Many individuals on the Autism spectrum would love to make friends, but do not know how to proceed. It can be a stressful process socialising with people you are not already acquainted with. Do I have to engage in small talk? Do I talk too little? Am I talking too much? Long talk is much easier, but is the other person engaged in this conversation? Increasing social awareness through playing fantasy role playing games (RPGs) such as Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) can be extremely beneficial for Autistic individuals. D&D can engage Autistic individuals’ unique strengths such as imagination and creativity whilst helping them interact socially in a positive and safe space. Who knows, maybe they will even enjoy the game too! Here are 15 ways D&D can benefit Autistic individuals’ social learning experiences. You can learn more about D&D here: https://dnd.wizards.com/dungeons-and-dragons/what-is-dd
1. You learn how to make decisions
Making decisions is a common issue with Autistic individuals, as all the different choices you can make can become overwhelming. D&D provides structure to this often arduous task. There are often set actions or outcomes you can take, still giving the player a choice. If in doubt of what to choose, you can take a chance, literally, and roll the dice for it! The Players Handbook is full of character traits and backstories that you can choose at random if you have no idea where to start. It can be as simple as “I would like to continue walking forward” or “I would like to go into that bookshop”. It is also in an environment where there are no consequences that translate to real life. It demonstrates that it is not the end of the world if you do not select a successful outcome. Often life is not clear cut and there is no one right decision. This could give players practice in making a variety of decisions that lead to different outcomes.
2. It is a social game
D&D is pretty hard to play on your own. It is, after all, a role playing game. There are online D&D campaigns that you can join, but it is usually more enjoyable and easier logistically to play face to face. As you get used to getting into character and interacting with the other players in the RPG context, there can be intense, hilarious, and emotional moments that are remembered even years down the track. The conversation you make is no longer as unstructured; you could discuss your character with your Dungeon Master (DM), speak to fellow players as your character, or talk about how you found the previous D&D session. It also provides a space where your love of imagination and gaming can be embraced. D&D campaigns may require different forms of communication in game; Maybe you just fight a lot of monsters, or work on bonding with some of your more standoffish party members, or try and convince political members that you are trustworthy. If you wish to achieve something specific within the game or being part of the group, talk to your DM and open it up to the group if this is something you are comfortable with sharing.
3. You learn about consequences based on particular actions and decisions
What actions you take could affect the whole storyline. This can result in interesting gameplay. For instance, perhaps you lie to a guard, and you roll your deception check badly. They see through your deception, remember your face, but do not say anything to you at the time. The next time you visit that town you could be pulled in for questioning, or perhaps citizens from that town are not going to trust you. You may treat someone poorly and months later, you realise they have sought vengeance by partnering with your enemy. If you rescue someone, they may return the favour down the track. Just like in real life, unwise decisions such as getting drunk, and breaking the law can affect you and your health, as well as how you are viewed in the eyes of the law. Different towns may have stricter laws, and you could be arrested or feel sick afterwards. If your crime is bad enough, you may even have a bounty on you and be arrested on site.
4. It can be very rules based
A high proportion of the game involves rolling dice. For your character, you have to roll for your character strengths and weaknesses such as your Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma, Constitution, Dexterity, and Strength. During each attack round, you have a set amount of actions to mimic what would happen in real time. You can also choose your character alignment, which could affect how you align yourself to particular party members and factions. For example, if you are chaotic good, you could be passionate about justice but do not agree with abiding by the law. You may not harm innocents as someone with a good alignment, however if you are something like lawful evil, you may not have any qualms about hurting innocents in order to get what you want within the limits of your code of conduct. Different races and backgrounds come with attributes and possibly weaknesses. If you are a magic user, there are some spells that you can learn and cast at any time called cantrips, however there are other spells that you have to prepare to use the next day. Depending on what class you choose, there are particular weapons that you are allowed to use – for example, a druid cannot wear heavy armour. If you enjoy following statistics, then this is the game for you!
5. There is a lot of flexibility involved
Especially as a DM, you have to be prepared to improvise. Even if you spend hours and hours on developing an in-depth and fully mapped out world with 100s of maps for each town, players may choose a route that you have not planned for. You cannot plan for every single situation and scenario. For example, your party may explore a part of town that you haven’t built yet. You can roll a dice to determine the establishments and items found there. Remember to note these down for later, and then you can develop these spontaneous ideas further. Moreover, as a player as there is chance involved in the game; sometimes what you hope to happen is out of your control. For example, you may have an elaborate plan of capturing a monster, but you roll a one, and one of the ropes capturing the creature snaps. You will have to figure out an alternate plan as the creature is now escaping!
6. It requires a lot of imagination and creativity
Part of the magic of D&D is all the visualisation involved. Not created by a video game, or animation; it is all in your head! If you have a strength of imagining fantasy worlds and love reading books and lengthy descriptions of landscape scenery (think Lord of the Rings), chances are you will love hearing your DM explain fight scenes and cities. If you decide to take the leap and DM, you get to build whole worlds and civilisations, including towns, continents, Non Player Characters (NPCs), and of course the famous dungeons. You can even make your own monsters and creatures – the D&D handbooks have more information on how to create NPCs and balanced monsters and creatures. As a player, you have to generate a character with personalised attributes, characteristics, backstory and appearance. Unless you use a pre-generated character, the one you create will be unique and your DM may incorporate elements in your backstory in the storyline of the game. It will help you learn how to approach certain issues and situations – some of them might occur in real life. If you are artistic, you will love creating maps, letters, and depictions. As a player, you may enjoy drawing your character as well to get a better picture of what your character looks like.
7. It can help initiate socialisation and conversations
D&D can provide subjects and contexts for conversation especially if your peers love the game (After all, sometimes D&D is all you can talk about). For those who may not necessarily be into D&D or other role playing games (RPGs), this could be a valuable learning opportunity in trying something new and having unfamiliar and different experiences. It also means you meet a variety of people that you may not usually speak to in another setting. You can become close friends with your peers’ characters in the game, and learn numerous ways of initiating conversations. D&D also shows the progression of bonds between party members and NPCs.
8. It can be however violent or safe as you want it to be
You could do anything from battling a huge Beholder to taming a unicorn. If you are getting uncomfortable with a combat situation and do not know what action to take, fleeing is an option in the game and has its own advantages and drawbacks. Eventually over time you will get quicker in deciding upon an action or reaction. Autistic individuals can struggle with conflict and it can actually be physically painful to experience, so as a DM it is vital to consider that some may be stressed out from too much conflict, violence, intensity, or confrontation. Spectrumites, do not be afraid to express your concerns to other players and your DM. Specify how much gore and violent descriptions you can tolerate, and whether you will need gaps in between serious moments in the game. D&D is an inclusive game and it should be played with the same approach. If your DM and players are not listening or unwilling to adapt to meet and respect your needs, you may need to find a different group.
9. You learn about collaboration (or lack of in some cases)
In some situations, it is useful to be able to communicate effectively with party members, such as when planning an ambush or preparing for an enemy onslaught. You are able to collaborate and create strategies when going into a fight you know about. Communications during fights against a creature can also help, especially if another player finds out more about its vulnerabilities or a bit of lore relating to an overall quest or storyline. However, some players may choose to strike out on their own and not exchange information during a fight. This could result in myriad different outcomes, both positive and negative. Perhaps you make a wrong decision or hurt the feelings of the other players and alienate yourself. This may result in discussions later down the track with the other players and you learn how to work better as a group. Conversely, if you triumph together as a party, this can strengthen bonds between players and increase trust. Collaboration can be important in the game when dealing with politics and gaining trust of NPCs and other important figures. This could also translate in real life to helping you work with other people in the workplace.
10. You can make new friends
A shared interest such as D&D can expose you to different people. D&D is supposed to be an enjoyable game, hence why people give up so much of their time to play it. You will have people there that will genuinely want to be there and will go in with that mindset. If you have never played D&D before, give it a go. Play a few sessions and see how you feel afterwards. Think about the positives – did you learn something, and most importantly … did you have fun? It may not be the game for you, but it can be a space where you can explore yourself and show your unique strengths and interests. You may find like minded people who connect with you. They may share other interests with you that you will be able to talk about. You may find long term friends in your D&D group.
11. You can explore your identity and deep themes that may otherwise be difficult
If you feel comfortable enough, you may choose to base a character or your character’s ideals heavily on yourself. Your character could have strengths based in your passions and special interests. For example, if you love animals you may choose to be a druid and one of its main abilities is their gift to speak to animals. If you love technology, you could be a gunslinger and build intricate gun designs. For many individuals on the spectrum, we tend to repeat difficult social situations in our head and it will be on repeat until it is replaced with a new fixation or interest or is resolved. You could recreate this social situation and try a different approach and see what happens. If it fails, when a similar situation arises, follow another route. Remember, D&D doesn’t have any real life implications so it is a space where you can safely make mistakes and observe the consequences. As a DM you could produce societies inspired by real life events. I closely relate to changelings because they often have to hide their true selves in society, they have multiple masks for certain situations, and they are ostracised and viewed as weird by the majority. Although, despite facing alienation, changelings can find their own tribe where they be their true selves and are embraced (not necessarily from their own race). Sound familiar?
12. You can gain self confidence
As you socialise with other people you may find different ways of forming friendships, and it might encourage you to try it more often. As you get more practice meeting new people, you will have more experience. It is also crucial to acknowledge and respect your own needs – D&D may create a focus for interacting with others and making the process less tiring. Listen to yourself and see how long you can socialise for in one day and adapt your social activities around it. Try not to plan too much in one week that has to do with social situations if you find it exhausting, especially if you find work or your education pathways taxing. It is important to do this to prevent Autistic burnout and look after your mental health. Through D&D you can learn how much socialising you can take. D&D can aid you in adapting to new situations, improving flexibility and increasing resilience. You can get the social practice that you might not find elsewhere in a less confronting way.
13. You can learn about different perspectives and personalities
You do not have to play a character exactly like you – your character is separate from yourself. If you are interested in learning about different viewpoints, try playing a character with opposing ideals and personality traits. This could improve your acting and social improvisation skills. For instance, if you are generally introverted, you could play a gregarious and outgoing character. You could be a peaceful person in real life but play a shifty insecure rogue that likes to lie to people. You may be socially awkward but play a character with high charisma that is extremely good at persuading people and negotiating. If you struggle to determine what your character might do, based on your personality traits and statistics, there will be actions that you would definitely not do based on your statistics, and your DM will notify you of when these occasions occur, such as “As you have high intelligence, you would probably not agree to that plan”.
14. There is no one right or wrong way to play the game
For people on the spectrum, fear of failure is very common. Fear not, because D&D rules only serve as guidelines. There is no one golden way to play it, and it is highly personalised. Furthermore, so called failures can have funny outcomes. For example, if I roll a one, instead of hitting the enemy, I could hit myself in the eye in a goofy way! Ouch!
15. It is suitable for all genders
Anyone can play D&D, as it has a variety of situations that will appeal to different people. The game does not just consist of hitting gnolls and blowing things up. It is up to the DM to speak to the players and determine what kind of game they like. They may like more action or adventure based gameplay that does not require a lot of talking, or perhaps they would prefer less violence and more working on acting and exploring. They may like problem solving challenges and rewarding planning and tactics. Other players may like the unravelling of a continuous story. These are topics for discussion in session 0 between the DM and players, the session or time before gameplay begins. If you as a player have ideas or suggestions, talk to other players and the DM to see how your concept can be incorporated.
More individuals and organisations are realising the power of D&D as therapy for Autistic individuals. If you are interested in joining a D&D group, try and find a local organisation that runs D&D sessions specific for Autistic people. However, if there are no organisations that specialise in Autism and D&D sessions, do not despair. Many local gaming stores run D&D campaigns and clubs. Explain to your DM or gaming club that you are either new to the game or may need some guidance with socialising or making decisions. They could try and organise a buddy for you to help you through learning the game, and they could give suggestions as to how to proceed in particular situations. It is your choice to disclose that you are Autistic – you do not need to if you do not feel comfortable with it. Disclosing is often a difficult process, so do not feel pressured into doing it. If you have any friends of your own, you could invite them as well to lend support and provide a familiar face. Involve your family and friends in your own campaigns – over time, you will get to know the game better which will hopefully make the social and decision making side easier and less energy consuming.
~ Shadia Ibrahim