Dungeons & Dragons as an Exercise in Empathy

28 October 2020Panhandle, San Francisco

It’s easy to write off Dungeons & Dragons as a silly fantasy game — and it’s easy to mindlessly play it that way — but playing thoughtfully and intentionally can make it a real character-building experience.

What is it like to be someone who doesn’t make utilitarian calculations, but always rushes to protect his friends? What is it like to be guileless? I sought to answer these questions by roleplaying such a character in D&D. I also tried to take advantage of the strengths of D&D as a storytelling medium, as well as avoid its clichés. This is my reflection on the experience after our game’s finale, which brought a multi-month story to a close1.

While we’d been playing for months, it was only during the finale that I mentioned the kernel of backstory which formed half of my character concept! My character, Agathon, was physically abused as a child, and his helplessness at that injustice made him grow up to be a man who loves justice and always wants to protect the weak. This might sound melodramatic, but it is entirely taken from the real story of an actual guy that I know, who once told me that it’s hard for him when he sees kids being bullied on the playground — he knows he can’t step in and intervene every time, but he always wants to. I found his story touching, so I wanted to explore that persona in the role-playing game. Besides, D&D is, fundamentally, a power fantasy, so the idea of playing a powerful character who always wanted to protect people seemed to fit the medium.

The other half of Agathon’s concept was taken from a character in the movie Game Night. I watched it with a friend who pointed out that one character who seems dumb is actually just guileless: he always speaks his mind and takes everything at face value. At pivotal moments his guilelessness moves the plot forward because he is willing to say what he’s thinking, rather than act coy! While I can be direct in my criticism or concerns, I am frequently subtle or indirect in my more positive claims, as well as in expressing my own emotions, desires, and goals. My friend’s explanation of that character made me want to try my hand at acting completely guileless, and comfortable appearing dumb — which was harder than I anticipated.

Here’s the thing about D&D: players fall into consistent traps that make the game boring. Almost all of the game mechanics are around combat, whether martial or magical. The game itself is played through talking, so in addition to the combat mechanics you can also talk your way through problems. The result is that players tend to try to solve all problems through violence (game mechanically) or through deception (by speaking in character). There are cultural forces as well: nobody today wants to play a goody-two-shoes white knight (lawful good), preferring well-intentioned rogues and lovable bad boys (chaotic good). And half-orc characters are just unpopular2, probably owing to their origins as Tolkien’s bad guys.

I wanted to do the opposite of all those defaults. Playing a protector character meant that in combat, instead of just hitting the bad guys, I always had another useful thing to do: run to my friends and protect them. Playing a guileless character meant that lying my way out of problems was off the table. To top it all off, I wanted to play a lawful good character. So I ended up playing a Half-Orc Paladin with the Protection fighting style.

In D&D a Paladin is a religious warrior, so I set his youth in a monastery. That wasn’t just to justify the Paladin role; it was also partly because pandemic shelter-in-place had just begun and the monastic setting seemed relevant, partly because I’ve always been fascinated by monasteries, and partly because I missed my dojo as well as the church group I used to participate in. This nicely dovetailed with the rest of his story and character: after escaping his abusive father, he found nurturing protection within the monastic community. But growing up in such a high-trust community meant that he didn’t learn any of the normal deceptive skills people acquire in their teenage years.

With the character concept in place, here were my rules for playing Agathon:

  1. Always take what people say at face value
  2. Always say what’s on your mind
  3. Protecting others is the top priority in combat
  4. Don’t sit around planning; just act

That last one I threw in because another D&D pitfall is to sit around making endless plans, which is just no fun. But it turned out to be superfluous, because rule #2 naturally led to it — that is, speaking what’s on my mind makes me a more decisive. Sometimes that just means voicing a naïve plan and, hearing no objections, immediately executing it.

What was really surprising about “always say what’s on your mind”, though, was how it was different from Tech Bro-style overconfident speech, which I have done my fair share of. I often fall into the extremes of arrogance or timidity, but these pitfalls can be avoided by speaking plainly and honestly. Practicing it as Agathon actually made me better at being honest and transparent while speaking as myself in real life.

Another surprise was that Agathon’s default-trust of everybody he met, particularly in the government, is actually something I share. The part of myself that shines through in Agathon most clearly is, somewhat surprisingly, an extreme trust in institutions — a confidence formed mostly from the privileged experience of being a part of relatively well-functioning institutions in the formative years of our lives. At work, I’ve been surrounded by competent people whose interests are aligned with mine for years. The flip side is that this trust leads to having very little patience for intrigue. You can always doubt people and their intentions, but if you have a difficult-to-shake confidence in institutions, conspiracy theories tend to feel like a waste of time.

On the other hand, it was hard for me to play a character that everyone thinks is dumb. Anyone who knows me knows that being somewhat smart is an important part of my identity. My fellow players knew that I was a smart guy, and that this was just a character. Nevertheless, being on the receiving end of them teasing Agathon for being dumb was hard to take! I think this largely was because Agathon wasn’t dumb, in terms of comprehension and problem-solving, he was just naive and trusting. I’d hoped that would become evident over time, but it never really did. I’m sure this happens to people in real life as well.

The final surprise was that, when playing combat in the game, prioritizing protecting others meant I played not just selflessly but bravely. I’d have Agathon fight to the brink of death because that was the best way to keep his friends safe. Of course, it’s easy to be “brave” when you’re just rolling dice on a Zoom call. I was just surprised by how the fundamental values change of keeping friends safe meant that Agathon fought selflessly, which in turn meant that he fought bravely. It’s hard to summon bravery or confidence for their own sakes; they more readily appear in the service of something you believe in — like protecting your friends.

So that’s how I played Dungeons & Dragons as an exercise in empathy. I constructed my character Agathon to try walking in the shoes of men completely unlike me. The experience taught me a little of what it’s like to be them, and it also revealed aspects of myself that I hadn’t fully recognized. Roleplaying was an opportunity to practice speaking confidently but not arrogantly, and a demonstration of how a change in priorities (like protecting your friends) can lead to a change in character (like being brave). I’m neither a fiction writer nor an actor, but with a bit of effort I found roleplaying in Dungeons & Dragons to be an edifying experience.

  1. More properly, we finished our D&D campaign. Most players never reach such an ending. The dungeon master (DM) who runs the game and provides narration almost always wants to tell a Tolkienesque epic, leading them to plan campaigns that would take a year or more to finish. D&D is usually a significant time commitment (3ish hours a week!), so players tend to gradually drop off until the game stops altogether. In this case, I told our DM that I couldn’t keep up the time commitment, and he wisely decided to bring the entire campaign to its conclusion.

  2. We actually have data on the relative popularity of all the race/class combinations in D&D! It turns out that, of the popular races, a Half-Orc Sorcerer is the least popular combination. Even I have to admit it is aesthetically difficult to imagine.

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© 2020 Noah Tye