What if there were a system for pen and paper RPGs that was based around social and emotional attributes like emotional integrity, instead of things like strength and dexterity?

Ian McDonald


The Critical Strengths Engine (CSE) is an in-development tabletop role-playing game that focuses on social and psychological skills and strengths. iThrive created the CSE with a coalition of experts in tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs), game design, psychology, and mental health with the goal of creating an experience that authentically captures the joy and creativity of playing tabletop RPGs, supports exploration of one’s self, values, and motivations, and creates a playful space to practice social and emotional skills. 

iThrive Games developed 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); game designer, Max Raabe; 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.

It is currently being play-tested around the country.


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SEL Foundation

The heart of the game is based on the CASEL five core competencies — self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship skills — and intentionally designed to support and provoke situations where social and emotional skills are the key to success.

CSE Components

At every step of the way in creating the CSE, we had in mind the needs of players, educators, and clinicians.




Read the original announcement statement on the Critical Strengths Engine from our Director of  Mental Health Research & Design, Kelli Dunlap, PsyD. 


The CSE has a general, rules-lite engine so that it is easy to learn and can be used with any existing story. Our CSE will launch with four written adventures that range from haunted house to post-apocalyptic wasteland and includes an official Pugmire story written by Pugsteady founder, Eddy Webb, as well as stories by James Portnow, Jack Berkenstock, and Toiya Kristen Finley.


To learn more about the CSE, contact our Director of Mental Health Research and Design Kelli Dunlap, Psy.D.

Facilitators guide

Designed for mental health professionals, the CSE Facilitator’s Guide outlines the science underpinning core game features. It includes helpful tips for starting and facilitating the CSE in a therapeutic group setting.

Original promotional postcard for the CSE debuted at Gen-Con 2018.

Dr. Dunlap and playtesters try out the CSE.

Players work collaboratively through an obstacle with the CSE.