Why Dungeons and Dragons Is the Perfect Family Game

The world’s most popular roleplaying game is hours of fun — and can help you raise more resilient kids.

by Jeff Ashworth
An illustration of a family playing Dungeons and Dragons at a table
Chloe Giroux for Fatherly

Let’s be honest with each other: Things are a little bleak right now. We’re thrashing our way through a global pandemic, this election year is going on its second decade, unemployment is trending in the wrong direction and Netflix has yet to announce a second season of Tiger King. For these (and other) reasons, you may find it tempting to flee reality from time to time. And believe it or not, doing so would be good for both you and your kid.

And there’s no better way to escape than by playing Dungeons & Dragons — yes, the roleplaying game where players go on adventures together using dice, some rule sets and their imaginations — especially if you’re enduring yet another week of sheltering in place. In addition to being a fun way to kill a few goblins and a few hours, D&D provides screen-free fun, reinforces math skills, hones problem-solving abilities, and can make you a better dad — if only because it’ll make your kids better human beings.

If you already know a bit about D&D because you’re a Level 12 Variant Human Ranger or you saw the game featured in detail on an episode of Stranger Things or Community, then feel free to skip this basic explanation. But, at its core, Dungeons & Dragons is a semi-structured storytelling game, where a Game Master leads other players through a collaborative adventure in a realm filled with dungeons, dragons or both (also created by the Game Master). Players create their own characters (“Bailey the Half-elven Bard!” “Digby the Dragonborn Warlock!” “Ol’ Coot the 600 Year Old Gnomish Wizard!”), then are given a scenario by their Game Master (“Bailey, Digby and Ol’ Coot awake to find themselves trapped in the lair of a giant kraken”). The players then describe how their characters would react to that scenario using the unique abilities and skills granted by the character they’ve created: “Bailey would try to lull the kraken to sleep with a lullaby…”; “Digby would use a spell to disguise all three of us so we look like hermit crabs…”; “Ol’ Coot would try to go back to sleep, since this seems like a nightmare.” The players then roll dice to see how effective their plans would be, and the Game Master describes the outcome based on the outcome of the dice rolls.

A game can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be, and some Game Masters spend hours planning adventure sessions for their players. For busy dads, this might sound like a chore. Luckily, I’ve spent the better part of a year working on a book (The Game Master’s Book of Random Encounters) that does a lot of the prepwork for you, so you can focus on developing your best kraken impression.

Dungeons and Dragons is experiencing a bit of a renaissance among adults due to its popularity on streaming sites and podcasts, but it has a lot to offer younger players as well. If you’re interested in getting started, here are some added benefits.

It Provides Hours of Fun — No Screen Required

One of the most appealing features of D&D is it’s a completely analog form of escapism. Yes, there are apps that help track character development and spell descriptions and that help you run the game, but they aren’t necessary. All you need are a few rulebooks, a set of dice, and a pencil and paper, which makes D&D a great choice for parents seeking to give their kids (and themselves) a digital detox.

It Reinforces and Rewards Reading and Math Skills

While the surface level of the game is relatively simple, D&D rewards those who choose to dive deep. There are whole blogs and Reddit threads dedicated to the mathematical advantages of specific character builds (“I’m GARTHOLOMEW, a Barbarian Tortle Druid of Spores!” “Cool…I’m…a Wizard. Named…Harry?”), and every time your kid rolls a die and references their character sheet they’ll need to do a little basic arithmetic. That practice adds up. The same applies to reading. There are easily missed details in the Player’s Handbook — one of the game’s core rulebooks — that open up whole realms of play for the astute observer, meaning research and knowledge are often rewarded.

It Encourages Imagination and Teaches Storytelling 101

While some approaches to D&D encourage the use of miniature figures and gridded battle maps, the majority of the game takes place in the players’ imaginations. Immersive, imaginary play is key for all children, and studies suggest children who dive deeply into imaginary worlds, go on to contribute greatly to both the arts and sciences. C.S. Lewis and Jack Kerouac toddled in imaginary worlds. So did the neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, the physicist Stanislaw Lem, and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

As your child’s neural pathways continue to establish themselves, exercises that encourage them to expand their thinking and try new things are preferable to those that reward repetition. Plus, watching your child’s unbridled imagination at work is often more entertaining than anything the streaming giants can conjure. You’ll marvel as your children interact with creatures and characters of your own design, then struggle to keep up as they take a story hook you’ve introduced and sprint away with it in a completely different direction than the one you’d anticipated. The game relies heavily on character creation, which establishes all the basics of good storytelling from the ground up, seeding each player with bonds that guide them and flaws that undercut their aims. In other words? Conflict and comedy often present themselves organically. As a result, your kids will learn the elements of a deftly woven, engaging narrative.

It Reinforces Lateral Thinking in Problem Solving

Most D&D sessions involve some kind of obstacle players in the party must overcome. Unlike most video games, however, where game mechanics encourage you to either bludgeon or shoot a problem to death, D&D is built around a “you can certainly try” ethos, allowing for creative approaches to pretty much everything.

Dealing with a barred door? You can try to knock it down. Or pick the lock. Or cast a spell that allows you to create an unlocked door right next to it. Need to slip past a few guards? Convince them you’re their superior, or create a diversion by setting a nearby cart on fire. Facing down fearsome ogres? You can fight, or flee or lie through your teeth and convince them they’d be deathly allergic to your flesh. In this way, despite its fantasy setting, D&D mimics the real world, where there are typically several ways to get yourself out of a jam. Because of the game’s narrative structure, nearly anything is possible — which means players are only limited by the luck of the dice and their imaginations.

It Rewards Teamwork

While you could certainly run a session for one player (and while social distancing remains the norm, you might have to limit sessions to immediate family members) the game is better, and significantly more fun, with a group (perhaps that’s why players call these groups “a party”). Because each player character has a different set of skills (and weaknesses), most of the challenges they’ll face together will require cooperation, which in turn teaches the value of recognizing the strengths others bring to the table.

Additionally, watching your child interact with their friends or siblings as they face adversity together is a great way to learn about their real-life dynamic. This allows for a dialogue using concrete examples if you feel the need to adjust any negative patterns. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have fireballed your allies just because they didn’t want to help you find that magical bathrobe,” may be a weird way to begin a conversation about impulse control, but it’s preferable to a similar conversation about them throwing a ball pit-based tantrum at a Chuck E Cheese.

It Creates Opportunities for No-Strings Experiential Learning

Because it allows you to observe your kid’s behavior and nudge them as necessary in a more positive direction, D&D’s roleplaying component can help facilitate instruction on any number of topics in a way that’s both fun and educational. You can always tell your kids “Nazis were bad! Fascism is oppressive!” (And you should!) But those statements will mean more when their party has seen the effects of an imaginary totalitarian regime firsthand, and you’ll beam with pride as your progeny takes the initiative to craft several dozen pitchforks to distribute to the underclass.

Complex systems of government or approaches to existence you want your child to understand are limited only by what you’re willing to create as the Game Master. You could showcase the perils of unwavering rules by taking them to the plane of Mechanus (run by sentient clock people!) or force them to endure a hard lesson in economics after their inheriting of a dragon’s treasure stash tanks the local economy (a lack of resource scarcity means their gold is now worthless!). Though they might not understand or even care about government or history or economics or the confluence of all three, these learning experiences will have weight because they’re attached to things they do care about: their characters, their friends and their loot. Additionally, in-game adventures that lead to sadness, anger, or frustration at the death of a beloved character allow kids to explore these emotions and their impact without the real-life repercussions that accompany true loss. This also helps create a vocabulary with your child for discussing similar real-world events when they inevitably take place.

It Helps Highlight the Value of Different Skill Sets

Kids typically have a diverse range of skills, but it takes time for them to come into focus. Some are great at talking, others solid at problem solving; some are streetwise and others book smart; some are the only kid in their grade with a mustache while others are smaller, arguably weaker, but impossibly nimble and tough to spot in a crowd. The structure of D&D ensures that while everyone can be great at something, very few players are great at everything. Which is a lot like real life. Despite what you might have read on your favorite self-help blog, we aren’t all going to be hulking beast men. Not everyone is going to be a Rhodes Scholar. Rather than teaching kids to strive for one version of perfection, D&D is a showcase for the power that comes from embracing the things that make you different—and great.

It’s a Unique Bonding Experience

You likely have a childhood memory or three of family game nights that morphed into formative experiences: finally beating your dad in chess; triumphantly catching your sister before she could say “Uno”; bursting into tears because your grandmother refused to give you a break on hotel rates in Marvin’s Gardens. Games create a framework for interaction (including the occasional flipping of the gaming table) and D&D is no exception. But because D&D is largely cooperative, players are often working toward the same goal.

There will be plenty of moments for competition, as well as arguments about some of the game’s more obscure rules, but those inevitably fade from view in favor of the veritable highlight reel of unforgettable moments from every session. Your child will always remember the time they led a fortress defense and stopped an incoming hobgoblin raid with nothing but a spoon and some spells. They’ll never forget the time they inadvertently attuned to a cursed item and had to spend the next three sessions speaking only in rhymed couplets. They’ll reminisce years later about the riddles they solved with their friends, the survey of swashes they buckled, the characters they created and later laid to rest, the towns they saved from danger, the towns they accidentally set on fire, the damsels in distress, the hags in disguise, the narrow escapes, the bumbling successes, the saves, and failures and terrible kraken impressions, and the incredible Game Master — their very own dad — who made it all possible.

Jeff Ashworth is the author of the Game Master’s Book of Random Encounters. Available September 15, 2020, it includes nearly 100 maps, 150 roll tables, and several single-session adventures to help you do hours of game prep in a matter of minutes.