Neurodivergent people can find it hard to take part in the community in the same way as other people. Communication can be difficult, social interactions can be intimidating and cooperation can be a challenge. Low confidence can make building skills in these areas even more problematic. Some disability service providers utilise tabletop role-playing games – such as Dungeons & Dragons (DnD) – to support people with developing these skills and building confidence to take part in their communities.

Role-playing as social skill development

A dragon breathing fire behind a group of 4 people. The person on the left is holding a walking stick, the next person is in a wheelchair. The third person is wearing dark glasses and the person on the right has a sword strapped to their back.

When role-playing games are run well, they offer people an opportunity to socialise in a safe environment. This is one of the key elements of these games that support neurodivergent people. Players can create a character that reflects who they are or who they want to be, or experiment with different perspectives. They can explore social interactions at their own pace and learn about collaboration and cooperation. Role-playing games also don’t take place in real time, meaning the players can pause to consider their decisions without consequence. Players are also insulated from any negative experiences that might happen in the game as a result of their decisions, creating a safe place where they can take risks.

Role-playing games allow players to practise these skills, which they can then carry into their day-to-day lives. But further than this, it can empower them to be more confident in their social interactions and engage more with the wider community, develop their empathy and sense of self, and reinforce positive behaviours.

DnD for disability providers

We spoke to Josh, who runs The Campfire in South Australia. The Campfire is one of a small number of disability service providers that deliver supports to people with disability that include games of DnD. Josh told us the idea of supporting people through DnD was rooted in his own personal growth from playing the game.

“I've always been very into stories and writing, so for me DnD was all about the narrative and roleplaying aspect. When you play the game in that way it allows you to experiment with different ways of acting and talking to your friends’ characters. Even playing in our garage with a few friends in our early twenties it resulted in character growth and also the development of friendships almost entirely through fictional means. I caught myself feeling close to people who, for a lot of our time together, were in a fictional universe. Something about going on adventures in our imagination got confused with real-life experiences in our brains. I still remember how sad we were when characters died, we experienced real loss somehow.

That bleed from the DnD game to real life sat in the back of my head for a few years until at the suggestion of a family member I began to work out it could be applied as a service for building social skills and one's understanding of self and others.”

Josh told us that DnD lends itself to being used in this way as it is very malleable as a game and social activity. He and his team can promote the agency of players by tailoring each session to their needs. It is important to Josh that his clients have the opportunity to lead the narrative and take ownership of the story. He told us they always have a support worker join the players in every session, to support and guide them in a way that feels like peer support, rather than formal support.

Josh’s ambitions

Josh told us he aspires to provide a safe place where all people can feel at peace with their surroundings, their peers and themselves. His organisation has expanded beyond DnD and now includes supports that align with the other interests his clients have shared. He told us that one day he hopes to build a permanent place that neurodivergent people can come to, hang out and share their interests.

Josh and his clients

Recently Josh’s organisation became an NDIS provider. For his clients, Josh says this allows them to have choice and control over what supports they use. It allows people to work towards their own goals and to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life. He feels privileged to be part of that journey with his clients and to help them have the freedom to work out who they are and what they want for themselves. He told us that their clients’ continued decision to stay involved is the best review they could receive.