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Gifted Needs and Tabletop Roleplaying Games: The Hows and Whys from a Neurodivergent Dungeon Master

A man throws a 20-sided die at the camera

I didn’t know what I needed for most of my life. 

Getting identified as highly gifted at the age of 37 shook up what I knew about myself — including what I thought I needed. Fortunately, role-playing games had met a few of my gifted needs already. 

I just didn’t know it.

Why I Play Role-playing Games

In 2023, I ran seven different groups of role-playing games, only two of them Dungeons & Dragons — and in 2024, I started a new one with my neighbors. 

Like a crisp morning jog, the folk storytelling hobby invigorates my imagination. It also slakes a thirst for complexity, a thirst of mine that’s never fully satisfied. Within those dynamics, the  combo of improv narration and operating a game system together scratches a creative itch, a kind of craving to generate entertainment rather than consuming it. Right alongside that itch is an existential hunger for meaning, to investigate the nuances of morality, community, identity, and the major story themes humanity has grappled with for centuries, to play with them myself rather than spectate by reading. 

When you're playing a TTRPG, you’re writing a character, strategizing to solve a Clue mystery, while rolling Yahtzee dice and starring in a climactic adventure movie or series. Complex? You bet.

Are these needs? It's hard to find a “thirst for complexity” or “a hunger for meaning” in psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

However, neurodivergence itself implies there’s a wider array of possible needs, needs that may even fit in Maslow’s five broad categories.

Just not in ways you would expect. 

What Are Gifted Needs? I Can Only Tell You Mine

Now, there are books and books about the different needs of gifted folks. That said, we’re all unique. If you’ve met one gifted person, well, then you’ve met only one gifted person. 

What I’m here to share are the unique gifted needs I’ve sussed out — and how I’ve been using role-playing games to meet them. 

Figuring out my own gifted needs has taken dozens and dozens of Perception checks, Wisdom saving throws and Investigation rolls. Improving your mental health can be a journey that takes you through plenty of dungeons. And yet, getting a firm grasp of my own needs has been worth more than a treasure chest full of Electrum and platinum pieces.

Role-playing games can meet plenty of social needs (Adams, 2013) such as maintaining friendship bonds, experiencing the extraordinary, and more. 

In particular, I'm talking about these gifted needs:  

Teaching and mental health professionals who study the gifted population have identified forms of these needs in gifted kids. Those needs don’t tend to go away when gifted kids become gifted adults. They look different, more pointed in some ways and muted in others. 

Role-playing games meet specific needs I have as a gifted adult, even if I hadn’t articulated to myself (or others) what those needs are. 

Perhaps it was intuition that connected me to the niche hobby. Tabletop RPGs have been part of my life since I was a preteen. I’ve played with my kids, with friends, and with strangers. 

For 20 years now, I’ve also usually taken the role of the dungeon master (the DM or GM for game master), which is the imaginative nerve center of the role-playing game table. RPG players take on the role of their characters. The dungeon master takes on all the other roles: the orcs and goblins, the barkeeps and merchants, the weather, and the world at large. 

Being the dungeon master is generally a lot of work.

However, if you take a second look at the gifted needs I listed, you can guess why it suits me. 

The Gifted Need for Complexity and How RPGs Meet It For Me

I crave complexity. Playing role-playing games does more than feel good. It feels like escaping sensory deprivation torture. Brains need stimulation to be healthy, and mine seems to need a certain level of complexity to be stimulated. The normal human craving for stimulation only subsides for me after each Dungeon & Dragons session because of the complex play. 

Now, a 300-page player’s guide for creating a character can seem complicated, and complex and complicated mean two different things, by the way. I’m talking about the actual gameplay itself. 

Participating in a role-playing game involves navigating game rules via creative expression. It’s neither pure creativity nor pure game mechanics; it’s the amalgam. On top of that, there’s the complexity of other players’ expressions, cooperation and creativity, genres, expectations, etc. that rev up my mind.

Giftedness is much more than a high intelligence modifier on your personal Dungeons & Dragons character sheet. 

But let’s start at the beginning. Is complexity a gifted need? 

Well, first of all, what do you consider simple? What seems complex? My gauge for simple and complex may differ from yours. For most of my life, I didn’t realize how off-center I was. 

All I knew was that just as things were getting good, just as a project finally seemed interesting, just as a game finally drew my attention, everyone around me would check out. Or get anxious and irritable. I felt comfortable with more complexity than my friends, my classmates, and even my family. What invigorated me seemed to drain most of the people in my life. 

In short, what I found interesting, others found exhausting:

“Why do you have to make things hard?” 

“Whoa, that’s too much. Let’s just do this one part.” 

“Why don’t you just enjoy something easy for a change?” 

Watch Lisa Natcharian, M.Ed., from ThriveMind Gifted Coaching describe the gifted need for complexity. It starts at 6:43.

I’ve heard those messages all my life, from my high school to my career to what I chose for Christmas. A notion or idea would spark my attention. I’d follow my interests and share them. I’d find my natural ways of working best — and work toward a flow state. 

Then I’d flow alone.

A complex problem, game, system, or idea has irreducible elements that make navigating it a challenge. (Complicated, on the other hand, includes unnecessary elements.)

The more complex, the more challenging. 

Psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi suggests that you need an amount of challenge to access feelings of arousal, flow or control. If the challenge level is greater than “not challenging” or “not complex”, then a person might feel flow.

His FLOW model organizes the emotions you might feel during a task based on how challenging a task is and what your perceived skill level is. Here’s the whole thing. 

The FLOW Model from “Finding Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

A task that you think you’re pretty skilled in but isn’t too complex (such as driving a car) might inspire you to feel in control. If you’re new to driving, you might perceive your own skills as low: The car doesn’t respond the way you expect, the signs on the road are confusing, etc. In that case, you’d more likely feel anxiety or worry than arousal or control. 

Your perception of your own skill changes based on what you perceive. Seeing things go the way you expect reinforces your perception that you’re good at something. As you practice driving, you may get feedback that your skills are improving. Feedback such as the car responding the way you expect given how hard you push the gas or the brake. 

The late Hungarian psychologist studied flow, as in when a person feels most productive.

Instead, I’m interested in divergence.

Specifically, what if one team member’s baseline for complexity varies significantly from another’s? 

Imagine you’re more comfortable with complexity than everyone else you play games with, whether it’s dominos or D&D. You’d also perceive your own skills differently. After all, your feedback loops would be broad enough to include signals from more distantly related parts of any unfamiliar dynamic. Broader feedback loops send more signals for you to work with - and you're comfortable with that. So the complex becomes simple

Suppose you’re playing a board game with three other players. your Flow models would overlap like this: 

Two versions of the Flow model overlapping, one slightly askew to the other.

The Flow Model made weird by Youssef Sleiman

Of course, everyone’s baselines may vary. Neurodivergent means your baseline varies significantly from the typical. Your green lines would be significantly off-center from the other players’ purple baselines. Imagine sharing a task or playing a game together. There are a few troubling zones: 

  • Plenty of tasks may inspire boredom for you — and worry or anxiety in the other players.

  • A task may thrill or arouse you — and may make others anxious. 

  • A task may thrill or arouse them — and you’d only feel in control.

If you hear over and over “What you want wears us out”, you may stop sharing what you want. You may settle, shut down, or choose boredom to keep social connections. However, your brain still needs stimulation. 

Staying bored sounds suboptimal.

However, the reality is much worse. 

Long-term sensory deprivation can cause depression, anxiety, delusions and more. Without an appropriate level of stimulation, your nervous system may agitate you or trick you into seeing more complexity where it isn’t. Imagine feeling your brain atrophy. When everyone else is feeling engaged or interested, you’re sitting idle. You don’t know that you need more stimulation than many people. 

You just know that some games feel too simple, the endings too predetermined, to spark arousal. You know what softens that normal craving for stimulation for me? 

A Dungeons & Dragons session. 

D&D, FATE, Pathfinder and other role-playing games invite players to tell a story together — using a game’s rule system. It’s a game-based creative expression (or creative expression as gameplay, depending on your group.) The rulebook and dice act as a framework and coordinate the shared creativity among the players. 

Playing role-playing games does more than feel good. It feels like escaping sensory deprivation torture.

As an RPG player, you’re doing improv theater and playing poker at the same time. You’re fiction writing to play chess — and sometimes playing 3D chess with fiction. You’re writing a character, strategizing to solve a Clue mystery, while rolling Yahtzee dice and starring in a climactic adventure movie or series. 

Complex? You bet. And that’s just the player’s perspective. If you’re the dungeon master, it’s a whole other basket of dragon eggs.

Maybe it sounds like a lot of effort. I realize that now. 

To me, juggling those complex dynamics simply sounds thrilling. Now I know why. 

It’s more than the creative problem solving common to RPGs. (I’ll talk about the gifted need for creative challenges later.) It’s the level of complexity. I need to juggle that many dynamics to stimulate my nervous system — and I’m naturally drawn to it. No wonder I was 11 years old and enjoying learning the 1992 Dragons Den adventures for second edition D&D.   

And role-playing games have been meeting my gifted need for complexity ever since. 

Have you ever played a tabletop role-playing game?

  • Yes

  • No

Wait a Minute. Do Gifted People Even Have Different Needs?

In short, yes. Giftedness is more than a high intelligence modifier on your Dungeons & Dragons character sheet. 

Imagine this scenario. Suppose that whatever you use to get a high IQ score also affects more than your brain. Suppose it affects your whole nervous system, including your eyes, the nerves in your skin, your proprioception, etc. All of your senses are tied to your nervous system.

In fact, your nervous system pieces together your whole reality — not just sights and sounds, but meaning and importance.

With different perception and cognition comes a different reality and, with it, different needs. If your nervous system operates differently from others, then: 

  • It would stand to reason that you would arrive at different conclusions than many. 

  • It would be commonplace to perceive different inputs from your peers, given the same stimuli. 

  • It would be only natural to recognize different deficits that don’t align with the common ones you’ve heard others describe.

  • Subsequently, you might have needs that many people don’t have or even recognize.

When you start with a different perception of reality, the differences of need can vary wildly.

The Series Continues: Watch for More Installments Soon

I’ve got more to cover on gifted needs and tabletop role-playing games. However, it’s more of a series of articles, not a list article as I planned.

I just didn’t count on finding as much treasure after delving into the dungeons of neurodivergence and gaming.  

Watch for more soon. 

A bald man named Youssef Sleiman smiles at the camera.

Quirky, wordy and lightning-fast at the keyboard, Youssef Sleiman is a professional writer and brand journalist working in Dallas, Texas. He’s a quick study, a systems thinker with an investigative and creatively divergent mind on a career-defining mission to “make the important interesting.”

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