Tag: improving the story

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.

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.

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