Epic Empathy

July 4, 2021

Critical hits, rolling for initiative, blundering botches and total party kills . . . it’s all super fun, nerdy stuff. But empathy? In Dungeons & Dragons? Low Entropy Volunteer Writer James Phan explains how connecting with others’ emotions is actually one of the keys to a truly epic campaign.


As you’re drawn into a story, raw feelings are no coincidence. Emotions are the stuff that connects us to the world and makes for powerful storytelling. To demonstrate this, we could break down emotional story elements in a novel, but here’s a plot twist: we’re rolling for dungeons and dragons.


If we are to explore the power of empathy in storytelling, Dungeons & Dragons (or “DnD,” for short) is a surprisingly authentic platform to learn about the subject. Even though books have long been the standard medium of storytelling, and while DnD is a much younger, niche medium, the game shares with books many elements involving immersive story experiences.


Getting Familiar with The Game


Rowan Yates from Victoria, BC, an expert host for DnD with 15 years of experience, helped me understand the basics of the game. Briefly speaking, the heavily imaginative game usually involves three to seven players who play as a team of characters and one dungeon master (or “DM”), the assigned creator of a given fantasy world with a unique nature that governs it. The DM facilitates the story’s progression. Win conditions vary and are decided by the DMs, but “winning” is extremely subjective. For Rowan, who works at the Victoria Disability Resource Centre, partners with AIDS Vancouver Island to co-facilitate Queerabilities Victoria and spends his free time as a fierce warrior who whets his battle spirit in a modern medieval fighting sport known as buhurt, a DnD win isn’t as much about the results as it is about the players having fun. It could be about battling a dragon, finding treasure or yammering at a tavern for three hours.


Onwards! A Unique Storyteller


What’s unique about the narrative gameplay of DnD is its candidness as the story unfolds. Events evoke emotional responses almost immediately. A player may sense her character’s life threatened, and her response will shape the next event. At times, the story can have messy moments, like behind-the-scenes footage in movies, due to the game’s nature to incentivize player creativity. Players can fall out of character and revise their talents, or the DM might commit a story blooper and improvise a narrative on that. A novel can tell the same story across the general public, but DnD personalizes its story only to the handful of players, with the story material dependent on the unique personalities in the team. Unlike books, the game seals no fate; the story is fluid and ever-changing. 


Onwards! A Sense of Community


Once in the game, DnD is storytelling from the heart, with empathy at its core. The setting is revealed, and the conflict is foretold. Danger is afoot. How will the heroes proceed? An introduction haunted by uncertainty and inevitability is a construct in many fictional works. In a book, readers at this discovery stage may or may not begin to empathize with the protagonist, but in DnD’s narrative, the audience members are also the main characters, immersed in a shared, empathetic experience. 


As cooperative storytelling, players shape the nature of their teamwork against imminent threats. There’s a sense of shared responsibility, shared excitement for risk and reward, and a common feeling of novelty. Through the forming of a shared DnD story, group members develop empathy with each other. In the real world, a companionate work culture promotes empathy, which improves teamwork and business proficiency. A good DnD story, similarly, improves teamwork that, in turn, feeds back into the story.

Onwards! Individual Revelations


In a novel, readers may or may not become more accepting of flaws in a protagonist, while in DnD, acceptance of imperfection is strongly encouraged among the players. Teammates must accept the characteristics of their own alter ego (characters have qualities that are not in their player’s control), but also of the behaviour, temperaments and other nuances of their team members. In a way, this is similar to empathic training, where subjects are encouraged to participate in activities outside of their identity, such as acting or reading fiction. Being in the shoes of others can expand one’s perception, emotionally and intellectually.


A player’s chosen character can also reflect suppressed thoughts or personality. By being another identity, the individual has the opportunity to explore unknown desires and values. Throughout the game, the player can become more comfortable with their character development, which can progress to self-empathy. DnD provides a safe platform for this kind of experiential discovery, which can be limited or inaccessible outside of its realm.


Aaand Onwards! Narrative Leadership


Rowan and other DMs rely on empathy to facilitate their games. They heed their players’ emotional and physical cues to decide what happens next, including when and how to introduce story material to keep everyone engaged. Even before the story begins, a good DM should have a keen idea of who the players are in order to understand what mechanics, themes and play style might work for the group. In 2009, Google wanted to improve managerial performance in research called Project Oxygen. The research team found that the best managers were those who spent time with their team, giving one-on-one attention, providing goal clarity and caring about individual desires and values. Great DMs are like these effective managers, attentive to the players so that the narrative resonates with personalized meaning.


Halt! The Conclusion


Think of DnD like an open book for a party to colour into, while everyone flips the pages together. If someone has a funny moment, everyone is sharing laughter. If there’s a struggle, everyone feels the heat. If mistakes are made, DnD’s improvisational roleplaying makes imperfection okay, and empathy seeds forgiveness. The story is built with empathy and without it, there is no onwards.


Whether or not you’re a fan of DnD, it’s safe to assume that we all lose ourselves in a moment of good storytelling. There’s something to learn and something to gain, and – like in Dungeons & Dragons – the journey is about learning along the way. Empathy is a powerful conduit in all storytelling, as it bridges our sense of connection outside of our own worlds.  


What ho! I beseech thee, fly onwards again to our comments section or Instagram account or maybe a Conscious Connections meet-up, where we shall engage in mirthful discourse on the nature and value of empathy! Godspeed!

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