‘Dungeons & Dragons’ Is Cross-Training for the Mind

As George R.R. Martin’s alter ego Tyrion puts it in A Game of Thrones, “A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone.”

You’ll be ready for anything. That’s the tantalizing message of some exercise programs. For example, CrossFit claims that with sufficient time and effort, you’ll be ready for the kinds of physical challenges faced by law enforcement and the military.

I’m not an exercise physiologist, so I can’t evaluate the claims of programs like CrossFit. However, as a psychologist and educator, I’ve been considering what cross-training for the mind would look like. How would I design an experience to prepare participants for a variety of mental challenges? My thoughts quickly turn to tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) such as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D).

Tabletop RPGs seem to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity/visibility. For example, a D&D-like game features prominently in Netflix’ excellent series Stranger Things. The series opens with a group of boys using character sheets, dice, miniatures, and their imagination to role-play a climactic fight against a boss monster: the dreaded demi-gorgon. Later, as the larger story unfolds and the boys confront a paranormal mystery, it becomes clear that playing the game has prepared them well for the puzzles and threats they encounter. It’s given them ways of thinking, communicating, and collaborating that make them arguably more ready than some of the adults. For example, they’re predisposed to comprehend trans-dimensional travel and to formulate a plan for rescuing their friend Will from a real “demi-gorgon”.

Stranger Things charms with its pastiche of ’80s pop culture. The prominence of a tabletop RPG is one of many homages to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982). That’s another story in which children who play games are arguably more ready to respond to extraordinary experiences.

Readiness to respond to a new challenge is a complex idea. In education, we call it “transfer” — using past learning to overcome a new problem. We spend a great deal of time and energy trying to understand why and how transfer occurs or doesn’t occur, and then trying to teach for transfer. Transfer is a big deal: it’s one of the core goals of education. I tell my students that the ultimate measure of my success isn’t what they can do in my classroom but beyond it.

We can break transfer down into connected steps. Transfer depends on recognizing essential clues about a problem, correctly classifying the problem, accurately recalling a promising strategy appropriate to that class of problems, and effectively applying that strategy.

A lot can go wrong at every step. For instance, a student may master recalling and use a strategy, but still be weak at recognizing clues and classifying a problem. Such a student can only effectively respond to clearly-labeled problems in the artificial environment of a classroom, not embedded problems in the noisy, messy, open-ended wilds of the real world. For example, the student may have learned to solve straightforward division problems, but when a similar challenge is “hidden” inside the narrative of a story problem, the student may fail to transfer their learning.

Fortunately, teaching for transfer isn’t all-or-nothing. A student can be guided in gradually mastering each step of transfer, in contexts with incrementally more noise, messiness, and openness. This guidance is called “scaffolding”. In construction, scaffolding is the temporary framework that shapes the building while it’s being created. In education, scaffolding is the materials and activities that shape the skill while it’s being learned. As examples, a teacher might write most of a math problem, most of a sentence about a historic event, or most of a diagram of a scientific process. Then the teacher asks a student to finish the job. As the student masters the skill, the scaffolding becomes progressively less necessary and the teacher scales it back until the student can perform fully independently. If the student starts flailing, the teacher can add back scaffolding. Adding and removing scaffolding is an essential part of effective teaching.

Many games scaffold a player’s learning by having them practice with new classes of problems one at a time while keeping the stakes low. For example, the video games Half Life 2 and Dead Space both provide the player a “gravity gun” to lift, carry, and throw objects. Both games first profide scaffold learning through practice with leisurely, low-stakes, non-combat gravity gun challenges, before easing back support and pushing the player to use the gun in fast-paced, lethal combat. Similarly, both games introduce new classes of enemy one at a time, then build up to pitched battles blending multiple enemy classes simultaneously.

Thus, video games like Dead Space can scaffold learning and reward transfer. If I want cross-training for my mind, video games have great potential, especially if I play a variety of games. However, if my goal is being “ready for anything”, tabletop RPGs are even more promising.

Some differences between most video games and most tabletop RPGs illustrate this promise. First, a tabletop RPG is usually facilitated by a peer filling a role called the Dungeon Master (DM), Game Master (GM), Storyteller (ST), or something similar. The DM is a combination of world builder, narrator, and referee, describing everything the other players experience and interpreting the outcomes of their actions. Second, the game emerges and changes in real time, because the DM can continually adjust to the players’ choices on the fly (i.e., with improvisation).

Third, because there’s a DM to adapt the story and gameplay, most challenges are vastly open-ended. This frees players to experiment with a wide range of strategies. Within the basic framework of the rules, if players can imagine and describe an action, they can usually try it. For example, when trying to get past a guard at the entrance to a castle, players might try bribery, flattery, intimidation, impersonating another guard, forging a document, a surprise attack, mind magic, illusion magic, arranging a distraction, sneaking past, scaling the wall, or countless other strategies.

Fourth, it’s relatively easy for a player to become a DM themselves. Unlike video games, no special training or tools are required to present a world and guide other players through a story. Indeed: the best way to learn to DM is by just doing it. So as a designed experience for cross-training the mind, tabletop RPGs are organically scalable and largely self-sustaining.

Finally and most important (to my mind), many tabletop RPGs explicitly concern themselves with ethics. Each player is personally responsible for the actions of their “player-character” or “PC”. Meanwhile, the DM controls the non-player characters in the world, the “NPCs”. Each player is regularly confronted with the consequences of their PC’s choices, including the impacts on other PCs, NPCs, and the world itself.

This scaffolding for ethical reflection is often baked into the rules. In D&D each character has an ethical alignment (e.g., Lawful Good, Chaotic Evil). Players are urged to act with intention and make choices in accordance with their characters’ principles. For example, a paladin takes a sacred oath and must adhere to a code of honor. In the example of bypassing the guard, choosing an evil strategy might come with substantial, long-term consequences, such as the paladin losing their god-given special powers.

Ethics can be controversial. When confronting a messy problem, the PCs may debate what counts as an evil strategy. They may invoke principles like “the greatest good for the greatest number” or “the ends justify the means” (i.e., utilitarianism, pragmatism). This conversation can spill over into a debate among the players themselves. Over my three decades of playing tabletop RPGs, I cherish many vivid memories of friendly-yet-energetic debates among PCs and/or players.

Earlier I touted tabletop RPGs compared to most video games. When it comes to arranging and resolving open-ended problems — such as ethical dilemmas — a DM often excels where computer code will fizzle. For example, some video games have experimented with ethical systems and consequences. But they generally lag far behind the nuance and palpability that tabletop RPGs can deliver. Compared to a numeric algorithm, a DM can infuse far more insight and intensity into a story.

In fairness, some games have tried to combine the best of both worlds: pairing the sophistication, simulation, and automation of a video game with the real-time adaptation and improvisation of a DM. This includes virtual tabletops such as Fantasy Grounds, Roll20, and Tabletop Simulator, as well as DM modes in video games such as Neverwinter Nights and Sword Coast Legends. I look forward to further innovation in this design space, partly because as an experienced DM I prefer to focus on storytelling over tracking minutiae like a goblin’s remaining health.

All of that brings me back to cross-training. Earlier I said that the ultimate measure of learning is a student’s relevant achievement beyond the classroom. Students need to respond effectively to embedded problems in the noisy, messy, open-ended wilds of the real world. Based on the design implications I’ve unpacked, as well as my personal experience, I believe that tabletop RPGs can develop that responsiveness in players.

I’m far from alone in my belief. For example, Luke Gygax–the son of D&D co-creator Gary Gygax — makes a similar argument about D&D’s long-term benefits in his interview on the Dragon Talk podcast. Likewise, in his accessible TED Talk, Ethan Gilsdorf describes several lessons that players can transfer beyond D&D:

1. Collaboration and Teamwork

2. Preparedness, Innovation, and Problem Solving

3. Character Building Builds Character

4. Empathy and Tolerance

5. The Power of Narrative and the Imagination

To bolster his argument, Gilsdorf lists some “cool, weird, smart people” who played tabletop RPGs, including George R.R. Martin, Stephen Colbert, and Robin Williams. This could seem like a circular argument: smart people choose activities that smart people choose. But the actual point is that smart people gravitate to activities that challenge their minds and thus catalyze learning. We must reach to grow. As Martin’s own alter ego Tyrion puts it in A Game of Thrones, “A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone.” Tabletop RPGs are a wonderful whetstone for sharpening a variety of mental and interpersonal abilities, from extemporaneous problem-solving to teamwork to ethical commitment.

Of course, most people who play D&D aren’t consciously seeking cross-training for their minds. They aren’t thinking about scaffolding and transfer. They’re only looking to have fun and hang out with their friends, just like the boys in Stranger Things. Yet along the way, tabletop RPGs can also foster confidence and courage, and give us new ways to connect with the world and other people. They can foster a growth mindset, as well as inspire discussion and lasting reflection about personal responsibility.

At their best, tabletop RPGs can be cross-training for the mind as well as the soul.