If you’ve heard anything about Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), some of it was probably pretty damning. In fact, decades before Stranger Things dropped us all in the Upside-Down, tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) were condemned as a gateway drug to a whole host of societal ills, from social isolation and self-harm all the way up to murder.
Today, the Satanic Panic of the 80s has largely subsided. Conservative evangelical platforms now openly publish articles lauding the once-benighted Harry Potter series, and even D&D has managed to shed most of its old stigma. Indeed, social and psychological research continues to show that RPGs in no way foster antisocial tendencies: study after study after study after study has found no correlation between RPGs and antisocial behavior, and some research even indicates that RPGs can foster social and emotional health.
But take heed, young adventurer. Tabletop role-playing is not to be trifled with. In fact, a year and a half into my first D&D campaign, I can safely say that these games come with a number of serious side effects.
As Vox Media so neatly nutshells it, tabletop RPGs involve “just three steps: describe, decide, roll.” The game master (GM) describes a scenario, the players decide how to react, and then dice are rolled to determine the outcome. In D&D, the scenarios take place in a vaguely medieval fantasy world, while other tabletop RPGs, such as Numenera or Call of Cthulhu, are set in sci-fi, horror or mystery settings. Each player controls a different character, and together the party navigates the fictional world the GM has prepared, fighting monsters, hunting treasure, solving crimes and essentially creating a story together. The game is even played in sessions like chapters in a book, with each session picking up where the last one left off.
Yet be not deceived by this simplistic explanation, for tabletop RPGs are hard work. Each character has different skills and abilities that influence the dice rolls in unique ways, and players must study and prepare in order to leverage those assets effectively. The scenarios presented by the GM are entirely open-ended, and players must work together to solve problems and overcome obstacles quickly and creatively. What’s more, the players’ characters all have different personalities and goals, and keeping the team together requires almost constant compromise and conflict resolution.
But although tabletop RPGs are real work, it’s work we do for fun. “Fun” is what happens when we take pleasure and enjoyment in a thing for its own sake, not for extrinsic profit. A child needs no reason to eat ice cream. A crowd gains nothing by doing the “wave.” In the same way, games provide an experience which is a reward in and of itself. Like a dance floor, an empty canvas, a deserted stage or Eden before the Fall, games are a place where we can make beautiful things simply for the sheer joy of making them.
Tabletop role-playing games are a reminder that we were made to work (Gen. 2:15) and to take pleasure in the work God gave us. They create a temporary, imaginative space where we can experience a taste of what it means to be the imago Dei, created in the image of God and gifted the stewardship and cultivation of his kingdom (Gen. 1:26-28). They allow us to delight in being human.
Like a dance floor, an empty canvas, a deserted stage or Eden before the Fall, games are a place where we can make beautiful things simply for the sheer joy of making them.
Once a week, for about three hours, I set aside Jaclyn Parrish the social media associate and become Adeneth Taurandir the half-elf ranger. I can survive the most desolate wasteland, track the canniest beast, speak half a dozen languages and hit a moving target at six hundred feet. I’m part of a ragtag crew of doughty adventurers, and together we’re on a fearsome quest to rid my homeland of the mysterious plague that killed my father.
I’m not gonna lie; it’s a serious rush.
But as Sherlock’s Irene Adler reminds us, every disguise is ultimately a self portrait. The masks we wear always reveal more than they hide, and in my case, the revelation was a sobering one. Around the same time I wrote my character’s backstory, my dad experienced a serious betrayal at his job. The parallels probably are obvious to you, but I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it took me a solid year playing Adeneth before I realized I was using her to express what I felt for my own father: I desperately wanted to know why my dad had been hurt and if I could, I’d really like to make someone pay for it.
God makes a certain habit of using fiction to expose the human heart. When King David sinned, the prophet Nathan unmasked him with a story (2 Sam. 12). When the Pharisees sneered at Jesus’ band of sinners, he portrayed them as the prodigal son’s bitter brother (Luke 15). In the same way, if you role-play long enough, you’ll eventually see yourself staring out of your character’s eyes. Maybe you’ll be encouraged by what you see. Maybe (like me) you’ll be convicted. But thankfully, we follow a God who uses everything (even imaginary half-elves) to sanctify us and conform us to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:28-30). So when the mask becomes a mirror, don’t turn away.
God makes a certain habit of using fiction to expose the human heart.
Tabletop role-playing games are an experience like none other. A group of ordinary people sit down together and suddenly become characters in an epic tale, teammates against impossible odds, actors in an improvised play, authors of a shared narrative. From the mic-drop moments to the myriad inside jokes, the journeys they take in their collective imagination can never be fully duplicated in any other medium. It’s a wholly unique relational context, and as such, builds wholly unique friendships.
My D&D friends are different from all my other relationships precisely because my party is so many different things to me. They’re my co-authors. My fellow cast-members. My team. My fandom. My geek family. We’ve bonded together over untold hours of hard work and unexpected flashes of vulnerability. We’re different people than the giddy little newbs that met in that fictional tavern eighteen months ago, and in many ways, we’re better for it.
Of course, that’s not to say every D&D party is some mystical haven of idyllic community. Many’s the party that’s parted ways amid tears and flipped tables, and even my own team’s come close to calling it quits. But at its best, squabbles included, my D&D table is a microcosm of everything I long for God’s people to be: a vastly diverse family of people coming together to wrestle not “against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12 ESV). The story my friends and I are creating might not, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “be ‘like real life’ in the superficial sense: but it sets before us an image of what reality may well be like at some more central region.”
 For an in-depth look at research on RPGs, check out Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations, edited by Sebastian Deterding and José Zagal. The chapters “Learning and Role-Playing Games” and “Psychology and Role-Playing Games” are particularly helpful for addressing concerns about the negative effects of RPGs.