It may sound odd to talk about scientific support for a fantasy-based game, but stay with me. There’s a lot to love about Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games (RPGs) in general, and if you’ve never given it much thought, there are some great perks you should know about. You won’t know if you like it until you try it, and I hope you’ll be inspired to do just that, whether it becomes a regular part of your life or just a one-time event!
First, a quick note about what RPGs aren’t. They aren’t just a dry set of rules and dice rolls (though that is some people’s favorite part, it’s set up to be so much more than that). They aren’t an excuse to avoid developing social skills or dealing with the real world (though, again, some people may use them that way). They definitely aren’t the first step to satanism or witchcraft—if you wanted, you could play an entire adventure without magic, though (in D&D at least) there would probably be a lot fewer explosions, and that would be a shame.
In fact, RPGs can help with a lot of real-world skills, promoting social skills, mental sharpness, and more. Check out some of the benefits to this great hobby:
Social engagement! Playing an RPG is like a lot of games in that it’s a highly social group activity, but it goes beyond most games with its focus on group dynamics. Even if your favorite part is scouring the rules to find an argument for getting another +2 bonus to your attack, you can’t get away from the fact that you’re playing with a team, and that usually means teamwork. (There are exceptions, but a little of the difficult/rebellious/evil teammate goes a long way, so it should be done sparingly.) Engaging with the story means interacting with the other people at your table at two levels—as your characters, and as yourselves. There’s evidence that playing a character for which you make decisions can affect your out-of-character behavior as well, so choose wisely!
It doesn’t take much experience to imagine that a group that’s done any extended role-playing together will get to know each other pretty well. This can be a source of strain, but it can also go extremely well, and it’s a great way to cement friendships. Research suggests that RPGs can help with the emotional and social development of gifted children, and many adults need all the help we can get with finding friends, so don’t overlook this huge benefit of having a regular gaming group!
Critical thinking! In tabletop RPGs, your decisions have consequences, and you’re not limited by specific options. You can try to soothe someone’s ruffled feathers in a critical negotiation, or you can shut up and drink your wine, or you can punch the Archduchess in the face, or just about anything else you can imagine. It’s all very open, and by stretching your own creative and strategic skills, you’re also providing an equal challenge for whoever is running the game (and you can bet they’ll be returning the favor!). Humans often think in metaphors and narratives, and storytelling is an excellent and fun way to exercise your brain.
Combat offers other benefits, as a lot of RPGs have rules that constrain how much you can move around, or how far you can shoot or throw ice bolts or whatever it is you do. That means planning, flexibility, and team communication are huge in fights, keeping you on your toes with a combination of strategy and constantly changing input from your opponents and allies. In or out of combat, there’s good reason to pursue research on the potential of role-playing games as a great environment for motivating learning and knowledge retention—for example, students may be more motivated to learn history as background for an adventure.
Therapeutic self-expression! D&D is being used by some therapists as a tool for encouraging patients to open up or express themselves in ways that would otherwise be impossible because of social or internal pressures. The article above focuses on one practice in Seattle, but there are at least half a dozen places around the US alone—here’s one in Pennsylvania that advocates therapeutic RPGs in a variety of contexts. The combination of rules and freedom seems particularly promising for children and adolescents, with a lot of potential for kids on the autism spectrum.
Esoteric mathematical knowledge! I saved this one for last because I know it’s what so many of us are missing in our lives. Feast your eyes on these beauties:
That’s right, it’s a whole collection of regular polyhedra! Also called Platonic solids, these 3-D shapes are convex, meaning that no part of them folds in on itself, and regular, meaning that all the flat surfaces are the same equal-sided, equal-angled shape. This is a great property for dice, since it ensures that the dice are fair, like the cubical dice we all know.
These solids are all used as dice in D&D and many other RPGs, referred to by the number of their sides (d4, d6, d8, d12, d20). Sadly, there’s an interloper in the form of the d10, a ten-sided die that spoils the mathematical purity of your dice set with its non-equilateral sides. (The purity of the forms is also somewhat sullied by those pesky numbers they put on the faces, but you can’t have everything.) Still, I think it’s really cool to have the whole collection of Platonic solids used as central parts of an already awesome game, and if you play enough, you’ll know these lovely mathematical constructs like the back of your dice-rolling hand. (Evidence: I drew the ones above without any visual references.)
If you’d like to try out a tabletop RPG but don’t know if D&D sounds right for you, there are tons of options, with an incredible variety of settings! Many movie, TV, and book franchises have their own RPGs, which is a great way to get used to this type of game in a setting you already love. To help you figure out where to start if you don’t have something specific in mind, here’s a quiz that will give you a list of RPGs ranked according to your interests (lots of rules vs. simple gameplay, sci-fi vs. fantasy, etc.). Here’s another list of good games for beginners. You can also find a lot of research on RPGs, like the studies that inform the points I’ve made here.
Don’t forget that the most important rule of any game is to have fun, individually and as a group! (That means don’t be a jerk and say you’re having fun by killing the rest of the group. You generally don’t get invited back.)