Trauma informed roleplaying games

As a counsellor who’s worked with trauma in the past, I’m always on the lookout for ways to make my sessions safer for the mental health and wellbeing of my clients. I strive to continue to learn and grow to develop my skills and understanding. Thats a personal commitment that I am always looking for opportunities to uphold.

I am currently developing a Consent In Gaming form; a sheet with a list of storyline and gameplay elements that may be confronting or triggering, and players can inform me of these so we can respectfully avoid them in sessions. Forms like this already exist, but as they’re geared for adults, tackle some incredibly challenging topics that aren’t appropriate for children’s groups. So I’ll be making a customised, age appropriate form for my sessions.

The Monte Cook Consent In Gaming form exists and is great! But some of these topics are confronting as hell and I don’t even want to give the impression these are remotely appropriate in my sessions.

But I still needed a tool for supporting a trauma informed session whilst in the session, and I wasn’t sure how to cover it. As a therapist I’m always open to speak about triggers and boundaries, and I do recognise this can be quite challenging for many people.

So when I was introduced to the X-Card, I was ecstatic. This is an amazing feature to implement in Roll for Growth sessions.

The X-Card is simple but effective.

The X-Card by John Stavropolous is a tool for the safety of all those at a gaming table. A simple piece of card with an X drawn on it is placed at a table. If the story being told, the combat scene being enacted, or someone’s conversation is confronting or triggering, the X-Card can be tapped. When the X-Card is tapped, whoever is speaking is required to change the topic, or de-intensify their discussion.

I’m going to make a small variety of cards with different prompts, such as “change the topic” or “slow down” in order to make things easier to understand. But this is a wonderful and subtle way for someone to say they’re uncomfortable with things and they’d like for something to happen to make it better. Many people feel anxiety with setting those boundaries for themselves, so something simple but clearly understood is amazing.

Participants will also have the option to speak with me privately if required, or we can debrief after the session if they so choose. But this is a wonderful framework I’m really happy to add to Roll for Growth sessions.

This is a subtle and significant tool, and I’m really excited to bring it to Roll for Growth. It has so much potential for personal wellbeing, and supporting empathy for others in our sessions.

Battles in Roll for Growth

So I did an Ask Me Anything on Reddit last week. A public interview on social media! And it was so amazingly received, I had an amazing time asking some incredibly thought provoking questions. Here’s one of my favourites!

Best question!

This was a BRILLIANT question. These are high fantasy stories we tell in the Roll for Growth games, so there’s knights and wizards, dark lords and goblins. There may be epic battles – monsters to fight, dragons to slay, villages to protect from bandits, you know, the usual stuff when you’re a big hero in a fantasy world.

At the end of the day, the players have chosen from the above, to represent how they defend themselves and their values in the story they want to tell. So we do include battles against fire spirits or dark wizards, but also as puzzles – with easier and more rewarding ways to achieve victory than fighting.

But I knew from the start that my goal was to provide opportunities to find solutions to conflict without fighting. Of course, bandits or goblins may not always listen to reason, but often our stories involve violence as a last resort, or as a consequence of bad choices.

Engaging the combat encounters in Roll for Growth games can be a great way to explore values! Why are my players choosing this fight? Why have the party decided to fight the bandit army who are attacking the village, rather than defusing the situation with diplomacy? Or teaching the villagers to stand up for themselves and taking on the bandits themselves, a’la A Bugs Life or season 1, episode 4 of The Mandalorian? Before making major decisions, we discuss why we’re choosing that course of action, and sometimes we get a great look at the thought processes and values that influence decision making, and help the party understand why we make the decisions that we do.

And, well, sometimes its nice to feel like a hero and tell the story about fighting the dragon, or the dark lord, or the bandits, or the supervillain. It gives the party a story they can engage in and enjoy hearing a story where justice is done, and the forces of good prevail. Which is a special kind of magic in itself.

However, I want players to meet a confrontation with other ways out, developing their understanding and reasoning to bring an end to conflict without unnecessary aggression. Navigating a situation with a rude shopkeeper or strict guard doesn’t have to turn to a fight, and standing up to a bully doesn’t have to perpetuate a cycle of violence.

To paraphrase; “to win and never fight is the Art of War”. One of the Roll for Growth lessons is that there are better ways to victory than fighting.

So what happens?

Well it depends on the maturity of the group. The game gives the players the freedom to do what they want to do – but the outcome is moderated by myself, and the dice. So a player can respond to a situation, say, a charging orc, with a simple “I swing my sword!”, or “I step to the left, into the traditional sword-fighter’s stance of my people, and I cut at the beast and chop off its head!” Players don’t get to decide what happens. They can make a choice in what they try to do, but the final portrayal of success or failure is up to the dice, and me.

As the moderator/referee, decisions on outcomes come down to me and the dice roll. Some players like to describe big, melodramatic fight scenes they’ve lifted from movies or anime, but if their descriptions aren’t appropriate, or even a bit confronting to the rest of the group, I moderate their approach, by toning down my description of the outcome to set a more age appropriate standard in the fight scenes.

It can be hilarious when a player’s incredibly well described and choreographed plan is met with a lower dice roll than required to meet the outcome they wish, sometimes resulting in a clumsy accident. I take this opportunity to make the fight scenes appropriate to the group, and at times, even iterate the impact of violence.

Dice determine the outcome of decisions. From left to right, a d4, d6, d8, d12, and two d10s that can be use to calculate a score out of 100. At the front is a d20, the iconic 20-sided dice of these games.

So in the event of a charging orc, a player has swing their sword and rolls a low score, they may be met with a miss, or a bounce off the orc’s own sword or armour. A high score may be met with something suitable, like “a heroic swing of your sword fells the beast in a single blow!”, like in fairy tales.

And we can use low rolls – even failures – therapeutically. We can work on acceptance and rolling with the punches, building resilience and thinking on our feet.

Things don’t always go the way we plan, and Roll for Growth games give players a safe space to rehearse thinking on the fly, and coping with plans going awry.

As for trauma, I do my best to be open with my players and avoid anything traumatic in my stories. It’s not the kind of game I want to play. So I’m creating my own Consent In Gaming sheet which is age appropriate for children to say what they are/aren’t okay with being involved in their story. Some kids may be okay with skeletons and some may not! Unfortunately, existing Consent In Gaming forms were made for adults, and aren’t age appropriate, so making ones for kids and young people are definitely on my to do list.

I hope this was helpful!

Supporting reading and writing difficulties in Roll for Growth

Many young people are enjoying roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. Many who access Roll for Growth are autistic, and sometimes may need a little extra support with elements of the game. Filling out a whole character sheet can be a daunting process! Understanding that this may be a sensitive topic for some, I’ve made some processes for comfort and ease of play.

I mean, this thing is a lot if you’re not yet used to it.

So here’s some of the ways Roll for Growth sessions are supportive and inclusive of players who may have issues with reading, writing and numbers.

Pre-made character sheets: I have character sheets prepared for the core classes, with all the nitty-gritty numbers prepared, and stars next to the special skills they can select from. The only thing a player needs to do is tell me what abilities and skills they want. We go through them together because some of the skills aren’t incredibly intuitive, and may require explanation to anyone new to the game.

A premade character sheet for a Sorcerer. All I need to know from the player is their race and background, so I can add bonuses. We choose Skills together, and then spells, and choose the origin story for the Sorcerer’s powers.

I use pictures to describe the core races, classes and social backgrounds. They’re pretty simple and fun, and then in our first session I go through what the implications of playing these races are – some have bonuses in their traits that others don’t, or may be good at things above others. As an example, Halflings, like the jolly hobbits from Lord of the Rings, are quite small and find it easier to sneak, so playing a sneaky character is easier. The mighty dragonborn, eight foot tall reptilians, are stronger than most other races and have magical breath attacks. 

I don’t overcomplicate the game. The beauty of these game systems is a massive flexibility to do things the way we want to. Unlike videogames which are very strict on adherence to rules and programming, tabletop games like Hero Kids or Dungeons & Dragons give us unparalleled flexibility to make, modify or ignore rules in favour of fun, storytelling or creativity. We play with the “rule of cool”, meaning that any solution to a problem may be used and given consideration if it is creative and interesting. 

The point is creative problem solving, at the end of the day.

My passion is providing supportive and inclusive services, which means I’m more than willing to learn new ways of doing things to support the people who come to my sessions. These are just some of the ways I’ve built processes to support the Roll for Growth players.

If you have any ideas, recommendations or requests for ways to make the game more inclusive, please feel free to contact me! I’d love to have a chat about it.

Why nerd therapy? Or how I stopped worrying about looking like a professional

Why use nerd therapy? It seems like a weird idea on the surface. But with the Marvel films and Star Wars movies being popular as ever and gaming no longer a niche thing for oddballs.

It could just be the synthwave aesthetic.

My passion for nerdy approaches to therapy begins with the understanding that for every person, we need a different approach to mental health. Not everything works for everyone, or every issue that they face. Developing and taking part in new and innovative approaches to supporting mental health is vital, and programs like “Mine-fulness with Mike”, and “Roll for Growth”, are my way of reaching out to people who may not get much out of traditional styles of therapy.

Mine-fulness with Mike uses Minecraft for therapeutic opportunities, social & emotional learning, and simply giving us a shared activity to enjoy during therapy.

In my early roles working with kids I learned quickly that if I just sat down in my Counsellor Shirt and used my Counsellor Words in my Counsellor Voice, sometimes I’d lose their attention or interest. I wouldn’t be able to make that important connection, and I’d just be another adult using adult words. Other children who had been exposed more to the system, would refuse to speak in the presence of a notepad and pen.

Roll for Growth uses a variety of team based storytelling games for group therapy and mental health support.

And it didn’t feel genuine to me, either! We’re encouraged to be authentic, and it took me awhile to be comfortable bringing being a total nerd to all of you, because I was worried it may not be “professional”. Eventually I realised that it didn’t matter so much if I was the very Avatar of Corporate Professionalism, even if I do suit a suit, if it’s not going to represent the authentic Mike in sessions. 

Not long after I started the Pop Culture Competence project, I was asked if I did nerdy therapy, and my first honest thought was “why don’t I do nerdy therapy?!”

After making Star Wars based Zones of Regulation & behaviour charts, I finally decided on looking more at nerdy therapy. Of course I was still studying and practising in traditional therapy, and I love acceptance & commitment training, and dialectical behaviour therapy, but I also wanted to create opportunities to reach people who normally may not respond well to 1:1 conversations. 

Roll for Growth now has Star Wars sessions!

Part of ending the stigma to me, is giving people, especially young people, a therapy experience they can engage with and enjoy. Part of how I measure success is willingness to engage, and willingness to return. 

For years I’ve talked in my personal life about the connective and therapeutic power of gaming, both at a table for games like D&D, and in games like World of Warcraft that can create a sense of inclusion and community. Games like Minecraft and Roblox can inspire creative thinking, and at the end of the day, Pokemon Go just wants us to go for a walk 🙂 

Part of what inspired me to become a counsellor was the phrase; “be who you needed when you were younger.” I’ve struggled with social anxiety, general anxiety, and depression. At the end of the day, I’m trying to find new ways to support people in need. And why not make it fun, and creative?

To find out more, send me a message, contact me via this site or contact me on social media @CounsellingWithMike.

Mine-fulness and Minecraft Therapy

I run Minecraft Therapy! An awesome way to work using a fan’ favourite game, Minecraft! Affectionately referred to as “Lego but on a computer”, Minecraft is a game with a massive amount of creative potential! Check it out here at Pop Culture Competence!

So why not use it in therapy?

Kids can build confidence by engaging enthusiastically in a safe space they’re familiar with, and the peaceful surroundings and serene background music make for wonderful settings for mindfulness exercises. We can work on exercises using the game, working on team skills and mindful planning as we work on big projects in our Minecraft World.

Sometimes counselling services can be awkward or confronting, especially for people with social anxiety, neurodiversity or a history of trauma. Something we can do in a standard talk therapy session is load Minecraft up for an activity to share while we speak to each other. 

If you’d like to learn more or book in for a session, reach out to my social media accounts, via the contact form here, or by email at Mike@counsellingwithmike.com.au

Roll for Growth, Social Skills & Social Anxiety

During a session last week, one of my participants mentioned how much he enjoys this style of counselling. “This is really fun, and I like being able to tell my story.” Not only that, the group are fully engaged through the whole session. That’s why I’m so passionate about this form of therapy: for them, it hardly feels like therapy, but they’re having the full effect of a therapeutic session.

Roll for Growth is a style of play therapy which uses storytelling games built on teamwork. I have written a story, and the players form a team, and must work together to overcome challenges and obstacles in the story. They must also navigate social scenarios, such as meeting new people, resolving disagreements between friends, working as a team, and developing interpersonal effectiveness.

These sessions can be used for developing social skills, managing shyness and social anxiety.

The game provides a safe space for practising these skills through the medium of roleplay, and allows for gameified feedback. The facilitator (me), will respond appropriately to conversation and social interactions.

The players sit around a table, and work collaboratively to achieve their goals.

Social traits such as charisma and persuasion are part of the game, with allocated skill values and the chance to roll dice to determine outcomes. In Roll for Growth sessions, players may forgo a dice roll entirely if they can provide demonstrable skill or effectiveness in these areas.

I’ll post an example of some dialogue below. The player is a wizard, trying to obtain a magical gem from the facilitator, who is a ranger.

Ex. 1: Using dice for outcomes.

Player: “Hi! Can I have that gem?”
Facilitator: “Roll for persuasion.”
The player would then roll a twenty-sided die, the result of which would affect the outcome of this request, with higher numbers resulting in a higher likelihood of success. In our example here, the player has rolled an 11, which is unsuccessful. A score of 15 would be required to obtain the gem from the ranger in this case, because it’s valuable, but not a precious heirloom or something the ranger isn’t allowed to give away. This would be okay in a regular game, but less fun for those engaged in roleplay or a Roll for Growth session.

Ex. 2: Roll for Growth
Player (as the Ranger): “Give me the gem.”
Facilitator: “Excuse me, Wizard? I don’t know who you are. Are you trying to rob me?”
Facilitator (out of character): “Try again. Convince me.”

Player: “Hello there! My name is Danielus and I am a wizard! I am in need of gems for my quest to defeat the Dark Lord. What could I do in order to get the gem?”

Facilitator (as the Ranger): “Good afternoon, Danielus! I am Daveiken, a ranger, and it is also my quest to see the end of the Dark Lord’s tyranny! You may have the gem if it would help bring peace back to the kingdom.”

In the Roll for Growth model, the player used interpersonal effectiveness; a solid introduction, a succinct purpose, and an honest question. In this scenario, the player has done a good enough job of engaging the facilitator, that I’d bypass the dice roll and allow them to have the gem for their quest. Although their first attempt failed, they were allowed a second chance to practice their interpersonal skills.

By doing this in the game environment, players don’t need to take criticism to heart, as they are acting as their character. However, they can learn vicariously through this character, and Danielus the Wizard can be safely used to explore a world and try out new skills.

In addition to putting players in social situations to test their interpersonal effectiveness, players must work as a team to overcome challenges and puzzles, as well as make decisions for the team. I integrate a variety of team building and rapport-developing activities into the story in order to facilitate team cohesion and interaction between players.

For a lot of the people I work with, in practice and in school, social situations can be a struggle. This leads them to avoid socialising out of discomfort and shyness. Roll for Growth sessions can facilitate social learning and social skills experimentation, in the therapeutic space, without fear of humiliation or judgement

Re-imagining

I’m Mike. A mental health counsellor, and entirely unrepentant nerd. These aren’t exclusive ideas. For ages I thought they were. I thought I’d crossed the line by having a Pokemon as my practice mascot. But for anyone who understands the significance of Sylveon, or has watched my video on the topic, you’ll know exactly what I’m saying whenever you see a Sylveon in something I make.

In training courses and at university, we’re told to be authentic to a degree, and present ourselves professionally. There’s even been judgmental comments in therapist groups about people who wear jeans or a t-shirt to work. But what does that mean for people whose authentic expression doesn’t really match traditional professionalism?

“Nerd. One whose unbridled passion for something defines who they are as a person, without fear of other people’s judgment.”

Zachary Levi

At the start of September I created a blog – The Nerd Therapist. It’s a resource page which explains children’s media and popular culture to therapists and other child-serving professionals. Due to the demands of professional life and personal interest, there aren’t many people in the field who do nerdy things, but might work with the people that do. As a nerd and a therapist, I’ve been able to riff and banter with the young people I work with because we have a shared culture, and narratives. I’ve helped other clinicians understand the people they work with who rely on these narratives to express themselves.

Within five days I had a hundred followers, a handful of requests from therapists to help understand their clients, and a job offer.

Within the month I had a thousand followers, several invitations to coffee meetups, a radio spot, and a whole host of awesome conversations about mental health and popular culture.

This experience has been surreal. The interest, and the conversations I’m having about The Nerd Therapist project, has taken me completely by surprise. I expected criticism and negativity, but I’ve received nothing but enthusiasm and support. And this has been so invigorating, so empowering and affirming that I’ve never been so energised while working in the field.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

Steven Pressfield

But in the back of my mind, anxiety – Resistance, as Pressfield puts it – tells me that this is unprofessional. That it’s silly, and I’m projecting. And when resistance rears its ugly head, I know I’m going the right way. This isn’t Suit and Tie, Boardroom Professionalism. This is professionalism in the form of meeting the clients where they are. And I don’t need to step into their world – because I’m already part of it.

I’m meeting resistance, and I’m going to break through it.

Whatever happens, I’ve already won. I will continue to win every time someone sees my example and feels the freedom to be their own flavor of freak, and express themselves unapologetically.

Yvie Oddly

I’m following my own advice – living with passion and authenticity. I’m creating resources for clinicians – and the first one isn’t far away from being released. I’m bringing tabletop roleplaying games into the therapy room. I’m no longer afraid of looking unprofessional – because I’m no longer ashamed of being The Nerd Therapist.

So I’m doing a little rebrand, as you may have noticed. Counselling with Mike – The Nerd Therapist. Combining who I am, with what I do, in the hopes that I can speak to the hearts of everyone out there who has felt like they’re not understood or accepted because of the books they read, the movies they watch, or the games they play.

Good vibes and victory

Mike.

Invalidation and trauma

Tw/cw – invalidation, trauma, gaslighting. Please be mindful before continuing.

Today I’d like to take a moment to talk about invalidation.

To everyone who has ever heard, or said, “its all in your head”, I offer this: Your whole life happens there. Our experiences shape the way we see and interact with the world. What you’ve experienced is real. Trauma can arise from perceived experiences as well as real ones. Your experiences are real, and valid.

Invalidation is when someone denies, dismisses or rejects someone’s feelings – even their own. As a teenager I couldn’t have even considered that what I was feeling was depression. That what I as a child, had experienced was traumatic grief. I invalidated myself with my own rejection.

I’ve met people who don’t see their experiences as valid, or for whom it’s taken a lot of work to understand that their experience is. Sometimes we don’t recognise it until we’re looking back on it after healing. When we make a new normal, we have a fresh perspective on the full extent of the old one.

Mindful communication

When I was on the railways I found myself devouring books on world philosophy, in search of wisdom and meaning. Reading these brought me to seek a more fulfilling calling in life, and when I learned about counselling, and how it could be a career option for me, I knew I’d found my path. One of these texts, “Hagakure”, written by a samurai who worked as a scribe, is the source of the quote above.

Our words are more powerful that many of us ever come to fully realise. Often, we cannot predict the impact they may have on others. A single careless statement made without thought, could echo in the minds of others for a lifetime.

So the best thing we can do, is put care into the way we express ourselves, to ensure we only say what we mean – and mean what we say. It’s not always easy, and its not always going to succeed, but we owe it to those around us, and our positive relationships with them, to ensure that our words don’t cause inadvertent harm.

After all, we don’t get to decide how others feel about our words or actions.

But of course, there’s many ways you could interpret this quotation. What do you think it could apply to?

Anxiety, curiosity and new opportunities

I’m departing from my usual posts for clients and prospective clients today. This one is for the early career psychologists, counsellors, and students.

Today I had the honour and privilege to attend a skills training session with LifelineWA and their DBTeen program. The program is pretty self-explanatory, it provides dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) to adolescents. I am so grateful to the program coordinator for accepting me into the role.

I got to spend today with a dozen amazing individuals, and I only wish I had the time to talk to all of them at the length I only managed with a few. I got to engage in a truly serene mindfulness experience, and learn about the cornerstones of DBT in practice.

I have been interested in pursuing DBT since the second year of my degree (2017) and I cannot understate how excited I am to engage in this program with them. I’ll have a trainee-observer role, and will have the opportunity to learn first hand from experienced clinicians.

Opportunities like this are certainly few and far between. Training is often prohibitively expensive, especially in niche or specialist areas.

Networking is honestly a trait that will take you so many interesting places and provide you with so many opportunities. Building a network, or even just sending emails or following newsletters, can give you a vital and invigorating level of awareness of opportunities and options open to us.

It can be so hard to learn, and the anxiety can be so challenging to overcome, but we deny ourselves amazing opportunities when we don’t put ourselves out there.

For now though, I’ve got a thick DBT book to get acquainted with. There’s so much to learn – I must admit I don’t feel quite ready. But I’m here to learn, and thats perfectly okay.

We start in a couple weeks. I can’t wait.

I’m anxious and curious. It feels amazing.