2003- Shared Storytelling- Persinger, James D.

by Victoria Jesswein published 2022/11/12 09:28:27 GMT-7, last modified 2022-11-12T09:28:27-07:00
Shared Storytelling: Utilizing Role-Playing Games In Social Skills Assessment and Intervention © 2003 James D. Persinger, Ph.D.

Shared Storytelling:
Utilizing Role-Playing Games In Social Skills Assessment and Intervention

© 2003 James D. Persinger, Ph.D.

Emporia State University



  • Problem:Assessment of the social domain = Standardized Rating Scales
  • Interviews and observations may better connect to practical intervention.
  • Role-playing games (RPGs) have the qualities of both interview and observation
  • RPGs not only serve as assessment tools, but as a powerful intervention tool for practicing social skills.

The presentation will include

–Characteristics of RPGs

–RPGs as recreation, and as therapeutic technique

–Review of studies of RPGs across educational/therapeutic contexts

–14 tips for productively facilitating RPGs in schools

–Answers to 5 practical questions commonly asked

–A discussion of resources for these games and materials, many available free

–A list of social skills curricula easily integrated into RPGs


History of Role-Playing Games (RPGs) As Recreation

  • 30 years ago, two hobbyists named Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson regularly gathered with friends to reconstruct historical battles using lead miniatures, a diversion commonly called wargaming.
  • Over time their historical simulations became increasingly fictional, and began to include an element of fantasy involving wizards and heroes, magic and monsters.
  • Their games evolved past a focus on battle as players realized that intrigue and diplomacy were crucial to winning, with this placing the focus on theindividual player character(e.g, the king or knight) rather than the anonymous military unit.
  • The two began immersing themselves in therole of their characters, and the interactions they engaged in, and created guidelines to help explain the parameters of their new game to others.
  • A system by which additional abilities were attained via experience was added, and Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was born.
  • Being marketed as a game of imagination, the way in which a player wins is to enjoy the social interaction of the role-play.


Characteristics of D&D/RPG’s

  • Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) refers to a specific game, now published by Wizards of the Coast (Hasbro).D&D is often used as a generic term for any role-playing game (RPG) based in the fantasy genre (i.e., an FRPG).
  • There are hundreds of RPGs and FRPGson the market, spanning every historical (whether fictional or not) time period, and literature genre
  • Because D&D had such a basic and generic structure it was readily imitated:by 1989, by one account (Stackpole, 1989a) there were over 300 RPG’s in existence, not counting computer versions.
  • These games, most still available, span virtually all genres and settings, including medieval, American 1960’s, cold-war espionage, wild west, Sherlock Holmes style mysteries, post-nuclear, vampires, science fiction, superheroes, new age, and uncounted more.


Characteristics of D&D/RPG’s

  • The emphasis is on the interaction of players, usually setting out to delve into some form of “dungeon” in which they encounter challenges and “monsters” and obtaining “treasure.”

–The loot, whether monetary units, weapons, technology or magic, usually provides some kind of enhancement to the players’ characters.

  • There are no limitations on timesince RPGs are not single experience contests but ongoing adventures or campaigns traversing from one episode to another. In theory, a single game could last an actual lifetime.
  • Players improvise their parts, with the gamemaster (GM) or dungeon master (DM) defining the game universe and keeping an internal logic to the workings of the world.He is referee, narrator, actor in a supporting role, etc…
  • The fictional background of the world need not be historically valid(cf. Dayan, 1986) but must be relatively convincing in that the details remain consistent, and shared assumptions should be consistently validated.

–As Dayan puts it, “there must be a logic to the shared madness” (p. 1222).


Characteristics of D&D/RPG’s –The Non Play Character

  • Non-Player Characters (NPCs) are any individual in the game who iscontrolled by the GM rather than the players.

–Rogg, a dwarf who owns an inn which the players sometimes frequent.

–The term includes non-humans such as Fang, a pet wolf who is companion to Isaac the Brave.  He is given orders (e.g., “attack that goblin!”) by Isaac, and the GM then role-plays Fang’s responses (e.g., “Fang leaps on the goblin and delivers a swift series of bites!  The goblin shrieks, “curses upon you!” and flees.”).

–The term includes monsters as well, e.g., the actions of the goblin in the scenario above is an NPC.

–Includes other party members, such as henchmen, lackeys or hirelings.

  • Needing a person to help guide them through a treacherous woods, the players recruit a Druid named Glorium.She becomes a permanent fixture in the party, yet is always controlled by the GM.
  • Lacking a wizard in their party, one group pools their resources to hire an apprentice-wizard named Maupin.


History of Role-Playing as Therapy

  • In 1947, J. L. Moreno pioneered psychodrama as a therapeutic method
  • He believed that at the core of human nature was spontaneity and creativity.Human suffering, maladaptive behavior and psychopathology were the result of the suppression of these natural human tendencies.
  • The assumption of the psychodramatic role became his vehicle to allow individuals to separate from their social roles and open their reservoir for affirming, meaningful human experience.
  • “The focus of psychodrama is in the ‘here and now’ and on ‘doing or showing’ rather than telling... The group leader’s roles are multifaceted, and one functions as an empathizer, director, agent of change, and manager within the group process  (Kastner & Sheffer, 1999).
  • Psychodrama (or “sociodramatic therapy”) is an action-oriented therapy and technique which endeavors to express a condition or offer a solution to a situation through the combined efforts of a group. (Tomasulo, 1994).Role-playing is a particular form.


History of Role-Playing as Therapy

  • Tomasulo (1999) reports on the use of role-playing as a technique for working with individuals who are unwilling, unmotivated, or unable to engage in a therapeutic process.He particularly emphasizes their use for developmentally-disabled youth.

–“One reason role playing may be especially effective with people with MR/DD is that it stimulates sensory and affective modes of learning in addition to the verbal method alone.”  It provides an “active learning mode.”

  • (Kastner & Sheffer, 1999) “…there is ample anecdotal and theoretical information supporting (RPGs) with adolescents in group therapy (and) there is little empirical support.This is the…status with adolescent group work as a whole.”

–This presentation discusses the process, while future studies will explore outcome.


RPGs Have Been Utilized Across Diverse Educational and Therapeutic Capacities

–Clinical Studies/Affective Disorders

  • Assessment/diagnostics of personality
  • Increasing social interaction among clinically asocial inpatients
  • Resolution of “emotional problems.”

–Social skills (adults and adolescents)

  • Assertion training, conflict resolution, and anger management.

–Teaching development of insight, self-evaluation and opinion change

–As part of the general education curriculum to teach a variety of academic content and character education

  • School guidance
  • Additional literature has shown its use in

–training of medical students to increase knowledge, skills and empathy in geriatric work (Hoffman et al, 1985)

–in death education  (Thorson 1978)

–to teach recovering addicts how to recognize and break the cycle of addiction, (Jordan, 1985)

–to teach the complexity of anthropological and cultural issues (Podolefsky, 1985)

–in drug and alcohol addiction treatment via “therapeutic storytelling” at the University of Kentucky (Hall, 2002) with rural adults

–and to increase the comfort level of Asian International students in new social situations (Persinger & Satake, 2002).


Studies of RPG Use with Children

  • Teaching Curriculum Content:

–Millians (1998) has an ongoing newsletter describing the use of RPGs in the general curriculum.

  • “My students were fascinated by Successors (an Avalon Hill game), (the) turmoil following the death of Alexander the Great, (they) depict its topic with accuracy and rich detail…it could form the basis for a wonderful classroom simulation.
  • Addressing The Wild West Companion (White Wolf Game Studio): “In it (my students) further detail the issues facing society in the nineteenth century, and (write) essays on culture (that) are penetrating.”
  • “Having presented the true situation of a place or historical period…I have students speculate on other ways or alternate histories. I once led a (game set in the Sixties) with my ten and eleven year olds.They were confronted with difficult choices and issues of violence and community. It was rich indeed.”

–The gaming world selected can fit in with a classroom thematic unit (e.g., ancient Egypt, American West, ancient Rome) and content knowledge can be readily incorporated into the RPG sessions.  This allows RPGs to not only address the affective, but also cognitive/academic goals as well (cf. Teagarden & Koppes, 1991 to teach Middle Ages history, and Peattie, 1990 to help students apply business theory).

  • Character and Moral Education:

–Values Clarification: RPGs used to teach students sharing of ideas and feelings and to clarify values (Logan, 1977).

–Character Education:  Hess and Gilgannon (1986) report RPGs as particularly effective as a means of character development, and for developing moral decision-making and problem solving skills.  They emphasize the importance of instructional objectives in guiding the interactions, however.

  • Problem-Solving:

–Shure (1992) used RPGs to teach children of all ages how to resolve or present problems, and to evaluate their own ideas.

  • Assertiveness Training

–Kipper (1992) used RPGs to improve assertiveness among adolescents.

  • Special Education Intervention:

–Brown (1985) created the Tell-a-Phone RPG for Communication Skill Builders.  Used to increase memory, verbal fluency, articulation, and syntax for children with communication disorders.

–Stermac and Josefowitz (1985): to increase social skills and decrease bizarre behavior with adolescents with autism.

–Woeppel (1990): teach social skills to children with disabilities, resulting in decreased aggression and increased social competence.

–Kallam (1984) used D&D with 26 mildly MR students.  They significantly increased oral language development and social skills.

Studies of RPG Use With Children as an “Action Oriented” Group Process

  • In a case study (Zayas & Lewis, 1986) run by school social workers, eight boys of ages 8 and 9 were introduced to D&D in an after-school program.
  • Each boy had therapeutic goals involving personal interaction and social skills.
  • The scenarios were established to emphasize to the children the importance of positively resolving conflicts, and acting as a group to achieve their goals, cooperating to take advantage of each individual's strengths.

–E.g., two knights faced a long, dark corridor, which they decided to rush down.  Their hobbit companion asked if they would like him to check the corridor for traps first, a unique skills he possessed, and they declined. After getting to the end of the hallway, a pit trap opened in the floor, and one of the fighters fell in.

–As a result, the boys reported not only learning the consequences of not cooperating for mutual benefit, but were also considering the possibilities if those consequences had been more severe.

–Continual injection of situations in which mutual aid is required “strengthens group cohesiveness and interdependence” (Zayas & Lewis, 1986, p. 63).


Studies of RPG Use With Children as an “Action Oriented” Group Process

  • (Kastner & Sheffer, 1999): studied “action-oriented” group work role-playing techniques including the double, role-reversal, and other psychodramatic and behavioral techniques in an experimental design with adolescents (average age 14) in group work.Contrasted results with those assigned to a group in which action oriented techniques weren’t used.
  • Used the Group Climate Questionnaire (GCQ) to evaluate the interaction patterns between group members (factors: engaged, avoiding, and conflict.Also DV measures of aggressive behavior, verbally aggressive behavior, dyad/triad out of group discussions, and redirection’s from the group therapist.

–Group climate positively affected by role-play

–Enhanced engagement between group members and decreased group member avoidance.

–Time-series analyses of GCQ indicated positive changes in the climate of the group over time (scores indicated greater engagement and reduced avoidance over the course of the group).


Tip 1:  RPGs Bring Attitude and Behavioral Change When Emotionally Engaging

  • Those who role-play, taking positions they initially disagreed with, usually demonstrate an increasingly positive attitude toward the position (Janis & King, 1954).
  • Role-playing has been used for years in this way therapeutically, to change attitudes and behaviors.E.g., Janis & Mann (1965) found that if emotionally-engaging role-playing is involved, behavior often changed.

–decreased smoking seen when the client plays a person dying of cancer.

  • Joseph (1970) reports on emotional involvement in role playing being key to change as well.

–When students role played empathically the role of a person who was academically dismissed from college, increasingly positive attitudes, and behaviors, toward studying were reported.

  • I have used this tactic very successfully with a student who expressed strong racist views.In the game he chose to be an elf, but soon found that elves were viewed negatively by humans in the world I created.  As he found himself increasingly frustrated by the stereotypes he encountered his actual racist attitudes declined.


Tip 2:  The GM Must Teach Expectations

  • Blatner (2002).“The most common problem with role playing is that of the leader [GM] not appreciating its essential nature: It is an improvisational procedure, and improvisation requires a feeling of relative safety.”
  • This must be cultivated in a group, the teacher engaging the students in a ‘warming-up’ process in which they get to know each other in a more trusting fashion and become involved in the theme to be learned.”
  • “…simply saying, ‘You're a principal and you're a kid who was sent to the principal's office--go!’ isn't enough.”
  • Each session should begin with some kind of warm-up, used to:

–Remind students of group rules

–Recall the incidents of the previous session, both in and out of character

–Introduce a new skill (e.g., active listening) or reiterate the steps of one previously introduced

  • Particularly if the skill represents a therapeutic goal and will be needed in the upcoming gaming session

–Allow the students the opportunity to bring up any issues they wish to discuss or resolve.

  • It’s crucial then that the GM work with the group to make ground rules.Some typical ones include:

–If you join, you agree to attend six sessions because 1) it takes time to get to know and be comfortable with the process and 2)  to avoid "drop-ins."

–Each person should expect to share their reasons for being here.

–What is revealed in group sessions is confidential (discuss limits).


  • Attend each session and be on time; advance notice if you’ll miss
  • No name-calling, etc… address the behavior, not the person
  • Each person may speak and be heard, and will listen as well.

–Right to “pass” if you wish

–Having a feeling and acting on it are two different things. You can talk about any feeling in the group but even symbolic expressions of violence are prohibited.

–You may quit the group when you wish, but will do so in person to say good bye.


Tip 3: Younger and Inexperienced Players Like to “Hack and Slash”

  • Toles-Patkin (1986) points to evidence that younger children (under age 9) and inexperienced but older players tend to mechanically move into a mode called by gamers “hack and slash.”
  • In this mode, there is very little emphasis on communication and role-play, as the neophytes have their characters move about the fantasy world, looking for things upon which they can “club.”
  • Once players have some experience, they typically move past this into an appreciation for the communicative, interactive aspects of RPGs.
  • To my experience, very young children, e.g., below the age of 7, will not.They lack the emerging formal operational skills, the accompanying appreciation for living a story in the abstract, and a lack of ability to grasp the hypothetical elements of a fictional world in which, e.g., magic functions.

–In one instance, a 15-year-old boy named Carlos, with mental retardation, played briefly.  After two hours, it seemed that his typical response to most situations was to leap from his chair and scream, “I swing my trusty battleaxe, like this!” followed by a physical demonstration of his character’s actions.


Tip 4: Younger Children Need More Concrete Materials to Reference

  • Rather than playing entirely “in your head:”

–Use 25mm lead miniatures (about $2) to represent players, NPC’s, and other creatures they encounter.  Or use even cheaper plastic ones.

–Use a “battlemat” ($25, or make your own out of dry-erase board) to draw the physical surroundings on.  Older children map on graph paper.

–Have the students make their own miniatures (i.e., of tables, doorways, trees, treasure chests, rivers, etc…).  Or cardboard punchout sets can be cheaply purchased.  Templates can be downloaded free.

–Drawings, pictures (download all you need from the internet, especially at the WOTC website) to make storytelling elements concrete (e.g., show a picture of the sarcophagus they find in the pyramid, rather than to try to describe it).

–Connecting the setting to content you know the children are familiar with provides a common frame of reference

  • To academic content discussed in class, e.g., ancient Egypt
  • To popular cultural elements, e.g., Star Wars, Harry Potter, Dinotopia, Lord of the Rings, etc….


  • Dayan (1986) points out that the Middle Ages (whether medieval or pseudo-medieval) serve as a perfect setting for adolescents.It is situated in a convenient “other” time, on a distant continent.  It is perceived as a dark interval between two periods of enlightenment, where chaos reigns.
  • I would suggest that whatever universe selected be one filled with unknowns:the more unknown the gaming world is to the players, the more control the GM can assert over it.

–E.g., culture, norms, mores, the historical backgrounds of a nation, city, family or individual encountered remain entirely under the control of the GM, who can reveal it as they see fit, without contradiction by the players.

–Therefore, the more foreign to the player’s experience, the better, so long as enough elements remain common as referent points that a complete “culture shock” prevents inaction by the players.

  • A GM using Harry Potter’s world, who doesn’t know that world better than the players (unlikely), is going to be in big, big trouble….


Tip 6: Use NPCs to Structure the Game

  • To introduce plot elements

–“The stable-boy says ‘you’ll never survive the caravan route on these horses, you’ll need to return with another 7 gold pieces to buy camels.”

–“Rogg the innkeeper whispers, ‘there’s some cutthroats looking for you, I’d be careful about my sleeping arrangements tonight.’

  • To provide hints to the PCs when they’re stuck

–“As you enter the clearing, your pet wolf Fang looks warily about and begins to whine…”

–“Glorium says, ‘we should move toward the north.  There are rumors of sprites and other fairy-kin living in the meadows near the base of the mountain, who sometimes give aid to good folk.’”

  • To serve as models in moral situations, in problem-solving, etc…

–Maupin says, “Let’s not be so hasty to attack, maybe we just frightened them, let’s put our swords away.”

  • Expendable ones can provide powerful lessons vicariously

–“Hurry up, guys, this way!” calls out your guide Tate, running down the corridor.  The floor beneath him collapses…”


Tip 7: Invest in Character Creation for Ego Involvement

  • Creating a character requires both luck, and imagination.
  • Players role dice to determine their character’s physical characteristics such as strength, dexterity and so on..
  • The player then selects aclass(i.e., an occupation such as thief, warrior, spy, pirate, wizard).  Options vary according to your gaming rules and whim.
  • They then select arace(i.e., dwarf, elf, human, hobbit, etc…) or simply use imagination to create any sort of character they wishes to play (e.g., minotaur, ogre?), within the parameters established by the GM.
  • The most important part of character creation is the fabrication of a background, history, family, etc….

–This is directly analogous to actors wanting to know the fictional past for their character in a movie so they know the context and motivations.

–In the least, players should specify their family, training, special skills (e.g., hunting, sailing, haggling) and how their character chose the life of an adventurer.  E.g., they might be asked, “Why did Griswald leave his dwarven clan to become a mercenary?”).  This helps clarify goals which the GM can use to develop plots (e.g., knowing that Griswald left “to find his brother’s murderer” opens up many interesting plot lines).


Tip 7: Invest in Character Creation for Ego Involvement

  • Young, immature players overly emphasize thephysicalcharacteristics, typically wanting “the best.”  As players mature and gain experience with role-playing games, they usually realize that the enjoyment of the role-play comes entirely from the elements they control, rather than physical attributes which are randomly determined.

–One player deliberately created a character who had been maimed in a farming accident, giving his hobbit a “clubfoot” which slowed his pace and made him clumsy.

–Another created a character whose face had been mauled by a dog, causing a phobia which occasionally transferred to other animals.

  • Players are quick to noticeinequities in character generation( “he’s strong and fast and I’ve got a pot-bellied weakling, what kind of a knight is that?!”), which undermine ego-involvement (e.g., in the above example, the character kept putting himself in harm’s way)

–I suggest that all players be given the same number of “points” to allocate among the different physical attributes, rather than doing so randomly.  This will assure that all characters have strengths, and also imperfections.


Tip 8: Use “The Double”

  • Used during difficult role-plays in whichmore supportis needed (particularly when emotions run high or the person is particularly exhibiting maladaptive behavior).
  • The facilitator assigns, accepts a volunteer or selects themselves to be the double.
  • Double stands behind the player,verbalizing the internal conflictfrom a first-person perspective. 

–“I’m scared but I don’t want to back down and seem cowardly.”

  • Canuse self-talk as a modelfor the person to resolve the situation more productively (i.e., scaffolding).

–“I’ll back down because it’s the right thing to do.  I’m more brave by backing down than by fighting.”

  • Pairs or multiple doubles, e.g.,the entire group can serve as the “double”for a single player to provide emotional and social support.
  • The player may be their own double!(self-monitoring, insight…)
  • Sometimes a particularly socially adept peer (the“shill”) is needed as the double and should be recruited into the group specifically for that reason.


Transcript:  An Example of “The Double”

  • Dee, age 11, has impulsivity and anger-management problems.The GM structured the story so that Dee’s character (a warrior named “Isaac the Brave”) encounters “Slug”, who bullies him during a random street encounter.  Casey is a shill, asked to be the double when Dee needs help.

–Isaac: “Oh boy, I’m gonna kick your ass now!”

–Slug: “Bring it on, punk!”

–Double: “I’m mad.  I never back down from a fight because I never want to look weak.”

–Isaac: “And because he needs to learn a lesson!  I draw my sword!”

–Double: “I wonder what lesson he’ll really be learning?

–GM: “What do you really want, Isaac?”

–Isaac: “Nobody should pick on me!”

–GM (pairing): “I’m right, nobody should, but there are always people who don’t know better.  What can I do to help Slug know better?”

–Isaac: “Dude (speaking to Slug), you need to back off.  I didn’t bump into you on purpose.”

–Slug: “Really, I didn’t want to fight, I thought you did!”


Transcript: Person Serving as Their Own Double

  • Noah, a 12-year-old boy, is very socially immature/inept.He invites negative attention to himself by demonstrating regressive or otherwise odd behavior.  His character choice of an unwashed hobbit named Stanley (who snivels, eats bugs, inserts objects up his nose, and engages in other histrionics) reflects this.  Dee, who tends to try to dominate the group, has an easy target of Noah and his character Isaac begins to ridicule the hobbit.

–Isaac: “What a sick loser you are.  Why don’t you poke a stick up your butt.”

–Hobbit: “yeah, okay!” (titters). “I poke a stick up my butt, yee-ooow!  That hurts!  Gross!  Maybe I should use a banana next time!” (titters)

–Isaac: “Sick puppy, why don’t you tie this rope to the stick now (so I can use it as a leash).”

  • At this point, the GM initiates a double, with Noah as his own double and the GM pairing. (in-between exchanges in which he plays the hobbit, Noah stands up and moves behind the chair, to clearly indicate the role change.The GM stands next to him.

–The GM proposes “guesses” regarding self-dialogue, but Noah needs to validate his own (when the GM is wrong, the literature strongly indicates that the child will typically correct you).

–Noah: “Why is he being mean to me?”

–GM: In the last five minutes, I’ve stuck my head into a chamber pot and licked it, I ate bugs, I put a stick in my butt and smiled and laughed to show everybody that I think it’s fun and normal to do these things.”

–Noah: “They wanted me to do those things, they like it”

–GM: I’m being pretty mean to myself, why should anyone else be nice? ”

–Noah:  They wanted me to do it.

–GM: “and they like me when I do those things?  It looks like they’re laughing at me instead.  We don’t laugh at somebody we like.”

–Noah: “They’re laughing.  It’s not funny.”

–GM: “It’s not funny, it hurts my feelings.  It makes me feel lonely.”

–Noah: (getting angry): “They shouldn’t do that to me.”

–GM: “They shouldn’t, it’s wrong of them.  And I shouldn’t ask them to do that to me by treating myself so badly.  I started it.”

–Noah: “I started it.” <two minutes cut in which this theme is explored>

–GM: “And when somebody makes me feel bad, I’m not going to smile and laugh and pretend like I like it.  I’m going to tell them how I really feel so it doesn’t happen again.”

–Noah: (screams at Dee) “Why are you always such as asshole?!” (starts crying)


Advantages to Double Technique

  • Helps person feel understood and accepted by the group, especially when an antagonist successfully serves as a double.
  • Very beneficial to the person serving as the double, who is practicing active listening, empathy, social routines such as conflict resolution, etc....Requires perspective-taking, a break from egocentrism so common to these kids.
  • The player as their own double learns to more critically analyze and understand their own feelings, to self-monitor and learn to engage in positive and productive self-talk.
  • Tomasulo (1994; 1999) argues that it promotes positive social interaction, self-esteem, and is particularly suited for cognitively immature (and/or children with developmental disabilities) because it is an active, more concrete learning mode than typically used in group “talk” therapy.
  • In the context of an RPG, it’s a more safe environment for examining feelings than might exist in other traditional group therapy situations.“Less confrontational” (Tomasulo, 1999) it provides ego defense because an alter-ego is used.


Tip 9:  Role-Reversal Technique

  • Players are asked to change roles(i.e., swap characters briefly) so they can begin to empathize with the other's point of view, even (or especially) when they don't agree.

–E.g., in the earlier example, if Isaac had continued to harass Stanley the hobbit, I’d have probably waited until Isaac did a particularly cruel thing once again.  At that moment, I’d have them switch roles to help Dee get a different perspective on the hurtfulness of his actions.

  • A necessary rule is that the playercan only control dialogue(not actions) during a role-reversal

–Otherwise, players routinely use this as an opportunity to cause hurt or humiliation to their opponent.  E.g., before I discovered the importance of creating this rule, one player immediately attempted to have his antagonist’s character, whom he now controlled, engage in bestiality.  This caused hurt feelings, and more importantly, distrust of the role-reversal technique among the players!

–To demonstrate trust (or as a test), sometimes players insist that complete control (dialogue as well as actions) be granted during a reversal

  • a kind of “cold war” then ensues in that total destruction is the only option if trust is broken.

An Example of Role-Reversal

  • Froggis commonly “scouted ahead” of the group in dangerous situations.His real motive appeared to be profit.  On one occasion, it worked, as he encountered a sleeping dragon and its treasure.  He then slipped quite a bit of the treasure in his pockets and ran off, awakening the dragon.  It pursued him back to the party, which was injured but defeated the dragon.
  • Froggis was sorely wounded and couldn’t move, so another member (“Maupin”) innocently roved through his pockets looking for a healing potion they knew he stored there.Maupin found the treasure and felt betrayed, deciding to let the character die rather than help him.
  • A role-reversal was implemented:In Maupin’s role, the player of Froggis began to understand how the thievery was perceived as a huge betrayal and caused mistrust (e.g., “yeah, I wouldn’t want him to go off on his own anymore either.”).  In Froggis’ role, the player of Maupin began to appreciate that a second chance was deserved, that death (losing several week’s of investment in the character) was unduly harsh, and that being saved would build a positive history or bond between the two (typically mutually antagonistic) characters.

Tip 10:  Use Games as Catharsis

  • Tomasulo (1999) “Generally speaking, beyond the trust and safety of the group, the facilitators therapeutic goals (include)… when appropriate, the opportunity for catharsis.”
  • National Association for Drama Therapy: supports role playing as an active approach that helps the client tell his or her story to solve a problem and achieve a catharsis through metaphors when traditional verbal therapies were too rigid to permit clients to confront individual disturbances.
  • Fine (1983) cites interviews which support the cathartic nature of RPG’s.“I think a lot of people through playing….get a much better sense of sadism, militarism, and thereby can limit it in themselves.”  Another interviewee supports this, saying, “You can simulate; try and get your hostilities out that way” (p. 43).   Fine describes players as acting “out their aggressive impulses within the framework of fantasy play.” (p. 44).  One player described RPGs as “just a straight, psychological blow valve”.
  • Offers an escape from conventional behavior, and can give a sense of control or efficacy (Fine, 1983).
  • Cassel (1973) states that performance of surrogate roles facilitates psychological growth and insight.They allow for a testing of boundaries, enabling players to learn about themselves by engaging in fantasy behaviors in a controlled, therapeutic environment.

Tip 11:  RPGs as Assessment

  • Fine (1983) describes the fantasy experience as “socially constrained by the presence and expectations of others” (p. 231), portraying them as“collective Rorschach tests, communal TAT cards…”
  • As such RPGs “can tell us about basic, emotional images.Public themes reflect private concerns” (p. 232).
  • Holmes (1980) states that the alternate persona that people adopt in RPGs often reflect attributes which players believe they lack such as strength, charisma, and confidence.
  • Fine (1983) states that taking on a role helps one to overcome deficiencies of one’s “real self.”
  • RPGs are a perfect opportunity to conductobservationsin varied social situations, and can function as interviews as well.  The RPG setting provides a goldmine of anecdotal, qualitative data on student concerns.


Tip 11:  RPGs as Assessment

  • Art therapist Raghuraman (2000) reports on the use of D&D to deal with emotional and behavioral issues of adolescents.

–Symbolic images that emerged in artwork created as part of the game, used to assist in perceiving, identifying and dealing with conflicts.

–A similar interpretive process occurs during RPGs.  The game allows adolescents “to perform different roles and assume the personality of each of the characters they choose to represent.  This is a time when adolescents experiment and exchange their old lifestyles for new, unfamiliar ones in order to find out who they are and what they want”

–Players are urged to customize their character so that they are motivated to role-play them.  The implications of the selections made are of obvious relevance to assessment.

–For example, one young player named Eric, a victim of physical and sexual abuse which was discovered to have continued even when in foster care, was unusually short and slender at the age of 15.  There were obvious implications in the character attributes he always choose:  large, strong, heavily armed and firmly in control, a protector to other members of the group.

–Another player, Albert, was removed from his alcoholic parents due to neglect.  His choice of characters was always the same:  small and weak, quiet and unnoticed, impotent in action and fatalistic in decision-making situations.

Opportunities for Observation During RPGs

  • Following Instructions?
  • Accepting “no” for an answer?
  • Accepting criticism?
  • Disagreeing appropriately?
  • Asking for help?
  • Accepting consequences?
  • Thinking through actions?
  • Anger control?
  • Asking for clarification?
  • Complying with requests?
  • Contributing to discussions?
  • Correcting another appropriately?
  • Accepting help?
  • Compromising with others?
  • Saying “no” assertively?
  • Reaction to peer pressure?
  • Giving compliments?
  • Getting attention appropriately?
  • Interrupting appropriately?
  • Introducing oneself and others?
  • Offering assistance appropriately?
  • Positive self-statements?
  • Sensitivity to others?
  • Thought-stopping?
  • Responding to teasing?
  • Dealing with failure?
  • Dealing with rejection?
  • Giving instructions?
  • Controlling emotions/impulses?
  • Making new friends?
  • Self-advocacy?
  • Sharing personal experiences?


Tip 12: Make Use of Character Rivalries

  • The use of contrived rivalries, in which players’ characters find themselves in competition with each other, can prove useful.

–in one scenario played by four 6th-grade boys, the GM introduced a young girl NPC into the situation.  As expected, a rivalry for her affection immediately set in, with the characters quickly escalating toward violent confrontation (i.e., a series of duels was proposed).  The young girl chastised the characters as “brutes” whom she had no interest in.  “The man I will love is he who shows he has a good heart, and who respects his friends.”  This tavern girl returned repeatedly as a sure-fire device toward motivating the players to cooperate.

  • A woman was rescued from an ogre who held her captive in his dungeon.When she showed little interest in a character’s chest-thumping he stated intent to “cut the bitch’s stomach open and spill her guts on the ground while she watches.”  The other members moved in to protect her as he pronounced “too late, I leap forward and slice her open before you reach me!”

–This led to much internal strife, and led to one of the most productive of sessions, as a lengthy discussion of teenage relationships and boyfriend/girlfriend expectations resulted.

  • Other rivalries will occur as characters strive to attain limited resources in the game.

–For example, three fighters in the game may each desire a rare magical sword which was just discovered.  An excellent opportunity to practice negotiation, compromise, sharing, delayed gratification, deal-making….

–In one session, the GM introduced a war party of evil orcs, with trained wolves, which were conquered by the characters.  The group then found a young wolf pup in the orcs’ lair, leading to an intense rivalry over possession of this unique treasure.

  • Such situations are easy to capitalize upon as an opportunity to help the players learn to strike compromises which leave all feeling they’ve been treated fairly, behaviors documented as leading to behavioral change in the classroom (Persinger, 1992).


Tip 13:  Require the “Single Leader”

  • RPGs fail if the DM has six players simultaneously calling out their actions and character verbalizations, and will usually lead to the dominant (domineering?) person overbearing the more passive members.
  • Require a rotation, every 15 minutes, of the leader (I use an egg timer).
  • The leader is the only one allowed to make a decision on behalf of the party and relate that to the DM, but they are also required to poll every member of the group for input before voicing their decision.

–The leader is required to demonstrate active-listening skills, e.g., paraphrasing back to the group members their individual preference, before offering a decision.

–Group members are required to demonstrate respect for the leader, not voicing dissent once the decision is made, knowing that their turn as leader will be coming soon.  Group members are also required to voice an opinion when group decisions must be made, with no player allowed to passively sit back and remain uninvolved in the process.

  • Teaches listening skills, respect, cooperation and group management.As a well-run game requires constant decision-making, each player gets continuous exposure to the dynamics of authority, group management and hierarchy.


Tip 14:  Use a “Shill” or “Plant”

  • There can be value to including in the group an individual cognizant of the client’s goals and understanding of the DM’s motives.

–Have a more experienced and mature player help model to neophytes how to approach the game and what is expected of their participation.  When introducing new clients to a game situation, covertly establish a more experienced player as a sort of “mentor,” who will patiently explain rules, demonstrate how to role-play, and provide an example of actively listen to others and relying upon and trusting others in the group.

–They can coax reluctant players toward actions they have trouble taking or otherwise be a peer model.  For example, Peter (age 11) was socially awkward and immature, engaged in maladaptive attention-seeking behaviors, and was a target of other children.  A shill named Harley was established to help surreptitiously guide him.  Harley was slightly older than the other players, was socially of high-status, and a natural leader Unlike the other players, he would ignore Peter’s undesirable behaviors, or perhaps would label it as “goofing off” and try to refocus the group’s attention.  He would defer to Peter, asking his decision and showing the others how to include him in the decision-making.

  • Similarly, Harley was used as a mentor with a different group (good shills are hard to come by!) with excellent results.Conflict resolution skills were the primary concern with two middle-school students.  One student, Geo, was generally aggressive, escalating minor confrontations into full-blown fistfights.  The other student, Kevin, lacked basic coping skills, and when he felt threatened would typically walk away without a word, this situation occurring several times a day.  The two had formed a dyad in which they seemed to like each other’s company, but Geo continually became aggressive toward Kevin, who would then be dash away and be found crying a short time later.
  • With Harley as a covert mentor, the three players found their characters lost at sea, washed up on a deserted island, surrounded by slavers, freezing, and without food.Immediately, the two began a non-productive squabbling which left Kevin staring silently at the floor, near tears, and Geo angrily screaming.  With Harley’s assistance, the two began practicing social skills routines, as Harley cued them on what to say, how to listen, and how to demonstrate respect for each other. 
  • In fact, Harley deliberately sought conflict with them individually (taking on a GM role in some respects), so that he could then demonstrate “sandwich phrasing” of concerns (cf. Gordon, 1987) such as when he told Geo “I really like that you are so concerned about helping the party get food so we don’t starve, but when you start yelling at me it makes me think you’re not my friend.I know you’re my friend, so let’s talk quietly like friends do.”
  • Similarly, he was able to help the two develop social skills that included active listening, apologizing, and perspective-taking.After about three weeks, when Geo began an angry tirade, Kevin independently said, “you know, friends don’t yell at each other like that.  It hurts my feelings and makes me not want to play the game anymore.  If you want me to stay in the game, you can apologize and things’ll be cool.”  Kevin immediately and sincerely apologized.

–Shortly thereafter, the teacher asked in amazement, “what is it you’re doing in your games?  Whatever it is, it’s working!”  She relayed that Geo seemed in greater control of his temper, that Kevin was standing up for himself, and that for the first time she’d heard Geo apologizing to other students when he snapped at them, all without teacher intervention.


How Flexible the Rules?  Freeform?

  • In RPGs, the shared sense of goals and common realization thatrules are not the goalswill lead to a natural flexibility on the part of the GM.
  • Certain outcomes in RPGs involve a dice roll.For example, in D&D a person who traverses a slippery path might role a dice to see if their dexterity is up to the challenge; a failed roll might mean that the character falls into a chasm.  Leaving things to chance can lead to undesired outcomes which hurt the role-play (so surreptitiously disregard the roll).
  • He suggests that in most RPG situations, gamers use die rolls to provide a backdrop of chance that is altered as necessary by both DM and player, but that there is no “iron law of probability.”All experienced gamers recognize this and know that to “cheat” in an RPG by “misreading” or disregarding the result of a dice roll is not cheating as conventionally perceived.
  • If done in the interest of promoting game play, such cheating is expected and is the hallmark of a good DM if it leads to a mutually-satisfying gaming experience.
  • Similarly, to achieve a therapeutic experience, the DM should keep in mind that in RPG’s, they are in control of “chance.”The players decision-making processes should guide outcomes and consequences, never chance.


What Problems Arise During Character Creation?

  • A tendency is for some players to create a history or background which puts them in a hierarchical advantage over the others which can led to a deference to perceived authority, and sabotage the rotation of leadership.

–Dee awaited the other players to specify their characters’ backgrounds before describing his own.  He then stated that in the kingdom they were from, he was the eldest son of the king, a prince!  The others naturally fell into the role of serfs or their families were serfs, Dee becoming an unopposed, autocratic ruler.

–The solution to this is easy:  the DM should feel free to veto any such attempt to impose a perceived status advantage.  Or the same can be accomplished by requiring all in the party to specify a background which places them on a comparable level. (In Dee’s case, I asked that all of the players offer the specifics of their royal lineage).

–In a future game, when Dee again described himself as a prince.  A proclamation was then read, the king disowned the “wayward prince” for his disobedience in leaving the castle unprotected.  Dee had a choice:  accept a social status similar to the others, or declare his character as returning to the castle for perpetual guard duty.


Is the Age Range of Players in a Group Relevant?

  • Different ages have different fantasies as well as differences in role-playing skills and rule understanding

–Younger players prefer the games be easier, rewards more concrete and immediate, and their characters in less “danger” than older players

–Younger players have fewer details to draw upon in interacting with the setting (i.e., medieval fantasy, science fiction), while older players may revel in the detail they add to their world

–Children of different ages desire different fantasy content, for example, teenagers will regularly gravitate to explicit discussions of violence and sexual acts, content inappropriate for younger children.

  • I suggest with younger children that groups be drawn up by grade level, e.g., a 5thgrade group consists of only 5th-graders, etc…
  • In secondary settings, I’ve not seen problems with age/grade heterogeneity, so a 14-year-old freshman in a group with seniors doesn’t necessarily cause difficulties.

–Intellect, maturity, social skills, general development:  these are the relevant factors at the secondary level, much more so than age.  I strive for a complementary group.


How Large a Group?

  • Experience has shown that, in actuality, groups rarely exceed five (Fine, 1983).
  • Gary Gygax, RPG industry leader and co-creator of D&D, suggests that three to five players are best because it optimizes group cooperation (cited in Fine, 1983).
  • To my experience, this number works very well even if all group members have therapeutic goals, though exceeding five players is not recommended.

–A group larger than 5 may have fun, but whether it remains therapeutically “on-target” becomes questionable.


Sources of Games and Materials

  • Werewolf:The Wild West: www.white-wolf.com (based in “the savage west,” a land of myth and legend patterned after the American “wild west” genre).
  • Wizards of the Coastwww.wizards.comsells dozens of RPGs spanning almost all genres imaginable.  Rules, campaign settings, maps, illustrations for older products are readily available for free download. e.g., Classic Realms products from 1995.  Also “classic reprints” of old D&D modules such as Bone Hill, Al-Qadim (middle eastern/Arabic).  Products from each genre are free, including details of campaign worlds, maps, modules(plot outlines), details on monsters….
  • http://www.informatik.uni-oldenburg.de/~black/rpg/genre/universal.htmlhas links to numerous freely downloadable, universal role playing game rules
  • Grey Ghost Press(Grey Ghost Games and Adventures in Learning products) athttp://www.fudgerpg.com or http://www.greyghostpress.com has for free the “Freeform Universal Do-It-Yourself Gaming Engine” (FUDGE) that provides basic rules but applies to any campaign world you establish.  Comprehensive rules $20.  Game designer Steffan O'Sullivan (author of FUDGE) created for them "SHERPA," a role-playing system designed for use by educators in the classroom.  Site contains numerous other resources for gamers as well.
  • Flying Buffalohttp://www.flyingbuffalo.com/is the maker of “Tunnels and Trolls,” a long-supported RPG akin to D&D.  Also has “Mercenaries and Spies” and numerous others.  There’s a link that says “teachers click here” which provides instructions on setting up the “Feudal Lords” RPG for an entire class and contact info for setting up special, private “school games.”
  • Steve Jackson Gameshttp://www.sjgames.comhas many games including at http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/ GURPS:  “Generic Universal Role Playing System.”  One set of rules for all genres, over 150 different worlds have been professionally created, and perhaps thousands exist for free download on various internet sites (go to the web ring).  Basic rules can be downloaded free, comprehensive rules are about $30.
  • Avalon Hill(offers a 40% discount for teachers). Avalon Hill Game Company, 4517 Harford Road, Baltimore, Maryland (800) 999-3222;ahgames@aol.com.
  • http://www.rpg.net/realm/edu/contains archives of David Millians “Gaming and Education” newsletters on use of RPG’s in the general education curriculum. Newsletter appear temporarily defunct but archives are rich.
  • http://www.rpg.netis a good portal into the gaming world, but isn’t specific to education.
  • http://www.rpgstudies.netis an adequately maintained citation list of studies on RPGs, qualitative, quantitative, educational, psychological, pro and con.
  • http://members.aol.com/waltonwj/carpga.htmCARPG - The Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Games was founded in 1987, and has been compiling information, both pro- and anti-game, since. For the cost of photocopying and postage, you can have documentation of anything in their library. Membership requires no dues. The CAR-PGa newsletter is published monthly, for $8.50/year. Write to: CAR-PGa, 1127 Cedar, Bonham, TX 75418, and include two stamps for a sample newsletter and information packet.


Skills Curricula Easily Integrated into RPGs

Bernard, M.E. & Joyce, M.R. (1984). Rational-emotive therapy with children and adolescents New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Dowd, T. & Tierney, J. (1992).  Teaching social skills to youth:  a curriculum for child care providers. Boys Town, NE:  Boys Town Press.

Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home (1995). Teaching social skills to youth: Supplemental manual Boys Town, NE: Boys Town Press.

Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home (1999). Working with Aggressive Youth: Supplemental Manual Boys Town, NE: Boys Town Press.

                        [Includes cards with the routines that children practice.]

Vernon, A. (1989). Thinking, feeling, behaving.  An Emotional education curriculum for adolescents. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

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