Category: advice for players

Playing With Empathy in D&D

I tweeted some thoughts about D&D and playing with empathy a while back, and decided the concept merited a full blog post about it. First up, let’s define empathy for the sake of this article. I’m using empathy to not just mean the fairly standard “understand someone else’s emotions and experiences”, but also to imagine putting yourself in their shoes.

Playing with empathy means you understand experiences of others. But the usage of “others” in D&D isn’t limited to the other people playing the game, these others can also be the various NPCs in the game. And sometimes a DM or player will struggle to have empathy for a given situation (usually due to lack of exposure to that situation), but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.  Let’s look at some ways we can have empathy as both a player and as a DM.

Rolling and Playing With Empathy

Playing With Empathy As A Player

With players, your focus for your empathy is to your character and to the other players. Depending on your group’s chemistry and roleplaying style, one may be more important than the other. If you aren’t sure, a safe bet would be leaning towards being more empathetic to your fellow players.

Playing with empathy helps you understand your own character.

To be honest, you’ve probably already been doing this even if you didn’t realize it. You’re playing the slightly dumb and far-from-wise Garm the barbarian, who’s childhood of cages and abuse causes him to go into rage whenever someone hits a woman or makes use of slaves. When you’re thinking about what Garm would do, you’re trying to understand Garm’s situation, and then proceed in-game appropriately.

What would Garm say to an innkeeper who mistreats his barmaids? You decide Garm might go too far with threatening the innkeeper. Why did you, as a player, decide this? Maybe you thought that Garm would likely get angry at the mistreatment due to his childhood environment; further, his lower intelligence and wisdom scores often express themselves in ways that lead to bad social encounters. This is exactly what empathy in RPGs is all about; understanding the emotions and situations of others, trying to put yourself in those same situations, and then making decisions based on how you feel you might proceed if you were Garm. Good empathy and some nice outside-of-the-box thinking can lead to great moments of finding the yes.

One important exception to call out here is that your empathy-led actions should adhere to Wheaton’s Law. If you think your character would do some action that would cause grievance to others characters or players, come up with another idea. It’s okay to have tension in the party among the PCs (it can make for a great story!). But by using “It’s what my character would do” as you steal from fellow PCs, hinder them in combat, plan schemes to hamper their own fun, etc., is simply not cool.

Playing with empathy helps to form closer bonds with the other players (and their characters).

Of course, the main usage of empathy is to relate to real-world people. And who better than your fellow players? Understanding your fellow players is a great first step to potentially changing the relationship from fellow gamer toward being friends. And if you’re understanding the other player, you might be able to anticipate their needs and planned actions, and set up some awesome combos between your players. Lastly, it can make it so that when their character does something that prevents a plan you had from coming to fruition, you can understand why that player had their character do what they did.

If the whole group plays with empathy, fewer arguments happen.

D&D (and all other RPGs) are no stranger to problems between players. Whether it’s breaking Wheaton’s Law, players having different expectations of the game, dissatisfaction with the game, or conflicting personalities, most every player has played a game where something went wrong.

But playing with empathy can help reduce those problems! If John wants to play a narrative- and intrigue-based game and Mary wants to focus more on combat, a DM leaning toward either way might inadvertently cause friction. Having a session zero helps with this a lot, but even outside of it empathy can help. John and Mary understanding (and appreciating) that there’s more to the game than just what they want can lead to a compromise where neither gets exactly what they want, but understand that they both get a good amount of what they like and appreciate that when they aren’t having the most fun, others at the table are. It’s a team game, after all.

Also, empathy between players can go a long ways toward problems with players hogging the spotlight. If you care about what others think because you’ve been putting yourself in their shoes, then you know waiting a long long time for your turn isn’t very cool, and will be more willing to let others players take equal enjoyment from the spotlight.

Playing With Empathy As A DM

As a DM, playing with empathy will net you many more benefits than players. You’re going to be playing more characters than any player will. You’ll also always be interacting with all players much more often. Also, quite simply, often it’s the DM who has the mic, so to speak.

Empathy lets you understand what your players want.

This came up earlier when talking about our fictitious John and Mary, and the same points apply here except from the opposite point of view. Instead of Mary and John being happy with the compromise, it’s now up to you to realize a compromise is needed, and the only way of doing that is by understanding what your players want.

There’s two ways to do this. The first is simple: ask the the players what they want, preferably during a session zero. The second is where empathy — and perception — comes into play. When your players are actively playing the game, find out what makes them happy. Do they get deep into character? Have more moments to let them shine. Are they laughing lots and clapping their hands in excitement at funny scenes? Maybe they want more of them! This likely won’t present itself as obvious in the first few sessions, but as you get to know the players (and their characters) more, this should become more apparent over time.

Empathy helps to mediate disputes among players.

When two or more players argue, it’s the DM’s time to put on the referee hat. This can be a totally unfun time in the game, but empathy can mitigate it to a degree.

Just as with understanding your players, you can both ask why the players are upset and also watch them. Then go a step further and really think about it; pretend to be one upset player first, then the other, giving them each their own due.

If John is upset that Mary got two magic items in a row, find out what he’s really upset about. Is he actually upset that Mary got two magic items? Maybe he’s upset that he didn’t get any, or that he didn’t specifically get one of the two he got because either one would have helped his character out. Then find out if Mary really needs both her items; maybe it’s the random dice dealing a fickle hand, or maybe it’s just that the body Mary looted had the item on it and she happened to pocket it. Mary might not want the item, or may be unaware that John wanted it. Whatever the situation, understanding both players is the easiest way to resolve it.

Empathy helps get you into an NPC mindset.

Just as players can use empathy to figure out what makes their characters tick, a DM needs to run his NPCs the same way. This is something I often struggle with, because it so often happens in the spur of the moment. Still, playing with empathy as an NPC helps guide your choices even during an improv section.

Empathy for yourself helps you forgive mistakes you make.

Lastly, most DMs have made mistakes. Sometimes minor ones, sometimes pretty major ones. I’ve read stories on Facebook and Reddit about a DM’s poor judgement call or misunderstanding of the rules even resulting in character deaths!

One of the ways we learn, however, is from mistakes — both our own and those of others. And remembering that we all make errors is key to forgiveness. Understanding —  and empathy —  let us realize we weren’t being malicious and that we deserve forgiveness.

While different people will gain different amounts of benefits from empathy, everyone will likely gain some benefit. Along with so much other advice, it depends on the people involved.

As always, if you want to talk about the article hit me up on twitter.

D&D As Therapy

Want to hear a potentially novel idea? I think that D&D has therapeutic benefits. D&D as therapy actually makes sense to me. It can help deal with both depression and general anxiety. I say this because I have firsthand experience.

It took years for me to finally admit I needed help, but I did so last fall. After seeing a therapist for months, she eventually recommended I also see a psychiatrist. Between the two, I’ve learned I suffer from dysthymia (chronic mild depression), social anxiety, and potentially cyclothymia (a mild form of bipolar disorder). I’m undergoing treatment to help confirm or deny the cyclothymia diagnosis over the coming months.

I have some small authority about D&D helping me as well as helping some friends in similar situations. This isn’t just anecdotal stories like mine and those on Reddit that give credence to D&D as therapy. There’s an article on Geek & Sundry from a couple years ago about a Doctor of Psychology using D&D in therapy sessions to help teenagers. There’s even a popular twitter personality, The Id DM, who is a trained psychologist and often tweets and blogs about the intersection of D&D and psychology.

I would like to caution that D&D is not medicine, so it can’t treat depression. It’s not going to “solve” anxiety. I’m not a counselor. This blog post is well-intentioned but isn’t actual mental health advice. And finally, you should not consider D&D a replacement for proper counseling or treatment.


I grew up in rural Kentucky. It’s not a bad place for lots of people, but it was a bad place for me. That part of Kentucky is about half midwestern, half southern. Many of the things you might envision of that kind of environment are true: stereotypical rednecks who like hunting, fishing, farming, nascar, bad American beer, and intolerance. Not everyone was that way, and not everyone who liked those things were bad people, but it was bad for me because that’s not who I am.

I grew up feeling out of place, never belonging. As a kid, I was poor and had no geeky outlets. None of my childhood friends knew what D&D was; I certainly didn’t. I didn’t play video games, read books or have much of any geeky entertainment until my middle school years. Regular access to a computer didn’t happen until my late teens. I was a young geek who was unhappy, trying to live life as a non-geek because I simply didn’t know there was any alternative.

This situation partially explains why, starting in my teenage years, I began to feel depressed. I didn’t know it at the time, of course. There was just enough toxic masculinity in my household that I knew I shouldn’t feel sadness or a sense of lacking for trivial things like ‘not belonging’. Toughen up, keep those emotions in check! RAWR BICEPS FLEX.

Teenage hormones probably made the problem worse. I didn’t have many friends in high school; even the kids who were bullied weren’t really geeky (or they hid it from everyone well), because being a geek just wasn’t a thing people did in the late late 90s in Kentucky.

Depression Lies

Just as with so many others, my depression was (and is) a sinister thing. It lies. It tell you that it’s not really depression. Thoughts like “you just can’t cope as well as others”, “other people don’t need help, why do you?”, “if you need help, you’re a failure” are always there. Needling. Nagging. Nettling. These persistent thoughts run renegade over the small part of you that maybe, just maybe, wants to seek help and feel better and be healthier.

If you feel like this, you are not alone.

And if playing D&D makes mute those thoughts — even if only temporarily — then you most certainly are not alone in that, either.

Depression Sucks

As I said, I’ve had depression since my teenage years. My mood swings go upward into frustration, anger, and resentment as much as they go lower in the more typical sadness, sullenness, and despondence. I’ll have days where everything seemed to just suck. One thing would go wrong; it could be a tiny random thing or a something with real but moderate impact. I’d have some reaction to the event that was out of proportion. A friend would cancel last minute instead of hanging out with me. I’d realize I forgot to buy more milk at the store after getting home. Priorities at work would shift unexpectedly. The point is, the trigger wasn’t the real reason I’d start feeling miserable for hours or days, they were literally just a trigger.

During these times, I felt hopelessly unhappy, obsessing with my thoughts. I’d relive conversations, play scenarios over in my head. Usually I’d be analyzing actions looking for what I’d done wrong. Let that sink in. I’m such a harsh critic of myself that I blame myself for being depressed. And this would persist until I was able to forget about it. Enter D&D.

D&D Has Helped With My Depression.

I was in my younger 20s when I first found friends who played D&D. In a number of ways, these friends and D&D changed my life. I finally had found people I connected with. There was a small group of people to which I finally found belonging.

I had a core group of 3 friends, and we spent the better part of a decade being inseparable and playing D&D together. The four of us would play games, adding in a secondary roster from a group of another 7 or so friends who’s availability shifted. Three player D&D parties, 8 player parties, games with co-DMs, outlandishly powerful games (hello 3.5 Gestalt alternate rules), games with lots of story, and games that mimicked Diablo’s mindless hack’n’slash.

We played it all, we grew close together as friends, and we learned a hell of a lot about each other. And this whole time I suffered with depression, but I just wasn’t willing to admit it or label it that way. I never referred to it as such even when I admitted I was unhappy. But looking back, something truly astounding becomes clear — my depression was muted while playing D&D. I had found my escape.

D&D was my therapy I didn’t know I needed.

I didn’t go to therapy. I didn’t seek help. I wouldn’t — couldn’t — even admit I needed it. But without knowing it, I used D&D as therapy all the same.

D&D As Therapy Helped With My Depression.

Just like how D&D advice depends on your play style, using D&D as therapy will depend on your personality and mood. But I bet for a lot of people, D&D may be able to help if you’re suffering from depression or anxiety.

I truly, honestly believe D&D as therapy is an amazing outlet. It’s literally the perfect escape from all of life’s shitty little problems. You get to pretend to be someone else, living somewhere else, and doing something else. In D&D there’s no jobs or commutes or stressors like there are in real life. For the things in game that might bother you, you get to set them on fire or hit them with an axe, so that’s cathartic as well.

D&D Also Helped With My Social Anxiety And Social Skills.

In my case, I primarily played with friends. In this situation, I was hanging out entirely with people I wanted to see, playing a game I wanted to play, and having some of the best fun of my life. But due to so many of our friends having wildly unpredictable schedules, we’d need to reach out for another player. Since I have mild social anxiety, talking to new people isn’t normally my thing.

But I loved talking to new people in a controlled manner and about things I was passionate about. Such as, you might correctly deduce, adding one player to a controlled group of friends about D&D, which I just so happen to be passionate about. D&D let me talk to people, and when I started DMing I really got to work on intra-personal skills.

I forget that I’m depressed while playing D&D, even for those really bad days. Future sessions become a time to anticipate, with my excitement sometimes literally feeling like it’s unable to be contained. Hell, I clearly even enjoy writing blogs about D&D. And lately I’ve been digging into the online D&D community, checking out indie creators, and feeling how much joy it can bring people.

Maybe D&D Can Help You Too

If you need it, I hope that D&D as therapy can bring you the same relief.

As always, if you want to talk about the article hit me up on twitter. And a special consideration for this article: if you are feeling depressed and want someone to talk to, my twitter DMs are open. I at least know what it’s like, I won’t judge, and I firmly believe no one should have to suffer depression alone.

If you’re mentally hurting, please seek help. Find a therapist or confidant. Go to a priest if that’s your thing. If you’re seriously hurting and need emergency mental care, consider going to the Emergency Room or calling the Suicide Hotline (in the US) at 1-800-273-8255.

It Depends — The Best D&D Advice

People love to hold strong opinions, and perhaps even more so share them. We all want to validate the choices we make. If you go looking for advice about D&D, you’re sure to find it. Some of it will work, some of it won’t. There is one universal piece of advice, however, that will always work for all players and all DMs: “It Depends”. It’s the truest, best advice you’ll ever receive.

Arguments and opinions can be philosophical or practical, pro or con, but at the end of the day what works in one situation may not work in another. Different groups need different advice, as do different players. That’s why “It Depends” is so universal. Even Star Wars tells us dealing in absolutes is bad. The problem exists because recommending absolutes is much easier than giving generic, vague advice, no matter how sound.

It Depends - Socrates

It was on the Internet, it has to be true – also Socrates.

How does “It Depends” apply to D&D?

If you’ve got some experience under your belt, chances are you have had both good and bad sessions (or perhaps even entire games) of D&D. Why is that? What made the good sessions good, and the bad sessions bad? Some of those bad times, if not all, are going to be grounded in a simple truth: players gain enjoyment from D&D for different reasons.

What might players look for in D&D?

  • Some players might yearn for mechanics of previous editions or hybrid house rules from other game systems.
  • Others might prefer ultra tactical fights with optional rules like flanking, miniatures, grids, battle maps, and terrain.
  • Some players might prefer more political intrigue.
  • Others may want dungeon crawls with very little in the way of narrative.
  • Some players want to stay totally in character.
  • Others players want a very casual game, where it’s more about hanging out with friends than actually playing D&D.
  • Some players only want to play powerful characters in high fantasy with epic magic.
  • Others players want to play strictly by the rules (e.g., RAW).

Wanting to play differently than others is certainly not wrong; coercing others into playing a style of game they do not enjoy might be, however.

So why does this matter?

Giving heavy combat focused advice to a heavy political intrigue game probably doesn’t make much sense. It really depends, honestly, on the style of game being played as well as the preferences of players. And this brings us to the crux of the issue. How could I say with certainty that giving advice to any given player, group, or game will improve their experience if I’m unaware of what brings them joy while playing D&D?

I can’t. Even when I try to be generic, such as suggesting players might have more fun in finding the yes.

So, what’s the answer?

There’s a few things to consider when giving advice.

  1. Don’t speak in absolutes. Try to make suggestions, not mandates.
  2. If possible, have a dialogue to tailor your advice. Learn what the player or group to whom you are giving advice desires from their games.
  3. If all else fails, give your advice as you would normally, but make sure to mention this advice may not work for them. This is probably more true of a blog post than a one-on-one.

So, what improvements could you use in your next D&D game? It Depends. But I’m happy to share my thoughts or listen to yours, hit me up on Twitter.

Finding The Yes As A Player

A few days ago Ryan tweeted the DM’s job is to set up “scenarios players make a story of” to which the players “need to find the yes”. Finding the yes is a powerful method of framing DM/player interactions. It’s also a tool that empowers players to influence and affect the narrative of the campaign in unexpected ways. While I think the word “need” is too strong in Ryan’s tweet, I still wanted to pump my fists in the air in joy while reading it. Find the yes! That’s the attitude that has the power to transform a D&D session from average or good to unforgettable.

D20 Oh Yeahart by offworlddesigns

Let’s set up an example.

We’ll make up a party of an elven bard, a dwarven barbarian, a halfling cleric, and a human wizard. For the notable NPCs, there’s a human Duke and a dwarven Captain of the Guard. The local Queen sent the party to the Duke’s court to search for a spy. The Queen doesn’t trust the Duke to find the spy on his own, so he is unaware of the party’s mission.

The DM tells the players there are about a dozen diplomats, dignitaries, and others. These hangers-on and flunkies hover around the courts all day. The Duke is known to be gullible if one is willing to flatter him appropriately — which is exactly what all the hangers-on have been doing for months and years. There is also a handful of guards led by the dwarven Captain. When the Captain sees the elf in the party, she scrunches her face in distaste. She waves over another guard and talks to him for a minute before turning her dour gaze on the rest of the party. Finally, the Queen suspects one of the people in this room is the spy.

How much conflict is too much?

At first glance, this might look like the DM is setting the players up with too much conflict. The deck is partially stacked against them, isn’t it? The Captain seems predisposed to dislike them. She can easily influence the other guards and possibly the Duke, so there’s a chance many people could quickly turn against the party. If the Queen’s suspicions are correct, the spy already has the ear of the Duke. The elven bard, who was perfectly suited to be the party face, was the first character singled out by the Captain, so that may also seem like a handicap.

One thought — perhaps even a player’s first instinct — might be “this isn’t fair”. The bard’s player could feel this scenario was designed to thwart her character. But what if the player instead embraces the scenario, and “finds the yes” with the rest of the party?

Let’s help these characters in finding the yes.

What does this mean? Let’s take a situation where a player would normally ‘say no’ and try to change it. The tricky part here is that often, neither characters nor players are actually saying no; instead they are reacting to some scenario or change with a negative outlook. Instead of feeling like a character is being denied an action, a player could use this as a chance to do something out of the ordinary. Because that’s what characters are, beyond the norm of the every day commoner.

Revisiting the party described above, an example course of action that sees the characters finding the yes might be:

The elven bard realizes that trying to convince the Duke or Guard of any spying is an uphill battle. She changes tactics and regales the dignitaries with a heroic tale of the party’s adventure. She sings of how they saved a similar land some distance away. This impresses a few of the diplomats, who file this information away in case their own lands need saving. It also serves the purpose of distracting all of them, and taking their attention off of the Duke.

Meanwhile, the dwarf barbarian leaves his comfort zone to talk sociably with the Duke. The barbarian tells a crude but serviceable story about how much safer the Duke’s lands are than the barbarian’s wilderness home. He speaks softly, using a low voice to avoid being overheard by the diplomats. The rest of the party approach the Captain and seek to learn why the Captain is wary of them.

Finding the yes can lead to unexpected results.

It turns out the Captain naturally distrusts elves, so there’s not much they can do about that. But they learn their previous adventure, where they saved a merchant’s wares from some goblins, had an impact on the Captain’s family. The Captain’s husband is a merchant with fierce competition; his competition owned the wares the party the party saved. The Captain had misunderstood the situation after talking with a fellow guard and thought the party was supplying the competition, not merely doing a good dead.

The party apologies for the confusion, to which the Captain denies them and says it’s her apology to make. After that, the party’s watchful cleric, notices one diplomat acting strangely. The cleric spots this particular diplomat glancing nervously back at the barbarian, clearly worried about what is being discussed. Aha, a clue! Maybe that’s the spy…

Sometimes, extra conflict is a good thing.

Imagine this scenario had been more straightforward. The bard would have rolled a couple of Persuasion and Insight rolls, they would have deduced who the spy was, and then they would have been on to the next thing.

Instead, it became a tale of awesome intrigue even within the confines of a single ballroom in the Duke’s court. Taking something small and making it impactful is one of the things I love about D&D. Overcoming conflict is another. By finding the yes, the players in this fictitious example managed to do both while having fun, which is certainly the heart of D&D. No advice works well for every player or group, but it’s certainly worth giving a shot.

Have something to say about this article? Hit me up on Twitter.