How long has Critical Core been in development?
5 years! Critical Core was conceptualized in early 2016. Since then the system has been developed, tested, and refined in preparation for a Kickstarter launch in 2019, and the release of the digital kit in 2021.
What was the inspiration for this project?
The origin story of Critical Core is pretty amazing and involves several things happening all at once in different parts of the world.
In Quarry Bay, Hong Kong, creative advertising agency mcgarrybowen committed to find a real and meaningful way to help kids on the autism spectrum. They tasked their director of innovation, Gavin Cheng, to come up with ideas.
Meanwhile on one of the outer islands in Hong Kong, Gavin had been running D&D sessions with his children, and reached out to occupational therapist Virginia Spielmann for advice, as her son was active in the group. Virginia immediately identified the mechanics of tabletop RPGs as uniquely suited to provide meaningful play-based support, and Critical Core was conceptualized. Through 2016 and 2017 they prototyped, designed, and started research testing under the guidance of Fielding Graduate University of Santa Barbara.
On the other side of the Pacific, Adam Johns and Adam Davis had been successfully using tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons in therapeutic settings for years and had been recognized in positive press around the world as thought-leaders in the emerging field of therapeutic gaming. One Skype call was all it took to see the shared goals and values, and the Critical Core team was complete!
What is a tabletop role-playing game?
Tabletop RPGs are best described as a collaborative story-telling activity, where the players are free to try just about any actions they can think of as they work together to solve challenges, overcome obstacles, and complete fantastic quests. Players play characters with fantastic abilities and work as a team inside a living story, called an 'adventure,' that evolves based on their choices. A well-defined set of rules helps to provide structure and realism, resulting in a unique combination of fantasy and consequence. One player takes on the role of 'game master', part storyteller and part rules referee. The game is typically played around a table and in the imaginations of the players, though it can also be played virtually using teleconferencing.
Do kids play the same game again and again?
No. While the rules of the game are consistent, each individual game session is like a chapter of a story, and as one chapter ends another is ready to begin. This is fairly typical of tabletop RPGs, where a player's character can amass years of experience and anecdotes. A rich community of content creators ensures that there are always new adventures around the corner.
How do you win the game?
Unlike many games, tabletop role-playing games like Critical Core aren't games you "win" or "lose." Having fun and telling a good story is the objective. Often a particular story arc will feature a quest or goal which provides suitable closure to a game session, such as saving the day from an impending disaster or defeating the big bad villain. It is also possible for players to discover an entirely new ending based on their unique contributions.
How does Critical Core benefit Autistic youth?
Role-playing games have inherent benefits. The social nature of the game strengthens relationship skills, and the open structure offers a safe and rewarding sandbox to test new ideas and interactions. Critical Core takes this a step further by providing a specific set of tools for facilitators to guide the process with adapted game mechanics so they can be easily picked up by new players, parents, and therapists.
The 'adventure' content and in-game scenarios that players will experience in Critical Core have been tuned to reinforce specific developmental capacities we call the Core Capacities: Regulation, Collaboration, Planning, Perspective, and Pretend Play. These are the building blocks to social flourishing.
Can you provide a specific example of benefits?
Players may find their characters in a situation requiring them to escape from a collapsing cavern. To escape they will need to work together and communicate to solve the problem: Two players may need for their characters to lift a boulder together while a third player props the passage open. This simple interaction stretches the skills of social problem solving and multi-causal thinking.
In another case, players may encounter an in-game character (role-played by the game master/group facilitator) who is asking for help but seems to be acting nervous, as if they know more than they are letting on. To effectively respond to the situation and uncover the mystery, players will need to flex their abilities to identify, understand, and respond to the character’s verbal and nonverbal communication. While there is no wrong answer there are a multitude of ways to solve these puzzles and problems! Critical Core is neurodiversity affirming and is not designed around neuronormative “rules”.
Critical Core empowers players to grow friendships and develop sense of self over time. As they engage in relational social play, Critical Core's developmental model provides a safe and affirming space for building social confidence and the ability to flourish socially on their own terms.
Is Critical Core aligned with established autism intervention methodologies?
Yes! The methods underlying the Critical Core system are built on established frameworks. Critical Core's development team is trained in and informed by narrative therapy, drama therapy, and humanist family systems therapies, along with the DIR/Floortime model developed by ICDL.
Has Critical Core been tested or proven effective?
The benefits of role-playing games towards social and cognitive capacity-building are clearly documented. The methods underlying Critical Core have been used as a framework in human research studies, and tabletop RPG-based therapies have been applied with great success.
What groups are suitable for Critical Core?
We recommend players begin their role-playing journey around cognitive age 9, and play for their entire span of development thereafter. More experienced game masters may decide to adapt the material to be age-appropriate for younger audiences. In terms of number of players, we recommended the ratio of 3-4 players to one caregiver (parent, teacher, or therapist) who will play as the game master.
Is this the first time role-playing games have been used as therapy?
The use of games and tabletop role-playing games in therapy and education has been studied, researched, and put into practice by several individuals and organizations over the years. Critical Core is, to our knowledge, the first role-playing game kit designed and adapted for use as an alternative to traditional social skills groups.
Is Critical Core only for kids diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Not at all. Critical Core is not only a great general introduction to tabletop gaming but also a superb tool to support progress toward a wide range of social and developmental goals.
What's the difference between Critical Core and other role-playing games?
The rules and game mechanics have been adapted for easy adoption by players, parents, and therapists. While all role-playing games have an inherent benefit to social skills, Critical Core adheres to specific guidelines and established best practices for mapping in-game challenges to developmental goals, responding to and managing issues at the table, and supporting players to maximize the benefits of intentional gaming.
Why not just use an existing role-playing game system like ______?
In the hands of an experienced game-master and trained professional, almost any game system can be adapted for use as a therapy. Critical Core simply makes adoption easier. Once the group is ready, the tools, techniques, and participation structures in Critical Core's Facilitator's Guide can even be adapted to other game systems, supporting more experienced players and game masters to gain therapeutic benefits from nearly any tabletop role-playing game.
What is needed to play the game?
The digital kit has almost everything you need. You'll also need a set of 7 dice frequently associated with tabletop role-playing games—ideally a set for each player and the game master. You may also benefit from using an erasable "battlemat" to track certain parts of the game. For the best experience, the Critical Core physical box set is recommended as it includes the aforementioned tools along with a printed game master screen, books, cards, and game tokens.
Can my players customize the look of characters on their character sheets?
If your players want to draw their own characters we do have downloadable pdfs with the character art removed. We also have full color character sheets and low-ink character sheets without art as downloadable pdf files that you can download and use and print as much as you'd like.
What are the goals for the future?
We'll continue to develop additional adventure modules so that the stories never have to end! We'll also provide resources for you to create and share your own stories and "home-brewed" adventures with others! Make sure to join the Game to Grow newsletter to stay informed!
I bought Critical Core, but I want more. What's next?
Critical Core is just one part of Game to Grow's mission to help clinics, schools, and parents around the world enrich their communities with intentional gaming. Game to Grow's training program empowers caregivers to take Critical Core to the next level. Learn more about Game to Grow's training program here.
I want to get involved, how can I help?
As a non-profit organization, Game to Grow can use your help! Visit Click here to see how you can support our mission!