At GenCon earlier this month, we were delighted to announce our Critical Strengths Engine. Critical Strengths is a tabletop role-playing game (RPG) engine — or ruleset with which to play tabletop RPGs — that applies the science of empathy and kindness to exploring interpersonal relationships through adventures. We are developing this engine in partnership with renowned RPG publisher, Onyx Path Publishing (known for such popular RPG titles as Wraith and World of Darkness); Pugsteady, the beloved RPG developer of Pugmire (an RPG starring dogs); and mental health providers from the Bodhana Group.

If you’re familiar with the world of tabletop RPGs, Critical Strengths is a rules-lite, story-heavy engine designed to stretch your social skills and emotional acuity. Classic attributes such as constitution (CON), dexterity (DEX), and intelligence (INT) have been replaced with social and emotional abilities like perspective (Mind), self-control (Will), and self-advocacy (Voice).

If you’re unfamiliar with tabletop RPGs, that’s okay! We specifically designed the game to be accessible to newcomers. In general, “RPG” refers to a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. A tabletop RPG is one played in a physical — rather than digital — space and often requires the use of pen and paper or a game board.

Critical Strengths is the ruleset or framework within which players take on their roles in order to accomplish a specific goal. In traditional tabletop RPGs, players are given skill sets such as dexterity or wisdom and use these attributes to inform how their character would solve a problem, interact with other characters, and react in a specific situation. Instead of attributes that determine how agile or wise a character is, Critical Strengths uses attributes tied to social and emotional skills. The goal is to encourage players to playfully explore how different strengths or deficits in social and emotional skills can help or hinder the player’s progress in a variety of different situations.

We developed Critical Strengths for all players who enjoy a tabletop RPG experience of interpersonal intrigue. But because we developed Critical Strengths in cooperation with mental health professionals who regularly use tabletop games as part of the therapeutic process, Critical Strengths can also be used specifically in clinical and therapeutic settings as a way to engage teens actively in their own treatment. The attributes, narratives, and mechanics core to Critical Strengths enable facilitators to create an environment that actively elicits the kinds of social, emotional, and cognitive skills often targeted in therapy, such as empathy, social connectivity, and perspective-taking, all while teens explore, try new things, fail, and succeed in a playful, supportive space.

Over the next several months, iThrive and our amazing partners will continue to develop the Critical Strengths Engine. In the next few months, we’ll be collaborating with authors to craft narratives for the engine, one of which will be an official Pugmire adventure! We’ll also be writing essential content such as a facilitator’s guide and a list of special suggested house rules  that take a player’s physical, emotional, cognitive, and social abilities into consideration. And last but not least, we’ll be refining our rules and mechanics through playtesting. Lots and lots of playtesting. In fact, we may even be playtesting in a city near you! Stay tuned to our newsletter for more information about our next public playtest and other iThrive updates.  

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