Rural Ontario, 1937

Coping With Mental Illness Through Tabletop Role-Playing GamesSubtitle

Eric is a history PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo. He studies history at the intersection of disability and fandom. Aside from work on his dissertation, he co-hosts a podcast on Canadian ghost stories called The Before Midnight Society (available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify). He also sometimes publishes on He identifies as queer. More about the author

When I meet someone, I try to invite them to play Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) (Gygax, 1974). Well, not specifically D&D, but a tabletop role-playing game (TRPG) in general. People tend to show their different sides while role-playing. I have seen the best of humanity during games, and but also hilarious mishaps. It never seems to be somewhere in between. In few other activities can you witness this range.

It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I earnestly got into tabletop RPGs. I had played a lot of Fiasco (Bully Pulpit Games, 2009) (a wildly successful TRPG that’s light on rules, big on storytelling) with my undergrad friends, but I didn’t run into D&D until my fifth year. After graduation, my friends moved on. Some did their MAs, seeing me infrequently amidst busy schedules. The rest worked, starting their “adult” lives. But something else knocked me from my life’s trajectory: I had just been diagnosed with a major psychiatric illness.

After a turbulent fourth year that unearthed trauma from an abusive relationship, then a whirlwind of mood episodes, a psychiatrist labelled me with an official diagnosis: Bipolar II. Despite their best efforts, my friends couldn’t fully understand the reality of my suffering. Bipolar is a deeply alienating illness: When you’re flying high on a hypomanic episode, people either fail to keep up with you or are terrified of your destructive capabilities. Depression distances you from everyone you love; your emotions shut down until a lukewarm nothingness floods your neurons. More than anything, this produces instability in your life. I found it difficult to bet on a good tomorrow, because my mood swings swept away any possibility from a good, quiet day. For me, this meant difficulty in school and creative endeavours. I love learning, and I love creating. So, to go through whole depressive episodes without making progress in school or on writing felt debilitating. I felt like a failure. I accepted the idea of never being happy again.

A silver lining was that I knew people below my year. So, I forced myself to be social. This is when I grew closer to an acquaintance named Matt. Our discussions lasted late into the night. It was easy to talk to him, because he was a kindred creative spirit who understood why writing was important to me. Soon enough, he conscripted me into playing with his D&D group. It was here that I realized the storytelling potential of TRPGs. I felt they were limitless. You could tell any story you wanted. You could be the hero of your own narrative, vanquish any kind of monster. Slowly, I came up with an idea for a game.

I check my phone. It reads 2:12 AM. I need to go home and sleep, but I’m talking with Matt and the discussion is too engaging. “What I want from an RPG are good NPCs. They are critical for a believable world,” I say. Matt is quick to ask: “That would be your focus as DM?” “Yeah, totally,” I reply. “It’s just too important.” There’s a silence. Matt breaks it after a moment or two. “I think you should DM when Gerald leaves for field school. You’d be good.” I say, “Yeah, that sounds fun. But do you think people want to play what I have in mind?” Matt smiles and says, “I’m sure they’ll play anything you write.” My fried brain opens up shop. Neurons fire like cannons. I have a purpose now.

When I brought my game to the group, we played Call of Cthulhu D20 (Chaosium, 1981) with a few tweaks by me. What exactly was my game? It’s 1937 and the players arrive in a small town in rural Ontario, a liminal space between the drudgery of the Great Depression and the uncanniness of modernity. While investigating recent murders, the players encounter the town’s supernatural character: a spindly antlered figure stalks the property lines, seeking deliverance from an ancient curse, while people whisper about strange midnight rites that supposedly keep the town alive. Meanwhile, investigators run face first into the crimes of institutional violence, confronting the behemoth task of undermining secret societies conspiring to consolidate power. It’s horror crossed with noir. The first season of True Detective meets Stephen King. I initially didn’t expect my D&D group to buy into it. It was a real bummer of a story, needless to say. Would my friends be okay with the story I had to tell?

Meanwhile, my father had left the family last fall. Just like that, my life was uprooted yet again, the second time in less than a year. Between my family’s crisis and my fluctuating mood, I existed in a constant state of chaos and uncertainty. Having a psychosocial disability means that you sometimes live on a knife’s edge. For my mental illness, an above average day could signal a coming hypomanic episode. That is dangerous, because, if unchecked, my hypomanic self could make a cascade of poor decisions that put me in danger or in the hospital.  To make things difficult, I honestly can’t always forecast my next episode. And in my personal life, it was quite possible that my parents’ separation would send me off the edge.

I couldn’t control my parents’ failed marriage. But I could control the fictional world I was crafting. I took my anxieties and reimagined them as story elements; the corrupt patriarch of the town evoked my father. The disparate youth with no future reflected my life’s aimless wandering. Through the game, I could control what I couldn’t in my life. At first, my ideas flowed with ease from my subconscious. But, the more I revisited themes, the more I actively sought control over the evolving narrative.

I found safety in writing my game. Consistently, scholars have demonstrated that TRPGs incite creativity (Chung, 2013; Cook et al, 2017; Dyson et al, 2016), and creating can be a reparative process. Game designer Kara Stone reflected that “the slow and sensual process of crafting can be a healing experience”. For me, creativity was the difference between a miserable day and a tolerable one. On my hypomanic days, I could productively channel my excess energy. I felt balanced, like I wasn’t a freak for having a barrage of thoughts. TRPGs were a grounding rod for my limitless electricity. It was okay to think rapidly, something that can cause problems for those with bipolar disorder. In fact, it was a boon for writing and playing the game. My friends grew to value me for this spark. Even when I was depressed, I could doodle in my notebook for fifteen minutes and find satisfaction in creating something.

Citizen #71. Lewis Du Freigne. Occupation: mechanic. I type furiously about a lonely mechanic who prizes his motorcycle above all else. He works on it so much through the day and night that it is starting to resemble something other than a bike. Like something from hell. I wonder, is this my best? After all, quantity not quality is more indicative of manic hypergraphia. I’ve sat here for three hours, writing 37 new characters. I’ve lost track of time. It’s 3:15 AM and I still need to fill prescriptions to take tonight. I feel stupid for leaving refills to the literal witching hour. But I leave my apartment knowing that I’ve accomplished something.

Once I had one hundred  characters and a town map, I called my friends together to start playing. I couldn’t have hoped for better investment. The players were obsessed with drawing family trees of the town. My friends quickly embraced the chance to also talk about their traumas. One player character was a pastor who went door to door, preaching about salvation in order to save the town’s soul from itself, lest one generation pass down trauma to the next. And another tirelessly fought against the corrupt police who silenced cries against oppression. Reflecting on this engagement, I realize that TRPGs create spaces of acceptance. In this case, my friends were unequivocally accepting the ideas in my personal story.  One study examined a LARP camp of students on the autism spectrum. The author concluded that “…the challenges associated with autism spectrum conditions became less impairing, and in many cases, became opportunities for mutual recognition rather than rejection” (Fein, 2015). My town was depressed and full of despair. Like the town, coping with trauma was my reality at that point. When I poured my experiences into my story, my friends accepted me for sharing my pain. It didn’t seem as difficult to cope with my suffering knowing that I wasn’t alone.

Meanwhile, I was learning that living with mental illness is a process. You don’t just pick it up, like riding a bike. It’s constantly coping with chaos and uncertainty. Aside from not fully being able to trust your emotions and thoughts, you’re also dealing with a health care system that fails you. At best, you get delayed treatment. At worst, you become lost in a never-ending line of wait lists. From this frustration came the climax of the game: the abandoned asylum atop the hill outside of town. In the game, folks talked about it in hushed tones. Everyone knew someone who was in there, but could rarely speak in anything but rumours. I wanted to explore how a community dealt with guilt and shame. For me, and especially after living on disability, I felt like I was an afterthought in my community. I have found that with mental illness you learn to apologize a lot for seeking help. Therapists are constantly booked months in advance. Finding a psychiatrist is hard. The system is taxed, and you are just another number in the system making it harder for the province to balance its budget. The safety net is more of a tattered parachute.

I was also frustrated with media portrayals of mental illness. Often, mental illness is used as a convenient explanation by a skeptic authority to downplay an actual supernatural phenomenon, or a mentally ill person is quintessentially a “homicidal maniac” (Solanki and Banwari, 2016). In my story, the asylum patients weren’t the dangerous ones; the negligent caregivers were. Oftentimes, mentally-ill characters in these narratives don’t get a voice, but I made sure the patients’ documents – literal paper documents I passed out to my players – spoke volumes. As players explored the decrepit building, they discovered written records from patients who spoke of their poor treatment. But there was hope. They also spoke of their desires, hopes, dreams, and everything else that made them who they were. Even in a dark place like that, resilience could exist. The players read documents out loud by candlelight. Our asylum game sessions were marked by a solemn, stifling atmosphere.

Reflecting on the asylum, I realize how important TRPGs can be for dealing with trauma. In my case, writing and then running my own campaign allowed me to gain control over my life. I couldn’t face my personal demons in actuality. But that changed when I gave them stat blocks.

I found a new family in my friends. Disabled people have less social capital, and scholars have suggested that disabled people should be included in communities to combat this (Dimakos et al, 2016). TRPGs foster team building, forming a sense of community (Daniau, 2016; Cook et al, 2017). I firmly hold that TRPGs are all about relationships between players. My close bonds with my players meant that we explored our traumas together. We were a group of misfits coping with the real horrors of life. But we had each other. As one interviewed gamer from another study put it: “Families are built on stories. Then role-playing lets you build surrogate families” (Underwood, 2009).

The end of the game was bittersweet for several reasons. The investigators did solve the case and bring those responsible to justice. But the last session marked the end of our time as that group. There was a falling out and a breakup in the group. I don’t see most of them anymore. Our only connection is the shared memory of that special summer. Few of us had school, so our schedules were wide open to play weekly. That’s a rare thing for a TRPG group, especially for such a niche story. I’ve since brought the game to different groups, but those groups never endured for long due to life getting in the way.

I got to know these people in ways that conventional social interaction wouldn’t allow, and they witnessed facets of me that I don’t reveal to other people. I saw them for who they are. And they saw me for who I am, illness and all.


Works cited

Chung, Tsui-shan. “Table-Top Role Playing Game and Creativity.” Thinking Skills and Creativity, vol. 8, Apr. 2013, pp. 56–71. ScienceDirect.

Cook, Mike P., et al. “We’re Just Playing: The Influence of a Modified Tabletop Role-Playing Game on ELA Students’ In-Class Reading.Simulation & Gaming, vol. 48, no. 2, Apr. 2017, pp. 199–218. SAGE Journals.

Daniau, Stéphane. “The Transformative Potential of Role-Playing Games—: From Play Skills to Human Skills.” Simulation & Gaming, vol. 47, no. 4, Aug. 2016, pp. 423–44. SAGE Journals.

Dimakos, Christina, et al. “Somewhere to Live, Something to Do, Someone to Love: Examining Levels and Sources of Social Capital Among People with Disabilities.” Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, vol. 5, no. 4, Dec. 2016, pp. 130–80.

Dyson, Scott Benjamin, et al. “The Effect of Tabletop Role-Playing Games on the Creative Potential and Emotional Creativity of Taiwanese College Students.” Thinking Skills and Creativity, vol. 19, Mar. 2016, pp. 88–96. ScienceDirect.

Fein, Elizabeth. “Making Meaningful Worlds: Role-Playing Subcultures and the Autism Spectrum.Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, vol. 39, no. 2, June 2015, pp. 299–321. Springer Link.

Solanki, Madhusudan Singh, and Girish Banwari. “Comedy to Sleazy Horror: No End to Cinema’s Stigmatizing and Ridiculing Attitude towards Mental Illness and Psychiatry.” Asian Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 21, June 2016, pp. 21–22. ScienceDirect.

Underwood, Michael Robert. “The Friends That Game Together: A Folkloric Expansion of Textual Poaching to Genre Farming for Socialization in Tabletop Role-Playing Games.Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 2, Mar. 2009.