Making believe, together: a pilot study of the feasibility and potential therapeutic utility of a family tabletop role-playing game




Breen, Lorna

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Interventions for children and their families have traditionally stemmed from two interrelated frameworks: play-based child therapies, and family therapies (Gil, 2015). Integrated family play therapy frameworks aim to capitalize on the strengths of both approaches by combining meaningful engagement of children through play, and systems-level insights into patterns of family functioning and interaction (Gil, 2015). A virtually unexplored avenue for play-based therapeutic applications of role-play that may lend themselves to an integrated family play therapy framework are tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs); cooperative and narrative-based games wherein players adopt the role of fictional characters as they navigate a fantasy setting arbitrated by a game master. Case studies on the use of TRPGs with children and young adults have yielded initial evidence of their potential therapeutic utility (e.g., Blackmon, 1994; Enfield, 2007; Rosselet & Stauffer, 2013), however, research on their application is limited, particularly with families. The current study pilot tested an original TRPG module (“The Family Tabletop Adventure”) for use with families to establish the module’s potential therapeutic utility and identify targets for further refinement. A sample of three family groups (N = 11) were recruited to participate in six weekly online sessions (a 1-hour introductory session, four 1.5- to 2-hour game sessions, and a 1-hour exit interview). A variety of mixed-method measures were used to assess family functioning at baseline and post-game, including observational coding, self-report, and qualitative group interviews. Exploratory analyses of the findings indicated the module’s feasibility of implementation and ease of use, low iatrogenic risk, perceptions by families as fun and engaging, and potential utility across a range of family processes relevant to therapeutic contexts, including communication and problem solving, positive interactions and relationship building, and the generation of novel insights about family members. Family feedback was used to identify several targets for additional refinement of the game module to improve families’ comprehension and engagement with the game. The implications of these findings and their relevance to the use of TRPGs in family intervention contexts are discussed.



family processes, play therapy, family therapy, families, role-play, table-top role-playing games, role-playing games, TRPG, RPG