Northwestern University helped him realize he could learn leadership skills through playing and administrating TRPGs.
He has performed as a dungeon master in front of live audiences in Chicago’s Out on a Whim Improvised D&D theatre troupe. He has worked diligently to incorporate values and practices he’s learned from TRPGs into his personal and corporate life, excluding the scheming and plotting of others’ doom.
Christopher Porzenheim is a writer. He is interested in the legacy of Greco-Roman and Classical Chinese philosophy, in particular, how Ralph Waldo Emerson combined Stoicism and Confucianism to create his philosophy of Self-Reliance—with which he supported the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.
When in doubt, Chris usually opens up a copy of the Confucian Analects or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for guidance.