Roll for Empathy

Storytelling and the Joys Tabletop RPGs

“I want to run over and help her.”
“Ok, roll four dice for your Body stat.”
“I got one 6, that’s a success!”
“Great! She’s hurt and they’re closing in quickly — how do you help her?”
“I put myself between them and I find a stick on the ground. I pick it up and swing it around to draw their attention.”
“You’re able to knock a few out of the air but they keep coming; there are too many for you. She’s back on her feet now and you both run down the hill to your friends — but the birds are in close pursuit!”

This is what a Tabletop Role-playing Game (RPG) sounds like. It looks like several friends around a table with a handful of dice, some pens and paper, and maybe background music to set the mood. It would likely be considered inappropriate as a means of Christian fellowship, though. While churches have taken to (and perhaps always carried the torch for) board games as ‘good, clean fun,’ RPGs carry the weight of a damning association: Dungeons & Dragons and the satanic panic of the 1980’s and 90’s.

So, while I rarely leave a small group or informal time of fellowship without someone pulling out a well-worn edition of Catan or Ticket to Ride (or the eternally unobjectionable Dutch Blitz), the multitude of Role-playing Games go untapped. This is a shame. Why? Because RPGs can be good for the soul.

What’s an RPG anyway?

In a typical tabletop RPG, there is a Gamemaster (GM) who facilitates the game’s progress and story, acting as both a narrator and as the administration of the game’s rules and mechanics, and a group of players.

The players assume the roles of characters within the game and have the freedom to engage the narrative however they please within the game’s mechanics. They interact with the story via the GM, who describes the settings and assumes the roles of all the NPCs (Non-player characters) in the story. Players and the GM can choose to act out their roles as a kind of improv or, if uncomfortable with performing, simply describe their actions.

Thus the GM and players work together to advance the story and act out the roles within the story. Tabletop RPGs are collaborative narratives before they are anything else. RPGs can range from complex simulations, like D&D, to more ‘rules-light’ options like Tales from the Loop and hybrids like Star Wars: Edge of the Empire.

A more collaborative game night

Empathy and sympathy are often conflated and confused. Sympathy is the acknowledgement of another’s misfortune. If you consider that some kids skip breakfast because there’s nothing to eat at home and ask friends to share their snacks at recess and feel pity, that’s sympathy. If you can imagine the hard pit, of equal parts hunger and shame, that would likely form in your stomach when you ask your friend for half his sandwich, that, is empathy.

Empathy is hard. Not only because it’s uncomfortable but because it’s no easy thing to place yourself into unfamiliar experiences. I can imagine what it’s like to have the stomach flu, but cancer? Not so much. So how does one get better at being empathetic? One way is by exercising the imagination. Empathy is not a superpower for a chosen few. Like the qualities of leadership, giving, service, and mercy (Romans 12:6-8), empathy should be practiced by all even though only some will qualify as gifted.

A lot has been said about literature’s empathy-building qualities and I was able to find a study about RPGs which seems to confirm what I’ve suspected: the collaborative storytelling and role-playing of RPGs are an informal school of empathy.

Players create and play a character. This gives players the opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of someone quite unlike them, like a desperate criminal or wealthy elite. Because the players and the GM work together to set the tone and direction of the game/story, the group can decide they’d like to challenge themselves with ethical situations but these tend to pop up naturally. Do you maximize profit at someone else’s expense, or make sacrifices now even though it will mean more challenges later?

Even the strict RPG systems are flexible. As long as everyone at the table agrees, groups can add or remove rules to tailor the game to provide a variety of experiences. This level of creative control, unless present by design, is uncommon the more fixed mediums of board and video games.

Moral Imagination

In addition to fostering empathy in its players, tabletop RPGs also offer a fascinating way to explore moral imagination. In its most basic form, moral imagination refers to “the ability to be simultaneously ethical and successful.” The pragmatism which seeks “success” above all else harms relationships and causes collateral damage. But moral imagination seeks to keep success and morality in tension, requiring creative (and ethical) solutions to problems.

Playing RPGs offers players the opportunity to practice moral imagination in a safe space of experimentation. This happens in conversation with the GM and other players, so the moral reasoning can be questioned. The GM might warn the player that his or her choice will have a negative effect (on an NPC or other player) if their action succeeds. The player may then decide to accept the consequences or choose an action which minimizes risk, perhaps at personal cost to their character. Throughout all of this the GM weaves all the players’ contributions, in the form of choices and ideas, into an engaging narrative.

Of course, tabletop RPGs can be played with very little focus on building empathy or moral imagination. However, even when not explicitly sought, narrative role-playing games, when played in good faith, tend toward challenging players’ assumptions. Like good literature, RPGs invite us into the experience of someone who is not us and asks that we make sense of the world through their eyes. 

+1 to Discernment

Like all good things, RPGs can be abused. They can be played as shallow entertainment, enable unhelpful escapes from reality, and even devolve into abusive power fantasies. As with most pursuits, people bring their brokenness with them and the most natural inclinations are often farthest from a flourishing concept of goodness. Despite these caveats, RPGs are a worthy pastime. Their emphasis on creative collaboration values the kind of community where each member is distinct yet essential. Your first game will very likely be awkward, especially if everyone is new to the form — that’s fine, it’s normal! Players and Gamemaster alike will learn, and grow, as they tell a new story together.

So, find a rulebook and invite old and new friends to gather around the table Roll the dice; the results may surprise you.

The Fellowship of the Ring: The Great River

The Fellowship of the Ring: The Great River

The Suffering Service of Jim Hopper