How can we relate D&D with mental illness?

9 min readOct 21, 2019

Dungeons and Dragons is the originator of table top gaming, created in 1974 and still one of the most popular role playing games of all time. It’s spawned so many different rule sets, modules, and even different editions of the game. It’s also been referenced to in modern media and pop culture since the dawn of it’s birth, and is one of the most successful gaming stories in history.

Dungeons and Dragons is a fun and exciting adventure that you can have with your friends (or your enemies, if you’re into that) but it can also be a great tool to use to relate with mental health issues and the struggles we face in daily life — for someone with anxiety, depression, OCD and many more… it can be something that is a great relief, allowing it’s players to delve into a world all their own where they get to control their characters destiny in a way that maybe they feel they can’t control their own lives.

When you’re roleplaying — whether it’s a video game or D&D, you get to play a character that is unlike you and may not have the same problems or struggles that you face, it’s a great way to escape from life’s stresses when it becomes too much. One of the most important things I’d like to discuss is that D&D can be incredibly therapeutic, even if you’re not playing it.

Take Critical Role for example, it’s one of the most popular D&D streams on the internet, starting it’s streaming premiere on Twitch in 2015, it’s gained a massive following of fans of the world that DM Matt Mercer has created and plays with many well known and popular voice actors. It wasn’t always livestreamed, and it wasn’t always D&D but they have run two successful campaigns with varying characters (and even guest players!)

So what makes D&D so relatable and so attractive to play, and how can I‌ relate any of this with mental illness?‌ Just stick with me here….

The Critical Role cast as their Vox Machina characters.

The thing that is most able to be related with mental illness is that every story that can be told in a D&D session, no matter who is telling it is a story about perseverance, strength and coming out the other side of a struggle with clarity and with accomplishment, whether it’s your characters or yourselves that feel that.

I’ve never personally played in a D&D‌ game but I have watched it, and I‌ can understand the appeal, I‌ can also understand how important it is to have something that you can relate to, and something that makes you feel less alone.

Lets talk a little bit more about Critical Role for a second here, it’s massive success can’t just be credited to the fact that it’s played by popular and well known voice actors, but because it tells multiple stories with different and relatable characters that people can feel things for — One of the most important parts of telling a story is telling it in a way that makes people feel, whether it’s anger, sadness, happiness or pride, it’s capable of making the people who indulge in those stories feel something for the characters which is incredibly important for the community of people who watch these streams every week, and it teaches us for foster good and healthy relationships with people who are like minded and may disagree but ultimately will come together for the greater good and simply enjoy something, not as one person, but as a group that sticks together.

People keep coming back to popular shows like Critical Role because the world and the stories within them are interesting or sad or depressing and we root for those characters to face their demons and defeat their own monsters because we find something in them that we can relate to or that we see in ourselves, and if our favorite characters can get through something so traumatizing, maybe we are also capable of doing that same thing.

These campaigns tell stories of strength, and bravery and struggles that maybe we can’t imagine, but we still want these characters to make it out on the other side because we’ve come to cherish them and even love them, which may sound a little weird to people who aren’t as passionate in fandoms as others, but it’s a valid feeling to love a fictional work and to feel that fiction lifting up your spirits in a way that maybe nothing else was able to do prior to that. Maybe Critical Role is the only reason you can actually smile, maybe it’s another D&D show, maybe it’s your own D&D‌ session with your family or your friends.

Marisha Ray as Keyleth

A great example of relating to a character that has undergone immense hardships is Keyleth from Critical Role’s first campaign, she was destined for something more but was filled with self doubt about her place in the world and her role as leader but even though she had this doubt. she was able to work through it with the help of her friends, maybe a little worse for wear but ultimately, still standing.

This is very similar to anxiety and depression and other mental health issues, if you’re stuck in a depressive episode or you cannot stop being afraid because of your anxiety, this can be a powerful message for you to hear and it may be able to help you through your own problems, even if just a little bit, it’s always a good thing to have an outlet, whether it’s a film, game or a D&D show. Maybe you can be like Vox Machina, and you can face your own battles and still stand tall.

The Oxventure Cast

I’d like to also discuss another D&D show on youtube which is played by Outsidexbox and Outsidextra, and run by dungeon master Johnny Chiodini (formerly of Eurogamer, now runs Dicebreaker on youtube), the players consist of Andy Farrant, Jane Douglas, Mike Channell, Ellen Rose and Luke Westaway, they all play very different characters with different personalities and different motivations, but the important thing is they are all doing this together and the cast of players is also learning with their own characters. Oxventure started nearly two years ago in 2017 and the cast had never played a D&D session before, so they are not quite as well versed in the rules or lore of the larger D&D world as some other people may be but that didn’t stop them from creating some absolutely wonderful stories and bringing their characters to life in a way that that makes you want to keep watching and that makes you want to root for them.

There are five characters within this story of adventures, Corazon, Dob, Egbert, Prudence and Merilwen — they are all different professions and they are all different races but they have come together to form a group and take on the world as a bunch of reckless and possibly insane adventurers, this sends a message about the importance of community and fostering healthy relationships with people you can call friends.

Merilwen, Prudence, Corazon, Egbert and Dob from A Spot of Bother, art by Bendix Engmann.

During one of the campaigns, Corazon struggled with his past coming back to haunt him when a group of pirates who turned out to be his former and (cursed) crew that he abandoned on an adventure gone awry, showed up to kill him, paid off by his own father, the rest of the group was ready and willing to help him through this struggle and fight alongside him even though this was only the second adventure and they barely even knew him, but they were willing to stick by his side to help him face his old friends and his estranged father.

This is something that a lot of people who struggle with mental illness don’t have enough of, sometimes there is a wonderful and supportive group of people who understand you and what you are going through and will never judge you for the outbursts or the breakdowns that you have, but more times than not unfortunately, your depression or anxiety can lead to people who aren’t as understanding or aren’t as capable of compassion to leaving you or even making you feel bad about your own struggles which is unfortunate, but it is a reality that some people face every day in their lives.

I’m going to use an example from my own personal life and it’s a little hard to discuss because it is so personal but I think it’s worth it to speak up and own what happened to me and how it shaped the months afterwards, I’ve suffered from anxiety for quite some time but it spiraled out of control after an event that happened last year sent me to the hospital, I was suffering with pneumonia and I stayed in hospital for a week, every single night I wondered if I was going to die, and the very simple answer for that question is that I could have.

When I was admitted to the E.R on a balmy evening I‌ was acutely aware that some of the staff working that night thought I may have been lying about the pain I was experiencing, they ran some tests on me and nothing came back positive, they were all set to send me home — but if you are suffering with something, you know what is happening and that something is wrong, I‌ knew something was wrong and it was someone else who decided to take another look at my blood that got me admitted. I‌ was diagnosed with sepsis, which is a blood infection that, if left untreated can lead to serious side effects or even death, if I‌ had been sent home that night, there could have been a very real possibility that I could have died.

Andy Farrant as Corazon in an image meme used on tumblr

I‌ was struggling with trauma, anxiety and soon after I‌ was released from the hospital my mother had passed away, I was very depressed and the only thing that I found solace in the dark times was the oxventure, the characters felt real and and I found myself rooting for them in a way that I haven’t since I read Harry Potter as a child.

The adventures they have and the strength they show in defeating all these things, whether it’s a giant skeleton or a weird mechanical beetle, or an over the top druid whose concoctions turn people into animals, it made me realize that I‌ could be that kind of hero as well, maybe it’s not just slaying dragons that makes you a hero, maybe it’s just getting out of bed in the morning, maybe it’s struggling but still trying anyway and maybe, just maybe one day you’ll face down your own dragons and come out the other end with something to smile about.

Make sure to catch Critical Role on twitch each thursday, and watch Oxventure on Outsidexbox/Outsidextra, and hey, if you have thirteen minutes — Go watch Johnny Chiodini’s ted talk on the subject of “Can video games save lives”, it was a truly inspirational piece and it’s what inspired me to write this article.

I‌ would also like to give a huge and very sincere thanks to Andy Farrant, Jane Douglas, Mike Channell, Ellen Rose, Luke Westaway and of course, Johnny Chiodini for creating a wonderful world with amazing, and silly stories that we can all relate to.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental illness, please find help, there are so many resources out there for you:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline