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“You don't know when something profound is going to happen”: Designer behind Critical Role's new RPG on the therapeutic potential of tabletop games

A talk with For the Queen creator Alex Roberts.

Art cards for For the Queen: Second Edition.
Image credit: Darrington Press, Dicebreaker

Though best known within the tabletop community for creating games such as Jenga-powered RPG Star Crossed and For the Queen - the second edition of which was just published by Critical Role studio Darrington Press - Alex Roberts also runs a counselling service.

The two career paths may initially seem very different, but for Roberts designing games and helping people to heal are irrefutably connected. “Playing story games made me a better counsellor,” she says. “I obviously got into making games because it’s fun but it’s taught me how to play close attention and listen to people.”

For the Queen is a storytelling game that sees players taking turns to draw and answer prompt cards from a deck, with everyone’s responses and the cards themselves driving the narrative of each playthrough. Players take the role of attendants for a matriarchal monarch, with their characters being put into various scenarios that test their loyalty and force them to examine their relationships with their ruler. It’s a game that’s far more about the journey than the destination, with players encouraged to listen to their fellow courtiers as much as contributing to the discussion themselves.

Alex Roberts plays For the Queen with a collection of creators and inluencers.Watch on YouTube

“[For the Queen] is structured in such a way that people are primed to listen to each other,” Roberts says. “Players get into the mode of listening so they can answer follow-up questions.”

For the Queen is not intended to be played in a way where each person’s turn is separate from another’s. Instead, the game is a collaborative experience between the entire table, as prompted by the cards. Its cards cover a variety of themes, from people’s relationships to power and authority to their feelings on femininity. Besides the second edition’s revamped artwork, Roberts confirms that some cards have been changed. In particular, she cites a prompt that she witnessed several players reacting negatively to in the original version: “Being told they’re ugly hits people a certain way, keeping it in was not worth the bad times it caused.”

“The experience of being acknowledged and treated as a valuable human being that’s being listened to is powerful."

That doesn’t mean that Roberts was seeking to eliminate all potentially difficult moments. Players are free to pass on any cards they don’t feel comfortable answering, for one reason or another. Rather than just being a way of avoiding challenging themes, the pass mechanic is an essential part of the game.

Queen cards for For the Queen: Second Edition.
Players can choose a visual representative of their playthrough's monarch, with the options varying in art-style and setting. | Image credit: Darrington Press, Dicebreaker

“It’s really important to me that people can pass on their turn,” Roberts explains, describing a session in which her sister, who she describes as being “quieter”, passed on various cards. “My sister passed on maybe half their turns - and what was so interesting is that I was so happy with how that worked, because they were still enjoying it very much.

“It’s important to me to think about those [quieter] players in my design.”

Designing For the Queen provided Roberts with many opportunities to apply her abilities as a counsellor, particularly when it came to offering a space for players to be comfortable with speaking and being heard. “The experience of being acknowledged and treated as a valuable human being that’s being listened to is powerful,” she says. “Being able to say things that you’ve maybe never said before and have it be accepted as alright.” Roberts compares the feeling of playing certain storytelling or roleplaying games as being similar to that of a group therapy session: “What can happen in group therapy is that you’re empathetically witnessed by people with a shared experience.”

“We often talk about therapeutic relationships as being a rehearsal for other relationships, these things can also happen in the roleplaying space."

Despite the story and scenarios of the game being rooted in fiction, For the Queen, and other titles like it, can provide players with a space to express emotions or perform behaviours that they might otherwise not. “I’m interested in the healing that comes from expressing emotions you’re not expressing daily,” says Roberts. “I want that person’s anger to come out, I want to hear about their sadness.” The designer highlights the “hyper-gendered” nature of certain emotions - like the stereotypes of sadness in women and anger in men - and how playing particular games can offer a chance to subvert those gendered behavioural expectations: “These kinds of reparative experiences are very often things that people should have experienced when they were young or with their families, but that didn’t happen for some reason.”

Maddie recommends a collection of great tabletop RPGs that aren't D&D.Watch on YouTube

Roleplaying games and storytelling games - spaces in which players embody characters in a meaningful way - can be an opportunity for people to become someone they’ve otherwise never been allowed to be. Beyond just being fun, roleplaying as these characters or acting out these moments can be a therapeutic experience. “We often talk about therapeutic relationships [between counsellors and counsellees] as being a rehearsal for other relationships,” the designer explains. “These things can also happen in the roleplaying space.”

Roberts describes how she has herself felt the positive effects of being able to roleplay in a space in which she felt comfortable doing so: “A lot of the ways in which roleplaying has changed my life for the better is doing it at a table with other people I liked and respected - during a time where I felt under-confident and didn’t have a ton of self-esteem - offering my opinions and having other people say: ‘That’s great!’”

"One of the reasons why I do feel that games are therapeutic is that they don’t have to actively be therapy to provide some of the healing benefits."

Despite the positive repercussions of one-to-one methods of therapy becoming more popular and widely accepted, there remains a tendency for other modes of therapy and healing to be downplayed or under-acknowledged as a result. Roberts provides a specific example via a programme based in Rwanda, in which people offered one-to-one therapy by counsellors turned it down because they preferred to express and interact with their trauma in other ways, such as shared grief in their communities.

Question cards for For the Queen: Second Edition.
The question cards are the main drive for storytelling and character development in For the Queen: Second Edition, with player responses shaping the direction of the entire playthrough. | Image credit: Darrington Press, Dicebreaker

“I like to remind people that ‘therapy’ as we know it hasn’t been around for that long but people have always suffered and found ways to work with that suffering,” Roberts says. “One of the reasons why I do feel that games are therapeutic is that they don’t have to actively be therapy to provide some of the healing benefits.”

However, the designer also emphasises the importance of finding the right group of people to play games like For the Queen with, if players want to experience the more therapeutic side of roleplaying. “I think it has a lot to do with the culture of play at the table; it’s perfectly legitimate to not want to be in anybody’s therapy session.”

Nevertheless, if they’re playing the right game, in the right environment, with the right people, Roberts encourages players to let those emotional or behavioural cathartic moments happen. “You don’t know when something profound is going to happen in a roleplaying game. My God, just play with people you like and trust.”

You can buy For the Queen: Second Edition from the Critical Role store.

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Alex Meehan avatar
Alex Meehan: After writing for Kotaku UK, Waypoint and Official Xbox Magazine, Alex became a member of the Dicebreaker editorial family. Having been producing news, features, previews and opinion pieces for Dicebreaker for the past three years, Alex has had plenty of opportunity to indulge in her love of meaty strategy board games and gothic RPGS. Besides writing, Alex appears in Dicebreaker’s D&D actual play series Storybreakers and haunts the occasional stream on the Dicebreaker YouTube channel.
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For the Queen (second edition)

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