Empathy in D&D
Thoughts on GMing
The theory behind why you should care about the system you use.
The challenge of certain systems for your story and how to overcome them.
Is there a place for empathy in a D&D game? And why does that matter?
How to and how not to use gender and sexuality in game and around your table.
When is a trope good/bad?
But... are they? Are they really?
Is there a place for empathy in D&D?
Dungeons and Dragons is one of many systems that exist in the world. There are lots of systems designed for more realistic engagement with other people, such as class-less games that are more roleplay and skills focused. The question is, however, can empathy still play a role in a standard D&D game? Some of the most notable obstacles are how the character classes are designed and the alignment system.
Challenges to being an Empathetic Character
The system presents several obstacles to an empathetic character. If a character sees that NPCs have their own points of view and wishes to engage with them, a dice based resolution mechanic means that there’s always a chance for an attempt at talking to fail. Most classes are not designed to have “talking skills” like persuasion. This can be compensated for through backgrounds and the like, but this tactic often causes a character to be less effective in combat scenarios compared to a character that specializes in more traditionally useful abilities and skills. And if someone is playing a class that is not a Charisma based character, as they level up the difficulty of passing persuasion checks quickly outpaces their ability to succeed. In previous iterations of the game a character could allocate skills, even spending double points to be able to accomplish communication tasks. However, those methods were not cost effective and reduced a character’s ability to perform well at skills their class was designed for. Though that character might be able to be successful against difficulty checks by sinking points into a cross class skill, they would not be able to compete with a character of equal level who was able to resist with a class skill.
And in an uncharacteristically hyper realistic way, if one person decides talking is dumb and starts throwing punches, it is nearly impossible for cooler heads to prevail after that initiative die is rolled. So even if the level 20 bard rolls nothing but 20s on skill checks to convince the wicked-evil-bad-person that they can be redeemed, the level one sorcerer can cast magic missile and ruin it all.
So to build a character that is really good at non-murder resolutions is only rewarding if the party is willing to and interested in engaging with that kind of content. If the general vibe of the table is “roll dice, get loots” that isn’t going to provide a deep roleplay experience without a lot of work on the part of the GM to balance the needs of the players. And the system doesn’t have a lot of room for navigating out of combat once it has begun. If player A spends their turn talking and defending, but player B spends it attacking, the “monster” will attack player B. In the real world if James is telling Billie that “there’s a better way to handle this, and violence is not the answer” but Rick decides to kidney punch Billie, I don’t imagine Billie is going to be swayed by James’ compelling argument against violence.
And D&D doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room for moral ambiguity. If Billie attacks the group and the group kills Billie, they’ll never know that Billie has been hunted down and terrorized by the town because they are a half-orc. Responding to violence with violence is how D&D is designed. If Billie attacks and the characters all put their hands up and say, “Whoa! Hey! Relax! We don’t want to hurt you!” Then Billie has a chance to engage with them - at least until Rick starts kidney punching. So either the whole party has to be onboard with not murdering people at first opportunity, or the GM has to carefully craft scenarios where the players are never attacked first…. >.>
So, trying to play an empathetic character means you are either intentionally reducing combat efficiency, or you are specializing into being a talking character, and it can all be undone by a single player who does not share your interest in playing a character with empathy.
This evil creature is evil because they’re evil. It says so in the monster manual. This evil creature likes to do evil things because it’s evil. The whole species. Just evil. They, like, kill people and stuff, because they’re evil. So it’s okay to kill the evil things, because you’re good.
Okay. If you buy into that basic definition from the system that evil things are evil and good people are good, then the system works just fine. Neutral aligned characters are neither good nor evil. Evil characters are fair game for casula slaughter because they are a blight on the world and if someone kills them, we should dance on their grave and feel nothing but exaltation.
I present to you the Boopendoot. The boopendoot is a creature that stalks the night. It goes into town and kills baby sheep, small dogs, and the occasional child who stays out after dark. Here are two ways for a GM to run the Boopendoot encounter - there are many, but we’re going to focus on these two.
Good(™) player characters roll into town and hear about the boopendoot’s nefarious rampages. A nature roll reveals that boopendoots are evil forest creatures who primarily live deep in the woods. This town is near some woods. The party goes into the woods and defeats the boopendoot. Hooray. D&D accomplished.
Good player characters roll into town and hear about the boopendoot’s behavior and do some roleplay. A nature roll reveals that boopendoots are evil forest creatures who primarily live deep in the woods. This town is near some woods. They decide to go check out the woods and roll a perception check and observe that the woodland adjacent part of the town is recently built - mostly out of wood. The characters go through town asking questions and learn that the boopendoot attacks are relatively recent. The boopendoot was a sort of “boogyman” in the forest, and there are scary stories passed down through the generations. However, the attacks didn’t begin until earlier that year, during a particularly harsh winter. While this conversation is happening, some trappers and hunters return with a few doe, complaining that this part of the forest is almost completely devoid of game now that the settlement started increasing their fur trade. In the end, the players determine that the boopendoot is really attacking the town because it has no other viable food source. The players put their heads together and come up with a plan to work with the trappers to capture the boopendoot and transport it to a more dense part of the forest, further from the town. The boopendoot, being a beast, tries to resist capture, and even hurts the player characters who are trying to help it, but they are ultimately successful and the town is saved!
Fun fact. Both scenarios are the same. All of the information about the second scenario existed in the first scenario, but the players learned the boopendoot was evil and needed to be destroyed because they were Good (™) . The actual good characters act like they are good, and try to understand from a place of empathy. Maybe Groldar the half-orc barbarian has a touching moment, remembering their first winter alone after their parents were killed. Remembering how they had to sneak into a barn and kill a sheep so they could survive. Maybe Vlad the LG Paladin of Justice takes a moment to reflect on the number of Evil(™) creatures they have killed, wondering if there wasn’t more to their stories…. And the druid Palenara considers the importance of balance and decides to write to their mentor to see if some of the druids from their school can come teach the people of this town how to live in harmony with nature.
Fun fact. Both scenarios can happen in D&D using D&D rules.
Empathy is Hard. Empathy is Important.
I am going to get on my soapbox now.
Games make people better people, or games make people worse people.
How you play a game, the choices you make, and how you feel about them are important and valid. If you are comfortable with casual wanton murder, then maybe that’s something about yourself that you should examine. If you are comfortable with the idea of genocide of a race that has different values from you, maybe you should take some time to reflect on that. And for the most part, the D&D system supports mutually exclusive ideologies like good and evil: evil things are evil and should be destroyed, because the player characters are Good(™). But that philosophy is old, outdated, problematic, and on the way out. The player base and the games they play are evolving and changing. Acceptance and nuance are increasingly important. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter marches in 2020 Wizards of the Coast decided to move away from the idea of evil races [NPR]. D&D absolutely has room for empathy. And empathic characters have more roleplay opportunities. Empathetic characters have more compelling stories. Can you imagine if humans rolled up on Hobbiton while Sauramon was there and decided to kill all those wicked little servants of Sauramon? That’s what the murder-hobo style of D&D can become.
It’s the responsibility of players and game masters to look beyond the alignment chart, and start exploring stories that are complicated, difficult, and often don’t have a single “right” answer. That’s the joy of collaborative storytelling; people can change the world. And by changing the fantasy world, we change ourselves. We start seeing opportunities to grow in our real world - to make changes for the better. The quest for understanding starts from a place of empathy, and empathy has a place in D&D. Incorporating empathy in a game is as difficult as it is important; but, as my father says, “The right thing is rarely easy, and the easy thing is rarely right.”