picture of Dr. Megan Connel, her book, Tabletop Role-Playing Therapy, and the healthquest logo

Interview with Dr. Megan Connell, psychologist and author of Tabletop Role-Playing Therapy!

Dr. Megan Connell is a psychologist, author of Tabletop Role-Playing Therapy, member of Leyline Geek Therapeutics, co-founder of HealthQuest and Geeks Like Us, host of Psycology at the Table and Brain Noodles Podcast, and GM for Clinical Role! She shares her XP and lessons learned as she tells us about how she uses TTRPGs for therapeutics and her tips for clinicians looking to start using applied TTRPGs.

*this is a transcribed interview that has been edited, with permission from the interviewee, to improve ease of reading

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Yes, so I am Dr. Megan Connell!

I’m a board-certified psychologist, and I am the co-founder of HealthQuest: Innovative Theraputics, a group practice in North Carolina, practicing physically in Charlotte, and virtually out of over 35 States.

I am also a board member for Leyline Geek Therapeutics where we train people as game masters and geek therapists. 

I’m also the co-founder of Geeks Like Us media company that celebrates all things that we can be unapologetically enthusiastic about. It is a very inclusive, celebrating community, where we try to be a safe harbor for those in the autism spectrum who are big fans and geeks but have been excluded from a lot of other places. 

I am the host of Psychology at the Table, a YouTube series where we talk about how game masters can help their friends who are having psychological problems like depression, anxiety, mathematics disorders, etc. and about how psych shows up in our gaming spaces.

I’m also the host of the Brain Noodles Podcast where myself and other psychologically minded ladies talk about pressing issues… such as office supplies, ha!

And I am the GM for Clinical Role, a live play D&D campaign for therapeutic game masters, psychologists, and other friends of the greater psychology space.  That campaign is under prep right now and getting ready to start.

I am also an author!  I wrote Tabletop Role-Playing Therapy: A Guide for the Clinician Game Master, which just got published earlier in this year in March of 2023 from Norton Publishing.

I think that’s all of it. I do a lot, ha!

It is an awesome resume!  So, you are very steeped in this!

I am. I am very much into turning your passion into your career, and that’s something that we talk about at Geeks Like Us a lot.  We get into how we take the things that we love and bring them together.  If you love teaching and education, and you also love video games like, how do you combine that?  Or, how do you bring, you know, tabletop gaming into community building?

There’s lots of things that we could be enthusiastic about, and trying to weave those into all that we do is a lot of fun.

There was a really awesome cosplay YouTube series that I was watching where the guy who is running it is a professional cosplayer who now makes costumes for other people.  He was talking about the dream job aspect of it, and it’s not that there’s no work involved in a dream job, there certainly is, but we just don’t mind having to do my taxes so much for it!

That’s a really good way of putting it!  It’s very similar to a few things with the TTRPGkids blog!

What is your favorite in-game TTRPG moment?

Oh, my God! There’s a lot!

So, I have a weekly campaign that we’ve been playing since my daughter was almost 1, and she is now 8.

My first character got her backstory shining moment, but I didn’t get to be there live.  I was listening and having to text in what my character was doing because said youngest child had woken up, and I was in their soothing them, and trying to get them back to sleep.

My character is getting the finishing blow on somebody who had been incredibly abusive towards her in the past, and it was really cool, but also like… Dang it! I wanted to say it not be just typing: my character stabs them!

And I think one of my favorite things, too, is sometimes when my game master’s brain just stalls and he’ll say random stuff!  Like, he forgot the word stable, and so he started calling it a horsery!  Or in our game last night, like there was a poo processor or something!  And we wanted to stop and wait because… this is world building.  We’re interested now!

It’s always the random chaotic stuff that players love!

Oh! Oh, for sure!

There’s also lots of moments therapeutically that I’ve talked about a lot that are meaningful to me, and I think one of the most powerful and amazing ones is in Clinical Role.

We use something called the Deck of Wonder, which is right here [points towards an amazing collection shelf full of TTRPG materials].  This is by the amazing folks at GemHammer.  It’s a hundred random things that can happen in your game, like the air in your lungs is replaced with water for 15s, or maybe all hostile creatures lose all memory of you and no longer perceive you for 1 minute.  Another is your hands and feet switch places until dawn – It’s really funny.

So, we use the deck in our games, and one of my players pulled this card that, like everybody everywhere, sincerely believes your name to be Dabney for the next month.

And then, right after his character’s name went back to being the original name, he pulled again!  We decided if he pulled it a third time that was it was a permanent change of name, and he did!  And he got it a fourth time, too!

Oh, now that’s just destiny, haha!

We had gotten to this moment for the final arc of his backstory, and his character was the curmudgeonly leader.  I got to narrate this part of where…  Eriml grew up without a family.  He grew up not feeling wanted. He grew up not feeling needed.  However, Dabney has a family.  Dabney’s found his place.

It was just this beautiful moment of something from this ridiculous, silly deck with silly things that happen, and it brought this really heartfelt moment and this wonderful growth and character arc.

That is amazing!  You can plan everything that you want, but it’s moments like that where, if you let them grow, mean so much more!

Could you tell us about your book?

So, it is Tabletop Role-Playing Therapy: A Guide for the Clinician Game Master. It’s a long title, but it’s hopefully descriptive!

This is, as far as I know, the first of its kind as a comprehensive look at how tabletop roleplaying games can be used as a therapeutic tool.  It’s been something that myself and several others have been pioneering and talking about and pushing forward.

This book is really sort of a lessons learned from my experience, trial and error from running my own groups, and how I think this can be effective.

I did as much as comprehensive of a literature review as you can on something that is not well researched at all, and I tried to give some guidelines and best practices to folks who are wanting to use this style of therapy.

It goes through the history, the fundamental underpinnings of this, what diagnoses could be addressed, and what goals and objectives somebody might use.

Then, the second half of the book is really dedicated to how to build your own practice around doing something like this, from choosing a gaming system to thinking about the ethics of it, talking about documentation, getting the right group together, using safety tools, issues a diversity and inclusion… I really try to go through all of it.

My hope is that for folks who are psychologically minded that it’s going to bring them more towards the gaming space and make this feel like not such a big leap to use because it’s really a powerful tool.

Also, for those who play tabletop games, if you want to understand a little bit better why these games make you feel so much, this book can be really powerful in that regard as well.

And how do you use TTRPGs for therapeutic applications?

Some of this stuff, to therapists, are going to go, oh… of course that makes sense, but it took a learning curve to get there. 

One of them was to make goals for the group, not goals for the individual, which anybody who has studied group therapy knows. That’s just what you do, but in the over anxious mind of somebody who’s trying to trailblaze and make sure that this is good, they might try to tailor to every single person in the group.  That’s not how it works though!  Make broad goals that are going to be applicable to several people who will be in your group, and, then, maybe create an individual goal for each person that’s also in line with the group.

Another really big lesson learned was to find the groups that work for you. 

A lot of my peers had been doing groups that were focusing on teaching social skills to those on the autism spectrum, so I started off running some groups like that.  But that was not my forte, mostly because there was a lot of energy in the room, and it was great passion and great energy, but it just wasn’t something I was very good at directing.

I had a pet project where I wanted to do an all-girls group, for several reasons, and so I did that, and it went so much better for me.  Understanding that this is where my strength is, and this is what I need to lean into was very powerful.

Any of the tabletop subreddits say things like “no D&D is better than bad D&D”, and it’s sort of something to keep in mind.  If you’re not going to run the game well, don’t do it.  That’s not going to work.  You need to really try to make sure you lean into your own personal strengths so you can grow and develop too.  We don’t want to just be like, “Oh, I stumbled into this thing!  And now I’m here!”

What advice do you have for parents, teachers, and caregivers… and also therapists, when it comes to storytelling and tabletop RPGs?

I think… learn a little bit about it first.  Go and watch a live play or a recording.  Critical Role, of course, is like the big one that everybody goes to and there’s a reason for that.

They’re professional voice actors who get really into character and who aren’t afraid of role-playing; they do a good job of telling a dynamic story!  But they have, at this point, thousands of hours of content, which can be very daunting.

So, they did do a short run campaign called Alexandria Unlimited, Age of Calamity, and it is some of the best role-playing and storytelling I think I have ever seen.  It is incredibly compelling.

One of the things that I love that they did was a Q&A with the game masters.  So often, I think Matt Mercer plays a lot of his cards very close to the chest, which is fine, but Brian Mulligan, who actually ran the Age of Calamity game, was not afraid to say “I didn’t know”.

He talked about this moment when a character found the exact thing that they needed to finish the experiment!  And Brian admitted he didn’t know that… but he sure I went with it!  You said it, we’re going to go with it.  And like it looked so planned from the outside!

It looks like he carefully wove all these pieces together, and the players exactly picked up on it, but you find out that, no, the players just said stuff, and he went with it.  It was the other way around, and I think that’s really powerful.

For when you’re thinking about what goes on behind the screen, it can feel like you have to over prepare and really get everything, but to see that magic of really true communal storytelling, you’re going to add something…  and I’m going to add something, and together it’s going to become something more.  That really beautiful.

If folks are interested and wanting more, then, go find a game store!   They’re going to have open table nights where beginners are welcome to go play. 

Then start running a couple games for your friends! 

Get comfortable with whatever game you want to play before you ever think about using it in a professional capacity, though. Don’t go from never having heard of this game to running a therapeutic game – that is a recipe for disaster.

I think for parents wanting to play role playing games with their kids, don’t be surprised if they just want to go be little murderhobos.  I’ve seen it plenty of times, and it’s okay.  It’s part of the game. You’ve got to figure out your comfort level with that, but it’s also like, if you, as a parent, are not comfortable with that, go find a game that doesn’t necessarily involve as much combat as D&D.

There’s a board game called Stuffed Fables where you play as the animated stuffed animals of a little girl who is stuck in her nightmare, and you go in and fight the nightmare and rescue her from that.

There’s a lot of ways to do this stuff and to slowly walk into everything.  With the age of Twitch and YouTube, it is so easy to learn this.

Just reading the rule set just doesn’t do it; it doesn’t convey what a session is, so when you sit down and actually watch people at the table tell a story, it’s like… Wait, this, is it?

I remember introducing one of my friends to D& D, and I told them to watch the first episode of Critical Role just to get an idea of that it was.  They sent me a text saying: I’m an hour in.  When do they start playing the game?

They are playing it!  They’re telling a story. That’s the game.

Be ready for that and for how amazing that can be.

Do you have any shout outs or final words or bits of advice before we close out?

Yeah!  I think one thing that I get asked a lot is: why is D&D the best for therapy?

I think people are surprised when I tell them it’s not.  There is no such thing as a best system for therapy.

I use D&D because it’s the system that I know, and, it’s something that I talk about in my book, there is no such thing as the perfect system for treatment or working with a population.  You want to be comfortable in the toolset that you have.  So, if you like running Kids on Bikes, or you like running the Avatar system, which I have behind me, those are all amazing, awesome systems… and go play those.

It’s okay to use something that’s not D&D therapeutically or educationally.  You want to find what’s going to work for you.

If people want to reach me, they can find me at hqpsych.com.

I’m on all the social medias as @meganpsyd

I have also been told that I am intimidatingly available to people because I respond to emails.  I guess a lot of my colleagues don’t!  I don’t know!  I’m not trying to be intimidating; I was a grad student once reaching out for help and guidance, and I remember the frustration of not being heard, so I try to be available to people.

I’ll be around different gaming conventions too, you can almost always find me a Gamehole Con – I love that one!

Awesome, and thank you Dr. Connell for the interview! 

Please go check out all that Dr. Connell is doing (especially her new book), and…. If you liked this post, make sure to subscribe to the TTRPGkids monthly newsletter to stay up to date on the latest reviewstips and tricksgame and podcast list updates, and more! Thank you for playing tabletop RPGs with your kids and sharing this awesome hobby with the next generation!